One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This
One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This by Kris Needs
“We were actually inventing it all, not even knowing what the hell we were doing” - Sylvain Sylvain.
“Look at Times Square. It's Disneyland!” - David Johansen.
Since early 2005, I've been working on a book about the New York Dolls with punk crackpot Dick Porter, who worked with me on the Strummer biography and has turned in some sterling titles of his own, including the Ramones. We set out to tell the whole story, warts 'n' all.
When we started we had no idea the Dolls were going to carry on after 2004's Meltdown appearance, let alone record a new album. The book was nearly ready to go to the printers when there came a typically-Dollsian twist. In February, it was announced that the Dolls would be playing the 'Future Punk' Festival at Selfridges, of all places. This book was definitely no longer about a defunct group. Then MOJO asked me if I'd like to write a piece about the New York Dolls' huge influence on punk rock, as well as covering the new group. Editor Phil Alexander asked if I could interview David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, who I'd already encountered during the course of the book. He added that, after meeting them in London, it would be a good idea if I had an exclusive preview of the new album and talked some more. In New York City. Well bugger me with a six-foot salami!
In the space of one week in early March, I saw the Dolls storm Selfridges, interviewed them in London, flew to New York, heard an album which can only be described as stunning and rounded off by encountering David and Syl again on their home turf. Not only that, I was reunited with my son Daniel for the first time in seven years. There is a God [currently running MOJO!].
This all opened up a whole new world. MOJO wanted the story of the Dolls so I basically had to distill the whole book into a single feature, but then there were the new events and interviews. Inevitably, I could only use a fraction of the new stuff, but I managed to scribble a stop press Epilogue for the book. Space was tight there too. Only one solution: whack the whole lot on trakMARX!
Selfridges, the venerable old Oxford Street department store, is a fucking odd place to start this account. In his junior anarchist days, McLaren said he wanted to loot the place, dismantle the Christmas tree, kick Father Christmas in the bollocks, etc. Maybe that's why they've got holding cells installed on site. The store's basement was hosting 'Future Punk At Selfridges', reportedly a vanity project for one of the MDs' daughters - or something. The following day featured the first proper gig with the Slits and the Buzzcocks and the ensuing week presented punk groups old and new amidst stalls selling records, artifacts and clobber.
The Dolls were flown over to play the media launch – great - but most of the Media who wanted to go couldn't get in for love, money or influence. The door people even lost the Dolls' guest list. Which had me on it. The scenario was made more farcical when I finally did gain admittance and walked into a half-empty bar littered with a few punk 'faces' and diary columnists. The surreal incongruity of the set-up was offset by Don Letts spinning a reggae warm-up set similar to his Roxy days [except he was using CDs]. 'It's like a youth club for old people,' laughed Glen Matlock, the only ex-Pistol present. Two days later, Malcolm McLaren would explain at length how he invented punk rock, to be smartly followed by Pat Gilbert reading a passage about Bernie Rhodes from his Clash book (what, the bit about being a Russian immigrant of no fixed parentage - or the bit about it all being bullshit? – Myths Ed).
Waiting for the Dolls to come on past their allotted time, it occurred to me that last time I saw them play was also in a department store - Biba's Rainbow Room in December 1973. After an impassioned introduction from Letts, the new Dolls blasted into 'Looking For A Kiss' like it was 1973. Loud, proud and snotty with David Johansen still long-haired and pouting, while Sylvain Sylvain leapt about like a demented cheerleader. This is the pair who carry on the name and spirit of the New York Dolls, now ably backed up by Johansen's long-time musical cohort Brian Koonin on keyboards, guitarist Steve Conte, ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa and drummer Brian Delaney.
The set is short and to the point. Deafening and magnificent. After 'Kiss', they pummel through 'Puss 'N' Boots', 'Private World', a moving 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory'/'Lonely Planet Boy', 'Pills', 'Jet Boy' and 'Personality Crisis'. Rather than a tribute band, it's a shit-hot rock & roll group. There are sparks flying here, which will be even more evident on the first New York Dolls album for 32 years. No encore because a punter revives one of '76's more obnoxious customs by throwing a glass. 'It's like being at the Roxy,' beams Leo Williams, the club's old barman and former Basement 5-B.A.D. bassist.
The day after the gig, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain kick back in the bar of the Commodore Hotel in Lancaster Gate. The establishment is modest and there are no hordes of groupies, liggers or any flooded bathrooms. Johansen is nothing like the camp prima donna or gruff blues veteran you might expect. He's still dressed in black, wearing shades [which coolly double as reading glasses] and sporting quality bling of the precious stone and chain variety. As he chain-smokes Camels, drinks tea and scoffs rolls splattered in jam, his voice is deep and resonant and conversation slow, deliberate and often peppered with a rich laugh. After years of stage patter and devastating one-liners, he knows how to deliver good quotes. Sylvain is still the ball of enthusiasm that sometimes carried the Dolls through their most troubled times solo. The pair are like two old campaigners who've survived the war and lived to tell their memories. They laugh a lot and, after a few minutes, are battling to get the next word in. It reminds me of a New York Morecambe and Wise with frivolity and banter but underlying affection. Beat poet meets the rock 'n' roll commando. Nowadays, laughter is the Dolls' drug of choice, with O.D. a distinct possibility. My face hurt after a couple of hours in these guys' company. OD's are inevitable.
Sylvain: 'It's the best thing for you - mentally. Sometimes we're like two grumpy old women, then we get started. We can get like that too.'
