Just Enough Before It's Too Late: David Johansen Meets Martin Scorsese
"Personality Crisis: One Night Only," directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi
When it comes to the New York Dolls, my fandom is off the charts. My 1973 collection Any Old Way You Choose It ends with a 1973 Newsday piece on the Dolls and my 2017 collection Is It Still Good to Ya? ends with a 2006 Village Voice piece on the Dolls, three of whose five original members were dead by then; my 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong borrows its dandy enough title from a minor Rolling Stones song because my editor insisted that the book title I wanted—“(If I’m Acting Like a King That’s Because) I’m a Human Being,” as I’d dubbed the Dolls overview I’d imported from Greil Marcus’s Stranded—was prohibitively unwieldy.
So though I had my doubts, I made it a priority to watch Martin Scorsese’s new David Johansen documentary Personality Crisis: One Night Only. Watched it twice in fact, the second time with my Dolls-loving daughter as well as my Dolls-loving wife, who first saw Johansen’s Dolls exactly one week after I first did in December 1972 and hasn’t turned down a chance to catch them since, including a 1976 Max’s “comeback” I had her review. My doubts about the film had their roots in the first of Scorsese’s all too numerous music documentaries, The Last Waltz, where as a longtime Band skeptic I preferred the soundtrack to the flick on the grounds that “Robbie Robertson and friends don’t play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk).” But those doubts also reflected my skepticism about Personality Crisis’s announced concept, in which Johansen’s pop-schlock persona Buster Poindexter (hmm) would mount the ritzy stage of the Cafe Carlyle (uh-oh) to perform selected works of by now many-faceted songwriter-songster Johansen (but which ones?) with mostly new interview segments and entirely archival David Jo performances patched in (sounds kinda choppy, no?).
These doubts proved somewhere between unfounded and paranoid, which I credit partly to Scorsese’s skill and more to Johansen’s genius. Like Johansen except a decade earlier, I’m an outer-borough kid who migrated to Manhattan, but though I’d interviewed him plenty, I’d never absorbed how committed a bohemian he’d become how young: after graduating from high school on Staten Island, son of an opera-loving insurance man and a supportive librarian, he didn’t move on to college. He moved on to the East Village, where he worked for a St. Marks Place weird-tchotchke joint, hooked up with Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, drifted occasionally over to the Hotel Chelsea where he may or may not have actually accosted Harry Smith, and one day answered the door of his far east tub-in-the-kitchen to high-voiced Queens Village “bassist” Arthur Kane and doomed Queens Village drummer Billy Murcia, who’d formed a band together and had heard he could sing.
I first laid eyes on Johansen at the doomed Mercer Art Center as the glammed-up frontman of that band and then followed their gigs all over Manhattan and bought them dinner on Newsday and watched them cut their debut album with Todd Rundgren under the eye of smitten Mercury a&r obsessive Paul Nelson, whose absence from this film is my sole gripe about it. As I put it when I reviewed that debut for Creem in 1973: “This is the kind of band that gives the right impression by giving the wrong impression, starting with the two-strikes name—Dolls and the straights fag-bait you while the gays straight-bait you and the hips trendy-bait you, New York and the rest of the country puts up its dukes.” In my 1973 top 10 I all too cautiously ranked it fifth behind The Harder They Come, Al Green's Call Me, John Prine’s Sweet Revenge, and Coulson, Dean, McGuinness Flint’s superb, long gone albeit still Discogs-available collection of Dylan then-obscurities Lo & Behold. Those all remain great albums I’m not about to recalibrate 50 years later. But for sure New York Dolls was the most original formally and culturally and hence ranked high in the same pantheon, although only Coulson Dean moved fewer copies.
