Longtime readers know I rarely find myself in sync with the opinions of Robert Christgau, the self-important “Dean of American Rock Critics.” That’s why it gives me great pains to say that I completely agree with his description of The New York Dolls as “the best hard rock band since The Rolling Stones” and “the best hard rock band in the country and maybe the world right now.”
1973 wasn’t a particularly great year for pure rock ‘n’ roll. The Stones had clearly lost their way with Goat’s Head Soup, and the young man from Liverpool who lit up the world with his unrestrained version of “Long Tall Sally” thoroughly embarrassed himself with Red Rose Speedway. His old buddy George did well in the charts, but he was peddling spiritualism in Living in the Material World, not rock ‘n’ roll. Progressive rock albums had greater success that year, with Dark Side of the Moon and A Passion Play topping the Billboard charts. Since Christgau gave Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy an A- rating that year, I can only assume that the more progressive stylistic changes Led Zep introduced in that album knocked them clean out of the rock genre in his never-humble opinion.
I’m good with that. I can’t stand more than fifteen seconds of Robert Plant.
According to the timeline, Christgau made at least one of those assertions before Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nerd hit the streets, and depending on how you define “hard rock,” you could conjure up a lively debate over which band rocked the hardest. Since The Dolls’ maiden release came out a few months before, I’ll give Christgau a break because he obviously hadn’t yet heard “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” or “Free Bird.” Or you could take the genre copout and say The Dolls were “hard rock” and Skynyrd was “Southern rock.”
Whatever. The Dolls were a great rock band, period, however you want to classify them.
While they may have been the best rock band in the business during the too-brief period of their original incarnation, The Dolls were a commercial disaster. This début album peaked at #116; their second album, Too Much Too Soon, died at #163. I am absolutely certain that their inability to pierce the higher regions of the charts had more to do with their presentation than their music: Americans never really warmed up to “glam rock,” a highly misleading genre that focuses more on appearance than content. The cover depicted above probably motivated the more macho rocker types to want to pile into their pickup trucks and beat up some queers instead of heading over to the record shop to pick up a copy of New York Dolls.
People can be so fucking silly with their obsession about appearances and the meanings they attach to them. Evidence of The Dolls’ polarization power came via a Creem magazine end-of-year poll where they were rated the best and worst new group of the year. Methinks the lower rating had more to do with the threat they represented to society’s narrow definition of masculinity and nothing to do with the music on their début album.
That their first album worked so well—or was recorded at all—was the result of a random collision of molecules that can only be explained on the quantum level because they make no sense in the real world. That collision brought together The Dolls (whose reputation for being difficult preceded them into the studio) and Todd Rundgren, accomplished pop artist, future progressive and “professional” musician. While there were conflicts and post-production finger-pointing galore, the challenging sessions produced an album that came close to capturing The Dolls’ on-stage energy (according to band member Sylvain Sylvain).
All I can say is if this is what they sounded like on stage, they must have put on one helluva show.
And “Personality Crisis” is one helluva opener. CRASH! Classic rock guitar riff! Descending run on the 88’s! AAAHH—OOH! YEAH YEAH YEAH! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Fuck, man, I’ve already shot my wad three times in the opening sixteen seconds! Oh, Todd’s making them tone it down a bit . . . good time for a cigarette. Okay, David—-you can come back now!
Well we can’t take it this week
And her friends don’t want another speech
Hoping for a better day to hear what she’s got to say
All about that personality crisis—you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got
Oh, yeah, I know that chick! She’s the one always coming to school bragging about all the meds she’s taking for the cornucopia of trendy mental disorders she never knew existed until the pharmaceutical companies told her she was suffering horribly from them. Wait, that can’t be right—I went to high school in the 90’s and this song was . . . 1973? You mean Americans had already started to cherish their neuroses as a way to get attention way back then? Knock me over with a feather!
But now you’re tryin’ to be somethin’ now you gotta do somethin’
Want to be someone who cow wow wows
But you’re thinkin’ about the times you did—they took every ounce
When it sure got to be a shame when you started to scream and shout
You got to contradict all those times you butterflied about
Infuckingcredible. No, no, no—don’t stop now! Whew, I thought that was it! Hey, nice wolf whistle! Makes me want to hike up my skirt and show off my garters! Well, I do need to go down there and relieve some tension anyway—Johnny Thunders’ licks are making me drip! How’s our neurotic friend doing?
