I appreciate the idea that you can’t make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if you only recorded two albums. I doubt the New York Dolls will ever get that honor. Ah, but those two albums! Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion, has the Dolls ranked as the 304th best artists of all time, based only on those two albums (with a slight boost from their recent comeback). To get a feel for that ranking, Dion is #305, the Jackson 5 is #307. All Music gives both albums the highest 5-stars out of 5 rating. Robert Christgau isn’t entirely trustworthy here, since the Dolls are close to his favorite band ever, but he not only gave the two albums grades of A+, he handed out the same grade to their 2006 comeback album. Neither album sold very well, and they soon broke up. Most of the core members of the band have died. Johnny Thunders’ guitar might have been the key to the band’s sound ... I remember once describing his playing to my sister-in-law as, well, lacking in the kind of “chops” that most people identify as “good”. She wondered why anyone would like him. Trust me ... when David Johansen would play Dolls’ songs in his solo concerts, the one thing above all else they were missing was Johnny’s guitar, even though he was replaced by “good” guitarists. He gave the Dolls a feeling of danger, but it was a bizarre danger ... good-natured danger, I’d say. His playing was fun, but you never knew where it was going.
Here they are in 1973, playing the first song from their first album, “Personality Crisis”:
Johansen (and others in the band, including Thunders) embarked on a solo career, and we saw him several times in those years. His debut, David Johansen, was probably his best, although there were other good ones. It wasn’t until his fourth album, the live “Live It Up”, that he made much of an impact commercially. The album was recorded in 1982, and there’s a better live one from 1978, The David Johansen Group Live. Sometime in all of this, he recorded a video of his medley of Animals’ hits ... it’s never been established for certain, but we’re pretty sure Robin and I are in this one. (Look at about the 2:41 mark ... there’s a guy in a t-shirt with his back to the camera, situated next to Johansen’s legs, and there’s a curly-haired woman right behind that guy.)
His first solo album was full of great songs, many of them leftover from the last days of the Dolls. Here’s “Frenchette”:
Johansen’s career wasn’t going anywhere. I saw him open once for Pat Benatar ... the crowd didn’t know what to make of him, and booed him, which admittedly is par for the course for opening acts. (I left before Benatar came on.) He always had a good record collection ... on their two albums, the Dolls covered Bo Diddley, Archie Bell, the Cadets, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Leiber & Stoller.
And then came Buster Poindexter. Buster was a kind of lounge singer with good taste in songs, and on his first album, he covered a soca song that had been around for a few years, “Hot Hot Hot”. It made #45 on the singles charts and #11 on the dance/club charts.
I’m pretty sure that Soozie Tyrell, later of the E Street Band, is among the backup singers in that video. Buster/David even made it to The Tonight Show, where Johnny invited him over to chat. (This time Soozie has a bigger part):
He also found time to play The Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged:
Many years later, Johansen formed David Johansen & the Harry Smiths, named after the archivist who gave us The Anthology of American Folk Music (I told you, he has a good record collection). That group recorded two albums, featuring music by the likes of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, and Son House. Here’s Son House’s “Death Letter”:
The Dolls reunited in 2004. Johansen was still there, as was Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane. There’s a movie about Arthur as he prepares for the reunion shows, New York Doll. Less than a month after the reunion concerts, Arthur died. Here they are singing the Dolls song “Lonely Planet Boy”, with Syl adding a bit of Johnny’s great “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” at the start:
Finally, to go full circle, here’s the 2010 David & Syl version of the Dolls with “Personality Crisis”: