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...

 
We never really made a fortune. We know all kinds of bands that made stupid money and they still come to me and say, 'How the hell did you get all that press?' I think it's all those years really learning our stuff, being in front of the audience and learning our craft right there.

-Sylvain

 

All of this didn't go unnoticed, particularly by Kane. In the documentary New York Doll it's clear that the success of other Dolls tore Kane apart with something akin to jealousy; no such opportunities had come Kane's way.

David Johansen by Dominick Conde
"It was a shock he was not as successful as the other Dolls, which is not really fair, but that is what happens," Sylvain said. "The beautiful thing is that [his return to a place in The Dolls] was all captured in New York Doll. He was so good and so proud. The story is beautiful and heartbreaking."

When the band reformed in 2004 at the prompting of one-time New York Dolls U.K. Fan Club President Morrissey, it seemed all those differences were set aside and Kane's concerns about a showdown with Johansen were unfounded.

The film shows Kane, who worked in a clerical position and had become a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, not only reconciled with his bandmates but clearly moved and delighted when Johansen and Sylvain joked with him on and off stage, and called attention to his "killer" bass work during the show.

Some of the most poignant clips show Johansen striding to Kane, taking his face between his hands, and kissing him affectionately. Sylvain seems especially appreciative the reconciliation occurred before Kane's sudden death in 2004, reportedly just hours after he was diagnosed with Leukemia.

"All I can say about Arthur is that instead of 'Killer' he should have been called 'Sweetie Pie'," said Sylvain sweeping away rumors of hard feelings between the members. "The only thing that kept the Dolls from regrouping earlier was we had many contracts we had signed and we were all successful in ways. We had records and commitments."

And now, of course, they have maturity, sobriety and a new appreciation for their friendship.

Dolls Recharged

New York Dolls by Max Lakner
Eavesdrop on a recent conversation with Sylvain and he sounds more like a music professor – or perhaps a music historian – than a founding member of the New York Dolls. He talks extensively about the New York music scene, but not the CBGBs punk crowd you might expect. Instead, he talks knowingly of the 1950s and 1960s blues scenes, the clubs, the classics, the movers and shakers.

Melt away the sexy stage antics, the pounding rhythms that almost created punk music, and the devil-may-care onstage talk and you have a man deeply appreciative of the musical geniuses that came before him, a line he's proud to help continue.

"We never really made a fortune," said Sylvain in a recent phone conversation. "We know all kinds of bands that made stupid money and they still come to me and say, 'How the hell did you get all that press?' I think it's all those years really learning our stuff, being in front of the audience and learning our craft right there."

After recording the critically acclaimed One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This in 2006 – with special guest appearances by Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe and Tom Gabel, plus a bonus track with Bo Diddley - the group found the magic still there, even heightened a bit with the new lineup.

"We incorporate the news guys, they're not replacements for anybody" said Sylvain of guitarist Steve Conte, bass player Sami Yaffa and drummer Brian Delaney. "They are part of the band and contribute to the songwriting and all other aspects." The just-released 'Cause I Sez So was such a collaboration, with the music conceived literally on the fly as the group headed to Rundgren's studio in early January for a fun yet calm and productive recording session. And just what should fans expect when they hear the album?

"People shouldn't expect anything. They shouldn't judge it against anything," said Sylvain. "If they enjoy it, then we did our task. We don't sit around a roundtable [writing music]. We didn't do that in the old days and we don't now. We fly by the seat of our pants, and we don't even have the safety belts on."

New York Dolls tour dates available here.

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