Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Is Springsteen Worth the Hype?

Two years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia knew how to spell his name, but now his new album, “Born to Run,” due out within the week, is all they can talk about up there. Hope of the future. Big star. Gold record. The works. Across the land, corporate drums are making sure everybody gets the message. A new savior is at hand. The ’70s are being primed for a media killing to the nth degree. Pressing plants work long into the night. The time, as they say in the business, is right.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, the blood of the poet must be running both hot and cold about this. In the summer of ’72, Bruce Springsteen, winless after half a decade of bar-band wars, had just written several long, very unusual songs — yet another new beginning for him — and was reading Anthony Scaduto’s biogra­phy of Bob Dylan. He’d Just finished the part where Dylan goes up to Columbia, auditions for the legendary John Hammond, walks out with a record contract. One day later, Springsteen and guitar were in Hammond’s office, and history, sensing the chance to live up to its reputation, did indeed repeat itself.

Two LPs later, Bruce could boast moderate album sales, a small but rabid concert audience, and a critical reputation which was fast snowballing. Earlier incomprehension over his music — he was immediately labeled the new Dylan, the new Van Morrison­ — gradually gave way to cult pandemonium. When the eminent Jon Landau saw the singer perform in Boston and wrote, “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Sprin­gsteen,” the careers of both men soon became intertwined.

Springsteen was having major problems recording a third LP. He and producer-manager Mike Appel had been working for eight months in a Long Island studio: the results were one completed song, “Born to Run,” and such incredible frustra­tion Bruce at times threatened to give up making records altogether. Although “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” were highly regarded, almost no one, record company and critics alike, thought they were produced well: and many suspected that it was Springsteen himself who was responsible for the technical agony and ecstasy. Such assumptions were more than partly correct. In the studio, Bruce was astigmatic and shortsighted, a perfectionist who frequently took the long way around simply because he didn’t know the short one. That depression had set in would be an understatement.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Landau, who had once produced the MC-5 and Livingston Taylor, seemed the perfect solution. He loved the music, understood it, and, equally important, could offer an analytic and pragmatic approach as a logical balance to Springsteen’s mercurial naivete. They liked each other personally. If Landau was somewhat in awe of the kind of instinctual genius who could resolve aesthetic problems by compounding them, Bruce had no less respect for someone who invariably got to 10 by counting out nine individual numbers, one at a time. It was the ideal artistic marriage of creative madness and controlling method.

Together they cut “Thunder Road,” and when Springsteen dis­covered he could write a song one night and successfully record it within the next few days, he was so astonished he began writing and rewriting the rest of the album with renewed intensity. Why hadn’t someone told him it could be this easy? The word easy, however, can have pejorative overtones; and with Bruce, one is never talking about an economy of mood. The singer was convinced he had to de­liver a masterpiece, and since noth­ing is ever perfect, especially to someone whose art is based on vola­tility, it became difficult to decide the exact degree of near-greatness attainable: once he and Landau had started a song off on the right road, Springsteen, out of uncertainty and the increasing pressures of oncom­ing and perhaps unwanted fame, didn’t know when to stop. Or didn’t dare. After all, it could always be better, couldn’t it? People are going to expect so much. Let’s just take a few more weeks because…

“Outside the street’s on fire/In a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wound­ed/Not even dead/Tonight in Jungle­land.”

***

At the Bottom Line. Wednesday. Springsteen begins the first show in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer at the piano during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It is a magic moment, avoiding preten­tiousness only because of works, for Bruce has carefully cultivated the late James Dean’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableau, and wrapped the whole package with explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock ‘n’ roll as the band comes onstage — a trick picked up from r&b groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night — is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The house has gone wild.

The night has an air of expectancy — one may even say privilege: there is an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. All 10 shows, Wednesday through Sunday, have been sold out for weeks, but at two o’clock this afternoon, a line began to form at Mercer and Fourth. By seven, several hundred kids were milling about in a pouring rain, gambling at long odds on the chance to buy one of the 36 standing-room­ only tickets. Inside the club, every other person is carrying either a notebook or camera to certify the event. Both Springsteen and the band seem aware of threat and promise, and try too hard. A bunch of South Shore street punks all sharped up for a big night in New York town, they are so charged with energy and good humor they push right past the audience, pointlessly sending the lost wail of barrio serenades all the way up to Eighth Avenue, surely one of Bruce’s spiritual homes.

