Q&A With David Johansen of the New York Dolls

If David Johansen had earned a dollar for each time a music journalist mentioned him or his band, the New York Dolls, he’d be richer than Croesus by now. Instead, he’s still a working musician, albeit one who has a good perspective on his past, his present and his future, as is clear from the following Q&A, conducted for a February 21 Westword profile.

Thanks to time, fate and narcotic use, among other factors, the Dolls currently consist of original members Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain plus a quartet of others – yet the act’s comeback CD, 2006’s One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, sounds pretty good anyhow. Johansen jaws about the disc plus the Dolls’ influence on a variety of genres; heroin’s impact on the group; the quality of the outfit’s two main studio platters, 1973’s New York Dolls and 1974’s presciently titled Too Much Too Soon; his Sirius radio show and a previous folk- and blues-based project, dubbed the Harry Smiths; the events that sparked the reunion despite Johansen’s basic disinterest in the concept; the death from leukemia of another founder, Arthur “Killer” Kane, shortly after the Dolls’ return; today’s record industry, and yesterday’s; the reasons he is no longer pursuing acting gigs; and his return to the road.

He’s all Dolled up with someplace to go:

Westword (Michael Roberts): 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?

David Johansen: Well, I just consider us a really good rock and 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 and 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.

WW: So you’d rather leave the connections, the links, to other people to make…

DJ: It’d be pretty outrageous if I made them.

WW: Come on: You guys specialized in outrage.

DJ: (Laughs) Oh well. There’s a fine line between pride and hubris (laughs).

WW: You guys have also appeared prominently in many different musical histories – Legs McNeils’ Please Kill Me, for example. And in that context, you’ve also been associated with what was once called “heroin chic.” But was heroin ever chic in your opinion.

DJ: I guess for junkies it is. I don’t know. It’s beyond me. I don’t know if heroin is chic. It sounds like something the New York Post would print.

WW: How did you avoid going down that particular road when so many people around you were doing it?

DJ: That’s a complicated question. I think it’s got to do with genetic predispositions and things like that. You’d have to ask Dr. Drew about that. But they say that certain people try something and one will say, “Well, that was interesting,” and the other one will say they found God. I think that’s got to do with a lot of complex factors. It’s not something you can just answer with a line.

WW: Do you feel like you’ve always had a strong survivor’s instinct?

DJ: I guess apparently I have. It’s not something that I think one considers about themselves, but I guess in retrospect, I do.

WW: 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?

DJ: 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. Like I was saying earlier, there’s a lot of stuff you can pick through with the Dolls. Some people tell me how inspired they were by the Dolls. Like Morrissey will say so, but you don’t really hear it in his music. I think it’s probably more a philosophical thing. And then the Clash say they were inspired by the Dolls, and you can kind of hear it in the music, because they were a great rock and roll band. There’s a lot of different aspects that we put out as far as living live is concerned, or looking at the universe is concerned. Some people pick up on a little of it, some people pick up on a lot of it, and that’s all good. It’s good to have a lot of stuff there.

WW: The debate about whether your first two studio albums really captured you started way back when and continues to this day. Do you feel that they captured you at that time and place?

DJ: I think as much as a record can, they did. I don’t know who says they didn’t. But what do I know. If I hear the record, I think it sounds pretty good. I don’t put it on every day (laughs). But once in a while, when we hear one, I think, that sounds pretty good.

WW: So much of your output that’s become incredibly collectible. I looked on eBay today and say 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.

DJ: 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.

WW: It’d probably be even nicer if you got a piece of the action…

DJ: 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.

WW: Why did it take so long for the Dolls reunion to take place? Was it something you were opposed to on principle?

DJ: I still am (laughs). 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.

WW: So a self-conscious, commercial approach wouldn’t have appealed to you as much as something organic?

DJ: No, that’s not really my thing. I just don’t think along those lines.

WW: In the midst of the reunion, Arthur became ill, which I imagine was a horrific situation for all concerned. How shocking was it for him to get sick so soon after everyone reconnected?

DJ: Well, I guess about as shocking as anything could be. Apparently he was sick already but he didn’t know it yet, and it just kind of hit him like a ton of bricks. I think it was really important for Arthur to have that experience, and maybe once he had that experience, the disease took its opportunity. I don’t know. It’s really hard to figure that stuff out.

WW: What did you think of the film that was released about him?

DJ: I thought it was beautiful. He was a beautiful cat.

WW: After his death, did anyone think this puts an end to the New York Dolls once and for all? And if not, why did you decide to continue?

