New York Dolls: Dancing Backward in High Heels

Photo: Anna Victoria

The New York Dolls embrace the post-millennial retro-futurism they helped spawn on the best album of their recent comeback.

New York Dolls

Dancing Backward in High Heels

Label: 429
UK Release Date: 2011-03-14
US Release Date: 2011-03-15
European Release Date: 2011-03-18
Artist website

When regarding veterans on their comeback like New York Dolls, I feel this distinct duty to act my age, which entails, inevitably, giving the oldsters an unusually hard time. There's no satisfying us. If you're still playing in your tried-and-true style, you're tired. If you're consulting young blood to keep up-to-date, you're embarrassing, Dad. If you try to have it both ways? It's a compromise you're too out of touch to handle gracefully. You can't win, so stop trying.

So I can already imagine the ridicule invited by the Dolls' third comeback album, Dancing Backward in High Heels. We'll hear it as a '60s pop pastiche thing and we'll think, "Oh, great, now David Johansen wants to be relevant." His choice of Jason Hill, of Louis XIV infamy, to produce, mix, and play bass, will strike us as appropriately clueless. All the talent he has to choose from -- probably a lot of it much cheaper -- and he pulls from precisely the wrong side of retro-fetishism: the Killers, Jet, and Kings of Leon side, the Madison Square Garden side, the commercial side. It's also, generally speaking, the pretty-boy side, which adds the extra-embarrassing angle of a midlifer reclaiming -- perish the thought -- his sex appeal. The snotty preconception practically writes itself.

Except, Jason Hill's problem isn't production, which has always been lush and glossy. It's Louis XIV's songwriting that sucks, which in turn makes the accompanying opulence sound indulgent and wasteful. The songwriting on Dancing Backward is left entirely up to the Dolls in attendance (except for the keen cover of The Basin Street Boys' "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman"). And it's good. Really good, actually. Why wouldn't it be? Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain were doing this retro-fetishism thing before its current purveyors were even twinkles in their daddies' eyes. You could even say they pretty much invented it.

Not that they need reminding. Johansen's still fabulous, according to "I'm So Fabulous", and furthermore, young people don't know shit. They are, in fact, "nebulous", a term once reserved for Debbie Harry's high school sweethearts, now far more terrestrial. Having pioneered the gender-bending extreme so foundational both to glam-rock's strut and punk-rock's anarchism, he's certainly entitled to a tirade about Old Noo Yawk and kids these days with harmonicas and a wailing sax. But if the tune starts with the biting "I'm so fabulous / You're Las Veg-i-us", its reference to the "hipsters on Broadway" and the city where "everyone's like ‘who gives a fuck'" makes me wonder if he's been in New York lately. Actually, intentional or not, his anachronism is kind of poignant: he's just a little bit behind but doesn't seem to know it, like a rock 'n' roll Norma Desmond without the self-absorption. (All he really wants, when all is said and done, is "sophistication / For all the population / Now!")

This antiquated language extends to the rest of the record, where it functions as an emblem of what once codified the Dolls' street cred -- the geographic details of NY-metro and the ain'ts and baby's, especially -- and now is simply part of their recognized style. We young people might caustically opine that time has decayed what meaning they once had. But rather than ignoring this possibility, Johansen and Sylvain turn it into a song, or so it seems, by the sound of "Talk to Me Baby" -- incidentally the album's best. "We die in proportion / To the words that we fling around," it begins, leaving no doubt as to how they feel about their own loquacious ways. "Poetry is a dead end," it goes on. "Don't try to give it a rhyme / Or even a reason / Just please, please be mine." So they're cheekily self-aware, which, I think, gives them as much cred now as they could possibly hope for.

But the last two comeback records -- 2006's One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This and 2009's Cause I Sez So -- also had that endearing meta factor, that sense that they're just glad to be here singing the same old songs about love L-U-V. My preference for this record is an aesthetic one. The Tony-Visconti-by-way-of-Phil-Spector sound on Dancing Backward, with its Motown strings, Memphis horns, and Laurel Canyon doo-doo-doos holds an appeal for me that the VH1-ready heartland rock of the last two simply didn't. Perhaps it's my age, my pretensions of cool, my inability to embrace sincerity that isn't spoken in kitsch. But it also simply seems to be a better fit for the Dolls. Johansen's inimitably throaty, lispy croon is less at odds with this refurbished pop than with the bar-band music of One Day and Cause I Sez So, perhaps because -- as I said -- this is closer to what they're known for.

And therein lies what might really be behind us young folks' mercilessness: rock's elder statesmen no longer have to fight for recognition. Their page in history already written, they now proceed with immunity with nary a care about their market value. When an indie hopeful switches between giving a girl "sugar" and telling her, "You don't have to cry / You can dry your eye," it's a rock 'n' roll cliché. When New York Dolls do it, they're just doing their thing. Holding them to unusually high standards is a way of leveling the playing field.

It's at this point that, after owning up to my Gen Y prejudices, I must respectfully defect from my peers. Pop runs just as much on personality as on music, so of course the appeal of the former helps us overlook shortcomings in the latter. And of course that would strengthen with familiarity over time. What's the use of denying that? So, yes, I think the concessions to the sound-du-jour made on Dancing Backward are wise. But as a fan, I also affectionately accept their refusal to part with their outdated vernacular. It's just part of what makes them the New York Dolls. Generational obligations aside, it would be dishonest to report that, aside maybe from one reggae track too many, they're in anything but top form.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.