Infectious Love: An Interview with David Johansen of the New York Dolls

New York Dolls
'Cause I Sez So

For David Johansen, making another New York Dolls album wasn’t something he necessarily wanted to do. As he explains it, though, that’s not a bad thing.

“We go around playing music all the time, you know, and you kind of get totally wrapped up in that world of traveling and playing. And then your manager calls and says, ‘Okay, you guys have to make a new record now.’ So then you kind of have to put the brakes on. Like, ‘What are we doing next month? Where are we going?’ ‘Well, we’re not going anywhere because we’re going to make a record.’ And you go like, ‘Ohhhh…'”

For the Dolls, being in front of an audience is the whole point of being musicians. Anything that takes them away from that — even time spent in the studio — is just a distraction. Johansen adds, “It’s almost like getting a new job, you know? Like you have a job that you dig and somebody says, ‘Well, that’s too bad because you have this other job.'”

Johansen never could have imagined that he’d feel this way a mere five years ago. Back then, he was content to let the legend of the New York Dolls remain undisturbed. And why not? The Dolls, after all, are often credited with starting a music scene that would eventually give birth to punk rock, new wave, and everything else — good or bad — that followed. Without the Dolls, there’d be no Ramones, no Sex Pistols, no Talking Heads, and … well … no Mötley Crüe.

Indeed, while the Dolls’ first two albums were steeped in blues swagger and girl group pop, the minimalist chord progressions and defiant attitude would later be seen in just about every band over the next decade. And the band’s aesthetic — men dressed as women who were menacing nonetheless — would later have a profound impact on the glam rock of the ’80s.

“I was content to [leave things as they were] and then Morrissey asked us to do this gig,” Johansen says, referring to the 2004 Meltdown Festival that Morrissey curated. “We all thought, ‘Well this will be fun. We’ll do a gig, and we’ll get back together and have a couple of laughs.’ Like that.”

Johansen had previously resisted the idea of reuniting the band, which originally fell apart in the late ’70s after two acclaimed but largely overlooked albums. By the time Morrissey asked the band to get back together, only three of the original members — Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, and bassist Arthur Kane — were still living. The other members, including the archetypal and tragic guitar god Johnny Thunders, had long since succumbed to vice or illness.

To get the band back together when its myth and influence were steadily growing each year was a risky proposition, but Johansen says that for him, Sylvain, and Kane, there was no master plan. “We didn’t,” he says, “have any reunion-kind-of-five-year-plans where we were going to get together and we were going to make a record and we were going to make a tour and this and that and the other thing. If that had been the case, it would have seemed like too much. It would have been too much to think about and we would have been trying to fulfill some kind of idea of something.”

When the band reunited, however, the chemistry was undeniable, and doors started flying open. “The way it worked for us was,” Johansen explains, “[was that] we did that gig, and then it was the beginning of the summer and all the festivals were hooking up and a lot of them asked us to come and be in the festival. So we thought, ‘Well, let’s do that because we sound really good and this is fun.'”

Not only was the chemistry undeniable for those watching, it was also obvious to the band that they should head back into the studio. “We started [playing festivals] and then we were playing for like a year before we decided, ‘You know, this is like what we’re doing, so we might as well commit to it and make a record and stuff.’ So it was more like we were riding the train as opposed to trying to be the engineer.”

Tragically, Kane died of leukemia shortly after the band’s initial reunion, but Johansen and Sylvain carried on, rounding out the band with new members. In 2006 they released One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, an album that surprised many by pulling off a nearly impossible feat for a reunited band: it not only tapped into the classic sound of the band, it also brought a maturity to that sound that felt completely natural. Since then, the band has been busy traveling and performing.

Which brings us back to the Dolls’ new album, the one that Johansen didn’t really want to make because he was having too good of a time hopping from gig to gig. When the band got the call from management instructing them to make a new album, they decided to let the command serve as creative inspiration.

“Essentially, I would like sit down with Syl, for example, and say, ‘What do you got?’ and he would play me some sketches and I’d think, ‘That’s great. That’s great. That’s great.’ Then I figured, ‘Well, there’s ten songs.’ And then I would listen to what [the other guys played me] and then I figured, ‘Well, we got enough ideas for songs.'” Eventually, this blast of forced inspiration resulted in ‘Cause I Sez So, the Dolls’ second album since getting back together.

