By Brad Knutson
These days it seems like a month doesn’t go by without hearing of yet another rock band from the 1960s or 1970s reuniting and embarking on a grand North American tour of nostalgia. The formula has become so successful that it’s no longer confined to just the massive classic-rock dinosaurs like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Even relatively obscure and short-lived acts like Mission of Burma, Wire and The Soft Boys have got in on the act the last few years, returning to the small clubs that made them famous and cutting new records in the process.
Joining the ranks of reunited cult heroes in 2004 were original glam-rockers and predecessors of punk, the New York Dolls. As with many of their peers, the Dolls were first coerced to reform as a one-time event at a festival, continued playing additional gigs after more invitations started to flood in and then eventually embarked on a formal tour supported by an album of all-new material. At the time of their reformation, The Dolls were already short three members due to drug casualties (one during their heyday and two more in the decades following their split). Then, just weeks after their first reunion gig three years ago, they lost a fourth when bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane suddenly became ill and died from leukemia. Despite their almost Spinal Tap-like mortality rate, The Dolls continued to forge ahead, fueled mostly by the timeless exuberance of boisterous front man David Johansen. Alongside fellow surviving member, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, and a supporting cast of new Dolls, Johansen is bringing the band back on the road again this winter.
I caught up with the always verbose Johansen to pick his brain on what has kept this unlikely reunion on track and how life in the music world has changed since his groundbreaking act first hit the scene more than thirty-five years ago.
So, how does the experience of being a New York Doll now compare with being in the original incarnation of the band?
When we first started it in the seventies, it was like “OK, we’re going to have a band, we’re going to have a record contract, we’re going to be famous…” and all that bullshit. And this time we just kind of literally went in to do one show and it kind of turned into two shows and we started getting calls to do other shows. It wasn’t like we had this plan to put the band [back] together, go on the road and make a record. It more just kind of presented itself to us as opposed to us trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or something. And so it’s more interesting in a way…I think there’s a way that we look at things now that are just kind of groovier.
For anyone concerned that seeing the Dolls in 2008 will “taint the legacy” of the original, what would you say to alleviate those concerns?
It’s not like we go in and recreate something like a Pink Floyd record, we actually play music…it’s different every day. I really just go on stage and look at these guys and we all get on an equal footing and we start playing. And I’d say nine times out of ten for me it’s magical. We levitate and sometime the room levitates, it’s a good experience.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry?
The music industry has always been something that’s kind of like a joke to me. It’s been coddled together and it was always [run by] guys that literally sold pieces of plastic and it never really concerned anyone what was on those pieces of plastic. When those corporate suits are running things, it’s always going to get stale, whether it’s music or blue jeans or cars, they make all this kind of pressure for people to dig things and not stand out. It’s like, “Make sure you dig things that everyone else on your block digs or you’re going to be a freak!” But luckily we have the advantage of traveling around and playing for people who actually dig what they dig as opposed to digging what they think they’re supposed to dig.
The New York Dolls play February 23 at Double Door, 1572 North Milwaukee, (773)489-3160, at 9pm. $30.