Text by Alan Abramowitz as told by Michelle Piza; introduction by Alan Abramowitz
Introductory comment (italics) by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
© 1981, FFanzeen; introductory comments © 2010, RBF
The following was put together for FFanzeen No. 7 in 1981, by Alan Abramowitz, with memories by Michelle Piza, who was Jerry Nolan’s girlfriend throughout the New York Dolls years. The graphics that were used in the original piece was chock full of rare photos (such as Michelle and Jerry in Halloween costumes) and flyers. There is a picture of Michelle in a famous Vanity Fair magazine piece (on the right) where the caption reads, “an unidentified friend.” That was Michelle, folks. Each of the paragraphs represents a different memory. Yes, some of what is said is now well known thanks to numerous band biographies, but when this was published, it was pretty new to those who were not insiders. Personally, I wish Michelle would just write a memoir on those years, but that’s me. Michelle is an acquaintance of mine, and I am thankful to say that, as she has one of the best laughs I know. For a while during the ‘80s, she was doing interviews for Alan’s cable access show, Videowave.
I had the good fortune to see the Dolls twice: one at the opening night of the club On the Rocks in November 1976 (post-Johnny and Jerry), and once a special show at Tower Records when they reformed in 2006. – RBF
Alan Abramowitz introduction:
To this date, it is questionable who is the most influential band to today’s rock’n’roll / New Wave nee punk scene. Some say Iggy or Bowie or even the Beatles. Well, they were all influential to the New York Dolls, but what the Dolls have passed along has over-shadowed all that went before them. No, I’m not saying they are another Iggy or Bowie or even another Beatles; what I am saying is what they presented as their music was seven years ahead of their time, and what they represented just started to come into fashion in 1975.
They hit the tail end of the glitter era and tried in vain to latch on, hence their outrageous makeup on the cover of their first album, The New York Dolls. They joined the movement in its death-throngs and as it died, the Dolls slowly died with it. As a group. But as a force, the Dolls are more powerful now than when they were performing at Max’s, Club 82 or Mothers. What they represented was the fresh breath to the stale sound of 1971 rock’n’roll.
Much as been written over the years about the New York Dolls in almost every paper across the nation. To print it again may prove to be repetitious, but for those who weren’t around at that point of time, or have not read that information when it was around, it is a necessary, and yes, still vital story. An outlined history of the New York Dolls follows.
Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain always wanted to be in a band called “the Dolls.” This was a dream / idea he had confided to his good friend, drummer Billy Mercier. Returning from a European vacation, Syl found that Billy had formed a band with bassist Arthur Kane and guitarist Johnny Thunders, and called themselves The New York Dolls. Syl joined and later came David Johansen as lead singer. They practiced in old store fronts and by playing Lower East Side loft parties. Later on came gigs at the Hotel Diplomat and the Mercer Arts Center, these two being places where they could practice their live act and gain a following.
An immense cult following grew and spread by word-of-mouth, and with extra help of mini-ads they placed in the Village Voice. At least an ad a week appeared in 1972 and attracted a curious audience who were looking for more than what was available at the time, such as concerts by heavy metal bands as the Grateful Dead, etc. This was a time of much stagnation and wide-open room for transition.
Being eye-catching and very fashion conscious was part of the Dolls’ mystique. It was also a vulnerable target for idle criticism and misconceived ideas about their sexual preferences. This was emphasized to some degree by the natural audience they were attracting and more strongly by the first album cover photo showing them in extreme hair and make-up styles. The cover was just an extension of their own campy style taken one step further, but solely created by make-up artists and hair-dressers on the assignment of the album cover shot. The idea was conceived, shot, and sold in one single session – and later confused the masses. They were actually believed to be “fags in drag.”
1973 saw the passing of Billy Mercier by accidental death by choking. By this time, having toured England, the band had developed the artful sophistication of live performing. Press coverage had become widespread. Taking time out to recoup and gain forces, they replaced Billy with drummer Jerry Nolan. Jerry had been a great fan of the band and possessed the natural rock’n’roll feel to fit in and accent the band. Getting back on track, they were soon to be coined the “Most popular unrecorded rock band” by nearly every rock’n’roll tabloid. They were also commonly termed “punks.”
In the song “Pills,” with the phrase “Give me a shot,” David Johansen pantomimed the act of giving himself an injection, spontaneously followed by the audience. In another crowd pleaser, “Great Big Kiss,” the Dolls parodied the Shangri-Las. David asked the question, “Gee, what color are her eyes?” and Johnny answered coyly, “I dunno, she’s always wearing shades” …”Well, how duz she dance?” “Close; very, very close.” … Then together they would sing, “When I see her in the street / My heart takes a leap / It’s gonna skip a beat / I’m gonna walk right up to her / And give her a great big kiss / Mmmmmwwaaa” (later, Johnny would incorporate the same song into the Heartbreakers, exchanging the questions with Walter Lure). David would throw a tremendous kiss and gays looking for a real life characterization of Corporal Klinger from M.A.S.H., in beard and full drag, could be seen throwing back kisses to David. [Note: there is a typo in the last sentence in the original article with some words obviously missing – RBF, 2010]
The first album was a moderate success, doing well among devout Dolls fans, but failing to attract more than a novel interest. At this early time, it could not make the crossover by bringing rock’n’roll to Top-Forty and win the MOR audience. As a result, they lost key momentum and most needed creative energy. Disappointed with the outcome of the album’s production by Todd Rundgren, they picked Shadow Morton to handle the second album [Too Much, Too Soon], thinking that his ‘50s background would save them. Unfortunately, it didn’t, and they were dropped by their label, Phonogram.
