New York Dolls

views updated May 29 2018

New York Dolls

Rock band

For the Record

New Beginnings

Too Much Too Soon

The End

Epilogue for a Band

Selected discography


Fusing the raw, rock n roll energy of the late-sixties era Rolling Stones and the funky fashion sense of the then-emerging glam-rock scene, the New York Dolls are considered by many to have been the starting point of punk rock in the early seventies. When the group formed in 1972, lead singer David Johansen, lead guitarist Johnny Thunders, rhythm guitarist Syl Sylvain, bassist Arthur Kane, and drummer Billy Murcia leaped into cult status before ever recording an album or ever playing outside a few venues in New Yorks downtown music circuit. Although short-lived, the Dolls made a lasting impression on the late-seventies punk revolution and so bands that claim that period as an influence can include the Dolls as ancestors as well. With three members succumbing to drug related deaths, and Johansen continuing his Buster Poindexter persona, the Dolls chapter in rock history is all but closed.

Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia, and I formed the New York Dolls out of New Town High School, Queens [New York], Sylvain recalled to Jon Savage, author of Englands Dreaming. When they formed Sylvain and Murcia were working at a clothing store in Queens. Thats where we got the name for the band, Sylvain is quoted as saying in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. The New York Doll Hospital, a place where they fix rare dolls, was right across the street. That was at the beginning of 1972 and Kane and Johansen joined shortly thereafter. Johansen, with his intelligent wit and Jagger-like stage moves provided an ideal focal point for the bands outrageous mix of high energy, classic rock n roll rhythms and transsexual style.

There wasnt a lot of intellectualizing going on when we started the New York Dolls, said Johansen was in Please Kill Me. It was just a bunch of guys practicing in a storefront who started playing together. None of us said to each other, You wear this or you do that. Although they were considered part of glitter rock, Johansen said they didnt consider themselves as such because it was primarily the audience who wore glitter. The Dolls wore womens clothes, high heels, and lipstick. Ed McCormack, in a 1972 profile for Rolling Stone noted, Before going onstage, the Dolls pass around a Max Factor lipstick the way some bands pass around a joint.

The furor surrounding the Dolls began in a fit of desperation by the managers of the Mercer Arts Center, a now-defuncttheater/nightclub complex on Manhattans Lower East Side, who hired them to play in the Oscar Wilde Room every Tuesday night. The center would feature plays in one room, a cabaret show in another room, conceptual art in the room next to that, etc. The center also had a bar that was doing lousy business, that is until they hired the Dolls. They didnt even want us at the Mercer Arts Center until they counted the bar receipts, guitarist Thunders told McCormack. Indeed, the Mercer Arts Center became the place to see and be seen. In a matter of months the Warhol art crowd, Lou Reed, Bette Midlerand almost every nightDavid Bowie would be in the audience. Not since the original Velvet Underground has any local band cultivated such a loyal cult following among neo-decadents in New York, McCormack wrote, andmore surprisinglymanaged to do so without benefit of a recording contract.

Even more surprising was that, although each member had been in a band in high school, none of them were exceptional musicians. Jerry Nolan, who would later become the drummer for the Dolls, recalled in Please Kill Me, how he fell in love with the band right away. I said, These kids are doing what nobody else is doing. Theyre bringing back the three-minute song! These were the days of the ten-minute drum solo, the twenty-minute guitar solo. Id get into these incredible arguments with musicians my own age, friends of mine. They couldnt understand why these guys were getting so much attention. Id say, Toure missing the fing point. Theyre bringing back the magic of the fifties! Their songs were like nobody had ever heard for ten years: beginning, middle, end, boom-boom-boom. Johansen, in the same book, recalled how easy it was to become the darlings of lower Manhattan simply

For the Record

Members included David Johansen (born January 5, 1950, Staten Island, New York), singer; Johnny Thunders (born John Anthony Genzale, 1952, died April 23, 1991), lead guitarist; Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi), rhythm guitar; Arthur Kane, bass; Billy Murcia (died November 6, 1972), drums; Jerry Nolan (born 1946, died January 14, 1992), drums; after disbanding in 1975, Johansen and Sylvain put together a short-lived touring version of the band which included Peter Jordan, bass; Chris Robinson, keyboards; and Tony Machine, drums.

