The binder should’ve been a tipoff.
Shortly before the New York Dolls took the stage in Charlotte, NC, a black-clad stage hand propped a three-ring binder beside the microphone stand for lead singer David Johansen, a binder full of song lyrics. Considering that the Dolls have only released four official albums since 1973--for a total of 46 tracks--it seems like maybe he could’ve committed the words to memory by now, instead of doing a Kinko’s printed karaoke version of “Muddy Bones”.
The enthusiastic crowd--most of them old enough to have owned the Dolls debut on vinyl--picked up the slack though, shouting along with the songs and pointing their black polished nails in Johansen’s direction when he faltered. The show was held at Amos’ Southend, an unassuming downtown club whose concert calendar is scattered with has beens, never weres and an endless supply of big haired tribute bands ranging from Slippery When Wet (“The USA’s #1 Tribute to Bon Jovi”) to Frontiers (“The USA’s #1 Journey Tribute”).
I’m not sure there could’ve been a more appropriate venue selection. The New York Dolls have dwindled to two original members and--although version 2.0 has actually been together longer than the first incarnation--they can’t recreate the influence and excitement that surrounded them in the seventies.
When you watch new guitarist Steve Conte vamp his way through a TV movie-caliber Johnny Thunders impression, it’s like they’re a tribute band that just happens to have a pair of original recipe Dolls in the lineup. That said, some of their old swagger still infuses the new albums, so I remained ever hopeful that they’d bring part of that with them on their summer tour.
And then I saw the binder.
The story of the New York Dolls can be told in two acts. They broke onto the music scene in the early 1970s, all Aqua Net, eyeliner and attitude, leaving their high-heeled footprints in the freshly poured concrete of punk rock and influencing acts like Television, Blondie, and the Ramones along the way.
They released two critically acclaimed albums, their self-titled debut and Too Much Too Soon the following year, a title borrowed from Diana Barrymore’s autobiography that would prove eerily prophetic. Much like the troubled “Barrymore Brat”, the Dolls were wracked with excesses and addictions, officially ripping their fishnets off and splitting for good in 1975.
The next three decades saw David Johansen trading his sequins for a smoking jacket, reinventing himself as Buster Poindexter and scoring a hit with “Hot Hot Hot”, making him the only ex-punker to be featured on the soundtrack to Ugly Betty. As the curtain dropped on Act 1, the Dolls had been relegated to a brief but important entry in the Rock & Roll Encyclopedia.
After a thirty year intermission, Morrissey--yes, that Morrissey, the Morrissey--entered stage left. Before he lopped his first name off and became a Smith, he served as president of the UK’s New York Dolls fan club and even published a book about them in the early eighties. "Some bands grab you and they never let you go and, no matter what they do, they can never let you down,” he said in a Dolls-themed documentary. "The Dolls were that for me."
In 2004, he somehow managed to reunite the three surviving members (guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan both died in the early 90s) and they took the stage at the Meltdown Festival that June. Since then, David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain--the last originals after the death of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane--have toured the club and festival circuit and released a pair of albums, including this year’s Because I Sez So.
On their night in North Carolina, the Dolls took a very un-punk approach and strolled onstage right on time. The newest members--bassist Sami Yaffa, drummer Brian Delaney, and guitarist Steve Conte--were followed by Sylvain Sylvain, sporting a floppy hat borrowed from Fievel Mousekewitz, and a leopard crop top and low-rise denim-wearing David Johansen.
The fifty-nine year old Johansen--who weighs less than my television--looked more like a fourteen year-old runaway as he launched into “Looking For A Kiss” from their ’73 debut. He seemed somewhat disoriented as he wandered around the stage and frantically signaled for the soundboard operator. A dodgy version of “Because I Sez So” followed as he attempted to adjust his mic level before appearing to give up entirely. Part of his onstage blah-ness may have been the venue’s fault; the sound was ALL LOUD GUITAR and rib-rattling bass with the vocals mixed in as an afterthought.
“Here’s one from our last album,” Johansen gave as an intro to “We’re All In Love”. “That’s a boring record!,” a woman with a facial tattoo shouted back and while she was wrong about that, it was shaping up to be a boring performance by D-Jo. To the rest of the band’s credit, Johansen was the only one sulking.
Syl Sylvain put on a great show with several muscular solos and equally impressive facial expressions. He took the lead vocals for the Johnny Thunders tribute “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” before D-Jo broke in with “Lonely Planet Boy”. Speaking of Thunders, Steve Conte enthusiastically plays that role and may enjoy being a rock star more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He postured and sneered, straddling the monitors and seeking out flashbulbs like a Gibson-wielding Paris Hilton.
The rest of the set was a mix of old faves and new tracks, including two versions of “Trash”, both the original and the regrettable reggae arrangement found on Because I Sez So. Johansen finally pulled some enthusiasm out of the pockets of his Abercrombie Kids denim in time for an amped up version of “Jet Boys” and the one song encore of “Personality Crisis”. Unfortunately it was less a case of too much too soon and more like too little too late.
The New York Dolls will be appearing this weekend at the Lovebox festival before launching a nine-date European tour.