Something Must Have Happened Over Manhattan: New York Dolls at 50

Music Features New York Dolls
Something Must Have Happened Over Manhattan: New York Dolls at 50

Once, my grandmother told me about taking the floral hat pin she kept tucked in her coat lapel to stab a man who tried to attack her on the subway. I found myself laughing when she told me that story, but not because the incident was funny. I’m sure it was terrifying to live through. It was the way she told it, injecting humor into the horror, hinting at something wry in a tale that could’ve had a very different ending. People like her are good at that: delivering light under the guise of something vicious, picking out glamor from the gutter and laughing as they leave a bloody train in their wake.

So much of the way I view the world and how I move through it has been shaped by people like my grandmother—people from New York City’s outer boroughs (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island), many of them immigrants or first-generation Americans with roots in countries you’ve never heard of. After my extended family, that worldview was only further widened by the families who lived next door when I went to school in The Bronx, friends who’d grown up in different parts of Brooklyn and Queens than my family had—all with completely different backgrounds, despite living just streets apart.

My grandmother probably wouldn’t recognize the Brooklyn neighborhood she grew up in if she returned now, but it still sings from every syllable that comes out of her mouth—an ever-deadpan delivery pushing into soft r’s and elongated vowels. You couldn’t not know. I’d always mourned the fact that the accent only came through when I said certain words. It made me feel rootless, like I wasn’t marked by our city like she was. When I hear it come out in my normal speech, I can’t help but lean into the vowels and savor the place they hail from.

The hatpin incident wasn’t the only one of its kind that she’d graced me with; most anecdotes about the house in Queens where she’d raised my dad could be a film in their own right. They usually involved someone with a name like John Genzale always losing their dog or fighting with the lady chain-smoking in a parking garage, or hitting someone else’s car with their own or accidentally setting themselves on fire at the YMCA. I’d be on the floor, curled up in agony from laughing so hard every time.

I find myself thinking about the real John Genzale–who later rechristened himself in a haggard Keith Richards’ image as Johnny Thunders–a lot. He was only a decade younger than my grandparents, and grew up fairly close to that house in Queens. He feels like someone I could’ve met at a party through them as an old neighborhood friend—a character, like so many people from their corner of the world are destined to be. He could’ve been the kid in one of those stories and they wouldn’t even know. Even if I have most of his musical output memorized, I guess I wouldn’t know now either.

In 1970, Johnny Thunders was recruited to play guitar in a band with some of his fellow Queens residents and junior high friends, like rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (whose family fled Egypt when he was a child) and drummer Billy Murcia (whose family did the same from Colombia). Through several incarnations of the band, Bronx native Arthur Kane and Staten Island’s David Johansen were eventually brought into the fold on bass and vocals, respectively. They named themselves New York Dolls after a toy hospital across the street from where Sylvain worked at the time. On an English tour in 1972, about a year into the band’s tenure, Murcia tragically drowned in a hotel bathtub during an accidental heroin overdose, leaving a space that Brooklyn’s Jerry Nolan was brought in to fill.

Though the band were at least a year off from recording their debut album by the time this classic lineup solidified, they’d already been performing a version of its centerpiece track, “Frankenstein”—which opens with the ominous warning that “something must’ve happened over Manhattan.” It conjures an image of the four outer boroughs towering like waves over the central island they surround, ready to descend and collapse over its cosmopolitan sheen. There’s an outsider element ingrained into people from those places, made to feel like the unwashed masses creeping at the gate. Any major crack in the concrete could send them spilling in, infesting the numbered avenues.

