NEW YORK DOLLS
Fowlers Live, Adelaide
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Words and photos by ROBERT BROKENMOUTH
ShareIt's like the '70s never went away. Gawd help us all. I mean, Leo Sayer and the New York Dolls both playing Adelaide in the same week? Of course, if there were any justice, the Dolls would be playing to a packed Entertainment Centre and poor forgotten Leo would be playing the Crown and Anchor to a few confused drunks who couldn't quite place him.
But alas, this is the real world, so I have one question: where were all the kids who wore the CBGBs shirts a few summers ago?
Not here tonight, that's for sure. And tonight I will only accept limited excuses for not turning up: you didn't know; you didn't have any money; a parent or partner died.
There are no other excuses permissable in this instance.
Car break down? Get a cab, or steal one. In jail? Break out.
Yet despite the Adelaide malaise of conservatism and ignorance working its usual surly juju and only half-filling the joint, the Dolls put on a cracker of a show.
Tonight I saw a band I fell for 36 years ago, when I was 12 years old. You may think I'd be pleased no matter what I saw tonight; however, those who know me find me a harsh critic. Tonight I had a grin plastered all over my face, laughed this grumpy old fizzog sore. Nostalgia? Didn't I just wallow in what once was and can no longer be? Didn't I just go to singalong with note-perfect renditions of venerable classics?
See, the Dolls were here in Adelaide once before, supporting the reformed Pixies, which I didn't see 'cause first, I would've preferred to see the Pixies when they were struggling with themselves as a band and second, I believe I was too poor to go that night.
Although I'm happy with bands reforming and doing a tour or so of their hits (or influential songs if they never got a whiff of a hit) we all know it can be overdone. The idea of dragging an existing, working band aside, waving a wad of wonga at them, and getting them to play a 'classic' lp seems to me to be somewhat cynical - although bands can hardly be blamed for taking the wonga and donning the monkey suits. Hunna should've called it a day long before they did, and there they are playing Sydney's Opera House. Hell, you may have noticed the Triffids chugging around without their lead singer. Fuck, I'd pay to see Jim ('Foetus') Thirlwell at the Opera House, but Hunnas?
The last time I saw the Buzzcocks (at the Gov) they powered through their two 'classic lp' set of singalonga gorgeous ruff pop - all of the songs thirty years old. The time before that they played Fowlers and tried to sneak in some 'new' songs. The slammers, crowd-surfers and general wallys hated it. Shit was thrown, boos were heard and people talked amongst themselves while the band played the 'unfamiliar' 'new' songs. The Buzzcocks are only allowed to cover the Buzzcocks, they are not allowed to move on. Otherwise they wouldn't draw the crowds.
Which of course is not what we have here. See, the New York Dolls had to quit when they did, and I'm glad they did, otherwise they could've ended up like the Ramones, chugging around the world, unable to understand that the peak of their media buzz had been and gone already, riven with tension and misery and just killing themselves, working too hard to live. I wonder what would've happened if the Ramones had quit after 'Road to Ruin'; maybe reforming in the late 9ts, perhaps at the behest of Kurt Cobain.
Yes, it's sad that so many Dolls have died. But what we have here laydeez and gennulmun, is a working, tuff rnr band. The Dolls play songs mostly from the current lp (Dancing Backwards in High Heels) and the last two lps (Someday It Will Please Us... and 'Cause I Sez So), mixed in with a few old numbers.
Look at the set:
Looking for a Kiss/ We're all in Love/ Dance Like a Monkey/ Cause I Sez So/ Funky but Chic/ Private World/ Fool for you Baby/ Mystery Girls/ Talk To Me Baby/ Fabulous/ Kids Like You/ Tommy/ Pills/ Trash/ Jet Boy/ Personality Crisis
C'mon, if a younger band had come up with the Dolls' last two LPs, they'd be on the front page of the music press - knowing retro sham-glam with attitude.
The newer songs allow a lot more scope for the band to play around with as the songs start to churn and change, well beyond the Dolls' undeserved rep as a three-chord three-minute chant band in wigs and make-up. Jazzy arpeggios mix with carefully controlled feedback, lovely looping runs rub up against big meaty chords and endless louche showmanship. That Syl and Dave still smile and laugh with each other onstage is rather wonderful. They're the genuine article.
In fact, given the large number of period live Dolls lps about, I think it's high time they put out a live dvd/cd pack. They certainly warrant it at the moment. There's so much happening on the stage that you just can't take it all in.
In retrospect it's good that Adelaide is so conservative - the gig held an intimacy that only a small, enthusiastic crowd can give; there was a certain delightful joy in physical proximity, not to mention contact. Significant that they're supporting Alice Cooper's stunning live band soon.