David starts by dismissing the previous night's gig. 'Last night was kind of ridiculous because the promotion was some kind of bogus, faux fashion schtick or something. Parties are different than concerts because in a concert you're playing for people who actually want to see you. At a party you're just kind of like a vase of flowers or something. It's difficult to get any ideas or any kind of pulse from that. But we just go in and play a few songs. We've got a great band and we love to play.'
'We've been playing,' says Syl. 'Last night wasn't just the only ticket. We play lots of shows. We did this really cool thing in New York a couple of weeks ago called the Motherfucker Show, after the old club Mothers. That was a great crowd. We really perform for our audience.'
'That Motherfuckers thing - you should check it out online,' says David. 'It's like an organsiation of... New York crazies. It's like a national thing now. They put these shows on all over the place. It's like a secret club. They started out just doing it in clubs, but now they do it in like ballrooms. It's pretty interesting. They have like a manifesto. It's not like some promoter putting on a show. It's got some kind of vision behind it.'
'You know what I found really interesting, David? The generations that we spawned. The party kids, if you wanna call 'em that. The ones that are eccentric and cool with Fashion on their minds.'
'Not fashion on their mind - Art'.
'A walking, talking art show...', muses Syl.
Apart from a few rabid fans - including my missus who spent the whole set leaping about and howling down the front - the audience reminded me of the previous time I'd seen the Dolls, at Biba's. Passive.
'That's one of the reasons why we started our band,' says Syl. 'We were bored of those kinds of shows. We love audience participation. As long as it's all safe and all about having fun and not like "I'm gonna throw a glass at ya". That's not very nice. We don't go for the spitting shit, because that was not our generation.. See, this is the wrong message. I don't know what they heard. What's that got to do with music?'
David [slowly and deliberately] 'Children are vile. I'll tell you what happens, the way society's built, these poor little bastards get told what to do, like everybody else in this society. They tell you what to buy, what to do, what to wear, blah blah blah. People don't have a sense of individuality. They have like a pack mentality. They're not even conscious really of what they're doing. Just following the herd. They've never really been taught how to think for themselves.'
'Wow, this is a good segue for our new song!' remarks Syl. 'The song is called "Dance Like A Monkey". It's all about the evolution of man, how it's being debated now and how the church is taking over...'
David: 'Don't give away the story! You're supposed to take what you want from this. We're not supposed to say what the song is about. As an artist we can only make them and create them and then they go out and whatever happens, happens.
Syl: 'Yes you are! He lays it between the lines, like the old bohemian that he is, huh huh.'
I asked how the new Dolls evolved from Meltdown but first we have to salute sweet Arthur Kane, the mighty bassist who died a month after the gig. Complaining about not feeling well, he went to the doctors and was dead two hours later after being diagnosed with leukemia. At least the gentle giant lived to see his lifetime dream realised.
Sylvain: 'I have to thank Morrissey for bringing us back together and giving Arthur his best last moments on this Earth. He was never as lucky as any of us. He always wanted the New York Dolls to get back together. If the Dolls didn't get together, Johnny, David and me could always find some kind of musical gig somewhere. We could keep on calling ourselves musicians, but Arthur had it tough, poor fellow. When we got back together, he only made it through just the Meltdown thing. He was so sick. It was like mind over matter, like witnessing a miracle. It was great. It was love, man. It was like how I would have liked to have gone.'
We talk about “New York Doll”, Greg Whiteley's poignant movie about Arthur's life, which was filmed over the Meltdown period then became his epitaph. 'When you see that movie, Arthur's whole life he was waiting for the New York Dolls to get back together again.'
After Arthur's sudden death, the surviving Dolls decided to keep going. It's a cliché, but this is most definitely what Arthur would have wanted.
David: 'When we did [Meltdown], we got together in New York and banged out tunes for two days. We were just gonna do one show at that point. We weren't gonna have a band or anything really, so we just kind of put together people like Brian Delaney that rehearsed with us so we could get the songs up and then it was like a fait accompli that Gary was in the band cos he did a great job. He was essentially there from the beginning, but we didn't know we had a band in the beginning. Then that one show turned into two shows. Then we started getting calls from all the mudbaths so we did that and then we were having so much fun that Syl and I had a talk and said, "Let's keep doing this, as long as we're having fun". Essentially it happened very organically.'
Sylvain: 'We're natural beasts in having to play live. We could've lived on and on without even making a new record but David insisted. He said "Sylvain go back, try and write a couple of new songs".' At first there was growing pains, which is a natural thing with 20 new songs, y'know.'
David: 'It's not like we were dormant in that time. We were doing what we were doing and we came back together. We really just picked up where we left off...It's a great fucking band. Not just the fact that they are great players, but the way everybody fits together, and does their part and knows instinctively what their part is. We were in the Dolls first, which was essentially like a democracy where everybody had an equal say. Syl and I then went on to have bands where we said, "Well, here's what you're gonna play. That's all different now. I mean, it's a BAND and you have camaraderie and all that kind of stuff. In this band it's more like everybody's bringing something to the table. Then you have like a real soup because there's a lot of ingredients in it. You never know what's gonna happen. It's exciting like that.'
The success of this resurrection is brought home on a new DVD called 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory', which boasts a one-off 1987 gig by Thunders, Kane and Nolan in Los Angeles - the last time these three would play together. Although it's lovely to see them, the years of excess have dissipated the ex-Heartbreakers pair's muscle and they only try 'Personality Crisis' and 'Courageous Cat' from the Dolls' canon. This strained showing makes David and Sylvain's on-the-money revitalization nearly 20 years later all the more remarkable. But then, on the excess Richter scale, they were always the sensible ones.