Formed in 1972 in New York, NY; achieved cult status based on live performances in Lower Manhattan; drummer Murcia drowned, replaced by Nolan, 1972; signed with Mercury Records, 1973; released debut album, New York Dolls, 1973; Thunders and Nolan left the band to form the Heartbreakers, 1975; Kane left immediately after, 1975; Johansen and Sylvain put together a band to tour under the New York Dolls name, 1976.

because there was nothing else happening. We were the only band around, really, so we didnt have to be that good.

The band soon signed a management contract with Steve Leber, David Krebs and Marty Thau. The trio of managers decided that America might not me quite ready for the Dolls, so they decided to break them in England and then return to America to sign a big recording deal. So the band from New York who had never even recorded a song or performed in front of more than 350 people at the Mercer Arts Center, flew to England to open up for Rod Stewart to an audience of 13,000. The English press were blown away by the outrageous Dolls and soon offers from record companies were flooding in to the management company. While this was going on, the band was enjoying the nightlife of London and one night, drummer Murcia went to a party at a flat in town. After a night of hard drinking and the ingestion of Quaaludes, Murcia started choking and passed out. Some people panicked and left, while the few that stayed panicked and put him in an ice-cold bathtub with running water to try and wake him. He drowned.

Manager Marty Thau reminisced in Please Kill Me about the aftermath of Murcias death. Everything came to a halt when that happened, Thau recalled. It took about a month for Billys body to be returned [to America]. Shortly after that, the band had a meeting and decided that we were going on. So we started looking for a new drummer. Jerry Nolan lobbied for the job and got it easily, he being a competent musician and a rabid Dolls fan. I loved that group so much you wouldnt believe it, he said in Please Kill Me. Even though I was the last guy in the group, no one was more dedicated or loved that group more than me. They were my dream come true.

New Beginnings

The first performance with Nolan was December 19, 1972, a little more than a month after Murcias death. By this time the Dolls were even bigger than before with all the sinister details surrounding the death of Murcia. After Billys death, we were a big smash, Sylvain told Savage, it got us a lot of publicity. We were living this movie: everybody wants to see it, and we were giving it to them. Interest from many record labels continued but most were too scared to sign the group, fearing theyd be too hard to handle. Finally after months of negotiations, the band signed with Mercury Records and prepared to record their first album, New York Dolls.

Produced by rocker Todd Rundgren in the spring of 1973, New York Dolls was, as Rolling Stonesaió in 1987 when they put it at 55 on their list of the Top 100 Albums of the Last Twenty Years, a fearsome document of rock & roll rage, a brick through the window of mellow hippie complacency.the Dolls lashed out with a declaration of teenage discontent that filtered the Rolling Stones spirit of rebellious arrogance through a sobering vision of atom-age youth robbed of its destiny. Songs like Frankenstein, Looking For a Kiss, and Personality Crisis were already hits of a sort around New York and for the first time, America heard the New York Dolls. Well, some of America: The album went to 116 on the charts and sold close to 50, 000 copies, but the figures were below Mercurys expectations. We had damn good songs, Johansen declared about the debut album to Rolling Stone. They had a message to them, they were socially conscious. Kids today, they put on a dress, but they dont know what to sing about.

Too Much Too Soon

The Dolls second album, Too Much Too Soon, was a more diverse effort, an attempt, perhaps, to appeal to the world that lives above Manhattans 14th street. Though there were still urban rockers like Babylon, Im A Human Being, and Thunderss Chatterbox, the album also contained Theres Gonna Be a Showdown, written by famed Philadelphia soul writers/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In his review, Rolling Stones Dave Marsh proclaimed, I think theyre the best hard-rock band in America right now. The album sold even less than the first, however, and the bands live performances, though always energetic were musically inconsistent. Many at the time pointed out that the albums title was an apt description of the New York Dolls.

