New York Dolls - Biography
Richard Hell, who co-founded The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders after the implosion of The New York Dolls in 1975, nailed the enduring charisma and import of The Dolls in his 1991 elegy for his former bandmate.
“I admired the Dolls; they inspired me,” Hell wrote. “They were the first pure rock & roll group. ‘Pure’ in that they knew and operated on the assumption that rock & roll was at least 50% (maybe 100%, maybe 200%) attitude. They were the first group that regarded themselves as stars rather than thinking of themselves as musicians, or writers, or vocalists. The Dolls were for New York groups what the Sex Pistols were for British groups. They excited everybody by being flawless: in it for fun, never pretentious or pretending to be anything they weren’t; they were ballsy, noisy, funny, sharp, young, and real. Stupid and ill. They mocked the media, threw up on grownups, and kidded with the kids in a language of drugs and sex.”
The New York Dolls were in fact heroes to fans and musicians alike in the teenage wasteland that was the New York City rock scene of the early ‘70s. They came on strong, like a hip-pocket edition of The Rolling Stones, but with their own style – one that mixed in doses of highly obscure R&B and blues, old-school gutter rock ‘n’ roll, and girl-group pop. Their sound was disheveled and gritty, wired by the squeal of Johnny Thunders’ guitar, sounding like a subway train rounding a curve on a subterranean track. Their tossed, teased, junk shop look pushed sexual ambiguity to certain extremes; lipsticked, rouged, and teetering on high heels, they gave England’s glam bands of the era a serious run for their money – in terms of shock value, if not commercial competition.
The Dolls’ two original studio albums never made it out of the bottom half of Billboard’s chart of the top 200 albums, but the shockwaves of the band’s influence were felt virtually from the moment they first stepped on stage. They proved to the future members of such New York bands as The Dictators and The Ramones that there was a way out of the top-40 cul-de-sac most local musicians found themselves in. They provided a virtual sonic blueprint for The Sex Pistols (whose manager Malcolm McLaren was The Dolls’ last professional wrangler) – listen to such Dolls numbers as “Babylon” or “Puss ‘N’ Boots” and then throw on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, and all the dots will be instantly connected. Successors like KISS (who lifted the group’s sound and platform shoes), Hanoi Rocks (whose bassist Sammy Yaffa joined the latter-day edition of The Dolls), and Guns N’ Roses (whose street-trash image is unimaginable without The Dolls’ example) are just a few who owe their style to their Big Apple forebears.
The Dolls’ lead singer David Johansen has made the case that the band’s attention-grabbing arrival wasn’t any big deal. “It was real easy to take over because there was nothing happening,” Johansen told Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “There weren’t any bands around so we just came in and everybody said the Dolls are the greatest thing since Bosco. But we were the only band around, really, so we didn’t have to be that good.”
When the group materialized in 1971, New York was kaput as a rock town. The Velvet Underground, the city’s preeminent rock extremists, had fizzled out the year before; their former home Max’s Kansas City was uninterested in presenting no-name local acts. If you had a group, you got gigs by playing the hits of the day. It would be a few years before the DIY aesthetic of punk rock took hold at CBGBs, but The Dolls found a way to roll their own anyway.
The group mutated out of an embryonic group called Actress, whose members included guitarist Arthur Kane and Colombia-born drummer Billy Murcia. Their ranks were soon joined by a Florida-born tough from the Jackson Heights neighborhood named John Genzale, who played under the name “Johnny Volume”; he was re-dubbed “Johnny Thunders” when he assumed Actress’ bass chair. It soon became apparent that Thunders was a better guitarist than either Kane or the group’s short-lived member Rick Rivets, so he began playing lead and Kane was demoted to bass. Rivets was replaced by Sylvain Sylvain, a Cairo-born immigrant who had gone to high school with Murcia in Queens.
The lineup was completed by the addition of vocalist Johansen, a skinny, hyperactive blues and R&B obsessive with the best pair of lips this side of Mick Jagger. The reconfigured band took a new name from the New York Doll Hospital, a repair shop for rare dolls across the street from Truth and Soul, the resale shop where Sylvain and Murcia worked. The band cadged free rehearsal space at a Columbus Avenue bicycle shop, whose owner would lock the group in overnight so that they wouldn’t make off with any 10-speeds. They debuted in December 1971 at the Endicott Hotel, a flophouse and shelter for welfare recipients across the street from the bike shop.
