The Legend of the Lipstick Killers

The New York Dolls

Johnny Thunders

It was the last concert the New York Dolls would ever play. Malcolm McLaren had put them in red patent leather outfits, hung a hammer and sickle flag behind them and sent them off to Florida for a 1975 “spring break” gig. It had been three years since the band formed and things had since turned sour. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had become druggies and Arthur Kane’s drinking was so bad he was often replaced on stage by Dolls roadie Peter Jordan. I had broken my ties with them, while Malcolm — who would later go on to create the Sex Pistols — swooped in to get them in shape and resurrect their careers. Often referred to as David Johansen’s “haberdasher in London”, Malcolm would soon realize that the Dolls had become unmanageable.

When Thunders and Nolan couldn’t score dope in Florida and left for New York, it was the last straw, the end of the band. But what the Dolls ended that day was the beginning of everything that came after them in the music business. They were the first band to give a voice to the alienated kids of the seventies who were sick of listening to the “pap strains” of Loggins & Messina and Carly Simon on the radio. The “no future” concept that spawned punk started with the Dolls. They paved the way and, in the process, made all the mistakes.

I was a leading music industry promotion executive for Buddah Records in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but then I unexpectedly dropped out, burnt out and sick of the hype. It took a new band I discovered at the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village to bring me back. I became their manager and made rock ‘n’ roll history. The band was called the New York Dolls.

This is their story.

The late Neil Bogart and I lived in the Top Ten at Buddah and were fresh faces in the business, young New York City record hustlers who promoted our way onto the worldwide record charts with hits like “Green Tambourine”, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”, “Simon Says”, “1-2-3 Redlight” and “The Worst That Could Happen”. Those records sold millions but the record industry hated them because they were teenybopper hits. We didn’t care because those teenybopper hits gave us houses, cars, bank accounts, and careers.

But, with the emergence of the counter culture and the Woodstock Nation, the record biz changed. The Vietnam War, protest marches on Washington, Richard Nixon, women’s liberation, gay rights, racial strife, and civil unrest were just some of the issues of the day. A cultural revolution was underway and rock ‘n’ roll began challenging America’s beliefs and principles. The prevailing mood was that of the dissenting youth, who were in opposition to government lies and deceit. The birth of FM radio and anti-establishment “message music” was taking hold until Nixon diffused the revolution by threatening non-renewal of their licenses. The record industry capitulated. By the early ’70s all you heard were singer/songwriters and soft, non-threatening sounds.

The night my wife Betty and I decided to celebrate my newfound freedom was the night I happened upon a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a lovely spring evening in early ’72 and Betty and I went down to the Village, had dinner and afterwards were walking around when we came across the Mercer Arts Center, a complex of off-off Broadway theaters. Mercer had five or six rooms of different sizes, floor to ceiling mirrors throughout and looked like the set of the movie Clockwork Orange. Business wasn’t thriving and the owner — an air conditioning mogul with a love of the arts — had been forced to open the complex to rock bands on off nights. The marquee outside read “New York Dolls — $3 / 2 shows”.

“Hmm”, I thought, “great name”, and remembered my friend Danny Goldberg had mentioned they were the best unsigned downtown band. We paid the six bucks, went in and sat by the stage in what was called the Oscar Wilde Room. Betty and I were ready for anything.

The lights dimmed and the Dolls came out and tore into one of their anthems, “Personality Crisis”. At first I couldn’t get past the sight of them. They were visually remarkable. While everybody in America were wearing army coats and earth shoes, here were these guys decked out in leather and leopard skin with bouffant hairdos, black nail polish, lipstick, six inch platform boots, chopped jeans, feather boa’s, armbands and pantyhose. It was a style beyond femininity and thrown together in such a way as to appear natural. Then I zeroed in on their music . . . loud and hard ghetto music about girls, sex, drugs, loneliness, heartbreak and the rites of teenage romance. In other words, real rock ‘n’ roll.

I had never seen or heard anything like it and instantly knew they made everyone else look tired, which at that time meant David Bowie, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music. Betty and I looked at each other and smiled. One thought was spinning through my mind: what would the world think of the Dolls indeterminable gender bending? Is this too real? I was gonna find out.

Two weeks later we met in the legendary back room of the Max’s Kansas City club to discuss careers — theirs and mine. David Johansen, a witty, fearless, and articulate 19-year-old, emerged as their spokesman. “We’re gonna conquer the world and we’re here for your sons and daughters”. He resembled a young Mick Jagger — and many rock writers would make an issue of this — but that’s where the comparison ended. The Dolls were on common ground with a developing new generation — the kids of the ’70s — while the Stones were already in their 30s.

