WE HAVE ENTERED THE TOP TEN! I can’t believe I’ve made it this far. When I got to the top twenty, these write-ups suddenly got incredibly hard. In a lot of cases, the top 20 has included songs by bands I’ve already posted about, so I can’t exactly go on and on about the band because I’ve already done that. I’m also running out of things to say about music in general. I’ve made 90 posts in which I’ve described what I like about certain rock songs and find myself using the words “driving” and “it swings” over and over again and it’s getting very boring. Another thing I found particularly hard about numbers 15-11 is that I felt the need to spend a lot of time considering and care writing about them because they’re such special songs. Like, I can’t just throw something together about “Sweet Jane.” The song’s too important.
To the matter at hand, the New York Dolls’ contribution to the trajectory of popular culture is difficult to describe without coming off as hyperbolic, but what the hell: the Dolls’ revolution was one where they made American rock music not suck* anymore. They set a standard for energy, style, sass and excitement and America was ready for it. Every band that came up in that transformative, hyper-inventive CBGBs era 4ish years after the Dolls draws a direct line of influence from the New York Dolls. Outside of the local influence, they’re also responsible for an enormous impact on British punk and movements further afield that *only* have the New York Dolls in common like post-punk and glam metal. They were it. They are in my estimation, the single band most directly responsible for the evolution of great music, rivaled only by the Velvet Underground.
*Legit: apart from the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, I’ve got little use for it.
Yet history kind of sees them as in a class by themselves. In Simon Reynolds’ *fucking amazing* and gloriously long book/diatribe on glam rock, he speculates on why the New York Dolls failed to spark a movement. This is again in sharp contrast to the subsequent generation which launched American punk and certainly predated British punk. Glam was largely a British movement, but of the big* three American glam outfits: the Dolls, Alice Cooper, and KISS, the Dolls were the only** ones in my mind who didn’t warp into something completely terrible after the fact. Each were kind of disparate and doing their own things. And this as well as why there was no lasting NY glam scene may be thanks in large part to their lightning-in-a-bottle existence, though Reynolds thinks that American glam didn’t take from the Dolls’ very notable presence is because their recorded albums failed to capture the magic of the Dolls’ live show, which. I don’t agree, but I’ll get into that later.
*I know, there were other American glam acts, but the only one I think is at all worth mentioning is Sparks but I don’t have an opinion other than that they’re great in small doses.
**I don’t think any KISS is worth listening and the little early Alice Cooper I’ve heard is interesting, but not interesting enough to pursue much further.
Of all New York Dolls-related mysteries, the biggest one for me is where they got their template. Really! The MC5 and the Stooges are credited as being punk inventors, but arguably the leap from what came before them is broader in the case of the Dolls. As *rockin’* and “outrageous” as the Stooges and to a lesser extent the MC5 were, they didn’t approach the visual over-the-topness nor the sheer snot that radiated whenever the Dolls so much as got out of bed. The intangibles of punk are not more on-display with any other proto-punk band. Then, consider that after the Dolls’ peak, it took FOUR YEARS for the Ramones to release their debut album. It took that long for the local musicians to regroup and know where to go next.
“Personality Crisis” is the first track on the Dolls’ first, self-titled studio album, released in 1973 and as much as I love it, I don’t love their follow up Too Much Too Soon, released the following year. I often think of the self-titled as their only album. The Dolls were evidently less happy with it than I am I guess in part because they had Todd Rundgren as the producer for some reason. As I understand it, the Dolls were critical darlings but terrified record companies, so Rundgren was brought in to ameliorate the mayhem. I guess Todd overcorrected and the resulting album was staid and poppy. The Dolls and their fans at the time were probably expecting that the energy of their live performances would translate to a record AND, it was natural to try and compare the two, as the aforementioned perspective from Simon Reynolds had. History, though, I think smiles as I do upon this first record, particularly for those of us who weren’t around* for the New York Dolls’ live performances.
*Though I will say that I’m endlessly grateful for YouTube once again. In this case for bringing us this incredible 1973 performance of “Personality Crisis” from Musikladen, a West German music television show.
Like all performances by great musicians of the 70s and 80s, you can’t expect the televised version to even approximate how they’d come across in a scuzzy little club, but based on this, I can only imagine. There’s a lot to love here, the most obvious of which is David Johansen’s outfit and accompanying mugging, but I’d also like to call your attention to Johnny Thunders’ habit of periodically snapping his head back as if he’s receiving mild, intervaled electrical shocks. I find it pretty hot and while I’m on the subject, I’d also like to treat you to this picture of Johnny Thunders which I first spotted on the wall at Mantioba’s (RIP) and never really got over it.