By this time Thunders and Nolan were heavy into heroin and bassist Kane was a barely functioning alcoholic. Following a tour in support of the second album, the band remained stagnate, with few ideas about how to carry on. Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to create and manage the Sex Pistols, came to New York to pitch some ideas for the band. The Dolls had been to McLarens clothing shop in London, Sex, and were enamored of his tastes and business acumen. McLaren wanted to get out of London and saw the Dolls as an opportunity to do that. The New York Dolls were an adventure I wanted to have and see the world through, McLaren said in Please Kill Me. It was a means of travel. Although arrangements with McLaren were never formalized, he is often cited as being their manager at the end the bands existence.

McLaren began by getting Thunders and Nolan into a rehabilitation program for their heroin addiction and Kane into a hospital to treat his alcoholism. His next idea was to get the band out of the glam-rock scene and politicize them to the extent that they embraced Communism, or at least acted like they did. The band wore red patent leather suits and performed in front of a giant Soviet flag, complete with hammer and sickle. The new look didnt go over well with fans and even less so within the band. Thunders and Nolan were vocal about their dislike for McLaren, and Johansens enthusiasm for the whole thing became almost non-existent. Nolan, in Please Kill Me, recalls the time with McLaren as too artsy-fartsy. He had us dressing up in matching red leather suits and playing in front of a giant communist flag. It was so stupid!

The End

Following the red patent leather concert in New York, the Dolls went to Florida, where McLaren had booked them into a bunch of small, out of the way clubs. While staying at a trailer park/motel, owned by Nolans mother, the band had its final disintegration. Friction within the group was at its worst and following a group argument at dinner one night, Nolan stood up and announced he was leaving. Thunders, stood up and said he was going to leave as well. I thought they were leaving because they hated the group and there was no genuine likelihood of them having success in Tampa, McLaren recalled in Please Kill Me. This, of course, wasnt true at all. They really wanted to get back to New York because it was easier for them to score heroin.

Johansen then returned to New York, Kane went to California to escape from a girlfriend, and Sylvain and McLaren drove around Louisiana to look for new band members. Thunders and Nolan evidently tried to get the band back together, but Johansen didnt want to be in a band with anybody who had to run off and get heroin between shows. Instead, Thunders and Nolan formed the Heartbreakers with guitarist Richard Hell from the seminal New York band, Television, and bassist Billy Ficca. In the tradition of the Dolls, the Heartbreakers had a cult following and played hard edge, albeit sloppy, rock & roll. In 1976 Johansen and Sylvain put together a new version of the Dolls, but quickly realized the magic of the original Dolls was too closely tied to the times in which they started, and they aborted the project.

Epilogue for a Band

Johansen then pursued a solo recording career and had modest success until he created the tuxedoed, bouffant-haired, R&B rasper, Buster Poindexter, in 1981. The Heartbreakers remained successful for a few years and toured with keepers of the punk flame, such as The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Jam. Following the breakup of the Heartbreakers, Thunders released eight albums between 1978 and 1988 and was planning a new project with Nolan when he died of a drug overdose in New Orleans in 1991. Nolan formed his own band, the Idols, after the Heartbreakers disbanded and a few months after Thunderss death entered the hospital to undergo treatment for bacterial meningitis and bacterial pneumonia, conditions brought on by years of drug abuse. While in the hospital, Nolan suffered a stroke and went into a coma which he never came out of. He died in January of 1992 at the age of 45. Kane went on to play bass for a band called the Corpse Grinders, while Sylvain formed the Criminals, for which he played lead guitar and sang.

