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.
The New York Dolls were the first sign that the Sixties were over. The Dolls were wild-and-free Lower East Side New York. They were really funky kids, and their sound was the beginning of punk rock. They didn’t care if the notes were in the right place; it sounded good, it felt good and the kids liked it. Johnny Thunders’ guitar playing was crude, Arthur Kane’s bass playing was primal and Billy Murcia’s drumming was great—the sound was very basic. And David had something to say; he had great, fun lyrics. They were all fun songs. I have no complaints about the New York Dolls. I thought they were brilliant. Then drugs took over. Alcohol took over. Weak personalities.
English bands ruled back in 1972. You had David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Foghat, Peter Frampton, Humble Pie, or you had jazz-rock musicians like John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana— there was nothing in between. There was a local New York music scene, but it was very small, and most bands played cover songs.
When we all started playing together, we knew none of us had the chops to join a better group. We all had been around the circuit in New York a bit, and everyone told us, “Oh, you can’t play, so we’ll see you later.” Same thing with me: “Oh, you suck! Go home and learn to play the bass.” We all had been told that. The group came together at a time when everyone had been pretty much rejected all around town. I spent almost a year in Holland in 1970, and I even spent time in England trying to get into a band. And everyone over there told me the same thing: “You don’t have the chops for this. See ya later!”
Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia and I went to Newtown High School in Queens together. Billy was from Bogota, Colombia. I came to America in 1961 from Cairo, Egypt, where I was born. When you’re an immigrant, they put you back a few grades because, basically, you’re a schmuck. So although Johnny was a year younger than me, I was in the same grade as him.
There were a few big hangouts back then. For example, every Sunday everyone would meet in Central Park at the fountain.
Everyone who was hip used to get dressed to the teeth and parade around near the fountain in Central Park. Before I knew him, I used to see Johnny up there with his girlfriend [Janis Cafasso]. They were pretty hard to miss because they dressed like Raggedy Ann and Andy. She had all this rouge on her cheeks and wore a big Fifties skirt with big pink polka dots on it. John had this Rod Stewart rooster haircut, but it was five times larger than Rod’s. And he would be dressed in things like pink-and–Day-Glo–green corduroy suits. I couldn’t figure out where John got his clothes. Later, I found out he would buy women’s pantsuits and take them back to his mom or his sister and they would customize them for him.
Finally, I decided, I’m gonna go over and find out what’s up with this guy, because no one’s allowed to look that outrageous unless you actually do something!
Johnny was originally a bass player. I basically taught him how to play guitar. I showed him everything I knew: some blues riffs, a couple of three-chord progressions and power chords.
I knew Johnny played bass, but the first time we jammed, he was playing guitar. And he was playing something that I was familiar with, but it sounded different. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t wrong. And I thought, Gee, maybe this guy is hearing something that I don’t hear. And I said, “Well, if this is what you’re going to do, then I’m going to play bass!” He started calling himself Johnny Thunders two weeks later.
I got a job at this clothing store in New York called Different Drummer, and right across the street from where I worked, upstairs on Lexington Avenue, was a place called the New York Doll Hospital [at 787 Lexington Avenue]. It was basically a toy fix-it shop. I told Billy, “Man, wouldn’t it be great to call a band the New York Dolls?”
That summer I went to England, and when I came back, Johnny, Billy and Arthur were playing in a band and calling themselves the New York Dolls. I got mad: “Fuck! You guys took my name and shit!” I wasn’t really happy about that. I was gonna start a band called the New York Dolls with them!
Johnny was our singer in the beginning, and then at some point he said, “Listen, we gotta try to find a singer, ’cause it’s too hard for me to sing and play at the same time. It’s too much.” So we kept asking around, and we found someone who led us to David.
One day a Colombian friend of mine named Rodrigo Solomon said, “Hey, man! You guys need a lead singer, and I got a guy for you! He plays the harmonica and everything. He lives in my building!”
