Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi premiered their David Johansen documentary on Showtime this month.
By Legs McNeil ©2023
It would be about 3:00 o’clock in the morning on the Bowery and I would’ve already spent all my money on beer, and Joey Ramone and Arturo Vega would be out of town with the Ramones, so I couldn’t crash at their loft, and I’d be walking back to the “Punk Dump” on 10th Avenue and 30th Street to the offices of Punk magazine in the basement of Hell’s Kitchen.
Not walking– trudging, drunkenly, when a checker cab would pull up, the back door would fly open, and I’d hear that unmistakable gruff voice, “Hey Legs, get in, it’s about time you learned how to eat Chinese food!”
I’d look over and see David Johansen laughing with three or four punk groupies, sipping a glass of Courvoisier, and looking every part the punk dandy; saturated in the leftover glamour from his days as lead singer of the New York Dolls.
David Johansen was a real rock star in the days when Blondie, the Ramones, and the Talking Heads were just rock & roll wannabes!
I’d get pulled into the cab and off we’d go to Chinatown where Johansen would lecture me about the perils of hot Chinese mustard, “This stuff is hot; hot, hot, hot, so you gotta use it sparingly! Otherwise, you’ll burn a hole through your tongue!”
The New York Dolls had been the hottest NYC band since sliced bread and exploded on the 1970’s rock scene at the Mercer Arts Center. As David would tell me in an unpublished Punk magazine interview, “There wasn’t a lot of intellectualizing going on when we started the New York Dolls. It was just a bunch of guys practicing in a storefront who started playing together. The Dolls consisted of myself on lead vocals, Johnny Thunders on lead guitar, Syl Sylvain on rhythm guitar, Arthur Kane on bass, and Billy Murcia on drums. None of us said to each other, ‘You wear this or you do that.’”
There are legendary stories of the Dolls shows at the Mercer Arts Center where everyone from Bette Midler, Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Rod Stewart partied in the Oscar Wilde room where the band held their 17-week residency at the Mercer.
“The audiences there were pretty depraved,” David explained, “So we had to be in there with them. We couldn’t come out in three-piece suits and entertain that bunch. They wanted something more for their money. And we were very confrontational. We were very raw. We were really into confronting the audience: “HEY YOU STUPID BASTARDS, GET UP AND DANCE!’ We were not polite.”
The Dolls along with the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges laid the groundwork for the musical genre that would become known as “Punk Rock” in the mid 70’s, but at the time was labeled “Glam Rock” because David Bowie became such a break-out phenomena. Bowie would go on to produce Lou Reed’s solo hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as the Stooges most infamous punk album, “Raw Power,” its just a pity that he didn’t also produce The New York Dolls self-titled first album.
The reason was that David Johansen and David Bowie didn’t get along.
“Bowie used to come see us play at the Mercer Arts Center,” David Johansen elaborated, “I had never heard of him before. I remember he used to come around in these quilted drag outfits, and he asked me, ‘Who does your hair?’ I said, ‘Johnny Thunders,’ which was the truth.”
If David Bowie choose to ignore the Dolls, Rod Stewart did not, and he picked the Dolls to open for his band the Faces at London’s Wembley Stadium in front of 50,000 fans. Just when it seemed the Dolls had “arrived,” drummer Billy Murcia died of an accidental drug overdose in London, and all those major record deals being negotiated, quickly evaporated.
It seemed as if The New York Dolls were cursed, especially when the Mercer Arts Center building collapsed on August 3rd, 1973, and left the band without a base of operations or a regular stage to perform on.
Just when the band was ready to break up, in stepped drummer Jerry Nolan to replace Billy Murcia, and the Dolls signed to Mercury Records and released their first album with a album cover shot of the band dressed in drag. It was another disaster. Most rock & Roll fans couldn’t get past that gay imagery, even though all the Dolls’ members were heterosexuals, and the record was pure rock & roll, adolescent boys across America still felt threatened.
Too Much, Too Soon!
“I remember like in Creem Magazine,” David Johansen told rock critic Jason Gross, “We were voted the ‘best new band of the year’ and the ‘worst new band of the year’ so we got the most votes in both categories!”
The Dolls limped along, showing up at gigs across America an hour or two late, as their management teams tired of their “rock star” antics, but there was one English haberdasher who absolutely adored the band, and made it his mission to save the Dolls from themselves.
Malcolm McLaren, the future manager of the Sex Pistols, took the Dolls under his wing when the bands official management team of Marty Thua, and Leiber & Krebs had thrown in the towel.
“During the Raw Power days,” Malcolm McLaren told me before his death in 2010, “When Iggy was in London with Bowie, I found Iggy incredibly vain, because he was an incredibly handsome character. But I wasn’t taken with Iggy in the same way as I was with the Dolls.
“I think one of the reasons was because Iggy was less about fashion,” Malcolm explained, “I think it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s the truth; I didn’t see the fashion about Iggy. It didn’t sound trendy-nice, there was no lipstick there. It didn’t have the fashion element that the New York Dolls had, that fashion twist– just like that crappy old lipstick on the collar. It’s kind of pathetic when I think about it now, all that tartiness, but that’s what I liked. I always thought the parties were gonna be better, I always thought the scene was gonna be better. The Dolls just looked more attractive.”