Johnny Genzale, a.k.a. Mr. Johnny Thunders, was an Italian street kid, a walking / talking rock encyclopedia who once tried out for the Philadelphia Phillies. Sylvain Sylvain had been born in Cairo and raised in NYC. He was very extroverted and looked like an impish Harpo Marx. Arthur Harold Kane, Jr., the bass player, had worked one legit job in his life for the telephone company, but was fired for ransacking pay phones on his repair route. The original Dolls’ drummer was Billy Murcia. He was from Bogota, Columbia and would die a few months later in a drug related accident in London — an accident that shouldn’t have happened. These were the raw Dolls — hungry, inspired, loose and eager to turn it up beyond the red zone.

I signed on as the Dolls manager in June, 1972 and brought in two former William Morris booking agents, Steve Leber and David Krebs, to co-manage the band. They would handle touring and I’d interpret the Dolls for fans and the record business. The team was set. We were ready to shape history and shake the rafters, too. Moms and dads would hate this band. I loved it. Meanwhile, the Dolls were selling out the Mercer Arts Center every Tuesday night and had moved to a larger theater within the Mercer complex. New York’s intelligentsia crowd heard this downtown buzz, too. Rock stars, writers, artists all showed up — Elton John, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Peter Max, Fran Lebowitz — along with the ’70s hard core kids the Dolls spoke to and for. The Dolls, in the meantime, were moving further towards confronting the issues of the day — violence, abuse of women, the war, sexuality in all forms, answers and solutions for unconscious teens. Information and entertainment was what it was all about, and the bottom line was there were no limits to the Dolls intentions to disrupt the establishment.

Behind the scenes, Leber and I were discovering the price they were paying for it. The record business perceived the Dolls as too dangerous, too radical, too frightening even to be in the same room with, too hard to sell. Every time Leber and I talked to record people we came across an invisible wall. Could they play as well as the Allman Brothers? What is this gender bending thing? Are they gay? The homophobic record honchos didn’t understand and, as a result, superficially evaluated the Dolls. “Steer clear”, they whispered. The Dolls, of course, did nothing to tone it down and believed if they were just themselves, eventually people would accept them. Leber and I knew it was going to be an uphill battle and were forced to conclude that the U.S. record industry was too conservative and the band too outrageous for kids outside of Manhattan. The rest of America would need to learn somehow that the Dolls were okay. We decided to take them to England, where it would be obvious the Dolls were the hottest unsigned band in the world. England’s sexually repressed society would freak out, and love them. We flew to London in October 1972. But what should have been the beginning of the band’s success turned into a major tragedy.

They opened for Rod Stewart and The Faces at Wembley Auditorium in front of 13,000 people, never having played to more than 350 people anywhere. The reaction was mixed. One reviewer later wrote, “the future belongs to the New York Dolls and English glitter bands like Slade, the Sweet and T-Rex were soft by comparison”.

Among the people in the audience were Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the managers of the Who. They saw in the Dolls a newer version of the Who and the Stones and wanted to sign them to the Who’s new Track label. Within 24 hours the record companies started making their offers. Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, sent a telegram from NY saying, “we’ll give you $50,000 to come with us”. Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stone Records wanted them, too. There was no doubt about a deal anymore. It was just a matter of how much would be paid.

On the night I was hoping to make a deal and secure all of our futures, I received a phone call in my hotel room from Billy Murcia asking to borrow five pounds. He said he had been trying to call a friend, got a wrong number and ended up in a conversation with people he didn’t know but who knew all about the Dolls. They invited him to a party and he needed a little extra money. I told him to take the limo we had parked downstairs and to send it back to pick me up for my meeting later that evening with Lambert and Stamp to discuss signing with Track Records. Leber and I were asking for a ridiculous amount of money, something like 350,000 pounds, which was unheard of at that time. In the middle of the meeting I received a frantic phone call. The conversation lasted 15 seconds.

“Marty, come quickly. Billy Murcia is dead”.

Shocked and stunned, I left the meeting without an explanation. Five minutes later my cab pulled up to the tenement building where Billy had gone to party. I identified myself and was led into a bedroom where Billy was propped up against the bed on the floor. Nobody knew what had happened, or so they claimed. I learned later from the autopsy report that Billy had mixed Mandrakes, the British equivalent of Quaaludes, with alcohol and collapsed. Someone placed him in an ice-cold bath and poured coffee down his throat and he choked on his own regurgitation but might have survived if allowed to simply sleep it off. The other Dolls pulled up when I went downstairs. They were in shock and were crying. I identified Billy’s body for Scotland Yard and sent the Dolls back to NYC on the first plane out. I knew if I didn’t get them out of London immediately, it would have hit the front pages of the trashy London tabloids and I wanted to spare the Murcia family and the Dolls any further anguish.

