On paper, the New York Dolls reunion looked like a horrible idea. After 30 years, the band’s two surviving members recruit three ringers and perform indelible classics under a near-sacred moniker. And amazingly, against all odds, it worked, in part because the 21st-Century Dolls did not pander to proto-punk nostalgia, or lust after their glory days. They were middle-aged to old men, and not about to apologize for it. Furthermore, they played intimate venues and to audiences comprised largely of youngsters eager to connect to the CBGB experience after most of its banner bands (Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie) and even the club itself folded. Thus, in their new phase, the Dolls are the highest profile torch bearers of arguably pop music’s most romanticized movement.
After a series of reunion concerts, the reincarnated Dolls released One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This in 2006 — only their third studio album, and a surprisingly graceful, mature effort. A live album, capturing the revival’s energy, was a logical step. Recorded over two late December nights, Live at the Fillmore East is a homecoming of sorts, a triumphant return to the band’s home city. The performances are strong. David Johansen’s voice has a huskier tone than in the ‘70s, eerily embodying the white bloozemen he once winkingly parodied. Sylvain Sylvain, the only other original member, still wields a furious axe. The newbies cannot replace their deceased forebears, and they wisely don’t try, staying in the background and not stealing thunder from the main attractions. Speeded-up versions of “Personality Crisis” (Johansen’s primal screams are still otherworldly) and “Puss ‘n’ Boots” are urgent and raucous.
And yet, as has been the case with the Dolls’ previous official and bootleg live discs, Fillmore East is ultimately a letdown. Perhaps their stage show is impossible to capture on record, as the attempts thus far (1984’s muddy Red Patent Leather, 2004’s mediocre Live from Royal Festival Hall) have fallen short. Fillmore was initially available at show merchandise tables, and is now seeing a budget-priced retail release. Some might call it a quickie niche market cash-in. The sequencing and song selection seems haphazard and safe: six from the Dolls’ beloved 1973 debut, two each from the subsequent studio albums. Uptempo numbers are disproportionately emphasized — nine in a row, in fact. Given that Broadway-ready showstoppers have highlighted the Dolls’ new material, the dearth of ballads is particularly disheartening. “Plenty of Music”, “Maimed Happiness”, or “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks” would all have been welcome additions. Furthermore, the collection omits entirely the vast repertoire of non-album cover songs, largely pre-Beatles rock numbers, that have long been Dolls show staples.
The challenge of any live album is to turn music made to work a crowd into music that can work stereo speakers. But the mixing and mastering feel as rushed as the programming. Moments like the extended jam midway through “Jet Boy” lose their pizzazz without the in-the-flesh senses of community or debauchery provided at shows. Such choices present a skewed view that make the Dolls seem misleadingly predictable, making the few unexpected moments — the interpolation of “Bristol Stomp” during “Rainbow Store”, a verse of Johnny Thunders’s epitaph “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” seamlessly segueing into “Lonely Planet Boy” — all the more treasured. Somehow, the album itself succumbs to the musty nostalgia that the Dolls reunion had thus far successfully eluded. Like most nostalgia trips, it’s still fun, but it feels beholden to, and even muzzled by, tradition. And whatever their merits, it’s inconceivable that these versions would jockey for iPod space alongside the ‘70s classics, the ones showcasing Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane, and Jerry Nolan instead of their competent but fairly anonymous replacements.
Live at the Fillmore East is a nifty souvenir for those who see the band live, and a respectable consolation prize for anyone who misses out. But for a worthwhile, true-to-spirit recording of the Dolls’ blazing onstage prowess, the wait continues.