With only two studio albums, the New York Dolls continue to influence bands with their raw and inspiring attitude. People who sawthe Dolls said, Hell, anybody can do this, Johansen said in Please Kill Me. I think what the Dolls did as far as being an influence on punk was that we showed that anybody could do it. But more than their music, it was their sense of righteousness, the whats it to ya? punk sensibility that bubbles to the surface on the records. It was so obvious what we were doing to rock & rollwe were bringing it back to the street. And we thought thats the way you were supposed to be if you were in a rock & roll band. Flamboyant.

Selected discography

New York Dolls, Mercury, 1973.

Too Much Too Soon, Mercury, 1974.

Live in NYC1975/Red Patent Leather, Restless, 1992.

Rock n Roll, Mercury, 1994.



McNeil, Legs and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Grove Press, 1996.

Savage, Jon, Englands Dreaming, St. Martins Press, 1991.


Billboard, March 23, 1974.

Entertainment Weekly, July 10, 1992.

Rolling Stone, October 26, 1972; September 17, 1973; June 20, 1974; August 29, 1974; February 12, 1976; July 27, 1978; August 27, 1987; June 13, 1991; March 5, 1992.

Brian Escamilla

New York Dolls

views updated May 29 2018

New York Dolls

Rock group

An American "glam rock" band of the 1970s, the New York Dolls have often been considered as among both the best and worst groups in history. The Dolls are viewed most often as a seminal outfit whose sloppily played yet sharply crafted songs, outrageous demeanor, powerful stage presence, and self-destructive behavior paved the way for such musical genres as punk rock and hair metal (heavy metal with an elaborate fashion sense). Though the Dolls put out only two studio albums in their short existence, they are acknowledged as one of the most important yet underrated groups in rock music, a band of true originals who never achieved mainstream success but were far ahead of their time. In addition, the Dolls are regarded as a consummately tragic band, due to the premature deaths of four of their six members.

The group's definitive lineup was composed of David Johansen on lead vocals and harmonica, Johnny Thunders on lead guitar and vocals, Sylvain Sylvain on rhythm guitar and vocals, Arthur "Killer" Kane on bass, and Jerry Nolan, who replaced Billy Murcia, on drums. As New York street kids with a mutual love of rhythm and blues and early rock, the Dolls played short, witty original songs and covers by artists like R&B pioneer Bo Diddley and 1960s girl group the Shangri-Las. Though technically limited, the Dolls played fast and loud, with an energy bordering on aggression. They also had a particularly distinctive appearance—though heterosexual, they dressed in drag, wearing women's clothes and makeup. As performers they were raunchy and theatrical, often baiting their audiences or falling off the stage. The group was controversial: though disliked by many critics, they were applauded by young people who related to their rebelliousness and humor, as well as to the visceral quality of their music.

Looking for a Good Time

Speaking to Robert Christgau of Newsday, Thunders said that the Dolls saw themselves as "just a bunch of kids looking for a good time." Sylvain chimed in, "That's right, apple pie and ice cream." Sylvain, a Sephardic Jew born in Cairo, came to Queens, New York, after his family was exiled from Egypt during the Arab/Israeli War of 1956. He was the best friend of the Dolls' original drummer, Murcia, who had moved to Queens from Bogota, Colombia. Sylvain and Murcia designed clothes for the Truth and Soul line and played music in bands like the Pox and Actress. Johnny Genzale, a striking "bad-boy" type who was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, played bass in Actress, then switched to lead guitar. Genzale decided to change his name, first to Johnny Volume and then to Johnny Thunders, after Johnny Thunder, a Wild West hero in DC Comics. Actress subsequently became the Dolls of New York. The name, suggested by Sylvain, was taken from the Doll Hospital of New York, a place where toys were mended. When he left the band to work as a sweater designer in London, Sylvain was replaced as rhythm guitarist by Rick Rivets (George Fedorcik). Rivets's best friend, Arthur Kane, joined the group on bass. Kane was a Bronx boy, a straight-A student who got into the rock 'n' roll lifestyle after his mother died. When Thunders decided to forego singing lead in order to concentrate on guitar, the band drafted Johansen, a Staten Island native who liked Beat poetry and had acted with the Ridiculous Theatre Company, an avant-garde troupe. When Sylvain returned from England, he replaced Rivets, and the group began to play Manhattan clubs as the New York Dolls.

