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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bludgeoning Riffola, Suitable For When Fucking the World

The cover art for the She Wolves’ Mach One a chick in thigh-high boots, regarded from the waist down—capably tips off consumers to the exciting, get-hard punk-rock noise waiting inside. With Donna She Wolf (late of Cycle Sluts From Hell) on guitar and vocals, the band’s forte is bludgeoning riffola that’s often knuckle-dragging and provocative, as on “Art of War,” with its shouts of “Undefeatable! Undefeatable!” Achieving density somewhere between Budgie and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, the She Wolves are in a pretty good place if you desire equal portions of catchy tunes and heavy rock. Bonus points accrue when the band backs the mighty Syl Sylvain on a wall-of-sound take on “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”; at song’s end is a clip of Joey Ramone fondly musing about seeing Syl’s New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. In the flesh, Jayne County also makes an appearance here, startlingly effective on a cover of “California Alles.” “Fuck the world/Call some whores/We’re gonna have some fun!” Donna declares. Who would beg to differ?

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sensualistic, Polytheistic

“So everybody gets makeup, OK? You look dead on TV without it.” Back in the Conan greenroom from a Camel-stoked walk to the Hilton with his girlfriend Leah, David Johansen was taking charge of the reconstituted New York Dolls, who didn’t really need the help. The sextet showed a lot of denim in rehearsal, but all manner of magpie finery came out at the witching hour, with red-on-black a theme—Jersey guitarist Steve Conte’s red-lined frock coat, keyb pro Brian Koonin’s red derby, the red rose in nice-guy bassist Sami Yaffa’s hair. The multiple accessories to Syl Sylvain’s colorful costume include a snarly-wolf wristband and Max’s Kansas City kidney belt painted by his wife Wanda in Atlanta, whom he called before he went on. And Johansen—whew. Jean Harlow (?) T-shirt. Stovepipe flares. Belts and rhinestones and silvery chains. They were a great band dressed to kill again.

Many reunions never get past the tour that’s never as hot as true believers claim. And the creditable albums some bands manage never live up to old glories. The Dolls’ new album doesn’t either, but that’s compared to my desert island discs—with this band, I’m the true believer. Their second shot took nearly 30 years, a decade-plus more than Blondie or Mission of Burma or Gang of Four. With junko partners Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan gone since 1991 and 1992, three of the original Dolls survived till Morrissey engineered a London one-shot two years ago. His dream fulfilled, bassist Arthur Kane died of previously undiagnosed leukemia a month later, leaving David and Syl to ride the one-shot’s reverberations. But though the pace has slowed and the execution filled out, though Thunders’s squalling sound and drop-dead time are irreplaceable, they’re still the New York Dolls.

The Dolls came together at one of Queens’ less distinguished educational institutions—Sylvain, Thunders, and classic drummer Billy Murcia, who died in a 1972 drug bollocks, all attended Newtown High School, and Kane grew up nearby. Staten Islander David Johansen they met downtown, and he was different. Bluntly put, what Sylvain calls the Dolls’ “skyscraper soup” wouldn’t have been all that tasty without Johansen’s genius as songwriter and frontman. The forced rhythms and slapdash musicianship of this fast, noisy mix-up—comprising, Sylvain reckoned, girl group, blues, Eddie Cochran, Young Rascals, and Little Rascals—read radically anti-hippie and now just seems quintessentially rock and roll. But it presaged punk, and it influenced thousands of bands—none of whom sounded remotely like the Dolls because none of them had Johansen’s eye for a joke, nose for a hook, clothes sense, appetite, or humanity. Nobody does.

