Tuesday, March 06, 2007

... In The Powder Room Where You Chit Chat With Diana Dors

I'm getting nostalgic again - prompted by a weekend viewing of New York Doll, a strangely moving little documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, New York Dolls bassist, Mormon convert and the most hilariously unconvincing transvestite in rock.
That slim volume by Morrissey, have I got it still? Remember Babylon Books? Crudely printed by contemporary standards, but in an age before the internet and plush CD reissues, packed full of information impossible to find elsewhere. Morrisey's little Dolls book was wonderful ... some very nice writing, lovely photos and archive material. He, of course, left his true metier behind when he decided to form The Smiths.
I had been an enthusiastic listener of the Velvet Underground and The Stooges for some time, but my exposure to The Dolls had been contemporary with the early stirrings of what was being (inaccurately, unimaginatively) termed 'punk' ... yes, all the cliches, the influence on The Sex Pistols, the McLaren connection, the (ultimately poisonous) presence of erstwhile Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan on the Anarchy tour.
The wonderful thing about the Dolls was that their New York was as much Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island as Manhattan ... genuine proles in from the outer boroughs. Were they patronised by the self-styled rock intelligentsia that hung around the NY club scene? David Johansen never claimed a Rimbaud influence in his lyrics, Mr Johnny Thunders didn't think his guitar playing the equivalent of a Coltrane solo. Like The Stooges, however, their lyrical and musical presence, while sneered at in their day turns out to have been a damn sight wittier and weightier than some of the more critically lauded and self-consciously intellectual rock scum you may care to mention. The Dolls' lyrics struck me as very funny, self-aware and political, without ever having to resort to channeling dead French Symbolist poets.
(Richard Hell, in a wonderful essay about Thunders, writes that he always thought Thunders was smart like Elvis ... there are two basic types of intelligence, like Wittgenstein or like Elvis; now, you can get to be smart like Wittgenstein just by thinking hard enough, but smart like Elvis? That was innate, it couldn't be learned, it was a type of grace. He also said that people tended to condescend to Thunders because they thought they had him nailed but he constantly surprised people with his wit .... oh, and Hell loved Thunders' guitar playing because it sounded sarcastic).

The ultimate Dolls paradox ... how could a group that had stolen a large part of their musical template and the whole of their visual impact from late 60s/early 70s Rolling Stones generate so much more excitement and adrenalin than the Stones ever had? Of course, the Dolls exaggerated certain aspects ... the androgyny, the glamour, the self-destruction.
The way Johansen and Thunders exploded the Mick'n'Keef act to a Surrealistic degree, a Hans Belmer dream of the Stones.

What I loved about the Dolls was the pure pop influence ... doo-wop, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, girly groups, old-fashioned R'n'B. The genius of getting The Shangri-Las guru Shadow Morton to produce the second album Too Much, Too Soon. (What was it Thunders said about them never having stood a chance, in having an acid head produce the first album and a drunk the second? Unfair, that, both records stand up very well).

What I loved about the Dolls - the grace notes ... lyrically, the reference to Diana Dors in 'It's Too Late' or the "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah"! refrain at the end of 'Subway Train'; the sax solo at the end of 'Human Being' (courtesy of the Fantastic Buddy Bowser ... what was it Morrissey wrote, the sax mysteriously becoming the concluding Dolls sound on record?); the utterly individual way they had of dressing (check Sylvain Sylvain's beautiful androgynous gangster chic below), so much edgier and wittier than any of the poodle-haired idiots that followed in their wake. Witness the six or so inches of hairy leg Johansen exposes between the satin keks and the platform mules on the cover of the first album ... hard now to appreciate the extremity of the visual (as well as musical) impact the Dolls had then. Look, in certain places out in the boondocks, you could actually get lynched for looking like that.

What I really loved about the Dolls was the haplessness but courageousness of their career; the missed opportunities, the chaos, the recklessness in going along with McLaren's insane idea to relaunch them in Commie chic (yes, just the way to get an encore in the Midwest ... drape yourself in a Hammer and Sickle flag).