The Dolls played their first engagement at the Diplomat Hotel in New York City, a venue in Times Square. They took up a 17-week residency at the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex that attracted an exceptionally flamboyant audience, which the band tried to outdo. After playing regularly at the popular club Max's Kansas City, the Dolls established themselves as one of New York's biggest downtown bands. They hired Marty Thau, who had worked for several record labels, as manager. Thau attempted to get the band a deal in the United States, but when no record company would touch them, he took the Dolls to England. At Wembley Stadium, the Dolls opened for the Faces, a band featuring vocalist Rod Stewart, a performance that led to contract offers with several English labels. However, Murcia died unexpectedly, of drug-related causes, before a deal could be signed.

All Dolled Up

After returning to New York, the remaining Dolls considered breaking up, but were joined by Jerry Nolan, a former drummer for Shaker, and his addition brought new life and a greater professionalism to the band. Murcia's death had brought the group an additional notoriety, and domestic record companies began to woo them. In 1973 the Dolls signed with Mercury Records and recorded their first album, The New York Dolls, with Todd Rundgren, a noted musician and producer, at the helm. Sporting a controversial cover that showed the band in full drag, The New York Dolls came to be considered a classic record, one that reflected universal teenage concerns and social issues while representing the toughness and spirit of the Big Apple. Ira Robbins of Trouser Press wrote, "This record stands as a testament to American youth in the 70s." In the book Alternative Rock, Dave Thompson later called the LP "the yardstick by which all future glitter-trash merchants would be measured."

For the Record …

Members include David Johansen (born David Jo Hansen on January 9, 1950, in Staten Island, NY; son of a light opera singer/insurance salesman and a homemaker; married and divorced Cyrinda Foxe, married Kate Simon), lead vocals; Johnny Thunders (born John Anthony Genzale on July 15, 1952, in Queens, NY; died on April, 23, 1991, in New Orleans, LA; son of Emil and Josephine Genzale), lead guitar, vocals; Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi in 1949 in Cairo, Egypt; divorced; children: Odell), rhythm guitar, vocals; Arthur Harold Kane Jr. (a.k.a. Killer Kane; born on February 3, 1949, in Bronx, NY; died on July 15, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; attended Pratt College, earned degree in hotel management), bass, vocals; Jerry Nolan (born on May 7, 1946, in Brooklyn, NY; died on January 14, 1992, in New York City), drums.

Group formed in New York City, as the Dolls of New York, 1970; later changed name to New York Dolls; Dolls performed during 17-week residency at Mercer Arts Center and played regularly at Max's Kansas City, both New York City; PR man Marty Thau hired as band's manager, 1972; band opened for the Faces at Wembley Stadium, London, 1972; signed two-album contract with Mercury Records, 1973; released self-titled album in same year; toured U.S. and Europe; released second album, Too Much, Too Soon, 1974; group broke up, 1975; ex-Dolls worked as solo artists and occasionally played backup for each other onstage; surviving Dolls reunited at London's Royal Festival Hall, 2004; band (with Sami Yaffa on bass) played at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival in New York City, 2004.

Awards: Creem Reader's Poll (joint award), Best Group of the Year/Worst Group of the Year, 1974.

