Morrissey, back when he still went by the name Steven Morrissey and was years away from discovering veganism and ironic cardigans, wrote what is probably the definitive treatise on the New York Dolls. In his 1981 book, the long out-of-print The New York Dolls, the future Pope of Mope made the following observations about the band that made it O.K. for heterosexual punks to wear women’s clothing:
“Their unmatched vulgarity dichotomized feelings of extravagant devotion or vile detestation. It was impossible to look upon the Dolls as adequately midstream, just as it was impossible to ignore them… They served as a stark contrast to the tempo of the times with their ‘crude musicality’. They were transsexual junkies. They were downed out high school toughs posing as bisexual psychopaths. They were this, they were that. Their music was unfaltering gall faced garbage. The music industry hated them. Their record company hated them. The Dolls’ teen slop would slip under after 3 years of moving a lot and getting nowhere… The Dolls became a derelict monument to devastated teenage America…. And it was all harmless fun, being eagerly adopted by a considerably larger number of groups and cherry red lipstick became as symbolic of the early ’70s as goatees and leather sandals to the late ’60s. But the New York Dolls, to many people, just weren’t very funny. Theirs was a sinister sense of transvestitism…. They wanted as much as they could get and they wanted it NOW. But technically, the Dolls couldn’t really play very well…. They looked like haggard hookers from a 50’s B-movie.”
This, it should be noted, was written by somebody who actually liked their music. Adored it, in fact. But that’s what passed for musical veneration back in your father’s day. In 2011, music fans defend their favorite artists by attacking the competition’s Wikipedia page. Back then, in the pre-Internet stone age, fans showed their appreciation by spitting in their idols’ faces and lovingly insulting them in ‘zines. It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there— and admittedly, I wasn’t. But I have watched that Midnight Special performance of “Personality Crisis” on You Tube a few hundred times, and even from the safe distance of the Internet, I feel like I know exactly what Morrissey was talking about. It’s impossible to argue objectively about whether music has gotten better or worse in the last four decades, but you have to admit this much: There aren’t nearly as many bisexual junkie psychopaths making catchy tunes anymore.
I called David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, the singer and lead guitarist (respectively) and sole surviving members of the New York Dolls, to talk about their new album; the band’s fifth overall and their third since reuniting in 2004 at the behest of Morrissey, who (I can only assume) convinced them without once using the words “haggard” or “hookers.”
Eric Spitznagel: The new album is called Dancing Backward in High Heels. What’s your trick? You guys have been wearing high heels for awhile. How do you dance backwards in those things and not fall on your ass?
Sylvain Sylvain: Sometimes you do fall on your ass. That’s how you learn. It’s the hard knocks of show business. It’s like the first time you get booed off stage. You’re like, “Oh man, I don’t want to have that feeling ever again!”
David Johansen: There is a trick to it. We used to take our shoes to this shoemaker on 1st Avenue down in the East Village. He’d put a metal shank in the heels, and that’d make it street worthy. I used to do things in those shoes that they weren’t made to do, like running and stuff. You need more support for something like that.
And with a shank in your heel, you could really tear the hell out of somebody’s face with a roundhouse kick.
DJ: I suppose you could. I never really thought of that, but yeah, you could whack ‘em in the head and do some damage.
What are you wearing these days? How many inches?
DL: Um. (Long pause.)
It just occurred to me that “how many inches” could mean a few different things depending on the context.
DL: Which answer do you want?
Let’s stick with shoes.
DJ: I’ll go for a Cuban, but not much higher than that. I wouldn’t be very graceful, I don’t think.
What’s a Cuban?
DJ: A Cuban heel? I don’t know, maybe two inches or a inch and a half. It’s like something a flamenco dancer would wear.
Maybe I’ve just been looking at the wrong publicity photos, but the band doesn’t seem as overtly androgynous as it did back in the 70s. Is that by choice? Are you just like, “I’m too old for this shit?”
SS: It doesn’t change so much. It’s still a part of who we are.
DJ: I think I’m starting to look like Emma Goldman. (Laughs.)
SS: We were never the kind of people who went home after a show and took it off and hung it up in the closet. I still dress like that when I go to the supermarket.
Y0u’ve done this recently?
