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The Big Lookback: David Johansen
"Kid Patriarch Makes His Move," The Village Voice, June 12, 1978
Published June 1978 in The Village Voice, “Kid Patriarch Makes His Move” is just about as close as I’ve ever come to writing one of those formulaic staples of arts journalism, a celebrity profile, and that includes 2006’s Johansen-dominated “Sensualistic, Polytheistic,” celebrating the superb Dolls comeback album Some Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This that closes my 2017 collection Is It Still Good to Ya? As I mentioned in my And It Don’t Stop appreciation of Martin Scorsese’s Johansen documentary Personality Crisis, “when it comes to the New York Dolls, my fandom is off the charts.” That’s why I felt compelled to leave “Kid Patriarch” out of my 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong in favor of the 5500-word Dolls summum I wrote for Greil Marcus’s Stranded.
But as I was saying, my Johansen fandom knows few limits, and while he’s had a few downs as well as many ups musically, you needn’t be a superfan to admire the version of himself who proved both vain and modest enough to sniff the underarms of his old black T-shirt with a reporter watching in his modest apartment south of Gramercy Park. Unmentioned in my account is that I was accompanied by a colleague on this assignment, and not some photographer either. It was my fellow fan and sometime rock critic Carola Dibbell, whose recall memory remains one of the wonders of my life. I wasn’t surprised when she told me how pleased she was that David ate his afternoon breakfast at Chock Full o’ Nuts, a chain whose disappearance from Manhattan’s fast food options she’ll mourn in perpetuity. But she also remembered a question that didn’t make the piece. “Do you ever look back at your early songs and wish you could write ‘Personality Crisis’ again?” I asked. David waited a couple of beats before he told us: “I’m just glad I wrote it at all.” And though that could well be his best song ever, hence the title of Scorsese’s film, there’ve been plenty more good ones since. Even now it remains a pleasure to remember that.
David Johansen lives in a small, unglamorous apartment on a modest block near Gramercy Park and/or Max’s Kansas City. The building is fairly new and already a bit shabby; there is no name next to Johansen’s bell. On a recent weekday afternoon I waited while he matched two socks from his laundry bag, sniffed the armpits of the old black T-shirt he wanted to wear, put out his show T-shirt and white show jacket, searched fruitlessly for his turquoise show pants, and wrote a note to the boys in his band, who were supposed to meet him there at 4:30 for a gig on the Island. Then we made for the local Chock Full, where the tuna sandwich is Johansen’s current breakfast of choice. Although as he walked Johansen occasionally fell into the hand-on-hip stance that so scandalized rock and roll homophobes when the New York Dolls were making their move five years ago, there was nothing even faintly outrageous about his black leather jacket and new jeans or the way he pushed his messy pomp back from his big forehead. He greeted two or three tradesmen on the street by name, very much a regular guy. Which seemed like a big change.
I don’t think Johansen was ever as irregular as some believed, but that’s not saying much, because he really used to scare the shit out of people. And those people had their reasons. It was fine to be moved, as many of us were, by the tenderness and vulnerability that went with the outrageousness, but Johansen was no pussycat; he was rather, as I wrote back then, “the kind of person you forgive in advance for hurting you.” Which meant that if you loved his music, you didn’t want to think much about the danger in him. Yet Johansen wasn’t merely outrageous—he was a pied piper of outrageousness. Long before the Dolls, I’m told, he was one of those charismatics who sees no difference between shooting the rapids and going with the flow. His style was always ahead of the style, he’d try anything twice, and he didn’t believe in boredom except as a roundabout means to fun. Even if he and his band were only playing at their notorious ambisexual anarchism, their zest in the role was itself a threat. And if fleeing from the threat was cowardice, it was also good sense. Ambisexual anarchy is uphill work.
The Dolls are often thought of as the first ‘70s rock band, but—much more than the Stooges or the Modern Lovers, say—they were also the last ‘60s rock band. Where the Stooges were prophetically nihilistic and the Modern Lovers prophetically middle-class, the Dolls’ careening quasi-amateurism—complete with chronic lateness and inebriation and ongoing thrift-shop fashion show—was a defiant utopian holdover. It assumed that the world would let them get away with anything, and not because it was a groovy place, either. If the blues drove on like a northbound locomotive, the Dolls’ raucous antiswing promised all the deliverance of the BMT at rush hour; their lyrics avoided visionary conundrums to zero in on urban-youth-dropout bummers and then doubled the insult by making a joke out of every personality crisis. Harsh, ecstatic, and riotously funny all at the same time, they celebrated what was alive in the supposedly doomed, ugly lives of “riffraff human beings.” Inevitably, the ugliness offended the diehard hippies who dominated rock in 1973, and the celebration annoyed the youthcult “survivors” who were ready to settle for a color TV and three squares a day.