David Johansen came to our rehearsal with this notebook that had a couple of songs in it—full lyrics with these chord diagrams scribbled under them. The funny thing is he didn’t know how to play the guitar. Where did this come from? Did someone just scribble “A D G B” on a piece of paper? What happened? I never did ask.
He brought in “Looking for a Kiss.” He also had the lyrics to “Bad Girl,” which was originally “Black Girl.” I think he had the words to “Personality Crisis.” We started to thrash through some chords, and before we knew it we had about eight songs that were starting to sound like songs.
Basically, what we wanted out of music was something simple, powerful and sexy, topped with a hook that would just drive you crazy. The Dolls’ music was mostly derived from ripping off the Rolling Stones and Eddie Cochran. We didn’t invent [the power chord], but we perfected it and it became the punk sound. Instead of holding all six strings, you’re holding only two, but when you hit it hard and you’ve got your amp up loud, that’s what gives you the power. I showed that to Johnny and, I swear to God, he took that to the fucking hilt, and that’s how we came up with every other song. “Chatterbox” and the beginning of “Human Being” were all power chords. It gave Johnny a brand-new invention. Of course, Marc Bolan used it and so did James Williamson from the Stooges.
Billy was the first to start wearing makeup. He’d go into places like Saks Fifth Avenue, get the makeup girls to put makeup on him and then go to some club. It caused quite a scandal. We all dressed very similar. We were five guys who weren’t on the big macho trip.
But I don’t think we actually started to wear makeup until we started to get better gigs. And we didn’t use that much makeup. We would, like, put on talcum powder, maybe some eyeliner and some lipstick, maybe some nail polish. We saw David Bowie and Alice Cooper as our competition. The first time we went to play, we thought we had to do something different. So I’d wear a leotard top and a pair of tights, and maybe a belt and a jacket, a bowtie or some boots, and that would be it. Then we had Johnny Thunders, the guy with his own wardrobe from another planet. And, of course, we had girls who were making clothes for us all the time. It all just kinda came together.
I was just struck by how “I don’t care” they were. They were kinda like a bizarre Rolling Stones.
We used to borrow our girlfriends’ makeup and all that kinda stuff. I think Johansen went overboard with it, and when Jerry Nolan joined the band, he was so confused. He would start with this affected campiness. And we were like, “Waitaminit, Jerry! This is not what the Dolls are about at all!” He was kinda taking it wrong, and I remember a few times Johansen turning around on the stage and giving Jerry a wet, ugly kiss! To me, this was horrible, ’cause I looked like what I wanted to look like, but if I wasn’t gay, then I wasn’t about to make out like I was gay. The idea was we were just trying to look better so we could meet more girls.
I remember someone telling me, “You’ve got to go to Mercer Arts Center! There’s this band you’ve gotta see! C’mon!” The Mercer Arts Center was this performance-arts place cut up into all these different rooms. The band was playing and Johnny Thunders had on turquoise-blue pants and was playing a clear guitar. David was kinda interesting because he looked like a chick, not some androgynous, funky dude. And Arthur was pretty funky-looking. Syl was cute, like a doll. They were fun. They were too loud, but there was a good vibe. And all the girls. Young girls! They had a little following already.
They didn’t know what the hell they were doing. They were like a garage band that just got out of the garage. All they knew was they were getting laid. Small theater, small room, but it was fun. Then they got into a bigger room and started playing all around town.
When they took the stage, I couldn’t help but think, This has got to be the most wild-looking, bizarre-looking group I’ve ever seen. I thought, Either I’ve just seen the best or the worst group ever. Afterward, I went backstage, and I introduced myself and told them who I was and how impressed I was with them. We met about two weeks later and I realized that these guys were street fugitives of a sort. You could easily write them off as a bunch of dumb street thugs, or you could say they know exactly who they are and what they want and how to get it. I thought they could really be important and decided to manage them.
We needed something new. Everything was old, or English, or this or that. This was America—New York! It was happening right here at home! We don’t want imports! We’ll take them, but if we have something homegrown, we get so excited, and we get behind it.