Since the Dolls fell apart without having approached the megasales dancing in their heads, Johansen has enjoyed a solo career that included a long stint as cruise-ship popmeister Buster Poin-dexter and a briefer one yodeling in the canon with the ad hoc Harry Smiths. But give the new album half a chance and it stands as a miraculous demonstration of how much this modestly cultured middle- class New Yorker—dad an opera-singing insurance salesman, mom a librarian—benefits from the proximity of dead-end kids. He’s written hundreds of songs with collaborator Koonin. But when sound-check riffs evolved into songs and then a deal with the metal heavyweights at Roadrunner Records for the first Dolls album in 32 years, Johansen knew he had to generate fresh material. “It’s like being the speechwriter for a party,” he told me, coyly leaving out the “political.” Fools will grouse about a 56-year-old pretending he’s 22 again, just as Mojo‘s Kris Needs recently groused that New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon were “neutered,” “limp” renderings of the band’s pansexuality. The Dolls always were over some people’s heads.

I’ve held off on the album’s strange title because it says so much: One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. The “even” is preemptive; those who level the self-evident charge that the Dolls don’t jam like they used to should check their own jam level and say something new. But what’s more mind-boggling is that after 30 years Johansen isn’t looking back from his earned maturity—he’s looking ahead. He has internalized his mortality so thoroughly that he realizes he won’t be 56 forever. This is a true Dolls album—as in the Conan-featured “Dance Like a Monkey,” which bids a “pretty little creationist” to shake her “monkey hips” now that “evolution is obsolete,” or the opening “We’re All in Love,” with its “Jumping around like teenage girls” and its “We all sleep in one big bed.” But it also expresses the worldview of a lean, strong-piped guy who understands what makeup is for and knows that he may not be pretty in pink forever.

Johansen scoffed at my suggestion that his new album harbored religious feelings, and I didn’t push it. Instead I’ll just mention the booklet’s Kali Yoga shout-out and quote a few lyrics. “Feel exiled from the divine,” for instance. Or “Nature with its true voice cries out undissembled, ‘Be as I am!’ ” in the one that ends “Sensualistic/ Ritualistic/Alchemistic/Polytheistic.” Or the loose talk about infinity in the two songs that lead into the perorating “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks,” which begins, “Spirit slumbers in nature/And awakens in mind/And finally recognizes/Itself in time.” The ghost track “Seventeen” is tacked on as a corrective. Begins: “I was down on the corner one night.” Continues: “I was made all of light.”

Fools may wonder why Johansen needs dead-end kids to write like this. Where’s the party? But the Dolls were dead-end kids in transcendence mode. Their goal was and is the unbounded, humorous humanism apparent in Bob Gruen and Nadia Beck’s circa-1973 All Dolled Up DVD, a far more vivid memento than any concert bootleg. Their summum was Too Much Too Soon‘s future Guns N’ Roses text “Human Being”; their big drug slogan was “I need a kiss not a fix.” They were anti-hippie only insofar as hippies were passive (the Dolls rocked nonstop) and pretentious (David and Syl rail at 20-minute guitar solos as if they just tuned one out on WPLJ). Heterosexuals all, they believed in universal love the way disco utopian David Mancuso believed in universal love—with a sloppy touch of the Cockettes. “I’ve been trying to convince Syl that what we had in the ’70s wasn’t sex,” Johansen explained at Randalls Island in 2004, and again at Irving Plaza in 2005. A Monica Lewinsky joke, he couldn’t resist. But think of it this way—maybe what they had in the ’70s was love.

One attraction of Johansen’s newfound Buddhist rhetoric is that it doesn’t shy away from the carnal. The knowledgeable lust of “Fishnets & Cigarettes” and the pussy-worshipping “Running Around” counter the lived despair of “Punishing World,” “Maimed Happiness,” and the hope- deprived “I Ain’t Got Nothin’.” And that draft for a suicide note leads into a redemptive earthly-love triptych that dovetails plausibly, if not definitively, with what is known of Johansen’s personal life, in which a long marriage to photographer Kate Simon was followed by his relationship with Leah Hennessey, whose teenage daughter designed the 10-page comic that comprises the notes. He remains a votary of l-u-v.

