David Johansen tries to right a ‘Sinking Ship’

PHOTO: SIKELIA PRODUCTIONS | Nearly 40 years ago, when an inept politician took control in Trinidad and Tobago after the first prime minister leader died suddenly, the calypso singer Gypsy recorded a call to action. Not only was “Sinking Ship” a hit, it preceded both the worst ever electoral defeat of George Chambers’ party in 1986 and the rise of Gypsy, also known as Winston Peters, to his own political career, as member of Parliament. Now, David Johansen, onetime lead singer of The New York Dolls and the Harry Smiths, as well as accomplished solo artist, has taken up the call for his own country.

Johansen, 70, has released his own version of “Sinking Ship,” needing to only tweak a few lyrics to have it apply to America’s political condition. “I’ve always liked the song,” Johansen told The Vinyl District over the phone recently. Having recently played it on his own wide-ranging Mansion of Fun radio show on Sirius XM, it struck him, he said. “I should sing this song and make it about the U.S.”

Out now on streaming services, “Sinking Ship” doesn’t have to provide a lot of background on its target. “He’s unhinged! He’s gonna kill us all!” he begins. “This is an S.O.S. from the U.S.A.” He substitutes Barack Obama for Trinidad’s Eric Williams as a beloved and competent former leader and adds just a few key details: “Locking children up in cages / Dog-whistling your racists / How low can we go?” The solution to righting the ship, as it was in Trinidad, is up to the citizenry. “It’s up to you, it’s up to me,” Johansen sings, as Gypsy once did.

And where there is a soundbite from a Trinidadian politician on the original, a couple of quotes from Trump appear in the new one from “You should ask China” to “It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle,” as the singer puts on a face mask.

“Sinking Ship” returns Johansen to the island sounds that fueled his biggest hit under the name Buster Poindexter, his 1987 cover of Arrow’s soca “Hot Hot Hot.” Calypso musicians are especially known for their topical songs, which helped fuel the independence movement in Trinidad and Tobago in the mid-1950s and later grew to comment on world events from artists such as Lord Kitchener to Mighty Sparrow.

“I always liked that music. And when I hear a good one, it sticks in my brain. There’s a lot of really good ones,” Johansen says. “Calypso is the way they used to tell the news essentially, so a lot of people keep up that tradition in the calypso world,” Johansen says. “They can deliver hard news or bad news with a fun arrangement.”

Johansen says he felt something needed to be said in the current fraught U.S. political season, “but not like a lot of people that make songs that are dire and dismal about the situation. It’s kind of like you’re bombarded with that kind of stuff on the news all the time. And this one kind of sneaks the message in there with a happy song.”

He had to make “Sinking Ship” by sidestepping another contemporary crisis, the global coronavirus pandemic. Guitarist and producer Brian Koonin created the main tracks, sent it over to Bill Holloman to add horns, and to Johansen for lead vocals. “Then Brian got his wife and daughter to sing backup, and my wife Mara [Hennessey] sang backups, and that’s pretty much what’s on there,” Johansen says.

To make the video he relied on his daughter Leah Victoria Hennessy, who fronts the band Hennessy. She shot him seaside after the effects of Hurricane Laura passed by. For his costume, he relied on a nautical blouse their friend, French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbaja, had given to Mara. “She had worn it maybe three times over the years, and I wore that shirt.”

Hennessey also borrowed the green screen she used to make the video for her new single “No Transformation,” with director and video artist Tony Oursler, to enhance the “Sinking Ship” video as well. “Leah had a vision of putting ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and some beautiful paintings in the background,” Johansen says. Popeye, Nosferatu, and a cartoon sax also pop up. “We had a bunch of ideas, and Leah put it all together and it came out as a really great video.”

Mixing desperate elements musically is what Johansen has done since growing up in Staten Island. “My father, before World War II, he was a singer and he did opera and light opera and things like that. After the war, he started having kids, and he had to get a job, but he was always singing around the house and playing records around the house. He would listen to the opera every Saturday on the big wooden radio,” he says.

“My older brothers had a lot of records and my older sister was into, like, Bob Dylan, when he came out. She went to see The Beatles at Carnegie Hall, that kind of stuff. So there was a lot of different music. My older brother was into a lot of doo-wop kinds of songs.”

Johansen’s first vinyl purchases were meant to expand the household variety. “I remember the first single I bought which was ‘Tail Dragger’ by Howlin’ Wolf,” he says. “I was 13 or 14 then I guess. Until then I had just been playing the records that were around the house, so I started buying. I think the first album I bought was a Lightnin’ Hopkins album because there really wasn’t that much blues in the house and I really liked that.”

His world music education came from the old Tower Records store near Lincoln Center. “There was a guy there who was in the world section, and he had like, really great records, and fantastic taste. I’d always walk through there and I would hear something and go, ‘Oh my god, what is that?’”

Maintaining his radio show Mansion of Fun on Sirius XM’s The Loft for 20 years helps keep him involved in music, he says. “I find that sometimes you can be in a lousy mood, you don’t want to do anything, then I have to put the show together, so I start listening to music and then two minutes into starting to listen to songs, I forget that I was in a lousy mood. So it’s really a good kind of mood lifter.”

Johansen still occasionally plays with the Harry Smiths, the roots and blues group that released two albums in 2000 and 2002. “We haven’t done it since the plague, but we had done one [gig] just before that.” He brought old-time music, too, to the influential but short lived New York Dolls in the 1970s, though it never sounded the same after they played it.

“The Dolls were more than the sum of their parts,” Johansen says. “I’d say, ‘I found this Sonny Boy Williamson song, or like, ‘Let’s do this Bo Diddley song,’ and they’d come out like a whole different genre than the original.” Few would guess from first listen that the rocking “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” or “Pills,” originated from Williamson or Bo Diddley, respectively. “It was good,” he says. “It was really authentic rock ’n’ roll music.”

Reuniting the Dolls in 2004 was supposed to be a one-time thing for a festival curated by Morrissey. “I was singing at that time in Hubert Sumlin’s band, and I was also singing with the Harry Smiths,” he says. “I thought, this will be really kind of refreshing, it will be fun. We did it, and it was a big success, so we just kind of kept doing it, and we did it for eight years or something.”

Not only did they last twice as long as the original outing, they also put out one three albums in the new incarnation, to the original’s two. “It was great, because we traveled all over the world, like, three times. We even went to China,” Johansen says. “It was very similar to what we were used to except the army was standing in front of the stage with really stern looks on their faces. When the kids got rambunctious, the army would walk through the crowd. It was crazy. But it was really interesting.”

There, politics invaded music, as it does on the new single, whose aim he says, is simple: “To depose our current leadership.” And though it doesn’t specifically say the word vote, it is clearly implied. “I say,” he says, starting to sing it: “‘It’s up to you, it’s up to me.’”

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