As rock 'n' roll reunions go, the New York Dolls' get-together is as unlikely as they come. For one thing, two members of the original quintet's early-'70s lineup (guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan) were long dead before the outfit's 2004 reformation, and a third, bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, succumbed to leukemia shortly thereafter. For another, David Johansen, the Dolls' frontman and guiding light, has a natural disinclination toward nostalgia. When asked if he had been opposed to resurrecting the group on principle, he laughingly responds, "I still am."
At the same time, Johansen isn't shy about acknowledging his affection for the Dolls' music, then and now. "When we did the original Dolls, I thought we were the greatest thing in the world," he notes. "There'd be these big think pieces, and they would describe the music very eloquently and say, 'This is the future of rock 'n' roll music.' And I would think, 'These guys get it. They totally know what the hell they're doing,' and I would be very sort of smug and satisfied.
"Then we finished it," he continues. "The years went by, and you'd be in a bookstore and you'd pick up some history of rock 'n' roll and look up 'New York Dolls,' and you'd read the blurb, and it'd say something like, 'They were trashy. They were flashy. They were junkies. They were blah-blah-blah.' And I think after a while, it starts to almost sink in, and you start thinking subconsciously, 'Oh, that's what it was.' But then, when we got [back] together to play, and I went out and bought the records to listen to them, I thought, 'This is really fucking good.' And I started coming around to that original thought I had."
As well he should have. Although the classic Dolls only put out two studio albums, a self-titled platter in 1972 and Too Much Too Soon the following year, they managed to influence or inspire artists operating in a slew of subgenres, from new wave to no wave and everything in between.
Two years after their shocking re-formation in 2004, the Dolls released One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, which doesn't suck nearly as hard as most comeback albums. Parts of it have the same flashes of rock genius that made the group famous in the 1970s. They're on the road once again, playing shows around the U.S. Our Q&A with Johansen offers a look inside the head of one of rock's greatest innovators as he's matured over the years.
New Times: The New York Dolls are identified with all kinds of musical movements that sprang up in the band's wake: punk, new wave, hair metal, lots more. Which of those styles, if any of them, do you see as having a real connection to what you guys did?
Johansen: Well, I just consider us a really good rock 'n' roll band. So that's the way I prefer to look at it. I know they come up with all these kinds of subgenres. But we're a good rock 'n' roll band. I think we're an expansive package, so people were inspired, I think, by different aspects of the band. There's the look, there's the music, there's the philosophy. There's all kinds of things going on.
So you'd rather leave the connections, the links, to other people to make...
It'd be pretty outrageous if I made them.
Come on: You guys specialized in outrage.
Oh well. There's a fine line between pride and hubris (laughs).
Over the years, the band's legacy has been debated in so many different ways that it's hard to track. What are you most proud of about the work you did back in the day?
I think when we were kids we decided we were going to live the artist's life. I don't know if we articulated it that clearly, but essentially I think that's how we all felt. And I think for an artist to inspire people is the most gratifying thing.
So much of your output has become incredibly collectible. I looked on eBay today and saw a promo copy of the "Personality Crisis" seven-inch on sale for $293. Is it strange to you that the little bits and pieces of your work that you left behind are so valued by so many people?
To tell you the truth, I haven't really considered that. I guess that's nice. People like to collect things, so that's one of the things one could collect if one were a collecting enthusiast.
It'd probably be even nicer if you got a piece of the action...
Well, that's just the way it is. If somebody makes a painting and sells it for a hundred dollars and then it sells for a million dollars ten years later, that's just the way it goes.
Given your struggles with record labels in the '70s, do you take any satisfaction with what's happening to the record industry now? Is it a chickens-coming-home-to-roost kind of thing?
Well, we've always made a living by playing. It's not really a concern of mine. People who actually have sold a million records at one time, I would imagine it's very distressing for them. But I could care less.
Why did it take so long for the Dolls reunion to take place? Was it something you were opposed to on principle?
What happened is, we just got together to play one show. We didn't get together to do anything other than that. We were very well received, and we did another show, and we started getting asked to do these festivals in England and stuff. So we figured, let's do these. And it just never stopped, really. We'd been playing for about a year, and then we thought, well, I guess we're a band. It wasn't something we got into with the idea of, let's put this thing on and go with it. I don't think that would have worked for me.