Valley of the N.Y. Dolls
May 26, 1975
The first time I laid eyes on the New York Dolls, they were drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. David Johansen had lost the high heel from one of his shoes. He said, “I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss,” while inside the club, the group’s managerial brain trust planned the conquest of blue dawns over racetracks and kids from sweet Ioway. The rest of the band — Johnny Thunders, Syvain Sylvain, Jerry Nolan, Arthur Harold Kane — talked happily about early days spent practicing in a bicycle shop near Central Park. And me? I’m a fool. My heart went out to the hopeful sounds. We all thought the group would achieve success through the purity of their rock ‘n’ roll art.
None of the above is true, of course — my apologies to Chandler and Kerouac — but some of it is, or could be. There was always a sense of American mythology about the Dolls, and those of us who spent three years of our lives working with them had to believe they were more than just another rock ‘n’ roll group, albeit the most misunderstood of recent times. We learned to measure our nights by Dolls concerts, spent even our holidays going to and from, and Mick Taylor’s cryptic putdown — “They’re the worst high school band I ever saw” — only further convinced us how right we were. Johansen shot back: “No — we ‘re the best high school band you ever saw! The kids will love us!” and the point seemed settled. For, after all, the New York Dolls tried to hit the longest home run in American rock ‘n’ roll: they tried to impose themselves upon a nation’s musical and cultural consciousness in much the same manner as had the Rolling Stones 10 years earlier.
Johansen: “In the beginning, we weren’t very good musically. That’s why we put up with each other. We were all fabulous people … We’re a lot faster than the Stones” … Laughter. “At least, younger.”
For all their claim to being a band of and for kids, the Dolls rarely listened to Top 40 music — like them or not, no one could accuse them of creating that music industry euphemism for art, “product” — and their notions of technique mirrored more the tough sparseness or Hammett, the avant-garde fragmentation of Burroughs, and the cruel inward-eye of Nathanael West than the easy flow of media favorites. The fact that AM radio reacted to their songs as if they had dropped from some alien sky was not, in the long run, surprising. Johansen-Thunders did not have the breadth of Jagger-Richards. While the Stones could have written “Bad Girl,” the Dolls could never have brought about “Moonlight Mile”: they lacked the smoke and duskiness, and their nocturnal sojourn through the desert took them far too close to a deli for the tastes of most of Middle America. Whereas the work of the Stones could encompass the broad human comedy of a Breughel or a Bosch, the Dolls proved to be subgenre miniaturists. They were unquestionably brilliant, but finally too spare, too restricted, to reach the hidden places in suburban, small-town hearts. In the end, they rode on real rather than symbolic subway trains to specific rather than universal places, played for an audience of intellectuals or kids even farther out than they were; and, when they eventually met the youth of the country, that youth seemed more confused than captivated by them, and could no more imagine itself a New York Doll than it could some exotic palm tree growing in Brooklyn. The Dolls appealed to an audience which had seen the end of the world, had in fact bought tickets for it but probably didn’t attend because lhere was something even funnier on television that night.
Dave Marsh, who loved the group, put it best when he wrote: “The New York Dolls are the dead end of the ’60s approach. They presume a closed community of rock fans, a limited field with common interests closely held. The new kind of rock singers are different. They know how much greater the stakes are, for a rock star who wants to count, but they also know there isn’t any way to focus upon them, to make the meaning of having the whole world up for grabs come home.”
Nolan: “I suppose everyone will be like the Dolls in a few years. Like a fad. The public and people in general always pick up things from leaders, rock groups especially.”
To be the neo-Rolling Stones of the 1970s was to be a not-to-be, and, after two albums and much notoriety, the Dolls broke up in the final weeks of April; the legendary desserts having forever eluded them. If truth be known, the news of their death hardly produced a ripple throughout the nation they sought to win. Their demise was taken as inevitable. The dreams of rock ‘n’ roll’s Dead End Kids burned out like a green light bulb on someone else’s marquee, and nobody particularly noticed any loss of illumination. That must have been hard for the band to take, but perhaps no harder than some of the dates they had been forced to accept to remain even nominally solvent in the later stages of their existence. Somehow, everything had gone monstrously wrong, and, like characters in some tragicomic version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” everyone closely involved was innocent, everyone guilty. The only solution, finally, was to walk away from it, but none of us — musicians, managers (Marty Thau, Steve Leber, David Krebs), myself (the A&R man who signed the group to Mercury Records) — really could,
August 7. 1972: I see Dolls at Mercer Art Center, want to sign them to wary Mercury.
Late August: Dolls ask Merc for $250,000 deal. Merc blanches, sends in more scouts.
September 24: Merc VP Charlie Fach sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on three hours late. Fach stays 15 minutes, says no. I persist.