DJ: I think because we had gigs booked or something.

WW: Something as simple as that?

DJ: Yeah. [Neo-Dolls bandmate] Sami [Yaffa] wanted to do it, and he’s a great guy. So once we got going with Sami, it was pretty rockin’.

WW: Do you consider the lineup now to be the New York Dolls? Or is this something entirely different that just happens to be called the New York Dolls?

DJ: Well, obviously it’s something different. There are different people (laughs).

WW: What parts are connected to the past, beyond you and Syl? Or is that the main connection?

DJ: Without me and Syl, I think it would be hard to do it. I guess it would be like some of those doo-wop bands that go out. But we’ve got a really good rock and roll band, and they call us the New York Dolls, so it all seems to work out.

WW: How did you hook up with Roadrunner Records, and what was the genesis of the new recording?

DJ: We went down to Austin to that South By Southwest festival, and somebody came backstage and asked if we wanted to make a record. That’s essentially where that was at.

WW: Did you have new music at that point?

DJ: We had a couple of songs.

WW: How long did it take for you to come up with the rest of them?

DJ: We said, well, “Let’s make a record,” and we were still playing. And they would call up and say, “I hope you guys are making songs,” and we’d say, “Oh yeah, we’re making songs.” And then at some point, they said, “You’re going in the studio in six weeks.” And at that point, we thought, “We better really get some songs.” We kind of went into a loft somewhere and woodshedded and wrote twenty songs or something. And all these songs that we’ll perhaps record for the next twenty years or so are already there. They just haven’t come out yet, but they’re all in our heads. They percolate, and then they come out.

WW: It’s as if they’re waiting for you?

DJ: Yeah, the next batch is already waiting. I know how it works.

WW: You’ve done so many different kinds of projects over the years – and one of the most interesting ones was the Harry Smiths, which you were doing right before the Dolls got going again. Did that project exercise a different part of your brain?

DJ: I’ve always been a song collector. I dig songs. So there was a time when I used to play at this club in New York called the Bottom Line a lot, and the owner of the club was having an anniversary of his club. And during that time, he wanted the people who played there a lot to do something they hadn’t done before. And so I had just gone through this whole Cuban music thing. I kind of went through this self-imposed thing where I only listened to Cuban music for a year. And I was coming out of it, and I was listening to a lot of old country-blues records and mountain music albums that I already had, but I was listening to them with new ears. They seemed almost new to me, even though I’d been listening to them since I was a kid. And when he asked me to do it, I kind of instantly decided to do that. We did a show there and everybody liked it and wanted more, so we kept doing it. We made a couple of records for Chesky, which is this little jazz label – like an audiophile jazz label in New York.

WW: Does your interest in collecting songs also come into play on your Sirius radio show?

DJ: Yeah, I play a lot of songs I like there. On that show, I play every kind of music there is. I don’t just listen to rock and roll music. I listen to all kinds of music. I’m interested in the planet’s musical output, you know what I’m saying (laughs). There’s so much music on this planet that you couldn’t even hear one song from each genre in your lifetime. Music has always fed me spiritually and metaphysically and intellectually and in all kinds of ways.

WW: Is one of the nicest things about being on satellite radio as opposed to terrestrial radio that you can play songs from really disparate genres and there’s not some guy in a suit saying, “You can’t do that”?

DJ: Yeah. To me, it’s a creation. It’s not a job. One thing I decided when I was a kid is, I didn’t want to have a job – and that goes for music, too. I think some people play music, like we do, and some people work at music. They kind of try to make something that fits into the commercial sphere. Which is all well and good, but it’s not what I want to do. Otherwise, I might as well be a cook or something, which would be more creative than that. With the Dolls, we just make the music we want to hear, and that goes with pretty much everything I do. If you can do something for the sake of doing it and other people like it, that’s really good.

WW: Speaking of the new Dolls’ disc – people don’t generally come to projects like this one with high expectations. Yet everyone seemed pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Did you know it would be good, because those songs had been waiting for you?

DJ: Yeah. I didn’t even really think about it that much. We had written a couple of songs in sound checks and stuff, and we’d throw them into the show, and they seemed to fit in as well as anything, as far as reaction was concerned. So when we decided to make a bunch of songs, I just knew our process was going to take care of everything. Our process isn’t full of a lot of discussions. Everybody brings to the band what they bring, and nobody tells anybody else what to play, because that’s all been sorted out by the characters in the band themselves. They’re going to do what they do. So we just write a bunch of songs, and the ones that are still there at the end are the ones. Like, I could write a song one night and bring it in the next day and teach the structure of it to everybody and we’ll play it, and then the next day, I’ll say, “Let’s do that song again,” and everybody would be looking at their shoes. Like, “Why don’t we do this one first?” And if that happens for two or three days, I realize that song isn’t happening. You want to make songs that everyone in the band loves to play, because you don’t want anyone else to have a job either. So once those songs become apparent, those are the songs you use. You write a lot of songs to do that. You don’t just write fifteen songs and it’s done. You have to go through a hundred different songs before you get to that point.

