An interview with David Johansen
Once upon a time, seemingly out of nowhere, came the New York Dolls. Formed in 1971, the band forged a distinct style of rock and roll and derived its shimmering androgynous look from transvestites. The music took elements from England’s glam rock movement, noisy and vulgar Detroit proto-punk acts like The Stooges and MC5, ’60s girl groups, and ’50s lo-fi rock and roll. The band endured through two albums before splitting up in 1977 as one of the most influential rock acts of all time.
In 2004, with the encouragement of Morrissey, the New York Dolls reformed. The band has been together since—having recorded three more studio albums—and is on tour (opening for two ’80s hair metal bands, for some blasphemous reason) in support of its latest, the excellent Dancing Backwards in High Heels. My starstruck nerdliness had the distinct honor of speaking with frontman David Johansen about being an artist and the art of songwriting.
When the New York Dolls started playing, the sound wasn't like anything else. You guys were so young—where did your inspiration come from at that point?
We had this very idealistic idea of what rock and roll music should sound like, and should look like, and should just be. We all had different influences, but when you put them all together—say there’s five guys and each one of them has 50 really strong influences—it turns out uniquely. So our inspirations were a lot of bands, and a lot of singers, and a lot of movies, and a lot of paintings—and all kinds of stuff, you know?
So how did you cultivate that look?
Well actually, that’s how we met. We were on the street and we'd see each other because we all had a similar aesthetic, and that’s how we all noticed each other and started talking. Like, Oh you play? Ya, I play. You play? I play. It wasn't like we got together and took off our ties and decided to dress like that. We were in the East Village, and it was like a hotbed of revolution at that time. There were a lot of creative people there, and a lot of liberation movements going on, and a lot of people who were into theater, and a lot of people were into avant-garde art and filmmaking and all kinds of stuff. We became the band and of the neighborhood. When they wanted to dance they would hire us to play. So we were kind of reflecting our environs.
So what’s your take on those who've imitated your band over the years?
I think when we started out we were definitely artists, and that was our approach to life. We lived artistic lifestyles and we all still do live as artists. To an artist, to be inspiring to people is pretty much the main, predominant thing that you want to do. I guess as far as that’s concerned we've succeeded in inspiring people to expand their view of things. All music kind of does, but for me rock and roll has a very kind of transcendent quality to it when it’s done right. It can give people the opportunity to look at things other than the habitual way they've been looking at them.
Do you have a philosophy as a band?
You mean like a Lars von Trier kind of manifesto? [Laughs.]
Maybe not like his.
It would be a good thing if he had a band. I just thought of this: No music is allowed in this band. [Laughs.] That was pretty good, right? They just go out and stand there: Why aren't you guys playing any music? Just read the manifesto and it will explain itself.
You know, we just wanna make really good songs. Without sounding like I'm crazy, but for me when we're writing songs Syl is—to me—like, freaking Sylvain Sylvain [New York Dolls’ guitarist]. When he plays me something it’s like Sylvain Sylvain is playing me something! So that can really cloud my vision. Because here's this guy that's so great and he's playing me this melody or something. I think I have the same point of view about writing lyrics and performing. I don't really think about it too much because it’s just like bringing me and all my experience to the table. So that's what it is. To say what is the philosophy of that—it wouldn't have anything to do with Schopenhauer so much. It would have to do with a little Krishnamurti and a little Emil Cioran.
What was the recording process with Dancing Backwards in High Heels?
This time with Jason Hill [frontman of British rock band Louis XIV] we went over to New Castle, England. He was like, “OK, what do you got?” And we were like, “Uh, we don't know.” What we did—as opposed to sitting around writing songs and stuff like that—we just started recording. So by doing that, it gave us the capacity to take the songs in other directions and other places, and they weren't set in stone already. ... There was room to expand and follow their kind of organic destiny.
What were you trying to get across thematically?
Syl would play me something in its embryonic state. Being that he and I have done this so many times together, when he plays me something in that state, I have a capacity to hear it as a finished product almost. Not exactly, but I can hear where it’s going and what it could be. So he just kept on playing tunes for me and I just kept on thinking, Well that’s really great, let’s work on that, let’s do that. It was really just a matter of making songs. After it was done, you know, people started thinking that it had some kind of a theme to it, but it wasn't like a conscious thing. When you're a musician, or probably in any art form, there’s things at any time in your life, musically speaking, that you hear and you really dig, you know? And then they go into your subconscious. I think that when creating your own songs—all of those different elements in each person ... they subconsciously come into play. I think that’s the best description I can come up with for how a song is created.
Did you think that you would still be doing this now?
I knew I’d still be singing. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be singing with the Dolls, I would've been like, No I don't think so. You know? But when we got back together it was just so much fun. It’s really great when you’re in a band and everybody's got a kind of similar aesthetic and idea of what it’s about. You don't have to really discuss it so much because everybody's in their position. As far as we're all concerned, as far as ideal is concerned.