Posted March 27, 2007

By MURRAY ENGLEHEART

Picture it. Five New York street types in platform shoes, pupil melting fashion sense, makeup and teased up hair styles from hell playing with an early version of testosterone charged Southern rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd. It seemed that there was definitely gonna be a showdown.

But incredibly, rather than attract the sneers and usually wildly flung fists of the Skynyrd boys, the two camps clicked from the moment they met.

“We were great pals with them you know,” explains Dolls’ singer, David Johansen who idolized Janis Joplin and once grabbed her empty drink can from a soul food restaurant called The Pink Teacup.

“They were great guys. We had a lot of things in common. We had this brotherhood kind of thing we saw in each other and also we both really felt passionately about rock and roll so I think that was obvious to each other. We would do like State fairs in Missouri!”

The Dolls would have taken it all in their high booted stride. Nothing they ever did was even remotely conventional. Deliberately so. They were the band that tore up the existing rules of rock n’ roll and rewrote them in eyeliner for the coming punk movement from the moment they started in 1972.

They honed their glorious collapsing raunch of a sound that was fired by The Stones, T. Rex, soul, girl groups, do wop and R and B at the Mercer Arts Center where even David Bowie came to get pointers on stage craft and presentation.

In time they drew the attention – and reportedly later the distain - of Mick Jagger and at one point found themselves auditioning for a spot on the roster of Rolling Stones’ Records.

Heavily styled in Keith Richards’ image, guitarist Johnny Thunders with his screaming, air raid siren sound was greatly admired by Jimmy Page who sent limos for him whenever the Led Zeppelin juggernaut rumbled into New York. And Kiss reportedly adopted their greasepaint and wardrobe after seeing The Dolls.

But like all innovators from The Stooges to The Velvet Underground, The Dolls were a poor fit for the still largely conservative times and after just two now classic albums, New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974) they found themselves without a recording deal and with future Sex Pistol svengali, Malcolm McLaren as their guide more marginalized than ever.

Tragically, there were also human losses along the way. During their hugely influential first UK tour in late 1972 which saw the band open for The Faces at Wembley Stadium and fire minds like that of future Sex Pistol guitarist, Steve Jones, Dolls’ drummer, Billy Murcia died from a combination of drugs and drowning.

Almost two decades later, Johnny Thunders and Murcia’s replacement Jerry Nolan – who had left The Dolls at the same time in 1975 and were both heavy heroin users - died in 1991 and 1992 respectively.

More recently, not long after the band’s 2004 reunion at London’s Meltdown Festival at the request of prime fan and festival curator, Morrissey of The Smiths, deeply loved but plagued bassist, Arthur Kane passed away.

When first approached to reunite for Meltdown, Johansen wasn’t really interested. He had plenty on his plate.

“Then I decided it might be fun because we were only going to do one show. I think if we had a plan it would have been fucked up, it would have been forced or something. We decided let’s take another gig, let’s take another gig, and after a while we just had some new material and we thought, let’s make a demo and we recorded a couple of songs and thought, oh well, these sound as good as anything so let’s make a record.”

In 2006 and with only Johansen and guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain the sole surviving members the Dolls released their first new album in 32 years, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This.

For Johansen, the new album wasn’t a matter of the third time being the charm.

“I don’t really think of it in those terms. I think we discussed the fact that let’s just make this record as we are right now and let’s not think about anything about reproducing anything or anything like that.”

The cracking album includes guests Iggy Pop and in an interesting act of going full circle, Bo Diddley who’s song Pills was included on the Dolls’ debut album.

“We’ve known Bo since we were kids,” says Johansen, “He was in town when we were recording so we went to see him play and kinda cajoled him into coming back and playing with us.”

Of course 2007 is a very different world – socially speaking - to that which once saw Sylvain Sylvain deliver his own version of shock and awe by wearing impossibly short shorts at a US airport.

Presenting themselves in the manner The Dolls did in early seventies America took balls - like Duke Ellington or Sun Ra touring the south with an all black band in the sixties.

But according to Johansen, self-preservation was never really a conscious issue.

“Relatively not because everything is dangerous anyway. So it wasn’t like it was more dangerous or less dangerous or anything. The politics were so volatile and there were so many ideas that were being expressed in the neighbourhood that were new and kinda of revolutionary. So we kind of lived through this hot bed of revolution and we were kinda like the band of that scene. At the same time you get a lot of strength from that. And it’s not even a thing where you go, ‘Oh! I gotta find some strength somewhere!’ You just get it so it doesn’t really occur to you that you need it.”

Thunders however did need it. The circumstances of his death in New Orleans while not surprisedly attributed to an overdose are tempered with reports that he was also suffering from leukaemia. The bruises on his body were put down to that condition or perhaps – say the whispers - something more sinister involving a bad crowd in his new hometown.

“Most people were saying it was unbelievable that he lasted that long", says Johansen, “because he had certainly made up his mind that that’s the way he was going to do it. He wasn’t going to attempt any other kind of lifestyle.

“It was sad but it wasn’t like,’Oh my God!,out of the blue. I remember there was all kind of rumours and stuff about how it happened and I thought that well, I don’t think the actual truth of that situation at that moment is ever going to be revealed so there’s no use in expending a lot of energy trying to figure it out. Like JFK.”

The New York Dolls' "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This" is out now through Roadrunner Records.

Australasian 2007 tour dates:
Sat 24-Mar AUCKLAND ST JAMES THEATRE
Mon 26-Mar MELBOURNE HI FI BAR
Wed 28-Mar SYDNEY THE METRO THEATRE
Thu 29-Mar BRISBANE TIVOLI
Sat 31-Mar SYDNEY V FESTIVAL
Sun 1-Apr GOLD COAST V FESTIVAL
Tue 3-Apr ADELAIDE MEMORIAL DRIVE
Wed 4-Apr MELBOURNE MYER MUSIC BOWL

 

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