I spoke with David Johansen as he was surrounded by devastation from Superstorm Sandy. “I’m doing good for being in a disaster area,” he said in his distinctive growl. He knows the City will make it. Johansen is a New Yorker through and through: resilient, creative, irreverent.
The frontman for The New York Dolls—one of the most quintessentially New York rock bands that has ever existed—strutted his way into the chaotic music scene of the ‘70s, and stuck around as an inventive and genre-defying solo artist. The Dolls dissolved after a handful of furious years, yet despite a decades-long hiatus the proto-punk/glam/dirty rockers are riding a resurgence in acclaim and popularity. In fact, the band (whose surviving original members include Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain) have released more albums since their 2005 reunion than they did during their early ’70s heyday.
In the face of historic hurricanes and ever-changing musical landscapes, Johansen remains an all-around hard-working, genre-bending, perma-touring musician. While the Dolls are on a break from touring, Johansen’s bringing a solo acoustic show to The Hamilton in Washington, DC on Monday, November 12th. He has a wry sense of humor about it all, and he talked to us about his career, his early influences, and why you won’t find him hanging out online.
You’re taking a break from touring with the Dolls and doing some solo club shows. Why did you decide to stay out on the road?
Oh, I’ve been doing it for a while when the Dolls are down. So, it’s just something I like to do. I like to sing.
And you have an opportunity to sing different songs than you do with the Dolls?
Yeah. Exactly. I do songs from my solo career, and I do songs from when I had the Harry Smiths. I do some other songs that are from neither here nor there. And some of the Dolls’, like, ballad-y kind of songs that we never do on stage. It’s gonna be a great show—I really enjoy doing it, and the audiences have been really great.
Do you miss doing that acoustic/folky-type thing like you did with the Harry Smiths?
You know, it’s hard to get everything that you acoustically want to do from one place, you know, so it’s kind of a good adjunct for me.
You toured constantly between the NY Dolls and Buster Poindexter days. Does being on the road give you a creative boost?
Well, yeah I guess it does. I’ve never really analyzed what it does. When you’re on the road, it’s kind of like a gypsy life, so you start perceiving things like a gypsy does.
How do you mean?
Well, you go around and tell people’s fortunes and stuff. [Laughs]
I guess that’s good for songwriting.
What inspired the Dolls’ reformation in 2004?
It just kinda, like, happened. It wasn’t a plan. Morrissey called us to do this show in London, and we decided to do it. We were going to stay a really nice hotel by the Ferris wheel [the London Eye] and play this show at the Royal Festival Hall, which is a great room. We decided to do that, and it sold out, so they made two shows, and then we thought, well, that was great! I can’t even remember what month it was, but it was just before the summer.
Then we started getting requests to start playing at all the festivals in England. We decided, well, let’s do this—it sounds like fun. And then it was just kind of like, let’s do this, let’s do whatever came up. After about a year, it dawned on us that this is what we were doing, so we decided to make a record. And then we were in it.
And you have more records in the last few years as the Dolls than you did initially.
Yeah, actually it’s been eight years since we started playing—in that time we’ve made three records.
Did you feel compelled to write records to avoid being seen as just a nostalgia act?
Yeah. Yeah. I wanted to absolutely have new material flowing into the act all the time; otherwise it gets really robotic, you know? You gotta keep it interesting and keep it fun, or else it’s like punching a clock, which is something that I’ve been avoiding all my life.
How do you feel about bands and artists who take the opposite approach—licensing their catalogs to be used for whatever and going on “hit parade” tours?
You mean like, for commercials and stuff? I don’t really know how that works. I guess somebody comes to them and says they wanna use a song for whatever reason, I guess. That’s when you make the decision. [Laughs] We don’t get a lot of people saying they want to use a New York Dolls song for selling something. They use our songs sometimes in movies.
Do you feel better about having your songs in movies than in commercials?
I never really gave it any thought because I never really got asked to if they could use a song to sell a car, so it never really got to the point where I thought about that. I remember one time I was really broke, and I used to do voice-overs for a while. I got a call to do—I think it was the Swiffer Sweeper, and I thought, well this is an ecological disaster [laughs]—this machine or whatever it is. But I really needed the money at the time, so I did it. It’s haunted me ever since, I must say, when I think of the landfills that are filled with these plastic things.
Yet you strike me as someone who will do what it takes to make whatever you want to happen… happen.
I pretty much like to do what I like to do, you know what I mean. I guess I need to do what I like to do, so as long as I’m doing what I like to do, I’m okay. When I’m doing something that I don’t like so much, I start thinking about something that I would like to do and kinda start doing that.
You’ve influenced so many different bands in so many genres—and for so many reasons. Because you had such a broad influence, I’m curious about what records in particular influenced you as you came to join the New York Dolls.
There’s so much stuff. I know when I was a kid, I liked old soul singers from the ‘60s like Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding—all that stuff. But I was also big on a lot of New York music. I was really impressed when I was a kid I went to this thing they used to have in New York called The Murray the K Show, which was kind of like this rock and roll show that would be put on twice a year at the Easter holiday and the Christmas holiday. They would have twenty acts just do one or two songs each. I saw Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels there, and I was very impressed by that—it made me really decide that’s what I wanted to do.
