"Yeah, call us the Harry Smiths. That way people will know what we're doing," Johansen said. Told that perhaps not that many people would immediately know what a band called the Harry Smiths was doing, Johansen says, like a man who has come to terms with the perimeter of his marketplace position, "Good, because those eleven people, they're my people."
Being a Harry Smith may not be as Zeitgeistical as being a Doll, but how much Zeitgeist can a boy who grew up riding his bike to the Staten Island Ferry stand in one lifetime? For years, people, including ex–band mate Syl Sylvain (né Mizrahi), have accused him of "denying" his Dolls heritage, as if being onstage looking like the Avon Lady blew up in his face was somehow beneath him, something Johansen finds "not right . . . because the Dolls are history, which is something I respect because those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." Being a Harry Smith suits him. "You know," he says, slouching in a Chinese restaurant, "I had a picture of myself when I was a kid, how I'd look when I got old. I look in the mirror and think, This is pretty much it."
According to Johansen, even when he was growing up in blue-collar West Brighton with his five brothers and sisters, getting kicked out of Catholic school, playing with his first bands, the Vagabond Missionaries and Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs ("Sometimes I was Fast Eddie, sometimes I was a Jap"), he always thought of himself as a folk singer.
"Hillbilly music like the Carters, Little Walter, white people, black people, it is all folk music . . . I've always been into this. Folk music is this New York thing. It was around, and not just like Judy Collins and Peter, Paul & Mary, songs they sang in the red-diaper summer camps. There was the Harry Smith stuff, the stuff beneath the stuff. They might call it 'weird old America,' but for me it was 'weird old New York.' We'd go to the Cafe Au Go-Go, Muddy Waters would play there. The first record I ever bought was 'Tail Dragger' by Howlin' Wolf, a 10-cent single at the Do-Del record shop in Staten Island. I put that on, and it was like, what world is this from? It was the same in the Dolls. I pictured myself as Janis Joplin, who to me was always a folk singer. I loved Janis Joplin like a queer loves Judy Garland."
"Being a Harry Smith keeps me sane," Johansen says. In a world of rock-and-roll ephemera, tapping into the tangled roots of things like "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" by Bascom Lunsford, "James Alley Blues" by Rabbit Brown ("Sometimes I think you're too sweet to die / sometimes I think you should be buried alive"), and Jim Jackson's "Old Dog Blue," all of them recorded more than 70 years ago, has a kind of permanence, a whiff of eternity. When you're 52, no longer the ingenue, an Alan Watts reader with a late-onset authenticity jones, eternity is nothing to sneeze at.
Plus, Johansen says, some things are just so old that they get new again. Ralph Stanley's version of "Oh, Death," which Johansen does on the first Harry Smith disc (with all due respect, better than Ralph), was on the surprisingly high-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? collection. Maybe it's just more post-9/11 anti-irony, but since the White Stripes did a version of Son House's "Death Letter" (David cuts them too), the kid up the street has been coming by the house asking me if I've got anything by Blind Willie McTell, which, of course, I do.
Who knows? Being a Harry Smith could be a bonanza. "Furry's Blues," the first cut off Shaker, has been picking up some airplay, and not just on NPR. "It's not heavy rotation," Johansen says, "but it's on there." It's almost enough to make you want to drive to Memphis, go out to where Furry Lewis is buried, and tell him his tune that begins "I'm gonna buy me a graveyard of my own / so I can kill everyone that have done me wrong" is getting a bit of a tumble in George Bush's U.S. of A.
Not that Johansen hopes the tune becomes another "Hot, Hot, Hot." Who needs people screaming out "Furry's Blues" all the time, like how, say, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- if things go a certain way -- are looking at a lot of disgruntlement if they don't play "Our Time" every night for the next few decades.
Still, Johansen doesn't expect to be a Harry Smith forever. He's been listening to some twenties Duke Ellington material he'd like to play, trying to raise his guitar skills by buying a book of chords and learning "at least one a week." But for tonight, the Harry Smiths will do. Parking his 1989 Pathfinder, which he refers to as "an ashtray on wheels," Johansen is at the Bottom Line, where the band started. Probably the best acoustic string band in town, with his long-time confederate Brian Koonin on guitar, Larry Saltzman playing dobro, Kermit Driscoll on bass, and drummer Keith Carlock, the group sounds great, but David's voice, as much a barbed missile as ever, is feeling a little "extra ravaged" owing to an evening spent singing Howlin' Wolf songs. Channeling the Wolf is rough on the the old throat cords. But no matter; David's got his little vial of Saint-John's-wort for "my onstage depression," plus now he gets to wear sensible shoes, not platforms, and sits down, his legs crossed, in the perfect image of that photograph of Robert Johnson, the one where he's smiling with the hat on his head.
For hours it rolls on, this tour of the dead and forgotten. Some guys Johansen does better than others. Charley Patton's hard. Most of his records are so scratchy, "he sounds like Black Tooth from the Soupy Sales show," the singer says. But Lightning Hopkins, Johansen's got him nailed. Dock Boggs too, "Oh, Death" coiling up your spine like an evil shadow. Then, in the end, when he does the Dolls' great teen-passion saga "Looking for a Kiss," complete with the "When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in love, l-u-v" intro, it fits right in, one more missive from a weird old New York gone by. Ditto one of Buster's campiest showstoppers, "Heart of Gold," transformed into an elegiac plea -- or a coded message to a whole new crop of ingenues -- just the sort of strange stuff that might have raised Harry Smith's eyebrow should he have encountered it on a 78 during one of his collecting hunts in a Greenwood, Mississippi, garage or a basement out in Queens.
"I'm a whore, but I've got a heart of gold," Johansen sings. "I've been bought and I've been sold, but I still need protection from the cold." Least we can do is take the old coquette in.