For two decades, the musical career of singer/songwriter David Johansen has been shaped by his considerable versatility. In the early 1970s he was the flamboyant lead singer for the New York Dolls, a rock and roll band heralded as America’s answer to the British group the Rolling Stones. With its male members sporting teased bouffants, outrageous makeup, and women’s clothing, the New York Dolls became a prototype for the punk rock groups that emerged later in the decade. Since the mid-1970s Johansen has also performed as a solo act—without makeup or costumes—and has recorded both original compositions and old favorites in a variety of genres, including rock, rhythm and blues, and reggae.
While never a commercial smash, Johansen was consistently praised by critics and developed a fiercely loyal following; in a High Fidelity critique of his album Live It Up, Mitchell Cohen declared, “David Johansen simply has terrific taste in music, a belief in its capacity to merge passion and craft, and a gregarious ringmaster personality.” In the mid-1980s Johansen adopted the persona of Buster Poindexter, a Las Vegas-style lounge singer, and performed a time-tested repertoire of saloon standards, including ballads, Latin songs, and blues. While seedy and slick, the tuxedoed, pompadoured Buster is more than a caricature; Rolling Stone writer Deborah Frost called Poindexter’s act “timeless,” adding, “wherever there’s a piano bar, he’ll have a home.” “Buster can have this great life in the public eye and take the rap for everything, and then David can go home,” Johansen told Margot Dougherty in People, “It’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done.”
Growing up in a large family on New York’s Staten Island, Johansen took to music early, singing the rock and roll favorites of his older siblings. As an adolescent he would often sneak off to Greenwich Village and Times Square to hang out with other teens interested in the music scene; during high school he sang and played the guitar for such local bands as Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs and the Vagabond Missionaries. By late 1971 Johansen had joined musicians Johnny Thunders, Rick Rivets, Arthur Kane, and Billy Murcia—with the later addition of Sylvain Sylvain and Jerry Nolan—to form the New York Dolls, playing regularly at the Mercer Arts Center in lower Manhattan. A local cult following developed around the group, attracted to its outrageous look, offstage decadence, and searing rock songs about adolescent confusion and revolt.
The Dolls’s music showed the influence of such groups as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and the Rolling
For the Record…
Born January 9, 1950, in Staten Island, NY; son of an insurance salesman and a librarian; married Kate Simon (a portrait photographer). Education: Graduated from Port Richmond High School.
Singer and songwriter, mid-1960s—; performed in local bands, including Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs and Vagabond Missionaries, while in high school; lead vocalist for the New York Dolls, 1971-75; solo performer, 1975—; assumed persona of lounge singer Buster Poindexter and performed with backup band Banshees of Blue, mid-1980s—. Member of avant-garde acting troupe Ridiculous Theatrical Company following high school; actor appearing in motion pictures, including Candy Mountain, Married to the Mob, and Scrooged; guest on television programs, including The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live; has appeared in television commercials.
Awards: Recipient of New York Music Award for best cabaret singer (as Poindexter).
Addresses: Record company —RCA Records, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
Stones, with lead singer Johansen exhibiting some of the characteristics of the Stones’s Mick Jagger. Obtaining a recording contract with Mercury Records, the group debuted with the album New York Dolls in 1973, followed by Too Much Too Soon a year later. Despite the band’s stage popularity with young audiences, its recordings were largely unsuccessful; Jay Cocks suggested in Time that “sardonic anthems like ‘Personality Crisis’ and ‘Vietnamese Baby’ did not sit easy on a pop establishment that was still recovering from flower power [a 1960s movement advocating love, beauty, and peace] and cuddling up to the peaceful, easy feeling of the California sound.” In addition, the group’s unsettling appearance and trouble[d] reputation—Murcia died of a drug overdose while the Dolls were on tour—put off major club owners and led to its demise in 1975.
For the next few years Johansen continued to perform, writing many of his own songs and searching for another recording contract. Blue Sky eventually released his 1978 album David Johansen; a reflection of his Dolls past, the album faltered commercially, but critics recognized in cult figure Johansen an accomplished songwriter and vocalist. The more successful In Style appeared in 1979 and delivered a soul-influenced rock. New Rolling Stone Record Guide contributor Wayne King noted, “From the opening Four Tops tribute, ‘Melody,’ through the beautifully rolling rhythms of ‘Swaheto Woman,’ Johansen sings with a passion and commitment unmatched by anything else in his career.” And Cocks observed in Time that Johansen “sings as if he has a gun pressed to his temple.”
Here Comes the Night, a collaborative effort with former Beach Boy bandsman Blondie Chaplin, preceded Live It Up, Johansen’s most successful solo album. Capitalizing on the energy of Johansen’s stage performances, Live It Up was recorded at Boston’s Paradise Theater and featured a mix of Dolls material, solo originals, and pop/rock classics. His rollicking medley of such sixties Animals hits as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” as well as a rendition of the Foundations’s “Fill Me Up Buttercup” put the album on the charts in 1982.
According to Frost, Johansen’s solo career suffered with the release of his I984 album Sweet Revenge, a “jungle of lame synths, limp rap and conventional ambitions.” The mid-1980s rise of Buster Poindexter “helped [Johansen] remember who he is,” continued the Rolling Stone critic, who called him a singer of “exuberance and wit.” “It’s me, really,” Johansen confirmed in People. “Sometimes I’ve found that by getting into a certain drag, or a certain feeling, you can cast off your mortal coil and really do something.” In his personal collection of 1,500 albums, Johansen possesses a number of cabaret favorites not suited for his rock shows. Singing these songs at a neighborhood bar with a couple of backup musicians, he developed the Poindexter persona, using his showman’s instincts to perfect the campy look and delivery.
With the 1987 album Buster Poindexter and its hit single “Hot, Hot, Hot,” Johansen and his alter ego enjoyed widespread recognition, and Rolling Stone named the LP “party record of the year.” Becoming a regular on national television and in print ads and continuing his live performances, the Poindexter persona has paved the way for chameleon Johansen to pursue a second career as a motion picture actor: he has made appearances in the films Candy Mountain, Married to the Mob, and Scrooged. Though the performer’s rock and roll days with the New York Dolls are part of music history, the innovative group’s impact on the punk rock movement will not soon be forgotten.
Has written and co-written numerous songs, including “Frenchette,” “Flamingo Road,” “Swaheto Woman,” and “Here Comes the Night”; collaborators include former New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain and former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin.
With the New York Dolls
New York Dolls, Mercury, 1973.
Too Much Too Soon, Mercury, 1974.
Lipstick Killers (1972 studio demos), ROIR, 1981.
Night of the Living Dolls: Best of the New York Dolls, Mercury, 1985.
David Johansen, Blue Sky, 1978.
In Style, Blue Sky, 1979.
Here Comes the Night, Blue Sky, 1981.
Live It Up, Blue Sky, 1982.
Sweet Revenge, 1984.
As Buster Poindexter
Buster Poindexter, RCA, 1987.
Buster Goes Berserk, RCA, 1989.
New Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Random House, 1983.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
High Fidelity, September 1982.
Los Angeles Magazine, July 1990.
People, January 25, 1988; May 21, 1990.
Rolling Stone, August 27, 1987, November 19, 1987; July 13, 1989.
Time, August 20, 1979.
Variety, March 7, 1990.
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