Better Red than Dead

“Trash – The Complete New York Dolls” (Plexus) – Kris Needs & Dick Porter

June 2006 sees the publication of “Trash – The Complete New York Dolls” (Plexus) by Kris Needs & Dick Porter. Featuring a foreword from Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, the 240-page volume lifts the dustbin lid off the trashcan that was the New York Dolls, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the truth.

In the exclusive extract below, we recall the Dolls red leather phase & the shenanigans of their haberdasher, Malcolm McLaren. I’ll leave the introductions to Needsy (JE):

In June 1977, as punk rock swept the nation, I commandeered the front page of Sounds and took four pages to illustrate how the Dolls made the first moves and suffered the consequences. The Sounds piece started with the words:

'They should have done it. They should have been the world's number one group. They should have made the greatest records they were capable of’.

They should have...yeah, that was the trouble; the New York Dolls might have been the greatest rock 'n' roll band since the Stones but they were too far ahead of their time - and when the world caught up - they were on the point of disintegration through personnel clashes and the inevitable results of living out a nation's rock 'n' roll fantasies.

These days there isn't a vaguely new wave band around which doesn't owe something to the Dolls. I dunno where we'd be without 'em. It was the Dolls who proved you don't have to be a fantastic musician to play exciting music. It was the Dolls who brought back TEENAGE music, with words about parties, girls, fights, dope and romance. 'The Dolls were an attitude. If nothing else they were a great attitude. You can see so much of the Dolls in today's bands. They laid the dynamite for the Pistols to come along and light the fire. The Dolls were the right band at the wrong time.' – Johnny Thunders

As 1974 crept into '75, the Dolls were on shaky legs indeed. Their second album, the badly-produced “Too Much Too Soon”, had only worsened their plight and, riddled with demonic substance abuse, the Dolls seemed consigned to the endless bar circuit.

Meanwhile, the New York punk scene was starting to blossom in the bowels of the Bowery. Despite the fact that they were named as prime inspiration, the Dolls weren’t exactly invited to the ensuing party. The times they were a-changing but the group wasn't, except for the worse. Enter Malcolm McLaren, who supplied the wardrobe for the Dolls' final straggle to oblivion....

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Better Red Than Dead

In London, Malcolm McLaren was horrified to learn of the decline of the Dolls, but recognised the band's need for a makeover. He'd continued to run his boutique, but had also set the wheels in motion to start a band based around some of the young ne'er-do-wells hanging around in his shop. McLaren remained enraptured by the Dolls and had already begun assimilating the elements of their style into his fashion designs. Viewing the Dolls as the perfect template for the group he was assembling, he instructed guitarist Steve Jones to learn how to play to their first album. 'Malcolm had this big thing about the New York Dolls,' said Pistols drummer Paul Cook. 'He was fascinated with them. He loved New York and thought it was all so great.'

Malcolm felt strongly that the Dolls shouldn't go under. In January 1975, he hooked up with the band and offered to provide some organizational assistance – much to the surprise of Marty Thau. 'I used to see Malcolm McLaren, who loved the Dolls, at their shows and became a friend,' he said. 'Suddenly he was in New York and trying to resurrect them, but unfortunately it was a little too late.'

'Malcolm was kind of sick of London for a while,' David told Pete Frame. 'He wanted a change and wanted to broaden his horizons, so to speak. He was a pal of ours and helped us a lot. He helped us arrange some shows and things like that. He was good to us. He didn't ask for any particular monetary compensation - and he was learning from us as well. There was no pretence about it. It was all pretty up front.

'We had written a song called "Red Patent Leather" which was a red concept song. It was all about red, everything that was red - Indians, the communists, red patent leather - al kinds of overtones. So we decided we wanted red patent leather pants, shirt and everything. So we got Malcolm [McLaren] to make them for us. I figured the natural backdrop for that would be a red drape, so we might as well make it a communist flag, because that's really red. So then we came out and said, "this is a communist party!" when we did our shows.'

'Vivienne got us out-fitted,' recalls Syl. 'Malcolm McLaren and Johansen never had much to say to each other, but they locked eyes and said, "Well now that everything is red, what about the red flag?" Malcolm, of course, always has a political agenda to everything he does.'

