Monday, November 30, 2015

David Johansen: Showdown at 14th Street & Success Blvd. [1981]

Text by Alvin Eng / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

David Johansen is more than a cult musician, he is both an icon of underground denizens and a hero to most of the respected musical artists on rock / punk / blues scenes, especially those over the age of 30. As if his tenure as the vocalist / harmonicist of the New York Dolls wasn’t enough, there are probably multitudes more who know him as his alter ego, the bluesy Buster Poindexter. The origins of Poindexter can certainly be found towards the end of this interview. When this took place, he was in a solo career between the Dolls and Buster.

But here is a story about Johansen that isn’t about him directly: In 1979 or ’80, when I was 24 years old, I was working as an usher at a movie house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, called the Alpine. Occasionally, I would go diagonally across the street and have a sandwich at a corner luncheonette. One day I was there by myself, eating and reading a paperback titled Billy Lives, by Gary Brandner. It’s a cynical story about a dead rock star and how his death was marketed. In the edition I had (and the reason I bought it in the first place), the front of the book was a bad illustration of the New York Dolls, even though they had nothing to do with the story.

So I was sitting at the counter, and a middle aged woman turned to me and said, “Excuse me, is that David Johansen on the cover of that book?” Remember this is 1979 or so, and I said, of course, “Yeah!” She said, “My daughter used to date him years ago, when he still lived on Staten Island.” I don’t remember if there was any more of the conversation, but it seemed so incongruous to me then.

The first time I saw Johansen play was one of the last Dolls shows, which was at On the Rocks on November 4, 1976, sharing a bill with the Brats. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had already left the band. There were a couple of other times I saw him perform, including at Johnny Thunders’ Memorial Show at the Marquee in 1991. The last time was an invitation-only show of the reformed Dolls at Tower Records in 2006 to celebrate the release of their One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This LP.

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was written by mega-Dolls fan Alvin Eng. – RBF, 2015

America and art make strange bedfellows. Most often than not it is finesse which makes art fine art; however, the star spangled approach often balks on finesse diverting to excessive sweat and struggles to assimilate the mold. David Johansen is one performer with a genuine care for his art that is totally void of the stars and stripes syndrome plaguing many of his peers. From perfecting perplexed pouts with the New York Dolls to redefining style on his own, Johansen remains the rag doll who can make magic out of seemingly worthless scraps. Just witness the verve in which he’ll transform a tattered hat into an ideal stage piece by carefully tilting it on his head with the right grin to match.

The following interview took place June 25, 1981, at the “fabulous” Malibu club shortly after his third solo LP, Here Comes the Night, was released. This album promises to end the popularity crisis In Style and David Johansen couldn’t. Whether Johansen becomes a national star or a national “cult” figure, he’ll continue to be one of the most inimitable singer / songwriter / showmen of our time. Before getting “too flashy or neat,” let’s proceed.

FFanzeen: Well, it’s been a year since we last saw you. What have you been up to?
David Johansen: This is like the Barbara Walters show. Well, what have I been up to in the past year, besides procrastinating?

FFanzeen: Well, I’ll start you off. What became of the video, Thau in Love that you’ve been working on [I can find no record of it ever being released. – RBF, 2015].
David: Maybe we’re gonna try and show it on TV, and maybe clubs. We don’t know what we’re gonna do with it yet.

FFanzeen: Did it involve your script only, or is there music too?
David: Yeah, music and new songs, and I directed it.

FFanzeen: I understand (comedian) David Street of Natasha’s [clothing store on St. Marks Place run by Natasha Adonzio during the 1970s-80s – RBF, 2015] is in it.

David: The thing isn’t finished yet so we don’t know who’s gonna be in it. But we have a lot of film on a lot of people.

FFanzeen: Have we seen the last of you, Syl Sylvain and Elliot Murphy as the French Ticklers?
David: I think so. You know what happened with that was we were just gonna play and it would be a normal night at Tramps with our friends there, and stuff like that. So they said, “OK, open up for this group called the Fabulous Thunderbirds,” and I never heard of them, so I figure who gives a shit? We got there and it turns out this is a very popular group and there was all these people there to see ‘em. And we came on and they didn’t want to see us at all. We had to do two sets, and we were breaking strings and fuckin’ up all the songs because we hardly even practiced.

FFanzeen: Rolling Stone got a hold of this and said it was great.
David: They probably weren’t there.

FFanzeen: Also, last year, you appeared on Garland Jeffrey’s Escape Artist.
David: I think I did. A lot of people tell me that.

FFanzeen: I think you’re on “Innocent,” the low voice saying, “We’ll let you go this time.”
David: Oh-oh-oh, it’s all coming back to me; that’s the one. (In a deep, judicial voice) 400 years for you!

FFanzeen: Have you known Garland a long time?
David: Well, he lives on my block.