Unfortunately, Malcolm McLaren’s management of the Dolls proved to be another disaster– when he dressed the band in red patent leather– that some Dolls fans claimed made them look like Oscar Meyer wieners– eventually leading to the band breaking up in Florida when Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan decided to return to Manhattan to cop heroin. Johansen told them if they went to New York, the band would be over.
David’s words didn’t stop them, and the Dolls were no more.
Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan joined Richard Hell, the same week Hell left the band Television, and created the Heartbreakers; perhaps the greatest short-lived all-star punk band ever, before Richard Hell left a few weeks later to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
Dolls’ rhythm guitarist Syl Sylvain waited for Malcolm McLaren to send him a plane ticket to London in order to join a new band McLaren was promoting called The Sex Pistols.
Dolls bass guitarist, Arthur “Killer” Kane, drifted off to California and became a Mormon after a failed suicide attempt, and dreamed of the day when the New York Dolls would reunite.
Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan went to England and recorded the Heartbreakers legendary album, LAMF (Like A Mother Fucker) for Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert’s Track Records and sank deeper into heroin addiction.
And David Johansen signed with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records and released a handful of excellent rock & roll albums and constantly toured the East Coast, playing clubs in Boston, Providence, New Haven, New London, and Hartford, as well as a handful of venues in New Jersey.
The late 70’s and 80’s were a rough time for any band painted with the punk label, except for David Johansen, who stopped drinking, and reinvented himself as Buster Poindexter– dressed in a tuxedo with a skyscraper pompadour– and had a Frat-House hit in the late 80’s with the calypso song, “Hot Hot Hot” by the Montserratian musician, Arrow.
As Johansen explained the transition from seasoned rock & roller to wacky lounge singer to writer Gerry Visco in Interview magazine, “I was living on 17th street and Third Avenue and I had this bar in my neighborhood, Tramps. It was a nice quiet neighborhood then. Tramps was a little bar and had bands and singers I liked—such as Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton—who’d do residencies. I liked to hang out there. I decided to do four Mondays at this little cabaret, and I used that [Buster Poindexter] moniker because I didn’t want people to be coming in and yelling for songs that I was famous for. I could just do what I wanted. Then that month, without any publicity or anything, it became very popular, so I started doing weekends there. It wasn’t a plan or anything, it just happened.”
Buster Poindexter always reminded me of Johansen pulling up to me on the Bowery in that Checker Cab and dragging me off to eat Chinese food.
Apparently, many others felt the same spirit of fun and adventure that Buster Poindexter promised, though Johansen came to hate the “Hot Hot Hot” song, (I don’t blame him) which is why he most likely started yet another band, “David Johansen and the Harry Smiths” to play old folk and blues songs that he truly loved.
For the initiated, “Harry Smith” was the name of the man who compiled the “Anthology of American Folk Music” that became the bible for beatniks and hipsters in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and influenced such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and John and Michelle Phillips, as well as throngs of other folkies.
David Johansen seemed to enjoy a show biz renaissance with Buster Poindexter and appeared in a string of Hollywood comedies as David Johansen, including “Car 54 Where Are You?” and “Scrooged” with Bill Murray. He also made the late-night talk show circuit, including Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, to name a few.
In 2004, bass player Arthur Kane had his dream of a New York Dolls reunification fulfilled when the rock star Morrissey, curator of the 2004 Meltdown festival, convinced David Johansen to get the surviving band member back together for a reunion concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Since Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had passed away years before, there was only Johansen, Syl Sylvain and Arthur Kane to complete the original lineup. Morrisey, who is a fanatical Dolls fan, and headed up the bands English fan club when he was in high school, saw his dream come to life.
“The world wasn’t ready for them,” Morrisey told Rolling Stone in 2004. “It seems to take the pop world 30 years to really understand a group or an artist. Often it takes death within a group and then people say, ‘Ah, yes. We do like those people now that they’re not here.’”
Unfortunately, Arthur Kane died of lymphoma shortly after returning from England.
Syl Sylvain died from cancer at his home in Nashville on January 13, 2021, leaving only Johansen as the sole survivor of the New York Dolls.
So it’s no wonder that Martin Scorsese wanted to make a documentary on David Johansen, most likely because he became addicted to Johansen’s weekly radio show, “David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun,” on Sirius Satellite Radio, after first becoming a Dolls fan.
“I’ve known David Johansen for decades,” Martin Scorsese told Variety, “And his music has been a touchstone ever since I listened to the Dolls when I was making ‘Mean Streets’… Then and now, David’s music captures the energy and excitement of New York City. I often see him perform, and over the years I’ve gotten to know the depth of his musical inspirations. After seeing his show at the Café Carlyle, I knew I had to film it because it was so extraordinary to see the evolution of his life and his musical talent in such an intimate setting.”
If only Scorsese and Tedeschi could’ve captured the excitement and glamor of the original New York Dolls in “Personality Crisis,” we might’ve had something to celebrate…