Long story short, Paul Nelson, freshly promoted to A&R from publicity at Mercury Records, first witnesses the New York Dolls in 1972. “The Dolls were something special,” he would write later. He spends the rest of the year trying to convince his higher-ups to sign the band to its first record deal, but isn’t successful until March of the following year. In June of 1973, the Dolls record their first album. The rest is history.
“I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job,” Paul remembered to Steven Ward in 1999, “and I did.” Whether or not the Dolls were indeed the reason for Paul’s exit from Mercury Records is explored in Everything Is an Afterthought. One thing that’s not debatable is his essential role in the group’s career.
Last evening, 34 years after the classic debut album, the New York Dolls played the Siren Festival in Coney Island. As I stood there, right up front, hearing some of those same songs that Paul first heard and in which he perceived greatness, it felt as if perhaps he were there, too. Looking up at the stage, nodding his head and smiling as David Johansen, still full of the energy that ultimately abandoned Paul, sang about having a “Personality Crisis”: “… you got it while it was hot/Now frustration and heartache is what you got.”
Almost one year ago over at Mere Words, I wrote about the Dolls’ third studio album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and the fine documentary about the band’s original bassist, Arthur “Killer” Kane. That post, “Playing With Dolls,” is reprinted here along with some photos I took last night. Enjoy.
In the early Seventies, the New York Dolls were the reigning rock & roll band in New York City, the darlings of David Bowie and the avant-garde intelligentsia, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith rolled into one, and America’s principal purveyors of such newfound concepts as deliberate musical primitivism and the punk rock of futuristic, haute-couture street children. A cult band, they were passionately loved or hated, and more than a few critics (myself included) saw in them this country’s best chance to develop a home-grown Rolling Stones. The Dolls were talented, and, more importantly, they had poisonality! Both of their albums made the charts, but a series of stormy misunderstandings among their record company, their management and themselves eventually extinguished the green light of hope, and the group disbanded… Like all good romantics, they had destroyed everything they touched.
Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, May 18, 1978
The argument could be made that we have the Mormon Church to thank for One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the first studio album in 32 years by the New York Dolls. It may not be a particularly good argument, but all the components are there for a not even half-baked conspiracy theory:
As depicted in Greg Whiteley’s fine documentary New York Doll, original Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, who, following an act of self-defenestration, had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was working in the church’s Family History Center Library when he discovered that an almost 30-year dream, something he had prayed for again and again, was about to come true: the remaining Dolls (David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain) wanted to reunite. Not only are his Mormon coworkers and bishop supportive of their friend, whose life of drinking and drugs had gone out the window with him, they help fund the retrieval of his guitar from a local pawnshop so that he can start practicing for the reunion gig. Had they not and had Kane not rejoined the band, and had New York Doll never been made, you could argue that there would not have been the press and acclaim and subsequent momentum to get the Dolls back into the studio, back on the radio, back on TV, and back in the stores.
If New York Doll isn’t the best piece of pro-LDS propaganda the Mormon Church has ever had at its behest, it’s at least some damn funny and insightful off-the-cuff filmmaking. (Has ever a movie come into being so accidentally?) The movie’s wacky elements and plot twists — a faded, jealous rock star, his bitter wife, a quart of peppermint schnapps, a handy piece of cat furniture, an open kitchen window, and an unexpected demise — tell a tale of decadence and redemption worthy of Raymond Chandler.
But in the midst of all this craziness there beats a heart, and it’s a sweet one. Such as when Kane, “the only living statue in rock & roll” and, in Johansen’s words, “the miracle of God’s creation,” leads the group in prayer before they take the stage for the first time in almost 30 years. Or earlier, back at the library, when Kane explains the responsibilities of being a rock & roll bassist to the two little old ladies with whom he works. Or when he confesses to his Mormon bishop his apprehensions about getting back together with Johansen (who, when he finally arrives in the studio, looks like a haggard Allison Janney).
Which brings us to the Dolls’ third album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, which arrived in stores on Tuesday and which, like Bettie Page adorned in leather, is hard and soft at the same time. Lots of ricocheting guitar lines and anthemic pounding housed within four Phil Spectorish walls of sound; middle-aged men acting tough, vamping and posturing while sounding melodic as all hell. A reminder of how rock & roll ought to be. How it used to be.
Combining clever wordplay (“Evolution is so obsolete/Stomp your hands and clap your feet,” from the pro-simian/anti-creationist single, “Dance Like a Monkey”) and wordy cleverness (“Ain’t gonna anthropomorphize ya/Or perversely polymorphousize ya”), Johansen, whose vocalizing and songwriting have both aged magnificently, proves that, despite his Buster Poindexter detour, he remains one of rock’s savviest practitioners. He leads the Dolls through a variety of subjects and styles while spewing his trash poetry lyrics (“All light shines in darkness/Where else could it shine?”) with his heart on his sleeve and his tongue firmly in cheek — often at the same time:
Yeah, I’ve been to the doctor
He said there ain’t much he could do
“You’ve got the human condition
Boy, I feel sorry for you”
Funny is one thing, smart is another; but funny and smart at the same time, that’s tough. Ask Woody Allen.
Listening to the new album, I couldn’t help but think of critic Paul Nelson, whose words opened this piece and who, back in the early Seventies, was the A&R guy who put his job with Mercury Records on the line when he signed the Dolls to their first record deal (“I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job, and I did”). What would Nelson, whose body was found alone in his New York apartment earlier this month, have made of the Dolls’ new effort and return to the spotlight? And would he have seen anything of himself in the song “I Ain’t Got Nothing”?
This is not how the end should have come
Who could imagine this when I was young?
Where is everybody?
It’s not the way I wanted it to be
With One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the New York Dolls pick up right where they left off over 30 years ago, as if no time at all has passed. Which begs the question (especially with all the dancing like a monkey going on): shouldn’t there have been some kind of evolution musically? If the Dolls remain just as smart and funny as before, and rock just as hard — if just plain surviving isn’t enough — what have they gained?
We all should be so lucky.