New York Dolls: Dancing Backward in High Heels
The New York Dolls embrace the post-millennial retro-futurism they helped spawn on the best album of their recent comeback.
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.