CREEM writer Robert Christgau tried to summarize this key (if somewhat oversimplified) point about the New York Dolls in his 1973 review of their debut album: “Almost all of the white people who raise children in Manhattan are at least moderately wealthy and arty; they bring up musicians like Janis Ian, Carly Simon, John Paul Hammond. Not the Dolls’ kind of people.” Sure, the Velvet Underground brought an element of that same tough outer borough sensibility, but ran it through an experimental filter. Yes, across the ocean, Roxy Music similarly played with retro kitsch, but they blended it with a superior sense of high-brow artiness. The Dolls had no such pretensions, keeping the sound at street level. If my family dressed up and went out on the town in search of respectability—or perhaps aspired to find that Manhattan sparkle—people like the Dolls countered them on a mission to sully it.

Any time the New York Dolls are brought up in conversation, music writers and historians are obligated to throw around the term “proto-punk.” They draw lines from the garage bands on the Nuggets compilation and the Rolling Stones to the Dolls on a chalkboard, School of Rock-style. Stones comparisons, in particular, are always rife when the Dolls are mentioned, but, by 1973, the Stones had already redefined rock hedonism on an infamous world tour—reshaping American blues in a half-cockney, half-faux-delta twang.

The New York Dolls, meanwhile, were hiding in basements that had yet to cave in (literally, in the case of their stomping grounds at The Mercer Arts Center), playing for both the downtown weirdos and the uptown elite. They were wasted, yes, but never elegantly. Outsiders even by the standards of where they’d come from, the Dolls dressed like death’s angels turning tricks on the corner in second-hand women’s clothes–the only suitable stagewear they could find cheap. They were beautifully trashy and obnoxiously New York, which killed their chances at the Stones’ level of commercial success from the jump–but that sense of “other” ensured their place in the hearts of kids lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them and feel just as weird. Arguably, the whole punk movement sprang from their specific brand of weirdness. That type of “other” transcends location.

While opening for the Faces in the U.K. in 1973, the New York Dolls made an infamous appearance on the BBC music show The Old Grey Whistle Test—which essentially cemented the debt that British alternative music would owe them up to the present day. “The Sex Pistols broke it,” John Holstrom, co-founder of Punk Magazine, told Jon Savage during an interview for Savage’s landmark book on British punk, England’s Dreaming—explaining why the burgeoning British musicians who watched the Dolls’ Whistle Test performance made the initial cultural impact they themselves couldn’t. “If something happens in New York, nobody pays any attention to it in America. America hates New York.”

In his own interview for the same book, Sylvain was able to describe the scene the New York Dolls built for themselves in the early 1970s East Village in a few key terms: “Art, rock, theater, drag queens, very flamboyant.” Johansen in particular was no stranger to campy, avant-garde performance, having shared a stage with the likes of Candy Darling in playwright Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. It’s also worth pointing out that the UK had already experienced glam rock and were primed for the whitewashed Bo Diddley riffs and British Invasion worship that Bowie or Bolan might’ve served up the year prior–this time with just a little bit more grime than glitter. Sylvain told Savage he “wasn’t worried about” people thinking the band’s members were gay, but admitted, “that’s why the Dolls never made it in America. You can be a lot of things. Today, maybe you can be gay, but you can’t be a communist. We certainly tried that too, but art takes all forms. I cannot stop doing what the government tells me to stop doing.”

After Nolan joined the band, the New York Dolls signed to Mercury Records and recruited prog-rock master Todd Rundgren to produce their debut record. Despite frequent miscommunications between the technically-proficient Rundgren and the less-than-virtuosic band, the whole album was recorded at the Record Plant in eight days in April 1973. Legend goes that the band were so bored with the process by the time mixing started that Rundgren attempted to ban them from the studio and finished the whole thing off in half a day.