SS: Oh sure. I like anything with zebra prints on it. I’ll give you an example. Not too long ago, I was in the supermarket, and there was a mom pushing around her kid in a shopping cart. I’m wearing my bandana and this crazy getup, really loud stuff. I see the kid whisper something to his mom, and she comes over to me and says, “Will you say something to my son? He thinks you’re a real pirate.” So I went up and I’m like, “Arr, arr, arr! You better be a nice lass, mate, or I’ll make ya walk the gangplank!” I think I scared the pants off him, but he’ll grow up O.K..
Do you remember Glen or Glenda?
DJ: The Ed Wood film? Yeah, of course.
There was a scene where Bela Lugosi looks at the camera and says, “Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys. Beware! Beware!” Is that pretty much the reason you wear women’s clothing?
DJ: Um. (Long pause.) Because of the big green dragon?
SS: (Laughs.) That’s crazy!
DJ: Yeah, I guess so. That sounds about right.
What I mean is, it’s an easy way to be confrontational and freak people out. Before you even open your mouth, there’s a certain segment of the population that’s going to be upset by a man in women’s clothing.
DJ: Yeah, that’s true. But we weren’t trying to be confrontational. It’s just what was going on in the Lower East Side. We were representing our constituency. But when we started doing shows around the country, when we left St. Marks and Second, we were like, “What the hell is going on out here?” We’d been so cocooned by our bohemian paradise.
I’m sure you’ve been accosted by your fair share of rednecks.
DJ: Yeah, sure. But it normally wouldn’t progress into a violent thing. They’d see Lauren Bacall coming at them but then we’d start telling back at them with Humphrey Bogart’s voice. It would put them off their fight. They’d be like, “Maybe we shouldn’t mess with these things.” I suppose it would take a certain amount of courage to do what we did, but I didn’t really think of it as courage at the time. It was just, this is what I’m going to do and nobody’s going to tell me otherwise.
SS: A lot of the people coming to the shows were more outrageous than we were. They were showing off. The only ones who didn’t like us were cops. They never really appreciated our sense of humor.
DJ: I got arrested once on stage in Memphis for looking too much like Liza Minnelli.
That’s what they charged you with?
DJ: Well, no, they charged me with inciting a riot. But it was actually the police that had incited the riot. I’d toned down for this thing because I was expecting trouble. Before we showed up, there was an article in the newspaper about how we were basically coming to corrupt their children. The die was cast. We played with a police presence, which was kind of strange. The kids got up to dance and the cops started beating them. At one point I stopped the music and I explained to a policeman, and I’m probably using nicer language than I did at the time, I said, “That kid you’re beating on, what if he’s the mayor’s kid? You’ll be looking for work tomorrow.” That’s when they slapped the cuffs on me.
Let’s talk about New York during the 70s. Stories from that era tend to be romantically gritty and over the top. It’s always something like, “So I was living in an apartment over a peep booth theater run by a midget, and one day these mobsters showed up with a meat truck filled with uncut cocaine…”
SS: Yeah, yeah, that’s usually it. There’s a lot of nostalgic exaggeration about that time. But it was also much more dangerous than people remember. Back then, we got our asses kicked constantly. We had our first loft in SoHo, and some of our first musical experiences were there. But you took your life in your hand just walking through the neighborhood after 5 o’clock. If you were in Greenwich Village and you crossed Houston into SoHo, kids would come right up to you and beat the hell out of you, just because you had long hair or you were walking with a black guy or something. People say to me all the time, “Wasn’t it great back then?” No, it was not!
What about drugs? Some of the stories about the Dolls and drugs sound like something out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
DJ: It was kinda like that, sure. It’s really hard to say when you were right in the midst of it. You don’t know exactly what’s going on.
SS: We were the darlings of that moment. And when they put us in the Melody Maker, forget it. England went nuts for us. We went over there and got invited to all these parties, where it’d be like Rod Stewart and Sal Mineo and Liberace and a couple of the guys from the Who and all these models.
And every one of them high as hell?
SS: Oh yeah. They offered us everything. It definitely got a little decadent.
It might be easier to talk about which drugs you didn’t do. I’ll just start naming recreational drugs and you say yes or no, O.K.? LSD.
DJ: Oh sure.
DJ: Why not?
DJ: I was certainly no fan of them, but they were always around.
DJ: Plenty of times.
