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Ask any rock operative, be they critic, barfly, informed groupie, or guitarslinger, from the birth of Aerosmith to the rise of Sonic Youth, to name two of the most influential rock bands of all time, and chances are they'll answer not with the expected Beatles and Stones, but, if they're truly hip, with the Dolls and the Stooges.
And they'd be right on the money.
If Iggy and his Stooges were like being mugged in an elevator, then the New York Dolls were like getting assaulted in an alley. Repeatedly. And loving every minute of it. Like the Stooges, the Dolls left you good and bruised, and smarting from the assault, yet in the end, after you'd rearranged your clothes and wiped the daze from your eyes, you felt violated. Thrilled, perhaps, but nonetheless violated. The Dolls were nothing if not felonious. And no single band since has been able to beat things into submission quite like the Dolls in their heyday did.
Ah, the New York Dolls. As the inimitable hack Lester Bangs wrote, the Dolls were "pure outrage," a kick in the teeth of every convention, especially their own. Bangs again: "They did what they could and what they wanted to do and out of the chaos emerged something magnificent, something that was so literally explosive with energy and life and joy and madness that it could not be held down by all your RULES of how this is supposed to be done!" And when it came to tracing the true origins of punk rock, "you'd have to go back to the Dolls."
The Dolls, in case you failed Basic Rock History, were fronted by a manic and slender cat named David Johansen, a sort of Mick Jagger with street smarts, stilleto heels, and a skirt. His was the voice that led the roar that changed forever the face of rock as we know it. And for that, his name has been certifiably immortalized.
But, as is wont to occur, the damn good thing that was the Dolls eventually met its end. (Thankfully. If they'd stuck around long enough to milk their notoriety, their impact would have at best been negligible.) From the valley of the Dolls emerged the hard-copy crash of the brightly burnt Heartbreakers, a kind of Dolls redux, without the glam (or the glory), led by the tightly strung axmen Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, with the aid of Blank Generation pied piper Richard Hell (himself fresh from concocting Television). And, in a bout of ego fisticuffs, Johansen took his pout that roared to the solo tip.
While the Heartbreakers tried their best to self destruct (tales of Thunders nodding on-stage, needle in arm, come to mind), Johansen cleaned up his act and became the Yankee equivalent of a Thin White Duke-era David Bowie. His eponymous debut was hailed as an American new wave classic. And his ensuing work proved that smart pop was indeed not an oxymoron. But though Johansen did manage the uncommon feat of moving the intelligentsia, hipsters don't buy records, regular people do. And people, you know, regular folks, simply were still not ready for David Johansen.
When the Eighties rolled around it was Johansen the character who started getting the most attention. The camera loved his sunken wordliness, and his gravel-scarred baritone lent suitable credence to his lily of the alley air. Bad apple roles in boob tube series like Miami Vice and The Equalizer soon led to bigger-than-bit-part appearances in big-screen hits and misses from Jonathan Demme's raucous Married to the Mob to the utterly forgettable Emilio Estevez/Mick Jagger vehicle Freejack, throwing Johansen back into the public eye.
Then it happened. "Hot Hot Hot," a fluke remake of Arrow's semi-classic (and a frankly too Falco-esque track for these ears), made the coveted leap from club to radio, and sent David Jo, under the nom-de-boom Buster Poindexter, out on the road again.
And being back on the road meant holing up in a string of anonymous hotels. But after you've trashed one Holiday Inn room, you've trashed them all, and Johansen and his band of cronies went out in search of more stimulating diversions. This led to -- where else? -- the lounge, and Johansen, ever the entertainer, coaxed his cohorts into getting up in front of a cackle of gin-soaked poly-suited salesmen and giving them the blues. (Like they needed it.)
Thus was born Buster Poindexter and His Banshees of Blue. An alter-ego to go adult by while still maintaining that healthy smirk. Once back in Manhattan, the newly inspired Johansen persuaded the kingpins at a downtown blues saloon (Trammp's) to give their Mondays over to his sleek new idea. Tuxedos were rented, martini's were shaken and stirred, used-record shops were raided, and an act was launched.
Some seven years later Buster and his Banshees are still charming the more enlightened sophisticates among us. George Raft would dig the knowing rasp; Gershwin would appreciate the thoughtful song selection; and any crooner worth his weight in casino chips would be proud at the ease with which Buster went from Doll to smoothie. (He'd be a perfect guest at one of Nick & Nora's dinner parties.) Live, the Banshees take you back to a time when tunes were tuneful, dames were dames, and gentlemen were gentlemen. Sure, it's a glorified past (what past isn't?), and it's true that you can't put your arm around a memory. But Buster lets you know that there's really no harm in trying.
BUSTER POINDEXTER AND HIS BANSHEES OF BLUE perform at 9:00 and 10:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs from $10 to $25.