Soon, word got out about them and the press was covering them like crazy. Even the British press were writing about them. They were hot as could be; they were playing everywhere. And then we started talking to some record company people and we received comments like: “I like the band, but the lead singer sucks.” “I like the lead singer, but the band sucks.” “Are they transvestites?” “Are they drug addicts?”
So we decided that the American record industry was too conservative for the Dolls and opted to do a small tour of England. The main show was the Dolls opening for Rod Stewart [and the Faces] at the Wembley auditorium. All of a sudden, a group that never played before more than 350 people was onstage at Wembley in front of 13,000 people. The straight press slaughtered them, but the hipper music magazines were saying things like, “We have seen the future of rock and roll, and it’s the Dolls.”
Soon everybody was trying to sign us. Atlantic wanted to sign us for $50,000, sight unseen. It looked like we were at the edge of brilliant success in Europe.
They were terribly wounded over Billy’s death. The cockiness was gone out of all of them, especially David Johansen, who was the most arrogant person I met in my life. It changed them.
After he was buried and the Dolls decided go forward, that’s when they found Jerry Nolan.
He was a very straightforward rock drummer. He was harder and more “street.” He wanted to be great like [swing-era drummer] Gene Krupa, somebody who cut a profile. “Cut a profile” was a Nolan phrase: “Ya gotta cut a profile! Leave a memory! Stand out from the crowd!” But I think he felt uncomfortable wearing some of the clothes. Jerry Nolan with his pink drums.
Jerry gave us a legitimate rock and roll sound. He gave us the professionalism we needed to get a record deal.
They did their first show with Jerry on December 19, 1972, at the Mercer Arts Center. Everybody wanted to see the Dolls; Billy’s death contributed to their notoriety. But the record industry still didn’t know what to make of it.
They all passed on the Dolls. And who’d we end up with? Mercury Records. They were the only guys left. We approached them: “Hey, you wanna sign the Dolls?” And they were probably one of the worst companies to sign with. They really never developed us. The Dolls were too outrageous, and they couldn’t really control us. When it came down to it, yeah, they put out the records. But what else did they do with us?
I asked David Bowie if he would want to produce them. We eventually got [pop singer/ songwriter and producer] Todd Rundgren. And do you think it’s so easy to just get a good producer? Especially with a group like that, that some people maintained couldn’t play for shit? It wasn’t easy.
No matter what anybody says, I think Todd was the best producer at that time to produce the New York Dolls. And he gave us a fabulous first album. If you compare the first album to the second album, it’s like day and night. That second album is like the first Buster Poindexter album. When you got black girls singing, you got a horn section, you got a piano player that can really play instead of Sylvain Sylvain—that’s not the New York Dolls! That could be any schmuck! Then you got Johansen singing, so as far as I’m concerned, it was the first Buster Poindexter album!
The first record has been mercilessly slagged, and for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think that was a bad record; I think it’s a pretty accurate representation of who they were. It was done in a week, man! I remember going up to those sessions and thinking, Wow! They play every song three times and pick the best take and work on that!—which was kinda mind blowing, because back then, people used to do 15 or 20 takes to get the absolute take. I think Todd was smart enough to realize that he had to cop the vibey take. He could have drove them to death and it would have been a lame record. But the way he did it, I think that he captured something.
They got a big push then, they really did. But then, there was the album cover, which was a big error. The picture was way extreme. So many people were turned off by that. The picture on the back is what they really looked like.
The first album cover is my fault. Mercury needed a photo for the jacket, so they took us into this antique shop with these barber chairs, and I hated the result. You couldn’t see the Dolls because all the lighting was terrible! How the hell was anybody gonna see my rollerskates! So I ran up to the office and said, “Wait! Wait! Wait! Let me get all my friends from the fashion business! No problem!”
