New York Dolls – An air of Dolce und Gabbana on the wasteyard
Gee, how small the only surviving Doll-members Syl Sylvain and David Johansen are if you finally meet them in person after all these years. You could guess that with the guitar playing musical director Sylvain, yet that he hardly makes a 1,60 m is still a „little“ surprise. Even worse with singer David Johansen: This man who appears huge on the iconic cover of their legendary first album also hardly reaches the 1,70 meter-mark.
This is the only common feature at first glance. While Sylvain appears to be friendly with a somehow „glamorous“ aura and in emotional moments seeks body contact with his interviewpartner, Johansen is the totally cool New Yorker. Wearing leatherjacket and sunglasses, he walks through the backstage area and gives sarcastic comments with deep voice, a cigarette in one hand, in the other his girlfriend, who appears to be his female version and also beyond 50 years. When he lowers the glasses he reveals intelligent eyes in his wrinkly face, scanning the interviewpartner. Today that´s it because he wants to give his voice a rest he leaves the official part to Sylvain, so we sit down at a table on the upper floor in Berlin´s White Trash. I notice at once that he smells extremely good. "Dolche und Gabbana!" my friend informs me, while Sylvain orders Pinot Grigio and shrimp salad, yet not fried shrimps. After that he bends over and blinks his eyes invitingly, the interview can begin.
What is in his opinion the biggest misconception concerning New York Dolls? Syl sips wine and blurts out: "I think it´s the remark we always have bad luck, bad Karma. If I could do the same all over again, I would not change a thing because this is also part of your music, that not always everything is great, and that´s also part of life. It´s always up and down and you set your Rock´n´Roll against it!" He laughs, let´s stay with misconceptions. Another one comes from people who are old enough to check out New York Dolls in early 70s, who claim that producer Todd Rundgren ruined the band-debut – does he have the same opinion? His voice becomes emotional in a sudden, he shakes his head wildly. "Oh no absolutely not! That´s totally wrong, I think those people don´t have the right to say something like that. Rundgren did the best possible job and I still regret we couldn´t have him for the second album, I´d really appreciated to work with him once again!"
Photo: hfr. by John Scarpati
As your first album came out summer 1973 a lot of stores refused to sell a record with such a cover and... unfortunately I cannot complete the sentence as Syl laughs out loud: "In Spain the photo was even prohibited as they thought we were homosexuals. I didn´t quite realize that all back then, but as I was there some years ago, gave some autograhps and saw the spanish version for the first time: no photo, grey cover with pink logo, also the lipstick was removed, and that´s it! Back then things were different, we had to bring down a lot of barricades. And there was also the aspect that people like us were not supposed to record albums as we were supposedly not good enough, could not play our instruments and had no idea about songwriting. But luckily things changed!" But as you picked this photo back then, didn´t you realize the risks? I mean, did you really see it as normal cover artwork? He grins: "Actually it was my fault, back then I was in clothing business and very interested in fashion. We had waited for three years to get a contract, to do this album, and when we were to do the cover the label dragged us into an antiques store in NYC. The place was cool and had everything, yet I still didn´t like this idea because it was our album, we would perhaps just do this one and split up right afterwards, or the audience would not like us. Therefore I called my fashion world friends, there was this experienced Japanese photographer named Toshi, and so we started to develop the cover scenario. The sofa we sit on we found at a wasteyard, it was standing in the street and brought it up to the loft, put some white silk on it and brought our private stuff: cigarettes, roller skates, whatever we had, and this is how the picture was created. It was simply about portraying our personality, not some image that a label created, and we did not care if the rest of the world would be shocked or just ignore it. Honestly, we did this cover mainly for ourselves. What became of it is another thing, for us that pose seemed normal, pure and natural. We were a sort of crazy ´Walking-Talking-Art-Show´, yet our art could not be found in a museum or gallery, it was all about walking the streets, talk and live our art. We were our art, and this is what this picture symbolizes perfectly. The rest of the world was shocked!" But beyond that picture, what was so bad about the New York Dolls, I mean before there were Suicide, MC5, The Stooges, Alice Cooper was March 1973 with "Billion Dollar Babies"-Album Number One of US-Charts, so why all the fuzz? Syl thinks it over, then faces me: "Honestly, we were simply the first who represented all those socially ´unwanted´ things altogether, at least superficially. But take away the clothes, the make up and you will find the Blues: Three-chords, improvised soli, erotical songs, lyrics from everyday life.