Billy’s death caused greater curiosity and interest in the band. The unnecessary tragedy garnered them worldwide attention but also blew their big moment. Everything was put on hold. The record honchos weren’t about to invest in a band that might not even exist. About a month later the word came down from the band: “let’s find another drummer and do it for Billy”. After some auditions, Jerry Nolan — an army brat and great musician — was chosen to be the fifth Doll.

On December 19, 1972, the Dolls played their first gig with Jerry at The Mercer Arts Center. They were great. Four hundred fifty people squeezed into Mercer’s largest theater to see if these were the same Dolls as the ones they had loved. The record honchos came, too. They still didn’t like what they witnessed, but were now afraid to ignore the band. The Dolls were reborn. It was a triumphant return to New York City. By springtime of ’73, everything was back on track. Leber and I continued to fuel the fire and to make it virtually impossible to ignore the Dolls. We booked them uptown, downtown and out into the ‘burbs on a non-stop schedule. Friends advised “don’t overexpose them” but no matter how many shows they played the crowds kept getting bigger. The Dolls were now hotter than ever. Everyone wanted a piece of them, to be seen with them, to sleep with them, to get high with them. Finally, we got a break. Mercury Records, thanks to the efforts of A&R man Paul Nelson, signed them. We didn’t get our asking price of $250,000, which they truly deserved, but did receive a substantial advance and serious commitment from a major record company. This was the beginning. Now the difficult part: the record they would have to make would have to embrace the mainstream without blowing off their hardcore following.

They recorded their first album in two weeks for $17,000 with Todd Rundgren producing. Although he did an adequate production, his personal treatment of the band caused resentment and friction in the studio and most of the Dolls thought he hadn’t captured the true raw power of their sound. Nonetheless, the record is considered a rock classic. The debut album was released in July 1973. The “transvestite” photo of the Dolls on the album’s front cover scared the hell out of people and seemed to confirm rumors they were gay. In reality, they were taking shots at the glitter scene and its one-dimensional fashion agenda. Their “camp” humor missed the mark but for those who understood, it was a typically on-target Dolls statement. The Dolls saw themselves as musicians, not the latest trend, and while they were innocently poking fun at glitter, the rest of the country saw them as degenerate queers and drug addicts, which, in the end, turned out to be partly true.

The night before their first national tour was to begin in Los Angeles, I received a call that Arthur’s girlfriend had tried to cut off his thumb with a kitchen knife. Connie, who would later date Dee Dee Ramone, stabbed him, too. Dolls roadie, Peter Jordan, filled in while Arthur healed. They were booked into L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go club for four nights, two shows a night, and sold it out in two hours. The word was out: the Dolls were coming to L.A. for the first time. It was a big event. They appeared on the nationally televised Midnight Hour TV show and gave America a first glimpse at what they’d been reading about for months. In Memphis, in the heart of the bible belt, the local papers ran articles warning mothers and fathers not to let their children attend the upcoming Dolls concert. These articles portrayed the band as obscene perverts and New York degenerates. (Almost three thousand fans turned out to see the Dolls but the show was halted after a few songs and David was arrested for obscenity after an excited fan broke through the police lines in front of the stage and kissed him on the cheek). Three months later they were voted “Best New Group of the Year” and “Worst New Group of the Year” in the 1973 Creem year-end reader’s poll. “Hmm, promising”, I thought, and took out full page ads in Billboard magazine which said, “The Dolls: the band they love to hate”.

The most memorable Dolls show took place at NYC’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in October 1973. The hotel believed it was booking a debutante ball, but when 6,000 crazed and costumed fans showed up for a Dolls Halloween bash, there was hell to pay. Half the crowd had to be turned away for lack of space in the main ballroom, and when it was over the hotel lobby was left in shambles. This amused downtown rockers but seemed to confirm the Dolls, and their crowd, spelled trouble. Similar incidents took place on their second tour of Europe. A major riot occurred at the Bataclan Ballroom outside of Paris when 4,500 enthusiastic fans were turned away for lack of space and were dispersed by police with clubs. During the show, Johnny Thunders smashed his guitar over the head of a fan who unrelentingly kept grabbing his leg during the performance. This, of course, overshadowed the police brutality in the TV and newspaper reports of the event.

It seemed like there was no end to controversy. For all their successful interviews (David could control interviews and deflect the most pointed questions with hip humor and finesse), there were incidents that didn’t help their reputation. Like the time 300 journalists from all over Europe assembled in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in Paris for a noon Dolls press conference but the Dolls were nowhere to be found. So I opened up the bar and ran up an $8,000 bar tab until the Dolls appeared around 4:00 p.m. Mercury / Europe went berserk. (Actually I thought it was an excellent public relations investment and that the best press conferences are fueled by drink. The resultant rave publicity couldn’t have been purchased for 10 times the amount spent on booze). “This happened to Elvis and the Stones”, I reassured Leber, who by now was convinced I was an absolute lunatic. These events and ongoing incidents signaled the beginning of my differences with him.

