Forget those other reviewers yammering about the New York Dolls’ new album Dancing Backwards in High Heels. I’m your man/fan. Why? A lot of them kids don’t get it, including the ones who like it. C’mon man, don’t even mention glam-rock or punk rock at this point. Unfortunately, those categories have ceased to help provide understanding. Instead, they short-circuit actual appreciation both of the Doll’s music and of its abiding place at the center of rock music over the last four decades.
I mean … they dressed like tarts compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd or whoever. Okay. That was fun. That was cool. But it somehow obscured the Dolls’ achievements after a point. Drawing together a diverse, exciting collection of inspirations (the Stones, the Who, girl group and doo-wop, the blues … yadda, yadda) the New York Dolls stamped it all with their own unique personality (no crisis, baby). And really, really – they pointed a direction for the blues influence in rock to go. Seriously, how many fake virtuoso guitar dullards masquerading as blues lovers did it take before the stoned dumb-asses at the festival-seating venues of the early Seventies woke up? Ah, never mind. The fact is that the Dolls’ version of Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (for example) had more genuine blues spirit than all the succeeding demi-generations of sterile blues copyists on blues labels like Blacktop and Alligator (the white dudes). There, I said it.
The New York Dolls are one of rock’s great treasures. Their influence is incalculable. Suffice to say that they are one of the few bands since the Sixties without whom the pop music landscape would look very, very different. And while their status as icons may not be as strong as those artists who built longer careers and bigger catalogs like the Beatles, Stones, or the Kinks (to name a few), the Dolls are in the elite company of artists like Big Star who left an enormous impact with two or three records (two in the Dolls’ case). Ask the Sex Pistols, the Clash or the Pretenders. Ask the Dead Boys or the Ramones. For that matter, ask Poison or Motley Crue – bands who by some truly strange twist of fate are on tour with the Dolls this summer (and believe me, some proprietary fans will have a field day with this tidbit).
The first act of the New York Dolls was enough to earn them a place in rock history; it should have gained them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now (maybe someday). But since 2004 the band has proven F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously argued that there were ‘no second acts in American life,’ wrong. Theirs has been a rather remarkable second act.
After years of declining such offers, in 2004 the surviving Dolls (David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and Arthur Kane) accepted a bid from Morrissey, a major fan, to appear at the 2004 London Meltdown Festival, which Mozzer was curating. Recruiting the Libertines’ Gary Powell on drums and an experienced New York guitar slinger named Steve Conte, the band tore it up at Meltdown. Arthur Kane’s sad, poetic passing just two weeks after Meltdown from leukemia embodied the tragedy that had always dogged the band (original drummer Billy Murcia, quintessential skin thumper Jerry Nolan, and guitarist Johnny Thunders had all passed prematurely – all to one degree or another victims of misadventure or self-abuse). But Syl and David were feeling it, and decided to persevere. Sami Yaffa, from the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks- and a life-long fan, replaced Kane. Brian Delaney, who had worked occasionally with Johansen, joined as a more permanent drummer
To make a long story short, they rocked, audiences loved them and the band had a good time. Thus was born New York Dolls 2G. Their first “comeback” album One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This was a slightly sobered up, but no less rousing reset of the band’s aesthetic. 2009’s Cause I Sez So, produced by Todd Rundgren who helmed the band’s 1973 debut, was a potpourri of scorching rockers, bluesy workouts, Dylanesque folk-rock, existential philosophy and a reggae-fied version of “Trash” (from their ’73 debut). While the Dolls had become grown men with some very hard won wisdom, musically the new sounds were clearly an extension of their classic Seventies sound. Steve Conte was his own man, but sonically he stepped into Johnny Thunders’ shoes.
For their new album Dancing Backwards in High Heels David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain still draw from many of the same inspirations they always have – Sixties hard rock, girl-group stylings, Brill Building song craft, blues and beat poesy, but the sound of the new record is a revelation. Imagine a New York Dolls record with reduced emphasis on fiery guitar interplay. Sylvain plays keyboards on as many songs as he does guitar. Guest guitarist, Frank Infante, who played with Blondie in their halcyon days, plays tasty, textured, bluesy lines. Both axe men keep distortion and aggression to a minimum. The band and producer Jason Hill (Louis XIV) have concocted a vocals forward mix - at once sludgy and detailed – it’s compressed, but not in the modern rock super-distorted upper mid-range sort of way; rather, it’s mixed to approximate the sound of hit singles from the 1960’s blasting out of a car radio.
It’s a sound aesthetic that somehow suits the material. It’s almost as if Dancing Backwards was conceived as the New York Dolls pre-history, epitomized by the band’s adoring cover “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” Johansen sings this quintessentially dramatic and brokenhearted chestnut with tenderness and an absolute absence of the campy qualities that characterized the audience’s perception of their treatment of such repertoire.
Sylvain, leaning on his Vox and Farfisa playing talents, is the real star of this record in many ways. His vocal arrangements, drenched in his love for doo-wop, betray a Beach Boys-like sophistication and musicality. The Dolls’ harmonies have always been, as Tina Turner once purred, “nice and rough.” Not so, here. Sylvain’s harmonies and background parts, sometimes supplemented by producer Hill and an occasional female chorus, are resplendently sophisticated, baby.