That is, he remains a New York Doll. “This is the most fun way I can think of right now to not work,” Johansen told me, but he has big plans for his lark. No “bar band” or “preaching to the choir” for this mature professional entertainer who began his career believing he was about to take over the world. “This is going to be a big record. It’s like there’s no rock and roll records out there. It’s a fait accompli.”

It isn’t, but don’t tell the folks at Roadrunner. Tell them they’ve underwritten another desert island disc. Because it’s quite possible they have.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Into the Wall

Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” is a blast of ’70s punk rock up there in greatness with “New Rose,” “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” and “One Chord Wonder.” Beats the pants off the Sonic Youth cover version, which is pretty great itself.

Where San Francisco’s STILL Doomed has a weakness, though, is in its overall sameness. The singing punches the music home, but doesn’t lift the songs; one reason “Hot Wire” and several other standouts—”Frustration,” “Monkey on Your Back”—work so well is that the call-and-response (voice calls, guitar responds) leaves space for the vocals, so they’re not struggling to keep afloat amid the overall sound. (Mixed metaphor! How do you lift something you’re floating in? Well, that’s my point.)

Crucial ingredient is the guitar playing of Johnny Strike. He plays high-distortion riffs, like Johnny Thunders’s but truncated, so you’ve got molten licks snapping at you. Good concise note selection—I’d describe it as Raw Power–era Stooges abstracted to simplicity, played with Dolls thickness and Thunders’s tendency to bend notes into nowhere. Basic setup: Singer shouts a lyric, guitar snakes forth and tears into the wall, bass and drums pound holes through the floor.

Crime started in 1976, made three singles, received accolades such as “They look funny and don’t wipe themselves,” and broke up in 1981, leaving these murky tapes to be rediscovered later. They billed themselves as San Francisco’s first and only rock and roll band. This is hardly accurate, since a decade earlier the Great Society and Jefferson Airplane had rocked and rolled fine. For that matter, Grace Slick was even more of a punk than these guys. But you can see the slogan as reclamation. Amid ’70s mass rock normality, a corrosive band on the fringe declares itself the one real deal and everyone else an apostate. There’s also conscious or unconscious patricide: A key predecessor to this kind of punk-guitar sound was Jorma Kaukonen’s psychedelic guitar experiments (check the riff with which he opens the Airplane’s “Have You Seen the Saucers” and compare it to James Williamson’s near identical riff at the start of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”). And Paul Kantner’s self-isolating Starship and “Wooden Ships” sci-fi fantasies (“We are leaving; you don’t need us”) foreshadow Crime’s sounding like they’re in a concrete basement pretending to claw their way out. But Crime don’t even claim to be the future. Just the sound of one band clawing.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Pretty Snide (For Some Orange Guys)

Orange County, California: 800 square miles of white people, wedged in between L.A. and San Diego. Hardly punk rock central, from the looks of it: The land behind the Orange Curtain is a strip of beach backed up by a freeway-ridden patchwork of office parks, subdivisions, developments, planned-and-gated and patrolled communities, multiplexes, minimalls, malls, and megamalls, relieved only by the occasional defense plant or military installation. And Disneyland, which is right there in the middle of Anaheim (Klanaheim, as they used to call it back in the ’20s; the racial politics are a little more muted these days).

A place very much like America, in other words, but newer (1940 population: 130,000; 1994: 2,550,000), cleaner, neater, and a hell of a lot more Republican. In fact, O.C. is the kind of place where, when some punchy ol’ sonofagun suggests they name the airport after John Wayne, the powers that be actually do it. But if you’re the kind of person who thinks Bennigan’s isn’t a bar and “lower property taxes” isn’t a philosophy, then O.C. is gonna irritate you, and vice versa. It’s a can-do place and they don’t like whiners. Everything is just fine in Orange County, y’see, and if you don’t agree, you can move somewhere without all that sunshine and surf. Or say fuck it all and go to the beach and stay there, surfing some and sucking down beers lots.

