David Johansen of the New York Dolls

by Roger Catlin

David Johansen has been a persistent part of rock and roll for nearly half a century, as the frontman of the influential pre-punk glam of the New York Dolls in the early 1970s to his solo turn that brought soca to the pop charts under the name Buster Poindexter. An occasional actor, Johansen turned to country blues in The Harry Smiths, named after the eccentric folklorist. And he celebrates a panoply of music weekly on his Mansion of Fun show on Sirius XM's The Loft. We talked to him over the phone from New York.
The revived Dolls, 2009: Sami Yaffa, Johansen, Brian Delaney, Steve Conte, Sylvain Sylvain

Roger Catlin (Songfacts): You seem to embrace so many different kinds of music. What did you listen to as a kid?

David Johansen: Oh, so many things. Latin music and folk music and rock and roll music, doo-wop music - you name it. I always liked certain operas, and songs from certain operas. It's pretty much everything because I had this built-in radar. If I hear something I think is good, that's peculiar to my taste, my ears open up when I hear it. And if something doesn't appeal to me, I don't really hear it.

Songfacts: Was there a lot of music in your house growing up?

Johansen: Yes there was. My father, before World War II, he was a singer and he did opera and light opera and things like that. After the war, he started having kids, and he had to get a job but he was always singing around the house and playing records around the house. He would listen to the opera every Saturday on the big wooden radio. My older brothers had a lot of records and my older sister was into Bob Dylan when he came out and all that kind of stuff. She went to see The Beatles at Carnegie Hall. So there was a lot of different music. My older brother was into a lot of doo-wop. I think the first album I bought was a Lightnin' Hopkins album because there really wasn't that much blues in the house and I really liked that.

Songfacts: Were the first bands you were in all doing rock and roll before the New York Dolls?

Johansen: Yeah, I was in a dance band and I was also interested in playing acoustic guitar and singing, so I was into folk and rock and roll, as far as what was achievable of doing.

Songfacts: It seems like you hid the folk part when you formed the Dolls though.

Johansen: I would bring songs to the Dolls and that's how they would play them. The Dolls were more than the sum of their parts. I'd say, "I found this Sonny Boy Williamson song, ["Don't Start Me Talkin'"]," or "Let's do this Bo Diddley song ["Pills"]," and they'd come out like a whole different genre than the original. It was good. It was really authentic rock and roll music.

The New York Dolls

It's hard to overstate the effect the New York Dolls had amid the post-Woodstock malaise. At a time of singer-songwriter soft rock and the excesses of prog rock, here was an aggressive guitar sound with a lead singer that had Mick Jagger moves and chops. All this while sometimes in drag, putting off record executives. With a New York following, they mixed some early '60s Brill Building inspiration with a raucous, raunchy live show that would inspire punks a few years later.

By the time they recorded their first album in 1973, produced by Todd Rundgren, they had already lost original drummer Billy Murcia to an overdose while on a 1972 English tour that saw them opening for The Faces in Wembley. Jerry Nolan took over on drums before the recording, joining Johansen, bassist Arthur Kane, guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain.

Sales were sluggish, but critics were enamored. "They are so much to my taste that I have to mistrust my taste a little," Robert Christgau wrote in 1973. "But they sound to me like the best hard rock band since the Rolling Stones." A Creem magazine poll that year saw the Dolls voted both Best New Group of the Year and Worst New Group of the Year.

For the second album in 1974, Too Much Too Soon, they enlisted as producer Shadow Morton, the man who produced the Shangri-Las, whom they quoted on their first album. This only after the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had withdrawn as producers. It got more critical praise, but saw even worse sales. They were dropped by their label in 1975 and played their last live show at the end of 1976 at Max's Kansas City with Blondie.

There were just two survivors - Johansen and Sylvain - when it came to recording a reunion album in 2005. Despite a revolving membership, the revived Dolls managed to put out more albums than the originals - three - before disbanding for good in 2011.
Original Dolls, 1973: Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders, Johansen, Arthur Kane, Sylvain SylvainOriginal Dolls, 1973: Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders, Johansen, Arthur Kane, Sylvain Sylvain
Songfacts: Was it frustrating that for all the acclaim that they got, the Dolls didn't take over the universe like they should have?

Johansen: I didn't have any grand design. I was just going along for the ride. It was a lot of fun for a while.

Songfacts: What was it like when you reunited in 2004?