WW: Do any of those songs that you set aside stick in your head, and you may come back to them in the future? Or parts of them?

DJ: Maybe come back to them. Maybe they’d be good for somebody else who doesn’t have a song.

WW: Are you guys still affiliated with Roadrunner?

DJ: No, we just made one record for them. We just made a live record around New Year’s time. We recorded a couple of shows in New York and we’re going to put them out very soon, I think.

WW: What label?

DJ: I think that one is going to be on Sony. It doesn’t make much sense these days to have long contracts with people because nobody knows what the hell is going on with the record business. As far as our next batch of new material is concerned, we haven’t really decided how we’re going to parcel that out now. Maybe we’ll be like Radiohead: give it away. But we don’t know. Everything’s so up in the air.

WW: Given your struggles with record labels in the Seventies, 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? Or are you at all nostalgic for the way things used to be?

DJ: I never really paid that much attention to it. We made records for Mercury. It was run by a guy named Irwin Steinberg. He was in Chicago, and whenever I used to be with him, he used to ask me, “David, are you taking care of yourself?” He was kind of like a Jewish uncle – and that’s all the thought I gave to it (laughs). As far as making records was concerned, we’d just make a record and put it out. It wasn’t anything beyond that at the time. You put a record out, you want to get it to as many people as possible. Certainly in today’s climate, that seems to be what’s happening. You could print one record and in two weeks, a hundred-thousand people are going to have it (laughs). So as far as distribution is concerned, you can’t do better than that.

WW: That would seem to appeal to you, since you make the point that the music is more about creation than selling.

DJ: 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.

WW: On your current live shows, what are some of the songs you’re doing from the old days? And are there some songs you tried and thought, this just doesn’t work for us in 2008?

DJ: You know, surprisingly, they all work. I went through that when we did our first show. I hadn’t listened to those songs in quite some time… Let me tell you something. When we did the original Dolls, I thought we were the greatest thing in the world. There used to be all kinds of pieces about the Dolls, and I remember in downbeat magazine, both Dolls albums, the original ones, would get like five stars, and there’d be these big think pieces, and they would describe the music very eloquently and say this is the future of rock and roll music. And I would think, these guys get it. They totally know what the hell we’re doing, and I would be very sort of smug and satisfied. Then we finished it, and the years went by, and you’d be in a bookstore and you’d pick up some history of rock and roll, and you’d 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 like sink in, and you start thinking subconsciously, oh, that’s what it was. But then, when we got together to play, 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. And I still feel like that about them, because now they’re very much a part of my daily existence. I think it’s really musical.

WW: And the intervening years allowed you to put everything into perspective?

DJ: Yeah, because every time you go through a musical exploration, it refreshes you.

WW: We’ve been talking a lot about music – but are you doing any acting these days?

DJ: Nah…

WW: It just doesn’t interest you anymore?

DJ: Well, you know, Bill Murray asked me to be in a movie (Scrooged), and I went and I did it, and somebody saw that movie and asked me to be in another movie, and I went and did it. That happened a couple of times. And then I had this agent, and he’d want me to go and read for movies, and I did that a couple of times, too. But by about the third time I did that, you’d be in this room with all these fluorescent lights and you’d be in front of a guy who’d say, “Okay – emote.” And I’d be like, “Fuck you. You emote.” To me, it was an impossible situation. If somebody said, “We have this great part for you in this movie,” and I didn’t have any obligations at the time and I thought it would be fun, then I’d do it. But it’s not like something I pursue.

WW: You’re coming out our way on what looks to be a pretty extensive tour. Is that something you’re looking forward to – the traveling aspect of it?

DJ: Well, we just finished up being in Europe. We went back and forth several times, but we spent most of the summer and fall in Europe. We had some dates in the States in between. Now we’re doing our sort of heartland tour, and it’s a different ball of wax. But we’ll be on the bus, and we get to play every night, and essentially that’s what we were created to do – to play music. It’d be nice to stay in one place and have everyone come to you, but it doesn’t work like that.