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Classy reunions
The New York Dolls and Gang of Four return to rock

If like me you came of musical age any time after, oh, 1983, then you probably held certain truths to be self-evident: punk rock was dead; there were dozens of formative bands from the late ’60s and ’70s you’d never see; and the Ramones would go on playing that same damn set list till the end of time. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong. Punk rock never really expired; it just went underground for a while. And the emergence of alternative rock in the ’90s led to all kinds of pleasant surprises (the return of the Raincoats, Mission of Burma, and a revitalized Joe Strummer), along with a few embarrassing ones (that whole Sex Pistols "Filthy Lucre" thing). The Ramones did keep playing that same damn set for another decade and a half. But nostalgia for rock’s alternative past has continued to yield unexpected dividends. Like the current Gang of Four reunion, which has brought the original class of ’77 line-up of the then highly politicized punk band back together for a tour that hits Avalon on May 16. And, thanks to a little urging from Morrissey, David Johansen’s decision to reopen the New York Dolls songbook for a 2004 British festival date that’s documented on the Attack/BMG CD Morrissey Presents The Return of the New York Dolls: Live from Royal Festival Hall, 2004. Although original guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummers Billy Murcia and Jerry Nolan had passed on by then and bassist Arthur Kane Jr. has since died, Johansen and the band’s other founding guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, have taken the Dolls show on the road in the US. They’ll hit Avalon next week as well, on Thursday May 12.

Sometimes it really is best to leave the past alone — to let the old recordings speak for themselves and not risk ruining whatever aura they’ve developed over the years. And certain artists feel strongly about that. But there isn’t anything wrong with an artist like Johansen’s revisiting his roots. It is, after all, only rock and roll. And too much reverence can be toxic. Johansen, who put real effort into developing a solo career in the wake of the Dolls’ collapse, finally hit paydirt when he dressed up as Buster Poindexter, the suave, smarmy, Latin-loving crooner who had the whole lounge revival thing down long before Esquivel reissues became a hot commodity. His more recent project, the bloozy Harry Smiths, wasn’t quite as compelling, but Buster was a one-trick pony who had run his course. Still, as Johansen recalls when I reach him at his home in what he refers to as NYC’s "Yupper West Side," he’s still surprised that he said yes to the Dolls reunion when Morrissey, who was once president of the band’s fan club, came calling a little over a year ago.

"I know Morrissey was the president of the Dolls’ fan club," Johansen recalls in a voice that bleeds Noo Yawk City, "so we talk to each other like friends. And he’s saying he’d be so delighted if we’d do this. And I said, ‘Morrissey, would you get back together with Johnny Marr and the Smiths?’ And he said, ‘No.’ So, I said, ‘Why are you asking me to do this?’ But I acquiesced because I was going through this thing where I had decided that I dismissed things out of hand too easily. And I had to stop dismissing things because I wasn’t allowing myself to have certain experiences. That was very much on my mind after he called. I said," — with a deep laugh, he goes into what sounds like a practiced routine — " ‘Listen, self: didn’t you say that you were going to stop dismissing things out of hand?’ So I didn’t just dismiss the idea."

It’s easy to see why he might have: the Dolls’ legacy has enough baggage to fill all the overhead compartments on a transatlantic flight. Whether Sex Pistols manager Michael McLaren drew on the trashy, transvestite image of the early Dolls when he helped dress Johnny and Sid up in bondage pants and Situationist slogans remains an open question. And Thunders, who OD’d in New Orleans in 1991, and Nolan, who died of meningitis the following year, were two of rock’s more notorious junkies. Johnny, in particular, flaunted his condition in songs like "Too Much Junky Business" and "Chinese Rocks." Doing a Dolls reunion when the two of them were still around probably wouldn’t have been possible. "Jerry," Johansen says with a mixture of sadness and admiration, "was a bitter Irishman. He was just bitter. And he had a tendency to shoot his mouth off without any filters. I think a lot of what people think they know of the New York Dolls’ history has come from his grumbling. But he was a stone junky, unfit for work. And yet the band’s demise was not due to that."

Johansen then offers his own version of the story. "The short version is that when I was doing the Dolls, it felt like we were a liberating force. The East Village was a hotbed of revolution, and we represented all these groups from that area. It was great. It was a neighborhood kind of thing. Then, years later, you go into a bookstore and check out an encyclopedia of rock and you read that we were flashy, trashy, transvestites and junkies. That soundbite drifted into my unconscious, and even I started to believe that’s what we were. Then I started listening to songs like ‘Personality Crisis’ and I realized that they were good songs. I remembered how great we were. It’s still good now. It’s not dated, like ragtime. People are still going to the well and getting ideas from it. I just had a pride about those songs when I revisited them. And I realized that playing them again could be very emotionally enriching. So I called Morrissey back and told him I’d do it. I think he’d already talked the others into it."

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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