FFanzeen: Your only release last year was “Flowers of the City” for the Times Square soundtrack.
David: That was the last one with the other guys. We did that one for Stigwood and he paid us handsomely for it, so I didn’t have to work for a few months. So I took that opportunity to –

FFanzeen: – Fuck around and hit the beach?
David: Yeah, I did that, but I also took that opportunity to write the songs.

FFanzeen: The most important thing you did last year was that you hooked up with Blondie Chaplin.
David: Yeah, well, we met in California at this place in Costa Mesa called the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s run by this cat named Jerry Roach, who’s a good friend of mine and he’s a good friend of Blondie’s, so he introduced the two of us and it was kind of like his idea. We got along really great and we just started working together.

FFanzeen: Let’s talk about Here Comes the Night. In the (New York) Daily News, you said that this album best captures you.
David: Well, I think it captures my spirit and my style. You know rockers is really what the people what from me and that’s what I think the album is, mostly.

FFanzeen: But on an overview, it seems like a lot of the songs are looking outward rather than drawing from personal episodes, like before. Like this time it seems you’re more storytelling than drawing out your own self.
David: What can you write unless it’s something you know about, really? I don’t write about nothing I haven’t experience or wouldn’t want to, you know what I mean? So, um, I don’t know what to say. I think that they’re similar; they’re just happier – you know what I mean? ‘Cause I’m a very happy person.

FFanzeen: It seems that way now. You had a lot of anger in your other two albums.
David: Well, I don’t know if it was anger. Maybe frustration.

FFanzeen: So, do you feel it’s not a conscious effort to be more universal, it’s just that you’re in a happier frame of mind these days?
David: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. A lot of people make a big deal about songwriters and songs and stuff like that; I just write a song because it feels good and it sounds, and stuff you know, basically. Lots of times I write a song at the last minute.

FFanzeen: Let’s get into some of the songs, starting with “She Loves Strangers.”
 Is there a little history behind it?
David: Not really; it’s just alike a hot kinda summer song, I think.

FFanzeen: I think “You Fool You” could be the hot summer song.
David: Yeah, You Fool You”; that’s kind of a preachy tune, right?

FFanzeen: Yeah, but a very truthful one. Now you’ve said “Party Tonight” is one of the only true life songs on the album.
David: Well, I think it’s a song that’s not really just about – well, I got pet themes, you know that, right? And one of them has always been like partying anyway, or in the face of adversity – you know what I mean? And that one falls into that category, I think. But it’s kinda like a real life song, don’t you think? ‘Cause lots of people on the street make cameo appearances in that song and, you know, you see a bum and you think about what’s going on with him or something, you know what I mean?

FFanzeen: I thought a direct connection is in “Marquesa de Sade,” that it echoes “Lonely Tenement” thematically. You know, episodes of oppressed city people.
David: Um, yeah. You like that song, hunh?

FFanzeen: It’s my favorite off this LP. And I was wondering if it wouldn’t be wrong to call this album by DJ and Blondie Chaplin rather than just by David Johansen?
David: Don’t let Blondie hear that!

FFanzeen: In these concerts, you’ve never been in better shape or voice. “How do you do it?”
David: Oh, a strict health regime; clean living.

FFanzeen: Will your stronger voice bring on more diverse changes?
David: Well, I think my voice had kind of found its range or been forced into its range, or whatever, by gunpoint or something. You know, it’s like it just comes from doing it, Al. You know, singin’ and singin’ and singin’, and then you don’t try to sing things you really can’t sing. Although I still do. I mean, like I can’t sing “Build Me UpButtercup,” but I always try, you know? I’m like a natural baritone it seems, but a lot of songs I try to hit like a tenor or a higher note, like on the higher parts of “Bohemian Love Pad,” or stuff like that. So it’s really good for me to try to sing high. I don’t want to always sing low because when you try to sing high, even though you can’t maybe hit it perfect or something, you eventually learn, so it’s good practice. Like singing “Buttercup” so many times gave me what it took to sing those high notes in “Bohemian Love Pad,” or whatever songs are high.

FFanzeen: Will this bring on any more surprises? Like for a while last year you were doing Joan Armatrading’s “Takin’ My Baby Uptown.” 
David: Yeah, “Bette Davis Eyes.”
FFanzeen: Really?!
David: Nah.

FFanzeen: How about “You Light Up My Life (as he’s done before)?
David: Patti Smith used to do that one. She used to tear the house down with it. [I’ve always preferred the Patti Smith version – RBF, 2015]
FFanzeen: Who’s the current band?
David: Tony Machine on drums; Jack Riggs, guitar; Brett Cartwright on bass; Tom Mandel on pian-y; and Blondie on guitar.