David talks about the new members who have the unenviable task of replacing the seemingly-irreplaceable, like guitarist Steve Conte:
'I talked to about five or six cats who I considered to be real good guitar players and told them I was doing this thing - who should I get? They all said Conte. I didn't know him but he was recommended...Like I said, we were gonna do one show. It wasn't like we were picking this guy for a life partnership. But he certainly proved to be right for the gig. He's a great guy, he's a great player, plus he's emotionally and psychologically intelligent. He's good to be around. He's a feeling person, not a guitar dick. That's important. The most important thing really is how a band fits together and gets along. It's been a long time, so it's important that the people all have an affection for one another that's natural, y'know?'
The new Dolls signed with Roadrunner Records, home of heavy metal big boys like Sepultura. A&R man David Bason is the man who signed the Dolls, meeting them via his friendship with Sam Yaffa. 'I'm not a metal guy,' he stresses, describing how he's been brought in to broaden the label's horizons. Pairing the Dolls up with Jack Douglas, who engineered the first Dolls album, was a masterstroke. They recorded in January, and Douglas found a band in the middle of a creative eruption.
'I would say it's a big, important record,' declares David. He used to make this kind of grand statement in 1973 but there's a lot more emotion in his voice than the old camp sound-bite days. He's justifiably proud, and probably not a little surprised. 'I knew when Syl sent me this...what do they call those things? CDs! Really the way it works is Syl gives me a bunch of stuff that I think I can really get behind and deliver on and - like - concentrate on! But out of that batch of tunes there were so many that I dug that I could write words to. So I knew then that we had some really good stuff.
'We recorded the tracks in a couple of days - that was really the fun part because you're playing together and everybody's there. But then when there were overdubs going on, I would come into the studio and go, "I know this song". It's like they were in the collective sub-conscious. It was really interesting to me how familiar they were. It's almost like I'd heard them on the radio or something. The songs are great. I think people have the impression that a band like us, they can tell from experience, "Oh, they'll make some quick knockoff record so they can tour" or something. We actually sat down and made a real record. I think it's gonna be an important record.'
Before 'Personality Crisis' at the Selfridges gig, Johansen gleefully announced, 'Let's have a glam rock revival'? I ask if he was being serious or, as I more suspected, having a laugh.
'I know! I always do this thing. I've been doing this thing lately which is like the trials, the travails of the Dolls and everything. Syl wants me to be to be glitter but I'm gonna be glam! I'm not gonna listen to him any more. I wanna be glam! He wants me to be glitter...'
'I have a problem with that,' confesses Sylvain. He sounds mock-serious but much of the pair's freewheeling banter actually disguises a highly relevant point: the brand names which get planted on, and thus stifle, musical trends.
'Somebody's always trying to make something out of something. Really it's just bands playing music. When things become like movements and whatnot, you're just setting yourself up for the club to come down on you. We were a rock & roll band. Somebody says you're a glam band. Who are they to...? Who is gonna be the arbiter of what you do? Some punter says, "Oh well, that's brown". It's not brown, it's red. "Well, kind of brown". You know what I mean? Somebody says something and everybody goes, "Yeah, that's what it is". But really it's just rock & roll.'
Sylvain: 'We were quite aware of how the business works and, as they say down South, y'all need to name it so you can sell it. But we don't need it. To us, in the case of the New York Dolls, especially in my case, take away my lipstick or the frilly-loomed nylon tights and it's really the blues under there. It's three-chord progressions. Two, three minute songs, maybe five minutes, whatever. They're catchy, they're smart and the lyrics...we do like intellect in our songs. It's not just "One-two-three, let's go and I wanna dance and party all night long". You've got to say something. It's gotta take you somewhere. The music's got to be exactly formed for that as much as you can. You know what - I think perfectly in our case - we have one step in the past and one step in the future.
'This way you can totally avoid the present!' cackles David. 'What's the present? It's regret of the past and fear of the future.'
'But you gotta live 'em,' stresses Syl. 'Right here and right now - and not later. Don't forget what you did.'
'That's why I forget everything and you remember,' chips in David.
'But it's also something that you carry forever,' continues Syl. 'With rock & roll, you don't go home and take it off and put it in the closet, because every day you're that person.
'Rock is confused by roll. You know when you listen to the radio in America? I do a lot of driving. Man, driving along and listening to what's on the radio - it's horrible. Horrible. That's what kills the natural stuff. They're shooting themselves in the foot. They're running around now in some company trying to figure out tomorrow's name. What we might be trying to invent...'
Apart from the extremes of image and tactical maneuvers, the Dolls were, ironically, a direct and vital influence on the Pistols' music. To the point where McLaren, having presented Steve Jones with Sylvain's Les Paul - on 'temporary' loan - instructed him to learn to play along with the first Dolls album.
'That's a great point,' bubbles Syl. 'It starts off with Johnny, I think. It's the first thing you recognize. I'm a lot more creative than he is....'
'I happen to think that you're the more brilliant of the two,' chips in David.
'Yes, and I agree with you,' says Syl. 'But the first thing you're gonna run into is what Johnny plays, if you're just learning how to play guitar. If you're learning the three chord progressions...then I'll tell you about the blues.'
David starts expounding on punk's original politics of boredom. 'That whole thing about boredom and "I'm so bored", and all that kind of stuff. I never really got that. I gotta feel sorry for people who had that. I've never really been bored. I mean, we were bored with what we were listening to and all those big shows.'
