Living Dolls

February 22, 2008


After playing their first gig at a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve 1971, the New York Dolls made two studio albums: a self-titled debut in 1973 and the prophetically titled "Too Much Too Soon" the following year, by which point they were well on their way to disbanding. But the influence of those sounds has loomed large ever since, echoing in much of the punk, glam and hair metal that followed.

After three decades of resisting the urge to reunite and show the world where Guns N' Roses went wrong, a new New York Dolls came together around the original group's only surviving members, singer David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain, once the Ron Wood to the late Johnny Thunders' twisted-transvestite Keith Richards. This group has been touring ever since it first took the stage in London at the Meltdown Festival in 2004 at the behest of superfan Morrissey -- who, ironically enough, has always scoffed at the notion of reuniting the Smiths -- and it released a new album, "One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This," in 2006.

I'm no fan of that disc: "A shameless exercise in cash-in nostalgia, this album is full of hollow, ersatz Dolls-like glam-rockers [that] draw on the familiar influences of '50s rock and Motown, but with guitarist Steve Conte doing a poor job of invoking Thunders' roar, and Johansen and Sylvain clearly only in it for the money," I wrote upon its release. Yet there's no denying that Johansen remains one of the most inspiring vocalists in rock history, and it is, was and always will be a kick to hear him tear through brilliant Dolls classics such as "Personality Crisis," "Trash" and "Pills."

We caught up in the midst of a tour that brings the Dolls back to Chicago on Saturday night.

Q. David, the last time we spoke was in 2001, when you performed with your blues project, the Harry Smiths, at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

A. Man, that was great!

Q. And back then, when I asked you about the idea of returning to the Dolls, you said, "You're either doing what you want or trying to give the people what they want." What was the impetus for the Dolls reunion, besides Morrissey being a major fan?

A. Well, you know what happened: It was really that Morrissey called and asked us if we wanted to do a show. I think he just called on the right day, when everybody was up for it. So we thought, "Let's go do this, and we'll have a lot of fun." And we went and we had a lot of fun. Then we started getting calls to do other shows, and we figured, "Well, let's do a couple more shows, what the heck?" Before you knew it, it was like a year later and we were still doing it, so we decided to make a record.

Q. How was it different making "One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This" compared to the ancient history of making the first two?

A. To tell you the truth, I don't really remember too much about making those first two. I remember that they had a lot of pretty lights on the [mixing] board! Basically, I went and I sang and that was it. I don't know if there was that much difference, really: We worked with Jack Douglas, who was the same guy who engineered the first record. I think we took three weeks on this one, but on the first one, we took a week.

Q. Do you ever feel like you have multiple personality disorder? I mean, there's the New York Dolls David, the David of the '80s solo albums, the Buster Poindexter David, the Harry Smiths David ...

A. Yeah, but you know, I'm kind of like all those things and none of those things! I don't know if I really identify myself by any those things.

Q. In any of those guises, is it still a kick to sing every night?

A. Well, that's the trip: That's what I dig doing -- singing. Being in a band like this is kind of cool, because everybody is doing their thing and you're not telling people what to play or anything. It's being a part of something, as opposed to having to take all the responsibility. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, or whatever that expression is.

Q. Will there be a second album from the Dolls' second go-round?

A. Yeah, we just made a record; I just saw a copy of it today for the first time. We did a live record in New York between Christmas and New Year's, and it's coming out already. ["Live at the Fillmore East" will get its official release this spring, but the band is already selling it at shows.] Somebody there thought it would be a good idea to do this, and we thought it's really probably a good thing to do right now, especially because we've got a tour going and all this.

Q. What about any of the other Davids? Any other plans outside the Dolls?

A. I haven't really had time to think about that too much because we're just kind of constantly doing this now. And I'm really just having too much fun.