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New York Dolls' David Johansen On The Need For Proper Balance of Optimism and Pessimism

David Johansen's career is the entertainment equivalent of a patchwork quilt.

The New York Dolls' first incarnation, after all, lasted just a few years. After dissolving that first time, Johansen recorded several solo albums, then began an acting career. (Remember the cabbie ghost of Christmas present in Scrooged? That's him.)  Also in the '80s, he recorded a few novelty songs as a lark, under the name Buster Poindexter. Much to everyone's surprise, the single "Hot Hot Hot" rocketed up the charts -- and it's continued to rake in revenue for Johansen ever since, thanks to placements in TV commercials for  everything ranging from all-inclusive resorts to fast-food restaurants.

In 2005, the guy who served as president of the Dolls' fan club in the '70s requested that the band get back together. Because that guy happened to be Morrissey, Johansen and Co. heeded his request and hit the road.

Upon the death of original bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane a year later, Johansen and the only other surviving original member, Sylvain Sylvain, stocked their band with the best session guys in the business and began recording new albums.

Their 2005 effort, We Will Remember This When We're Gone, was met with surprised reactions from critics. The band's released two more albums since, the most recent being 2010's Dancing Backward in High Heels, all to critical acclaim.

And, tonight, Johansen and his band will be in town, performing the kickoff date for their tour in support of Motley Crue and Poison. In advance of the show, we caught up with the lead Doll over the phone last week to talk the band's revival, their reach of influence and how they keep going.

A lot of people have expressed surprise over the quality of the Dolls' new releases since 2005, when you guys reunited. What was your initial reaction to their surprise?  Did you consider it insulting at all?
I don't know if I noticed that people were surprised. Sometimes, when our record comes out, I'll read some reviews, and it seems to me that some people like it and some people don't.  When we made records the first time around, it was the same thing, y'know? I think we developed. A lot of people were like, "Aw, I don't like this!" And then, two years later, they're going, "This is great!" People are like, "Why can't the new record be like the old record?" Well, when you heard the old record, you didn't like that one either! You hear what I'm saying?

Do you think it takes people a while to catch on to what you're doing?
I don't know if that's it or if it's that they wait for their friends say it's OK to like it. I don't know. I think probably we appeal to people who are kind of, like, artistically inclined. So, people who drive trucks are kind of like, "I don't know about this music, man!"

So it starts with the artists. But, pretty soon after, the truckers are listening to it, too.
It's just like when they have a bad neighborhood. They move a bunch of artists into it, and after a while, yuppies are living there.

Artistic gentrification, if you will.
Yeah, that's what it is. You can liken it to that.

Your song "Funky But Chic" is a direct homage to the '60s girl groups you've cited as influences in the past. There's a big movement going on right now that's influenced by that same stuff. What do you think about the stuff coming out right now that has the same influences as you did?
I don't know. What is it?  Tell me what it is.

Like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele -- they all have a lot of '60s influence with their sound, And then there's about a bajillion indie bands doing the same. And the soul revivalists...

I'm not that familiar with that. I listen to Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. And I listen to Chuck Jackson. They do that stuff too. It's all good. They say your musical taste is formed when you're fourteen or something, so...

Has yours evolved at all since you were fourteen?
Mine was formed after the music that was popular.

Is that what you still listen to? What's on your iPod right now?
I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to '60s music, but I also listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Gypsy music. African music. Spanish music. All kinds of music. I'm a digger -- I dig a lot of kinds of music. There's so much fantastic music on this planet. There's never even a chance to listen to one song from each genre.

A lot of artists have said that you are an influence on their sound. Is there anyone who's approached you and said, "You've had this huge impact on my career!" and you've been taken aback by it, wondering how you could have possibly influenced what they're doing?
Sometimes I can understand that. But the Dolls are a big package. You've got philosophy and music and fashion and art and whatever, so different people take different aspects of it and use it as inspiration. As an artist, that's what you really want to do, is be inspiring. It's very gratifying. You have bands like Motley Crue, for example, that say they were influenced by the Dolls. And the Clash will say that they were influenced by the Dolls. And then you have a guy like Morrissey, and you'll think, I don't hear any Dolls in his music. But, philosophically, he takes stuff from it. Motley Crue got the look, the Clash got the sound. Different people take different things from it. I like that.

What are your sage words of advice to kids trying to break into the business?
Stay off the stuff and you'll go far.

I know you've toured with metal bands before as a solo artist. How are the audiences different when playing with metal bands as opposed to headlining with the Dolls, or the times when you played festivals with acts such as Beck and Gnarls Barkley?
I think today's audience is really diversified. So, in other words, you could take the same person, and they'll be, like, "Yeah, I'm a metal fan." But they're also fans of other genres, and they'll go to other kinds of shows. I don't know if there's a metal fan mentality. But I feel like there's a lot of groovy music out there. People like a lot of different types of music.

You've stocked your band with Earl Slick, who played with David Bowie, and Kenny Aaronson, who played with Bob Dylan. How do you go about finding guys for a project like this? They've got some big shoes to fill.
Earl grew up in the same neighborhood that I grew up in, so we've known each other since we were kids. I hadn't seen him lately, but I do a radio show on Sirius Satellite, and the guy who works with me on that show said, "Y'know, I was talking to Earl the other day, and he said if you guys need a guitar player, he'd like to play with you." I thought that would be good, so I called him up. Kenny we've known since the band first started. He's been playing with a lot of great musicians.

You've said before in interviews that touring nowadays is like a military operation -- that you've got your days planned out minute by minute. Expand a little on that. What are your days like?
When I say something like that, it's really an exaggeration. We're pretty sloppy in a lot of ways, and it's a miracle that we get anything done, if you want to know the truth.

You spoke once in an interview about this Romanian philosopher who made you laugh. Emil Cioran. I was reading some of his stuff. The guy's a pretty major pessimist. Do you consider yourself an optimist?
I don't really consider myself an optimist or a pessimist. I have a really dark side, then I have a really bright side. I think that most people, you try and stay in the middle, and you don't wanna go all dark. It's really kind of hard to go all bright, because reality is always staring you in the face. So I kind of drift off in that middle line, from side to side, depending on my body chemistry, or what day of the month it is. All that stuff is beyond us -- we don't want to go around being all depressed, like everything is fucked up, even if it is. That's a terrible way to live. So we try to delude ourselves into thinking that stuff is fun.

Do you find touring fun?
Oh yeah. I do. I love playing music, I love singing. It's my favorite thing to do.

You guys were voted the best and worst new group of 1974...
What did I tell you before? It's the same thing.

That everything has an optimistic side and a pessimistic side?
Yeah. It's just like when people talk about the new record. Not many bands get that distinction, where they're actually voted. In Creem magazine, 5,000 kids voted us the best band of the year, and then 5,000 kids voted us as the worst band of the year in the same poll. That's, like, an honor, y'know? I don't know if that many people get that kind of distinction. It was quite amusing at the time.

The New York Dolls perform with Motley Crue and Poison tonight at Gexa Energy Pavilion

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Laura Mann

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