But there’s so much stuff that I’m influenced by, because everything goes into you as an artist. Everything kind of goes into your head, and it comes out the way it comes out.
All those influences really permeated your music, since you have bands as diverse as The Ramones and the Talking Heads citing you as a major influence. And then your dad was a tenor—did he sing opera while you were growing up?
He sang professionally or semi-professionally when he was young, before he had a family. But he always sang. The music that he liked to listen to was mostly classical music and opera and stuff like that. My mother liked more popular music. But I also had older brothers and sisters; I had an older brother that came up in the do-wop era, so I heard a lot of that music, which I really like.
That resonated the most with you?
At first—when I was six years old. I have an older sister and she liked Bob Dylan and The Beatles and all that stuff, so I heard a lot of that stuff. Music I kind of took for granted when I was a kid because I just assumed that if I thought about it was all there to listen to. But I can remember being a little kid in the car and hearing Fats Domino on the radio and being very affected in a positive way by it.
What gets you really excited about music today—if anything?
Where I’m at now is, like, a very much more… Well, I had more of a colloquial impression of music when I was younger. Now I have more of a world-centric view of music. A lot of music that I listen to singer-wise, for example, is really about voice. A lot of stuff I listen to isn’t in English. I get moved by people’s voices and how they let life through their voices and it comes out of their mouths—all the feelings and the whirlwind of life. I really like the guy Armando Garzon—his voice is really pure and beautiful. It doesn’t matter what kind of a voice it is. To me, it’s a person who’s really representing the profundity of life.
And you feel that most with vocalists?
Well, I listen to instrumental music as well. Sometimes I write instrumental music. I did a piece that was performed locally here by an orchestra—that was fun to do. I like all kinds of music, but I don’t like all music. There’s something in every genre that just grabs me. I’m out to look for things that I dig; I’m not one of those people who are like, “I don’t dig this, I don’t dig that.” Until I dig something, it kinda goes right through me, but if I dig something it just stops me in my tracks, and I want to know more about it.
Do you find that you still discover this music going to record stores, sifting through what’s there and seeing what catches your eye or catches your ear?
Yeah, sure—absolutely. It’s harder to do that as time goes by, as we all know. But it still gets to me somehow. I used to go into this record store in New York, and they would be playing all kinds of great stuff, and I’d be saying, “What’s that? What’s that?” It’s more difficult to do that now—there’s less record stores, and the record stores that are happening usually are kind of genre-specific, so you have to move around to different places.
But also I read about music… I don’t know how it is that I find music. I have a radio show [on Sirius—on The Loft —so I’m always looking for stuff for that. It’s not like, “Oh, I've got to go look for stuff.” But it’s just one of those things that comes out of my head. I have an ear for stuff, so as it comes along it can grab me.
Do you draw from new things that you find for your show, or is it more from your collection?
Oh, I think I draw from the history of recorded music. Sometimes I’ll play a song that’s from 1910 or something. Sometimes I’ll play a Burt Williams song or something, which is from the 19-teens.
Do you have a 78 player?
Nah. I don’t. It would be fun, but it’s just… I think when you become accustomed to the convenience to having music on your computer or having music on CDs or whatever… it’s kind of like when you had a dial-up phone and then you went to a touch-tone phone and you just really never wanted to go back because it saved you, probably, three years on your life!
But to have a 78 player to every once in a while be able to play 78s is really good. I know people who all they have are 78s, and they kind of live in a kind of anachronistic way, which is to me really fascinating. But I couldn't do it. It’s kind of nice to dip a toe in there once in a while.
It’s amazing to me that there are people who are so committed to something like that.
Yeah, they’re usually very eccentric people that do that.
I notice that you don’t have a whole lot of a presence online—is that on purpose?
You know, I’m always thinking that I should do that. I just have so many things that I’m doing that I never really get around to it. Perhaps I’ll do that. [Laughs] I’m like, not one of these people who’s like, oh-I-just-had-a-cappuccino-at-Starbucks-or-whatever kind of tweeting people. I find a lot of that ludicrous.
It’s a weird division of attention that goes on constantly that’s stressful, and it’s a relatively big obligation.
You’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. Is there ever a question that you get tired of answering?
Not that I can think of. I don’t really have a list of things that I’m tired of being asked until they come up, and then I think, “Okay, here we go.” There’s a lot of misinformation floating around, but I kind of find that amusing as well. I think if you’re familiar with Emil Cioran, who’s a kind of aphorism-writing philosopher… one of the things he was concerned with that was important to him was leaving an incomplete and confused picture of yourself. [Laughs] If that’s something to strive for, I’m doing it with ease.
David Johansen at The Hamilton Live
600 14th Street, N.W. | Washington, DC 20005
Date: Monday, November 12 | 7:30pm
Website: The Hamilton Live
David Johansen Photo © Joe Gaffney