“Life takes a lot of finesse,” David Johansen states wryly on “Maimed Happiness,” one of several laconic, worldly-wise tunes from the New York Dolls newest, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. It’s a fitting observation for a band attempting to pick up where it left off more than 30 years ago, having lost four members to the great beyond and facing up to a legend that grows more folkloric with each passing year.
Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, for his part, doesn’t feel as though he has to live up to anything. “I hate the word ‘comeback,’ ” Sylvain says by phone. “This is not a comeback or a reunion. This is an evolution of the New York Dolls, an evolution of rock ’n’ roll in the 21st century.”
Together, Sylvain and Johansen form the last remaining link to the original Dolls, who emerged, mascara-stained and lustful, from lower Manhattan in the nascent ’70s. Keyed by Johnny Thunders’ squalling stray-cat guitar sound and Johansen’s campy braggadocio, the Dolls fired what would prove to be among the earliest shots in the punk revolution.
“Before us, you had to be The Beatles to get a record contract,” says Sylvain. “You had to play the guitar like Jeff Beck, or else you had no reason to be on stage. And we kicked down those doors.”
But being pioneers came at a steep cost. Not only did the Dolls crash and burn within the span of two albums—neither of which registered on the commercial radar—but the memory of the flameout became burnished in the hearts and minds of fans as a glorious myth, creating a wealth of unrealistic expectations.
“The first thing I hear from everyone is, ‘I didn’t want to hear it, ’cause it couldn’t be as good as the old stuff,’ ” says Sylvain. “A lot of people thought we didn’t have it in us.”
Understandable reservations aside, the sheer forcefulness and vitality of the record’s all-new material may come as a shock upon the initial listen. In their heyday, the Dolls were a careening seat-of-the-pants (or in this case, tights) affair musically, and part of their thrill was the sense that the band might either explode or fall apart altogether.
The 21st century model is a sturdy, well-oiled machine in comparison, as exemplified by the album’s lead track, “We’re All in Love,” a bawdy declaration of fellowship that steamrolls with chunky riffs and rhythmic muscle. Though it treads dangerously close to a mechanical, all-too-professional territory, there’s a healthy layer of peculiarly Dolls-like sleaze that redeems it.
One of the new guys, ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa, gets a co-writing credit on that lead track. A quick scan of the liners reveals multiple credits for guitarist Steve Conte and one for keyboardist Brian Koonin, lending credence to the notion that the band is a collective effort and not just Johansen and Sylvain’s plaything.
“Everybody’s a contributor,” says Sylvain. “They’re real New York Dolls. And there is such a thing—you can walk down the street and say, ‘Hey, this chick, she’s a New York Doll.’ I told David, this guy Sami Yaffa, ‘He’s a New York Doll.’ There might have been guys that were even more talented, but that’s not it. This is not just about how fast or how great a musician you are.”
What is it about, then? On the surface, it might appear to be a shared affinity for eyeliner and trashy clothes, but dig deeper, and the group’s defining quality may be its singular dedication, however latent, to the wellspring of American music.
“We’re really a blues-based band,” Sylvain explains. “You take away the rouge à lèvres (French for lipstick, Sylvain helpfully points out), and what you got under there is the blues—three-chord progressions and improvised solos.”
If the blues still provides the solid foundation at the band’s heart, Johansen’s outsized personality still embodies its ragged, flamboyant spirit. His oddball verbosity provides comic relief, of course, but also cerebral balm.
“We like lots of intellect in our music,” Sylvain says. “In our lyrics, we really wanna say something. You can’t just stand up there and say, ‘You wanna party and dance all night long?’ ”
Johansen instead chooses a more idiosyncratic tack, exhorting listeners to dance like a monkey on the song of the same name. The track’s tribal, Bo Diddley rhythm lures the listener, but it’s Johansen’s brash wit that carries it home, as he cajoles a “pretty little creationist” to “shake [her] monkey hips.”
While he could never be accused of being a defeatist, there’s an overwhelming sense of positivity throughout Johansen’s new lyrics. Even so, it’s an outlook with one foot firmly planted in grim reality. Often, he sounds like a weathered old bluesman imparting hard-won wisdom to younger generations, marveling at the world’s “superfluous beauty” on one track, and confronting “subterfuge and Orwellian double-speak” in another. Johansen’s gutter-philosopher stance reaches its apotheosis on the endearingly anthemic “Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano,” as he exclaims, “Nature with its true voice / Cries out undissembled / Be as I am!”
This unbridled exuberance transfers to the stage. On the road, as part of Little Steven’s Underground Tour, the Dolls seem to be having a blast. “It’s a fun show, a real kick-ass rock ’n’ roll show,” Sylvain says. “If Murray the K were still alive and doing shows, it would be one of these.”
Of course, they’re not the same band they once were. 1973 is long gone. What we’re left with today is a wickedly smart, uncommonly effusive rock ’n’ roll band who still play music, not for (much) money or notoriety, or, God forbid, for the sake of nostalgia, but simply because it’s their lifeblood. “We’re doing it for the love,” Sylvain says. “If we didn’t do this, we couldn’t crap in the morning. We have to—we’re addicted.”
As for the live show, doubters can always stay home and listen to their scratchy vinyl copies of Too Much Too Soon. Admittedly not a bad way to spend an evening, but you may well be missing out on one particularly vibrant development in the evolution of 21st century rock ’n’ roll.