Johansen has spent a lifetime singing. I suppose his voice is still an acquired taste by the sterile standards of “American Idol.” It’s a voice of character – weathered and good humored, but on Dancing Backwards there’s no questioning his ability to get a song across. He’s never been afraid to engage his comedic edge; On “Fool For You Baby,” Johansen croons “gonna sing for you my foolish song …” and bargains “if the words come out wrong, at least it’s not long.” He may be in his seventh decade, but here he’s a grown up version of Frankie Lymon, goofily confessing his love. For “Streetcake” he moves from naiveté to street-wise braggadocio. While the guitars are not loud in the mix, Sylvain and Frank Infante lock into a churning dual-rhythm that propels the song. Dropping the names in rhyme of Pablo Casals, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, El Diablos, Tommy James and the Shondells, and yes – the New York Dolls (DJ has the history and the humor to pull of such self-referentiality), Johansen plays it like a Latin hustler wooing his gal with street-wise puns.
“I’m So Fabulous” is a caustic Johansen rant against the aliens with money who’ve invaded his beloved New York City. Syl and Frank blast horn-like lines on guitar, while an uncredited saxophonist (Jamie Toms … he’s the man with a sax elsewhere on DBIHH) blows r ‘n’ b with a surreal Andy McKay (Roxy Music) feel. Toms’ baritone part on the Motown influenced “Talk to Me Baby” harkens back to the days when bari-sax took on the parts that heavily distorted rhythm guitars assumed after the mid-Sixties.
“Kids Like You” is a sleepy shuffle; Johansen counsels “every formula for your salvation is actin’ on ya like a poison do.” He may be advising some young punks, but his words could just as easily be directed to the younger versions of himself, Syl and the original boys in the band. Here, as he often does, Johansen betrays the influence of E.M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who was a master of the brain-teasing aphorism. Syl’s Percy Sledge steeped organ sounds and Infante’s slide playing contribute to the soulful, languid feel of the track.
Producer Hill keeps “Round and Round She Goes” from becoming a clichéd old-school rocker. Parts phase in and out of the track, hip-hop style, as Jamie Toms blows some rockin’ tenor against Johansen’s vocal (equal parts Louis Prima, Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown). No philosophizing from DJ on this one; it’s just about a girl dancing (“backward in high heels” … as a matter of fact).
The Dolls have successfully negotiated balladry before. Heck, “Lonely Planet Boy” from their epochal debut even qualifies. And Cause I Sez So featured the Dylanesque folk-rocker “Better Than You.” But Johansen has never sounded more convincing in this idiom than he does on “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Its “Save the Last Dance for Me” rhythms blend with elements reminiscent of vintage-65 Stones or Van Morrison – the string arrangements especially recalling Van’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra period. The commiserative alienation of lines like “astray in the universe, as we would doubtless be astray anywhere” are reinforced by the boho-assertion of “writing poems that lash more fierce than the wind blowing the newspapers through the square.” While comedic flair serves Johansen well more often than not, here he plays it straight and soulful and hits the nail on the head.
The Dolls’ cover of “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” extends the irony-free zone.
Johansen loves the girl group sounds of the early Sixties. “Junkman” is a song with a long history, dating back to a 1946 hit version by the Basin Street Boys, up through the better-known versions by the Silhouettes, Starlets and the Blue Belles. The lyric is tough, but sentimental in an artful era-evoking way that Johansen has a fabulous feel for and it comes across in his singing.
The existential beat poet shtick of “Baby, Tell Me What I’m On” represents the one spot where DBIHH flags a little. Johansen’s Eric Burdon after a few bowls thing is a little thick. But even here little touches like the ropey guitar lines sustain interest. “Funky But Chic” represents a homecoming of sorts for David and Syl. It debuted on Johansen’s excellent, self-titled solo debut from 1978, but it was written by the Johansen-Sylvain team and initially conceived as a Dolls track. And at last it is. Funkier, less guitar heavy than the 1978 version, “Funky But Chic” 2011 still sounds a lot like the Johansen solo version. It’s a witty, danceable celebration of shabby chic, written before anyone even knew what that was.
“End of the Summer” ends the album, sustaining the deep New York vibe that dominates DBIHH. It reminds me of the Rascals, especially tracks like “Groovin.”
The sweet, lazy groove and Syl and Mara Hennessey’s (DJ’s gal pal) doo-wop vocals belie the darkness of the lyric – ‘Life here is murder, everywhere else is suicide.”
If you’re a fan of the Dolls’ music – really a fan, not just a fan of gender bending (not that there’s anything wrong with that) camp, not just blazing guitars (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – DBIHH will thrill you. Johansen and Sylvain are riding high as a songwriting team. Always a talented singer and arranger, Sylvain’s vocals, vocal arrangements, and keyboard parts are all over this music, even as his guitar work is subdued. Jason Hill’s contributions on bass are critically musical and supportive, and his deft hand in helping the Doll’s create a different kind of ensemble sound can’t be underestimated. After three studio albums in five years Brian Delaney is 100% New York Dolls. Delaney’s drumming has that element of swing that the band’s vision of rock requires. He plays with the empathy of a band mate and the breadth of a session man – exactly what the range of the Dolls repertoire needs.
And then there’s David Johansen. He’s the Georgie Jessel of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s Mick Jagger after Joe E. Brown. He’s Bessie Smith on St. Mark’s Place. He’s Tom Waits without the cultivated eccentricity. Okay, whatever – I’m having fun here. The deal is: He’s one helluva singer, a distinctive poetic voice, and a rock personality of the writ largest order. Celebrate the dude while you can; He smokes … a lot. And celebrate the ongoing second act in the life of a great rock ‘n’ roll band by checking out Dancing Backwards in High Heels.
And hey … I got through this without any personal tales or close encounter reminiscences. Ain’t I discreet?