New York Dolls: History All Dolled Up

By: Nancy Dunham

New York Dolls by Max Lakner
If we told you The Ramones or Elvis or The Beatles had somehow returned (stay with us here) and had recorded new music and were touring, would you be jazzed, buy the album, study the music and the show? Please say you would.

You know, of course, behind all the glamour, the groupies, the buses and the glitz, truly great musicians are really students of music that became masters and produce sounds that are the equivalent of musical Haley's Comets. That means if you miss out – if you don't take the opportunity to experience the phenomena – you may never have the chance again.

Sure, the airwaves are always filled with music – a lot of it so amazing that we plunk down our money and proudly blare it from our speakers – but the great masters that produce music played for generations are few and far between.

That's why you can't – you just shouldn't – miss the music and tour of the New York Dolls. Consider the second album produced by the regrouped Dolls, 'Cause I Sez So (released May 5 on Atco), your second chance (or perhaps third, depending on your age) to experience the sounds and moves that laid the foundation for punk and many of the greats – such as The Clash, The Ramones, Blondie and countless others - that followed.

A New Type of Doll

"When you look back at every cultural music scene there were always a couple of bands that came first – like The Beatles and Rolling Stones – and then there were a million bands that came along in their wake that had only nominal success," lead singer David Johansen told writer Ben Edmonds for a 1973 Dolls article in the rock-and-roll bible Creem. "That's the way I think it's going to be in New York. There'll be a couple of groups that hit pretty big, and a lot that'll hit pretty minor. The New York Dolls are gonna be around for a while."

If you think 30 years is a while, the prophecy came true. But, it's scary when you consider how quickly The Dolls almost vanished before they even began.

Vintage Dolls
Consider the original lineup of New York-born and bred musicians - Johansen, guitarists Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders, bass player Arthur "Killer" Kane and drummer Billy Murcia. On the band's first tour of England, Murcia died as the result of mixing alcohol with pills, according to Rolling Stone. Murcia was replaced by Jerry Nolan for its self-titled, Todd Rundgren produced debut, but the band's tapestry was already beginning to unravel.

"Get the glitter out of your asses and play," Rundgren barked at the Dolls during sessions for that recording, according to Creem's Edmonds. Since Rundgren was quite the radical guy himself back in the day, the reprimand must have sounded akin to Madonna telling a stripper not to use her sexual appeal for profit. Indeed, Rundgren's reprimand fell on deaf ears as the Dolls continued their antics while flinging colorful barbs back.

A few weeks before Rundgren was slated to welcome the Dolls to his Hawaii recording studio early this year, he ruminated a bit about the Dolls' first recording.

"The circus atmosphere that surrounded the first one, I don't expect anything like that. Most of what contributed to that is gone," he said, not filling in the blanks.

But that's easy enough to do. Obviously, more than 30 years have passed since the Dolls – then impish early 20-somethings, reportedly down-to-earth but heady with the band's newfound fame – recorded that 1973 debut and the band's aptly titled sophomore disc, Too Much Too Soon, released just a year later. Although both albums were commercial successes, critics panned the work. Many blamed the negative reaction to the band's androgynous attire and stage presence. "They were just too weird," wrote Rolling Stone editors by way of explanation.

"We have all had interesting lives and interesting things happen to us," said Johansen soon after the band regrouped for its 2006 recording, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, the band's first recording in 30-plus years. "I don't know. Maybe instead of disbanding when we did, we should have just taken a three-month break. But we were all impetuous and wanted to move on."

Although Johansen and Sylvain toured with other musicians under The Dolls' moniker until about 1975, the gap between the members widened. That was especially evident when Johansen launched his solo career in 1977 going on to score hits including "Hot Hot Hot" under the moniker Buster Poindexter and even appearing on television and in movies including the 1988 comedy Scrooged.

Continue reading for more on the New York Dolls...


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