Now with all the crossin’ fingers mother nature sends
Your mirrors gettin’ jammed up with all your friends
That personality—everything starts to blend
Personality—when your mind starts to blend
Personality impression of a friend
Of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend
Who the fuck said The Dolls were a lightweight band? This is serious shit, people! Whenever I meet someone new, I know that what I’m experiencing is the fun house version of that person and I have no idea which image is the real person or if the real person is even there at all. It takes months or years to get people to stop trying to impress you with their phony selves before you can even begin to have a worthwhile relationship. A “personality” isn’t who we are—it’s an image without substance, a self-constructed set of defenses designed to prevent anyone from discovering whatever it is we choose to hide. The Dolls’ approach to this human phenomenon is brilliantly satiric, and while they deliver the message in the context of kick-ass, rip-your-clothes-off-and-dance rock ‘n’ roll, the message is sharp and to-the-point. Bravo!
David Johansen’s (or Jo Hansen if you prefer) approach to vocals is full-throated, unrestrained and just the right amount over the top, like Joe Strummer at his best (it should come as no surprise that Joe cited The Dolls as a major influence). Though his vocal style is more than enough to put me on his side, his introductory nod to The Shangri-Las (“You’d best believe I’m in love L-U-V) on “Looking for a Kiss” makes me want to leap on him and shower him with all kinds of female juices. Anyone who loves The Shangri-Las has serious cred in my book.
“Looking for a Kiss” fills my headphones with hot guitars in stereo, leaving plenty of space in the center for David to weave a dramatic narrative about a teen who searches for intimacy among a crowd of peers more interested in drugs than sex. What idiot would rather drop a few pills, snort powder or stick a needle into their arm instead of participating in a full, deep, mouth wide-open, tongue-tingling super-hot kiss? Well, folks, it has to do with another personality crisis—teenage angst:
When everyone goes to your house, they shoot up in your room
Most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom
I ain’t gonna be here, when they all get home
They’re always lookin’ at me, they won’t leave me alone
Our hero also needs a fix, but the fix he needs comes from the incredible high resulting from intimate contact. This kid gets it!
I’d love to get my hands on an instrumental version of this sucker, because I love the interplay between Thunders’ and Sylvain’s electric guitars, supported more obviously by Arthur Kane’s steady bass than Jerry Nolan’s drums (Rundgren lowered the drum volume in the mix because Jerry was still getting his chops down). The guitarists pretty much commit to supporting the rhythm, but as I listen to the song and turn my attention to this sound or that, I’m always surprised when I reconnect with the guitarists and find their fingers where I’m least expecting them to be, making maximum use of chord color diversity. I also love the way Johnny Thunders uses minimalistic fills that never distract us from the rhythm but add so much to the mix. Both guitarists have a loose, free-flowing style that does as much as Johansen’s vocals to create The Dolls’ essential sound.
“Vietnamese Baby,” featuring an Asian gong opening followed by sharp, sustained guitar attacks that snake across the stereo channels, is an exposé of yet another American problem that refused to go away—the self-destructive experience of Vietnam. The storyline here may be hard to follow because Johansen combines internal dialogue with internal monologue and rarely gives you a cue when he’s making the switch. The first verse is the easiest spot to demonstrate the technique:
internal dialogue, man to main squeeze
When I’m getting home to you
I gotta show you what I can do
shift to internal monologue
But everything connects and that ain’t nowhere (admitting frustration and impotence)
And maybe you never-ever know what that was (continuing to talk to himself)
And maybe you’re just finding it out now
With a Vietnamese baby on your mind
The two different perspectives synthesize the garden-variety American male suffering from performance pressure with the archetypal hero of the American Empire, both serving as symbols of inexplicable impotence. Fuck! I launched all that phallic firepower and don’t have a goddamn thing to show for it but 58,220 dead Americans? And instead of a quick in-and-out I’m stuck with a fucking baby? Lots of fucking babies! The second verse begins with internal monologue but then shifts to a recollection of what another man said to him when discussing the war and the mess the Americans left behind:
Technology satellite, well
What’s wrong today and why was
Everyone so busy they’ve forgotten
Why they’re playing that, he said
“What’s wrong today is what’s wrong with you
You’re so sorry, busy, sorry, that’s all you’ll do
With a Vietnamese baby on your mind
Your pretty little mind”
Complicating things further, the speaker may be the hero himself, recalling what he told someone else about the fiasco and the growing apathy of the American public for a lost cause. In the last verse Johansen makes it crystal clear that what led to the disaster of Vietnam was macho bravado in two forms: the classic cruelty of the raping-and-pillaging soldier whose acts were sanctioned by the empire; and the imperial belief that the right to inflict mass destruction on an alien population was a god-given American right:
I’m talking about your overkill
Talking bout your overkill
Got to shout about your overkill
Now that it’s over, now that it’s over
Now that it’s over, now that it’s over, what ya gonna do?