Syl: 'We went to see those big shows and the drummer would have a 20-minute solo and they were selling out 30,000 seats. That's boring, man. That's really a rock era. When we used to go to those concerts we would go to the bathroom and try and pick up chicks during those solos. The guitar player would take another 20 minute solo. It was so important. They lost the idea of what the song means. The power of the song. It had left us.'
David: 'When you have an idea like that, there's probably a million people having it at the same time. I know that that's true for me. I always follow my instincts because I think, "While I'm thinking this, I bet a lot of other people are thinking this".'
Syl: 'If I could just say something?'
David: 'If you care enough, go ahead!'
Syl: 'We didn't know it at that time that we were creating this, but we were really breaking it down, a stripped down version of what stadium rock was. Now that we're back down to the cafes and the bars, the nightclubs and stuff where you can touch and dance with the performer. And you can throw a glass at them!
Sylvain is tactful on the subject of McLaren. 'Some people are great at creating. Some people are great at marketing. That's all I have to say about that.'
'Usually by the time we're ready to market something we're on to something else,' adds David. 'I think you know the green existence is the best way to live. It's got a lot more value than worrying about how things are gonna be marketed, or whatever.'
'We just do it,' summarizes Syl. 'We just fly. But they landed somewhere.'
McLaren is widely held responsible for orchestrating the death throes of the New York Dolls when he dressed them up in red patent leather. David now looks back on that period as a big joke. 'Malcolm was never our manager, just as much as Morrissey was never our fan club president,' says the myth-dispelling Syl. 'He was our haberdasher,' is how Johansen likes to put it.
David: 'Syl and I wrote a song called "Red Patent Leather". It wasn't like 'Puss 'N' Boots but it was like a kinky song. This one was very particular. It had to do with red patent leather. It was a very finely-honed fetish.'
'Who cares? We flew with the idea,' cuts in Syl. This trying-to-get-a-word-in contagiousness has been going on throughout. It's now reached standing joke level. Now Johansen is pleading. 'Just once!' 'No, you been finishing!' insists Syl before Johansen continues the McLaren story. 'We knew Malcolm and we asked him to make us some red patent leather trousers. So then he came to New York. We had all these red duds and then we went and made that 3D movie. I think it was "Trash"...'
'No, it was "Teenage News",' corrects Syl.
'So then we had this whole red thing going on and we said, "Let's have a communist party!". We made this flag and everything and Malcolm had the pants. Then Malcolm said, "Oh yeah, I turned the Dolls into Communists" and all that bullshit. It was total bullshit because we decided it would be really cheap to have a communist party. America was not really that far from McCarthyism at that point although, unbeknownst to us, we didn't know that. We thought it was like the funniest thing in the world, but it became this big kind of scandal that the Dolls were Communists. But we are not now or have ever been’.
'The fact that he came back and did this whole thing we didn't – more power to him. That's the way rock 'n' roll works....especially if you haven't got...it's hard to express...'
'Originality!' pipes Syl.
'No, but that's true though, because what I'm talking about is really spontaneity. A lot of times, most of the stuff that we do we just do it. It comes up and we do it. It's not like we go, [strokes chin] "What if we put on a dress. It's not like we do it like a plan. It's just like "Hey, this'll be a laugh, let's do this and it happens instantaneously". We're not really planners. But then I think other people look for cues and grab ideas from people who are spontaneous. The majority of people are very self-conscious - and don't really have that much spontaneity.'
The Dolls predated the whole media furor scenario which accompanied the Pistols' short life. Often unwittingly, stresses Johansen:
'When things like that used to happen, like when somebody would throw up at the airport, it wasn't like a publicity stunt, it was because they were sick [laughs]! I remember one time when we played in Newcastle. We were all sick. Like fluey. Let's put it that way. We were with Billy. Everybody said, "You guys have got to check the Newcastle Brown". We were like, "We'll drink anything, it doesn't matter what it does or what it is." And so, we start drinking this Newcastle Brown Ale. We're playing at some college and Billy threw up on his snare drum. 'Course he'd just eaten stuff which was, y'know, chunky. Every time he hits the drum, globs of it are flying. I don't really remember the pecking order, but Arthur got hit in the face and just spontaneously threw up. And then he did it again. Somebody else would get hit and they were puking and in the end the whole band was like puking. It wasn't like, "This is cool, do this". It was because we were sick. Then it became puking onstage is like the thing, which wasn't exactly the intention of the exercise! But these things would get picked up by the wire services and my mother would read them in New York and say, "David, you really should think before you do these things, you are influencing these children. They're taking cues from you". I'd be like, "Aw, c'mon Ma, nobody cares about this stuff", but she'd be "Children are very impressionable and if you do these things they have some kind of significance." And I would say, "Oh yeah, sure". But apparently, people thought it was part of the act.'
While Syl visits the bathroom, David leans forward and talks of his affection for the man who he described as 'the soul of the new York Dolls' in 1973. 'I love that guy. When we were in the Dolls we were like roommates and on the road. This guy, he's like my brother. I love this guy so much, y'know? When we were kids we were inseparable. We'd do everything together, so it's really just kind of picking up where we left off. Like you haven't seen your brother in ten years but then you see him.'
The following Tuesday, I'm in New York City to talk some more and hear the album. After nearly seven years away, the place has obviously changed and not for the better. The WALK-DONT WALK signs have been replaced by little flashing men. Subway tokens have been replaced by tickets. It looks cleaner, there aren't so many bums...I could go on. New York has been cleaned up. You can walk down previously forbidden thoroughfares like Avenue D. The original New York Dolls could never have been spawned in this environment.
