The wild bunch

Another triumph for the New York Dolls
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  October 30, 2006

061027_dolls_mian
LADS: The Dolls have always epitomized a belief in the power of camaraderie to face down adversity.

One of the lies I tell myself is that some day I’ll care about the Rolling Stones as much as I care about the New York Dolls. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Stones have made some of the greatest rock and roll of all time. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But this line, written by critic Simon Frith in 1979, sums it up for me: “The Stones are voluntary outcasts and their attitude towards other outcasts isn’t solidarity but curiosity and amusement.” And, Frith might have added, without an ounce of generosity.

The New York Dolls, by contrast, are natural outcasts who have always been generous enough to make themselves the butt of the joke even as they insisted on their own humanity (nowhere more than in their manifesto “Human Being”). In a tradition of what might be called lad rock, a tradition that would include the Faces and Rod Stewart’s first few solo albums, Big Star, and the Replacements, the Dolls have always epitomized a belief in the power of camaraderie to face down adversity. Hounded by disaster almost since their 1972 inception, breaking up after two albums failed to make them the national heroes they were in NYC, the Dolls have always managed to come back with an affirmation, even when their hearts were breaking, even when they were carrying on the spirit of the band in their solo work — notably “Donna,” from David Johansen’s first solo album; Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”; and “Formidable” (French pronunciation), from Sylvain Sylvain’s early-’80s gem Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops (RCA).

The band’s hard luck is notorious, and each blow has made fans love them ever more fiercely. The latest heartbreak came two years ago, after Morrissey convinced the three surviving members (Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders, and Jerry Nolan all having died) to reunite for a London performance. The album and the DVD of that performance put to rest the notion that this was about nostalgia. Johansen, Sylvain, and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane played as if they’d lived out the meaning of their songs since they’d last played together, as if the heartache they’d endured had made this triumph only sweeter, had given them only more authority to make music about the vagaries of fate. Plans for future performances were made. After returning to LA and his job at the Mormon Church’s Family Research Center (becoming a Mormon having saved him from becoming a drug casualty some years back), Arthur Kane was rushed to the hospital and died two hours after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 55. Johansen and Sylvain were left to soldier on with a band they’d assembled — a band who play Axis on November 20.

At the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Edmond O’Brien and Robert Ryan, having seen their outlaw comrades massacred and knowing their own days are numbered, ride off to whatever adventures they have left. “It ain’t like the old days,” says O’Brien, “but it’ll do.”

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