Addresses: Record company—Sanctuary Records Group, 45-53 Sinclair Road, London W14 0NS, England, phone: +44 (0) 20 7602 6351, e-mail: [email protected]. Management—Darren Hill, Ten Pin Management, phone: (401) 726-3728, website:

After the release of their first record, the Dolls went on a national tour, supporting English rockers Mott the Hoople. Reviewers commented on the strength of the songwriting by Johansen, Thunders, and Sylvain, and on the inventive guitar interplay between Thunders and Sylvain. Observers also noted the band's campy fashion sense and the resemblance of Johansen and Thunders to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, one of the Dolls' major influences. However, some critics condemned the band as a joke, calling them a group of amateurs who couldn't sing or play. Writing in Creem, Ben Edmonds called the Dolls "the most walked-out-on band in the history of show business." While on tour, the Dolls began to develop a reputation for rock-star excesses: drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, and even riots became standard fare. In England the Dolls appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a popular television program hosted by Bob Harris, who dismissed the band's music as "mock rock" in his on-air comments. While in England the Dolls became friends with fashion designer/entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who ran the vintage clothing shop Let It Rock. McLaren would later have a profound impact on the future of the Dolls.

Stranded in the Jungle

Back in the United States, the Dolls recorded their second album, Too Much, Too Soon (also called In Too Much, Too Soon), with producer George "Shadow" Morton, who had worked with the Shangri-Las. The album was named for an autobiography and film describing the tragic life of actress Diana Barrymore. It contained fewer original songs than its predecessor, and possessed a more polished sound, including female backing vocals and sound effects such as gunshots and gongs. Writing in Phonograph Record, Ron Ross commented that Too Much "chooses to represent the group as entertainers rather than rock and roll saviours. The album expresses their easy going ironic sensibility far more amusingly and accessibly than their first." Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone called the Dolls "the best hard-rock band in America right now." However, Too Much also received negative press for being underdone and overproduced. The group began another tour of the United States, but their problems, including cancelled shows and drug and alcohol addictions, began to cause internal strife. After being dropped by Mercury, the Dolls began to work with McLaren, who created a new image for them based on the Communist Party, complete with red leather suits and a hammer-and-sickle flag. Audiences did not appreciate the band's new politics, and in March of 1975 the Dolls broke up.

After the breakup of the band, McLaren returned to England, where he applied what he had learned from the Dolls to his new creation, punk-rock icons the Sex Pistols. Johansen and Sylvain kept the Dolls going with additional musicians until 1977, then both embarked on solo careers. Thunders and Nolan started the Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell, then worked together in LAMF and Gang War (with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer) before Thunders went solo. Kane formed his own groups, Killer Kane and the Corpse Grinders, with Rivets. Sylvain accompanied Johansen and Thunders on their respective first solo tours, then formed such groups as the Ugly Americans (with Nolan), the Criminals, the Teardrops, and Teenage News. Johansen had the most success as an individual artist. He also worked with the revivalist band the Harry Smiths, as an actor in films, as a disc jockey, and as a painter. In 1991 Thunders died in New Orleans from leukemia; traces of cocaine and methedrine were found in his system. In 1992 Nolan, who, like Thunders, had become a heroin addict, died from a stroke and from complications of pneumonia and meningitis. Kane, a recovering alcoholic, was mugged during the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and spent nearly a year in the hospital. In 2004 Morrissey asked the surviving Dolls to reunite at the Meltdown Festival, a concert that he organized at London's Royal Festival Hall. Johansen, Sylvain, and Kane played with Libertines drummer Gary Powell and guitarist Steve Conte, a boyhood friend of Murcia. That August, Kane died of leukemia; a few days later, the Dolls (with ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa) played Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival.