Yeah, what the fuck are you gonna do? The usual: go into denial, thump the chest, start another war somewhere. “Vietnamese Baby” is an insightful precursor of all that angry, socially-conscious music that came from the British punks in 1977.
Shifting gears, “Lonely Planet Boy” is a gentle tune where acoustic guitar sets the tone and Johansen dials it down to something a bit stronger than a husky whisper. It’s a pleasant, slightly melancholy number, but I find Buddy Bowser’s sax, with its clipped notes and truncated phrasing annoying and out-of-place. I think the track would have been better served had they completely backed off rock conventions and replaced the saxophone with a flute (said the lifelong flutist) or even a clarinet—something mellower to echo the loneliness of the narrator. In any case, it serves as a nice break in the action.
The break turns out to be even more welcome when paired with the heavier, anthemic relentlessness of “Frankenstein,” an extended ode to Manhattan, personified here as Mary Shelley’s intimidating automaton. The Dolls were all “outer borough” boys, a label that screams Manhattan elitism while simultaneously applying the definition of “less than” to outsiders. This leads to a complex dynamic—not so much “love-hate” as a co-dependent relationship where Manhattan is the all-powerful enabler and the wannabe musician, artist or actor exists in a bitter state of dependence on the slightest sign of validation from the power source. This is what’s behind David Johansen’s seemingly contradictory explanation that “Frankenstein” is about “how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they’re kind of like whipped dogs, they’re very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other . . . it’s a love song.” But while I think the theory behind the song is rock-solid, the execution leaves much to be desired, as the words pour out willy-nilly with scarcely a break and become a maddening jumble by the time we reach the closing question: “Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?” Aiding and abetting the uneconomical lyrics, the music doesn’t contain enough variation to keep things interesting except for a couple of short rhythmic changes. Ironically, “Frankenstein” features some of the best drumming on the album, so while not quite a throwaway, it’s certainly my least favorite track.
“Trash,” by contrast, is an absolute gas, with its shout-it-out double-time chorus accompanied by rumbling toms and bass, and the straight-time verses sweetened with some of Johnny Thunders’ best fills. The dual guitars then ramp up the intensity during the extended verse, completely collapsing into another false ending to allow David to deliver the line, “How do you call your loverboy?” than WHAM! back to the chorus. If you want to understand the lyrics, just follow the knife: at various times it’s in David’s hands, in his lover’s hands, used as a suicide threat and kicked away. What we have here is an intensely complex relationship between two people struggling with the confusing, painful, sinful and often frightening attraction to a person of the same sex:
And please don’t you ask me if I love you
‘Cause I don’t know if I do
I want to wipe it out here with you
And take a lover’s sleep with you
I’m going to fairyland with you
I’m going to heaven blue with you
But I just don’t know if I do
I just don’t know if I do
Ah, how do you call your loverboy?
Having had to work through “Oh my god I’m a lesbian” reactions a few times in my sexual experience, I understand how difficult it is for people to cross the bridge and step proudly out of the closet. Some go back into denial, some embrace their attraction to women half-heartedly and use it primarily to get a rise out of a guy by kissing or fondling other girls in public, and others say “To hell with men” and are happy to have found themselves after years of repression. Depending on the person’s upbringing and life experience, death wishes for self or other are not uncommon; here I think the knife is used more as a symbol of protection—something one can grasp, like a last straw. “Trash” is a damned brilliant bit of psychological insight driven by the almighty power of rock ‘n’ roll.
Johansen and Thunders shared songwriting credit on the next two songs, both kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll numbers featuring blazing guitars. If you’re wondering how The Dolls could have become the best rock ‘n’ roll band on earth when drummer Jerry Nolan needed Todd Rundgren to duplicate the rhythms on a cowbell so he could stay on beat, the answer can be heard in the paired guitars of Thunders and Sylvain—one or both is always pushing the beat forward with extreme intensity. The opening duet on “Bad Girl” features licks as hot as fuck, but through the rest of the song the guitars are focused on the rhythm—so much so that even the fills serve to accentuate the beat. This ode to bad girls everywhere (and I proudly consider myself a member of that elite class of women) focuses mainly on the enduring attraction to women who push the Victorian envelope, but Johansen being Johansen, he can’t resist including a bit of social commentary in his seduction offer:
I’m beggin’, please little darlin’, stop this carryin’ on
Gotta get some lovin’ before the planet is gone
One nuclear bomb, they’re gonna blow it all away
Come on bad girl give me some lovin’ today
Right here, right now, bad girl
If you need an excuse to fuck, impending planetary doom is as good as any.
