Doll Parts 

Though only two original New York Dolls remain, the glam band's reunion rages giddily on.

"I'd been reading The Portable Jung," famed New York Dolls frontman David Johansen explains. "If you accept his theory of development, you take everything you've been doing and throw it all away every twelve years or so, to keep yourself interested in life. People who get into that 'Been there, done that' mindset are looking at life as a system that can be used up, but there's so much to know, so much to do, especially in music and the arts. The Jungian thing is to keep an open mind about things. I thought it would be fun to fool around with Syl and Arthur again, and I said, 'Okay, I'll do it.'"

For a brief, shining moment that actually lasted three years ('71 to '74), the New York Dolls were the best rock 'n' roll band on the planet. Their two albums, New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon, still sound great, but they don't -- they can't -- measure up to the barely controlled chaos of their live gigs. Visually, they didn't invent glam, but they took it to its logical extremes. They were all beautiful boys (even without the makeup), but more importantly the Dolls were great rock musicians, able to generate a manic rush of energy at a volume that made Led Zep sound like new-age tinklers. Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain didn't play much lead, but the intermeshed roar of their guitars distilled a half-century of R&B, rock, and blues licks into a mighty noise ably supported by the volcanic bass of Arthur "Killer" Kane and the Keith Moon-like bashing of drummer Jerry Nolan. Johansen, meanwhile, wailed like an old blues belter, but he was drop-dead gorgeous and had moves that made Jagger, then in his early thirties, look like an old man.

But like their NYC cousins the Velvet Underground, the Dolls were both hugely influential and too radical to last. Clashing egos, bad business decisions (including a disastrous management deal with Malcolm McLaren, who used the Dolls as the template for his own rock 'n' roll disaster, the Sex Pistols), and record company indifference led to an early downfall, just before the explosion of punk.

Thunders and Nolan then formed the Heartbreakers, who managed some new wave street cred until Thunders' drug habit reduced him to a Keith Richards caricature and an early death in 1991. (Nolan died a year later.) Kane and Sylvain, meanwhile, maintained far lower profiles -- until Morrissey came calling.

For rockers of a certain generation, the notion of a Dolls reunion was a tantalizing, if impossible, dream. Several years back Sylvain and Johansen were allegedly offered a million bucks to reform, but Johansen nixed the idea. Then along came Morrissey, who has often mentioned the Dolls as his inspiration for starting the Smiths. He was masterminding the 2004 edition of Meltdown, a yearly event sponsored by Britain's Royal Festival Hall that allows guest curators -- past honorees include David Bowie, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and BBC super-DJ John Peel -- to stage a two-week-long fantasy concert.

"I got a call from Morrissey, who I converse with from time to time," Johansen recalls, bouncing from subject to subject like a jazz cat improvising on a theme. "He told me he was curator of this Meltdown thing. He wanted Liberace, but he was dead, so he asked me." Johansen cackles. "I didn't think we could do it without [Johnny], but he said people would dig it."

For his part, Johansen, now all of 54 years old, never seems to rest. Currently he's doing time as a DJ on Sirius satellite radio with a show called The Mansion of Fun, beaming out a catholic menu of country, opera, world music, and rock. He's showing his paintings (which share the same mix of naive primitivism and realism as his music) at the Ricco/Maresca gallery in NYC. Furthermore, he sings with five different bands: Buster Poindexter's Big Dance Band, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, the David Johansen Project, the All Star Howlin' Wolf Tribute Band, and, of course, the resurrected Dolls, who're enjoying more success now than they did in their heyday. That reunion is probably the biggest surprise, given Johansen's reputation for constantly moving forward, but as the old song (and, evidently, Jung) says, "Never say never."

Johansen hastens to distance this Dolls recurrence -- which spread from Meltdown to a brief Europe-and-Japan jaunt, and now an even briefer sweep of California -- from the infamous reunion cash-grab cliché. "I don't play music for the money, as anyone who's followed my nefarious career knows," he says. "This was a literal reunion, like getting together with the old frat mates. The Dolls was like college for us, and we still have an almost familial bond. Everything that was fucked up about it doesn't matter; the bond is like blood."

Even if the Dolls' intentions are good, there's still the danger of tainting the band's "legacy," such as it is. "A lot of people ask me how I feel about doing the old Dolls songs," Johansen admits. "And when I look back, the first time I started thinking about that was when I was walking up onto the stage. It all happened so fast -- the rehearsals, the trip to England -- that I never had a thought about doing the show. I just went up there and wailed into the mic, and it all came back to me. Paramahansa Yogananda has a saying: 'Every day can be the best day of your life.' And that's the way it turned out."

Johansen says the biggest blessing, and the greatest curse, of the Meltdown reunion was playing with Kane, who died a month after the Meltdown gig. "When I met Art as a kid, he was a genius guy -- he saw things most people don't see," Johansen recalls. "He always knew what the Dolls should be. Playing with him when he wasn't on booze or anything was fantastic. I was looking forward to spending the summer with him and Syl. After [the Meltdown gig] he had this flu, and he couldn't make the next few gigs. He said he was sad he was letting us down, and I told him not to sweat it. He finally went into the hospital, was diagnosed with leukemia, and died later that night. It was a freak thing. I was in Italy, doing gigs with the Howlin' Wolf Tribute Band, and I was walking around the streets at night in total shock. For him, that last gig with us was so important; he probably wanted [the reunion] more than anybody. So for him it was a happy ending, but for me it was an emotional calamity. On the rest of the dates we did this summer -- Spain, Ireland, some British festivals -- we had a pretty good time, so it's been a mixture of triumph and tragedy, which is what the Dolls always were."

The concerts have drawn rave reviews from critics, many praising the Dolls' still-palpable energy. Not too band for a bunch of geezers (well, okay, two geezers) approaching sixty. "Despite my misspent youth, I'm in the best shape of my life," Johansen says. "I'm constantly surprised by my endurance. I haven't put it to the test in a while, 'cause in the last band [the Harry Smiths, which explored the acoustic roots of American folk and blues] I was sitting on a stool with a guitar and a beard. Now I'm shaved -- except for some impressive muttonchops -- and jumping around on stage like a man two years younger than I am. Age is an odd thing. Turns out we're impervious to it. When I was a kid and looked at someone my age, he was likely to be a tired-looking, baldheaded father who wore a vest."

For now, the Dolls' lineup is filled out by studio aces and members of Hanoi Rocks and the Harry Smiths. But what's next? More gigs? Another studio album?

"There's a live CD and DVD coming out of the British gigs -- the rest we're thinking about," Johansen says. "After this summer, if we're all still moving to the same beat, we'll sit down and decide. I think, 'Why not make a record, then hit the festivals next summer?' We're having a lot of laughs, and there's an appreciation of the fact that every moment we're doing it, we're consciously aware of doing it. Quite a change from the first time around. I'm looking at it as a devotional practice. I have all my various icons in mind, and I'm trying to beam it up to them and have them bounce it back down to everyone. I'm not just tossing it out at the audience. I don't know if it's exactly spiritual, quote/unquote, but we all huddle before we go onstage and pray, although it can get pretty fuckin' profane.

"We want to go out there and do something to lift everyone up," Johansen (finally) concludes. "We're not saying, 'Wish you were as cool as me.' It's more like, 'We're all in this together, let's have a ball.'

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