Spawning Cain and Abel With David Johansen and The New York Dolls
The New York Dolls burst on to the music scene like a comet shredding the cosmos to make its way through our neighborhood the solar system. With a one-two punch of the groups self-titled debut and second effort, Too Much Too Soon, the members may not have received the commercial embrace they wanted but their back-to-basics sound and glam image influenced everything from the New York and U.K. punk scenes, the hair metal acts of the 80s and extends to the musicians of today.
But drug-related death and a lack of success doomed the band, leaving only a lasting glow to fans that got it. Finally, like Halleys return, the remaining Dolls David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane reunited for two shows as part of the Morrissey-curated Meltdown Festival. Satisfied with the performances and eagerness for additional shows turned into a full-fledged reunion tour (minus Kane who died shortly after due to leukemia). That led to a return to the studio and the release of 2006s One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This.
In May the return of the New York Dolls gained another chapter with Cause I Sez So. Produced by Todd Rundgren, who worked on the bands debut, it mixes the groups pop and blues elements in a manner that doesnt attempt to recreate past glories. It only aims to produce new ones.
Lucky me, I catch frontman David Johansen when hes having a bad day on the bands current tour — a combination of delays, phone and electronic service failures. Although, hes behind schedule Johansen still does the interview, offering me a combination of coy and playful answers with the occasional awkward moment. *JPG: Thanks for doing this on the day of a show. In the past Ive had some interviews rescheduled because the singer didnt want to talk much before a concert. Do you do anything special for your voice? *
DJ: Oh, Ive got all kinds of concoctions. *JPG: I cant help but start off by using the L word, legend, in reference to the New York Dolls.
Theres this thing to live up to, where people measure you by that. Do you ignore it, look beyond it and be like this is who you are at this moment? *
DJ: Yes. Thats the way I play. I have no idea what people think. I just do my own thing. I know everybody in the band, we do our thing and its cool. *JPG: You have to be aware of the New York Dolls influence throughout the years, on the New York and U.K. punk scenes and even to some extent the hair metal acts, and even now. *
DJ: (pause) Yeah…well, thats very nice. Its funny cause theyre like in enemy camps, arent they? The hair bands and the punk bands. *JPG: Well, I was going to joke about it with you that we can thank you for the punk scene and blame you for the hair metal. *
DJ: Its like having spawned Cain and Abel. *JPG: At that time did you recognize any of that, especially after 77, the idea that people took this or that from us? *
DJ: Well, you know, when youre in show business you know that everybody takes from everybody so its nothing that you really register on some kind of Richter scale. You just go, I saw what you did there. *JPG: Is it just a matter of being too much in the moment and youre too busy keeping things going forward, at that time with your solo career or was there anger at? *
DJ: Anger? When you’re an artist what you want to do is inspire people. That’s the reason that you become one…as well as the lifestyle. What do they call it? The bonuses. But what you want to do is inspire people. If you inspire people to do things that are creative this is one of the good things that you could be doing with your time. So, if you were to get angry about inspiring people to do creative things, then you would probably…I was going to say work in a fish store, but I don’t really want to say that about fish store people because I know some very nice people who work in fish stores. I’ve been in show business for a long time and I’ve always enjoyed it. *JPG: New York Dolls reunited at the Meltdown Festival back in 2004. At what point did you think that rather than going back and playing the solo blues shows that you were doing, you felt that this is working and you stick with it? *
DJ: Well, what happened with us is we got together to play a gig and other people asked us to play gigs and we thought, What the hell? Let’s do ‘em. We were getting so many gigs that there was no time to do anything else. And so we decided to start making records. I don’t know. It’s a fun band to be in and I enjoy all the personalities in it and we’re having a good time. *JPG: If Morrissey hadn’t asked you to do those original Meltdown Fest shows do you think you would be playing with these guys right now? *
DJ: Well, Morrissey was the first cat who asked us, who had good intentions. I mean, other people had asked us to do this and that, but it was always too much. Get together and make a record and do a tour and all that kind of crap. So this, we just fell into it. Just let me tell you, it’s a lot groovier because you just kind of like ride the train and enjoy the scenery. *JPG: I read on the band’s website that you played a solo date last March, were you doing a blues show or…? *
DJ: No. That was like some songwriter in the round thing, one of those deals. I sat around with three other songwriters and then I would play a song of mine and then they would play a song of theirs and then we’d go around and do it again. It was enjoyable. It was okay. It was near my house. *JPG: (laughs) As far as the new album, Cause I Sez So, obviously a lot of people mention the idea of working again with producer Todd Rundgren. [He worked on the bands classic 1973 debut.) First, over the years I read stories about how crazy those original sessions for the debut album were in particular when it came to the mixing of the tracks one person came in and would push all of their stuff to the forefront and everyone else’s down. Then, the next day, someone else would show up and do the same thing with their stuff and push everything else down and drive Todd crazy. Do you remember anything like that from those sessions? *
DJ: I don’t, is that what he said? *JPG: It was something in the article in regards to the making of the album. It may have come from Todds recollections. *
