New York Dolls interview: Doll Parts
They started as Ziggy Stardust wannabes and invented punk rock in the process. This is the crazy, mixed-up story of the New York Dolls, the most magnificently self-destructive band in rock history.
As the summer of 1971 began, it seemed as if all of rock and roll was undergoing a gender-identity crisis. David Bowie was dressing up like an androgynous alien named Ziggy Stardust. T.Rex frontman Marc Bolan had taken to wearing sequins, platform shoes, a feather boa and makeup. Even straight-as-nails British blokes Mott the Hoople had jumped on the bisexual bandwagon and recorded a hit version of “All the Young Dudes,” the Bowie-penned anthem to homosexuality.
Glam rock had begun, and over the next year it would be reinforced with strong debuts from acts like Roxy Music and Gary Glitter, while even established artists like Elton John began dipping their toes in the water. None of it, however, prepared the masses for the New York Dolls. When their self-titled debut was released in August 1973, it was hard to tell if they were hetero hunks flirting with asexuality or full-on transsexuals. Where glam had affected androgyny by coyly crossing the gender line, the Dolls slapped it on with all the subtlety of drag queens on parade. They wore fishnet stockings, makeup, platform soles and big hair, sneering and camping it up as they thrashed out their primitive-sounding rock and roll.
To say they were more than a joke to the record-buying masses would be a lie. Unlike their glam predecessors, the New York Dolls were not a hit-making machine. The highest position either of their two studio albums reached on the Billboard charts was #116, and their singles didn’t fare much better. Even those who consider themselves hardcore rock and roll fans would have trouble recognizing Dolls songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Jet Boy” or “It’s Too Late,” even if offered a million dollars to name that tune.
Although the New York Dolls lacked hits, they possessed in spades that one crucial ingredient in the recipe for rock and roll success: attitude. More gutter than glitter, the New York Dolls exuded a contagious combination of street menace, shock appeal and cocksure swagger that resonated deeply with aspiring punks and glam metal rockers for several decades.
The Velvet Underground, the MC5 and the Stooges had drafted the blueprint for punk rock by 1971, the year that guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, singer David Johansen, bassist Arthur Kane Jr. and drummer Billy Murcia formed the New York Dolls. But it was Thunders who laid punk’s foundation with his raunchy, distorted three-chord riffs. It’s no coincidence that Johnny Ramone, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine formed punk bands shortly after witnessing one of the New York Dolls’ legendary shows at Manhattan’s Mercer Arts Center, or that Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols taught himself guitar by playing along with the Dolls’ debut album.
The New York Dolls are credited with kickstarting the Seventies Manhattan rock and roll scene that produced Kiss, Blue Öyster Cult and protopunk artists like Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, but their influence reached far beyond the banks of the Hudson and East rivers. Aerosmith, Kiss and Twisted Sister adopted the Dolls’ cross-dressing concept and made it acceptable for heavy metal, while Malcolm McLaren (who managed the Dolls for a short period in 1975 before the band broke up) created the Sex Pistols in the Dolls’ image, albeit a younger and snottier version.
Thunders and Murcia’s replacement, Jerry Nolan, left the Dolls in 1975 to form the Heartbreakers and the New York Dolls finally fizzled out by 1977. Nonetheless, their influence remained potent through the early Eighties, when Mötley Crüe became a sensation on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip with their outrageous glam get-ups and we-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. L.A. punks started growing their hair long and decorating the walls of Melrose Avenue record shops with flyers bearing crudely Xeroxed photos of the Dolls under the slogan “Wanted: This Band.” And while hair metal bands like Faster Pussycat, Poison and Guns N’ Roses didn’t stray far from the Dolls’ original formula, all went on to become bigger stars than the Dolls ever dreamed of becoming.
The Dolls’ drug-fueled lifestyle caught up with Murcia early on, and eventually overtook Thunders and Nolan, as well; all of them died young. Their absence, however, didn’t stop Johansen, Kane and Sylvain from reforming the band last year after Morrissey asked them to perform at his Meltdown Festival in London. Tragically, Kane died shortly afterward, on July 13, 2004, at the age of 55. Johansen and Sylvain decided to keep going and are presently in the midst of the New York Dolls’ first tour in 30 years. Plans for a new studio album are reportedly underway.
All things considered, the time seemed right for Guitar World to unleash this exclusive, never-before-seen oral history of the New York Dolls. In addition to featuring reminiscences from key band members and friends, it includes commentary provided by Kane shortly before his death.