Boys Keep Swinging
Proto punks the New York Dolls make up for lost time
The Marc Spitz-penned biography on the New York Dolls' website makes much of the rebellious nature of the pre-punk, high-glam rock band. Their recent press release screams, "The One and Only Original Glam Band."
But, really, are the "rebellion" or "glam" signifiers of what the Dolls are actually selling? Glam used to mean a certain thing, but that thing has been overturned 17 times since their debut record dropped in 1973 (and they hardly pioneered sequins and lipstick on skinny boys). Rebellion probably existed more substantially in the Rolling Stones. Sexy, transgressing weirdo-freaky bad boys make a good image and the kind of reputation on which you maybe can hinge 30 years of legend, but the real gift of the New York Dolls is one that other, lesser bands that rely on their look and presence lack: music. Good, new, adventurous music that demonstrates an understanding of how American rock was developed, from Southern blues to NYC sidewalk punk.
The Dolls helped overturn the stultifying sonic excesses of '60s American music, mostly by responding to the singular stylings that most bands ascribed to and reaching way behind and beyond themselves for source material and references. From early blues to the tight pop of '50s girl groups to more of-the-moment rock, glam and psych, the New York Dolls' own categorically unique musical totality ended up an obvious precursor to the Ramones and other hard-ass, observational, no-bullshit punk and rock. Moreover, new wave and metal were colored in by the Dolls' aesthetic and approach. While the Dolls have been hustled under the punk banner just because, historically speaking, they predated the punk-proper era. Their real contribution of influence was mostly about urban baditude, which ended up being a bigger deal in U.S. and U.K. punk than any kind of consistent musical approach. Still, the Dolls themselves weren't wasted on a look, no matter how tight and red and shiny.
As it goes, the narrative of the New York Dolls is erratic and heartbreaking. Early-'70s success similar to that of other NYC underground phenoms such as Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground broke the band internationally. Shortly after, drummer Billy Murcia died. After two records, guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan quit, part of an epic switcheroo that involved Richard Hell leaving the excellent Television to create the also-excellent Heartbreakers with the erstwhile Dolls. (Thunders and Nolan both died in the early '90s.) Punks are kings of band drama.
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Left unharmed by the death hurricane that swept the original band, singer David Johansen (a smoothed-out version of Mick Jagger) and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain both struck out on their own after the first-wave Dolls' final dissolution. Though they frequently collaborated, Johansen left a more significant, if sort-of-dubious, cultural mark as a solo performer (as Buster Poindexter): His several solo records include material that would be difficult for a casual listener to associate with the Dolls' cool-guy swagger. It veers here and there to jazz and, more surprising, banal pop, wildly disparate from even the thematic content of the early Dolls. It stands to reason that the New York Dolls remained the most appealing source of gratification for Johansen and Sylvain, and in 2004, they submitted to a reunion at a summertime rock festival in England with original bassist Arthur Kane. Soon after the gig, Kane died, leaving Johansen and Sylvain the only living Dolls.
Two years later, a reconstituted band headed by Johansen and Sylvain released One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, an effort that was clearly weaker than their '73 debut (a self-titled slam of proto-punk glam), but nonetheless a decent record, a definite relief for a vast discographical canyon. The Dolls have accomplished the universe's intent for them, really. Achieving anything more in this cultural context would be impossible.
It's appropriate, considering their role in the conception of a heavy-breathing American art form, that this particular band carries the torch of punk-rock reunions. More than the disastrous state of what's passed off as punk rock now, the reunion tour and accompanying album define what punk has become. Makes sense, then, that the Dolls' past and present are uncannily representative of the perfect rock & roll boyfriend. Tough and scary but obviously vulnerable, a sense of confident masculinity that involves playing with tons of slummy makeup, adventurous musicianship that pays its dues. Who could say no to that?
The New York Dolls perform with We Are the Fury at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $22.50-$25.