Apart from The Sex Pistols, almost every group who filched an influence or three from the hapless Dolls where/are irredeemable, appalling rubbish of the worst kind. I ask you - Kiss, Aerosmith, W.A.S.P., Motley Crue (give or take an umlaut or two), Hanoi Rocks, Guns N'Roses ... should I even mention Dogs D'Amour? The exception that proves the rule ... Bowie and his magpie tendencies; the difference between the essentially updated 60's palate of Ziggy and the flashier, more contemporary edge detectable in Aladdin Sane (witness the Billy Murcia reference in 'Time') and Diamond Dogs ... by that time Bowie had been to New York. Always a smart cookie when it came to grabbing influences, our Dave.

A dream union, 1973 - Andy Mackay and Marc Bolan guesting on a New York Dolls album, produced by Mick Ronson. How wonderful would that have been? One of the great pop meets that never was.

The New York Dolls - The Apocrypha

(Tales that are probably inaccurate but, Jesus, how we wish they were true).

Johnny Thunders claiming to be the bastard son of Eddie Cochran ... chances are against this being true (Cochran being true WASP (but thankfully not W.A.S.P.), while Thunders being of obvious Italian extraction) but let's not be too hasty; where was Cochran in 1951 ... anywhere near Queens?

David Johansen and his pre-Dolls history - including appearing in a few, erm, spicy films ... how does Bike Boys Go Ape grab you?

Johansen being arrested for impersonating a female in Memphis, while on tour with the Dolls. Would you, legend has him demanding, do this to Elvis? We'd love to get him, came the reply.

That's either a large baguette stuffed down the front of Johnny Thunders' trousers in the photo adorning the back cover of the Dolls' first album ... or he was very pleased to see David Johansen (or Sylvain Sylvain ... he was prettier).


Blogger St. Anthony said...

I now realise, to my horror, that New York Doll was shown as part of an ongoing BBC4 series on New York ... God forbid I should be accused of trying to be topical or anything.
It's well worth seeking out if anyone is vaguely interested in the subject but hasn't yet seen the film.

5:45 PM  
Blogger El Duderino said...

I remember reading about one of the dead Dolls - there are so many, and I can't remember which one - who OD'd in a hotel room and his girlfriend, instead of calling 911, walked him around the room pouring coffee down his throat. When they finally got him to hospital thay found he'd drowned in coffee.

Possibly my favorite rock death.

6:59 PM  
Blogger kek-w said...

I missed the Killer Kane rockumentary on fri because I, er, accidentally fell asleep...how rock n roll's that? Luckily my wife didn't pour coffee down my throat. But I saw them on that BBC4 NY rockumentary on last night.

Strangely, I bought their second LP 2nd hand in my earlyish teens (74? 75?) before Punk kicked-off in the UK, mainly 'cause I was into VU/Lou Reed and Iggy, and they seemed to fit *that* template (whatever it was) too...it was the fag-end of Glam, I guess, so I was still curious...still got the same, much-loved vinyl....

8:13 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Sounds like the demise of Billy Murcia - the ill-fated London trip before they even got round to making a record. Blew The Faces off-stage, so it's said. It's a lovely little film actually ... Kane comes across as a very sad and deeply strange man.
Yes, there's a general area ... Dolls/Stooges/Velvets ... bloody marvellous it is too.

I think Too Much, Too Soon is a bloody great album. 'Who Are The Mystery Girls?' contains one of my all-time favourite guitar solos/sounds. I loved Thunders' guitar sound from the moment I heard it ... as did, clearly, Steve Jones.

7:19 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

I had a similar experience stumbling across Raw Power - saw it in a local record shop, in a bargain bin strangely labeled 'other lands bands'. It was something like 25p and I thought "'ere, that's that band the brother keeps going on about" ... that and the freakshow that is the cover convinced me to have a listen.

And pondering dream meetings that never happened, I'd draft in Overend Watts for when dear Arthur was (frequently) the worse for wear. And why not Ian Hunter, to set his Dylanisms alongside Johansen's Jaggerisms?
I wonder if I could shoehorn in Dale Griffin and Ariel Bender without over-egging the pudding?

10:12 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

It was really strange the way he just came out of gigging retirement as if he was playing in a serious classical quintet then back to the library again with the old women.

"Did you have a nice time, dear?"

1:55 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

I thought it was priceless, the scene where he is describing to two dear little old ladies what it is he did on stage ... "no power slides".
You'd feel like saying "but Arthur, you couldn't do a power slide even in your prime".

7:15 AM  

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