Each outfit was created out of leather, rubber and vinyl, personalised zippers, pockets and chains which pre-dated later Sex/Seditionaries creations. Johnny's boasted a skull-adorned bum-bag. 'The outfits were like rubberised and so tight and hard to get into you needed talcum powder!' laughs Syl. 'McLaren, who saw the Dolls' makeover as a chance to promote his clothes, also provided a waistcoat and shirt ensemble for Jerry, plus a red gabardine suit for David.

Malcolm also acquired a new loft rehearsal space on 23rd Street, which gave the band somewhere to practice. However, by this stage, rehearsal was low on the list of priorities for most of the band. Johnny and Jerry were full-blown junkies while Arthur's long-term booze problem continued to affect his increasingly distant performances. McLaren arranged for Arthur to receive medical insurance and put him into a New York clinic to dry out. 'It was a well-known place, where a lot of famous people go because of the privacy and the area where it is located,' explains Arthur's childhood friend and early Dolls member, Rick Rivets. 'I don't know how long he was in, but he did complete the stay and I guess he might have relapsed some time after.' Malcolm also tried to get Johnny and Jerry into a drug rehabilitation, but they stubbornly refused to go.

Irrespective of his enthusiasm, and determination to rescue the Dolls from their largely self-inflicted decline, McLaren's arrival did nothing to address the factional conflicts within the band. Jerry, in particular saw him as being in league with David, and really identified Malcolm as not to be trusted, subsequently describing him as 'a parasite'. Johnny followed suit, and expanded his resentment from David towards this weird-looking English guy who was trying to dress them up in communist fetish gear. When interviewed for ‘Please Kill Me’, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's ground breaking oral history of the New York punk scene, Syl revealed that Jerry would say, “Johnny, look at this guy...how we gonna become like the Beatles with this schmuck?" And Johnny would think, "He's right. This guy's an idiot." They didn't take Malcolm seriously, which was a mistake.' Speaking in 1977, Jerry described McLaren's arrival as, 'the icing on the cake... He observed the Dolls...He was just using us.'

If McLaren was trying to get the Dolls up and running, he was also using the experience to test the water for what could be possible back in London. By putting the Dolls under a communist flag, he realised he could potentially create a moral panic. In another move reminiscent of those adopted by John Sinclair and the MC5 half a decade earlier, he told journalists that the Dolls were now a 'people's communication centre'.

In keeping with this spirit of year zero reconstruction, the group wrote and rehearsed a new set, which all but supplanted its timeworn predecessor. New songs appeared, such as David and Syl's cod-funk 'Funky But Chic', 'Girls' and 'It's On Fire', along with the afore-mentioned 'Red Patent Leather'. David and Johnny managed to cooperate for long enough to write a sleazy blues called 'Downtown', while previous third album candidates like Johnny's 'Pirate Love' and Sylvain's 'Teenage News' finally got an airing. They also added some new cover versions, which included Jimmy Ricks and the Raves' 'Daddy Rollin' Stone' and Clarence 'Frogman' Henry's 'Ain't Got No Home'.

So far as Jerry was concerned, the formulation of a new set provided the only crumb of consolation to be drawn from the new regime. 'Our spirits were pretty high when it came to having a new repertoire and all that. It was great.'

After a couple of low-key warm-up shows at the Coventry in Queens and My Father's Place on Long Island, McLaren managed to fix up the new-look Dolls with four gigs between 28 February and 2 March at New York's 2,000 capacity Little Hippodrome on 56th Street. He'd dismissed playing at the now-incendiary CBGB's because he felt it could be too predictable and the place was too dowdy.

In a move that foreshadowed some of his Pistols-era proclamations, McLaren issued a pres release headlined, 'What Are The Politics Of Boredom?’:

‘Better Red Than Dead. Contrary to the vicious lies from the offices of Leber, Krebs and Thau, our former "paper tiger" management, the New York Dolls have not disbanded, and after having completed the first Red 3-D Rock & Roll Movie entitled ‘Trash’ have, in fact, assumed the role of the "People's Information Collective" in direct association with the Red Guard. This incarnation - entitled "Red Patent Leather" - will commence on Friday, February 28 at 10pm - continuing on Saturday at 9 and 11 pm - followed by a Sunday matinee at 5pm for our high school friends at the Little Hippodrome. This show is in co-ordination with the Dolls' very special "entente cordiale" with the People's Republic of China. New York Dolls, produced by Sex Originals of London c/o Malcolm McLaren.'

