Today I’ll be meeting up with Kajsa in PA and so I’m dedicating today’s track to her. Yeah, the New York Dolls. She got into them in her college years and so I finally heard them after only hearing about them for so long. See, the Dolls were only an existing band in the early Seventies, and recorded two albums, released in 1973 and 1974. They were a New York sensation, but if you blinked you could easily have missed them. I was aware of them once they started making records because of a certain amount of hype and a certain amount of infamy that surrounded them, but to me, at the time, they just seemed the most shambolic and over-stated version of Glam to yet surface.
David Johansen, though, was quite a character and one had the sense that he was simply a showman, that there was little that was authentic or sincere about his role and, sure enough, as soon as Glam and pretty tights and sequins and lipstick had had its day, he was off to invent a new persona. The rest of the Dolls pretty much got stuck being ex-Dolls. The possibility of re-inventing themselves was slim. And of course drugs and bad choices and the whole bit. But that all seemed to go with the terrain, as if the point of forming a band like the Dolls was to exploit yourself shamelessly and just rage on for as long as you could make it work. Which means, have people pay to see you.
So I didn’t seek this stuff out. And when Kajsa starting bringing around the Dolls and the Stooges and Them and The Small Faces—all bands that could be considered background to the likes of The Libertines, who were hot then—I got a lesson in garage rock. And the Dolls were great at that. Their first album though, which is the one I know, was produced by Todd Rundgren and shows a neat grasp of how to make chaotic rock come off. Rundgren is someone I have begun to listen to a bit of late, picking up used copies of his LPs to have a better idea of the studio wizardry and musical omnivorousness of the dude. He may have had some scorn for the Dolls as musicians but he got good stuff on tape. It’s an album that gets better the better you know it.
Today’s song I picked after first thinking I’d go with the lead-off song “Personality Crisis”—because that bit about “you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon / Change on into a wolfman howlin’ at the moon” seems to capture the essential spirit of the band, with their trappings of glamor and their outrageous energy. Then I thought I might go with the one that is probably my favorite—because it’s a bit reflective—“Lonely Planet Boy,” which has a showy glumness to it that generally suits my mood, and is even a bit Smiths-like.
But “Private World” won out because it was co-written by Johansen and Arthur Kane, whose fat bass opens the song, and I listened to none less than Moz on a video chat about Kane, his untimely death, his bitter life, and his happiness to get to play to a great outpouring of admirers at a Dolls reunion gig that Morrissey was instrumental in making happen in 2004. Kane, who died in 2004, less than a month after that gig, is the subject of a touching song by Robyn Hitchcock called “N.Y. Doll.” And, while were on the subject, the bands who owe something to the Dolls include, not only The Smiths and Hitchcock’s early band The Soft Boys, but also Nick Cave’s Birthday Party, and the Sex Pistols, and the Runaways, and the Ramones, and many others no doubt.
Anyway, I like the lead guitar riff on this song, and I like the way Johansen keeps shouting “Shut that door!” It’s a song that, I guess, is saying something about the perils of a public life, of being on stage and on show, and wanting to somehow have a world of one’s own in the midst of it all, even as one uses one’s private life for one’s songs. “Well, I just lost a lover, who done found something else / I get cool and lonely feeling sorry for myself.”
The spirit of the song seems to be a kind of “fuck off” to everyone, except that it seems to invite everyone to jump in and get with the vibe. “How many called, called my name / I’m trying to explain that I’m not the same.” The people who know you via “the public” don’t really get it, and the people who know you privately can’t really take it, all that show biz. It’s a gaping maw to be crammed with bits of flesh. But that’s OK, so long as it “keeps moving, at least I’m moving.”
Energy is what the Dolls offer, a cranked up, party-time, devil-may-care sense of rock as a balls out affair. By 1973, stalwart bad boy rockers like the Stones and The Who and The Faces were starting to feel a bit staid, a bit too secure in their career moves. Though I have to admit that, Moz’s enthrallment with the Dolls on the Old Grey Whistle Test notwithstanding, I see in Johansen someone who has the nerve to take Mick’s preening and vamping to the next campy level, while Sylvain and Thunders, on guitars, look like second-string stand-ins for Keef and Ronnie. Oh well, guess I’m just showing my allegiances. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
You got to keep it confidential