We were in the second year in the life of the band and Mercury called for a second album. George “Shadow” Morton was chosen to produce. The critics jumped all over it with a vengeance and pronounced it “too commercial”. It was obvious to me that we’d have to suffer through a critical backlash. They build you up and then rip you down. By the summer of ’74 the band still wasn’t turning a profit. We weren’t losing money anymore, and each Doll was receiving a $200 weekly paycheck, but we were barely staying afloat. But what really pained us the most was that we were still unable to get across what was so real about the Dolls: the fact that they were simply a great rock ‘n’ roll band. And not being able to break down those invisible walls was taking its toll.

First Johnny, then Jerry started shooting heroin. I noticed changes in their appearance and behavior plus Arthur’s alcohol intake escalated and he had to be constantly watched. David and Syl were obviously aware of what was going on and became increasingly unhappy over this turn of events. Mercury told me the second album’s sales should have been greater. I asked them “how many new groups on your roster have sold as well and received as much press around the world?” I never did get an answer. By this time I was fighting not only my partner, but my record company, too. And to make matters worse, my marriage was falling apart.

Once again we hit the road to promote an album. A tour of the Dolls, Aerosmith and Kiss, with the Dolls headlining, played the midwest to 5,000 in attendance one night and 200 the next. It was totally unpredictable. Leber blamed me for Johnny and Jerry’s substance abuse, as if I could control it. Dolls sycophants were whispering “get new managers, go to another label”. I decided that in order to keep the ship afloat I’d take a back seat and allow Leber to run with it. But I knew it was too late.

The Dolls were forced to revert back to the club circuit. This was a step down for them, a tough pill to swallow. The press backlash, personal excesses and management differences, coupled with two years in the “eye of the rock hurricane” had taken its toll. Contrary to popular belief, Mercury wanted another album but only if the Dolls would clean up, write new material and understand this was not just a rock’n’ roll party. It was a business.

Enter Malcolm McLaren. He convinced them he could resurrect them and almost did. The new Dolls were unveiled to rave reviews and looked again like they just might happen the way so many of us so fervently believed they would. I was rooting for them for personal reasons and also because they were still under contract to me. But then came the Florida incident. Malcolm was forced to conclude as I had that the Dolls were unmanageable. He survived but the band didn’t. Malcolm returned to London loaded with valuable information and insights and created the Sex Pistols, a sideways version of the Dolls’ attitude, the Ramones riff and Richard Hell’s look. As it turned out, the world wasn’t ready for the Sex Pistols either.

I broke up with my wife as the strain of the Dolls took its toll on me, too. David later became Buster Poindexter, married noted photographer Kate Simon, had a big hit with “Hot, Hot, Hot” and acted in some major movies and TV sitcoms. These days, from what I’ve heard, he spends much of his time watercolor painting and recently released a well-received collection of Anthology of American Folk Music covers called David Johansen and the Harry Smiths. Sylvain, and his teenage son, live in Atlanta, where he produces new artists and records new songs with his band. Arthur inherited family money, moved to California and no longer drinks a drop. Johnny and Jerry formed the Heartbreakers and toured the world, but continued drugging until it killed both of them within months of each other. Leber made millions with Aerosmith. I started Red Star Records and produced Suicide, the Fleshtones and the Real Kids and worked with Blondie and the Ramones.

I remember meeting Johnny in London years after the Dolls broke up. We talked into the wee hours of the morning about our unique adventure. He was a tremendously likable person, which comes as a surprise to most people who couldn’t see past his outrageous exterior. At the end he was just a real musician at heart. Everyone blamed everyone else for the Dolls’ demise. The New York Times wrote a touching obituary. Leber and I attacked each other for years and finally buried the hatchet. The general consensus was they were ahead of their time — too much, too soon.

But I see it like this: the Dolls reflected their generation’s frustrations and were a source of information and inspiration for many locked-out and marginalized kids. Part of the beauty of the Dolls was that despite scornful criticism, they still managed to laugh at themselves. In their wake came the Ramones, Blondie, Sex Pistols, the Clash, Mötley Crüe, Guns ‘N Roses and scores of others who were amused, informed and inspired by the Lipstick Killers, despite, or because of their human frailties.

Marty Thau — along with Eric Olsen and Mike Crooker — publishes the excellent Weblog TRES PRODUCERS — “thoughts on culture, music and stuff.”

(Reprinted with permission of Marty Thau and Tres Producers)