Roadrunner Records' office on lower Broadway is more used to cranium-assaulting heavy metal but there is a tangible buzz about the Dolls album, which is still being tweaked in the studio by Jack Douglas. David Bason strides into the board-room clutching a work-in-progress CD. He looks like the cat that got the cream. 'These guys have still got it,' he declares.
I hear the album in the company boardroom and am euphoric to discover that the new Dolls album is a rip-roaring tour de force. After the chaos and unfulfilled potential of the original group, Johansen and Sylvain have finally cracked it. Jack Douglas's production is a major factor, bringing out the dynamics of a formidably strong set of songs. Apart from rocking the house, the album ventures into previously unchartered waters which run much deeper than the lipstick killer teen anthem car crashes of yore.
Sure, much of the New York Dolls' magic came from the dear, departed Thunders, Kane and Nolan. Irreplaceable musicians as well as larger-than-life personalities. But Johansen's brilliant lyrics and Sylvain's feel for sixties girl-pop and the blues imbued the group out front and in its heart. They still do, but it's a major bonus that the two survivors now find their technicolour talents suited and booted by uncannily sympathetic new recruits. It is a new band, but with the original spirit alive and kicking.
Sylvain's incandescent backing vocals shine throughout, particularly on his 'Dance Like A Monkey', which tackles the evolution of man over a riotous jungle boogie. Syl also turns in one of the album's killer guitar solos here. 'Gimme Love And Turn On The Light' bangs together UK R&B and Detroit high-energy with rampant harmonica but subtle detours. Here, Johansen manages to rhyme 'fight' with 'trogolodyte', concluding 'Our shortcomings may be human after all.'
'Fishnets And Cigarettes' boasts more great lines: 'I was smoking like a mental patient'. More complex backing vocals, stun guitar and a sample of Johansen singing the blues. Defiantly 12-bar good time rock 'n' roll looms on Syl and Steve's 'Running Around', recalling nobody so much as Mott The Hoople, who the Dolls supported several times in '73. 'Who cares what the neighbours say, they're gonna talk about us anyway,' caterwauls Johansen over bar-room piano-splattered sexy raunch. He couldn't resist a reference to Esmeralda and the hunchback of Notre Dame before concluding, 'I love you baby - you're so warped.'
Sam Yaffa co-wrote the music on the widescreen 'We're All In Love', whose chorus recalls mid-period Alice Cooper while the feel nods to Dolls' epics like 'Frankenstein'. [Johansen plays more harmonica than before on this album]. Steve Conte co-wrote the thunderous 'Punishing World', which echoes 'Puss 'N' Boots'.
The Dolls' timeless fixation with 60s girl groups surfaces on the upliftingly melodic 'Plenty Of Music' and its Spector-style castanet canter. The melody recalls 'I Can Hear Music'. The words deal with music being the answer in a world Johansen likens to 'an ashtray':
'Loving tributes. That's what I like to call them,' says David who, according to Syl, was walking down Sixth Avenue with Steve Conte when he suddenly burst into the lyrics, which were duly taken away and found a good home.
That elusive hit single could even be nestling here in the yearning, heart-soaring 'Take A Good Look At My Good Looks, Baby'. Here the girl is walking out the door with these words and the payoff, 'and close your eyes, take a picture in your mind, I'll be gone'. It's classic Brill Building girl group melancholy invoked with luxurious backing vocals and a gorgeous vibe. It's a good sign if a song embeds itself with instant effect. I could sing this on the way home after only a couple of listens. The biggest departure comes with two impassioned soul ballads, where the Dolls kick back and reflect on the past. Syl's 'Maimed Happiness' thrusts Johansen's upfront vocals against a delicate, piano-dominated backdrop. 'I Ain't Got Nothin'' is Johansen in the gutter with saloon bar piano and mournful harmonica for company on lines like, 'When I come down and all my money is spent, try as I might I don't know where it went'. He ends up, 'the party's over, I'm all alone'.
Another break with tradition is the absence of cover versions, previously a Dolls forte, which is further example of their confidence in the new material which, after the initial creative supernova of '72-'73, was not a major strength. The group are also underplaying the presence of some distinguished guests: Michael Stipe joins the chorus of 'Dancing on The Lip Of A Volcano' & old mucker Iggy Pop was due to record a vocal the following week. Bo Diddley makes a sumptuous cameo supplying liquid 'Superfly' wah-wah on the steamy voodoo shimmy of 'Seventeen'. That will end up the 'hidden' track on the CD. Original candidate for that position was, 'He Won't Marry Me', maybe the most typically Johansen [a la Harry Smiths] track, which is arcane country hillbilly blues with slide guitar and Johansen coming on like a hillbilly Beefheart. Hopefully it will see the light of day, along with the rampant 'Beauty School'.
Sylvain and Johansen arrive. Now I can tell them what I think about their new album. They seem genuinely pleased when I do. The gags and banter start immediately. It's the Commodore Hotel again, except this time they're on home turf and elevate to a Three Stooges level of cavorting.
Johansen gains steam with wild surreal rants delivered like Staten Island's answer to Captain Beefheart. He is making record company people more accustomed to metal mayhem actions peer through the door. When he lights up the first of many Camels - using a kettle as an ashtray - the looks turn to shock-horror. You can get busted for this in New York. As one of the ever-present sirens sails past down below our skyscraper, Syl exclaims, 'They're comin' to get ya, David'.
