New York Dolls – New York Dolls
Although it was the major music magazine of the ’70s – and a lot of other decades – I only rarely read “Rolling Stone” while growing up. It just seemed like it was aimed at an older readership. My first choice was usually a lyrics magazine, of which there were many, with titles like “Song Hits” and “Smash Hits”, since getting the words right while singing along always mattered to me. For actual writing about music, my main choices were “Circus” and, much more likely, “Hit Parader”. And “Hit Parader”, at least as I remember it, loved the New York Dolls.
The group was done by 1976, so I was certainly seeing nostalgia at work. I don’t think I ever read those articles, as I had zero interest in a band I had never once heard on the radio. And I couldn’t make sense of their look. Boys in makeup – not cool makeup like Kiss, but like women wore – was new to me.
When the streaming era came along, I had long forgotten my curiosity about the Dolls. Now, on first listen, I was having trouble figuring out what the fuss was. The music is pre-punk with some glam elements, even a bit of a Stones feel in places. Usually, including the word “punk” in describing music will be enough to tap one of my sweet spots. The band is certainly interesting looking, but the music is like a hundred things I’ve heard before. Iggy Pop was better at – and more committed to – punk, Bowie and a lot of others were servicing glam just fine, and the Stones were still the Stones. The blend of these sounds interesting, but the record just didn’t grab me like I hoped it would.
It then occurred to me that I was listening to it wrong.
I had that revelation as “Frankenstein” blared into my head – you can’t really listen to this record properly when your ass is in contact with a seat. Imagine yourself in a gritty bar with black walls and the kind of toilet where you’d rather soil yourself than risk the 500 types of germs lurking in its grime. You need to be on your feet bouncing up and down, head nodding, teeth gritting against the pure chaos washing over you. Only then can you feel what the Dolls were really about – making a mess.
And, suddenly, the record makes sense, and I understood why it was so beloved. It is messy sounding, anarchic even, a band that is trying to take the energy of a live show into the studio, with uneven results. “Personality Crisis” is a great starter, a kick to the teeth of raw energy. “Lonely Planet Boy” is a delightful change of pace, with a gentle vocal, acoustic guitar and cheery sax. “Subway Train” is another favourite, along with “Private World”. For all the punk elements, the songs, in their structure and lyrical content, have a very early ‘60s feel. The use of horns and honky tonk piano is unusual for a band of this type, and maybe it isn’t so surprising that frontman David Johansen turned into this guy:
It’s easy to make sense of things you love and of things you hate. It’s everything else that requires an investment of your time, and sometimes it will end up not being worth the effort. It took a half dozen listens, but the Dolls won me over. I think it would make a great workout record, and I plan to put that theory to the test this week.