New York Dolls. The New York Dolls.
1973, Mercury Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren
Purchased ca. 2004.
IN A NUTSHELL – Frantic, fervent, fabulous Rock and Roll. The double guitar attack and against-the-guardrail vocals create a nearly out-of-control mess that is at once inspiring and hilarious. The boys write catchy songs, too, and make music that sounds like it should be the dance mix tape at the coolest rock and roll high school party in town. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – there was a little more variety. It’s all three chords, hang onto your hat, and let’s go! but it could use a change of pace.
Everybody knows That Dude. (Or That Chick.)
That Dude who is a little out of control, kind of crazy, maybe not really scary in a way that makes you fear for yourself, but definitely scary in a way that you worry for him. The severity of That Dude-ness ranges from “gets a little wild when he has to much to drink” all the way up to “probably psychotic, and he really needs professional help.”
That Dude is typically in his 20s, still unfocused career-wise, usually without a long-term girlfriend (although sometimes That Dude dates That Chick …), and has a tendency to drink too much alcohol or consume too many drugs. You never are sure what That Dude might do, but you know that – whether you end up accompanying him to the Party of the Century, or the Hospital – it will be a memorable time, and you’ll likely have good stories to tell.
That Dude isn’t ALWAYS out of control – people who are constantly out of control are too self-centered to maintain a friendship, and are more drama than they are worth. (Even if – again – they leave you with a good story.)
That Dude is generally a nice guy, fun to hang out with, interesting to talk to … but has a streak of “holy shit!” in him, particularly when a few drinks (or many) are involved. That Dude has a few close friends, but tends to easily skate along the surface of different groups of people, until he crashes through, making a splash, providing a story or two for all to tell, and then disappears beneath the surface, leaving folks to ask years later, at parties and reunions, “Remember That Dude? Remember that time he …”
That Dude is envied by shy, retiring folks with low self esteem; mocked by confident, goal-oriented folks with ambition and drive; feared by uptight, moral folks with no self-awareness; and tolerated by artsy folks with holy-shit-streaks of their own.
That Dude seems like a dude who is so comfortable with himself that he doesn’t give a shit, but just lives his life like he wants to live it and doesn’t worry about what others might think. This is how “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges’ great character in the fine Coen Bros. movie The Big Lebowski, is portrayed.
But That Dude is different from “The Dude.” For one thing, That Dude is a lot younger, and a lot wilder, than “The Dude.” He is a lot more out of control. “The Dude” shuffles around a grocery store in his bath robe and discreetly swigs half-and-half. That Dude sprints through the produce department in his underwear and grabs three limes and juggles them out the door.
That Dude is more focused on impressing others, as well. His act requires an audience. “The Dude” got that half and half because he needed to make a White Russian for himself. That Dude stole those limes because a friend said he needed them for margaritas at his party, and That Dude wanted to make it interesting.
That Dude is also drunk more often than “The Dude.” Although “The Dude” drinks throughout The Big Lebowski, he never appears drunk and is certainly always in control. But That Dude … well … anyway.
“The Dude” truly is comfortable in his own skin. That Dude is desperately uncomfortable, and trying to figure out why.
That Dude may become “The Dude” later in life, but it’s only one possibility for him. No one is ever really sure what ever became of That Dude.
So … what DID ever happen to That Dude? He was so crazy! I wonder if he survived into adulthood? I wonder if he got arrested? I wonder if he got killed in some freak accident, like maybe he tried to balance on top of a trash bin to enhance his impression of Chewbacca but fell off and was accidentally strangled by his fuzzy sweater? (As his drunken comrades laughed hysterically, thinking it was another part of the wacky bit?)
So many possibilities… I wonder if he’s writing a blog about listening to all his CDs and ranking his 100 favorite?
I was trying to recall That Dude who I knew. “Everybody knows That Dude,” I claimed at the top of this post, but do I remember That Dude from my past? Nobody jumped out at me, so I kept thinking. It took a while, but finally it came to me.
I was That Dude! Indeed I was. I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth. That Dude was me. Ask anybody who knew me from age 19 to about 25. It’s actually rather embarrassing. I want to rush out and tell everyone who knew That Dude that nowadays I’m just me. I have a strong desire to tell folks who knew him that That Dude is gone, and that he didn’t turn into “The Dude” and he didn’t strangle himself with a warm sweater. That Dude is dead, but I’m still around.
I know all the psychological reasons behind why I was That Dude, but blah blah blah. Who cares?