Or, if you’re a real misfit, you can round up some like-minded individualists—like-minded individualists? Hmmm—and start a punk band. O.C. has spawned scads of ’em: old-timers like Agent Orange, who didn’t sell a lot of records, and new ones like the Offspring, who do. In O.C., where the ’50s lasted until about 1980, the ’80s are now. Punk lives—a kind of punk, anyway.

Now, when I was a snotty young brush-head, back in the days when it was all new, punks were a bunch of fucking degenerates, at least the ones we looked up to. Dee Dee Ramone—hustler; Sid Vicious—junkie knife fiend; Stiv Bators—extremely unhealthy; Johnny Thunders—ugghhhh. Fundamentally unsound, all of ’em. Not a whiff of responsibility, honor, achievement in the lot—those qualities were the mark of the poser, the wannabe. To be a real punk, you had to fuck your life up, but good (even the smart punks—the Clash—were at least class-B messes).

That kind of boneheadedness won’t wash with the Offspring. The Offspring are achievers—and I’m not just talking about Dexter’s Ph.D. in molecular biology (hard to imagine Johnny Thunders in grad school, his intimate knowledge of the human vein structure notwithstanding). Or Greg K.’s finance degree. Or Noodles’ surfing, for that matter—can you picture Joey Ramone hanging 10? In a bathing suit, even at Rockaway Beach? But it goes beyond such superficials. The Offspring’s whole attitude is, in a word, good. When they sang, “Yeah, I hate everything” and “Being positive’s so unhip” a couple albums back, they were being, um, ironic. They like lots of stuff. Snowboarding. Cloning viruses. Living in O.C. And when they sang, “I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem,” their affect was 180 degrees from, say, that guy from Radiohead insisting that he’s a creep and a weirdo. Him, you believe. Dexter, not so much.

In the vocabulary of ’60s rock, the Offspring are much more Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention than Iggy and the Stooges. Like Zappa—their SoCal homie—they’re basically a bunch of pretty smart dweebs (that part of “Self Esteem” is, paradoxically, true) who’ve managed to convince people that they’re cool. And like the early Zappa, when he was still worrying about social justice and the plasticity of suburban culture (issues bound to bug the thinking young resident of the Southland), and not the Illinois Enema Bandit, behind their snide jokiness they take life pretty seriously.

Oh yeah. Conspiracy of One? It’s fine. Is there anything here as cute as “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”? No: Like with Ixnay on the Hombre, their follow-up to the megahit Smash, this follow-up to the even more megahit Americana finds them in dance-with-the-girl-what-brung-you mode—more punk, less pop. Personally, I’d prefer the pop, but I’m cynical. Besides, Dexter and his chums, who aren’t, are honorable guys, and honorable guys try to keep it real. You still get the spoken intro (here, swiped off some old Beach Boys live thing) and the funny little voice (rapper Redman’s, in this case). And the single “Original Prankster,” their customary slice of “vato-punk,” as Noodles calls it—rather than looking to hip-hop for a bit of rhythmic spice, these guys tend to go Mexican. Which makes sense: O.C.’s about 25 percent Mexican, and only 2 percent black (and that’s not because black people don’t like sunshine and nice houses). But there’s a lot more butt-munching, guitar-crunching stomp than on the last one.

Some of the munch is even kinda catchy, for munch (but not the sincere stuff, of course: in the Offspring’s book, catchy = just kidding). Take “One Fine Day,” which begins with Dexter sweetly singing, “If I had a perfect day/I would have it start this way/Open up the fridge and have a tallboy/Yeah.” Right on, you say to yourself, as the boys start pumping up the chords. But then you realize the whole thing’s just a put-down of dumbshits who are into “drinkin’, fightin’, goin’ to the game.” Sucker.