The Red 3-D Rock & Roll Movie referred to a short film that the band had recently made for a Canadian TV station, that consisted of little more than the Dolls performing 'Trash' in an alley, resplendent in their new red garb. Although the footage has long been presumed lost, Bob Gruen took stills that day at the decrepit old movie studio in the Bronx. One would later provide the cover for the ‘Red Patent Leather Live’ album.

Like Club 82, the Hippodrome was another venue more used to hosting drag shows than rock concerts, but the Dolls sold it out with reassuring ease. Support was provided by acts Television and Pure Hell, a black punk band led by a flamboyant character called Neon Leon, who would later gain notoriety by being in Sid Vicious's hotel room on the night Nancy Spungen was killed.

In between bands Wayne County had been hired to DJ. While this practice quickly became commonplace, in 1975 it was practically unheard of for a group to have a DJ playing records to establish an appropriate mood. 'I was the first of the first really Rock and Roll DJs!' proclaims Jayne today. Wayne was called in to replicate the ambience he'd been cooking up at Max's for a few years now and duly served up a selection of glam and garage by the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Castaways, the Seeds, the Velvets, the Sonics, the Stones, the Pretty Things and Iron Butterfly, plus more current glitter rock by Slade, Bowie, Suzi Quatro, the Sweet and Mott. During his set, Wayne was bemused when Johansen handed him an album of Communist Workers Party songs and asked him to play it before he group came on. Despite protestations that the crowd would think it was part of Wayne's own set, Johansen insisted. 'I was so embarrassed that I put the LP on and hid behind a curtain,' he recalls. 'I mean, I was the DJ!!' Insult was added to injury when McLaren tried to stiff Wayne on his fee and ended up handing over 'a measly $50!'

To add to the chaos, Arthur had started drinking again, which meant, for the first three gigs, Peter Jordan had to stand in again. Arthur made a welcome return for the final show, but, as Wayne recalled, he 'was so drunk he couldn't play and they had to get Peter Jordan to hide behind the bass amp and play while Arthur's guitar was turned off! It was scream.' After the second show, Jerry's habit again got the better of him, so Spider from Pure Hell stood in.

Jayne describes the gigs as a bit of a farce, saying the crowd didn't appreciate the Communist Party intro, hammer and sickle flag and were unfamiliar with the new songs. However, despite the ill-judged communist motifs, the unfamiliar set and general rug and booze-fuelled chaos within the band, the shows went over astonishingly well. In the book ‘Making Tracks’, Debbie Harry remembers the Hippodrome run as 'some of the best shows they ever did,' with New Order fanzine's Tony Brack later concurring that one of the shows was 'agreed to be the best gig they've ever done'.

These would be the last shows that the New York Dolls played in their hometown. Debbie Harry remembers a party at the Miamis' house where the Dolls, Eric Emerson, Television and The Ramones were among the guests. She cites it as the last time everybody from that period was together before they went off into the big wide world of record deals and varying degrees of success. Debbie blames the record companies for creating intense competition - 'thus escalating the whole scene into an intensely competitive serious game, bringing to an end our short-lived camaraderie. The record companies definitely helped split everything up...They were never interested in building up the whole scene.'

Having reintroduced the Dolls to New York, McLaren wanted to take the band to the provinces. With the assistance of Syl's cousin Roger Mansour - who had been the drummer with 1960s soul-influenced garage band the Vagrants - a string of shows around Florida was arranged, where support would be provided by ex-Fogg drummer Stu Feinholz-Wylder's latest group, Age. Although this tour can be viewed as a dry run for the disastrous string of dates that McLaren organised for the Sex Pistols at the start of 1978, at the time the plan was to gig the band relentlessly in the sticks in order that they could return to New York, road-tested and ready, to reclaim their place at the heart of the Big Apple's rock scene.