Although they were often reviled during their career, the Dolls have become legendary as a group that changed rock music, challenged stereotypes, and created the blueprint for subsequent bands like KISS, Aerosmith, the Clash, the Ramones, and Guns 'n' Roses. English rocker David Bowie wrote two songs based on his friendship with the Dolls, "Time" and "Watch that Man," and the Sex Pistols dedicated their tune "New York (Dolls)" to the group. Writing in Musician, Roy Trakin said, "Simultaneously stripping down the pretensions which [rock 'n' roll] had accrued during the hyperbolic 60s and building them up again with spit and glitter, the Dolls made rock 'n' roll matter again." In The New York Dolls: Too Much, Too Soon, Nina Antonia described the band as "the Bowery butterflies that irrevocably changed the course of rock 'n' roll." Speaking to Antonia, Johansen called the Dolls "the best high school band you ever saw!," while Sylvain described the group as "five little punky kids who had turned music upside down and started all over again." Speaking to Simon Goddard of Uncut, Kane said, "I don't think the world was ready for us. We weren't designed for the world." In an interview with Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Nolan recalled, "I loved that group so much you wouldn't believe it.... They were my dream come true."

Selected discography

"Personality Crisis"/"Trash" (seven-inch single), Mercury, 1973.

The New York Dolls, Mercury, 1973.

"Stranded in the Jungle" (seven-inch single), Mercury, 1974.

Too Much, Too Soon (a.k.a. In Too Much, Too Soon), Mercury, 1974.

Return of the New York Dolls: Live from Royal Festival Hall, Sanctuary, 2004.



Antonia, Nina, The New York Dolls: Too Much, Too Soon, Omnibus, 2003.

Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to Pop, Rock, and Soul, AMG/Backbeat, 2002.

McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Penguin, 1996.

Thompson, Dave, Alternative Rock, Miller Freeman, 2000.


Creem, October 1973.

Musician, October 1981.

Newsday, February 1973.

Phonograph Record, April 1974.

Rolling Stone, June 20, 1974.

Trouser Press, January 1980.

Uncut, June 2004.

—Gerard J. Senick

New York Dolls

views updated Jun 27 2018

New York Dolls

New York Dolls, progenitors of punk and “hair metal/’ the most important band that most people never heard; f. 1972. membership:David Johansen, voc. (b. Staten Island, N.Y., Jan. 9, 1950); Sylvain Sylvain (real name, Sii Myzrahi), gtr. (b. Cairo, Egypt, 1953); Johnny Thunders (real name, John Anthony Genzale Jr.), gtr. (b., N.Y., July 15, 1952; d. New Orleans, La., April 23, 1991); Arthur Howard Kane, bs. (b. Feb. 3, 1951); Jerry Nolan, drm. (b. N.Y., May 7, 1951; d. there, Jan. 14, 1992).

Despite two acclaimed and influential records, The New York Dolls never sold very well. It might have been their sound, which teetered dangerously on the edge of chaos, without going over (too often). It might have been their attire: They wore dresses, makeup, and platform shoes. However, many who heard and experienced the band, from Malcolm McLaren to the members of Poison, claim it changed their lives.

Sii Myzrahi came to America from Egypt after the 1956 Arab-versus-Israel war made Cairo untenable for Egyptian Jews. By the late 1960s, he was designing clothes and playing rock with his schoolmate, Billy Murcia, drm. (b. N.Y., 1951; d. London, England, Nov. 6, 1972). Their band, the Pox, recorded one never- released album. The sweaters they designed, however, were enormously popular, allowing the pair to take trips to England. There, they took in the burgeoning glam-rock scene.

After lapping up the British scene, the duo returned to N.Y Another ex- schoolmate, JohnnyGenzale, then known as Johnny Volume, joined the band. When the trio were reunited, they met under a sign for the New York Dolls Hospital (a place where they repaired valuable toys), and the three decided that the name was too cool for school. Volume became Thunders; and singer David Johansen and bassist Arthur Kane were enlisted to fill out the crew.

David Johansen’s father was a light opera singer who sold insurance to pay the bills.As a teen he hooked up with The Ridiculous Theater company, introducing him to flamboyant theatrics, which would become Johansen’s calling-card as a performer.

The Dolls quickly became the toast of the Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City, two influential downtown N.Y. nightspots. They were beloved as much for their trashy, campy appearance as for their Rolling-Stones-run-amok music. During their first tour of England, Murcia died of asphyxiation after mixing pills and alcohol, a sign of the kind of overindulgence that would plague band members for years to come. Jerry Nolan replaced him.

