Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sad Vacation

One band that still seems as fresh today as when they first rose up from the gutters of Manhattan's lower east side is the NY Dolls. That's not to say their junkie shtick wasn't a bit tiresome, and their odiferousness challenging even back in their heyday, but I just mean that the band seemed so far ahead of themselves, that their influence is still being felt all over the rock music world today.

The sheer youthful jerk off jubilation and utter societal disregard that is felt in their music makes it almost impossible to recreate, yet many have tried and failed. This includes David Johansen & Sylvain Sylvain's recent "reunion" line ups.

The New York Dolls are really a particular mid 70's moment, and replicating that same feeling would be like trying to recreate the miraculous 'mazing 1969 Mets, a childlike belief in Santa's Elves & Tooth Fairies, or even rebuilding the Hindenburg just to blow it up...

New York Dolls - Trash ( live 74)

New York Dolls - Looking For A Kiss

New York Dolls - Personality Crisis

I was really a bit to young to experience the New York Dolls the first time around. In fact the first time I even recall hearing any of their related material was by a Philly skate punk group doing a cover of Chinese Rocks in the 1980's. It's testimony to the unbridled & memorable hook laden rawness of the NYC junkie punk mystique that the one song I can remember from this Philly group's gig was really actually written by someone else, somewhere else, a few years earlier. The Philly band were almost pissed off when I asked 'em about that "great song" they played, and they begrudingly confessed it was a cover.

This "Chinese Rock" song wasn't actually a New York Dolls track, having been recorded by The Heartbreakers, a band formed in the late 70's by Johnny Thunders shortly after the Dolls imploded on a disastrous southern U.S tour arranged by Malcolm McLaren. Thunders sought out some fellow lower east side denizen's like Richard Hell, and the rest is some sort of quasi-history...

Too bad Tom Petty also was running a group out of Florida called The Heartbreakers, that also had a bigger label connection, and hence bigger lawyers. This fact, along with a million other bits of bad luck and self defeating behavior ended up dooming Thunders career.

I also understand that Dee Dee Ramone claims he actually wrote Chinese Rocks and the song was effectively borrowed by Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers unit and never returned. The Ramones themeselves tried doing it a few years later but their Phil Spector produced version never really captured the desperate drug addled sentiments the way Johnny's creepy cry did.

Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers - Chinese Rock

The New York Dolls have gone on to become far more influential after their demise than they were when they were around, and my DVD collection alone boasts at least three recent documentaries using their saga as fodder for recent films.

All Dolled Up is comprised of Bob Gruen's rare home videos of the NY Dolls in their early 70's heyday, cavorting around NY and in LA as well. New York Doll recounts the late Arthur Kane's attempt to reconcile his conversion to Mormonism, and get his bass out of pawn and rejoin the band for a reunion gig at London's Royal Albert Hall.

The saddest, lowest budget one is a flick I have that is just a basic recount of stories about the late Johnny Thunders life, narrated by Long Island native Marc Bell ( aka Marky Ramone).

Johnny Thunders ( aka Johnny Ganzale'), was according to his own song, born to lose, and died in a seedy New Orleans hotel back in 1991. He, like all the Dolls, was a true rock n roll character. Long a fan fave, he started out a cute troublemaker, and with his ever gaunt physique Johnny left behind the most thoroughly documented solo career, and most pitifully pock marked path of needle strewn decadence...

Johnny Thunders - Born To Lose

I worked for awhile at a bar in San Francisco that had recently transistioned itself from being known as The Chatterbox. The old owner was a rocker chick and a big fan of the New York Dolls. In fact she had the bar christened by having Johnny smear his name in paint on a beam that hung over the stage. In big black letters, his name was frozen in mid drip over the proceedings each night in the late 80's as wannabee versions of the champ himself attempted to ascend the decadent booze & pills rock throne. The joint's motto was "Glam Slam Rock n Roll", and I was never sure if they meant slamming dope, or as in the dancing.

New York Dolls - Chatterbox

Some of the guys who played the stage in that joint are painting houses, a few nursing decade plus hangovers, and some are really dead. The flyer on the right has at least two or three bands with deceased singers & guitarists, including Kurt Cobain. He's likely the only one of 'em who ever got a decent heroin fueled legend out the classic junkie rock deal...

Sadly when the new owner took over the Chatterbox in 1990, she saw no reason to retain Johnny's black name hanging like an omen over the bar, and she quickly ordered it painted over with gaudy gold paint. I remember looking up and thinking maybe it shoulda been preserved, but it was too late and Johnny was dead within a year...

Johnny Thunders - Too Much Junkie Business ( live at The Lyceum in London)

Here's another live track, a somewhat lo-fiquality live recording, but one that captures the essence of Johnny's over the top & obnoxious stage banter. He's onstage circa 1980 with ex-MC5 legend Wayne Kramer in a drug addled side project they devised called Gang War shortly after Kramer was released from prison on cocaine charges. Both men could be in better shape, Kramer eventually did resurface as a clean & sober rocker who put out a few decent & solid records on Epitaph in the latter half of the 1990's. The song he's doing here with Thunders is a sloppy cover version of an old Detroit R&B hit for the Contours, also big later in the UK for The Dave Clark 5. It's the type of common ground jukebox fave that Kramer woulda cut his teeth on playing as a young gun in the MC5 at the Grande Ballroom and school dance gigs around Michigan, while at the same time I imagine Johnny would have loved listening to it while growing up in Queens.

Gang War ( Wayne Kramer & Johnny Thunders live) - Do You Love Me?

Johnny invariably became the poster boy of how not to manage a career, and of course his plan is emulated to this day by many young musicians who imagine his wasted nonchalance as a substitute for hard work, mutually cooperative creative behavior & dutiful practice.

He basically threw away whatever breaks or show business head starts he had, eroding the confidence of all around him. By the end of his life he had few he could trust, and even fewer that trusted him.

He himself tells his story best, like in this next track. It's actually supposed to be about Sid Vicious, a sweet kid who got caught up in some currents that were far bigger than he was capable of swimming through. Maybe it could apply to Johnny too.

Johnny Thunders - Sad Vacation


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - really enjoyed it, plenty of stuff I haven't heard before. Great

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Back when rock was dead I saw the Dolls breathing life into the cold blue corpse on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. But for them I may not have had half the fun I managed in my horribly misspent youth.

If you ever get a chance to go for a drive in a car with a Dolls tape in 8-track ... close your eyes ... grow your hair ... remember what it is like to not be quite sure of your sexual inclinations, to not be able to look beyond the next puking party and get a load of these motherfuckers.