Photo: hfr. by John Scarpati
We were way ahead from others and this is why we got kicked, but still all we wanted was living our lives and making art. We never surrendered, not to the label..." Looking at the recording device between us: "Not to the press, to noone! Not even to our girlfriends!" He winks to my girlfriend, we laugh, but Sylvain continues: "All that lead to our downfall, breaking our legs and never reaching the goal!" Although he just answered it, I wanted to know a fact that caused a lot of trouble early this year, as many people claimed after the Lordi-victory that Kiss invented Make-Up Rock, and I opposed it. The New York Dolls were the first and inspired Kiss – right? He frowns, smiles: "No really: I hate the fact you ask that question, it´s already embarrassing. Sure we were there earlier, 1971 nobody dared something like that, we were all alone. Sure there were Suicide before, Iggy Pop or MC5, but we had it all and kicked this damned door open. In New York a follower was Patti Smith – who I still appreciate - , Talking Heads, Blondie, but we were the first. Don´t get me wrong, I don´t get off on that, but the New York Dolls were simply the first band that wasn´t labelled´Punk´. Honestly I was never really into that, but people are like that, they had to sell it somehow. Then there was this ´Punk´-Magazine and even straight kids started to style themselves like that, but we had nothing to do with it, we just did our own thing. And they grabbed it and made something big with it, which is OK, I just hate all those tags ´Levi´s´, ´Coca Cola´ and next..." Stares into my eyes, raises arms, continues dramatically: "PUNK!" He laughs, but this is a serious issue to him, he continues: "You understand what I mean, right?" Sure, in such times when The Clash- and Ramones-T-Shirts can be purchased at H&M this cannot be ignored. But as for merchandise and Malcolm McLaren as a central player, wasn´t he frustrated when back then this guy came from London and made Sex Pistols big with stuff that didn´t work out before with the Dolls? He shrugs: "He is a businessman, it;s OK. I introduced Malcolm to the New York Dolls.1971 I participated with our first Drummer Billy Murcia (Rem. drowned 6.11.72 in London in a bathtub) with our clothing company ´Truth And Soul Sweaters´ at a New York Fashion Convention, and in the back there was this British couple Malcolm McLaren and Vivien Westwood who had just opened her first shop ´Let It Rock´ selling Rockabilly-stuff.
Photo: hfr. by Jeff Fasano
These shows were on friday to sunday, and designers sold their exhibition stock on the last evening when everybody could get in for free, this is why I called David and our guitarist Johnny Thunders (Rem.: Murdered 23.4.1991 in New Orleans) because I wanted to introduce them to my new British friends. They came along, bought cool stuff at ´Let It Rock´ and we invited Malcolm and Vivien to our gig that night. And so they fell in love with New York Dolls, especially Vivien. Contrary to public opinion, Malcolm has never been our manager, he was our friend, before we split up being pretty fucked up: Manager gone, alcohol, drugs, problems with love..." Grins dirtily: "...with Sex, with almost everything. And in this situation I called McLaren who was always hanging out at our concerts because he loved the Dolls, he just wanted to help us out a bit, see what he could do. We didn´t mind, he rented a loft for us to rehearse new stuff, David and I wrote ´Red Patent Leather´, the basis for our concerts. We never had a contract with McLaren, he was a friend, and when we finally split up 1975 in Florida I alone met him, and we drove to New Orleans. There he was overwhelmed, Bourbon Street still had this typical vibe, there were all those record stores, and McLaren almost freaked out because there you could buy almost all of those old 40s and 50s Blues records being worth a fortune in Britain for just one Dollar!" With emphasis: "No re-releases, thoe old originals! After this trip he said that I should not worry, in the London store (Anm: The legendary ´Sex´-Boutique) run by Vivien there were so many kids hanging out that he doulc easily find a band for me. I gave him my guitar, my piano, he planned to sell it in England and send me a plane ticket. And you know what?" He smiles: "I´m still waiting for that!" No hard feelings? "No, we still have contact, the guy is OK, he wrote a nice report about our Reunion for British Guardian. Vivien is crazy, she is an artist, while Malcolm is more businessman!"