Needless to say, neither the hippies nor the “survivors” had any more use for the Stooges or the Modern Lovers, say, than for the Dolls—the audiences of this decade have not thirsted after Challenging Visions of Our Historical Predicament, in popular culture or l anywhere else. Competent, predictable professional retrenchment has prevailed. And because I’ve made it my mission in life to complain about this, I was a little put off myself when I went to see David Johansen’s new band at a club called Creation out in West Orange a few weekends ago.
I was put off rather than surprised because Johansen’s solo album—available in stores since early May and on my turntable for a month before that—had prepared me for a turn to the conventional. And I was put off rather than disappointed because it was such a treat to see him on the way up again. The people who tell you that it’ll never be the same again are right, and so what? Johansen actively likes living in the present, always has, and right now he finds he can make music of an emotional strength he's never approached before—the music of a survivor who doesn’t waste time feeling proud of himself for that. After Mercury gave up on the Dolls in 1974, Johansen kept going with a stubbornness that was much more than outrageous. Bassist Arthur Kane had left even before the band’s run with Mercury was through, and soon guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan joined Richard Hell to form the Heartbreakers. But Johansen and second guitarist Syl Sylvain continued the Dolls in a version Johansen calls Rent Party, picking up gigs (and musicians) in places like Florida and New Orleans and showing up—late, just like always—at local clubs, especially Max’s. They weren’t the old Dolls—one exciting but painful night, Thunders joined an encore and proved how much of the Dolls’ sound had come out of his untutored, unmistakable buzzsaw guitar—but there were new songs that cried out for a record, especially “Girls” (“I like ‘em seizin’ the power”), “Funky but Chic” (“Mama thinks I look pretty fruity but in jeans I feel rotten”), and “Frenchette” (“I’ve been to France/So let’s just dance”).
No record was likely because Johansen was in hock up to his larynx, to Mercury and to feuding halves of his former management firm—or so they all claimed, which was enough to scare the biz away from a well-known no-sell. Only the intervention of an old admirer, Joe Perry of Aerosmith—a band that just happened to be making money for the more powerful of the managerial rivals—extracted him. By then, New York rock and roll had regained most of the credibility the Dolls’ failure had cost it, and Johansen, whose age was something like 27 or 28, had turned into Kid Patriarch. But in a traditionally patricidal field of endeavor, this was a curious role. When Johansen came out to play harp on “My Generation” at Patti Smith’s Palladium celebration a few minutes into 1977, he was all confidence and panache. As climatic guitar-bashing mayhem ensued, however, he began to seem out of place, standing there with his hip in one hand and his harmonica in the other. How quickly they forget. He looked around, ascertained that he was no longer needed, shrugged, blew us a kiss, and strolled off stage.
Within a few months the word was that Johansen had formed a new band with some kids from his home borough, Staten Island, and this was true as far as it went, although the musicians were a different shade of green than in the myth—a couple of them had even backed Cherry Vanilla, a task that could jade anyone. Playing angel was Steve Paul, a relatively quixotic music entrepreneur who had built a tiny Epic subsidiary, Blue Sky, around the success of the Winter brothers. The band worked out at clubs near Paul’s home in Connecticut, then went into the studio with Richard Robinson, solo Lou Reed’s first producer as well as his most recent one. The album took four months to make and contains nine new Johansen songs, including the best of Rent Party. It’s a fairly wonderful record, in many ways “better” than either Dolls LP. Sound quality is fuller, Johansen’s voice finds more expressive and musical range, and the rhythm section funks and flows instead of just pounding along. Guitarists Johnny Rao and Tommy Trask play genuine solos and respond to Johansen’s call. Conceptually, though, this is a mere singer-with-backup album in a post-garage mode. Who needs funk and flow—structurally and sonically, the music packs no distinctive kick.
The club where I saw the band was plusher (carpet on the floor) and straighter (drug warning in the john) than you'd expect of a venue showcasing the former David Doll, even in West Orange, and it drew a crowd to match. For openers, the sound system offered mainstream new wave—Bowie, Ramones, Patti Smith, Mink DeVille—with one nod to the underground: “The Kids Are Back,” by Syl Sylvain's band, the Criminals. That was in honor of Syl, who had sat or bounced in with the band the previous weekend, then agreed to join on at least through this month’s West Coast tour with (headliner) Tom Petty. But while Syl’s machine-gunning guitar antics enlivened the first set, they weren’t enough. Rao, Trask, and bassist Buz Verna—all big, swarthy, curly-haired, deliberately hoody Italians—moved so stylelessly they were hard to tell apart. The cacophony created by the count-‘em three guitarists was too controlled, and while the solos were genuine, they could almost have come off an Aerosmith record. If Johnny Thunders, a guitar primitive as classic as John Lennon or Jim Gurley, was stuck back in Paradise Lost (with a band that sounded a lot more like the Dolls than this one did), I wished Johansen could have gone to someone equally irrepressible—like Ivan Julian of the Voidoids or maybe Norman Schoenfeld of the Sic Fucks. Conceptually, this was a mere singer-with-backup gig.