“Personality Crisis,” as I mentioned, is the first track on this album and come to think of it, this is another* contender for best first track in terms of a powerful exemplar of what the artist is trying to do on an album. The Dolls have said that when recording their self-titled debut, they didn’t have a concept or specific direction in mind and the result was a snapshot-in-time, which I get. Except! The Dolls themselves were kind of a concept, no? Given that their music, posture, and style were all so revolutionary? Considering this, I may really appreciate the concept of a self-titled album for the first time ever. <br> *I raised the concept of a best-first-track in my “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” write-up, which was #11, but seems like I wrote it 100 years ago. I mentioned that my perennial answer to the question of what is the best first-track and it’s usually “Safe European Home” but “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” seems like another very fair answer, but I’d be remiss not to include “Personality Crisis” as well. It really is a tough question.
I can’t overstate how much I love “Personality Crisis.” From that opening guitar riff and glissando* and David Johansen’s just slightly atonal screaming introduction, I’m hooked. It’s so *confident*. I’m not a songwriter, but I crave that level of confidence so much, I wish I wrote it. The blues influence** is really strong and with the piano work, I’m tempted to call it “honky tonk” as I did with certain sections of “Station to Station,” a comparison that kind of startles me but I’m also into it. As it progresses, the music can only be described as infectious chaos and it’s kind of everything I’ve ever wanted in a song.
**An easy comparison here is to call the New York Dolls the Glitter Rolling Stones, but I hate that comparison. Not just because it’s easy, but because it has anything to do with the Rolling Stones.
I throw around the words “that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me” a lot, but certainly a top-five moment for me occurred before I’d said a single word about how I love “Personality Crisis” and how I want it so badly to be a personal anthem. Pete, completely out of nowhere informed me that “Personality Crisis” is my song and that he thinks of me every time he hears it. Particularly the lines “and you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon” and “Personality! Wonderin' how celebrities ever met--look and find out on television.” Right? I have the best husband.
I’m not sure how well it aged because I saw it years and years ago, but really loved the 2005 minor motion picture New York Doll. It’s not exactly a documentary about the band, but about one of the previously least remarkable members, Arthur Kane, whose life mid-last-decade was as different as can be from the New York Dolls’ in their heyday. It was sad (but sweet and powerful too) at the time and I can only imagine it’s become downright tragic since his passing. I see that Martin Scorsese thinks he’s going to direct the definitive David Johansen documentary, so I guess I’ll cautiously look forward to that. I think one of the first things I ever knew about the New York Dolls is that their apocalyptic glam-icon lead singer went on to become Buster Poindexter, who I’ve always thought of as a joke of an 80s one-hit-wonder. But like, the best/worst exemplar. “Hot Hot Hot” isn’t even good and the whole thing provides an accurate-if-depressing analogy of life in America, whereby in a troupe of inventive artists, one loses himself in alcoholism and eventually mormonism; another dies filthy, penniless and alone of a heroin overdose; and another is set for life not because of his best work, but because of gimmicky crap he put together at the exact time and place during which gimmicky crap sold well. Although I’d certainly be remiss not to heap praise on his performance in the 1988 major motion picture Scrooged, which was objectively perfect.
It’s actually becoming pretty hard to enjoy certain music because of the unlikely series of events that have unfolded in the last year. We made our last trip to New York before the pandemic almost exactly a year ago. Less than a month after that trip, Josie passed. We haven’t been back since. We had plans to go in mid-April and obviously that fell through. Everyone has a story as to why the inability to travel during the pandemic has hit them hard personally. Ours is that we were not able to go back to the city since Josie died, which has given us this very unsettling lack of closure. We haven’t seen any of our New York friends and none of our favorite NYC haunts in an entire year which has been really hard since we were visiting like five times a year before all this shit happened. Legitimately, of all New York music, the Dolls’ association is the strongest. I mean, it’s right in the band’s name. Beyond that, really and truly, it’s New York’s music--gritty as it is glamorous. They also sing *about* New York. “Subway Train,” “Jet Boy,” and “Frankenstein” are impossible to disassociate with our favorite city away from home. “Personality Crisis,” certainly, in part because of a missed opportunity to perform it at punk rock karaoke during one memorable trip for Pete’s birthday. It’s now on my Things to Do After All of This Is Over list.