Even now, 50 years on from its release, New York Dolls oozes with a sense of dread. Yes, there’s aggression, but there’s also an all-consuming anxiety as well—the feeling that invasion is imminent. The band are often the invaders, like on the aforementioned “Frankenstein,” a towering, propulsive shudder of a song that traces the path of outsiders swarming the city in search of excitement—only to find themselves still considered the freaks, still ostracized. While Johansen near-screeches “I’m gonna shout about it, bitch about it, scream about it, cry about it,” as that track reaches its fever pitch, he reverses roles completely on the prior track, “Lonely Planet Boy.” He coos along with a meandering saxophone line on an isolated, potentially obliterated city street. Even in its melancholy longing, there’s a disquiet to it—if he croons too loudly, the warped cymbals (which arrive near the track’s conclusion) will morph into an actual UFO and snatch him off the street. Even the invaders fear the outside invasion looming over otherwise straightforward tales of adolescent lust.

“Bad Girls” pulls a similar trick, introducing an apocalyptic bent halfway through a dumb, hot-blooded rush: “Gotta get some love before the planet is gone / One nuclear bomb, they’re gonna blow it all away / Come on, bad girl, give us some lovin’ today.” It crosses the line from absurd to funny, and the New York Dolls mean it that way. Perhaps these lyrical turns embedded into the thrill-seeking, riff-driven fun are at their most shocking when jolted by tangible things already devouring their outcast group of friends—notably drugs. “Looking For A Kiss,” for instance, seeks to earn your affection in a scene where “everyone’s going to your house to shoot up in your room.” During the band’s performance of the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Johansen stared straight down the barrel of the camera lens, clearly miming the jab a needle into his arm while delivering the line “I didn’t come here looking for no fix,” just in case any viewers weren’t already clear on what he meant.

If the true vanguards of glam up until this point had relied on the ethereal to get their teenage musings across, the New York Dolls sang and played with the certainty that, if the sky did fall, they’d be the first ones shoved under its weight. The party is just a distraction, they tell us even while they’re swinging their instruments around on stage. Even glitter in the street is just more garbage to be swept away with us. When David Johansen sings “Everything connects, and that ain’t nowhere” on “Vietnamese Baby,” he spits the line out like he’s been carrying the weight of a manifesto. Really, it’s hard to find another sequence that sums the band up so succinctly.

If you were looking for a more rollicking, longform summation of the band, though, you might find it in the album’s debut single and opening track, “Personality Crisis”. In Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s documentary from earlier this year, Personality Crisis: One Night Only—which showcases Johansen performing songs from throughout his career at the Café Carlyle—Johansen recounts The Ridiculous Theatre’s Charles Ludlam turning to him once and saying, “I’m having a personality crisis!” That exclamation birthed the most immediate pop statement of the the New York Dolls’ career, blending the story of a drug-fueled bender with a singalong chorus and verses peppered with delightfully silly interjections—all while the insistent bang of the piano keeps it rolling at a delirious pace. Its histrionics are all-consuming, but they never feel misplaced. In fact, it works in a New York lineage they slotted into perfectly.

This is where the New York Dolls’ true predecessors—the songwriters and performers of the Brill Building—come into play. First of all, it should be noted that the famous stable of songwriters that dominated the charts in the early 60s, all of whom worked from 1619 Broadway, were also white kids from the outer boroughs. Think Carole King, Neil Diamond and Phil Spector. Though he mostly grew up on Long Island, songwriter and producer George “Shadow” Morton holds a special place in the Dolls’ lore as well—as he went on to produce their often unfairly maligned second album, Too Much Too Soon, in 1974. The thought behind the choice doesn’t require too much digging; Morton had primarily worked with The Shangri-Las—perhaps the Dolls’ most obvious source of inspiration—during that golden era of New York pop during the decade prior.

The band’s most obvious tie to The Shangri-Las comes at the beginning of “Looking For A Kiss”: The opening call of “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V!” is cribbed directly from the Queens girl group’s 1965 single “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” a song that almost matches th New York Dolls’ attraction to the comically grotesque. Even Johansen would have trouble beating lead vocalist Mary Weiss’ delivery when she describes her crush: “Dirty fingernails / Oh boy, what a prize!”