On the other hand, there’s “Want You Bad,” a gloriously unholy gene-splice between the Clash’s “Capitol Radio” (the guitars) and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” (the harmonies): “I want you/All tattooed/I want you bad/Complicated/ X-rated/I want you bad.” Catchy as hell, and you’d almost think they were degenerates.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Roto-Roots Rock Flushes Your Troubles Down the Drain

It had me on the shitter for days back in 1996, that Supersuckers record, Must’ve Been High (though my coffee-grind-and-Ramen diet probably didn’t help gastrointestinal matters), where they replaced their signature guitar machismo with intimate hillbilly restraint. And it was on the pot that I realized my civic responsibility to the state of punk rock-I had to purge the roots from punk because this roots-punk thing clearly wasn’t working. I considered my options. Could I get on a plane with all six of my father’s AK-47s? Could Cousin Teddy mail one of his “special” letters to the Supersuckers’ headquarters in Seattle, or had the feds already caught up with his scheming?


Better yet, maybe I could hop on a fucking time machine, head back to late-’70s London, and strangle the Mekons’ limey necks-preventing anything past “Never Been in a Riot,” and stopping the following nightmarish chain of events: Johnny Thunders touching an acoustic guitar, the Meat Puppets,Jason and the Scorchers, Rank and File, the Knitters, Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, Social Distortion’s Prison Bound, the first 20 seconds of Fear’s “Beef Baloney,” and the entire populations of Festus, Missouri, and Uncle Tupelo, Mississippi. Besides the Replacements’ Hootenanny,almost nobody has gotten the roots-punk thing right. Bands either wind up all cartoonish and hokey and “aw shucks,” like the cast of Hee Haw,or they take it way too seriously with all that Mr. – Mojo – Rising – with – hellhounds – on – my – trail crap. Both ways it’s an Event, but Hootenanny came off more nonchalant and natural-probably because the ‘Mats were too drunk to even play, let alone figure out how to indulge their hillbilly desires.


My father, a big military man, once said: “Son, to kill your enemy, you must know your enemy.” So I’ve been keeping up with these cowpunks. Recently those Supersuckers tracks that had the diarrhea hound on my trial resurfaced, along with dang near everything else they recorded-compilation cuts, one-offs with sensitive badasses Steve Earle and Willie Nelson, incriminating tracks “from the vault” and from seven-inch singles (but nothing off the new, and gloriously ‘Nuge, The Evil Powers of Rock’N’Roll)on the modestly titled anthology The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.


Now, besides drugs (according to their lyrics, and not my access to public records via my father’s pre-incarceration military intelligence connections) and pulling the guitars-as-cocks move when playing live, there are two things the Supersuckers do well: writing obnoxiously puerile lyrics, and distilling Thin Lizzy hooks from their wanky classic rock surroundings. When the two collide, the Supersuckers almost live up to their anthology’s title. “Creepy Jackalope Eye,” “On the Couch,” the unreleased “Givin’ It Away,” and “Doublewide” all have rock-candy verses, with riffs as sweet as they are hard that let up in ringing power-chord bliss during their choruses-the classic bubblegum metal formula. They work well as “arena anthems”-getting boys to drive drunk and underage girls to flash boobies-but they’re also catchy enough to cut it in elevators 20 years from now.


Their Ice Cube cover, “Dead Homiez,” an embarrassingly derivative stab at Chili Peppers?style funk-punk, showcases the ‘Suckers’ commendable, though often laughable, “experimental” side (which in punk rock means having the ‘nads to play anything in which you can understand the lyrics). In all fairness, though, this side is the only thing that justifies the Supersuckers’ putting out a best-and-rest disc. Those Must’ve Been High drawlers work well here, sprinkled loosely between off-the-cuff rockers and stabs at Rolling Stones raunch, adding up to a real rock record-a cohesive collection of songs strung together to create a peaks-and-valleys narrative-and not just 12 variations of “The Boys Are Back in Town.”


