The key track is “Private World”.
Sans irony, and dispassion, the New York Dolls dreamed themselves up from the street, donning a sort of half-drag that said nothing and everything about them. Part of this was to carve a different look, a signature look — to be noticed. Another part of it was to have fun, which they were serious about.
Self-taught though they were, and technically short (even shorter than the Stooges) — still. They meant it. They weren’t just poseurs. A spirited eclecticism proved it. If they looked gay, well — they had balls1. I liken them to a gang of tart toughs, cut from The Warriors. And the look was but one piece — a gimmick, but in light of the band’s energy and commitment, a gimmick with heart.
From the look to the strut to the sound, the Dolls were their history. Durably disposable, they became the shortwave they grew up on: blues, doowop, girl-pop; the Stones. More to the mystique: they were misfits first and musicians second2. That helps explain the level of REAL. Their obsessions, their precocious, promiscuous prematurity, made them a cult band. Not only were they “in” too much too soon, they were out before anybody knew what to make of them.
What separate the Dolls from those who aped them are the REAL, and the imagination with which they reinvented themselves and the city they loved. Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the first Dolls album tricks the listener (the non-New Yorker?) into thinking it’s authentically New York. It is, but only as David Johansen re-imagines the city in a diary of doodles. His lyrics don’t hail from or subscribe to beautiful loser-dom. What’s more, the songs don’t prefigure the Dolls’ doom, not exactly — unless you spy a paradox (as I do). The depraved slice of life is decidedly bright. For an apt description of the Dolls’ debut, you could even string a sentence of the song titles. “Trashed on pills, the bad girls and lonely-planet jet boys, each one a personality crisis, ride the subway, looking for a kiss in a private world to call their own – a world in which they might make it with Frankenstein.”
The album stirs motes of dust. If it stands tall, I credit the milieu it creates, and the impact this had on a bunch of gobbers. The guitars (Syl and Johnny) rip-snort a firm backbeat (Arthur and Jerry). David pouts. He sneers and he sashays. The producer, Todd Rundgren, lets the band fight out the mix.
So, the Dolls did as they pleased. They took the moment. The legacy is a colored love of compression — a vested sense of novelty; a stray cat’s dream of canny crassness. Forget the punk urtext they crowd. Fuck the footnote parade of adjectives. Their style, their worldview, is distinctly their own.
Imagine you are a Doll. You wanna make it. You wanna be better than the songs and the bands you love. You don’t wanna be cult heroes. You wanna be stars — louder, smarter, and wilder than any other group going. You take it all to the breaking point. You know this is your moment and you know it won’t last, so… Make the most of it. Tomorrow’s gone, no-one cares. (Insert a Neil Young lyric.) You claim the bleeding sunset. And some people think you are the bleeding sunset: done up, done down, and just plain done.
Insert a Neil Young lyric.
1Remember, this was the early 70s.
2The Ramones did the same thing, but dressed down and played faster.