Mercury signed the band. In 1973, Todd Rundgren produced their eponymous debut and, a year later, legendary Girl Group producer George “Shadow” Morton tackled their sophomore effort, In Too Much Too Soon. Despite great songs like “Trash” and “Personality Crisis,” The Dolls were too far ahead of the curve for radio, which roundly ignored the band, as did all but a cult following of musicians and critics. Thunders and Nolan left the band to form The Heartbreakers, leaving Sylvain and Johansen to carry on as The Dolls until 1977.

Many of The Dolls had substance-abuse problems. The group would call on roadie Peter Jordan to play bass when Kane was too drunk. Thunders became such a notorious heroin addict, it became part of his act: Would he be too swacked to play on any given night?

Sylvain recorded a solo album in 1977, and when it didn’t take off, his record company dropped him. Almost simultaneously, he got divorced. He drove a cab for a while, then went back to clothing design, playing only occasionally.

The Heartbreakers earned a cult following, touring as frequently as Thunder’s health permitted, and recording several uneven albums. In 1991, Thunders died under mysterious circumstances in New Orleans, presumably of an overdose. Nolan died a year later of complications from pneumonia and meningitis.

The most successful of the ex-Dolls was Johansen, who went solo in 1978, although it took a fluke to launch his career. His eponymous solo debut featured such pop gems as “Funky But Chic” and “Frenchette” but again was not a mighty seller. He continued to attract crowds but, by the mid- 1980s, after several more critically acclaimed albums that didn’t sell, he started to get tired of the grind of the road and singing for crowds that seemed to stay 19, even as he pushed into his thirties. He once described the sight of fist-pumping, post-adolescents at a concert as reminding him of a Nazi Youth rally.

Seeking something new, Johnasen started playing one night a week at the N.Y. club Tramps, singing the old jump blues, early R&B, and Caribbean music that had captured his fancy at the time. To avoid confusion, he booked the shows as Buster Poindexter and his Banshees of Blue. He put on a tux, and put together a band that nominally played lounge music, but rocked. His martini glass and cigarettes were omnipresent. The act took off in a big way, and by 1988, Poindexter achieved the goal that had eluded Johansen for the previous decade: He scored a hit record with a cover of Arrow’s soca rouser “Hot, Hot, Hot.” Johnasen/Poindexter found himself on the Tonight Show, and in ads for Amaretto. Even Hollywood came calling, and he landed roles in the films Scrooged and Tales from the Dark Side.

Johansen continued to work as Buster Poindexter, exploring Latin music in English on Buster’s Spanish Rocketship in 1997. In 1999, he did an acclaimed set of 1920s blues and hillbilly songs with a band called The Harry Smiths, taking its name from legendary folklorist Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Meanwhile, Sylvain released his first new music in nearly two decades in 1998. The album, (Sleep) Baby Doll, paid tribute to both Johansen and his fallen friends in The Dolls, with covers of “Frenchette,” “Trash,” and one of Thunder’s last songs, “Your Society Makes Me Sad.”


N.Y. D.(1973); In Too Much Too Soon (1974); Rock ’n Roll (1994); Glam Rock Hits (1999). david johansen:David Johansen (1978); In Style (1979); Here Comes the Night (1981); Live It Up (1982); Sweet Revenge (1984). buster poindexter:Buster Poindexter (1987); Buster Goes Berserk (1989); Buster’s Happy Hour (1994); Buster’s Spanish Rocketship (1997). johnny thunders and the heart-breakers:L.A.M.F.-Lost Mixes (1977); So Alone (1978); Live at Max’s Kansas City 79 (1979); Que Será Será (1985); Have Faith (1996); Too Much Junkie Business (1999). sylvain sylvain:In Teenage News (1977); Baby Doll (1998).

—Hank Bordowitz

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New York Dolls

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New York Dolls