If the street’s on fire outside, inside so are we, the singer seems to be saying from the secret heart of those small-town rock ‘n’ rollers set loose for the first time with booze and cars in Neon City. Hey, man, did you see that? Sexy innocents hang out on corners, soaking up urban vignettes, and striving in vain for the obscene loveliness of the true street hustler. From the cheap seats in Jersey, “Thunder Road” is Springsteen’s recurrent American dream, yet another incarnation of the run away and his woman — gimme my girl and let us outa here! — trying for the ultimate escape, no questions asked, no promises given: “Hey, what else can we do now?/…Well, the night’s busting open/…We got one last chance to make it real.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

One last chance to make it real is the way Bruce approaches his concerts, too. Everything must get crammed in, whether it fits or not, the story lines accelerating until both singer and band reach bursting point so often that what is at first exhilarating and climactic later become mere hysterical redundancy. Too many times, one 20-minute song will follow another, their formats so similar the mind begs for brevity or at least a different set of reflexes with which to respond. Happily, Springsteen has dropped completely what appeared to be a creeping narcissism in many of last year’s concerts — in comparison, he is natu­ralness personified now — but he still has not learned that less can be more, that one well-aimed bullet can create just the kind of impact he wants while a dozen random shots may do nothing so much as bum out an audience before their time has come. Granted, he is a master at those small bits of stage business that can suddenly illuminate occasional dark alleys, but why he chooses to walk such mean streets at all remains a mystery.

Actually, Sunday night’s initial show makes practically any criticism obsolete. For the first time all week, the singer seems flexible and relaxed — Chaplin’s mobile tramp and Valentino’s slippery lover playfully filling the air with smoky mise-en-scene from an antic ’40s film noire, then delivering a Bogart, brass-knuckled haymaker that puts everyone away. It’s “Casablanca” all over again, with a gaucho Groucho in the lead. The pacing is much improved, the set structure faultless. Nothing gets repetitious. From a near-perfect mixture of bright talk (the introduction to “E Street Shuffle”), fast ones (“Born to Run”), oldies (the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”), palpably intimate slow songs (in the middle of the set, “Thunder Road,” done strict­ly solo), and raging rockers (the best “Rosalita” yet), Springsteen fashions the kind of seamless, 150-minute performance that most ar­tists can only dream about, never realize. On my feet, clapping, never wanting it to end, I ask myself when I’ve ever been so moved by a con­cert.

Four times: Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” anywhere in ’65 or ’66, the Rolling Stones at the Garden in ’72, Jackson Browne in Toronto in ’73, and a few of the New York Dolls’ late shows at the Mercer Art Center that same year.

All of the above, of course, indicates that even Springsteen’s weak­nesses stem from too much talent, not too little. When you can achieve just about anything you want on­stage it’s hard not to stay there until you’ve rung all the bells; and one often gets the feeling that Bruce is having so much fun he’d gladly pay the crowd to let him do just that. Ironically, if he weren’t as good as he is — and he is close to being the best we have — no one would be concerned with such minor issues as pace and overreach. In the long run, the sta­mina and purity of personal vision should be applauded. To be tena­ciously naive is far preferable to following the safe, downhill path which leads straight into the for­mulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

***

Yet there it is, out there like an anxious Jack the Ripper, eagerly awaiting to confer the bloody award. In the East, Springsteen is already a legend — in Washington, D.C., ad­vance orders on his new album al­ready outnumber those for Elton John’s — and he has made great inroads in Texas, and parts of the Midwest. The South and the Far West remain question marks, but the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when “Born to Run” is released.

I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record, curbing most of the excess but none of the force of the only artist I know who could combine the sound of Phil Spector with the singing of Roy Orbison. (The names come from Bruce.) “Born to Run” lists three producers — Springsteen, Landau, Appel — but Landau freely acknowledges that “Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. ‘Hey, wait a second,’ he would say, ‘The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.” Mike’s great strength in the studio was his energy, his ability to keep everybody’s spirit together. No matter how bad it got, he could always get things going again.”

***

Out front, fame is at the door and knocking loudly. There’s too much light out there, and the countdown has begun. In the back, under the haze of a romantic’s moon, maybe no one will notice two figures on a fire escape jump down and run hand-in-­hand through tenement backstreets toward Spanish Harlem. On Broad­way, it’s midnight in Manhattan, so walk tall, somebody says. Walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all.

Everything is quiet. Only a whis­per.

“Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us/Those pier lights, our carnival life forever/Oh, love me tonight for I may never see you again/Hey, Sandy girl, my baby.”

Quieter. But if we’re lucky, Bruce sighs,

“Maybe we could slip away/Maybe we could steal away /Maybe we could slip away/Just for a second.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Valley of the New York Dolls

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716846″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720617″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724994” /]

“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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

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. ♦

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls