“When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V.” That’s Sylvain Sylvain introducing the revived New York Dolls at Irving Plaza April 30. I’m not expecting much. The band only has two surviving original members, Sylvain and lead singer David Johansen, and two of the dead, guitarist Johnny Thunders (OD, 1991) and drummer Jerry Nolan (disease, 1992), are absolutely irreplaceable.
I’m proven wrong from the first note. The new group has gelled as a real band, feeding off each other’s licks and energy instead of rotely reciting the oldies. And they’re obviously having fun playing to the hometown crowd. “Turn on the lights so I can get a look at ya,” Johansen calls out, and the illumination reveals a singing-along sea of middle-aged rockers in sparkly suit jackets, catwoman eye makeup, and some amazingly well-preserved Max’s Kansas City T-shirts.
This is fitting, because the Dolls were New York City’s first great populist rock ’n’ roll band. New York ruled in the doo-wop and girl-group eras, but it didn’t have much of a homegrown rock scene in the hippie epoch; the Velvet Underground are legends now, but they were an obscure art project then. Enter the Dolls circa 1972, a bunch of outer-borough burnouts who became the bridge between the rock-star glamour of the Rolling Stones and the subway-train grit of the Ramones.
The Dolls dressed in gender-bending flash and seasoned the Stones’ trashy white R&B with the MC5’s anarchic fury and the Shangri-Las’ tough-girl melodies. For the bridge-and-tunnel kids coming of age in the ruins of the ‘60s counterculture, at least the ones who craved music that rocked harder than hippies did and wasn’t the macho caricature of heavy metal, the Dolls were local heroes, capturing the apocalyptic hedonism of the time – “got to get some love before the planet is gone” – with raw power and brilliant songcrafting. Like the Sex Pistols, they recorded only about 15 originals, but an extraordinary proportion of those are classics.
Of course, the mainstream American rock audience’s reaction was, “Go back to New York, ya fuckin’ fags.” The Dolls broke up in 1975, around the time their second album hit the $1.99 bins. But they helped beget the whole world of punk, and tonight they sort of live on. They do almost all their originals, plus one new song and covers of “Piece of My Heart” and “Out in the Streets,” the Shangri-Las’ lament for a wild boy settled down – the perfect song for this crowd, this night. And Sylvain dedicates “Frankenstein” to George Bush, “the real monster.”
Earlier that night is an anarchist show on Houston Street. There’s no sound system, so everyone’s playing acoustic. Tom Morello from Audioslave drops in from his uptown gig for two songs, and we’re all clapping to his labor-union anthems. Later acts do acoustic punk and square-dance tunes.
It’s surprising how much the crusty punks embrace this. Until a few years ago, breaking out an acoustic guitar at a punk show was like wearing a “Gay Red Sox Fan” T-shirt to Yankee Stadium. I suspect this change has come in reaction to the near-total corporate colonization of rock ’n’ roll, the commodity fetishism of Les Pauls and Marshalls, the major-label usurpation of any significant outcropping of grass-roots rock culture. You don’t need a vanload of gear to play acoustic, and Clear Channel radio would never air anything so crude.