When the surviving members of the New York Dolls first reunited back in 2004 at Morrissey’s behest—for a performance at the Meltdown Festival that the former Smiths singer and lifelong Dolls obsessive was curating in London—it was difficult to believe that the seminal band, which had been inactive for nearly thirty years, was storming the stage once again. At the time, suggesting that the Dolls would actually remain together, write new material and become a fresh creative force capable of recording three new albums would have seemed like a flight of sheer fantasy. But seven years later, here we are, greeting the arrival of the post-meltdown Dolls’ third release, Dancing Backwards In High Heels (out yesterday on 429 Records). To mark the occasion, we chatted with David Johansen about how it feels to be fronting the Dolls four decades after they first came together.
According to Johansen, Dancing Backwards came together in a short, somewhat frenzied rush of creativity. “We rehearsed for like three days,” he says, “And then we went into the studio for three weeks. It’s not really something that you get a chance to sit back and take a look at. By the time you go home at night it’s like you don’t even want to listen to that stuff, you want to listen to Maria Callas or something, to clear your head.”
Whether it was the between-session doses of opera or just the artistic frisson in the air, Johansen and original Dolls guitarist Syl Sylvain came up with a biting batch of tunes for the album. “Streetcake,” for instance, incorporates everything from Beach Boys-like background vocals to blues idioms, and deftly drops lyrical references to The Orlons, Tommy James and even the Dolls themselves, all into one big pop-culture blender. “I think it’s a great song,” says Johansen. “Those different influences, they just get layered on one at a time. Syl had an instrumental version of that song that he had made at his house…I just thought it was such a—I guess I want to use the word ‘confection’—that I guess we wanted to have a lot of pop references in it.”
The Dolls have always been emblematic of their hometown’s gritty underbelly, and on “I’m So Fabulous,” they take a pointed poke at the poser “arrivists” who make life wearisome for real New Yorkers. “You could aim it at a lot of different people I guess,” figures the feisty Johansen, “I know these kids who have this kind of faux Web site called the Upper West Side Style blog, and they take pictures of people on the street, like, wearing Birkenstocks and stuff. I don’t know—there’s a lot of that stuff going on. It’s kind of about how people come to New York and they start making rules, like ‘Where we’re from they don’t allow smoking in the park,’ or something, ‘So we want to have that here.’ And it’s like ‘Whoa! We’re here already.’”
The album contains a couple more overt links to the band’s past, too. Back in the ‘70s, the Dolls were recording ‘60s R&B covers like Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Showdown,” and Dancing Backwards includes the Dolls’ take on The Blue Belles’ ’62 single “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” “It really rocks,” Johansen reckons, “We had it on a mix tape that we would play before the band plays at shows, and we just kind of always dug it, so we decided to play it. Then we put strings on it, and girls [singing backup], and horns, we threw everything at it. I’ve known it as long as I can remember; I play it on my radio show on Sirius.” The guys even cover themselves, by delivering a new version of “Funky But Chic,” which opened Johansen’s 1978 solo debut album. “A lot of people have been telling us we should cut that song for various reasons,” the singer explains, “Depending on what school they’re from, like agents have been saying ‘Oh, if you cut that song we can use it in movies.’ It’s a song that Syl and I had written for the Dolls originally, and then I recorded it, but one day we just thought ‘Okay, let’s play it and see what it sounds like, in the studio, and it rocked pretty good, so it stayed in the mix.”
As for Johansen’s working relationship with his longtime sidekick Sylvain— the only other original Doll left since bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane passed away shortly after the Meltdown show— things remain rosy. “Syl is like a conduit to this music of the spheres,” Johansen enthuses, “And it just kind of comes out of him. I really get where he’s coming from. We have a lot of the same passions for rock & roll music, and maybe as time goes by we kind of influence each other, like ‘Give this genre another chance and put it into your palette.’ We do it really subconsciously. The psyche has so many things that it digs that are floating around in there, and when you’re a musician you kind of filter them all through something and it comes out as your own thing. It’s not just music, you’re bringing politics and philosophy and all kinds of stuff into it. So it’s really from the soup of the psyche that you create a song. If you can do it without thinking consciously so much, to me it’s successful, and Syl and I seem to have the capacity to do that when we’re writing together.”
It’s Sylvain and Johansen’s shared enthusiasm for performing that fuels the band’s forward motion as well. “We dig playing together, me and Syl,” says Johansen, “We like going out and doing shows. When we began we were only gonna do one show, it wasn’t like we had a plan to be reunited per se. After we did that show we got asked to do some other shows, and we thought ‘Okay, let’s do it, because it sounds good and we’re having fun.’ And then after about a year of that, we decided ‘You know, this is like a band, we should make a record.’ If I’m digging it, I’m not really questioning it so much.” Life on the road these days is a far cry from the old grind though. Johansen says, “In the David Johansen Group, the band I had after the Dolls, I used to be in a van about 287 nights a year, traveling to the next town, and it got kind of tough on my ass. But the way we tour now, we do buses and stuff like that, it’s much more livable. At that time, oh God, I felt like I had been run over by a truck half the time.”
In the long period between iterations of the Dolls, of course, Johansen has incorporated traditional folk and blues influences into his work, especially with his acoustic-based band The Harry Smiths, named for the creator of the legendary Anthology Of American Folk Music. It turns out those influences remain a part of his musical makeup. “As a kid I used to sing those songs, like the Harry Smith kind of songs,” recalls Johansen, “And I also used to sing Wilson Pickett songs and stuff like that, so even when I was like 15 years old I would have that folk/blues thing going on and also have, like, a dance band. So they’re all really strong influences on me. That folk/blues music, to me that’s biblical, that’s like the Book of Life, and then the other stuff is really rhythmic in a way that I really dig, so I just try to find a way to put it all together. I filter a lot of ideas through those old songs I was listening to when I was growing up, because they nourish me in a metaphysical way.”
So, with the Dolls a going concern once again, does Johansen ever allow himself to wonder whether late founding members like Kane or guitarist Johnny Thunders—who died a drug-related death in 1991—would be with the band today if they were still around? “ Arthur, of course, would,” reckons the singer. “If John had gotten to a point in his life where he could travel extensively, I’m sure he would too. When you’ve got your ankle chained to the drugstore it’s hard to go anywhere and do stuff, and the thing about being in a rock & roll band is really about moving, and going to a lot of places all the time. I suppose we could have created some kind of long-running Broadway show,” he says wryly, “And maybe it would have worked out. But it’s so hard to speculate on that; you can have an idea with a rosy ending, or you can look at history and face facts.” At this, Johansen allows himself a low, world-weary laugh that suggests he’s faced his share of facts himself, and is thankful for whatever degree of rosiness currently colors his own existence.