Velvet Gold Mine
After how many permutations in lineup and how many trips around the nostalgia circuit does a band remain, well, itself? The Rolling Stones, of course, are the Jurassic exception; not only do they continue to record new material, but they do so with a shocking member-retention rate. More typical of the revival-act standard are the so-called Beach Boys, a shadow of the original group, led by one member who happened to win some trademark battles.
The New York Dolls came a little after both of these bands' original incarnations and seemed too diehard rock and roll to reach either of these fates. That's why their reformation in 2004 seemed equally promising and puzzling.
Most Americans equate glam rock with the Sunset Strip cheese-metal of the Eighties. Wrong. Diehard Bowie fans and professional music nitpickers know it happened way before, in early-Seventies England. There the Thin White Duke, T. Rex's Marc Bolan, and others were true pop icons. While the American big-hair rockers copped the tight pants and glitter, they were diehard, often chauvinist heteros. In England the real glam rockers were sexually ambiguous and over-the-top. They were girly boys who could shred an axe while wearing heels and could stay prettier and thinner than most of their teenage female fans.
No matter how many gold records that camp racked up in the UK, its vibe didn't exactly translate on this side of the Atlantic. Except with the New York Dolls, probably the only bona fide glam act to gain any recognition in the States. Led by the towering, lanky David Johansen, they had the long hair, the fine features, and the platform boots. But it was all filtered through a distinctly American proto-punk snarl, more related to the Detroit garage terror of the MC5 than, say, to the hippie-dippy psychedelia of Marc Bolan's Sixties act, Tyrannosaurus Rex. While Bowie was looking for life on Mars, Johansen was singing about trash and pills.
The Dolls' biggest strength and weakness was that they practiced what they preached, and their junkie-cat-on-the-prowl act led to the band's implosion in the Seventies, just before the advent of punk rock. Bassist Johnny Thunders became a sort of down-at-the-heels icon as a solo act, but died of a heroin overdose in 1991. Drummer Jerry Nolan suffered a fatal stroke later that year. Johansen, meanwhile, had reinvented himself in the Eighties as Buster Poindexter, to the chagrin of original fans.
Johansen must have tired of his various solo projects, but by the turn of the 21st Century, only three original Dolls remained he himself, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, and bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane. Rabid fan Morrissey invited the remaining members to perform at the Meltdown Festival in 2004, and the band, with fill-ins, surprised via its sound and energy. But a few weeks later, Kane went into the hospital with what seemed like a bad flu, but instead was diagnosed with advanced leukemia. And then there were two.
Still, the New York Dolls chug along, and with seemingly more credibility than any dinosaurs of rock. Maybe it's because Sylvain and Johansen still share a ferocious onstage chemistry. Maybe it's because Johansen himself has moves fierce enough to make Mick Jagger cry. Most important, maybe it's because the members filling in aren't just new-jack look-alikes. Trash-rock aficionados will quickly recognize Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks on bass. Steve Conte, on guitar, looks eerily like Thunders but comes from a proud garage lineage. And rather than rehash old classics, they've released a new album this year: One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This.
Live, they still play every classic a fan could hope for "Puss in Boots," "Looking for a Kiss," and the closest thing they ever had to a hit, "Personality Crisis." There's also a rendition of Thunders's solo classic, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," reworked as a homage to their fallen comrades. But make no mistake, with the electric onstage chemistry and the raw power of the new songs, this ain't no Johansen karaoke show. This is a band, straight up. And that is why the New York Dolls still have the right to be New York Dolls. Arielle Castillo
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.