New York Dolls Interview

David Johansen speaks to ClashMusic

The New York Dolls formed as the 70s dawned, but split before ever seeing success.

Yet through their influence the band would shape the latter half of the decade and beyond, inspiring groups such as The Sex Pistols and even firing the imagination of a young man in Manchester by the name of Morrissey.

In fact, it was the Mancunian bard who finally persuaded the band to patch things up. Performing an emotional set at the Royal Festival Hall back in 2004, the New York Dolls have gone from strength to strength ever since.

Releasing their latest album ‘Cause I Sez So’ earlier this year, it was clear that age hadn’t weathered the band’s charms. Filthy rock ‘n’ roll, New York Dolls are due to return to the UK to showcase material from throughout their career this December (more info on those dates here).

Ahead of those shows ClashMusic sat down with iconic singer David Johansen to talk about the band’s career and their relationship to the UK.

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The New York Dolls seem to have a close relationship with this country, how did that come about?
When we first started out, and I think it continues to this day, we noticed that the UK just got us. How about Larry David, does the UK get Larry David? Well America has certainly taken that Ricky Gervais to heart.

Is he big in America right now, Ricky Gervais?
He is. Cranking out movies like a factory.

Have you seen any of them yet?
I see them when they come out on TV. I can’t say I’d go out and buy a ticket.

Back when the New York Dolls formed many of your influences were British, how did this come about?
I think that in Britain they had bands, you know what I’m saying? Up until that time in America they didn’t have so many bands. I mean there were singing groups and then there were solo singers. Of course all those people actually had bands but they weren’t promoted as such at the time. I think that idea of bands was really kind of appealing to us as kids, who were in cahoots with other kids in a certain situation so it appealed to us.

Was the gang, outlaw stance occupied by The Stones appealing to you as kids?
I mean the outlaw stance was something to have but as kids in New York we were impolite. I mean I wouldn’t say they were gangs but groups of nefarious kids.

What was the main motivation to go out and form the New York Dolls?
Well we all wanted to play music, and we wanted to do it with other elements. We wanted to make music, but we also wanted to have a philosophy and a show. We were all artistic and all wanted to express ourselves on as many playing fields as we could.

That element of ‘show’ was quite unusual at the time – where did that come from?
I think everybody had their own version of that idea. You know when I was a kid I would go and see Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and they would tear the place up. Then that evolved into this staring at their shoes kind of thing, and we kind of wanted to re-inject that Little Richard kind of element to it. Among other things, as far as that’s concerned.

Other things?
Well were like in the East Village, and the East Village really needed a band at that time and we kind of contained it. The audience at that time, we were kind of in this hotbed of revolution and social experimentation, progressive society so we were right in the midst of all that. We kind of represented that.

New York Dolls – Personality Crisis

The band never reached any mass level of fame, was that something which bothered you after the group split up?
No I don’t think it bothered me. I think there’s a certain element of people create songs which are for the market place, you know what I’m saying? In other words they kind of think “OK what kind of song can I make that will fit into what is going on in the marketplace?” Then there are other bands and other people who don’t really consider that at all because they just want to create something essentially for themselves. Basically thinking “What would I like?” because you’re not really concerned with the constraints of the market place. It’s kind of folk art, in a sense, it’s not made with the market place in mind it’s just made for the love of making it. Or something that would appeal to yourself and your ilk.

You move into acting after the initial split of the group. Was this a natural shift for you?
It wasn’t like I decided to be an actor. Certain people would say “oh can you be in my movie” or “can you do this?”. I didn’t have any other things to be doing at that moment that was lucrative. But it wasn’t like I went around saying “oh let me be in your movie” it was more that people would ask me to do certain things.

You still made music, moving into an R&B route with the Harry Smiths – was it a wrench to leave that and come back to the Dolls?
Well I still sing with Hubert (Sumlin) a lot and that’s a lot of fun. At the time it wasn’t like the Dolls were committed to doing anything beyond that. It was the gig for Morrissey and it seemed like an easy decision to make because it seemed like so much fun. We had to choose and make some kind of decision that just kind of evolved naturally from that moment. It wasn’t like there was some kind of plan. Make a record, play a tour.. all of that just kind of happened. It was incremental.

In music, do you feel it’s simply more a case of following your heart?
Things appeal to me, and then I guess certain things start appealing to me more and more. I start dabbling and then certain types of music I can give myself over to for a certain period of time. Because I find it rejuvenating. It’s not just musically, it affects my life and so I try to do things that affect my life – not consciously, as such – but I try to do things that affect my life positively at the time.

New York Dolls – Looking For A Kiss

When the Dolls first reformed did living up to the legacy of the original group trouble you at all?
Well you know you have to understand that when you’re in a band – unless you’re some kind of crazy person – you’re legacy isn’t your property. The other people make up what a legacy is, it doesn’t really concern the participants. In other words you could have 20 people saying 20 different things about what you should be. “Robin should be this, Robin should be that”. If you start listening to those people you will soon become aware that you had better do what you want to do, because otherwise you will be trying to run around pleasing all these people and it’s never going to work.

The new album sees you teaming up with Todd Rundgren, how did this come about?
Well you know I see Todd here and there, we’ve been involved in some different projects together over the years. When we were making the record we decided who we were going to work with. So we looked through producers and thought – I don’t know this guy, I don’t know if we’re going to hit it off when we work together. All these variables. Somebody suggested Todd, and we just thought well we know Todd so we don’t have to worry about what that’s going to be like. I think also the fact that Todd wanted to make the record in Hawaii was substantial involvement in our agreeing to do it.

There is some debate over his role in the debut album, how big a part did he play?
Well he had a whip, a chair and a blank gun. He was kind of like a lion tamer. I don’t know what you mean by that because we went in and recorded the songs. People have spoken about the mix thing, the whole ‘turn me up, turn me up” kind of thing. That may be true – I don’t know, I don’t really recall. If you’re going to make a record with Todd it’s going to be good.

Is it a fair representation of how the band were live at that time?
The first Dolls record? I would say. I don’t see how anybody could have any problems with it because it’s certainly a seminal record. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, for me it’s a great record. I hear in periphery from time to time controversy about it but for me it’s a waste of time to even think about that because it’s myth.

Have Todd Rundgren’s techniques changed over time?
Well you know his technique I don’t think has changed. Technology has changed, where now you can make a studio anywhere at any time. Which is great! So you’re not trapped in a windowless environment, which to me I find really Kafka-esque. I live to record in a house where you can go outside and walk around. Do something other than going out into the waiting room and reading Billboard or something. To me, that’s not a pleasant way to spend your time. But if you’re someplace where you can go outside and do this, and do that – to me it’s much better. When you do things differently – you’re not constantly doing the same thing over and over again.

Would you ever strike out on your own again?
If I had the time I would in a minute, but The Dolls are my band. I like singing songs so to me it’s just a very life-affirming thing to do. I mean you can sing around the house which is all well and good but it’s also nice to play with people. Make music with people.

Catch The New York Dolls in action at the following venues:

2 Cambridge Junction
3 Bristol Ansom Rooms
4 London HMV Forum
6 Southampton Talking Heads
8 Leamington Spa Assembly
9 Liverpool O2 Academy
10 Edinburgh HMV Picture House

Book tickets HERE.

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