The New York Dolls are more a legend than a band, known for their tough luck as well as their tough songs. Front man David Johansen had Mick Jagger’s preening strut, his bandmates had downtown charisma to burn, and the group’s chaotic concerts in the early seventies shaped punk’s sense of self-destructive showmanship. But they imploded before the CBGB scene they inspired reached any kind of an audience, and their 1973 debut became a forgotten foundation stone of punk—it still hasn’t gone gold. They were dropped by their label, then scared away others by performing in red leather in front of a Soviet flag on the advice of future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
In the late eighties, Johansen had transformed himself into Buster Poindexter— he of “Hot Hot Hot” fame—and got occasional acting gigs like the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged. Bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane became a Mormon. The other members of the band had rougher fates: Guitarist Johnny Thunders died of an overdose in 1991; drummer Jerry Nolan died the next year of bacterial meningitis. For a while in the early nineties, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain managed one of the stores on St. Marks Place that do a brisk business selling the accoutrements of the punk-rock look the Dolls pioneered. “One day, the guys from Poison came in—they were playing some big place in the city—and they realized Sylvain Sylvain was behind the counter,” Sylvain remembers. (Like Garth Brooks and Bob Dole, he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person.) Hard-rock and hair-metal acts had borrowed from the Dolls’ sense of style, and the members of Poison couldn’t believe that the man selling them platform boots once wore them onstage. “They asked me for my autograph,” Sylvain says with a chuckle. “I should be bitter.”
Sylvain and Johansen are telling their stories again at the Old Town near Union Square, where they’ve come to talk about the first Dolls album in three decades, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. No one ever thought they’d get back together—least of all them, they say. But two years ago, Morrissey, the former lead singer of the Smiths, who as a teenager was the head of the Dolls’ U.K. fan club, called Johansen, Sylvain, and Kane and convinced them to play the Meltdown Festival, which he curated in London.
“It was going to be one show, so it wasn’t like I was going to marry these guys, where I had to think, ‘What will this be like in two years?’ ” says Johansen, who had refused other reunion offers over the years. “But we had fun doing it, so we did a couple more, and one thing led to another.”
Even this was not easy: Morrissey referred to the Dolls as “the unluckiest band in the world,” and their reunion was also touched by tragedy. Before the band got back together, Kane was working for the Mormon church, dreaming about one last gig (the documentary New York Doll, which was well received at Sundance and is now out on DVD, follows his preparations for the Meltdown show, which included getting his instrument back from a pawnshop). But then, less than a month after Meltdown, Kane died of leukemia. “It was just in time for him,” Sylvain says of the festival. “It was a beautiful thing.”
Out July 25, One Day It Will Please Us picks up pretty much where the band left off three decades ago. As always, the sound owes quite a bit to the sixties’ take on blues: The Dolls were always indebted to David Bowie for their look but Bo Diddley for their sound. And they’ve kept their attitude, which is now leavened with a wink on songs like “Fishnets and Cigarettes” and “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks.” It sounds like the third album they might have made two years after their second, rather than 32. And if the album could pass for something out of the garage-rock revival, that’s only because the Dolls helped inspire that.
Johansen is now 56, with lines on his face that make him look as though he’s wearing stage makeup, and a lackadaisical attitude toward his legend. “People say we inspired punk and people say we inspired hair-metal bands,” he says with a shrug. “And people in those two camps hate each other. You have to laugh—it’s like having Cain and Abel as your spawn.”
As Johansen tells it, reforming the Dolls after 30 years ended up being the most natural thing in the world. After Meltdown, the band played two years of sporadic shows, then “made some new music to play before I lost my mind.” In April 2005, during a show at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Johansen announced onstage that the band was looking for a record deal. Within months, the Dolls had signed with Roadrunner, an independent label known mostly for releasing heavy metal. (Asked to compare the process of making this album with recording in the seventies, Johansen deadpans, “I remember there were all these pretty lights on the soundboard.”) “If the record sells,” he says, “we’ll make another one.” Simple as that.
“Are you David Johansen from the New York Dolls?” asks a gray-haired Old Town regular. Johansen says that he is, and the interloper introduces himself, offers to buy a round, and, unbidden, starts reminiscing about the old days.