SS: Somebody told me that they’d read someplace, in some book, that when (New York Dolls drummer) Jerry Nolan died, may his soul rest in peace, that the rest of us all got together and rolled his ashes into a joint and smoked them. I mean please, that is just a bunch of bullshit.
What about heroin?
SS: Heroin was everywhere. And don’t forget, in New York at the time, a bag of heroin was cheaper than a joint. You could get a heroin bag that cost three dollars. That’s almost too good to pass up.
What am I missing? Mushrooms? Opium? Uppers, downers, mescaline, absinthe, amphetamines…?
DJ: People took what they took. They weren’t broken into different demographics; “You do this so you go there, and you do that so stay over there.” We were all in one big drug-fueled camp.
So it was like a drug goulash?
DJ: No, not that they’d take them all at once. It’s just that people, regardless of their drug tastes, would associate with each other.
SS: We were dared by these older bands. “Yeah, well we did this much.” And poor (New York Dolls guitarist) Johnny Thunders, being the schmuckie that he was, he took that literally. He said, “O.K.!” We turned him onto a joint, the next day he had a whole pound of marijuana. The poor guy, god bless his soul, we had a great time. But that’s why some of us are not here anymore. Because it was for real. One guy said to me — and I won’t mention who he is or what band he’s in, but it’s huge, and they wore makeup too — he said to me, “Man, I wanted to be as fucked up as (New York Dolls bassist) Arthur Kane was!” (Laughs.) What a schmuck!
Did you have a personal favorite intoxicant?
DJ: Gin is always good. And readily available. I could never wrap my mind around the idea of getting addicted to something that you can’t always dependably find. I observed too many people scrambling to maintain their sense of well-being on the road.
SS: I always enjoyed a little marijuana. And don’t forget, our first president, Mr. George Washington, grew marijuana. Go check out the history books. If he grew marijuana, why can’t Sylvain smoke a joint? I don’t know why. That’s what sucks about modern days. Our fathers could smoke but now we can’t. From my perspective, if it grows in the ground, it can’t be that bad for you.
Do you still light up occasionally?
SS: I can’t do it, man. These days, the wildest I get is maybe a glass of white wine. And then only if I’ve had a meal first.
Everybody says you get more conservative as you get older. Have you found that to be true?
DJ: In a lot of ways, yeah. You get saner. Not to say that I’m totally sane now, but I certainly take better care of myself. When you’re a kid, you have this feeling like you’re indestructible. Your mortality doesn’t even occur to you. But as time goes by, you realize, “I better cut this out or that out if I want to continue to exist.”
The Dolls are touring the U.S. with Mötley Crüe and Poison this summer for Glam-A-Geddon 25. Will it be a slightly less raucous affair for you guys than it was in the old days?
SS: Maybe. But the audience doesn’t want that. They don’t want the Dolls to come out and play like old geezers. They want a gladiator show. They want blood. But you’ve got to be smart about it. You can’t end up like that Looney Tunes cartoon where Daffy blows himself up.
You’re gonna have to explain what that is.
SS: You’ve never seen that one? Bugs Bunny comes onstage and he doesn’t do anything special, he just yawns, and the audience goes nuts. He gets a standing ovation. Then Daffy Duck comes out and he does a complete opera, from top to bottom, in C major. Nobody in the audience fucking does anything. In fact, they’re getting ready to boo him off the stage. Then Bugs Bunny comes back out, he scratches his left nut, and the audience goes wild. They think it’s absolute genius. Daffy is like, “I’m going to show them!” So he comes onstage and drinks ten gallons of gasoline and eats like fifty sticks of dynamite and all kinds of explosives. Then he lights a match and swallows it, and he blows up. It’s like the Fourth of July. The audience loses their mind. They’re finally giving him the standing ovation he’s always wanted. They love him and they want him back. But he’s dead and he’s floating up to heaven with the angels, and he says, “Yeah, it was a great act, but you can only do it once.”
Given how many of the Dolls have died from overdoses, that’s actually kind of poignant.
SS: I tried to tell that story to Johnny Thunders once, but I don’t think he heard me. That’s really how I see show business. You’ve got to give them an act, give them something they’ll remember. But don’t take it too far, because then they’ll put a tag on your toe and it’s over, baby.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)