By the time David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain eyed each other from across a studio in 2005 to begin sessions on what would be just the third New York Dolls studio album in 35 years, the grizzled survivors of rock ‘n roll excess must have felt like they’d gone through the hell of some inadvertent war and lived to tell about it. For the last two original members of a band whose anarchic brand of glam-punk proved so authentic that labels ran screaming from it like little girls who glimpsed a ghost in the closet, the pieces of themselves that died with their four fallen band mates haunt everything they’ve done since with notions of what might have been. They are the kind of scars you can’t see, except maybe for that distant sadness in Johansen’s angry eyes.
The hazards of the rock ‘n roll life aren’t exactly the horrors literal war, but the history of the New York Dolls really does read like a record of fallen soldiers.
Drummer Billy Murcia lounged unconscious in a bath tub after an overdose in 1972 as a couple of roadies poured hot coffee down his throat, thinking it might revive him and realizing that actually all they’d done is asphyxiated the poor bastard.
20 years from there, guitarist Johnny Thunders crouched under a coffee table of a New Orleans hotel room in the fetal position and died, decades of widely-reported heroin and methadone abuse having culminated in advanced leukemia. By the time cops came to haul off the body, rigor mortis had shaped it “like a pretzel,” according to one eye-witness. “It was awful,” said singer Billy DeVille, who then lived across the street from the hotel. “When the body bag came out, it was shaped like a U.”
Just as sad as the man’s awful and untimely demise is the promise of the work he left behind, which has the uneven quality of a genius gripped in the hindrance of addiction, but also records like So Alone (1978) and the stripped-bare Hurt Me (1984) that you need to get your hands on right this minute if for some ungodly reason you haven’t already.
Months later, Jerry Nolan, who stepped into the Dolls’ lineup after the band lost Murcia, died when he slipped into a coma from which he never recovered while being treated for bacterial meningitis. Nolan had been working with Thunders on a new LP at the time. Maybe that was their last mistake. Maybe to play with the Dolls the first time around was to tempt fate enough, and to tease that ghost yet again was to invite the doom that loomed over the band seemingly from its inception.
And then there is perhaps the saddest damned tale of all—the legend of enigmatic bassist Arthur Kane, who dwindled into the life of a volunteer file clerk with the Family History Center at the Los Angeles Temple after the Dolls split for good in the late 1970s. Kane became so consumed by his morose regret over the life that had passed him by he once jumped out of a third-story window, drunk and depressed upon seeing Johansen’s role as the cab driver in the 1989 Bill Murray blockbuster A Ghost of Christmas Past.
Morrissey’s pitch for a reunion changed all that in 2004 when Kane reunited with Johansen and Sylvain to play an emotional comeback gig at the Meltdown Festival in 2004, a dream he’d brooded over for decades. And that’s when Kane found he’d tempted the same fate that claimed the lives of Nolan, Thunders and Murcia, checking himself into a hospital just 22 days later with what he thought was the flu. What he had instead, though, was leukemia. He died just hours after being diagnosed.
Somehow Johansen and Sylvain still found something within themselves strong enough to withstand their memory of all this and record again in 2005. The record that came of it was Someday it Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and perhaps it will, even if the spark the band ignited as kids in the clubs of New York City back in 1971 had dimmed. “Dance Like a Monkey” took its best shot at the anarchic abandon with which the band raged on their now-infamous debut; the harrowing arrangement of “We’re All In Love” punched with what power the band could muster with its two survivors and the new crew they’d assembled–Steve Conte stepping in for Johnny Thunders, bassist Sami Yaffa strapping on Arthur Kane’s shoes, Brian Delaney on drums. Hell, even Bo Diddley put in some licks on “Seventeen.” The record served up a reasonably convincing replica of the band that was, but ultimately it amounted to something Johnny Thunders tried to tell them long ago: you can’t put your arms around a memory.
So they decided to make some new ones of their own rather than revisiting the ones they couldn’t retrieve, bringing back Todd Rundgren, producer of the first record they ever cut, to produce what became the absolutely brilliant and devastating Cuz I Sez So in 2009. The record was nothing if not a stunning resurgence guided by the deft hand of the man who helped bring gems like “Trash” and “Jet Boy” to fruition so long ago. The title track and the roaring, acoustic number “My World” crunched with all the bruising menace Johansen and the boys brought to the mic back in the day, even if there still was no replacing Johnny T’s trademark Gibson Les Paul. “Drowning” cranked it up to an even grungier decibel, ballads like “Lonely So Long” and “Better Than You” showcased the band’s longstanding admiration for 60s girl group pop acts like The Shangri-las in a way only Rundgren could, and the tender, achingly nostalgic “Making Rain” wept as it played. And lyrically, the record glittered with Johansen’s articulate charm, rhymes like “Happiness” with “acquiesce” and ruminations on “the infinite varieties of agony.”
Now they’re back with a third record in six years, Dancing Backward in High Heels, which hits the streets next Tuesday and bears a fuller sound than anything they’ve ever done with thick, funky tsunamis of brass washing over most songs and the muscular production of Jason Hill. On paper, Hill seems like the perfect fit to produce a Dolls record, even if he wasn’t even born when the group cut its debut in 1971. You don’t have to look much farther than All Music Guide’s description of Hill’s band Louis XIV as an outfit known for “irreverent, oversexed lyrics and songwriting that channeled glam, scratchy punk and vintage Rolling Stones” to understand why he ended up manning the console for a band like the Dolls. Quietus describes the new record as “equal parts Phil Spector, The Boss and Bowie,” but mostly it’s Spector’s, um, specter that livens this new batch of material: rolling drum intros jeweled with a flourish of tambourine, horn sections peeled right off of an early Motown record, backup vocals that drip with a sweating affection for the long-gone pop they memorialize, a drowsy organ on “Kids Like You” and “Round & Round She Goes” that would sound right at home on a ? & The Mysterians single.
Simply put, it’s great stuff, and another amazing testament to the staying power of a band that circumstance has beaten to a pulp over the years. But the more you listen, the more you’re willing to let go of your fantasies of the band that might have been and hear the band that is.