I had these two friends: Pinky and Diane. They were doing well as designers. I called up and said, “Pinky, you gotta help me!” And she loved the Dolls! “Please, you gotta help me! I need a new session! I’ve only got six or seven hundred dollars!” ’cause they spent thousands and thousands of dollars taking us to that antique shop with the barber chairs and all that shit. She got me Toshi, who was the photographer’s photographer then. Toshi was from Japan and he was pretty big in New York at the time, doing Vogue covers and getting $5,000 for it. We got Shin, which was the hair dresser, who added in a few curls on us and all that sorta stuff. And we had this American guy, like one of these Mercer Arts Center guys with the glitter in his beard, and he did the makeup. If anything, if we were too flamboyant, it was his fault. I remember Pinky and Diane putting the white satin and tacks on that couch. That couch was in the garbage on Park Avenue! It was in the fucking trash! We sat there, and the rest was history. I remember Johnny coming in at the backroom at Max’s and saying, “We just got the cover art! Look! Look! Look!” And he loved it. It was so cool.
After that, we opened for Mott the Hoople at the Felt Forum, which was the basement of Madison Square Garden. Todd Rundgren
introduced the band, and he came out with this huge beach ball. It was as big as him! He comes out and he’s bouncing it and says, “Now here they are—the New York Dolls!” The minute we came out, the girls started screaming. And we came running on the stage
like the Rolling Stones at the T.A.M.I. Show [a star-studded two-day concert in 1964 featuring British and American pop stars, including Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones; a film featuring highlights of the show was released in 1965]. I got that idea from the T.A.M.I. Show, and Johnny loved it the minute I told him.
So we run out playing “The Courageous Cat Theme,” which was based on a cartoon I used to see. But of course, we’re the New York Dolls and we can’t do all the horn parts and stuff that were in the original song—especially with Johnny Thunders in the band! Anything past six notes and he starts whining: “Syl, there’s too many changes in this song!” So we simplified it, almost writing a new song in the process. Man, it was great!
After that, we were on tour with Mott the Hoople, which was a really cool show. Mott was doing “All the Young Dudes” with David Bowie and all that, and they were much bigger than us. But it was cool to go on the road together. We could have toured more with them, but I think David didn’t want to or something. Then we went on what was called “The Glitter Rock Tour.” That was us, Aerosmith opening, and then the special guest stars were Kiss. If it wasn’t Aerosmith, it would be Blue Öyster Cult, Kiss and us, but that bill would be more like a New York thing, ’cause all of us were from there. I always told the guys, “Man, you’d better watch it with those guys from Kiss!” They went with us because they wanted that introduction to our audience. But the minute they got a hold of it… Of course, they weren’t as fucked up as us. And they could play. And, of course, that guy Ace [Frehley] was technically a better guitar player than Johnny.
The Dolls played all over and did some television shows—the [weekly live performance program] Midnight Special and what have you. They even went to Europe, played Biba’s [an ultrahip department store in glam-era London], did The Old Grey Whistle Test [British live-performance TV program; the Dolls’ appearance marked a pivotal point in rock history for its influence on future British punks]. Then it was time for them to do a second album.
When we were going to make Too Much Too Soon, Johnny and I got money to buy new guitars. Johnny had a budget of $800, ’cause he was the lead guitar player. I only got $300, because I was the rhythm player. Johnny bought a Les Paul Black Beauty and I bought a Les Paul Junior.
The day I got it, Johnny missed rehearsals. We were going to play Max’s Kansas City and he came in during soundcheck. I was playing the Les Paul Junior and getting the sound he really wanted. He came up to me and said, “I’ll trade you for it, right now.” We used to trade everything. So I got the Black Beauty and he got his first Junior, which is the guitar he became associated with. He loved how he could stretch those strings and they would sustain if you cranked up the amp. That baby would just stay there and hum by itself for half an hour.
When they went in the studio for Too Much Too Soon, there was a lot of bickering and fighting. David and Johnny just didn’t see eye to eye on anything, which was really too bad. ’Cause I thought they were going to have a promising future, but it all fell apart after that second album. It was a really fun party that first year. Then the second year, once they started that second album, it was just all fighting and it wasn’t so much fun anymore.