But the Must’ve Been High tunes didn’t work on an album by themselves because they were too studied-musos working too hard to regurgitate Johnny Cash’s Up Through the Years: 1955?1957-the baritone voice, those clanky electric fills, and the spare but visceral bass and drum interplay. You never got the feeling anybody laid down rails and busted out a coke-frenzied “Let’s rawk!” before picking up their axe. Knoxville Girls give off a similarly studied vibe, but what keeps me from calling my uncle-a sniper living under an alias of a major New York politician-is their guitar sound and sense of humor.


Though they aren’t from Tennessee, nor are they girls, these chicks with dicks have either swilled enough shit-or, better yet, learned how to make you think they have (the band does feature roots-punk vets from the Gun Club, the Cramps, Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, and the Chrome Cranks)-to yak up a backwoodsy debut, even if their backwoods is the East Village. Knoxville Girls begins with “Sixty-Five Days Ago,” an instrumental that pins a generic ’50s-ballad chord progression to a Duane Eddy?like, reverb-drenched cluster of low-register notes. In some ways a chickenshit monkey could have slapped these well-scuffed riffs together-ever hear Wilco and Son Volt stitch “Folsom Prison Blues” to a Gram Parsons?influenced Stones riff? But patch-jobs in this setting are unsettling because the guitarists sound like they’re twanging brittle, rusty strings with their amps at the bottom of an empty dumpster-all grit, with tinny echoes to provide depth. “Two Time Girl” ‘s primitive, rollicking stomp and “One Sided Love” ‘s caveman funk make Jon Spencer’s roots look as deep as Garth Brooks’s. Guitar figures wrap around the bass and drums so tightly, the groove seems like one big pulsating wad. But the wad isn’t the climax-the record ends with an eight-minute, one-chord Bo Diddley vamp, with the normally staccato groove ironed out by slide guitar swoops. The little number is about a workin’ man coming home to his “low-cut apron”?clad sweetie, who has something for him in her oven. He sticks his head in, and ummmmmmm mmmmm,it sure tastes sweet. Judging from the way the bawdy backbeat builds, that ain’t no cornbread he’s eatin’.


And seeing how we’re on the topic of cunning linguists: if you can hear them under the drunken din of off-time and out-of-tune instrumentation, the lyrics on the Neckboners’- ‘scuse me, the Neckbones’-latest, The Lights Are Getting Dim,are the most brilliantly obnoxious punk scrawl since Crime’s San Francisco’s Doomed. Well, actually, nothing tops “Crack Whore Blues,” off the Neckbones’ last album, but listen to this: “I’m going out again/I can’t face what I’ve done/It’s a world of sin/And a man’s gotta have his fun.” Or my favorite: “With my bitch in my car, I am the seventh son, I’m the vice lord.” There are two types of rock songs, see-your “Personality Crisis”es and your “Shake Appeal”s-and the Neckbones do ’em both. “Double Time” is a hook-laden, two-chord barrelhouse barnburner, with a David Jo?on-Novocain slur and a mangled Chuck Berry lick that makes Thunders sound like George Benson. “64 Days” has that I’m-a-junked-up-bad-motherfucker James Williamson swagger, complete with strangled lead bursts and rolling basslines played on guitar. “Ocean of Blue” is the record’s “Private World.” And “Possum Breath” is its “Raw Power.”


The reason why I won’t put buckshot in their heads is because, just like the ‘Mats before them, the Neckbones are approaching roots music head-on, Jack Daniels with no chaser. “One-Two-Three-Four/Now the lights are getting dim.” . . . Yes, they are. And as an acoustic guitar plucked out the rest of the album’s closer, the “Sweet Virginia”?like blues ballad, “Red Wagon,” I called up my aunt in Mississippi.


Fat Possum, Box 1923, Oxford MS 38655; In The Red, 2627 E. Strong Place, Anaheim CA 92806; Sub Pop, 1932 First Avenue, Suite 1103, Seattle WA 98101. The Neckbones play the Continental October 29; Knoxville Girls play the Cooler October 31; Supersuckers play the Knitting Factory November 7.