Photo: Max Lakner

This time out, the Dolls decided to reunite with Todd Rundgren, who prdouced their 1973 debut. Johansen has been asked repeatedly about the band’s decision to once again enlist Rundgren, but the head Doll insists there was no strategic logic behind the choice. The band wasn’t trying to consciously recreate the magic of the old days. Instead, since the Dolls were told they needed to record an album, they decided to go with somebody familiar to do it as quickly as possible.

“It’s like, we know him and we know he’s great,” Johansen says. “And it’s not like you got to meet somebody new and have some kind of courtship or anything. It’s just like since we wanted to do this thing really quick, it was really the best idea. And, you know, Todd’s fucking great.”

Much like its predecessor, ‘Cause I Sez So harkens back to vintage Dolls while pushing the boundaries of the band’s sound. The title track starts the album, both reasserting the Dolls’ raucous aplomb and proving that, at their best, they can make the Stones sound like prudish schoolboys. The first half of the album follows suit, but the second half sees the band dabbling into more diverse fare. “Temptation to Exist” sounds straight out of a Spaghetti Western and “Making Rain” makes use of Rundgren’s production talents to lush, theatric effect.

“You go [into the studio] and play the songs and go back into the other room and listen to them on these little speakers and you think, ‘Okay, that’s a good song.’ But then [Todd] gets finished mixing the thing and you’re like, ‘Oh man. That sounds great.’ So I don’t know how he does it, but he’s got ears where he can hone in on each instrument and, whatever you call it, tweak it to make it sound distinct from all the other sounds and it comes out really great.”

But though Rundgren’s skills in the studio proved priceless, he didn’t usurp the band’s original vision of the songs. “A lot of it is pretty much the way the song was written or envisioned,” Johansen notes. “Sometimes Todd would say, ‘Are you sure you want to start that one with the chorus? Maybe you should start it with a verse.’ Or maybe he’d say like, ‘You’ve got like four verses in this song. That’s too many. Why don’t you make the first verse a double verse?’ So little things like that.”

Much of the Dolls’ time-defying energy can be attributed to the newest members of the band – guitarist Steve Conte, drummer Brian Delaney, and bassist Sami Yaffa. While Johansen and Sylvain bring the tradition to the band, there’s little doubt that the trio of newer players infuse the Dolls with renewed grit. “They’ve taken over,” Johansen quips. “I feel like some kind of prime minister whose generals have taken over the country and I’m just the mouthpiece.”

Conte, Delaney, and Yaffa feel so at home with being Dolls, in fact, that they sometimes exercise veto power over the band’s leader, albeit discreetly. “Here’s how it works,” Johansen explains. “Say I come in with a song and say, ‘I got a great song I wrote yesterday. Let’s play this.’ And then we play it and the next day I’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s play that song again’ and everybody will kind of look at their shoes and say, ‘Oh, let’s do it after we do this one.’ And then, after a while, I’ll get the message that nobody wants to play this song.”

In the end, though, the interplay between the old guard and the new guard results in bare-bones rock ‘n’ roll, and Johansen seems grateful to be surrounded with artists who feel the same about the music. “The key,” he says, “is that you have songs that everybody wants to play so nobody’s punching a clock — songs that everybody’s involved in and has great parts in and really feels creative about. That’s pretty much how, without a lot of discussion, the songs that we wind up with rise to the top.”

As for the looming legend of the New York Dolls, Johansen doesn’t seem too concerned about defiling it. To him, to consciously try to craft music in a mold that was created over 30 years ago would not only be pointless, it would also be impossible. Furthermore, it would futilely attempt to ignore the decades of life and musical experience the band has gained.

“My whole thing is — and it was the same last time — is ‘Let’s be who we are right now. Let’s not pay any attention to anything else.’ Because if we try to recreate something, if you’re trying to sound like something other that what you are, then to me it’s like a job. Like you’re trying to do something that you’re not. To me, the whole idea of the thing — the spontaneity and everything — is to kind of be who you are at that moment.”

All these years later and sans makeup, the one thing that remains for the New York Dolls is the interplay between band and audience. The fact that the band truly loves the simple but sacred act of playing onstage isn’t lost on the crowd.

“I haven’t really, like, wrapped my head around it,” Johansen gratefully muses, “but we do get a pretty good response wherever we go. The thing for us, and it sounds so simple, but we just really dig playing together. And whenever we play I think that’s apparent to the audience.”

So what does the future hold for the New York Dolls? Who knows. To try to pinpoint their next move would violate the spirit of the band. All Johansen cares about is getting back on the road. “To us,” he says, “we love to play. I think maybe that’s infectious.”