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The Icon: Doll Face

David Johansen, the protean performer behind the New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter, reinvents himself once more.

Time marches on. Don't it? In its wake, it leaves these snapshots, some burnished, some fuzzy, some sharp like a razor to cut off your head. David Johansen, wily old New York rocker, noted chameleon, actor, survivor, has dealt more face cards than most over the years, some from the bottom of the deck, some not. But what are you gonna do? It's a jungle out there, you got to keep moving, as most any savvy Yeah Yeah Yeah, Moldy Peach, or El-P already knows from watching a hundred Behind the Music reruns. So call this a cautionary tale, a particular kind of Big City music scrapbook of 35 years of being cool and staying sane, at least mostly.

When it comes to pictures of David Jo, like most downtown fans alive then and now, I've got a thing for the way-back nights of flaming youth, when Johansen was the lipstick-killer lead singer of the New York Dolls, a group more fabulously hip, more full of "promise," more indicatively "New York" than almost any in the history of promising New York groups.

Here's a postcard from 1972: David, the Staten Island–bred ingenue of the band, sitting on the curb outside the Mercer Arts Center (which would soon collapse) amid the garbage cans and graffiti. Draped in lime-green satin, tarty pink boa around his neck, a short stack of pancake on his cheeks, he is the perfect parody of Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, or Bette Davis in Jezebel, or maybe some cranked-up Shangri-La, except for the spreading sweat spots under his arms. He's ripping off his platforms, which are painted blue. "Fuck these boots," the Doll screams, throwing the footwear into the street because it's not easy to sing raunchier and sweeter than Jagger ever dreamed, with the band laying down the next link of what would get called punk a few years later around the corner at CBGB, and do it all in eight-inch heels, with David Bowie in the audience, too, and have your feet not be killing you.

“You know,” says David Johansen, “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.”

As Joey Ramone and the rest readily agreed (pre-Smith Morrissey wrote a book about them), there had never been anything like the Dolls and there wouldn't be again. Five straight outer-borough white boys dressed like girls (except Johnny Thunders, né Genzale, of Queens, who wouldn't) singing about making it with Frankenstein, the Dolls were a flip book of funky New York post-hippie glitter, whether they were practicing in a bicycle-repair shop on West 82nd Street, with the door locked so they wouldn't steal anything, or breaking up in a trailer park beside a swamp with Johnny T and Jerry Nolan going nuts because they were in Florida and there was no dope in Florida, man. Then came the sad pictures: Johnny and Jerry, RIP, and Billy Murcia too, their first drummer, a Colombian from Jackson Heights, dead in a London bathtub.

After that, of course, came Johansen as Buster Poindexter, with his Jimmy Neutron pompadour, tux, and little half-socks, cracking wise, leering goofy, the face that spawned a hundred miles of conga lines (wedding-band players still grouse about those nightly doses of "Hot, Hot, Hot") -- a decade of a joke that wouldn't die. Johansen says Buster started the way everything does with him: offhand, by accident. Managed by Steve Paul, who ran Steve Paul's Scene, where the Doors, Hendrix, and the Velvets played, he'd trudged through the early eighties fronting the David Johansen Band, stuck in permanent second-banana mode. One night, opening for Pat Benatar, he looked out into the crowd and saw only a mindless sea of pumping fists and said to himself, "I'm officiating at a Hitler Youth rally . . . This is what it has come to."

A few days later, he was in the old Tramps, on 15th Street, where he'd hung out since the days when he read the newspapers to the 325-pound blues singer Big Maybelle, who never learned to read them herself, not that she would admit as much. There was an open night, one day a week, to try out this new thing, this Buster thing, the lounge-act cat who knew every "pre–Hays code" rock-and-roll song ever written and made up the rest. It was a lot of blowsy eighties fun, an escape from being "David Johansen." Tony Garnier, Dylan's guy, played the bass. Jimmy Vivino was in there, too, all the session stars. It took off, got out of hand, which was fine. The money was good, more than a month of Tuesdays at Mercer Arts Center's Oscar Wilde Room. For a while it had a Latin tinge, Buster, the sly musicologist, suddenly turning up with a thousand Cuban charts back to Machito, Arsenio Rodriguez, and the rest. But the corporate accounts, the ones who ran the parties where stockholders got to put lampshades on their heads, wanted only "Hot, Hot, Hot," the song Johansen calls "some dangerous karma, the bane of my existence." After a while, there was barely enough energy to grease the pompadour.

So now there's this. Johansen has been a Harry Smith for a couple of years, with two albums of deeply strange folk songs in the can, including the current Shaker, the cover of which shows the old Doll, stark and austere, standing in a windswept graveyard wearing a duster, like Jack Elam in Once Upon a Time in the West. It has been working, too, with Johansen's famously gruff pipes gnarled up into the mode of an itinerant singer, a modern-day Dock Boggs, squinty from a night on the Greyhound, haunted by dark tunes like "Oh, Death," which quotes the Reaper himself: "Oh, Death . . . God's children pray, the preachers preach, the time of mercy is out of your reach / I'll fix your feet so you can't walk, I'll lock your jaw so you can't talk." But then, even with a touch of Just for Men in his grifter's beard, Johansen has always been able to get himself up for a part, even when playing Joe E. Ross's Toody role in the loopy movie of Car 54, Where Are You?, one more New York icon.

Again, he claims, it was an accident, something he shambled into, in the shambling way he keeps his money in a plastic bag because he doesn't like the way wallets bump out his pocket, like the way he'll get to a show and realize he's forgotten his harmonicas, again. "Allan Pepper from the Bottom Line called me up to see if I wanted to do a gig for his twenty-fifth-anniversary show. I said I'd been working out this string-band thing, playing these old songs. 'Okay,' he said, 'what's your name?' 'Shit,' I said, 'call us the Harry Smiths,' " Johansen relates, invoking the polymathic presence of the filmmaker, painter, and all-around beatnik gnostic shaman whose multivolume collection of early recordings by black bluesmen and white hillbillies, The Anthology of American Folk Music, has taken on the mantle of a Dead Sea Scroll of rock and roll. It was Smith's collection that Bob Dylan used as a map when he and the Band holed up inside Big Pink making the famous Basement Tapes, which has been characterized as a sonic Invisible Republic depicting "weird old America."