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A Quietus Interview

Bringing Out The Dead: New York Dolls On Their Highs And Lows
Mark Eglinton , July 30th, 2009 09:38

Mark Eglinton meets living legends Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen of New York Dolls. Photo courtesy of Max Lakner

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Given their legendary status you’d think that the New York Dolls had a long career. Not so; in fact their creative window initially lasted barely four years during which they, in no particular order: released two albums; paved the future of punk rock; and lost founder member Billy Murcia, who died on that now infamous UK tour, having mixed vast quantities of drugs and alcohol. It was only when Morrissey, former head of their UK fan club, suggested they reform and play at the Meltdown festival in 2004 that the ball resumed rolling for the surviving original Dolls (two more bandmates had passed away in the intervening years; tragically, bassist Arthur Kane died just 22 days after the reunion gig) and the concept of reforming properly became a reality.

Original members David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain somehow survived the carnage of the last 30-odd years and have assembled a new band entirely in keeping with their old rock 'n' roll values. They released new material produced by Todd Rundgren, who was responsible for their now seminal debut. Live dates in the UK (which you’d think would be like Playschool compared to earlier trips) and an appearance at the Lovebox festival gave us the chance to talk to them.

Giants or Jets?

Sylvain Sylvain: “To be honest, not really either of them these days. I like sports but I’m more of a cyclist so I go everywhere on my 28-speed bike that weighs like 3 ½ pounds. I grew up riding bicycles everywhere back in the 60s but then they got stolen all the time. I once stopped a guy on 3rd Avenue and paid him $15 for a bike he was actually riding at the time. I shouted to him that I wanted it and he totally stood on the brakes. When I was in Japan I even bought one of these cool folding bicycles for $85 that you can put in your suitcase or whatever.”

Sounds good. More seriously; are you still in touch with Malcolm McLaren nowadays?

David Johansen: "We were with him last month. He’s a friend of ours.”

Do you regret letting him manage the band though?

DJ: "Well he never really managed us, strictly speaking. It wasn’t anything formal like that.”

So you had me driving, Malcolm McLaren in the passenger seat with a handbook, giving me instructions like 'It’s a red light, what do you do?' 'Stop', I’d say.

SS: "Yeah but I remember when I met Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood back in the late 60s before the New York Dolls really started. At that time I was in the rag trade: that’s what they called the fashion industry back then. I was running my own business called Truth and Soul Sweaters and in those days you had design shows in hotels like the McAlpine. What happened was that each company would use a hotel room to show off their stuff. All the way down at the end of the hall was this company called Let it Rock; and that was run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.”

So you became friends that way?

SS: "Yeah, they came to one of our really early shows, I think at someplace like the Mercer Arts Centre, and just completely fell in love with the band. They also said that we looked a lot better in women’s clothes, which we probably did.”

Was that when he took your guitar back to England?

SS: “Yeah it was and he was meant to give me an airline ticket in exchange but he never did. What we did together though — and I haven’t told this story before — is that once we were in Florida and he said he’d never been to New Orleans. Even back then New Orleans was an insane place so we decided to go there. The problem was that while I was there, I didn’t actually have a driving license. He wanted me to drive us back to New York but there was no fucking way I was driving through crazy states like Alabama and Louisiana with no license. Next thing I’m in the New Orleans driving agency applying for a temporary license, but I needed to pass some test. So you had me driving, Malcolm McLaren in the passenger seat with a handbook, giving me instructions like 'It’s a red light, what do you do?' 'Stop', I’d say. Anyway, I passed the test and got the temporary license.”

Why did it take so long for the band to get back together

DJ: "I don’t know and to be honest I never even thought about it. We were all in different bands so it wasn’t even really discussed. It was only when Morrissey asked us to do Meltdown then we did a bunch of other shows that we even thought about playing again.”

What do you actually remember about that first UK Tour, apart from the tragic death of Billy Murcia?

DJ: "Personally very little. It all just seemed like one long and continuous spree.”

Of what?

DJ: ”Everything.”

SS: "I actually remember everything because I have something of an elephant’s memory. It was very exciting times. I mean we had only played to around 150 people, then all of a sudden we’re playing at Wembley Pool and supporting Rod Stewart. Fuck knows how many people that could hold. Albert’s death completely devastated us though, and he is still missed now.”

So you’d say that drugs were the main reason for your brief career?

DJ: ”That’s actually a misconception because most of the drugs was after the band finished.”

One day we give [Johnny Thunders] his first joint. The next day he’s got three fucking pounds of marijuana in his house.

SS: “The one thing you just cannot fuck around with is heroin; because before you know it, it has you by the balls. It convinces you that you need it and it’s the one drug you just will not get away with.”

DJ: "Yeah but certain people will always have a predisposition for getting into drugs and drink. Also being in the music business makes it easier because it’s one of the few jobs where you can sleep late.”

