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New York Dolls: Appetites For Self-Destruction

The New Yorks Dolls' sleazoid, vampish veneer was fuelled by opiates and booze. Ultimately it cost them their career, and two of them their lives.

When the New York Dolls swaggered forth from the Babylonian underbelly of Manhattan’s Lower East Side they looked more like assassins than saviours. To the conservative bean counters of 1972’s never-more-lucrative rock business, the Dolls spelled nothing but trouble: uncouth and uncontrollable they could handle, but unsaleable? Forget it.

And the Dolls were about as far from a commercial proposition as corporate America could possibly envisage. The Dolls’ physical embodiment of excessive subterranean sleaze and gender-bending decadence was total anathema to a zeitgeist only just adjusting to the sweeping reforms of the civil rights movement. Where the Women’s Liberation movement was regularly painted as radical pinko freaks, what chance for a transvestite rock’n’roll band caked in Bowery hooker slap and called the New York Dolls?

That they were from New York was bad enough; but no right-thinking, Midwest Allman Brothers fan was going to invest in any band that looked like a bunch of fairy-assed faggots. Small pockets of support ensured the Dolls an ephemeral career (Mercury Records struggled with them for a brace of implausibly influential albums; their home-town crowd of equally outré club-kid progenitors supported them to the hilt; the UK rock media cooed over them as an ever-outrageous substitute Stones), but their relentless pursuit of suicidal over-indulgence ended in death, addiction and ultimate destruction. Yet during their brief, coruscating period of tireless self-immolation, the Dolls unequivocally sowed the seeds that saved rock’n’roll.

The prevailing music scene was bloated with po-faced technicians bent on respectability; a desire to be taken seriously had led musicians to replace naïve pop sass and street-sharp danceability with lengthy solos and denim introspection. The Dolls gave rock its roll back by returning the debilitated genre to its deliciously delinquent roots. They allied the seductive fated glamour of the Shangri-Las with the snot-nosed, we-piss-anywhere attitude of The Rolling Stones. Every aspect of their craft was accentuated; à la mode threads were too boxy, so they customised thrift shop drag. Angst-ridden, beauty shop chit-chat was simply too urgent to be delivered by any other means than desperate Dexedrine blurts. Halter tops and peda pushers were chosen for their sluttish tightness – what better way to underline their extreme youth?

Lipstick gave a pout extra clout, rendered a sneer more severe. Guitars were wielded like sonic switchblades; Keith coifs teased into ravished Ronettes rats-tails. The Dolls were all about ‘attitude’, that priceless ephemeral commodity that record executives could no longer detect but which was still as potent as cat-nip to disaffected teens. And it was this attitude, channelled through generations of Jack-totin’, coke-tootin’, hell-raisin’, mirrorgazin’ glam-metallers, sleazemongers and punks that ultimately saved rock. 

Messily sacrificed on the altar of opiates, the New York Dolls imploded before their spiritual progeny emerged to profit from their enduring legacy. But, like all good saviours, they’ve risen again. Of the original line-up only vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain survive, but they’ve got quite a tale to tell. So with the Dolls’ One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This album due for imminent release, here’s their story.

Sylvain Sylvain (aka Ronald Mizrahi) was born on Valentine’s Day 1953. His father was a well-to-do Cairo banker who, gradually stripped of his assets by the Draconian anti-Semitic policies of Egypt’s President Nasser, fled with his young family to Paris. It was here that Sylvain soaked up his Uncle Victor’s imported Gene Vincent and Ray Charles records. Upon resettling in Buffalo, New York in 1961, Syl picked up rudimentary piano from his accordionist uncle, but switched to guitar upon discovering The Beatles.

“They were everything to me,” he says of the Fab Four. “I grew my hair, started wearing mod clothes and cried for six months until my father got me a guitar. Then the Stones came on television and I was like: ‘Fuck The Beatles, they’re a bunch of wimps. Listen to these guys’. I loved the fucking Rolling Stones, and started asking every black guy in New York to teach me the blues.”

Meanwhile, Staten Island Catholic high-school drop-out David Johansen, three years Syl’s senior and similarly addicted to the blues, was regularly having his mind blown and ambitions stoked at 20-band Murray the K package shows by the likes of Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels. Johansen’s father had been a singer, and before long his self-assured and gregarious son was duplicating the role in the Vagabond Missionaries and Fast Eddie & The Electric Japs.

“When I was a kid people said I had a distinctive-sounding voice,” Johansen deadpans dryly. “Maybe it’s genetic or something.”

Having relocated to Van Wyck Junior High in Jamaica, Queens, Sylvain hooked up with equally displaced Colombian émigré Billy Murcia “because that’s how surviving’s done”. Billy took up the drums and, in search of bandmates, their attentions were soon drawn to rakish local Lothario John Anthony Genzale, the man who would be Thunders.

“We wanted Johnny in the band because he was a cool-looking cat who had all the chicks,” Sylvain admits. “So I said to Billy: ‘If this guy can’t play, fuck it, we’ll grab his girls’.”

But the street-sharp Italian-American baseball prodigy could play – eventually. He first adopted the easier four-stringed bass route but then, upon deciding lead guitar was the glamour instrument, insisted upon Syl teaching him its rudiments – before summarily demoting him to rhythm guitarist. This reshuffle opened a bass player vacancy ultimately filled by Arthur Harold Kane, a gently gigantic dipsomaniac haunted by his mother’s early death and his stepfather’s subsequent rejection, whose first duty as a Doll was to accompany Billy on a Johansen finding expedition.

“I’d seen these guys around,” Johansen smiles, recollecting just how ludicrous the couple looked together: Kane a looming colossus, next to the pocket-sized, cherubic Murcia. “Then one day they knocked at my door and Arthur said: ‘I understand you’re a singer’.”

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