October 1: Merc VP Lou Simon flies in from Chicago main office, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on two hours late. Simon loves them, says nothing until he checks the current political climate in Chi, then says no. I persist.
October 8: Merc A&R man Robin McBride flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on one hour late. Thunders, wearing platform basketball shoes, kicks a hole in stage. Kane’s bass comes unplugged: he plays last four songs wlthout making a sound. McBride says no. I persist.
Late October: Dolls turned down by every major label, go to Europe. Merc President I. H. Steinberg and Fach see them in London, say no. I persist. Steinberg becomes enraged, calls Dolls worst band he has ever seen, says I must be crazy. Dolls original drummer Billy dies in England in what is usually ref erred to as a drug-related incident. Nolan replaces him.
Late 1972: I keep trying to convince very leery Merc.
The Dolls first performance had been in July at the Diplomat Hotel in the seedy Times Square area (“You all know Times Square,” Johansen used to chide his audience. “It’s where we all met.”), but it was at the Mercer they gained their reputation in a series of concerts which built in momentum until the nights one spent there with 600 similarly delirious people simply were not sane. Those vivacious evenings were like a benign “Clockwork Orange” filmed in a packed-to-the-rafters Hollywood Mutant High wired for massive sound. There was something marvelous about the band’s all-out assault, fashioned as it was from wit, homage, honesty, self-parody, urban cunning, and the virtuosity of crudeness.
The Dolls and their early following were those kids who used to sneak into the Fillmore East every Saturday night; years later, when their musical time came, they couldn’t wait to build their own homemade rocket ship and send it flying toward the moon on a return trip to innocence. If the fuel was more amateur energy than professional talent — well, one had to make do with what was at hand, surely the primary law of the streetwise. And it was a wondrous thing to see the group play rock ‘n’ roll with the enthusiasm of five people who felt and acted as if they had just invented it, hadn’t quite worked out the kinks yet, but what matter? — it was raw flash, honest fun, erotically direct, and seemed to define them to, and make them inseparable from, their own kind. While they invented nothing, they did present a peculiar vision — lost youths roaming the nighttime city “looking for a kiss, not a fix,” cosmic jet boys “flying around New York City so high,” the teenager as group Frankenstein — and carried the music back to simpler times: there were almost no solos, and everybody played and sang as hard as they could until they got tired. Which wasn’t often. Although some found their world dangerous and offensive — and not at all the dark side of sentimentality — it never seemed threatening to me. It must have been like this in London when people first heard the Stones, I kept thinking, secretly ruing the day when the Dolls would become stars and go public.
But when the Dolls left their milieu in New York City (the Mercer Art Center, Kenny’s Castaways, et al.) something was lost. The many times I saw them in big halls in front of crowds of several thousand, the essence of their particular insular magic somehow became diluted. Even at the Felt Forum, in their first “legitimate” concert before 5000 “normal” people (most of whom came to see Mott the Hoople), the band appeared nervous, ineffectual, and — how can one say it? — somewhat lost and harmless. Defanged. They never quite succeeded in finding a way to convey their intimacy and personal charm to a larger audience which ofttimes regarded them as technically inept, emotionally silly freaks — or worse. If there were ever to be a meeting between performer and potential fan, work needed to be done. The Dolls were something special. They required specific, sensitive handling and firm control. Unfortunately, they did not always get it.
January 30, 1973: Merc head of publicity Mike Gormley flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Kenny’s Castaways because he wants to, says yes. I am shocked. Gormley’s memo reopens Dolls case.
March 20: Dolls and Merc agree to a deal.
Late June: Dolls finish first album with Todd Rundgren producing. Mixing takes less than six hours. Johansen calls Rundgren “an expert on second-rate rock ‘n’ roll.”
July: Johansen falls asleep in Chi in front of Merc brass at special meeting to discuss Dolls. Steinberg isn’t sure whether or not to wake him.
September: Dolls play Whiskey and Los Angeles for first time. Five hundred kids line up each night. Thunders falls in love with groupie queen Sable Starr; they become rock ‘n’ roll punkdom’s Romeo and Juliet. Sylvain stays in biggest suite in hotel for week. How? I ask. “It was the room right next to mine,” he says, “and it was empty so I just stayed there.”
September 23: Johansen arrested in Memphis for stopping Dolls music while cops beat up a kid. He asks cops what they’d do if he were Elvis. “We’d love to get him!” cops reply.
Late 1973: Dolls named by Creem readers as Best New Group and Worst Group of Year. Despite Rundgren, the first album, “New York Dolls,” sells 100,000 copies.