FFanzeen: Are they permanent? ‘Cause I know Tom’s gonna play with Ian Hunter this fall.
David: Otherwise it seems that way. But I don’t know; I can’t foresee the future, really.

FFanzeen: Speaking of appearances, did you know that you, Syl and Johnny Thunders [d. 1991 – RBF, 2015] were advertised to appear at the Peppermint Lounge on June 7?
David: No, I never knew that.

FFanzeen: WNYU announced it, and if you called the club, they’d tell you that David Johansen was gonna appear tonight. It was billed as a Dolls reunion/Thunders benefit. Did you know about this at all?
David: I heard there was going to be a benefit there, but I didn’t know they were advertising that as such. But anyway a lot of people showed up, so Johnny probably got bailed out then, right? So it’s a happy ending.

FFanzeen: How do you and Johnny get on these days?
David: I very rarely see him, really. From time to time I see him and we get on just fine.

FFanzeen: How do you react to some of his unkinder public statements about you?
David: Well, you know a lot of the things you read in the paper are kind of image type things. I mean contrary to popular belief, Elvis Costello is a nice guy, you know what I mean? And if people found out about that he’d be ruined. Well, he (Johnny Thunders) does a lot of things for effect or something, like show-biz or something.

FFanzeen: So you take him with a grain of salt?
David: I’m amused by it.

FFanzeen: Do you think he’ll ever fulfill his potential again? Because a lot of people always say Thunders could’ve been the bad boy rocker.
David: I think he could do anything he put his mind to.

FFanzeen: Which brings us ‘round to the inevitable: the New York Dolls. What do you think of today’s teens in Dolls t-shirts? ‘Cause these kids weren’t old enough to “be there” at all.
David: What do I think about that? I think it’s great, Al. I think when the Dolls were out, there was only a certain group of kids who really liked it, right? And over the years, they turned all their friends onto it and stuff, and the whole kind of what they call the New Wave trip, you know? So there’s a lot more people available to be involved in it these days, you know, who avail themselves to such musical tastes. Let’s put it that way.

FFanzeen: The world is ready for it now.
David: Yeah, there’s enough kids that are into it that are tired of – shit.

FFanzeen: And do you accept your role – yours personally as the “granddaddy of punk,” and the Dolls as the first, or “forerunners of punk”?
David: Do I accept my role as that. No, because I don’t like, accept roles. They fuckin’ hang you up, you know? They nail you up, and for the record, I’d like to say I accept the honor of having singlehandedly lessened the standard of an entire industry.

FFanzeen: Also for the record, were the Dolls punk, or an abstract glitter band?
David: When I was a kid, punk was like, the Seeds  and the Amboy Dukes. Love was kinda punky, but there were other punk bands. There were lots of ‘em; the Leaves. Remember all those bands? Lenny Kaye put a lot of ‘em on his Nuggets album. You know, like that kind of stuff was considered punk rock. Like Shadows of Knight singing “Gloria,” you know what I’m talking about? That was like punk rock and I could relate to that because it’s got that sort of garage trip to it.

FFanzeen: What kind of reflection is that on today’s scene that Dolls albums and buttons are moving faster than ever now?
David: Well, it’s like an art statement. You see someone with a Marilyn Monroe t-shirt or an Elvis t-shirt, it’s an aesthetic statement saying about, you know, I’m like this, we’re that way, or something like that.

FFanzeen: And where do you see rock heading now?
David: I have no idea; I don’t care where it goes. It can go to hell for all I care.

FFanzeen: Then what would you do?
David: I’d still play my music. You know it doesn’t concern me really; trends, you know. I think millions of things happen because there’s millions of people who like all different kinds of music and there’s so many people around that want to listen to music; they’re bound to have different ideas about it and there’s plenty of music for everybody.

FFanzeen: How’d you feel about interviewing Vin Scelsa on WNEW-FM the other night? He never gave you a chance to talk.
David: Yeah, well, he likes to talk. I let him do his thing.

FFanzeen: I thought he kinda cut you off a lot
David: Yeah, I caught you doing that before, so… (laughs)

FFanzeen: How’s DJ doing as a person these days?
David: Oh, just fine, thanks. You know, I’m really happy I’m working and stuff again, ‘cause for a couple of months I hadn’t worked, so that’s good for me. You know we went down to Florida to finish up the album and I didn’t really want to come back. But they finally came down and got me and brought me back. I didn’t really want to have to work every night, but now that I’m doing it, I’m enjoying it. All my anxieties were unnecessary.

FFanzeen: What was the fear involved?
David: You know – alarm clocks, contracts, phone calls. Stuff like that.

FFanzeen: How’s New York City doing?
David: How’s New York? It’s summer and it’s great. Everybody’s out and running ‘round like wild people. All night.

