100 years of new york music

David Johansen of the New York Dolls on 1970s Loft Parties, Downtown Art, and His Malcolm McLaren Wardrobe

Influential American glam rock band the New York Dolls in their dressing room, 30th October 1972. Standing, left to right: Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders, Killer Kane and Sylvain Sylvain. Seated: singer David Johannson. (Photo by P. Felix/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Photo: P. Felix/Getty Images

As told to Jennifer Vineyard

We used to rehearse in this bicycle store up on the West Side, Columbus and 82nd. The guy used to rent bicycles in the summertime and then he would have a set of drums and a couple of amps, and we would go in and rehearse during the wintertime. There was a welfare hotel across the street, and we played their holiday show; that was our first performance. But then the Diplomat Hotel sounds right also. That might have been the first time we played. It’s hard to remember which came first. So much of the Dolls, it’s like, a crazy mishmash. We would start to play and make up songs. John would play a riff and I’d be like, “I’ve got some good words for that,” and then two hours later, we’ve got “Personality Crisis.” We played a couple of loft parties, but I can’t remember the chronological order of them. Somebody would have a loft, and we would end up with 50 people there and the police coming. I remember when we made our first record, we used to go to the studio, and we’d be walking down the street, and people would be like, “Where are you going?” “Oh, to make a record.” “Oh, can I come?” And then there would be all these people in the studio. It seemed that was always going on around us.

At the time, so much of the music that was popular at the Fillmore was kind of shoegazing. There were so many bands that didn’t do anything, they just stood there and played. So we had the idea to put the Little Richard jolt back into rock and roll. He wouldn’t just go out there in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, you know? We wanted to make a show out of it. I liked the Shangri-Las, the presentation that they had. It was fun. I was a big Howlin’ Wolf fan. I saw a great show of his at Max’s Kansas City. I was sitting like three feet away from him, and his head was the size of a watermelon. It was like he was breathing fire.

Anywhere we had that we could perform was important to us. You could play at the Fillmore or something, but if you didn’t have people for the Fillmore, where would you play? There used to be a scene on Macdougal Street and Bleecker Street. There used to be a lot of bands there when I was a little kid. They would have the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Blues Project, and all these bands playing, but then they made some Draconian cabaret laws, and the whole strip there kind of changed and got dark.

So when we came around, there was actually no place to play. We were kind of pioneers in a sense. We used to have to go into bars and convince people that they should have a band playing there. It wasn’t like now, when they have a PA and all this equipment. We would say, “If we come in here and play, you’ll get a lot of people in here and you’ll sell a lot of booze.” We started playing the Mercer, because they had this Arts Center. They would have a play in one room and a cabaret in another room and an experimental video room. The people who owned it needed to have stuff in there all the time, because it was quite an ambitious operation. I think when they built it, they didn’t think, “Okay, how are we going to keep this place humming, as far as content is concerned?” I remember they had one floor where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest used to play in one of the rooms, and then after, we would play a rock show. Once we started playing there, it opened it up to a lot of other bands. A lot of the bands that I saw at that time came in to play there. Suicide, I thought they were great. The Modern Lovers as well. We were all friends and we hung out together. Besides drinking beer and stuff, we would talk about art. There were a lot of people around, but there really was no place, no essential scene for everybody, you know? Nobody really articulated it, but we were trying to get something going. So when we started playing Mercer, that became the scene. We were this band that a lot of people, not just musicians, came to see. Artists, designers, filmmakers, all aspects of the arts that were going on downtown, came, and the show became a focal point for people. It wasn’t just about music per se. They were really having fun together, and all these relationships blossomed and all these creative enterprises began there. We were creating places to play, manifesting places to play. It became something for kids that was doable. Were they important shows? I guess. Every show is important. You can write all the music in the world, but if it just sits in a file cabinet, it’s not doing anybody any good.

I can’t remember what we told them at the Waldorf, what was going to transpire at the Halloween show, but it was kind of different than what actually transpired, you know? It was Halloween. I was friends with Wolfman Jack, who was doing a Top 40 AM-radio-type show in New York at the time. I would go and reach him toward the end of his show, and go on the air and kibbitz a little bit, and then afterward we might go out and have dinner. We really enjoyed each other. I told him about the Waldorf show and he decided he was going to broadcast his show from there. So besides all these art people coming to the Waldorf and dressing up in costumes, Wolfman Jack was broadcasting from the gig and telling people, “Come down here! It’s unbelievable!” in his Wolfman Jack voice. Thousands and thousands of people came. And of course, all of them couldn’t get in, so there was all kinds of pandemonium. It was a lot of fun. We had a costume contest, and we had a distinguished panel, judges like Rex Reed. Ridiculous prizes. A weekend for three at a lovely motel close to the Newark airport. There was a drag queen who was into dress design. He took the contest very seriously, and insisted that he won.

The Red Patent Leather shows, I don’t remember them minute by minute, but I have a snapshot of them in my head. We had a pretty good scene going there for a couple of days. A midnight show on Friday, two shows on Saturday, a matinee all-ages show on Sunday. Me and Sylvain had written a song called “Red Patent Leather” and we decided, let’s make red patent-leather clothes. They were actually vinyl, not patent leather, but we got on this red thing. [Laughs] We wanted everything to be red. I actually had made a big red flag with a hammer and sickle on it because we wanted to call it the Communist Party. I thought McCarthy was dead, but a lot of people were still spooked by him. Things have changed. Society and New York have changed. It might be hard to understand how something like that can spook people. It was hard for me at the time. That was when we had Malcolm McLaren making clothes for us. He was a fan of ours. I don’t want to tell tales out of school, but I think he was going through something with Vivienne Westwood, where she told him to go find himself and when he does, she said get lost! So he came to New York and he was hanging around us. Some people can sit around and spout ideas all day, and none of them come to fruition, but Malcolm was the kind of guy, like, “Okay, we’re going to do this.”

It wasn’t like we got together and then decided, “Oh, let’s do this.” The East Village at that time was a hotbed of avant-garde everything. The high heels were easy. There was a shoemaker on Second Avenue who used to take the heel off for us and put in a steel shank, and then put it back on so it was kind of indestructible. You could play basketball in them. We would put lipstick on when we were onstage. We didn’t really wear wigs. Maybe there was a picture of somebody in a wig once, so people thought we wore wigs, but we didn’t really. We didn’t think of it as drag. We were just trying to be what we thought somebody in a great rock band should look like.

*This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

David Johansen on Loft Parties and Downtown Art