“Subway Train” begins as a more reflective, melodic rock number, and the first hint that something else is in the offing is Johansen’s reverb-drenched vocal, creating clear separation from the band and distance from the listener. You don’t usually do that unless you’re planning to fill the empty space in the soundscape, which they do to some degree with the guitars on the first chorus . . . but it still seems like they’re holding back. By the time they get to the instrumental bridge, the guitars start cranking it out with greater intensity and variation, and you can feel your excitement building . . . until they pull back to the slower tempo of the last verse. Hey, I’ve seen this pattern before . . . Oh, yeah! Foreplay! The Dolls have been engaging in musical foreplay! And when they get to the final chorus and fade, they drive it home like a red-hot stud who hasn’t been laid in weeks—nonstop, pounding ecstasy. The orgasmic moment arrives in the form of an unexpected shift to an old, reliable standby, exactly what an accomplished fuck would do to get a hot bitch to explode—call up a proven move from the repertoire:
Dinah wontcha blow
Dinah wontcha blow your horn
Dinah wontcha blow
Dinah wontcha blow your horn
I said someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
I know whoa, whoa, whoa
I said someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
I just know
I keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’
Yeah, baby, you keep ridin’ all night long! I’ve always suspected that Dinah’s partner was doing more than just strummin’ on the ol’ banjo. Fee-fi-fiddly-aye-oh my ass! It should be noted that the lyrics have only a distant relationship to the sexual subtext—the hero of the song spends his hours riding the subways bemoaning his “cursed, poisoned, condemned” choice to fall in love with a hooker. The cosmos conspire to rub it in by filling his subway car with other ladies of the night, and as is always the case, the object of his affection has to “get on back to daddy,” the pimp who has a stronger hold on this woman than our hero could ever have. As a slice of dark-side Americana, “Subway Train” works like a charm, and the music reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll has always been music for the lonely and alienated.
There’s no slowing down the train now, as The Dolls take on Bo Diddley’s “Pills” and give it far more oomph and substance than Bo’s more plaintive original. Some have commented that David Johansen drew inspiration for his vocal style from Mick Jagger, and “Pills” is the clearest evidence of that influence. He also gets off some nice licks on the harp to strengthen the Jagger comparison, but what I notice most on “Pills” is Johnny Thunders’ ripping guitar work, which serves to elevate The Dolls’ version to another plane entirely.
Arthur Kane opens the song “Private World” with the bass run that establishes the bah-bah-bah (rest) bah-bah rhythm, syncopating the 4/4 time to give it a solid groove. Kane co-wrote this piece, and it bears the mark of the introvert in its expressed desire for a safe place away from the raucousness of live performance and relational disappointment. In his disappointment he turns to a hooker as a way to release some tension in the context of a private, confidential transaction only to experience the polar wish to be recognized as a unique human being (“Oh, baby call, call my name/I’m tryin to explain’, that I’m not the same/In a private world”). What carries “Private World” is the irresistible rhythm—the beat may be relatively simple, but it’s near-perfect dance music.
The album closes with “Jet Boy,” an odd choice for a single as no one knew what the moniker “jet boy” meant—not the best example of a catchy hook. The best guess is that the song is about a higher-class superhero type (the jet boy) stealing a girl from lower-class moke, which isn’t much of a story line. As a performance piece, however, it’s fabulous—opening with an extended stop-time passage filled with hot guitars, handclaps and an enthusiastic vocal from David Johansen. The middle eight (so to speak) rocks like a bitch in heat, with the dual guitars weaving wave after wave of hot riffs over Arthur Kane’s throbbing beat. Despite its less-than-perfect storyline, “Jet Boy” is an appropriately hot closer to a superheated listening experience.
Given all the shitty, banal music that hit the airwaves in 1973, I would characterize the failure of the listening public to embrace The Dolls as somewhere between tragic and astonishingly stupid. Looking back at the miasmic environment of 1970’s America, yanks would have been a lot better off rocking out to “Personality Crisis,” “Trash” and “Subway Train” than fretting about gas lines, scaring themselves silly over horrifying stories of rampant crime on the streets or in the White House, and trying to soothe their shattered nerves with heavy doses of Carly Simon, Elton John, Dawn and . . . (yecch) Wings. In contrast to bland-and-boring, The Dolls provided nothing less than great rock ‘n’ roll—the kind of rock that empowers the spirit and shakes attitudes as well as hips. And if there’s one thing Americans needed in the 1970’s, it was a serious attitude adjustment. It’s too bad the public rejected what The Dolls had to offer, choosing instead to drift down the path of fear and denial only to end the decade in an atmosphere of malaise and disco music.
Because for one brief period in music history, there was no one on Earth as good as The New York Dolls in capturing the vibrant, rebellious and erotic magic of rock ‘n’ roll.