In London, the Dolls were on a business trip. That's where we did the serious talking. This is the Dolls at play in New York. This is where the fun begins. I give it a go.
Do you think you've learned by your mistakes the first time round?
'No, you don't deal with it, you just go. Fly. We never even think about this.'
I remark on the lethal energy levels coursing through the full tilt trash-boogie live onslaught.
'Shall we slow down then, me and David?' asks Syl, with a touch of incredulity.
'We've carried that right into the studio on our new album,' declares Johansen with a proud beam. 'We had the perfect guy who really wanted to be there, who also has one foot in the past and one in the future: Jack Douglas. He was the perfect cat. He was the engineer on the first Dolls album. He made his bones with the Dolls. He knew exactly how to do it through a natural process.'
Sylvain: 'Sometimes you wanna do a song, even though you don't think it's gonna be on the album because it's a whole bunch of fun. It relaxes everything and then you get to write another five of them. It's an important fact. This whole album, basically, was really a live thing. We started off with the drums and the bass and the rhythms, then added on this and that. We didn't have a lot of production.
David: 'On "Gimme Love And Turn On The Light", I was playing harmonica, doing the tracks and I didn't sing...I said to Jack, "When I got to do the vocal - I wanna do the harmonica on it.". I'd been doing the harmonica while I was sitting there reading a magazine! I wasn't even conscious when we did it, but he said, "Oh no, you're not doing that again, that's perfect"! But, you know, all the records I've heard, if it's not live in there, it sucks.'
Sylvain: 'When I was playing guitar with Steve, most of the time he kept those original tracks. Like, I was looking at my naked chick book. [David] was reading - he can actually read, he's fortunate - but I was looking at naked chicks. All of a sudden, Jack would say, "What? Do you think you're gonna do that again? Forget it!" He would say that was it. That was the track.'
David: 'We made that first record in six days, but we spent like a month or something on this record. When the first album was made, it was funny because we didn't even know what we were doing. We had it to wrap it up because we had to go out to Long Island to do a gig or something. We were barely conscious. Like, "We've got to wrap this record up cos we've got to go to a gig in Long Island"!'
David sprawls out on the leather couch in the little interview room and lights another Camel. 'Try this, it's like being at the shrink'.
Talk turns to Bo Diddley, who plays the bullfrog-jerking guitar on 'Seventeen'. When Syl envisioned the original voodoo-pulse rhythm, he relayed it to David without a guitar.
'On 'Seventeen', Syl didn't have any instruments on it. He just had like humming and playing the drums on his chest and making noises with his mouth.'
'I was doing all the instruments!' crows Syl. 'I was mimicking the whole song.'
Like a human beat box?
'Yeah, human beat box. I thought this is fucking brilliant, this song. [To David] I told Kris that story - you remember when we were playing My Father's Place and we went to see him down the road? We were all yelling for "Pills", and he was going, "Man, what's wrong with these kids? Get them out of here, they're all asking for drugs!"
David: 'We'd see him over the years though.'
Sylvain: 'It was David's record that actually...he had brought the record in and introduced us to "Pills".'
REM's Michael Stipe adds backing vocals to 'Dancing On The Lip Of A Volcano', probably the most conventional radio-friendly outing on the album. I heard the story that the singer met Peter Buck when he sold him a Dolls album in the Atlanta record shop where he worked.
'That's a beautiful thing,' sighs Syl. 'Now that we didn't make any money in the Dolls, we spawned people that made gazillions and gazillions.'
It has to be said that the new album boasts the finest set of lyrics to emerge under the rock & roll banner for years. But then Johansen was writing poems like 'Lonely Planet Boy' in his bedroom before he even thought of singing. 'Human Being' was an epic, complex masterpiece.
'Yeah, screeds,' he agrees. 'They're still like that. What's that, "My pencil starts moving and I can't stop it"?'
Sylvain nods. 'Yeah the coolest thing in rock & roll lyrics. He asked you to have sex with Frankenstein!'
'I'm not asking that! That was basically about the audience at the Mercer. It wasn't about Frankenstein per se.'
Syl: 'Oh no, no, no. It was about people, a person. The mentality, right?'
David: 'I was getting into how people are, what informs their taste and perceptions or whatever.'
Syl: 'I always thought it was because you were brushing your teeth with LSD.'
'That might have had something to do with it.'
The new record sees Sylvain finally get to write much of the music. His main grievance about 'Too Much Too Soon' was that Shadow Morton was instructed by the management of the time to favour David and Johnny's compositions. That even meant Syl's title track didn't get on the album it was named after.
'It's not so much that I didn't get my songs on there,' he explains.
'It's basically most of the material that we had on the second Dolls album was probably written on the first leg of the Dolls. We used to play "It's Too Late" at the Mercer Arts Centre.'
David: '"It's Too Late" was on the second album? I don't know. I don't listen to those records! I think it's weird when people listen to their own records. I listened to them when we got back together to write the words down. And I thought, "These fucking songs are so fucking good". Because I hadn't heard it in like 20 years or so. I was really happy...But it's been fun to have new tunes.'
Whereas the Dolls' initial comeback gigs heavily featured the two albums, their upcoming shows - projected to hit the UK in September - will thrust the new album to the fore. David is happy that the Paris Olympia has already been slotted in. The Dolls visited the venerable venue during the infamous 1973 European tour.
