Die-hard New York Dolls revel in their trashy past



By Steve Newton

Looking back, 1973 was a wicked fuckin’ year for American guitar-rock albums. It saw the release of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, Blue Oyster Cult’s Tyranny and Mutation, Johnny Winter’s Still Alive and Well, and the debuts by Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Montrose, and the New York Dolls.

The most unlikely thing those seven acts from the heyday of 8-tracks and mag wheels have in common is that, in one form or another, all are still touring and making records-with no help from the Reaper. His scythe has proven particularly deadly when it comes to Skynyrd, of course, but over the years several Dolls and ex-Dolls have also been called up to that big gig in the sky.

With the passing last year of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, the only original members still breathing are vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain. The good news is those two die-hards are doing their best to keep the trashy New Yawk glam-punk sound the Dolls pioneered a live entity, with a tour that hits the Commodore next Thursday (September 1). As Johansen explains on the line from Staten Island, they were urged to reunite by Morrissey, who had once edited an early N.Y. Dolls fanzine.

“Morrissey was curating this thing called the Meltdown Festival in London”, explains the artist occasionally known as Buster Poindexter, “and he asked me to come and sing with the band. And after considerable deliberation I thought ‘You know, probably it would be fun.’ Originally the reunion was going to be a one-show deal, but then one show turned into two shows-because they sold out-and offers started comin’ in for festivals in England, so we decided to take a couple of those. Things just kinda meshed, so we’re still doin’ it.”

The Morrissey-rigged performance was recently released on CD and DVD under the title Morrissey Presents the Return of the New York Dolls Live From Royal Festival Hall, 2004. Those discs capture Johansen, Sylvain, and the still-kicking Kane rocking out on material from the only two studio albums the Dolls ever made, the self-titled, Todd Rundgren-produced debut and its follow-up, Too Much Too Soon. Helping the trash-rock pioneers put some punch into Johansen-penned tunes like “Looking for a Kiss” and “Vietnamese Baby” were guitarist Steve Conte, keyboardist Brian Koonin, and drummer Gary Powell from the Libertines.

For the Vancouver show, the drums will be manned by Brian Delaney-who played in Johansen’s previous group, the Harry Smiths-and Kane’s thundering bass runs will be handled by former Hanoi Rocks member Sami Yaffa. “For the CD and DVD, that’s the first show we ever played,” notes Johansen, “so we’re a hundred times better than that now.”

Although the original edition of the Dolls imploded almost upon impact, the band left its mark. Nothing less than seminal, New York Dolls provided a fast, loud, and raunchy template from which first-wave punks like the Ramones, the Damned, and the Sex Pistols cribbed much of what they knew.

Indeed, back in ’73, Johansen, Kane, Sylvain, and the two hardest-partying Dolls-professional junkies Johnny Thunders (guitar) and Jerry Nolan (drums), who both died in the early ’90s-were the wildest thing coming out of the Big Apple; the band was simultaneously voted best group and worst group in that year’s Creem magazine poll. Over in Britain, glitter-rock acts like David Bowie, T-Rex, and Mott the Hoople were all the rage, so somebody had to make a stateside stand for glam.

“We used to compete with the Harlots of 42nd Street,” recalls Johansen, “which was a group of guys who looked like truck drivers but dressed like the Dolls and wore, like, fishnet stockings over these big muscular hairy legs. They were my favourite band.”

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