Johansen: You can't ever replicate things that happen in your life, so I don't even think about that. We were going to do one show in England. I thought, Well, this will be fun. We were going to play at the Meltdown Festival, and Morrissey was the curator that year, so he asked us to do it.

I was singing at that time in Hubert Sumlin's band, and I was also singing with The Harry Smiths at that time. I thought, This will be really kind of refreshing, it will be fun. We did it and it was a big success, so we just kept doing it, and we did it for eight years or something.

Songfacts: Do you look back fondly at that time?

Johansen: Oh yeah. It was great, because we traveled all over the world, like, three times. We went even to China.

Songfacts: What was the reaction there?

Johansen: It was very similar to every place else except we played at the first outdoor festival they had. It was very similar to what we were used to except the army was standing in front of the stage with really stern looks on their faces. The kids were getting rambunctious and then the army would walk through the crowd. It was crazy, but it was really interesting.

Artist, experimental filmmaker, and eccentric collector, Harry Smith (1923-1991) is best remembered as the folklorist who compiled the wealth of forgotten 78 rpm records from the 1920s and '30s into the authoritative and hugely influential Anthology of American Folk Music. First issued on Folkways Records on three double albums in 1952, its riches ranged from Appalachian songs to Cajun tunes, with fiddle music, hillbilly, gospel and blues in between. The anthology coined the phrase "folk" to represent a wide swath of sound whose artists weren't segregated, nor were their races identified.

The Anthology painted a picture of a forgotten folklore, dusty remnants of "the old, weird America," as Greil Marcus put it in his written notes to a 1997 CD reissue on Smithsonian Folkways that contained all 84 original tracks in their same designations - ballads, social music, and songs - with Smith's original eccentric notations. The original compilation served as a traditionalist template for the folk craze of the 1960s, from Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia. "It was the Bible for hundreds of us," said Dave Van Ronk.

David Johansen's band The Harry Smiths recorded only four tracks on their two albums that were actually from the anthology: Jim Jackson's 1926 "Old Dog Blue," Richard Rabbit Brown's 1927 "James Alley Blues," Ramblin' Thomas' 1929 "Poor Boy Blues" and Furry Lewis' 1928 "Kassie Jones." But the idea of finding new life in old songs continued with the group, who also recorded Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talking" and Son House's "Death Letter." Harry Smith was back in the news with the October 2020 Dust-to-Digital release of all the songs that were on the flip sides of the original 78s, The Harry Smith B-Sides.
Songfacts: Are you still doing some Harry Smiths stuff?

Johansen: Yeah. We still do that once in a while. We haven't done it since the plague, but we had done one just before that. But it's not like an ongoing thing. I love some of the guys I play with. Larry Saltzman is such a great guitar player. It's just so much fun to play songs with those guys.

Songfacts: And you're playing a lot of old obscure music, and letting people know who Harry Smith was.

Johansen: Well, you know, we don't play a lot of songs from Harry Smith's record collection, but it was kind of a shorthand way to name the act so people have an idea what they were going to get. We play a lot of country, blues and I don't know what to call it - early music, I guess. But a lot of it is songs that people never really heard before. So we had a chance to bring it to people.

When we started doing that Harry Smiths thing, I had just come out of this period where I was making this Spanish Rocketship record [in 1997] for Buster1, and during that year when Brian and I were writing songs and recording them, I really didn't listen to anything but Latin music. People would give me records and say, "Oh, you've gotta hear this," but I would just put it aside.

And then after that record was finished I started listening to different music and even music I hadn't heard for years. After coming out of that Latin course, I heard all these songs with new ears. I didn't realize how great it was because I had heard it so many times.

So the guy who ran the Bottom Line, Allan Pepper, he called me and said he wanted to do this series of shows for their 20th anniversary or something like that. They were asking people who played there a lot to do something they've never done before or something that's different than what they normally do, so I knew immediately what we were going to do. So I said, "OK, we'll do this 'whatever you call that' music." So we did that and it was a big success. It got written up in the Times. And we just kept on doing it.

We made a couple of CDs with this audiophile company called Chesky that essentially sells records to Swiss people with elaborate stereo equipment. They have a method of recording that's like a live recording, but they do it in a church, and they mic different areas of the church to get echo. Then they have us stand around this giant tube mic and they say, "OK, the drums have to be in back and the bass player has to move a little." When they finally get that sounding great, they just go for it. It sounds like ASD [Active Sound Design]. It sounds like the center of the room for the listeners. They mostly do jazz.