And I thought the second album sucked! I didn’t like it. I guess there was just a lot of animosity between David and Johnny. I think that really broke up the band, which was really sad. But the Dolls were brilliant! They really were. But with that second album, it wasn’t happening.
Shadow Morton, I think in retrospect, was probably not the right producer for the Dolls, but some people like Too Much Too Soon a lot. [Morton’s credits included Sixties girl-group hit “Leader of the Pack” and psychedelic act the Vanilla Fudge.] I think it’s a good album, but I don’t think it was the right album. We even took him on the road quite extensively, for him to get a feeling for the band. And he probably had a great time, too, but it just didn’t click. He was from a different world.
We had such a great thing going. I wanted to have Rundgren do the second album. I was voted down because I wasn’t that strong. As far as they were concerned, Thunders and Johansen were the power of the band. But Johnny didn’t know where to go on that second album. So they got Shadow Morton, and he was so bad for us! He cleaned us up; he didn’t give us the dirt. He didn’t give us those things that you love of Johnny’s, like the little guitar riffs. He didn’t like me playing piano: “Oh, no! I’m gonna get a real piano player!” So he got some Greek guy [Alex Spyropoulos, founding member of late-Sixties British rock group Nirvana], and he played piano real good. But it wasn’t the Dolls. “Oh no! You guys don’t sing so good! Let me get these black girls to go ‘Shoobop-bop-bop!’ ” Great, but it ain’t the New York Dolls, baby! It was like day and night.
That album probably sold not even a third of what the first album did. It only had two brand-new songs on it, which were “Puss ’n’ Boots” and “Babylon.” And it’s kinda sad, because “Teenage News” was already written and performed live but wasn’t on the album [the song, written by Sylvain, first appeared on the 1984 album Live in NYC—1975: Red Patent Leather (Fan Club)]. The title song was not even used. It showed up later on Johnny Thunders’ acoustic album [Hurt Me (1984)]. I wrote that song just for our second album, and one night I asked Shadow Morton, “Hey, when are we gonna get around to my song?” “Well, I’ve been told by management that I have to pay attention to David and Johnny.”
I got so fucking pissed off when he told me that I packed up my bags and my girlfriend and took off on vacation to Jamaica. I started getting into that kinda rhythm. That’s where I came up with “Funky but Chic” [eventually recorded by Johansen on his self-titled 1978 debut]. I told the guys, “Hey, man, let’s start getting some ska in our stuff, just to keep it going and not just do the same thing we’ve been doing.”
I know John and Jerry were fed up by the time of the second record. David was on such a big ego trip by that point. I didn’t even want to be in the studio. I just wanted to come in and put down what I could do, and that was it. I had been outvoted as far as getting my name on any more material. It was the end of the line. And we had been going really gung-ho only two years earlier.
So the second record comes out and sells close to 110,000, like the first. But no great progress was happening, saleswise. And Mercury was even more pissed off.
The album came out, and we hardly toured. And when we did, we were back to playing the small clubs.
The drug use began to escalate. Heroin wasn’t a part of it, early on. We were always drinking, smoking pot. But then it went overboard.
Johnny was really a cleancut, good ol’ boy from Queens, but he couldn’t deal with his hang-ups, and drugs filled that void. The first guy that introduced Johnny to heroin was Iggy Pop. The reason Johnny got together with Ig was because they were dating sisters: Coral Starr was with Iggy Pop, and Sabel Starr was basically Johnny’s.
After the Mercury Records fiasco, Marty Thau left, so I brought in Malcolm McLaren to manage us. He loved the New York Dolls. Malcolm, who went on to manage the Sex Pistols, owned a clothing shop in England, and when we would tour Paris, he would introduce us to the French designers and all this stuff. I told him what was going on, and he came to New York and we had a meeting with him. He really wanted to help us keep everything going.
