New York Dolls: Stomping Sideways in Stack Heels

New York Dolls in Barcelona. Photo: alterna2. CC-BY 2.0

A crash-cymbal smash. A guitar wakes up, looks around surly, bares fangs at the listener who woke it up.

And then this, rent from human throat:


Thus rose the curtain on “Personality Crisis,” and on New York Dolls by the New York Dolls, unleashed July 27, 1973 and sacred (like the Velvet Underground, Pink Flamingos, and Benzedrine) to everyone in with the out crowd since.

The Dolls didn’t sell for a lot of reasons, notably how men in women’s clothes didn’t play in Peoria or even (shocking and sad) the hip citadel of Manhattan itself. They were too wild, weird, scary, sloppy (though anyone dissing musicianship here should spoon an earful of, say, Vince Neil straining at the mic, or Poison struggling to stay together on a beat). Their transgressions seem tame in our trans-expanding non-binary-cool culture—and spoiler alert, they were all straight anyways.

But it sure went off like a bomb that year before Nixon resigned.

Singer and head lunatic David Johansen failed at the naked atavism of simple, horrifying primal feeling (consult the last time you hit a thumb with a hammer), but took a page from his father singing opera–a tradition requiring infusion of artifice. The pose of the street-strut cat, wise-ass with the sass. Famously sayeth Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

You could think of New York Dolls and its follow-up Too Much Too Soon as the two greatest Stones albums the Stones never made–but that’s just breezy. This Outer Borough Five–guitarist Johnny Thunders from Queens, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain from Queens by way of Egypt, drummer Jerry Nolan from Brooklyn, bassist Arthur Harold Kane from the Bronx, Johansen shamefully from Staten Island, kick-around dog to Anyplace Else–clattered and swung with a loose passion the Stones, with their regimentaled rhythm section, never quite broke through to.

And no Brit Invasion act save the Who on a good night, beat Dolls energy. Keep in mind how–quite aside from heels, halter, hijinks, and hatred–this stuff stomps, shouts, pounds, whoops, rants, raves, takes you prisoner then shoves you into the party–with a quick change of wardrobe, natch.

“Looking For a Kiss” linebacker-lumbers down the line, though with no less punch than the leadoff. Sylvain recalled Johansen’s original Howlin’ Wolf feel here—shows how an apple can, with Sylvain re-arranging, splash down pretty far from the tree. “Most of them are beautiful,” sneers the singer at hip junkies, “but so obsessed with gloom”–brushing off goths before we had goths to brush off. No time for a fix, he’s about a mover, blouse-clad action man. Odd squeaks from kissy lips, or maybe balloons rubbed on intimate areas, take us out.

“Vietnamese Baby” was supposed to, sayeth Syl, mark the Doll’s transmutation of “Make Love Not War” into “Fuck Everything Get Laid,” but plays like consumer culture’s bad conscience anyway. Note the whickering echoes, like bridge cables snapping—producer Todd Rundgren’s filigreed contribution to the cause.

“Lonely Planet Boy” knots all those lines about flying, with all those about sadness; the sky isn’t your friend if you can’t come down, or the one you love won’t land. Bobby Bowser sounds some background sax, wispy, discordant, lost as the planet boy himself.

“Frankenstein (Orig.)” gets its subtitle because the band thought Edgar Winter ripped off the title for Winter’s own hit. Here, though, “Something must have happened/Over Manhattan”–if superheroes in their Dollsy drag can sonic-boom Central Park airspace, then so too can accidents, mistakes, Marvel villains in tears down slashed cheeks.

Lester Bangs wrote how we need to love decay, and love others in their decay (tilting against oh-so American fear and loathing towards both). Johansen gets this but goes further, holding the mirror to you, there, with your headphones. Inside you’s a hobo covered in sores. Demanding love. Deserving love. No wonder you’ve known the monster so long.

“I gotta ask you one question” at the end, spoken light, airy. Then, switched to his street cant, “Do ya think/You could make it/With FRANKEN-STEINNNNN….” Our hepcat no longer any queen but frankly his own monster, corset ripped open to naked rib cage, the hysterical heart.

“Trash” threshes deep into what Greil Marcus termed a“sense of the absolute” or in Staten Island English, the singer wants “Trash” more than anything in the goddamn world, and wants that want over and over. Where the band built “Frankenstein” into you or me whichever’s scarier, here the shouted title noun builds into divinity. He’s picked that street so very clean he’s scrubbed a hole through the next dimension, beheld his goddess.

“Bad Girl” finds Thunders with yet another secret-agent-man guitar line to go down on his Permanent Record. Johansen’s in a hurry to work fast, the usual—though when he pleads how we “gotta get some lovin’ ‘fore the planet is gone,” he reminds us how we could have fixed this climate change shit fifty years ago, and didn’t.

“Subway Train” transmutes into “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”—as well, because who wants to ride a subway train in NYC in 1973? Note Thunders, vital second voice as always, replete with Doppler effect bends and high-ballin’ whistles.

“Pills” this set’s only out-and-out cover (as opposed to strips of older songs festooned as fetishes), pits mournful harmonica against Johansen’s rip-it vocal which finds him finally fleeing barefoot and ass-cracked in a hospital johnny down the corridor, begging someone to slam him the mercy dose. Bo Diddley’s original plods methodical–this happened, that happened. Our man was born with passion for a point of view.

“Private World,” overlays Thunders bleeding even deeper with fewer notes, with a misfit shut-in’s refrain, “Shut that door!”

“Jet Boy” marks our finale, Rundgren scheming anew with ticky Chiclet handclaps through the middle. The title marauder “stole my baby,” but takes to the air “like he was my baby,” thief merged with plunder. It all ends in a moment of quiet fear, then reverent affection.

What else to say? Too Much Too Soon, explosive decompression, lineup changes, a pre-Sex-Pistols Malcolm McLaren casting them as red-leather-clad Communists. The Eagles cursed them onstage. KISS held their noses. A kid named Morrissey found the vinyl over the sea in Manchester; galvanized, he unleashed the Smiths upon the next decade.

Thunders spent so much time dying that the main event, a mysterious, messy affair down New Orleans way in 1991, seemed anticlimax. Nolan went the year after. Kane, who’d taken part in some Dolls reunions, followed in 2004. Sylvain, ditto and semper fi, left us in 2021.

Homophobia, and metalhead bully-boys ready to break your skull over anything without big hairy balls, remain depressing as ever. (Just don’t tell them about Rob Halford.)

And Johansen? Granted, he turned himself into Buster Poindexter, doyen of archly hip dance music. Buster mocked old Dolls album covers in his breakthrough video; we now had a “refined and dignified kind of a situation.”

But he turned himself back into himself. Three Dolls reunion albums, and the second one, ‘Cuz I Sez So, found him crankily contemplating life, death, and infinity. Oscar Wilde again: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

Director Todd Haynes’ oft-maligned masterpiece Velvet Goldmine surveyed the spirit of ’73 (or thereabouts), when–blowing back bullies and bluster–our zeitgeist hit reset, every new song had five new ideas, we could all party in our finest finery.

One of many great fake bands in the film was Polly Small’s Band, secretly Elastica’s Donna Matthews in front of Teenage Fanclub, stuck in a glamorous nightclub. Eye of the hurricane.

““Wh’AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, WOO! YEAH YEAH-YEAH!!!,” she screamed into boomeranging history. “NO NO NO NO NO NO-NO, NO!!!”

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