All I know is that there are a million stories about That Dude, and I can’t seem to recall any of them right now. There were injuries, there were close calls, there were inappropriate moments, there were embarrassing stunts, there were police, there were accidents (never in a car, luckily), there were fights and ejections, and long trudges through the rain, and climbing in windows, and above all … there were lots of really funny friggin’ times … But I’ve lost touch with That Dude. He hasn’t come around in years.
I think about That Dude whenever I hear album #94, The New York Dolls’ self-titled debut. The music immediately brings to mind a funny, out of control dude who you are compelled to hang with, just to see what might happen next.
It could be ugly, it could be beautiful, but you won’t forget it – whether you wind up in a hospital bed (with a rock and roll nurse!!??) or having the time of your life.
New York Dolls is an album of energy and fun, with a double guitar attack, driving drums, and vocals that don’t really carry a tune as much as drag it along behind, while it writhes and pounds the dirt. It is straight-ahead rock and roll, and get out of the way ’cause it’s stopping for no one. The songs are catchy, the music sounds good, and every song makes me want to get up and … and … I don’t know, just get up and do something out of control!!
But before I get into the record, let’s just hear, and watch the band perform, the first song on the album: “Personality Crisis.” This is a live version of the song, so it doesn’t sound exactly like the record, but it gives a good idea of what’s about to unfold:
This album was released in 1973. Go back and look some more at this band, and listen to the song. And think about 1973. 1973 was “Have a Nice Day.” It was “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” And The Partridge Family.
The top three songs for 1973 were Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
Try to put yourself in a place where those are the top three songs of the day, close your eyes and travel back to a time when Tony Orlando was popular enough to get his own TV show, to a place where The Carpenters and Helen Reddy are cranking out top ten hits like they have a secret machine … and when you get there, slowly open your eyes and watch that New York Dolls clip once again.
++++++++++++++++++++HOLY SHIT! The singer’s in high heels! The bass player wears blue leather boots up to his crotch!! They all wear makeup and have haircuts straight out of a Saturnine beauty salon, and nobody on stage is even ATTEMPTING to actually sing!! This music must have sounded like it came directly from hell in 1973, with Satan himself in purple glitter ass pants and painted nails.
To give a little more perspective, here are a couple bands who 3 years later shook up the music industry with a new style of music called “punk rock,” The Sex Pistols and The Ramones:
Now watch The New York Dolls play “Bad Girl” three years earlier:
The Sex Pistols and Ramones sound downright tame compared to the Dolls three years before.
This band was ahead of its time, and even though the music press liked them, that didn’t translate into album sales. America virtually ignored them. The band put out a couple albums, then splintered into punk rock and solo projects (The Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s band, Johnny Thunders’ band), Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen) and didn’t ever reach mainstream success (of sorts) until well after the band had dissolved.
I had heard of The New York Dolls at times throughout my musical life, but it was just a name of a band to me, I didn’t know anything about their music. I had heard they dressed up in women’s clothes in the early 70s but that fact didn’t make me interested in what their music sounded like. Then, during the horrible 80s, a horrible song by a horrible singer was released, and like a fart in an elevator or the Ebola virus, there was no escaping it. 1987’s smash hit … “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter. “Who is this evil person, and why is he doing these horrible things?” I wondered. It turns out he was none other than David Johansen, former lead singer with The New York Dolls, and he now had a new generation of music fans believing him to be Satan incarnate. (Except unlike our parents, we were right!)
Actually, I recognized his face from his days as a solo artist. His solo band used to get some serious MTV airplay in the first year or two of that channel, with cover songs that I never liked. So between Buster Poindexter and the crappy cover songs on MTV, I figured there was no way I was ever going to listen to The New York Dolls – there was NO WAY that shit could’ve been good, right??
In the early 90s I lived with a very cool, very great guy, a punk rocker named Eric. He owned a million CDs, most by bands I had never heard of. I thought I was a pretty educated music lover, but seeing his CD collection opened my eyes. He had Nirvana CDs and singles well before Nevermind. He had Green River CDs well before Pearl Jam. His own band, Gumball, was making a name in New York City, and he became part of the 90s “grunge revolution,” which I’m sure he never meant to do. But anyway, I listened to some of his stuff, bands like Stiff Little Fingers and The Plimsouls, and I really liked them. But I shied away from his New York Dolls records. I didn’t trust Buster. “It’s really good,” Eric assured me, but … “Hot Hot Hot” kept rolling through my brain. My brain said Not Not Not.
