If David Johansen had earned a dollar for each time a music journalist mentioned him or his band, the New York Dolls, he'd be richer than Croesus by now. Instead, he's still a working musician, albeit one who has a good perspective on his past, present, and future.
Check out some of our favorite classic New York Dolls songs.
Thanks to time, fate, and narcotics, among other factors, the Dolls consist of original members Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain plus a quartet of others — yet the act's comeback CD, 2006's One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, sounds pretty good anyhow. Johansen jaws about the disc as well as the Dolls' influence on a variety of genres; heroin's impact on the group; the quality of the outfit's two main studio platters, 1973's New York Dolls and 1974's presciently titled Too Much Too Soon; his Sirius radio show and a previous folk-and-blues-based project, dubbed the Harry Smiths; the events that sparked the reunion despite Johansen's basic disinterest in the concept; the death from leukemia of another founder, Arthur "Killer" Kane, shortly after the Dolls' return; today's record industry, and yesterday's; the reasons he is no longer pursuing acting gigs; and his return to the road. Here he is, all Dolled up with someplace to go.
New Times: The New York Dolls are identified with all kinds of musical movements that sprang up in the band's wake: punk, New Wave, hair metal, lots more. Which of those styles, if any, do you see as having a real connection to what you guys did?
David Johansen: Well, I just consider us a really good rock and roll band. So that's the way I prefer to look at it. I know they come up with all these kinds of subgenres. But we're a good rock and roll band. I think we're an expansive package, so people were inspired, I think, by different aspects of the band. There's the look, there's the music, there's the philosophy. There's all kinds of things going on.
Over the years, the band's legacy has been debated in so many different ways that it's difficult to track. What are you most proud of about the work you did back in the day?
I think when we were kids, we decided we were going to live the artist's life. I don't know if we articulated it that clearly, but essentially I think that's how we all felt. And I think for an artist to inspire people is the most gratifying thing. Like I was saying earlier, there's a lot of stuff you can pick through with the Dolls. Some people tell me how inspired they were by the Dolls. Like Morrissey will say so, but you don't really hear it in his music. I think it's probably more a philosophical thing. And then The Clash say they were inspired by the Dolls, and you can kind of hear it in the music, because they were a great rock and roll band. There are a lot of different aspects that we put out as far as living life is concerned, or looking at the universe is concerned. Some people pick up on a little of it, some people pick up on a lot of it, and that's all good. It's good to have a lot of stuff there.
The debate about whether your first two studio albums really captured you began way back and continues to this day. Do you think they captured you at that time and place?
I think as much as a record can, they did. I don't know who says they didn't. But what do I know? If I hear the record, I think it sounds pretty good. I don't put it on every day [laughs]. But once in a while, when we hear one, I think, that sounds pretty good.
Why did it take so long for the Dolls reunion to take place? Was it something you were opposed to on principle?
I still am [laughs]. What happened is, we just got together to play one show. We didn't get together to do anything other than that. We were very well received, and we did another show, and we started getting asked to do these festivals in England and stuff. So we figured, Let's do these. And it just never stopped, really. We'd been playing for about a year, and then we thought, Well, I guess we're a band. It wasn't something we got into with the idea of, Let's put this thing on and go with it. I don't think that would have worked for me.
In the midst of the reunion, Arthur became ill, which I imagine was a horrific situation for all concerned. How shocking was it for him to get sick so soon after everyone reconnected?
Well, I guess about as shocking as anything could be. Apparently he was sick already but he didn't know it yet, and it just kind of hit him like a ton of bricks. I think it was really important for Arthur to have that experience, and maybe once he had that experience, the disease took its opportunity. I don't know. It's really hard to figure that stuff out.
What did you think of the film that was released about him?
I thought it was beautiful. He was a beautiful cat.
After his death, did anyone think this put an end to the New York Dolls once and for all? And if not, why did you decide to continue?
I think because we had gigs booked or something.
Something as simple as that?
Yeah. [Neo-Dolls bandmate] Sami [Yaffa] wanted to do it, and he's a great guy. So once we got going with Sami, it was pretty rockin'.
Do you consider the lineup now to be the New York Dolls? Or is this something entirely different that just happens to be called the New York Dolls?
Well, obviously it's something different. There are different people [laughs].
What parts are connected to the past, beyond you and Syl? Or is that the main connection?
Without me and Syl, I think it would be hard to do it. I guess it would be like some of those doo-wop bands that go out. But we've got a really good rock and roll band, and they call us the New York Dolls, so it all seems to work out.
How did you hook up with Roadrunner Records, and what was the genesis of the new recording?
We went down to Austin to that SXSW festival, and somebody came backstage and asked if we wanted to make a record. That's essentially where that was at.
Did you have new music at that point?
We had a couple of songs.
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How long did it take for you to come up with the rest of them?
We said, "Well, let's make a record," and we were still playing. And they would call up and say, "I hope you guys are making songs." And we'd say, "Oh yeah, we're making songs." And then at some point, they said, "You're going in the studio in six weeks." And at that point, we thought, We better really get some songs. We kind of went into a loft somewhere and woodshedded and wrote 20 songs or something. And all these songs that we'll perhaps record for the next 20 years or so are already there. They just haven't come out yet, but they're all in our heads. They percolate, and then they come out.
It's as if they're waiting for you?
Yeah, the next batch is already waiting. I know how it works.