The singer was also fairly wonderful, of course—lean, almost athletic, his white jacket-and-jeans set off by the pink hankie sticking out of a back pocket. He was still very funny—my favorite bit was the Crazy Guggenheim eyes that went with “look pretty fruity.” And as on the album, his newer songs were open and direct, vocally and lyrically, in a way the Dolls’ camp had never permitted. If the set seemed a little tight-assed, perhaps that was because there was press there, not to mention David’s mother (a college librarian) and two of his four sisters, beautiful women who shared his alertness, his good humor, and his forehead. Indeed, the second show was so tough and loose that the crowd demanded a second encore. In the course of the evening, the band played every tune on the new album (many of them twice), three Dolls oldies, and a number of covers, including the Supremes’ “Love Child,” the Four Tops’ “Reach Out,” and the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Johansen has always had great taste in other people’s songs, and these were telling choices. The Dolls’ covers—of the Coasters’ “Bad Detective,” Bo Diddley’s “Pills,” even Archie Bell’s “Showdown” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don't You Start Me Talking”—were inspired discoveries that a lot of people (including me on the first two) had never heard before. These new ones constituted an audacious revival of a style of schlock soul that is both déclassé—“Mockingbird” may be cute, but is James Taylor ever gonna risk a Teddy Pendergrass song?—and dangerously familiar, and while I approve of this as a move, I must report that only the Foundations song, which seemed irredeemable in 1969, took on the revelatory edge of a typical Dolls cover. “Reach Out” was especially problematic. I’ve never regarded the Tops’ version as knock-out Motown myself, but even those who do will admit that its clout depended on its freshness—the dramatic epiphany is an aesthetic effect that tends to wear out—and on Levi Stubbs’s vocal equipment. What Johansen offers instead is solid and assertively commercial with a saving touch of tasteless overstatement. At its least inspired, all his solo music threatens to turn into something similar. In West Orange, though “Reach Out” was as uninspired as it got, and it turns out that David Johansen can almost go one-on-one with either Dolls LP—after all these years, the Dolls are still more thrilling formally, but the new album is at least as satisfying to just put on. If listenability is what Johansen wanted to achieve, he’s made his point.
I never believed the Dolls were going to take over the world, but I think David Johansen is ready to become some kind of star. The pattern has already been established by Lou Reed and Nils Lofgren, both of whom led groups that were too good too soon and then cashed in the accumulated rep years later. What’s more, the evidence indicates that Johansen, who isn’t as perverse as Reed or as limited as Lofgren, will put together more consistent records and live shows than either. If he never comes up with another musical conception as exciting as some of Reed’s solo ideas have been, well, what do you want—Reed damn near invented the music Johansen has exploited so vivaciously, and Johansen now has something else in mind. He used to wax iconoclastic about his love for the Brill Building and AM pop, but one reason I doubted the Dolls’ hit potential was that he seemed to have no knowledge of what actually got on the radio in 1973. The quick acceptance of his new record by disc jockeys (FM, but that’s always where he belonged) in places like Atlanta and Denver—and New York, where the Dolls got very little air—is a sign of vitality, not compromise. The world is ready for David Johansen because David Johansen is ready for the world.
The main reason I wanted to talk to Johansen was to find out how much he understood of all this, and the answer was plenty. Except for the usual palaver about how the new record was “better musically”—meaning closer to an accepted level of competence—he talked like the best kind of honest careerist. He’d spent four months in the studio, true, but at least this time he knew what that could cost, and should the album go bust he won’t owe his soul to the company store. “I don’t know if I’m professional,” he told me, “but I try to be. And you know how it used to be—I didn’t even know about it.” He talked about how relaxed he was with his band—instead of biting his nails about who was going to fall over what in the middle of “Showdown,” he could even eat or sleep between shows. “You go on and you do the job, and you savor that. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after the Dolls, but I certainly had plans to make things run smoothly when I had the opportunity.”
Of course, what made Johansen bite his nails was what put all us Dolls fans on the edges of our seats, where fans ought to be. But there’s something to Johansen’s feeling that his new music can “encompass more emotion.” In the wake of a bitter breakup with his wife, Cyrinda Fox—it’s a long time, but he still tightens up when you stray too near the subject—he’s writing his first real love (or heartbreak) songs, showstoppers like “Donna” and “Pain in My Heart.” “When I was with the Dolls I didn’t really know too much about love,” he told me, and connected this to his understanding that the Dolls’ structure left him limited room for self-expression. As magical as the Dolls’ acting out was, it’s hard to blame him for feeling that he was stuck in a role: “I knew who I was, but I wasn’t positive.”
At around 4:30, we paid for the tuna sandwich and walked back to the shabby new building. David Johansen had a date with his boys, and he wasn’t going to be late.