Finding a venue was an initial challenge for The Dolls. They created their first ripples in the spring of 1972 with an appearance at a down-on-the-heels Times Square hotel, the Diplomat, where they appeared in their dressed-down, trashed-out, ambisexual apparel for the first time. (“I don’t know where the glitter thing came from,” Johansen said later. “We were just very ecological about clothes.”) Then, through Eric Emerson, a former member of Andy Warhol’s circle during The Velvets’ ascendancy, the group got an opportunity to perform at the Mercer Arts Center, a multi-room complex dedicated to theater, film, and the arts located in a historic hotel, the Broadway Central, at Mercer and Bleeker in Greenwich Village.
Taking the stage in (aptly enough) the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer on Tuesday nights, The Dolls began to make some noise. Theirs was a vanguard scene: The glam-rock of England’s T. Rex had spawned mere spasms of interest in the U.S., while David Bowie – who attended some of the Mercer shows with wide-eyed interest – had not yet made his breakthrough. Their appearances drew a mixture of curious hipsters and glitter-sprinkled teens who were drawn by the band’s aggressive music and in-your-face style.
As off-the-track as it looked, the Mercer scene soon attracted the attention of some music biz professionals. Marty Thau, the former head of A&R at Paramount Records, became their manager after catching a show at the Diplomat. (He later recalled, “[I commented to] my wife, ‘We’ve either seen the best group or the worst group.’”) Steve Leber and David Krebs were enlisted as booking agents and co-managers; it would soon be apparent that their charges from Boston, Aerosmith, were paying attention to what the boys in New York were laying down.
Thau, Leber, and Krebs were convinced that it would be easier to get The Dolls signed to a recording contract in England, and the band flew to London in the fall of 1972 to open some concert dates for Rod Stewart. Interest heated up: Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun offered The Dolls a $50,000 advance. Then, as management was weighing offers, disaster struck. At a Nov. 7 party, on the eve of a prestigious date opening for Roxy Music, The Dolls’ 21-year-old drummer Murcia passed out after ingesting a combination of alcohol and Quaaludes; panicked partygoers threw him in a bathtub, where he died. The stunned band returned to America, uncertain if they were even a band anymore.
After auditioning such potential members as Peter Criss (soon to join KISS) and Marc Bell (later “Marky Ramone” of The Ramones), The Dolls brought on Jerry Nolan, who had played with Detroit’s Suzy Quatro and the outrageous New York glitter-rock drag queen Wayne County (later Jayne County). The group’s managers now found it difficult to regain the record industry’s interest – already leery of the band’s flamboyant look, talent executives were scared off by Murcia’s drug-related death. However, they finally found an unlikely champion in neophyte A&R man Paul Nelson; a Minneapolis-bred folk music authority, a friend of Bob Dylan, the onetime editor of the influential journals The Little Sandy Review and Sing Out!, and a former Rolling Stone critic, Nelson signed The Dolls to a contract with Mercury Records.
Their self-titled debut album, released in late 1973, was produced by Todd Rundgren, a visionary pop musician known for his work with his band The Nazz, his solo album Something/Anything, and being one of the top producers of the day. Though not as raw as the demos Nelson had recorded with the group that March (comprehensively released in 2006 on the collection Private World), New York Dolls was nonetheless an artistic success, instantly grabbing the potential consumer’s attention with its confrontational cover, which displayed the band members in full makeup and platform-heeled drag under a lipstick-scrawled logo. Anyone who dared to pick up the LP and listen to it found a brace of pungent originals – “Personality Crisis,” “Looking For a Kiss,” “Trash,” “Subway Train,” “Frankenstein,” “Jet Boy” – that bespoke a new rock ‘n’ roll sensibility.
Somewhat predictably, the album divided critics, received little airplay, and peaked at No. 116 on the Billboard chart. Young men who dressed up like women – even inarguably heterosexual young men like The Dolls -- and drawled gritty songs proclaiming “I need a fix and a kiss” were too much for most listeners of the day, whose tastes ran more to the charms of singer-songwriters like Carole King, Cat Stevens, and Elton John and the virtuosic bloat of “progressive” stadium rockers like Yes.