Photo: Oliver Mahr
Let us talk about the new album, for the first time there are ballad-like songs, so do you get softer with age? "I´m not really..." But you wrote them! "Well... but it´s not like getting slower with age, just listen to ´Lonely Planet Boy´ from the first album, or Johnny Thunders´ famous Song ´You Can´t Put Your Arms Around A Memory´, also like a ballad. Johnny wrote more ballads than anybody else: ´Sad Vacation´, or..." Thinking: "Damn what was the name..." Teasing him a bit I mention the Heroin-Song "Chinese Rocks" which makes him laugh and punch my side: "Hey this is no ballad, you dirty rat wanna pull my leg! Let me put it like this: There should be time in the program for reducing the tempo, you cannot play the whole evening like " Plays Stakkato-airguitar "Da-Da-Da-Da-Da! Your gig should be a wholesome experience and appeal to the audience!" He rambles on: "You could put me to any concert, even the worst band in the universe, and I would at least find one brilliant aspect about them. I think that every human being has such an aspect, you just have to find it..." Smiling: "Which is not that easy sometimes!" It´s a cheap trick but I cannot hold back asking about the brilliant aspect of George W. Bush, and Syl exhales: "Oh God, please don´t even mention that guy. What do you want to achieve with that?" Well... you said something about brilliance in everybody... Syl tears his hair, and my girlfriend helps him out: "He was talking about musicians!" Sylvain cheers to her ("Thank you Lady!") and turns triumphantly to me: "Exactly, I talked about musicians and I bet that the only thing Bush knows about music is..." He puts on a dumb-clueless look: "Hmmmmmmmmmm! A huge question mark!" Apropos "question mark", does he expect that finally after all these years justice will be done to the New York Dolls? He thinks it over: "Well ... I am not sure, our legacy is not completet yet, it has to be written, and here we are! When we appeared 2004 at Meltdown with our bassist Arthur Killer Kane, he was pretty sick already but he had been waiting all these years to be finally a New York Doll again. Probably he had longed for it more than we all together because we all were quite successful solo ..." He thinks it over again and adds: "Well... thinking about me I should perhaps not use the term ´successful´ so let it put me like that: Some of us got along quite well, but Arthur wanted the New York Dolls back, and when he died so soon after that concert, it was a real shock, I just thought: ´Oh nein, it starts again!´ All efforts in vain, back to zero, I wrote e-mails to friends and asked for advice as I had no idea if David and I should pull it of together or just forget about it. One of those persons reacting immediately was Morrissey, he said ´Sylvain, you have to continue because the planet has to learn who the New York Dolls are, and it´s your duty to teach the audience!´ That hit me right here..." Puts his hand on his heart and continues: "After that I called David and explained that we might not have a choice." He faces me again: "I|m no longer young but I´m still not that old and I do not plan to go anywhere but...." Silently: "...when I leave this world one day I hope that the guys continue without me, because Morrissey is right: People have to find out who the New York Dolls are!"
Photo: Oliver Mahr
Interviewtime is running out, my last question: What is the nicest thing he could say about David? He hesitates: "About David? I have to think it over, difficult question ..." He winks: "Not because David is such a bad guy but because there are a lot of nice things. I think the best to say about him is that our relationship goes beyond the music, it is a very special friendship. We have been working together way into the 80s, I wrote songs for his first three Solo-albums, e.g. ´Funky But Chic´ you know it?" Sure, one of the coolest but forgotten songtitles. But you also wrote"Girls, Girls Girls", Syl thinks it over: "No! Did I?" He thinks it over again, slaps his thigh and laughs: "Hey you´re right, that´s such a lon g time ago that I forgot about it!" The promoter comes to remind him of the following interview, but Sylvain insists: "Two more minutes, just the last question!" And to me: "Well, David and I didn´t just have this ´work relationship´, it was much more like family, we were together all the time, less in the 90s but kept contact via telephone. Another nice thing to say about him would be his humour. When we met 2004 for the first time since the Johnny Thunders Beneficiary Concert 1991 I had almost forgotten how funny this ass could be, he could really leave you breathless!" Now time is up, we say goodbye, but later at the photosession I catch Syl putting perfume on in his warderobe, proudly he presents the bottle – indeed Dolce & Gabbana: "Here, check out the name I really like: ´Masculine´, that´s the fragrance for all those who are not quite sure about their gender!" And after another portion: "Don´t you light a cigarette now, we might explode!" Then my girlfriends takes photos and the band gets on stage. What remains is a cloud of fragrance and the discovery that there is much more about interviews than just new records, books, movies or artwork. The morning after I actually went to a perfume store, because the world indeed has to know whothe New York Dolls are. With all necessary means!
Author: Oliver Mahr, Photos: Oliver Mahr & promo hfr., translation: Klaudia Weber Date: 2006-12-07