FFanzeen: There’s no more WLIB, though [WLIB-AM is now a gospel station – RBF, 2015].
David: Yeah, only on weekends now. That’s one of the most sad things. I think they got certain good people on that station, like Pablo Guzman. He did this description of Bob Marley’s funeral that was stirring. My hairs were standing up! I had goose bumps just from someone on the radio rappin’ about something. So that really moved me, but you can do that and still play music. That’s awful ‘cause I look forward to Sundays and, like, Haitian Day and stuff like that. Now it’s like they gotta play reggae on Sunday ‘cause they gotta worry ‘bout their numbers [ratings – ed., 1981]. But they should play music. It’s all news and information shit. It’s for the dogs. I mean, how much can you learn?

FFanzeen: Same syndrome on WPIX [WPIX-FM is now WFAN Sports Radio – RBF, 2015].
David: I guess that’s what the deal is.

FFanzeen: What music do you listen to at home?
David: I listen to the soundtrack from  Rockers a lot; that’s one of my favorites. And I got this tape of, like, rhythm and blues singers from 1952. They got Roy Brown [d. 1981 – RBF, 2015] on it and wild things like that. You ever hear a song called “Butcher Pete”? 

FFanzeen: No.
David: Well, we might do it. You’ll hear it if we do it, but I don’t know if we could do it ‘cause it’s really an outrageous song. I don’t know if people will get the right idea if I sing it. It’s a great song. It’s the most outrageous rock’n’roll song I ever heard anyway.
[Enter Blondie Chaplin]

FFanzeen: Does he know “Butcher Pete”?
David: Sure he knows it. Hey, Blondie, how about “Butcher Pete”?
Blondie Chaplin: He’s still hackin’, whackin’, and smackin’ his meat. (laughs)

FFanzeen: Have you seen the Four Tops now that that they’re back on the club circuit?
David: No, but I’d love to.

FFanzeen: Have you ever seen ‘em?
David: Not lately; ‘bout ’65 or ’66.

FFanzeen: I feel you bear many similarities to Levi Stubbs [d. 2008 – RBF, 2015] – vocally.
David: Well, Levi Stubbs and Gary U.S. Bonds were some of the first guys who made me want to sing. You know, I heard “Seven Day Weekendby Gary U.S. Bonds and I just wanted to sing after that, because I could sing like that and I finally found a singer that sang like me, in the same area of tone that I sing in, so it gave me some kind of –

FFanzeen: – Point of reference?
David: Yeah.

FFanzeen: How come you dropped almost all the songs from In Style from your show?
David: Well, we do “Wreckless [Crazy]” and “Melody.” What others do you think we should do?

FFanzeen: “She”? “In Style”? “Flamingo Road”?
David: “Flamingo Road”? No way!

FFanzeen: Yeah, well, you said you took that out of the show because it was too cold. Do you want to make it a more “upbeat” show?
David: Well, at the moment and by the time this magazine comes out, I may have a whole other thing going on. But at the moment, I’m just having fun doing the set I’m doing now. I wanna try new songs and see if people like them. We’re adding songs and dropping songs. I think as far as the old songs we do, I think they’re the favorites of the people.

Mick Jagger in his "Funky But Chic" tee in 1979
FFanzeen: Even in interviews and all, it seems like In Style is being pushed back like it doesn’t hold up with the rest of your catalog.
David: By who, the press or me?

FFanzeen: By you.
David: Well, what do I do when the first LP? “Frenchette,” “Funky [But Chic],” “Cool Metro” – “Girls” – so I do four from the first LP. Maybe I’ll do “She” for you the next time, but I don’t think I’ll do “In Style”; it’s too moody. I wanna rock, you know?

FFanzeen: Well, I always like you because you could balance rockers with a lot of moody pieces, too.
David: “Well, “Marquesa de Sade” is kinda moody, right? “Frenchette” is moody in the beginning. And we’re gonna do “Heart of Gold” [the latest LP’s closing confessional – AE, 1981], you know? I’m trying to learn Elliot’s (Murphy) harmonica solo; it’s difficult to me.

FFanzeen: Do you think you’ll ever lose the Jagger comparisons? For instance, even your recent Daily News write-up called you “Jaggeresque” in the headline.
David: I think he said that because he’s a virgin, you know what I mean? Like the first time someone’s ever seen me they usually say that, but then they don’t say it after that. I mean, it’s just kind of a chintzy way to describe somebody. Like to say he’s like Lee Marvin or Peter Noone, or he’s like David Eisenhower, because you haven’t got the vocabulary or the information to describe something originally. There’s certain similarities so he can say that, but it’s not saying much. It doesn’t describe much of me. Maybe a tenth of me.

FFanzeen: Did you know that in the Stones’ ’79 Toronto concert, Jagger wore a “Funky But Chic” t-shirt?
David: No, I didn’t know that. Maybe I heard it and I forgot.





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