The only problem was that Johnny and David were still fighting. David was down on Johnny’s drug use and Johnny was down on David’s inflated ego. David couldn’t understand that his ego was just as devastating to the band as Johnny Thunders’ heroin habit. And he was being hypocritical because everybody was doing heroin, including Johansen.
But Malcolm really tried to hold us together. He rented us a rehearsal space and found us a booking agent. The booking agent set us up with some shows in Florida, because that’s where he was living.
The plan was, We’ve got some new songs, we’ve got a new look, so let’s go to Florida and play all the clubs down there. Then we come back to play the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, which is a 3,000-seat theater. They didn’t want to give us the Beacon Theater because of our bad reputation for being junkies. But Malcolm convinced them to give us the show, which I thought was incredible.
So we get on the plane to Florida and start playing the Florida clubs. We decided that our new drag was going to be camouflage! We all had army uniforms, and we rented a Fury III station wagon, which was like a khaki army color. So, when we were in there, especially with McLaren at the helm in his army colonel’s hat… [laughs] I wish I had pictures of that.
All the while, McLaren’s trying to do his best, ’cause we’re not really making that much money, but at least we were gigging and things were on an upswing. Everything was fine until one night David starts drinking, and right after dinner he starts saying things like, “Everybody here can be replaced! I’m the singer and I got you guys because I liked you! I could have done this myself!” So, of course, Johnny and Jerry walked out. I walked out with them. I couldn’t fucking believe the guy.
And that was it. They went to their room, they took their plane tickets, and Malcolm didn’t say anything. I drove Johnny and Jerry to the airport with Malcolm. To me, it was like, “Maybe two weeks from now, we’ll get back together. Two months from now, maybe.” But then I always remember this: They’re walking toward the check-in desk, and it just hit me like a fucking ton of bricks—Wow, this beautiful thing we invented called the New York Dolls! What the fuck happened? This is the end!
So I yelled out to Jerry and Johnny: “Hey! Hey, guys! What about the New York Dolls?” Johnny kinda turned around and looked at me and didn’t say anything. He just kept on walking with this look in his eyes like, Maybe some other time. Not now. But Jerry turns around and yells, “Fuck the New York Dolls!”—because he was so bitter, not at the Dolls but at David Johansen. He should have said, “Fuck David Johansen!” Then I would have given him a great big kiss and said, “Go on your way. Don’t even worry.”
Johansen realized that an entity that had 60 percent of its members strung out on something or other, be it alcohol or drugs, has absolutely no chance to survive. Arthur was a drinker; Johnny and Jerry were druggies. How could you exist like that? You show up, you’re stoned; or youmiss cues; or you’re late and you don’t do soundcheck; you talk arrogantly to people that you shouldn’t. So it was just hopeless at that point. And when David said, “Anyone can be replaced,” he was trying to say to them, If you can’t hold up your end, we’ll have to get someone else. Harsh as it might have been, it was really the God’s-honest, straight-down-the-middle truth.
He was a pro. No matter what anybody says about David, he was there to do the work, and did it until it became impossible to do anymore. No matter how late the party went on the night before, David was always up and raring to go in whatever condition he was in.
Signing our first record deal and signing our first management contract—that was our real downfall. Our clash with the music industry was our downfall. What if we hadn’t signed a record deal and become a permanent fixture of New York City like the Statue of Liberty? What if we had just been the New York Dolls, playing every weekend?
Why have the Dolls had such an influence? ’Cause I think that the fact is anybody could really play their songs. The songs weren’t hard and they had a vibe. Plus, they were kind of average guys; they weren’t spectacular musicians. Punk really built on that, especially in England, the idea that you didn’t have to be as good as the guy in Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin in order to make a racket, in order to express yourself.
It made people realize: Something like this can happen in your own town. You can make this happen. It was like an Everyman thing: you didn’t have to be a spectacular guitar player in order to play a show.
But still, it’s obvious after all this time that something like a musical revolution has to happen naturally. You can’t force it to happen and—equally as true—you can’t just duplicate what’s come before. You can’t recreate the New York Dolls.