The New York Dolls

Bad boys from Babylon looking for a kiss

Stronger album: The New York Dolls
Weaker album: Too Much Too Soon

Da Dolls wanted to be the Rolling Stones and the Ronettes, in that order, but since they weren't musically competent enough to do either right they accidently invented this thing called punk rock. Or maybe they didn't, since you had Raw Power earlier and the Ramones later. Let's just say they were an important link in the chain towards '77 - heck, the Sex Pistols even wrote a song about'em. No, actually let's just screw this "punk" shit, 'cause anyone who hears the Dolls for the first time in this day and age is going to think either a) "They sound like the Stones!", or b)"So these are the assholes responsible for Poison!". Okay, part b isn't exactly fair even if it's true - I really like the New York Dolls a heckuva lot. Even if Kiss were directly inspired by them to go form a band that would destroy the musical taste and sensibilities of generation. The New York Dolls started the all important fashion trend of macho boys dressing up like brazen tarts, and you can tell they weren't serious drag queens 'cause they wound up looking like ugly men raiding their girlfriends' closets for a drunken bachelor party. Technically limited though they were, they made up for it with volume, energy, excitement, and great songs, thus proving that you can make great rock'n'roll without possessing the chops of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. An argument greatly reinforced by the inability of bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to make halfway decent rock'n'roll in the '70s. As the missing link between the Stones and the Ramones (make a great song rhyme, wouldn't it?), the Dolls were louder, faster, and more exciting than the former, and more songful and less one dimensional than the latter. Johnny Thunders slung a gloriously sloppy, fuzzy, sludgy, slashing Gibson racket and David Johansen slung gloriously smarmy, clever, alusive, witty, offhanded words to go with the racket the Dolls kicked up. The other guys had their moments, too, but those two were the star of the show. Johnny Thunders later formed the Heartbreakers, cut a few solo records when he was sentient, and became New York's most famous junkie, until he died in 1991. As did drummer Jerry Nolan in 1991, also. Nolan had replaced original drummer Billy Murcia, who choked to death after imbibing too much alcohol in 1972. Guess we won't be seeing a New York Dolls reunion tour. David Johansen's still around; he cut a few solo records that flopped big time, so he changed his name to Buster Poindexter and became a novelty sensation and character actor in a number of films. I haven't the faintest what happened to bassist Arthur Kane or guitarist Syl Sylvain; probably tossing back brews in some Brooklyn bar and talkin' 'bout da good old days, "when kids had respect" and swapping dirty jokes about how much they used to get. Wouldn't be surprised if they settled down in a nice suburb in New Joisey, either. Unlike the punks they inspired, the Dolls weren't politically charged nihilists ranting about life is pain. They were just hometown boys trying to make chicks and score some chemical refreshment, gettin' bummed 'bout personality crisises but 'eah, dat's life, broh. Fuhgeddaboutit.

'Eah, lissen up yah wiseguys. Youse all is invited to da New York Dolls Backroom.

New York Dolls (1973) *****

"Yeah yeah yeah yeah no no no no no!" are the first words you hear, and it sums up the Dolls 'cause no matter how fucked up they were and nihilistic they tried to be, their zest for life in the urban jungle came through LOUD and clear. Or maybe I've got it backwards because no matter how much innocent early '60s girl group fun they tried to revive, the grit and grime of Gotham backalleys always seeped in. If you don't own this album, get your hands on it. That is, if you like rock'n'roll, which means stomping rythms, slashing guitars, lots of noise and screaming, funny words, and you can dance to it, too. At least 6 of the 11 songs on here are stone classics that every garage band oughta know by rote, and the remaining 5 are none too shabby. Johansen employs a low-tech version of sampling before sampling existed, which means that he liberally sprinkles his songs with hiply obscure R&B classics and punctuates (or starts things off, more often) with clever sound effects. "Ah, how do ya call your lover boy?" is the zinger that "Trash" has been building up to, and everything you need to know about the song is in Johansen's delivery of that line. As is Johansen's "When I say I'm in luv, you best believe I'm in luv, L-U-V" that kicks off "Looking For A Kiss", which as a bonus makes fun of trendy junkies - "most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom" Johansen sneers. Thunders piles on monster riffs that Sylvain answers in kind and the rythm section chugs along like a subway train (title and subject of one song). "Jet Boy" anticipates New Wave with handclap rythms and anticipates speed metal with its driving midsection. Johansen tries to convince the waitress down the block that they need to get it on right now because they could all die in a nuclear war tomorrow, which was as close to political the Dolls ever got. The Dolls ask you if you think you could make it with Frankenstein, cover a Bo Diddley "tune" 'bout popping pills, pine for Vietnamese babies, don't go to church, ride the subway, hide out from tough guys when a fight breaks out, ask you not to ask them if they love you, moan about being lonely planet boys, and howl like werewolves on a spring afternoon. Oh yeah, and on the cover they're vamping like drag queens, and have platforms and rollerblades on their feet, which are next to beer cans. Arthur Kane's wearing a pearl necklace, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a martini. Johansen is looking in his compact mirror like he's applying makeup.

Too Much, Too Soon (1974) ****

The Dolls get credit for a perfect title, even if there aren't as many bullseyes as on the debut. Some rank this as the Dolls' best since it supposedly sounds better production-wise, but when did that matter with the New York Dolls? This ain't exactly Pink Floyd we're talking about here. And 20 years down the road the difference between the mastering jobs on the two Dolls albums are infinitesimal - you can tell that this one's "better" produced, but barely. So let's concentrate on the songs. Maybe Johansen already spent most of his songwriting wad on the debut, as fresh songwriters are wont to do, which left the band in a sophomore slump due to lack of material, which happens all the time and is nothing for a band to be ashamed of (most of the time). So the record's padded out with four novelty covers that are really obscure at least. I get a kick out of the Cadets' "Stranded In The Jungle", Johansen jiving around in blackface doing politically incorrect jungle-bunny imitations, which the Dolls could get away with 'cause they're doing a cover of a song originally done by a black band. But the Charlie Chan accent on "Bad Detective" is one racist cover too many. I like the monologue that starts off Gamble/Huff's "Showdown" but not much else, and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talkin'" is driving but da blooze is da blooze. Which leaves the Johansen/Thunders originals. "Babylon", "Who Are The Mystery Girls?", "Puss'N'Boots", and "It's Too Late" are good but not great; that last song mentioned contains a great anti-drugs zinger, "You invite us up on that big trip/Well that's nothing new on me/It reminds me of Buck Rogers back in 1933". Which leaves the album's two great songs. Thunders steps out for a lead vocal on the double-entendred "Chatterbox", which packs like a punch in the kisser. It's the final song, though, that may be the Dolls' greatest song, "Human Being", a defiant celebration of personal pride and independence. Thunders' guitar sounds like a chainsaw and Johansen spits out his personal motto, "And if I want too many things, it's because I'm a human being". The Dolls were too optimistic, and full of fun, to get the latter day punk's mood right, but for those 5:44 they come close.

Reader Comments

Paul Huffman,

Great comments, (punched) right on the nose.

Post Your Comments

Let Me Outta Here