Skip ahead a few years, and I have this boss, and he is very boss like, seems straight-laced and mellow, and I assume he’s likely a country-western fan, or maybe a light-jazz kind of creep, but one day we get to talking about music, and it turns out he’s a punk rocker! He tells me of seeing the Ramones in the 70s, and how he followed The New York Dolls all over New England. He said he thought I’d like them, but I remained skeptical. Then one day he heard me playing a CD by The Replacements, and he said to me, “You really should get The New York Dolls’ first record. Tell you what, I’ll bring mine in.”
He brought in the CD, I listened to it at work in the lab, and went out and bought it for myself within the week. It is just that good.
All of my damn record reviews talk about “melody” and “guitar,” so much so, in fact, that I felt it necessary to place the words in quotation marks because they’ve started to sound like phony baloney terms used by HR professionals and sales weasels. It seems every album on my list so far is all “Melody” and “Guitar.” So why should album #94 be any different?? (At least I know what I like!)
Although you’d be hard pressed to really describe what David Johansen does for the Dolls as “singing,” you certainly can say he carries a tune (sort of.) At the very least, he gives the impression of the tune that should be carried by you and your friends as you sing (or shout) along with him. In the song “Looking For a Kiss,” the simple tune bounces along from Johansen’s lips, and he screams and grunts and sounds really … enthusiastic! I mean that in an un-ironic way. He sounds very happy to be shouting out these tunes.
But what makes a tune like “Looking For a Kiss,” or “Subway Train“work for me are the guitars! Both Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders play interesting fills and riffs behind the lyrics. On their surface, these songs sound like three-chord blast-throughs, with the guitars bashing out power chords. But listen closely, and you’ll find that’s not the case. “Subway Train” has dueling guitar solos from about the 2:00 mark all the way until 2:30, and they continue to wail once Johansen comes back to the verse. And while one guitarist makes subway sounds, the other supports with arpeggiated chords that sound better than a pounded out power chord. The band has two guitar players, and they use them both effectively. For me, the guitar work of the Dolls is what sets them apart from The Ramones or The Sex Pistols or many other punk bands.
Another song with excellent guitar work is “Vietnamese Baby.” This song also features lyrics that seem to deal with issues facing soldiers returning from Viet Nam – a rarity for the era. Most songs about Viet Nam were more focused on stopping the war, and on the evil of war, but very few actually dealt with the plight of the returning soldiers. It’s another straight ahead rocker, with furious pounding drums, and it gets me singing along whenever I hear it.
In fact, all of the songs on the album feature furious, pounding drums except one – the slow ballad (well, a Dolls version of a slow ballad) “Lonely Planet Boy.” This song even features acoustic guitar and a saxophone buried in the mix. It’s a song of loneliness, and Johansen does a good job on the vocals – not attempting to croon, but letting the emotion come from his natural vocal style. It’s a welcome slow song, surrounded by all those 100 mph burners.
One of my favorite songs on the album is a cover of a Bo Diddley song “Pills.” The album version is great, but there is such terrific footage of the band playing these songs live that I thought I’d share another. Here Johansen wears his best Oscar night strapless sequined number at a club in NYC.
The Dolls always have good backing vocals. I mentioned in my post on album #95 how much I love Keith Richards’ backing vocals, and Johnny Thunders has a bit of Keith in his vocals, as well. They’re kind of strained, sort of in tune, but always sound great. I read on the interwebs that Johnny idolized Keith, and I guess I can hear that in the vocals, and probably in the guitar as well (although – who wasn’t influenced by Keith??)
The New York Dolls were only together a few years, and they only put out two albums during their time together. I don’t know an awful lot about them, but it seems like they were a rather “hard-partying” band. In this clip of them playing “Trash,” in 1974, the havoc that’s been wreaked among the band is clearly evident in Johansen’s face. The song also features Thunders’ guitar and backing vocal work.
The band was clearly out of control by the time their second album, Too Much Too Soon, was released in 1974. They never fully lived up to the promise of their 1973 debut. Then again – maybe they did. Maybe the path they took was expected. Just like That Dude, maybe a change was necessary for the band to make it to adulthood. Maybe that’s why I identify so strongly with the record.
I can hear the conversation taking place at a reunion somewhere …
“What ever happened to That Band?”
“Oh my god!! I forgot about That Band! Remember that song “Jet Boy” about the dude’s gay lover who steals his girlfriend?”
“Holy shit! That was crazy! Or what about the song “Frankenstein (Orig.),” listed that way on the album, with “Orig.” in the title, because they were pissed that Edgar Winter had a hit by the same name!!”
“I wonder what ever happened to That Band? I had forgotten all about them.”
The New York Dolls are worth remembering. And the album New York Dolls is unforgettable.
Looking For a Kiss
Lonely Planet Boy