They were filmed by Ralph Bakshi with the intent to animate them into a rock’n’roll movie, but [instead] he went on to do Fritz the Cat, Wizards and American Pop.
The ‘50s and early ‘60s had a lot to do with influencing the Dolls’ music and fashion. Everything from Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran on up to the Shangri-Las were an inspiration. One of their main goals was to reflect the early rock’n’roll purity into the future, and somehow integrate all that came in-between for a modern individuality.
They were now packing the larger back room of the Mercer to capacity. Faithful fans were frenzied, knowing all the words to the songs, singing along with gestures mirrored back to the band with peak energy and enthusiasm. One art form nurturing another. The Dolls were campy, crazy, exciting and different, and the audience complimented their style. They were the ideal fantasy rock’n’roll band – dressed to kill and dying to play the night away. Their energy was at its peak at this point. David Bowie was known to have said the Dolls were his real life “Spiders from Mars.”
The Dolls, at the height of their stardom, attracted a cult of L.A. Lolitas (groupies) who frequented the Rodney Bingenheimer Club. The queen of the cult was sultry blonde Sable Starr, who, no more than 15 years old, set her sights on Johnny Thunders. Her fantasy was fulfilled when they landed in L.A., and she became Johnny’s girlfriend. This led to other problems, such as outrageous demands that she be flown to gigs on the spur of the moment anywhere in the world or he would not play, expensive airfare inconsequential. It was times like these Johnny was set straight by the famous left hook of drummer Jerry Nolan on mutual consent of the rest of the band.
On tour in a remote part of Europe, drug-induced strains at one point caused Johnny to imagine that there were “snipers out there.” A very creative man, and very demanding, his image on stage could well be jerky, but compared to the beautiful romp of a wild pony.
Each member actually had their unique style of dressing before ever becoming a band. For instance, Syl used to walk around Greenwich Village in make-up, sort of how he looked as a Doll; the clown-like pouty look, which was a fashion then. Johnny was always a flagrantly wild dresser and loved to use eyeliner and Keith Richard hairstyle. When they became a band, they shared the art of thrift shop hopping for a chic look at a reasonable price. They were also known to accessorize with charms, such as rabbit feet, dice, World War II memorabilia (i.e., swastikas), and ‘60s nostalgia. Leopard jersey stretch pants, plenty of spandex, pink, turquoise and red thick marshmallow belts, cowboy gear, motorcycle jackets, and wild color matches were also typical Dolls fashion.
The Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria was the setting for the Halloween Costume Ball, one of the Doll’s most memorable performances. The crowd was wild, being a cross between just wild and crazy-looking and total transvestite. Naked people in nothing but gold and silver skin paint, people in clear plastic or cellophane and anything you could fathom in feathers attended. It was the first and only rock performance of its kind to be held there. The management swore they would never hold another rock’n’roll event in the hotel.
At the Waldorf gig, the Dolls went on their customary three hours late, mostly because David took his time about getting into his white tie, top hat and tails. His light brown locks had to be perfectly coiffed before he could set foot on stage and the necessary socializing had to take place in the reserved suites the guys shared to dress and entertain their guests. They were introduced on stage by a little boy dressed in matching tails to David. The same little boy posed with them in the Gem Spa photo on the back of their first album cover. His name was Shoo Be Doo; he died soon after in a fire.
To see the Dolls live at one of their favorite places, like the Mercer Arts Center, Hotel Diplomat, or Max’s Kansas City, was much more than a trip to a club – it was an invitation to a party.
On their second European tour with Jerry Nolan, they acquired two dotting fans: Malcolm McLaren and cohort Vivian Westwood. These two were such wild dressers they hardly went unnoticed. They loved the Dolls and followed them to Paris. At a gig there, the crowd grew so wild and frenzied that fist fighting and vulgar spitting on them caused them to leave the stage before finishing the show. The roadies were left to fist-fight the audience.
Malcolm McLaren became the Dolls’ manager. By this time in 1976, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan were tired of the Dolls. McLaren had given them a red leather / communist look. Again, the Dolls were misinterpreted, as they were when they were in drag. Arthur Kane, burnt out and an alcoholic, couldn’t play bass any longer. He was replaced by Peter Jordan, who was never considered a Doll. When Johnny and Jerry quit, Tony Machine filled in on drums. The band evolved into a David Johansen back-up, but he couldn’t hold it on his own without the multi-creative Johnny and Jerry behind him.
Great site: www.fromthearchives.com/nyd/chronology.html