Counterbalance No. 138: ‘New York Dolls’

New York Dolls
New York Dolls

Mendelsohn: Because I am a child of the 1980s, David Johansen has always been—and will always be—Buster Poindexter. In my mind he’s just some weird salsa singer and trying to make him into the lead singer of one of the most influential bands to come out of New York in the 1970s is just hard, hard, hard. I know he and the New York Dolls were almost singlehandedly responsible for the music scene in New York that spawned the likes of the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads—I know that, man. The Dolls’ protopunk and less-than-typical style also set the table for the punks who popped up later in the decade to the glam metal hair farmers who roamed the Sunset Strip in the 1980s. And that is quite the wide-ranging legacy, Klinger.

Listening to the New York Dolls’ self-titled debut, I get the feeling that this album is one of those important records should be revered for its influence but isn’t the type of record that invites repeated listening. But I think that is merely the downfall of being a trendsetter. These guys were way ahead of the curve—lipstick and all. The problem is, there will always be someone coming up behind you who can do what you do and do it better—or in a more interesting way. The New York Dolls did it first, but they certainly didn’t do it the best.

Klinger: You are insane. How you can sit through an entire album of solid rock awesomeness—one that begins with one of the all-time great Side One/Track Ones of all time (“Personality Crisis”), I might add—and come away thinking you had just sat through a history lecture on the roots of the New York rock scene is completely beyond me. Even if you can’t get beyond thinking of it as the prototype for the punk movement (and hair metal for some reason), you should still be able to hear it as one of the all-time great glam albums, and most certainly the best American glam album.

But then again, if you’re looking for a history lesson, the New York Dolls offer one of the most compelling in the business. Here you’ve got this group that cut their teeth on the gloriously trashy pop singles of the early ’60s, then repackaged it all in sleazy Lower East Side trappings and sold it to a bunch of London kids who put their own amateur spin on it to make straight-ahead punk. (The Dolls’ tour of the UK was even more influential than whatever junkie lolling about they did at home, by the way.) And you can’t see past a novelty bit Johansen did 15 years later? I am baffled.

Honestly, Mendelsohn, sometimes I think you just say these things to push my buttons.

Mendelsohn: It’s the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. That novelty bit that Johansen did lasted twice as long as the original New York Dolls and produced twice the number of albums (plus a hit single and numerous TV and movie appearances). That has since changed now that the Dolls are reunited and making music again. But Johansen will always be Buster to me, Klinger. Just like Drew Carey will always be the fat guy who managed to make living in Cleveland sound semi-tolerable. Not the host of The Price Is Right and certainly not a well-chiseled Marine Corps reserve man—even though both of those things are on his resume.

You are right, there is some awesome rock on this record. Certainly “Personality Crisis” tops that list, “Trash,” is the sweetest garbage-themed love song I’ve ever heard and “Looking for a Kiss,” is fantastic, dirty joy ride of rock ‘n’ roll. The rest of the album that follows is much of the same. My only knock—and maybe it’s just me—is most of the material tends to blend together into on sleazy guitar riff and half-shouted chorus.

Klinger: Oh, I’m not suggesting that candy metal bands didn’t steal wholesale from the Dolls—I’m just saying that it’s not fair to blame the Dolls for said thievery. And anyway, I think that comparing the carefully calculated flamboyance and airbrushed decadence of hair metal to the New York Dolls gives those bands way more credit than they deserve. But back to the main issue here. You seem to be sending mixed messages here. Is New York Dolls a joyride or is it something you won’t be returning to? Or do you just not like joyrides?

Mendelsohn: I’m not blaming the Dolls for glam metal; that would make me a terrible person. I’m merely trying to illustrate that I understand why this album is so highly regarded—the influence of this album reaches in a multitude of directions, one of those, unfortunately, being hair metal. And it’s not that I don’t like joyrides, I just want something to look at while I’m cruising, if you get what I mean. The Dolls’ neighborhood is just missing something.

Klinger: There’s plenty to look at, especially if you enjoy seeing junkies vomiting. Regardless, it’s no surprise to me that this album is so well regarded by the critical establishment, even without considering its influence. Someday I’m going to get around to constructing an elaborate thesis that delineates the correlation between cool groups and movements and their appropriation of the sounds of 1962. (Spoiler alert: The correlation is strong.)

We’ve already heard how groups like Television and Blondie have updated that Cameo-Parkway/Ronettes sound for their generation, and that extends up through the Jesus and Mary Chain and probably up to the Strokes (I have pretty much forgotten how any Strokes songs go). With the Dolls, you hear nearly constant references to those old songs (“When I say I’m in love, you best believe L-U-V” quotes the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”), but then they subvert it immediately by singing about shooting up in their room. It’s as much an art project as it is a rock album, but lord almighty does it rock, so you can stop thinking about it if you want. So I usually do.

Mendelsohn: You’re right, I should stop thinking about it and just enjoy it. I had the same problem with the Ramones (again, just an updated version of 1960s pop, right down to the matching outfits). There is a genius in simplicity that can sometimes be overlooked and that genius seems to always lead right back to stripped-down pop construction that is a touchstone for nearly every group on the Great List. Pop hooks and good looks. That’s all you need. I will, however, stick by my argument that while the Dolls did it first, they certainly didn’t do it the best. Television, the Ramones, Blondie all hit on the list before the Dolls do. What are the Dolls missing, Klinger? Why isn’t this record, with its critical cachet and undeniable cool, found somewhere in the Top 100? Why here? Why now?

Klinger: Good question, Mendelsohn. There are enough indelible tracks on here (“Personality Crisis”, “Trash”, “Subway Train”—actually it goes on and on), and unless there are concerns about it lacking a diversity of sound (the pace never really slows down all that much, although “Lonely Planet Boy” comes close), I’d be tempted to chalk it all up to an accident of mathematics on the part of the Great List. I might also respectfully submit that Todd Rundgren was not the ideal choice for a producer, burying Jerry Nolan’s drums in the mix the way he did. But for academic reasons, let’s address your points one by one. Blondie had the hits. Ramones had the longevity to build their cachet and their reputation. And Television made Marquee freakin’ Moon.

All of which suggests, though, that you have a point. New York Dolls is a tremendous album, but there are very few occasions where the trailblazers deliver the results. Not everyone can be the Velvet Underground, and even they couldn’t shift any units. Maybe that’s because the New York Dolls—like a lot of trailblazers—weren’t looking to blaze trails. They weren’t out to invent punk—they just wanted to rock without all the rigamarole of being all sophisticated like rockers back in the early ’70s were expected to be. It’s hard to imagine Johnny Thunders having that elaborate of a master plan, but that was always part of his, and the band’s, allure. Maybe the right answer isn’t so much why the New York Dolls are ranked where they are, but more how five crossdressy rock ‘n’ roll junkie galoots managed to make it into the canon at all. Regardless, I’m certainly glad they did.

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