Real Vinyl History: The New York Dolls

Feature Tony Sokol
2/17/2016 at 9:11AM

Who was that band at the start of the first episode of Vinyl? That would be the New York Dolls...

HBO’s Vinyl began its first episode at a New York Dolls show where they blew the roof off the Mercer Arts Center. In reality, the band had an alibi. The New York Dolls didn’t always get away with things so easily.

Vinyl season 1 is set in New York City in 1973. Rock music was in the middle off an identity crisis and it gave bands like the Dolls a personality crisis. Rock was getting bloated and rollers thought it was getting a little pretentious. Genesis brought art and elaborate staging. Pink Floyd was teaching pigs to fly. Yes was electrifying chamber music. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake took mini tours during Carl Palmer’s drum solos. Jethro Tull made full albums out of single songs. The Rolling Stones pranced in front of an inflatable erection.

The New York Dolls - David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain, Billy Murcia, and Arthur Kane Jr. – kept the erection but deflated the egos. The Dolls “single handedly lowered the standards of an entire industry.” They came on like a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon wearing a rag-tag concoction of Thrift Store and Salvation Army toss offs.

The band had a glammed up look and pared down sound. They were funny. They were rude. They covered classic rock and roll hits like “Stranded in the Jungle” by The Cadets under a red communist flag. 

The New York Dolls won Best New Band and Worst New Band in Creem Magazine’s Readers Poll in 1973. Music aficionados complained that the New York Dolls couldn’t play. So what? Whoever said Bob Dylan could sing? Robert Christgau called them "the best hard-rock band since the Rolling Stones."

The New York Dolls predated punk and glam metal. They influenced rock groups like the Sex Pistols, Kiss, the Ramones, Guns N' Roses, and the Damned. When the Dolls started, Patti Smith did poetry readings before their shows. Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine caught the Dolls right before they formed the Neon Boys, which became Television.

The New York Dolls can be traced to the 1967 band The Pox, which included Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, who were friends since a schoolyard fight at Van Wyck Junior High in Jamaica, Queens. Sylvain crossed the Suez Canal from Cairo to be a New York Doll and the first words of English he learned were “fuck you.” Murcia came from Bogota, Colombia, not Jersey, and the two were finally able to finish sentences, according to the book Too Much Too Soon: The New York Dolls. They met Johnny Genzale at New Town High. The Italian bassist was thunder on a basketball court or a baseball diamond, but wound up being just a Jaywalker. Arthur Kane came down from the Bronx with a thick Irish accent.

The Pox were recorded by Harry Lookofsky, the same guy who produced “Walk Away Rene.” When the Pox broke up, the two friends got into fashion, opening Truth and Soul. Sylvain also worked at men’s boutique, A Different Drummer that was across the street a doll repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital. They also sold “keef,” which was really good hash. By the early seventies they were playing with Rick Rivets. Thunder rechristened himself after the hero of DC Comics' All-Star Western after he turned down the Volume. Thunders played lead guitar and sang for the band, called Actress during practice but named Dawn of the Dolls on an October 1971 rehearsal tape release.

David Johansen was living on East 6th Street when he got the call because he looked like a cross between Mick Jagger and French actress Simone Signoret. Johansen started singing in the late 1960s in the local Staten Island band the Vagabond Missionaries before hitting Café Wha with Fast Freddie and The Electric Japs. He was a stud on Main Street and maybe some other porn movies. David Jo looked 16 and bored shitless. Rick Rivets was replaced by Sylvain Sylvain and the bottom was held together by bass guitarist Arthur "Killer" Kane and drummer Billy Murcia.

Frustration and heartache is all you got.

The Bowery butterflies wore Spandex and platform boots at their debut first performance at homeless shelter The Endicott Hotel on Christmas Eve 1971. They caught the eye of Andy Warhol who helped them get a gig on Broadway, lower Broadway. Ex-Paramount Records exec Marty Thau saw a sign outside the Mercer Center advertising: “NEW YORK DOLLS: 2 SETS $3.” For six bucks he and his wife caught “five guys dressed as women in horrible makeup and jewelry" and became the band’s manager, arranging a residency at the Center.

Bands did New York City residencies at theaters in the early seventies. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played Wednesday afternoons at the Garrick Theater on Bleecker St. The Fugs played seven nights a week at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street. The Velvet Underground played around the block twice a night, five days a week at Max's Kansas City. The New York Dolls had a regular Tuesday-night gig in the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center.