In 1974, The Dolls regrouped in the studio for the prophetically titled Too Much Too Soon (a handle borrowed from the autobiography of troubled actress Diana Barrymore). This time their producer was George “Shadow” Morton, who had made his name with the melodramatic ‘60s hits of the girl group The Shangri-Las and had achieved little since. The band – whose creative progress had been slowed to a crawl by Thunders and Nolan’s heroin addiction and Kane’s alcoholism -- had written little new material in the interim; yet, the record is nearly as strong as the debut, with high class originals (“Babylon,” “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” Thunders’ vocal feature “Chatterbox”), mixed with inspired covers of oldies by Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Archie Bell & the Drells, and the Cadets. It disappeared off the charts after a mere five weeks, peaking at No. 167.
After the failure of Too Much, Too Soon, The Dolls were at low ebb. Their main New York venue, the Mercer Arts Center, was no more – the old, structurally unsound building had collapsed into a pile of rubble in August 1973. One of their few continuing gigs was at Club 82, a sleazy nightspot catering to the gay community. With the operation hemorrhaging money, Thau, Leber, and Krebs dropped them.
The Dolls’ manager for the last twitch of their initial career was Malcolm McLaren. The London clothing merchant and entrepreneur had met The Dolls on an English sortie in 1973, and he had relocated to New York in 1974 to check out the action. An ardent fan, he supplied the band with a garish new red leather wardrobe and mounted a much-publicized show at New York’s Hippodrome in 1975, at which the band performed in front of a large Soviet flag, in a misguided attempt by McLaren to “politicize” the band’s image. The Dolls’ old glitter audience was left bemused.
The band finally folded during the early leg of a projected East Coast tour, which began in Florida; there the group lived in a trailer park operated by Nolan’s mother. Nolan and Thunders – whose heroin was being supplied by a group of high school students who were scoring drugs in Miami and driving it to the musicians in Tampa – abruptly quit the band and returned to New York after Johansen issued what they perceived as an ultimatum. The Dolls, for now, were finished.
Thunders and Nolan extended their influence with the formation of the punk-era band The Heartbreakers with ex-Television bassist Richard Hell. After the group’s dissolution, Thunders recorded a solo album, So Alone, in 1978, and put together another short-lived band project, Gang War, with former MC5 guitarist and fellow heroin addict Wayne Kramer. Other live albums and indifferently distributed solo projects followed. Thunders died in New Orleans of drug-related causes in 1991; some have hinted darkly that he was murdered, but no definitive evidence of foul play has been unearthed. Nolan gigged sporadically and lived in Sweden for many years; he died in New York in 1992 after suffering a stroke following a bout of bacterial meningitis.
Johansen and Sylvain recorded and toured together after the breakup of The Dolls; the rhythm guitarist appeared on the vocalist’s first two solo albums. Johansen went on to success as a sometime screen actor, and in the comedic guise of lounge vocalist “Buster Poindexter” on records and TV; he made a move into folk and blues with his later group The Harry Smiths. Sylvain fronted his band The Criminals and toured and recorded as a solo artist.
In 2004, former Smiths vocalist Morrissey asked the surviving members of The New York Dolls to regroup for a show at London’s Meltdown Festival, which he was curating. Johansen, Sylvain, and Kane were joined by guitarist Steve Conte, keyboardist Brian Koonin, and drummer Gary Powell for a set at the Royal Festival. The gig (issued as a live album that year) was a triumph, and other reunion performances were plotted. But Kane – who had moved to Los Angeles in the ‘70s and finally sobered up as a member of the Mormon Church – was diagnosed with leukemia and died suddenly that July, just three weeks after the London show. (The story of Kane’s recovery and his role in the ’04 reunion was recounted in director Greg Whiteley’s moving 2005 documentary New York Doll.)
Nonetheless, Johansen and Sylvain forged on under The Dolls’ banner. Tour dates were succeeded by a 2006 studio album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This (2006), produced by Jack Douglas (whose ‘70s hits included albums by Aerosmith.) This was followed by Cause I Sez So (2009), produced by Todd Rundgren. in 2011 the Dolls released their most recent effort, Dancing Backwards In High Heels . The legacy of The New York Dolls was now secure. Few could argue with the heft of their ‘70s accomplishments, which augured the rise of punk rock and prefigured the sound of a host of glam-styled hard rock acts to follow.