Saturday, 18 January 2014

November 1978
Guys & Dolls

In a bar on 42nd Street I bump into ex-New York Doll David Johansen and assure him I don’t want to talk about the New York Dolls because, let’s face it, the New York Dolls are dead. Kaput. And what’s the use of reminiscing? What’s the point of checking out that whole sordid, Biba-stained past?  
I mean, who wants to remember all that?

I’m sure the geezer serving cold beers in this bar the size of a high-street barber’s couldn’t give a toss. In fact, he I’m sure he couldn’t give a toss about anything, the way he bangs the bottles on the counter.

I’m sure David Johansen doesn’t care that much either. Just because he happened to front the band don’t mean to say his needle nose is stuck in some gluey groove revolving on a time warp turntable. He’s got a band of his own now anyway. This lonely-planet boy is back to the front.

David has a squashed face but it’s a subtle kind of squashiness, like blancmange. This naturally makes him all the more interesting because every time he opens his mouth you expect his cheeks to wobble. They don’t, of course. Not even a raspberry ripple. Funny how some people make you think of food. I see Johnny Rotten and pilchards spring to mind. Bob Geldof brings visions of meat pies, Kate Bush gherkins, Freddie Mercury walnuts, Elvis Costello peas.

With David Johansen it’s definitely blancmange. I guess that’s what makes him attractive to sweet-toothed women.

He’s often likened to Jagger, but in fact he’s better-looking. Jagger is like a half-eaten jaded jelly. Johansen is pristine blancmange.

‘I’m an unassuming, rambling kind of guy.’ He smiles. ‘I went to high school in Staten Island.’

Seeing how this guy never says ‘er’ or ‘y’know’ or ‘yeah’ but proceeds with a perfect line in spiel, I’m going to take a short break while he, with the aid of untipped cigarettes and an endless stream of Carlsberg, tells a bewitching tale.

See you in a wee while …

‘We lived in a residential area, rather like a part of London, on the Island. There were six of us. My father used to sing Gilbert and Sullivan stuff when he was young before joining the air corps and going off to war. We lived in a real working-class neighbourhood. I remember eating tuna fish a lot, sleeping in a warm place and selling Kool-Aid on the street when I was about six. In those places the most you can hope for is a nice jacket, two or three pairs of pants, a pair of shoes and a job in a grocery store earning fifty bucks a week. There’s a good community spirit.

‘All the guys used to hang out in gangs. My gang consisted of the nuttiest guys around and all the other gangs used to like us because we were so crazy. I never used to fight much; it wasn’t my scene. But I did hang out with one bunch whose warlord used to beat up three guys at a time in a rumble and throw them over his head.

‘I used to listen to Bob Dylan and when I was fourteen I joined a band playing school dates. Sometimes, just for a laugh, we’d throw a musician in because we were pretty bad. I also had this mad girlfriend and we used to write poems to each other.

‘School dragged on. I still get this recurring dream. I’m sitting, breathless, in my old classroom. That’s all it is but it’s a fucking nightmare. See, I used to set the alarm every morning for eight thirty, get up, take a shower at eight thirty-two, dress, shake my hair, dash out, catch the bus, travel the two miles to school and arrive at eight forty-four. 1 got everything down to a fine art so I could sleep till the last minute.

‘But as I got older I just couldn’t get up and my mother would come home around eleven thirty a.m. and I’d still be in bed. I’d just wander round Greenwich Village. School didn’t seem important.

‘Around this time me and another guy used to play acoustics and harmonicas for the Madras crowd. Those guys had check shirts and desert boots and used to hang out at ice-cream parlours. My pals used to find out where we were playing and come around to beat up the Madras mob ’cos they were pretty namby-pamby. They also used to beat up the New Jersey guys who trespassed on Staten Island territory, drinking pints of Tango and pop wines.

‘I was working at a supermarket as a cashier making fifty bucks a week, which was cool. I gave my mother twenty and spent the rest on clothes − T-shirts, black leather jackets and roamers, which were boots that came up to the ankle and made to last for no more than two months. All the girls used to dye their hair black too.

‘Then I moved to the city and joined Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs. We won a battle-of-the-bands contest cos we had a Puerto Rican drummer and a black bassist. The night we won I knew I wanted to be a star. I walked on stage and started singing. Then I closed my eyes ’cos I thought they were going to kill us. But they cheered . . .

‘People said we were the best band around −but that’s ’cos we were the worst. We were entertaining. Bands, that time, made everything look so boring, taking everything so seriously. We stood out because of our conspicuous consumption. Then the New York Dolls. Right?’

Whoops. I’m back.

‘Our lifestyles in the Dolls didn’t radically alter − we always used to stay up all night before we were in the band. I think one of the main things we achieved was to get a lot of record companies interested in bands they would never even have considered before.’

After the band disintegrated − an appropriate word − David was not interested in making any records. ‘I just wanted to sit around and dig myself for awhile.’

It was while he was digging himself he met drummer Frankie LaRocka on the Staten Island ferry and the David Johansen band was born.

He smiles incessantly, like the Joker. He’s a professional raconteur gently unfolding stories that tell you more about the city than the man.

‘This is my life − it doesn’t really change. I’m happy with this band and confident about the future.’

But will it ever attract mass interest?

‘Who knows? But I know one thing − I’d rather be popular in New York, the Shanghai of the States, than anywhere else in this country. This place has more of a creative spirit, streets ahead of any other town.

‘These days, if you’re the hottest band around you have to be homogenised ’cos you’ve got to be hip with the people that eat white-bread sandwiches. Yeah, it’s true. There are actually people in certain States that grill two slices of white bread and then slap another piece of white bread covered in margarine in between and eat it as a sandwich. Who in their right mind wants to be popular with them?’

(David has since appeared in several movies, most notably as a taxi-driving ghost in
Scrooged and alongside Mick Jagger in Freejack. He has toured with a re-formed version of the New York Dolls and has contributed songs for movies including The Aviator. Check out this unusual interview between David and Johnny Thunders outside CBGBs when they look forward to touring with The Pistols and The Clash in the UK on the ill-fated tour in 1976. http://youtu.be/R3jIUjjvjqE )

Next: Bruce Springsteen in Maryland
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives:


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