With hindsight, the Dolls' flirtation with communist chic was always liable to derail this game plan. If sporting high heels and lipstick didn't go down very well with the rednecks, the new look was guaranteed murderous hostility from these owl hoot audiences. This didn't just apply to the good ol' boys - many American rock fans at that time were staunchly conservative under their long hair and sloganed t-shirts. This particular move was literally a red rag. Aside from the fact that thousands of young Americans had died fighting the communist NVA in Vietnam, the Cold War ensured that much of the US equated communism with evil. Additionally, Florida was not that far from Amrerica's Deep South, where racism and bigotry were deeply ingrained. The Dolls' music, lifestyle and image had never been widely embraced - 'So we were supposed to come out of that?' reflects Syl 30 years on. 'We're all trying to make the world a better place because it fucking sucks, but this is 1975 and the Vietnam war was still going on. In other words, America is still fighting the communists, in blood. In the USA, too. It wasn't the best move. Hanging up that fucking flag was the death of the Dolls.' Johnny couldn't have cared less. When asked if he was a communist he replied, 'Yeah, what of it?'

On top of the hostile receptions, the Dolls were hardly firing on all cylinders. After the first gig of their Florida jaunt, Arthur again fell off the wagon, which necessitated Peter Jordan's return. Furthermore, the friction between David and Johnny increased when the guitarist began moving in on David's main squeeze, Cyrinda Foxe. 'I don't think it was a very smart idea sleeping with each other's girlfriends and things like that, to put it mildly,' observes Syl. 'I don't really want to get into details, but with all due respect though, combine that with the ups and downs of the music business. When the band starts screwing each other's wives, then complicate that with addictions and money problems. You know you're this big thing and then don't have anything the next day. It's not an easy thing. Hey, it can break your heart.'

The band was holed up in a trailer park in Crystal Springs, outside Tampa, which was owned by Jerry's mother's new husband. Johnny and Jerry's smack supply dried up when their local dealer was busted. The duo became increasingly hostile to David, Malcolm, the red outfits and the whole tour with each passing minute.

Being housed in a trailer in 100-degree heat, with half the band going cold turkey, created just the sort of pressure cooker environment that the Dolls could have lived without. Demonstrating an unhappy knack of making a bad situation intolerable, David provided the final straw. 'Johansen was getting lushly drunk,' recalls Syl. 'He was sort of an abusive drunk. He would tell you that you didn't matter, and he was the singer and he could go on his own, and he didn't need your hang-ups and your bullshit. Basically, he said that to us one day after dinner, and Johnny and Jerry, after they heard they could be replaced again and again, just walked out. And I drove them to the airport.'

'Me and Jerry left because we felt we weren't getting anywhere playing our old songs in tiny clubs,' Johnny told Zigzag in '77. 'The group was getting stale and staying behind the times, not advancing in any way,' added Jerry. There was obviously a major rift between the Thunders-Nolan axis and Johansen. 'David thought anybody could be replaced, especially when Malcolm came in. They felt they were going to take over the world, but they were doing everything but rock 'n' roll music.'

'It was a drag being on the road and they couldn't cope,' rebutted David. 'As long as they had stuff, everything was OK. It wasn't as if we had a medicine crew with us to take care of that kind of stuff. It was every man for himself, so John and Jerry would have to go back to New York and score. It got kind of ridiculous.'

'We were still playing the old songs and we'd written half a new set, 'Johnny recalled. 'Me and Jerry wanted to go back to New York and do some new songs and have a whole new set, instead of playing the same old stuff, and they wanted to stay in Florida and play those dates and all these hip places. We didn't think it was the right thing to do so me and Jerry split.'

Two years after the event, Jerry recognised that the very nature of the New York Dolls served to hasten their demise. They brought it on themselves. 'You can't have the world in your hand one day and not have it the next. You've got to know how to hold on tight. It all stems from the group – if the group was tight as a unit and they're always on top of this game and they're always coming up with creative ideas and they're always aware of their surroundings, they can pretty much hold on to it. But if the group falls apart or they have a weak link, anything can happen. Anything can go wrong at any given time. That's sort of what happened in a lot of ways.

'We had a lot of people against us, but we always had a lot of people against us in the beginning, so I know that ain't the reason. I think it had a lot to do with the band and me personally. I don't like to say I blame David, but I hold David responsible for a lot of things. Important things, like the fuckup with the Dolls' sound on record that was the major downfall of the band. If you listen to our records, you don't hear or see anything about the way we really were or what we could have been. If we were recorded properly we would have had the strength of our records and we would have backed that up with our stage performances. Now if we didn't back 'em up then okay, fine, you can accept that. At least you still have that black piece of plastic. That can prove a lot. But we didn't have that, so that was our big downfall.