"Sinking Ship"

It 1986, the calypso performer Gypsy made a popular and effective hit with "Sinking Ship" in Trinidad and Tobago. Winston "Gypsy" Peters wrote it in response to the rule of a leader there, George Chambers, who had taken over as prime minister following the death of the beloved Eric Williams, the first prime minister of the island country, in 1981.

"This is an S.O.S. from the Trinidad," the tuneful metaphor begins. "Mayday! Mayday!"
Not only did the catchy calypso become one of the singer's biggest hits, it led to the worst ever electoral defeat of Chambers' party in 1986.

In the lead-up to the 2020 US election, Johansen released a cover of "Sinking Ship," which he adapts by starting, "He's unhinged! He's gonna kill us all! This is an S.O.S. from the USA," subbing Barack Obama for Williams and targeting Trump, of whom he sings, "He's a maniac! The pandemic is killing us!"
Songfacts: It seems like Trinidadian music was also much more topical than US pop music, going back a long way.

Johansen: Yeah. You know, calypso is the way they used to tell the news essentially. So a lot of people keep up that tradition in the calypso world.

Songfacts: This kind of brings you back to your soca persona we know from "Hot Hot Hot."

Johansen as Buster PoindexterJohansen as Buster Poindexter
Johansen: I always liked that music, and when I hear a good one, it sticks in my brain. There's a lot of really good ones.

Songfacts: You must have felt there was something that needed to be said about the current situation and voting, telling people, "It's up to you, it's up to me."

Johansen: Yeah, but not like a lot of people that make songs that are dire and dismal about the situation. You're bombarded with that kind of stuff on the news all the time. This one sneaks the message in there with a happy song.

Songfacts: How have you been faring generally during the pandemic?

Johansen: I've actually been rather content to have this time to contemplate. My daughter Leah [Victoria Hennessey] put together the video for the song. She's got a band called Hennessey. It's a great band. But she's a multi-talented polymath, and she also works putting videos together for people. So she was visiting us, and spent like a week with us in August, and after the hurricane [Isaias], we went down to the beach and shot a take of me singing it. Then she was going the next day to this guy Tony Oursler, who's an artist, and he was going to shoot her on a green screen for her new single, which is called "No Transformation." So Mara and I went over with her and I managed to do a take in front of the green screen. Then Leah had a vision of putting The Wreck of the Hesperus and some beautiful paintings in the background. We had a bunch of ideas, and Leah put it all together and it came out as a really great video.

Songfacts: And the nautical costume you were wearing, is that something you had in your closet?

Johansen: The shirt, our friend is a French designer, his name is Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, and he's a designer in France, and a couple of years ago he gave that shirt to Mara, which she had worn maybe three times over the years, and I wore that shirt.

Mansion of Fun

David Johansen's SiriusXM weekly radio show may have the most wide-ranging playlists around. A recent one began with The Chambers Brothers, Dr. John and the 1920s blues singer Lizzie Miles, and went into James Brown, R.E.M. and Max Frost & the Troopers. There was a blast of world music from Willie Colon, Prince Buster and Celia Cruz, but there was also Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Sam Cooke as well as the bands Franz Ferdinand, Death Cab for Cutie, and Gorillaz. But there was also a track from the musical South Pacific, as well as "Après un Rêve, Op. 7, No. 1," by Gabriel Fauré.
Songfacts: What's your guiding principle in putting together Buster Poindexter's Mansion of Fun radio show?

Johansen: It's stuff I like. That's pretty much it. I don't have to answer to anybody about what I'm playing.

I've been doing it once a week for like 20 years. I have to play about 60 songs in every show. It's a three-hour show, so it really keeps me involved in music. I find that sometimes you can be in a lousy mood, you don't want to do anything, then I have to put the show together, so I start listening to music and then two minutes into starting to listen to songs, I forget that I was in a lousy mood. So it's really a good kind of mood lifter.

February 22, 2021
More interviews:
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Martyn Ware
Chris Frantz

Footnotes:

  • 1] Amid a solo career following the demise of The New York Dolls, David Johansen flirted with a martini-sipping sophisticate persona named Buster Poindexter, playing weekly gigs at Tramps nightclub in New York City and appearing frequently with the Saturday Night Live house band that led to some memorable performances, such as a 1986 duet with Sigourney Weaver on "Baby It's Cold Outside."

    Poindexter's eponymous debut album in 1987 featured His Banshees of Blue, a band that included future Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier and future E Street Band vocalists Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell. It was mostly big band oldies and lounge tunes, but the success of the cover of Arrow's "Hot Hot Hot" made him synonymous with soca. (back)

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