"I really didn't care if they were gay or not," Debbie Harry says in just one of the many quotes collected for this photo retrospective on glam icons the New York Dolls.
Music fans will always hunger for nostalgia and glorify the past, but this vibrant collection of rare Bob Gruen images sheds new light on the Dolls' myth and uncovers the down-to-Earth face behind it. Situated as they were at the cusp of the punk and glam movements, the Dolls crash-and-burn story, complete with rock 'n' roll hallmarks like heroin, dying young, and a career that was over in the blink of an eye, was destined to be immortalized. Kudos to Gruen (who made his name turning pictures of John Lennon, Kiss, Zeppelin, etc. into household icons), for not pandering to people's desires to see the Dolls as demigods. As he did with most of his subjects, Gruen spent a great deal of time getting close to the Dolls as a personal friend, and what his camera saw was, basically, a bunch of regular guys with goofy expressions in the midst of having the time of their lives. What is most striking here is the sense of innocence these pictures convey, which Sex Pistols mastermind Malcolm McLaren also observed at the time.
New York Dolls
"They were," he recalls in the book, "teddy bears that had a sexual perversity to them but also a genuine innocence."
Today, we are saddled with too many bands who contrive an image, intent on rehashing aesthetics from previous decades, but can't play. And in large part, we have the Dolls to thank for that. But the band's unabashed (yet insistently heterosexual!) cross-dressing glee and ratty playing slapped jolts of fresh enthusiasm across the face of rock music. And this book still intrigues and informs regardless of your level of interest in the band. That's due largely to the wealth of frank, humorous commentary and anecdotes and a merciful lack of academic analysis. Interviews with David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain and an afterward by Morrissey help add substance, but the photos themselves could captivate even the most jaded, nostalgia-weary reader. Whether working in color or black and white, Gruen had a keen eye for capturing the band's vibrancy and the self-deprecating cleverness beneath the frilly exterior. Readers may still want to debate whether the Dolls were creatively bankrupt, but Gruen certainly was not. Add this one to your Xmas list early.