In 1972, if you were strutting around all dolled up in high heels and lipstick, you'd better be a woman or you might just get your ass kicked. Apparently, David Johansen never got that memo.
The New York Dolls front man's '72 motley crew of Big Apple wise-asses in drag put glam, punk, R&B and garage together in a package designed to poke you in the eyes and make your ears bleed. But Johansen says today he didn't realize what that creation looked like to the rest of the world. "When we came out of the East Village in the '70s, it was like a hotbed of revolution, and everybody was walking around like they were a walkin', talkin' art show," Johansen says by phone from his New York City home.
"We were just the band of that scene," the singer says. "We didn't think we were doing anything particularly outrageous. We didn't realize that until we came out to the rest of the world and people were like, 'My gosh, what is this?' And we were like, 'What?'"
There was nobody like them on the scene. Kiss and the Ramones came after, as did the Clash and Sex Pistols. But nobody did it quite like the Dolls. These guys were dolled up like chicks, but they looked ready to kick your ass if you dared say anything about their appearance. Gloriously sloppy, incredibly loud with a fuck you attitude, the Dolls was an explosion of gutter, glam and garage. Embracing genres from blues to soul to jazz mixed with girl groups and punk, the Dolls created a unique sonic landscape, boldly going where no men dressed as women had gone before.
The band's eponymous '73 debut record, a mix of literacy and menace, inexperience and bad attitude, summed up the Dolls career. Although commercial success eluded them and the band was done by 1976, they achieved cult status, influencing a generation of punk/garage/metal/glam/new wave bands. The band lay dormant for 28 years, reforming in '04 with the three living members — guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, Johansen and bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who died from leukemia shortly after.
In the meantime, Johansen had kept busy with solo projects. The Buster Poindexter thing was originally scheduled for only four shows in a little neighborhood bar. "I had been listening to a lot of jump blues," Johansen says, "and I just wanted to get a chance to sing some of those songs because I loved them so much." Ironically, it was a soca song, Arrow's "Hot, Hot Hot" that hit big in '87.
Johansen says he listened to a variety of musical styles, but admits to getting stuck on one style of music for years. "I didn't listen to anything but Cuban style music for like two years," Johansen says. "People would say, 'You should hear this new record by John Prine,' and they would give it to me and I would say, 'OK, but I can't listen to it yet.' I had to wait until I was finished with that exploration."
After exploring blues with the Harry Smiths throughout the '90s, Johansen put the Dolls back together in '04. Their '06 comeback, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, had the punch and power of the original music. Kane died before the album was recorded. But the band once again lived up to its legacy with '09's Cause I Sez So, a mix of the Doors, '60s Stones and their own raucous, stripped-down, punky rawk. Their latest, Dancing Backwards in High Heels, is even better. "Talk To Me Baby" could have been cut by T-Rex's Marc Bolan. "Fool For You Baby" sounds like Stones country rock, and "Funky But Chic" is a soul stomp worthy of Edwin Starr.
"We're trying to tickle ourselves," Johansen says of the Doll's recording technique. "Just don't really worry about the results so much." And if mainstream media doesn't like it, the Doll front man has another outlet for his music, David Johansen's Mansion of Fun, a weekly satellite radio show. "When we got a new record, I'll throw one of the tunes in — 'cause I'm always afraid nobody's gonna play it, so I figure at least I'll play it," he says, laughing.
And as for future plans, Johansen admits the Dolls might have an expiration date, but it's no time soon. "We look at this thing from an artistic, creative point of view, where we just wanna see what we can make and expand, but that's about the only criteria," Johansen says. "Give it another 20 years."