Less then a year later would come the only additional album by the original Dolls, Too Much Too Soon—yes, obsessives, I’ve always made it In Too Much Too Soon at the behest of the mad copy editor in my cerebellum because that’s what the cover actually says, but Too Much Too Soon is indeed apter and more poetic for this meteoric band, and for the next third of a century that would be it for new Dolls albums. In April of 1991 and January of 1992, first guitarist Johnny Thunders and then drummer Jerry Nolan would die, junkie Thunders of an apparent OD and user Nolan of meningitis plus, and bassist Kane would die of leukemia 13 years later—but not before he’d added to what he’d long ago achieved at Johansen’s door by persuading lifelong Dolls fan Morrissey to back a 2004 Dolls reunion tour in the U.K. By then Johansen had done business performing and recording with the leader-with-backup David Johansen Band as well as fronting an acoustic folk-classics quintet dubbed the Harry Smiths as well as touring and recording as fictional nightclub cover artist Buster Poindexter. And very soon Johansen would finally reconvene the Dolls with original Doll Syl Sylvain, two local pros he’d been playing with for years, and on bass Sami Yaffa of Finnish glam-rockers Hanoi Rocks. The comeback album was on the metal label Roadrunner and bore the prophetic title One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. I made it my top album of 2006, not least because I was struck by such lyrics as “Spirit slumbers in nature/And awakens in mind” and “I was down on the corner one night/I was made all of light.” When I pointed out this religious imagery Johansen scoffed, as he had to. After all, it was his job to convince Roadrunner that the world was finally ready for the New York Dolls. “This is going to be a big record. It’s like there’s no rock and roll records out there. It’s a fait accompli.”
Not that he was just bullshitting, of course—even without Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, each a titan on his instrument no matter how many naysayers couldn’t hear it. Because although the Dolls are rightly regarded as the spawning ground of punk, they had their own not-minimalist-enough-for-punk sound, one that melded Nolan's fierce, sizable racket and Thunders’s crazed, half-articulated squall into a species of “hard rock” that embraced not just noise but error. So even when those two were dead and their unduplicable individual sounds lost forever, that sound could be approximated by the kind of backup pros who play the Cafe Carlyle, generating a more kempt music whose humanity remains sui generis—as complete and convincing an embodiment of David Johansen’s genius, because that’s what it is and nothing less, that we can expect to hear this late in the game.
As Personality Crisis: One Night Only makes amply clear, the Dolls weren’t the only way that genius manifested itself. I always had my doubts about the Buster Poindexter persona, but in this film I recognized him as one more facet of an artistic vision that's more humanistic than it is anything else—unless you count Buddhist, but we’ll get to that. In this film a gratifyingly hale 70-year-old whose voice seems barely diminished conceives Buster as an entertainer so congenial his humanism is all-embracing, thereby transforming anarchic New York Dolls songs into the love songs to humanity they always were deep down.
Toward the end Johansen identifies the title of the One Day It Will Please Us track “Maimed Happiness” as a phrase he encountered while reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience like the grown-up protopunk he’d become. It begins: “It’s a maimed happiness/I keep trying to acquiesce/It’s like a tempestuous child/You play with and humor to keep/Quiet as you possibly can/Till finally it goes to sleep/Life takes a lot of finesse/It’s a maimed happiness.” And then: “Yeah I been to the doctor/He said there ain’t much he can do/You got the human condition/Boy I feel sorry for you.” As happens all over the film, which regularly exits the Carlyle to cut in an assortment of welcome old performance clips as well as vintage scenes and characters from the ever-evolving Manhattan bohemia Johansen and his inquiring mind plugged in where a college education was supposed to go, this tale was shot not at the Carlyle but in what appears to be the back yard of the dwelling he shares with his wife Mara Hennessey. In the back corner there’s a small but unmistakable statue of the Buddha. I gave up on religion a long time ago myself. But if it helps a phenomenally talented artist to amplify his hookup with the rest of a humanity he’s always embraced more generously than he got credit for, well, as a gifted but meaner-spirited songwriter who might never have come our way if David Johansen hadn’t gotten there first once put it, color me impressed.