Syl standing over us (no pissy crowd barrier), reaching the guitar out over us, beating the boards of his cherry red Gibson thingummy, once giving his pick to a girl and encouraging her to pluck the strings while he fingered the fretboard. The song continuing, he went to take the pick back, saw her face drop and changed his mind, waving it back to her and continued playing with his open hand.
The band are, left to right; Bassist Kenny Aaronson (look this guy up if the name isn't familiar), Syl Sylvain, Jason Sutter (drums), David Johansen (AKA Buster Poindexter) and Earl Slick (look this guy up as well).
It's a killer line-up. None of them look arrogant or up themselves. They look friendly and approachable, relaxed and glad to be here. Charmingly, they don't seem to act like stars, not even Johansen.
Johansen. What's he look like? Too skinny to be alive, almost; like a bundle of worn broom-handles with too many hinges, if you know what I mean. If you've seen Bobby Gillespie, kinda like that, just a bit more laid back and just ... more fabulous. Dressed tonight in a woman's pink and sparkly top somewhat too short for him, he is an electric performer, relying on an intimacy of gesture and a casual grandiosity when he addresses us. When he's not required, he elegantly trundles out of the way, like a society lady making her rounds, deeply involved yet uninvolved, coming back to us when he knows we need him. Actually, I found myself wondering how much of Dave's onstage style Gillespie has taken - he may not have, of course, but the comparison is remarkable. I can imagine a lot of people disliking this ('you gotta be into it all the time, maaan!'), but I think it's mostly that Dave knows the music is the deciding factor - he's not so much the arrogant frontman as the ringmaster.
By contrast, Syl Sylvain is the hyperactive character, however; red leather shoulders-off biker jacket with mesh t-shirt, 7t's men's necklaces and preposterous large black leather cap (one of his trademarks) and a constant big grin. If Captain Sensible ever saw the Dolls back in the day, now we know where he gets it from.
From constantly fiddling with his pick, tossing it and catching it, mugging, gurning, mucking about with his pick in his mouth like a little boy hollering for attention, Syl is delightful. Hilarious and fun, swinging his golden Gretsch about like a dance partner (it seems half as big as he is and yes, he used two guitars), playing up to us like a dance-hall hussy as he plays for the sheer fun of it.
Kenny is, quite simply, the best bassist I've seen since I saw Barry Adamson in Magazine 31 years ago. While Les Claypool's last visit reminded me how much I enjoy seeing a bass handled well, Kenny effortlessly walks all over him. Australian legends Tracy Pew and Chris Walsh were wonderful in context, but that's their solid, sexual lines; they weren't known for sheer breadth and competency. Although budding bassists may disagree, Kenny does not show off - he fills the spots he needs to fill with precision, using whatever techniques necessary to nail the sound. He slots in with Jason's drums effortlessly, only occasionally looking over. He knows where he is at all times - the man's sense of rhythm is incredible. Mingus would've been interested. Seriously.
Earl Slick - well, apart from arms coated in multicoloured tattoos and a lurid shirt of similiar description, a skull and crossbones leather vest and looking like Keith Richards' more approachable cousin - is a little shy. Doesn't want to dominate the band - although he certainly could. It's only later in the set he's persuaded to come out to the front; mostly he hides at the back. But fuck, the guy's good. Just, so fucking competent. Gawd knows what he'd be like if he cut loose.
If either Earl or Kenny put out a solo lp, go buy it. Like Kenny's first lps when he was with Dust. Yeah, and now I gotta buy all those Johansen and Sylvain and Thunders solo lps I always hesitated over.
Jason, I gotta apologise, I hardly glanced at the man. All I can say is he drummed damn fine.
They were funky but chic, sloppy but tight (no, really), legendary but joyful... c'mon, let's hear it for all those who didn't go, who went to Leo Sayer on the Friday (or whenever) instead, who wore their fuckin' CB's tshirts to some fucking family barbecue instead - you missed out! But not just 'cause you didn't go - because you don't get it, just like you never woulda back in the day.
The Dolls were simply wonderful, much more than they were, much more than I hoped. As for the money the band made, I don't want to think about it. As Nick Cave has endlessly sung; 'I get down on my knees and start to pray...', but as he didn't then add; '... that the Dolls come back this way again!'
The moral of this story is that if you wore a CBGBs shirt in the last five years and didn't see this gig, and did not have a sensible excuse (see above), you are a Poser, a Loser and a Wanker.
But you knew that already, didn't you?
P.S. I happen to know that the Barman himself didn't make it out tosee the Dolls in Sydney , poor lamb, and I'm curious as to his excuse. (ED: I had my curlers in.)