The New York Dolls were plastic dolls with a fresh coat of paint and a Vietnamese baby on their mind. Who was gonna sit through the madness and still act quaint? They mixed drag queens with glam rock to lead an assault on what was happening on the radio. "Is it a crime for you to fall in love with Frankenstein?" asked David Johansen, who would go on to become Buster Poindexter before learning intricate blues guitar and go back to being David Jo. Johansen only wore a dress one time onstage at Club 82, though he rocked the Capri pant.

Mercer Arts Center kicked The New York Dolls out in 1972 because they wanted neither rock nor roll in the theaters. The center came crawling back after they saw the diminished bar tabs. The Center’s Blue Room theater also hosted the Modern Lovers and Suicide. Rod Stewart invited the Dolls to open for him at a London concert. The Mercer Arts Center was buried in the Grand Hotel collapse just after five p.m. on Friday August 9, 1973.

Well if you don't like it, go ahead, find yourself a saint. Billy Murcia would be dead of “misadventure” before the New York Dolls even signed a record contract. While on a brief tour of England in 1972, Murcia passed out from an accidental overdose at a party. He was put in a bathtub and force-fed coffee to bring him around but wound up choking on it, dying of asphyxiation. Murcia was found dead on the morning of November 6, 1972, at the age of 21, David Bowie, who proclaimed The New York Dolls as a major influence, immortalized Murcia when he sang “Billy Dolls and other friends of mine” in the song "Time" which opened side two of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane.

The Dolls were signed by Mercury Records' A&R man Paul Nelson. Their debut album was produced by Todd Rundgren. Stereo Review magazine said they sounded like lawnmowers. How she ever gonna love you when she can’t parlez vous your Francais? They topped from the bottom in Creem magazine and lit out for Europe, where Bob Harris called them “mock rock” on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test.

The New York Dolls’ second album, Too Much Too Soon, was produced by George "Shadow" Morton. He made his bones recording morbid motorcycle death hits like “Leader of the Pack” and “Out on the Street” for girl groups like the Shangri-Las and helping Janis Ian bridge the racial divide in “Society’s Child.” There's gonna be a showdown don't you worry. Mercury let them go shortly after the album also failed to do much on the charts.

Future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren managed to split the band up by 1975. He put the band in front of a communist flag for a 5-concert-five-borough tour of New York. Television opened for them. Their last show in New York State was at The Shoram, in Quogue, New York. Thunders and Nolan left while on tour in Florida in 1975. Blackie Lawless sat in on guitar for the rest of the Florida tour. The New York Dolls played at the Beacon Theater on New Year's Eve, 1975 and a follow-up show at Max's Kansas City. The group played its final shows in 1977.  

Sylvain formed The Criminals. Johansen got funky, but chic and by the late 1980s he rechristened himself Buster Poindexter for Saturday Night Live, kept it through Sunday morning, made some movies, had some laughs. Thunders and Nolan formed The Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell.

A rock n roll nurse went into my head. In 1991, Johnny Thunders died in New Orleans. It was originally believed he overdosed on heroin and methadone but it later came out that he had t-cell leukemia. Nolan died in 1992 following a stroke brought about by bacterial meningitis.

Early New York Dolls demo tapes were released on cassette as Lipstick Killers on ROIR Records in 1981. Sylvain formed The Criminals, cut a solo album for RCA and drove a cab. He recorded the album Sleep Baby Doll for Fishhead Records in the early 1990s.

The Smiths' Morrissey reunited Johansen, Sylvain and Kane for the Meltdown Festival in London in 2004. Morrissey's Attack label released a live album. A film called New York Doll came out and it looked like the Dolls would be back. But Arthur Kane died of leukemia on July 13, 2004.

All dressed up, I got nowhere to go. In November 2006, the Dolls headlined “Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents the Rolling Rock and Roll Show" about 20 times and the former new Dead End Kids played in Australia and New Zealand. On September 22, 2007, the Dolls were dropped by Roadrunner Records

The current lineup is David Johansen on vocals and harmonica; Sylvain Sylvain on guitar, bass and piano; Brian Delaney on drums, and Claton Pitcher on guitar and vocals.

A lot of the information for this article was unabashedly retrieved from the book Too Much Too Soon: The New York Dolls by Nina Antonia.

HBO’s Vinyl season 1 happens every Sunday at 9. 

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