'It's the only time my mom paid any attention to me as her son being a musician. To her, it's like Carnegie Hall. Like I finally made it or something. It's a big deal for me. We're also gonna play in Italy, where the New York Dolls have never played...There's so many gigs over the years you can't even remember what band you were in.'
Suddenly, David sits bolt upright and asks, 'So did you just hear our record once?'. I nod. 'Wanna hear it again?' I nod again, this time like that manic cartoon dog when he's offered a biscuit.
The boardroom is commandeered. Sylvain brings his wine and Johansen sets up his tea and muffins. Johansen alternates between listening intently with his feet on the table or gyrating around the room. To the continuing horror of the office, he starts another chain of Camels, using the teapot as an ashtray. 'We all have our addictions,' he explains. Sylvain can barely conceal his joy at the primal rock & roll barrelling out of the speakers, conducting and pointing at highlights. Both seem amazed and exhilarated at hearing the fruits of the past weeks' labours in near-complete form.
With the mood elevated ceiling-wards by this first playback outside the studio, I attempt to restart the interview by wondering what the album will be called.
David laughs. 'It'll be called 'The Burden Of Literacy".'
'How about we call it, "We Ain't Gonna Give That Television Back To Nobody"?' asks Syl. Earlier he'd suggested 'Brain Food' from a line in 'Beauty School'. David homes in like a grinning eagle.
'Like Brain Fruit? Mutiny On The Bounty?...Welfare Wards With Frostbite...?' Silence.
'What are you thinking of?' asks a puzzled Sylvain.
'Grand thoughts! Grand thoughts!' Then his face lights up. 'How about "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This"? Quickfire Syl shoots back with, 'One of these days you'll even appreciate this record!' but Johansen has just coined the title for the third New York Dolls album. He writes it in my notebook to see what it looks like in print. Looks good and, although it will take a few more weeks to confirm, that will be it.
'Compared to that shit they put out these days, that record wasn't so bad after all,' muses David.
'I think they're gonna be surpised right now in 2006,' reasons Syl.
'You know, I don't get a word in edgeways,' growls David with a chuckle. 'It's a monster record! I think it's a really good record! I'm very pleased with it!' He gets serious for a minute. 'I would say it's a big, important record. I knew it when Syl sent me the demos of the riffs and stuff we made the songs out of. The other guys bought into it as well. I think people have the impression from experience that a band like us, "Oh, they'll make some quick knockoff record so they can tour", or something. We actually sat down and made a real record.'
I don't blame David for his happiness and am overjoyed myself - both for the two Dolls, who deserve it, and the fact that I've just encountered an album which will brighten up my days for a long time to come. But, even though they know they've made a great album, David and Syl are realistic. Both are painfully aware how things can go wrong. In 1973, the New York Dolls were tipped for the highest peaks. The rest was history for all the wrong reasons. Certainly not sales.
'I think I'm gonna enjoy listening to it over and over again,' chips in Syl. 'It's really up to the public though...'
'The public!?' roars David. 'Well I have an uncle who's in the railroad business and he could buy a million tomorrow!'
'Don't listen to that gorilla behind the window,' stage whispers Syl. 'They're our babies and even if they suck, they swim about. This is a great record though, it really is, I swear!'
'Ha ha ha!' howls Johansen.
'Shut up!' scolds Syl. 'I was trying to convince him of something.'
'I know, but you have to convince yourself first. After a while you start to believe it.' Things get serious for a moment:
'At this stage of the game we're good, y'know? Every time you make a record you think, "Ah great, this is the one!. Then you put it out and people are like "Pee-ooh". But here's what we do - we got together, we decided to do this. We made the best record we could possibly make, or close to it. And then it's not really up to us any more what really happens. We've done our work, is what I'm saying, we've got to go around and sell it now, for the rest of the goddamn year. But we had a lot of fun making this record. We had a couple of cute little apartments that we recorded it in. That shed was really nice with those arched ceilings. The whole record was made on 27th Street. We rehearsed on West 27th Street, then we went over to east 27th Street and did tracks and then we came back to another place on West 27th Street.'
My hotel is on 27th Street.
'Hey, we could call the record "27th Street"!'
'Everything that happens in New York happens on 27th Street!' chimes Syl.
'It was purely coincidental but everything was on 27th Street,' continues Johansen. 'The street doesn't really have a lot to say for itself, but now you can see that there's actually a cosmic significance. 27th Street may actually be the centre of the universe. It's possible! We used to think it was in front of the Hotel Dilpomat but it may have shifted. The universe is expanding as we speak.'
'Do you remember the best thing about the Hotel Diplomat was the Christmas bar?' Syl asks David, who immediately springs to his feet, mad grin of recognition breaking out. 'The Christmas Bar! That's what made me feel that we were at the centre of the universe! I remember one time when we were playing at the Hotel Diplomat. I think I had a couple of hits of LSD in my system but I went down to the Christmas Bar, had a couple of pops, sung a few carols. That put me in a nice mood and I went out on to Sixth Avenue and I was just standing there and I had this overwhelming feeling that I was in the centre of the universe. It was going around 43rd and Sixth. You could feel it. That was it, temporarily. When I left it was still the centre of the universe, but I was no longer in it. But I was caught and drawn back to the Christmas Bar. Every day was Christmas at the Christmas Bar. Bing Crosby was number one every day. All the drunks thought it was Christmas every day! It could be the middle of July but you'd go in there and say [jakey rasp] "Happy Christmas everybody!" and they'd go "Happy Christmas! Ya cocksuckers!"’