DJ: There’s so much mythology out there. I don’t know what’s real and what’s made up. I think working with Todd, for me, and probably if you ask him, was pretty much the same as working with him the first time. The difference is time. *JPG: Do you recall, did you feel remotely comfortable in the studio back then or did he have to really guide you? *
DJ: I don’t remember. I don’t think he probably said two words to me. He’s not particularly verbose. I don’t think he would guide me. He really just records the band. Then, he gets really good sounds. I don’t think he guides anybody (slight laugh). He didn’t have to use a whip and a chair or anything like that. *JPG: Some bands really love him or some bands like XTC, really had problems. *
DJ: I think he’s good because, we went over there to Hawaii in January. Essentially wrote a bunch of songs in the first week and then we rehearsed them the second week and then the third week we did the tracks and the fourth week did the vocals and then we were done. To me, that’s the way to make a record. I don’t want to live in the studio. It’s nice also to be able to go someplace and be able to concentrate. *JPG: One of the interesting things about the album, and it goes back to what I was saying about living up to being a legend, the title track seems like an act of defiance to those listening who may want to pigeonhole who and what the New York Dolls music is, who want and/or expecting a rehash of your first two albums. *
DJ: I don’t know what people expect and stuff like that because we’re not really that kind of a band. We’re just the kind of band that plays what we want to play and if people dig it, that’s cool. We don’t go around thinking, Oh, we gotta make something like something that we don’t even know what it is. That’s crazy. I can’t imagine that. We go in and say, Let’s make up some songs. And then we make up some songs, but we don’t talk about we’re trying to make ‘em sound like anything other than what we want to do at any particular time. *JPG: Then again, you find some bands that reunite and they try so hard to sound like what they sounded like in the past and usually it ends up sounding stale. *
DJ: We try hard to breathe. *JPG: With your two recent albums you sound like you want to sound like and that works for you and, hopefully, listeners. *
DJ: I think that we’re probably one of the hardest rock n’ roll bands going. So…that’s good enough for me. I think we’re really good. *JPG: The song, ‘This is Ridiculous,’ on the new one nicely connected what you do now to what you did back in the day when the Dolls covered Sonny Boy WIlliamson on Too Much Too Soon, and even runs a line that goes through you performing solo blues shows. *
DJ: I think that just [Steve] Conte started playing that riff and I started singing to it and then the band started playing. And then, in about two hours we had a record. I didn’t really think about it. Conte was just playing his guitar. The drums came in, started singing and that’s just how the song came out. It wasn’t like…I guess, when you go through life all your influences and everything are in you. And that keeps expanding quantumly as you go through life. All that stuff is available. We just bring everything we got, but we don’t really think about it. It’s more subconscious. You make rock n roll, you think about it, it sounds like mechanical or else it sounds like marching music. We’re more like a swing band, you know, a swingin’ rock n roll band.
*JPG: In that same vein, is that how the reggae version of ‘Trash’ came about? (Trash originally came out on Too Much Too Soon, a timeless hyper-energetic slab of pure punk pop.) *
DJ: Well that’s how we make records. *JPG: Do you guys play that version live or the original version? *
DJ: We’ve been playing ‘em both like together. *JPG: Just out of curiosity, for the older fans do they like that version or do react to it as some sort of musical blasphemy that you changed it? *
DJ: I’ll have to go out and ask ‘em. I hope they brush their teeth. How do I know? We just play it, everybody goes, Yeah! I don’t know what the hell they think. This is not a democracy. This is not like we’re taking requests. We’re just doing our thing, you know.
*JPG: Well, there are purists out there. So, I didn’t know if you run into people that say something or if you do the reggae version and people cheer or people boo… *
DJ: If people boo, I’ll go home. Fuck them. We come in here to bring some joy into their lives. Not to fuckin get em all angry. *JPG: As far as all the different points of your career, do you see everything from David Johansen as a member of the New York Dolls to David Johansen solo artist then to Buster Poindexter and country blues and blues singer as the pieces of what makes you you or do you see those as musical personas that make them you? *
DJ: It’s what makes me me as a singer. I dont know if it makes me me as a catcause that’s like a whole other story. But I’m a singer. I identify myself as a singer. I dig singing. It makes me happy. I like singing. *JPG: Well, that’s good. People like it when you sing. So, thatworks well. Is there more solo material coming from you at some point or do you think you’re going to stick with the Dolls? *
DJ: We’ve been so busy doing this man, I haven’t had time to think about anything else.
*JPG: I didn’t know if you are one of those people who have many irons in the fire. *
DJ: Well, we’ve just been playing all the time and traveling. *JPG: I wondered with so many acts from 80s and 90s returning to concert stages if youve been encouraged to bring back Buster Poindexter. *
DJ: Yeah, Celine Dion’s husband wants to bring Buster Poindexter into the Mirage. (laughs) No. I don’t know.
*JPG: Well, you never know, which is why I ask. One last thing. There are always discussions about who should and shouldnt be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For example, a lot of people talk about the Stooges… *
DJ: Are the Stooges in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? *JPG: No. *
DJ: They better not be. Thats for putzes. *JPG: So, if you were asked then you would graciously decline or not attend or… *
DJ: Its for putzes.