'Then when the group itself was having problems, no matter that they were falling apart, that was the end. I wasn't going to stand doing the same mistakes over and over again. We kept on getting in the same rut. I was fed up, I don't care what band they were. I don't care if they were the greatest band in the world, which they were at one time. Who cared if they were the New York Dolls? I was gonna leave 'em because they weren't producing what they were supposed to and they weren't giving the kids what the kids wanted, and what we promised the kids in the beginning. We made a vow amongst ourselves that we promised that we'd give those kids the right sound in what we were rebelling against and everything. We were gonna give 'em what we started the whole group for. Then we backed out in a way...I don't think I'm a perfectionist but, compared to them, I was.'

In '78, Pete Frame asked Johansen if there was any great unrest in the ranks before the split. 'Not particularly,' he replied. 'It just got to the point where we were getting on the verge of being repetitious as far as the Dolls image was concerned. It was getting kind of albatrosstic. People were expecting us to fulfill a certain image that certain days we weren't. It just came to a point where we said, "Fuck it, let's not do it any more."'

Johnny's reply was typically succinct. 'It just happened. It was a personality crisis.'

Sylvain gave his take on the split to New York Rocker's Ellen Callahan in '77. 'We didn't really break up,' he insisted. 'We just never went any place because basically I wasn't in control of the situation, and obviously no one else wanted to do anything or else we would have...The Dolls were like five freaks, five individual leaders going off in our own directions. Even when we played we all had our own audiences.'

The smack drought had brought Johnny and Jerry's discontent to a sweating, sniveling culmination. Desperate to cop, the pair upped and flew back to New York. 'The Dolls went down to Florida with McLaren to begin a tour, and about twenty minutes later we all heard that Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had left the group, flown to Paris, and that was that,' recalled Debbie Harry. 'Another twenty minutes later, we all heard about the Sex Pistols who, coincidentally, looked like a combination of Television and the Dolls. You have to hand it to Malcolm, he's got an ace sense of showbiz.'

Everyone seemed to have their own take on the sad demise of the New York Dolls. Patti Smith told New Order fanzine that she didn't think they put enough work in. 'With the Dolls they were so much into image. It wasn't the people's fault with the Dolls. You can't just want to look like a magazine.'

When interviewer James Marshall maintained that they sounded great too, Patti replied, 'Yeah, but what I'm sayin' is they stopped working. They stopped progressing. They didn't want to tour, they didn't want to pay any dues. They went into this business thinking it's all limousines and it ain't. It's like being in the Army. It's heartbreaking stuff and it's tough work.'

'We told David we were sick of the Dolls and that we were going back to New York to start again,' insisted Johnny. 'He said, "Anyone in this band can be replaced," but when we left, that was the end of the Dolls. The only Dolls.'

Nolan and Thunders

We then go on to relate how the Dolls carried on with David and Syl fronting a hastily-assembled new lineup to fulfill gigs and a tour in Japan, while Johnny and Jerry went on to form the Heartbreakers. This left Arthur going to try his luck in LA.

When Johnny told me that was the end of 'the only Dolls' in 1977 I believed him for years. I never thought any group bearing that name could exist without him and Jerry and still carry the Dolls' unique magic. Nothing will still touch the time I saw the Dolls play at Biba's in '73, while the post-Dolls activity by the five members just seemed to turn into a catalogue of disasters and foot-shooting, apart from David Johansen's success with films and Buster Poindexter.

Some still won't entertain the idea of the New York Dolls without Johnny. I'm the first to admit I was skeptical, even reactionary about it. But then I saw the new lineup and got to talk to Sylvain and David. I realised that these men still have that unquenchable spirit which made the Dolls so special, and an unerring talent for writing and delivering great songs. And in the face of the tenth generation regurgitation from the swarms of young pretenders, they are once again cutting through - except this time with a sound which absorbs and matures the original strains of music which influenced the Dolls, like the girl groups, the blues and classic R&B. New bloods no longer but still a breath of fresh air. So there's a new group in town - and I'm gonna tell you all about it.

plexus@plexus.demon.co.uk

Kris Needs/Dick Porter/Jean Encoule – tMx 25 – 06/06
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