The chameleon as a folkie


March 30, 2001



Costumes--David Johansen has worn a lot of them through a career that spans three decades and myriad musical styles.

There were the pumps and glam-rock frills of the New York Dolls, the sweaty new wave T-shirts of the late '70s solo albums, and of course the tuxedo and pompadour of Buster Poindexter. But accompanying them all has been the voice: one of the greatest and most soulful bullhorn croaks in the history of rock.

Last year, after a decade and a half in his Poindexter guise, Johansen once again released an album under his own name for Chesky Records. The self-titled disc collected classic back-porch blues and hardscrabble folk songs such as "Old Dog Blue," "Well, I've Been to Memphis" and "Oh Death," recorded live with a band named the Harry Smiths, in honor of the musical archivist.

Now the group is bringing its version of "The Basement Tapes" to the Old Town School of Folk Music on a bill with another of rock's most ebullient personalities, former Chicagoan Syd Straw. I spoke with Johansen from his home in New York City.

Q.How did this Harry Smiths album come about?


A. Allen Pepper owns the Bottom Line [in New York], and last year was the 30th anniversary. He asked me and several other chaps who play there often and have a history with them to do something different to commemorate the occasion. I had been doing this Latin excursion with the Poindexters and Brian Koonin, who's my partner in the music stuff. We must have listened to like a thousand CDs and gone all the way back to the earliest recorded Latin and Caribbean music. We put out the record [1997's "Spanish Rocket Ship"], and unfortunately it was on Island, and they closed like a week after it came out! But it was OK because the academic experience of doing that record was really good for me.

I started out singing blues songs as a kid, but you get to a point where if you hear another blues song, it will be too much. The whole time we were making that Latin record, I wouldn't listen to anything but Latin music. But after that was over, I started listening to my old CDs and records again--Blind Willie McTell and whatever. All of a sudden I started hearing them with new ears, because the whole Latin thing had refreshed my palate. When Allen called me to do something, that's what I was listening to, and I just knew instinctively that I was gonna do this kind of music.

We put together a band, Brian and I with Larry Saltzman, who is another guitarist I've worked with in the past. I told Brian I wanted to do this from a jazz head as opposed to some guy who's like, "Yeah, I know how to play blues," and then they just play it generically. That's what turns me off the most. The trick is to let each tune retain its personality--what makes them sound different. You have to be able to listen to a song and know what it's about and get inside it and deconstruct it and do all that kind of stuff instead of just attacking it without any thought.

Anyway, we did the show and it was a big success; it got a rave review in the New York Times and I figured, "Well, let's do this for a while." So we started doing it like once a month at the Bottom Line, making tapes off the board and sending them around to friends. Bob Dylan got hold of one, and he was really wacky for it and wanted to make a record for his label. I thought, "Wow, that's really great." I started dealing with his people and everything was cool until they brought it to Sony and Sony said, "We knew you were nuts, but now it's official!"

But it's all good. Norman Chesky called me like the next day and said, "I'm supposed to make a record with Olatunji next week, but he's sick and can't come in. Do you wanna make a record?" We went into this church in Chelsea with a huge ceiling and they just put a really nice mike there and make these great audiophile records. It came out and it has had this kind of slow buzz; people are just now discovering it.



Q. The problem is you never tour. I interviewed you circa "Spanish Rocket Ship" and you said you'd be coming to Chicago then, but you never did.


A. I like to be able to walk to work. Touring used to be the story of my life; there was a time when I was in the van with the Johansen band like 300 nights a year. But I'm gonna be coming out more. I'm in one of those in-between phases in my career; I don't know how far I'm gonna go with the Poindexter thing anymore.



Q. Any chance you'll make another rock album?


A. I may do one, but with this lineup I'm working with now. I haven't decided what I'm gonna do next. Norman wants to do another Harry Smiths record; I may do that and then make a record of original compositions. Brian and I have written a lot of really great songs to choose from.



Q. You're famous for being a voracious listener who can sing just about any song ever written. How do you differentiate between the Harry Smiths songs and the Buster Poindexter songs? Those would seem to be very different mind-sets.


A. Kind of, yeah. Buster is kind of like happy, ha-ha stuff, and the Harry Smith stuff is a bit more . . . what's the word I'm looking for? There's a lot more mortality to it. There's a gravity to the Harry Smith music. And I think I needed that in my artistic life, to kind of balance off what I had with the Buster stuff. This is not like an intellectual thing; the material is what does it to you. A lot of it has to do with being a good A & R person--if you pick a repertoire that's gonna take you there, you're gonna go there. I don't really plan out what I'm gonna do. It's less like being the engineer of a train than being a hobo that hitches a ride and sees where it's going.



Q. The New York Dolls were one of the bands that laid the groundwork for punk. This year, they were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they were passed over for induction. Do you care?


A. That whole music business thing--I don't really play that game. For me, what's wrong with popular music today is that it doesn't swing. The reason is that when you're making music for the love of the music and not really worrying about the results, then it's much more likely to swing, as opposed to putting together a band as if it's a corporation. You're either doing what you want or trying to give the people what they want. Whenever I've tried to give the people what I think they want, nobody's been happy. I haven't been happy, and the people couldn't care less. So a long time ago I just came to the conclusion that I have to do what I want to do, because then I'm free and I'm happy and I'm in the zone, so to speak.