#301: New York Dolls, New York Dolls
There were dirt roads in the town where I grew up. You couldn’t walk anywhere; you needed a car. One summer, I volunteered on a horse farm.
It was what you would call “rural America,” which is why when I discovered the New York Dolls, I thought I was quite possibly the coolest person alive. Back then all I understood was that glam-punk meant that men could wear make-up, and that men wearing make-up was badass.
Listening to this album as an adult revealed something surprising: the blues. Nearly all of these songs are blues-based riffs with rockabilly piano and snarling vocals from David Johansen, most especially on “Personality Crisis,” where he screams about being a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon. Oh, sure, it’s reliably angry (look at the thumping survivor’s guilt of “Vietnamese Baby”) and occasionally absurd (see the baby that gets stolen by a human fly in “Jet Boy”) but the New York Dolls are stretching the blues to its limit.
RS calls the Dolls a “trash-junky” band. That’s kind of a mean thing to say, but I think what they’re getting at is the fact that the Dolls write about the dregs of society in a way that’s almost sweet. “Looking For A Kiss” watches them wander around an intravenous drug party, looking for nothing other than a chaste peck. “Frankenstein” turns the famous monster into a sexy object of desire, and in “Trash” they ask a piece of human garbage not to throw their life away. Their cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills” paints an empathetic picture of addiction.
“Trash-junky” bands appealed to me because it was so far from what I knew, but it wasn’t the drugs that did it: it was the depiction of city life. Unlike bands of the time like the Replacements and the Modern Lovers, who hailed from other areas of the U.S., the New York Dolls were born and bred in NYC, and all their lyrics sound like they were recorded at a bus stop. “Subway Train” is about riding the subway listlessly, unlike the rest of us middle-American hicks, who need to drive our cars. “Bad Girl” shows a cosmopolitan situationship where a very savvy lady dodges the Dolls. Imagine, being a bad girl in a city!
The song I always missed when I was in high school, though, was “Lonely Planet Boy,” a Led Zeppelin-inspired acousticky song with Johansen’s voice sounding quiet and quite unlike it does on any other song. There’s nothing cosmopolitan about this one. It’s cosmic.
I would say that the record starts to drag at the end — every time they said Private world! in “Private World” was like a nail betwixt my eyeballs. Still, there’s almost nothing wrong with this record. The New York Dolls were such a big deal that even Robert Christgau loved them, and if that’s not enough to convince you, then nothing will.
Fun Fact: This record was produced by professional weirdo and Philadelphia native (that explains it) Todd Rundgren, who we’re gonna see again at #396 with Something/Anything?