Johansen starts warming to his theme of New York's lost lowlife niteries. It's spellbinding stuff. 'Do you remember Grant's on 42nd Street? A big supermarket of a place with fluorescent lights. It was like a supermarket, it was so bright. It was so great. There were bars on each side and on a Friday night there would be a thousand people in there, everybody getting drunk and carrying on. Everybody was like cashing their cheques and all the guys from The New York Times drank there, all the cops drank there, all the pimps drank there, all the hookers drank there. It was the grandest mixture of people, the most vivacious and lively, life-loving people that could ever be within one place. And we would shoot down those 30 cent Wilsons and life was grand. Life was grand! Not that life isn't grand today - but at that moment it was! Grant's - what a bar! That big sign saying ‘Grant's’ in neon lights. It was gigantic. Like half a block. Now look at Times Square. It's like Disneyland!'
The deep affection that exists between these two old friends is striking and heart-warming, especially in the light of the tragedy and disappointments they've experienced. Remembering David's comments on his old comrade in London, I ask Sylvain what it's like being back with the man he calls 'the old bohemian'.
'The one thing about David is how fucking funny he is. I have such a good time with him. As you saw, when we start cutting up we can have such a good time. I missed that through the years when we didn't work together. I lost my best friend and my funniest friend. There's more than just music between me and him. It's much more than that.
'I'm so fucking happy. That's all we really want to do, make something that's important. I don't want to be forgotten or just remembered as that old band that didn't make it. If we did anything wrong now, we made a rock & roll album. Something that's timeless. Who makes that today?'
Indeed. That comment rang later as I walked past Webster Hall on 11th Street, where obnoxious military man James Blunt, whose only contribution to modern culture is a new addition to the dictionary of rhyming slang, was warbling his turgid ditties. The queue is all immaculately groomed young professionals and excited secretaries - a sign-of-the-times contrast to the brash, mutoid gaggle who would greet the Dolls around the corner at Max's in '72.
The interview has long since dissolved into beautiful, riotous chaos, David Johansen, whose eloquent lyrics so mightily piss over the sixth form sap of Blunt and his ilk, has to leave to do his radio show on a local satellite station. This is the man who, prior to reforming the Dolls, had a band called the Harry Smiths, who lovingly remodeled old blues classics. In a way, just what he was doing with the Dolls. His show is eclectic, as David explained, after confessing a liking for Mercury Rev.
'My taste in music is odd, to say the least. I have a radio show where every song is from a different genre, a different song, a different world, so you never know what's gonna happen next, which I think is the best category. Unlike radio where you put it on and hear the same song 20 times in a row. That's not like a gig for me. I do it like a kind of professorship to show people that there's a lot of great music in the world. You know, music has done so much for me as a person. It's really kept me. Invariably, whenever I've gotten in a rut, it's always been music that's awakened me. Reawakened me. That's happened to me so many times and I like that. When I get a chance like that I like to show people. There's so many great types of music you could never...there's not enough time in a lifetime to even hear one song in each genre. There's just so much music. It's really like the original communicator.'
I always found the New York Dolls highly educational. Thanks to them, I got into Archie Bell & the Drells, the Olympics and restarted my interest in blues artists like Bo Diddley and Howlin' Wolf, who I'd discovered in the 60s via the Stones. Keith Richards' eternal 'passing it on'theory.
'When we covered a song we made it our own,' adds Syl. 'When we carried someone else's song, you always knew that was the Dolls.'
'Because they were massacred!' laughs David, almost uncontrollably.
Talking of Howlin' Wolf, another of David's side projects is a group called Howlin' For Hubert. This sees David singing Wolf songs alongside the great man's former guitarist Hubert Sumlin, the iconic bluesman who laid the template for future heroes like Keith, Thunders and Page.
'I have to pick and choose [projects] cause [the Dolls] takes a lot of time but I spend a lot of time with that idea because Hubert is such an unbelievable guy. He's one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll, but it's not just his musical legacy. It's just him as a guy. He grew up on a plantation. He's an incredible cat, so great to spend time with. He's anywhere from 70 to 83 - it depends when you ask him. He was just a kid in Wolf's band.'
In the 80s and 90s, David was best known for his Buster Poindexter lounge singer alter ego, who was born in the Manhattan bar called Tramps. 'I did that because I live two blocks from there and that was like my local. They had a different kind of programme every night. I decided I was gonna do a cabaret there for four Mondays. That was it. The whole thing was just a laugh and then it grew into this monster. That was another thing that just kind of got away from me! Ha ha!'
David's equally as self-effacing about his film career, which thrived since the 80s as he popped up in supporting roles that usually left an impression.
'I never really went after that. Sometimes people ask me and if I've got nothing else to do and the money's good or there's people I wanna spend some time with, then I'll do it. But it's not something I go after. Usually when I do a film, they say to me, "I hope you dont think you're gonna act...be yourself. We want you to be in this film and we don't want you to act". Then I look at the movie and I think, "That's how stupid they think I am!"'
As we stroll up Broadway to the subway station, I mention that the Dolls book is intended as a massive tribute to Arthur. David sighs, then laughs. 'Arthur was a great guy. He was one in a million. The only one.' With that, he heads off for his radio show, while Syl makes for CBGB's, where the Dolls will play for the first time at the end of the month.
I head back to the Hotel Gershwin to meet my son Daniel for the first time in seven years. On a cloud, still laughing. One day it will certainly please me to remember this particular day.
“One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This” - is out on July 24
“Trash: The Complete New York Dolls” - is out around now on Plexus.
Kris Needs – tMx 25 – 06/06
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