“The Dolls are a vicious kick in the face to all that’s careful, passive and polished about today’s popular music. The record companies, most of which have a great investment in exactly the kind of music the Dolls are rallying against, have naturally been turned off …” (Bud Scoppa, Penthouse)
Kane, the shiest of the band, after having seen me for at least eight months: “Hi. I’m Arthur.”
If the Dolls were difficult to work with at times, it was because they understood nothing of the music business and recording, seemed naive or unable to learn about either, and were rarely encouraged to exhibit any kind or self-control regarding the bankbook or the clock. To say that their record company thought them a mere critics’ hype, did not understand them, and eventually grew to hate them would be an understatement; but, at the beginning, Mercury provided handsomely for the group’s every whim. Management started well, too: Thau, the band’s Napoleon, and Leber, their legal adviser and financial wizard, showed obvious devotion. As the months passed, trouble set in. The problems with Mercury rarely involved the Dolls personally, but had to do rather with mutual contempt among the men at the top on both sides, opposite viewpoints, management’s apparent disdain for necessary budgets and deadlines, the record company’s inability to get the group much AM or FM airplay, and — last but not least — money.
The clash between the Dolls and Mercury was finally a classic confrontation between two immovable objects: a company reluctant to spend any more money and a band that did not know how to stop spending it. Thau and Leber’s penchant for potentiality required huge sums for bad-boy image-building and Stones-style high living, while Steinberg preferred to drop anchor until the bottom line told him when to raise it. A hot war was being waged. Further, Thau and Leber had begun to quarrel, a situation which proved very damaging at a time, when the band needed all the outer stability they could get. The bills were pilling up, and the hands at the controls had suddenly become fists.
One can learn much about the trouble among musicians, management and record company in these excerpts from a confidential report written by Patrick Taton, a Mercury employee in Paris, concerning the group’s 1973 French tour:
“November 28: Arrival at Orly. While camera went into action, Thunders got sick right on the airport floor and had to leave the scene for a minute to pull himself together and make a decent comeback. We spent the afternoon taking pictures at the hotel. The Dolls gave us a hint as to their drinking capacities, which we had to discover at out own expense. In the afternoon, Thunders got sick again and had to be replaced by one of the road managers for photo purposes.
“November 29: Press interviews began with the group, their ‘friends,’ and managers gulping down champagne and cognac at an incredible speed, while we from Mercury were seated in the other corner of the bar. I was surprised when a not-so-sober Thau came up to us to remark that we weren’t really interested in the Dolls because we weren’t taking part in the interviews. When the interviews were over, I picked up the bill, which was incredibly high for so short a time. When I told Thau about it, he replied with utmost contempt, ‘Peanuts for a band like that!’ and continued with some of the most insulting remarks I’ve ever heard about a record company and its executives.
“Next was a live concert at Radio Luxembourg. Although they had been requested for rehearsals at 17:30, the group were not ready before 19:00 and went to the studio in a frightening state of drunkenness — one of the most nerve-shattering experiences of my ‘business’ life.
“December 2: Olympia concert. Surprisingly enough, by the time we went to pick them up at their hotel, the Dolls had already set up their gear and rehearsed. The hall was nearly sold out, and the evening ended in a triumph with two encores. The band were then taken to a top restaurant. They invited their friends — over 50 people altogether — all of them lavishly drinking champagne and cognac, making an incredible show of themselves, engaging patrons, and leaving us with a very nice bill.
“December 3: The day started with the news that Thau and Leber had gone back to America. The group were penniless and urgently requested an advance before they would fulfill their commitments: pure blackmail. The Dolls had to go to a TV studio for a very important show. Believe it or not, it took us over three hours to get them out of their rooms while a frantic and irate producer was calling the hotel every five minutes, threatening to cancel the program and never again work with Mercury. Also, the band’s equipment was set up five hours behind schedule. Finally, after a few minor incidents, the show was taped. It was a success from the first minute. The audience reacted very strongly to the storm of noise produced by the group. There was even a fight, a thing that pleased the Dolls very much, although they found French kids not so tough as those from New York.
“December 4: The band were ready to leave, but they had no money with which to pay their bill (rooms, drinks, numerous overseas telephone calls): over $3500. Stuck again. If I may offer a personal opinion, the New York Dolls are one of the worst examples of untogetherness I have ever seen. Johansen is a very intelligent guy. Sylvain is really clever and nice, the others are quite kind in their own way; but put them together, add their managers (each of them doing his own thing), mix with alcohol, and shake, and you’ve got a careless, selfish, vicious, and totally disorganized gang of New York hooligans — and I’m really sorry to say so.
“Despite all this. I believe we have managed to do good business.”