SS: "You even get something called the ’instant junky’ where they are hooked after one hit. I was lucky though. I lived in Queens in a tough-guy neighbourhood where you’d get guys grabbing you by the neck and telling you to go to the drugstore and buy them some Robitussin with Codeine. I remember when I was 14 this handsome guy in our street grabbed me like that, right outside Billy Murcia’s house and sent me to the drugstore, which I did. Two days later I heard that that same guy was dead and that kind of put me off. This guy was handsome and had a cool girlfriend but now he was dead and I just couldn’t believe it. Heroin was just not my thing because it gives a bad hangover and I always wanted to have a lot of sex anyway. If you’re going to take heroin you better have a lot of Viagra on hand, trust me.” [Laughs]

What was the New York scene like back then?

DJ: "Remember, we came out of an arts-based scene. Our early shows had dancers and we hung out with poets and dressmakers. Basically all the creative people. It became OK to be creative and with the world the way it is I think there are more and more creative people. But we must remain vigilant . . .”

Of what?

DJ: “The fascists. We just cannot let them get their foot in the door.”

Are they out there? Where are they?

DJ: "They have meetings. At places like the VFW hall. This is the kind of world where shit like that can happen, just like the 1940s. Be vigilant.”

SS: "You have to remember that when we started, CBGBs and all that hadn’t even happened. We were like a barometer for all those type of bands because if we made it, they’d all get signed. When we did, it just opened the door. We never actually sat round a table and plotted to destroy the world though. I wouldn’t change a thing of how things began either.”

So you reckon it was harder back then to break through?

DJ: "It’s all laid on for you now. You just arrive and walk on stage. Back then you had to basically drive to a town, cut down trees, cut the grass and build a stage. That’s what you had to do to put on a show.”

We had a real ‘little rascals’ approach to putting on a show. When we needed a curtain we’d get a bed sheet from our mother and if we needed make-up we’d use our girlfriends' stuff.

SS: “We grew up in an era where there was stadium rock and we couldn’t stand it. Living in Queens we were only a few stops on the subway from Manhattan but if you know the area that is a lifetime of travel time to get there. We were getting bored with the scene and used to go to places like Fillmore East. We wanted to find a bit more sex appeal. We had a real ‘little rascals’ approach to putting on a show. When we needed a curtain we’d get a bed sheet from our mother and if we needed make-up we’d use our girlfriends' stuff. Gradually we found little pockets of audience and pretty soon we were in the centrefold of Melody Maker. Then we discovered that there was a world out there and we were basically taking music back to scratch.”

What was it that appealed about you to the British audience?

DJ: "They got us. New York City got us. Detroit got us. California, Texas and Florida got us.”

Did anyone not get you?

DJ: "Well maybe things got a little confusing in places like Oklahoma City where they were busy worshipping Jesus of Bethlehem.”

But could any of you actually play?

SS: "Some of us could play. Me, for example. [Laughs] I actually taught Johnny (Thunders) to play too. He and I used to swap girlfriends too back then. We’d swap girlfriends for a pair of pants or boots or something. But anyway he came to us and said 'I have a guitar but it has six strings. You get guitars that have only four strings which looks easier, so I’m gonna play that.' What he didn’t know then was that bass holds the whole fucking show together. I showed him some basics on the guitar, blues chords and shit then three weeks later he comes back and announces that he’s now the lead guitarist and I’m the rhythm guy.”

Was that the kind of guy Johnny was?

SS: "Yeah it was. For example, one day we give him his first joint. The next day he’s got three fucking pounds of marijuana in his house. But he had a great sense of humour and was just such a pure guy. He was also a fantastic songwriter. It would have been his birthday recently (July 15th) and I recently saw his Swedish daughter in New York City. She’s very like Johnny and beautiful and is the daughter of Suzanne who was Johnny’s first and possibly only true love.”

OK, Todd Rundgren produced your new record. What does Todd bring to the band, other than previous history?

SS: “Todd is known for his big production but not like something like, for example [long pause] Foghat.”

Foghat! I could have sat here naming bands until the turn of the century and I promise you that Foghat is not one that I’d thought you’d mention.

SS: [laughs] "I know, I know but I was trying to find the right example!”

DJ: “I think the record has a late 60s early 70s vibe. It came together very gradually and we didn’t have any plan about how we wanted it to sound. It has some good ‘shing-a-ling’, Chicago Blues and also some pop songs. Also, when we make a record we are pretty much doubling our repertoire which is always good. It gives us more songs to play. For me I just love being in a band that feels right. A lot of modern pop music is like machines. I like the phenomenology of it but it’s not really music. I just like to keep rock 'n' rolling and always just did it for the ride. You have to improvise and adapt.”

. . . and be vigilant?

DJ: “Right.”

New York Dolls play the London HMV Kentish Town Forum on Friday 4th December: Box Office – 08700 603 777. Book Online: www.seetickets.com. The new album, Cause I Sez So, is released by Atco Records. Further info: www.nydolls.org.