The girls’ back catalog not only conveyed teen angst with the heart-wrenching drama it deserved, but gave said angst a literal body count across their mini-operas that masqueraded as pop songs—all of which were delivered in emotive voices that leaned into their vowels and softened their r’s. They, too, walked the line of absurdity and toughness, of tenderness and grit, all while introducing the highest stakes possible to often-maligned tales of girlhood. It has the New York Dolls written all over it, especially on the tracks where they elevated their own tales of love and loss in the city to similarly perilous heights–those topics are serious, their feelings should be taken seriously. You can almost picture The Shangri-Las gathered around the mic to sing the “Hush!” refrain on “Private World,” or yelling along to the smattering chorus of “Subway Train.” They were the type of girls who, when they first heard Mickey & Sylvia ask “How do you call your lover boy?” on “Love is Strange” in 1958, may very well have rebutted with “Trash!!!!” The last minute or so of the Dolls’ song with that title is the finest pop coda the Brill Building never wrote.

The girl group connection feels like the final key to understanding the tradition the New York Dolls were grounded in. Yes, these were boys who’d witnessed The Beatles’ arrival in New York during the girl groups’ peak, but in all of that footage taken by the Maysles brothers during that stop on their first US visit, there are girls so clearly from the outer boroughs–all teased hair and dark eye makeup, thick accents heard even in their screams, dressing and speaking the way those girl groups did on the national stage–everywhere. In the footage of the four twisting in the Peppermint Lounge, these girls match them step for step, just as charismatic when the camera turns their direction. Girls like them–just in their attitude, musical ability or interest was secondary–shaped the New York Dolls as much as The Beatles did, if not more. After all, who do the Dolls emulate more on the cover of the self-titled album? In whose image did these boys make themselves over?

After the release of their debut album, the New York Dolls went on to record Too Much Too Soon (a title which seemed engineered to be the set-up to many jokes made by music writers after the band’s demise) and provide Malcolm McLaren with a dry run for his time with the Sex Pistols by letting him manage them for brief period and slowly splinter apart by 1975—when Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan were the first to make their exit. Now, the lineup has almost fully succumbed to the New York Dolls curse that so many claimed their band had been born under: Johnny Thunders died of a heroin overdose in 1991, Jerry Nolan died of a stroke the following year, Arthur Kane died of leukemia he was diagnosed with only two hours before his death in 2004 and Sylvain Sylvain lost his battle with cancer in 2021.

Before the camera in Personality Crisis, lone Doll survivor David Johansen is asked whether he ever feared an early death, especially in light of bandmate Billy Murica’s death at 21. “No,” Johansen answers immediately in that accent I mourn, ever-deadpan with something wry in his voice that only comes through when you’re from where he’s from. “I never learned my lesson.”

In terms of making those city connections, it made perfect sense that Scorsese would jump at the chance to make a half-documentary, half-concert film marking the 50th anniversary of Johansen’s recording career, if only because their respective artistic output documents the seedy underbelly of the city they both grew up in. Yet, they captured it from opposite angles. Scorsese has famously painted many portraits of machismo and disaffection running rampant on Manhattan’s side streets, watching objectively as it all manifests in his characters’ demises. If Travis Bickle denounced what he viewed as the scum of the street, the New York Dolls were that scum’s runoff, clambering their way out of the sewers to antagonize people who made their disdain clear.

The New York Dolls’ work was a bombastic celebration of the people who are still viewed by many as outsiders, as existing on the margins—queer communities, immigrant communities, gender non-conformers of all kinds. It’s no coincidence that those groups made up a sizable chunk of the Dolls’ fervent New York audience while the band existed. They trafficked the world of “other” and worked at a grotesque level of camp that masqueraded as glamor, picking it apart and exaggerating its whims in their own efforts to ask why they couldn’t do the same. Their inherent otherness was their super power. They thought it could be yours, too.

Elise Soutar is a New York-born-and-based music and culture writer. You can find her on Twitter @moonagedemon.

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