Sylvain: “I want a Cadillac car. Or a Rolls. I don’t care. I’m just dying for a car. I’ve had three cars, no license. I guess I’m a lucky person.”
Johansen: “I used to be lucky. What happened? I grew up. It changed everything.”
In 1974, the Dolls released a second LP, “Too Much, Too Soon,” produced by Shadow Morton. It sold about 55,000 copies, and, like the first record, made the charts and appeared on almost every major critic’s best-of-the-year list. Not bad for a new band, under the most convivial of circumstances; but the Dolls, unfortunately, were mired in the worst. Thau and Leber split, the group not talking much to either party; and Steinberg, all ire and ice, demanded the repayment or certain loans and a third album, to be made only when management and monetary problems were rectified. They never were, of course. The band had no money, and their destructiveness and unpunctuality had alienated many promoters who no longer wanted to book them. Leber valiantly put together a lucrative tour of Europe and Japan. Krebs persuaded Jack Douglas to produce the third album, but the Dolls themselves — disillusioned and no longer trusting anyone — didn’t take the offers seriously, and everything eventually fell apart. Legally, the group couldn’t break free from any of their contracts. There was not much left to do but to go home and die.
The Dolls did make one small comeback, a series of concerts at the Little Hippodrome earlier this year, but even these did little but add to the misconceptions which had always surrounded the band. In the early days, they were constantly referred to as a glitter group, a fag band, five transvestites who played inexpedient rock ‘n’ roll and who were very offensive onstage. Needless to say, all of these “charges” were false. None of the group is homosexual, nor did the band ever dress as women. The infamous cover for their first LP was conceived as a deliberate eye catcher — the ultimate satirical statement on makeup and glitter (the group appeared as they naturally look on the back of the jacket — but somehow all too many people again failed to recognize the Dolls’ nihilistic riff raff sense of humor. At the Little Hippodrome, the band tailored their comeback around the comic conceit of what it would be like to see a rock ‘n’ roll concert in Red China, and, true to form, were quickly branded as Communists by many in the audience. With that maximum absurdity, perhaps it was indeed time to quit.
The dreams of so many good people died with the New York Dolls. I can still remember the night we finished the first album. Thau and I raced over to Mercury to have two acetates cut, and later we listened, the ghostly sounds of more than a year’s worth of the group’s concerts ringing in our ears. I put the dub on the turntable, sheer terror in my heart. Thau, who had discovered the band and had cared enough to spend the very best of himself and all of his money on the project, felt the same. It meant so much to us then. I think both of us suddenly realized that everything had, to some degree, passed out of our hands and into the hands of those kids from sweet Ioway whose legion ultimately said no! in thunder to the hopes of the New York Dolls. As Jean Renoir remarked: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
I think those kids from sweet Ioway were wrong, or rather perhaps that they never really had a chance to encounter the group on any significant level: on the radio or as part of a major tour. Instead, the band’s philosophy or instant stardom and limited, headliner-only bookings proved to be the stuff of dreams. Even a cult favorite must eventually face the nation as a whole, but the Dolls never played by the rules of the game. Neither did the Velvet Underground, and their contributions will last. At times, when I am feeling particularly perverse, I can’t blame either of them.
The New York Dolls sang and played terrific rock ‘n’ roll — their own and other people’s — and, in a better world, “Personality Crisis,” “Trash,” and “Stranded in the Jungle” would have been AM hits. (Perhaps two new songs, “Teenage News” and “Girls,” will correct the deficit on some future Johansen LP. ) Individually, each of the group will be heard from again — Thunders and Nolan have already formed a band called the Heartbreakers, Johansen and Sylvain have several plans, Kane is supposedly in California — but no matter. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” someone once said. The Dolls went out with their high-heeled boots on.
They did it their way and got carried out dead, but with their pride intact. True, they did not grow old with the country, but that’s probably the country’s loss, not theirs. Corporation rock ‘n’ roll, wherein musicians like Bachman-Turner Overdrive are more gray-flanneled than the businessmen who kowtow to them, is so formularized, homogenized, and impersonal it must surely cause the death of anything that is at all out of bounds, mythopoeic, and rebellious. The Dolls were alive. Perhaps it killed them not to become stars, darkened their personalities, drove some of them into private worlds; but at least they had the courage to become figments of their own imaginations —and those creations were not altogether devoid of nobility. I will cherish always the friendship of each of them. Their last words on record were: “I’m a human being.”
”Listen, bucko, these are the New York Dolls, the sweethearts of Babylon themselves, the band you’re gonna love whether you like it or not …” (New Musical Express)
I do not claim they were the best, but the New York Dolls are still my favorite rock ‘n’ roll group, although I will understand if you do not like them. I will understand, but deep down I will not want to know you. ♦
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 10, 2020