Life and Death with the New York Dolls
By Arthur Kane
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Arthur Kane
All rights reserved.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK
It was a beautiful balmy sunny afternoon in late August 1971. My friend Rick Rivetsand I had just spent the earlier part of the day bombing around New York City's Central Park clocking (keeping mental notes on) everyone's wares and wears alike as all good New Yorkers did, eye-balling each other for the latest fashions. Lots of people used to make the scene on Sundays in Central Park, providing a chance for Manhattanites to take a walk as well as strut their stuff for the world to behold, a veritable strolling peacock-plumage-display fashion show (for both males and females of the species). This was not your homogenized posh slick indoor videotaped couture-designer fashion-show royal catwalk extravaganza with the paparazzi having a field day taking pictures of famous celebrities in a plastic controlled environment. Oh no! This was live and comin' to get you in the flesh, in your face, and in the street where all great fashion originates.
Central Park had been the scene of many wonderful hippie events during the colorful sixties, including be-ins, love-ins, protest marches, antiwar rallies, political demonstrations, and rock-and-roll concerts. It was always a great place to go to check out all the nutty New York freaks hangin' out and doing their own things. I fondly recall it as a kind of merry mad parade celebration for all the happy citizens of Mayor Lindsay's then wonderful Fun City. Every Sunday was a bit like Easter, when one would wear one's finest and go for a stroll down Fifth Avenue.
There was always quite a show going on, if not several all at once, rather like an outdoor ten-ring circus. Stellar appearances by such infamous local glitterati like Roll-a-Rina were simply a must to behold. New York's very own roller-skating tooth fairy used to skate past shocked and amused people, all the while dispensing real glitter from her glitter wand full of tooth fairy blessings for all who were lucky enough to cross her path. She looked very much like a fifties cocktail waitress on LSD, only in a glittery outfit complete with those fifties Catwoman glitter sunglasses and, of course, her glitter skates. Everyone loved her dearly and many considered her Manhattan Island's secret treasure. Always a heartwarmingly delightful sight for sore eyes, she could chase yer blues away just by skating along. She was way beyond transcendental, man! Then there was the Cat Lady, with her own kitty train full of pussycat passengers, each sitting atop their own little tricycles that must have been welded together to form a series of cars for them to ride. We all loved her and her rolling trolley of little commuter cat people in transit throughout the park — her passenger pussycats on parade. There was also the much beloved Pegasus, the colorful and entertaining medieval clown minstrel singing songs and telling tales to kids of all ages (shades of Damon Runyon's stories of oddball Broadway denizens of another era such as the Lemondrop Kid). Sundays in the park mixed the many elements of Manhattan's most magical moments with a big chunk of age-old street theater.
The one-of-a-kind novelty characters who enjoyed being there also included the trendiest of the ultratrendoids — the New York Mods bedecked in the very latest British rock-and-roll fashion gear from an import clothing store on the Upper East Side appropriately named Granny Takes a Trip. If one spent enough money at Granny's, one could look like an authentic British rock star. What they were really selling was British glamour — authentic custom-made British cobra boots, star boots, checkerboard-square boots, and multicolored shoes — plus men's two-toned velvet suits. A shopping-spree store for rich rock and rollers. Wow, how wonderful for them, I thought. I was too young to be earning enough money to even consider getting something at Granny's. The cost of such items may have been way beyond my starving artist/musician's fiscal realm, but not beyond my dream realm. Being or even looking like a British rock star was the criterion of cool at the time, so I was questioning the possibility of creating a new and more stellar identity myself. I had a pair of eagle eyes for finding wonderful things in thrift shops. This had started when I was going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studying food science and hotel management. One afternoon I had discovered an entire series of thrift shops all with lots of great twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties exotic apparel. A whole line of them was under the tracks of the now extinct Myrtle Avenue el train. And the prices were actually within my neorealistic or loafers' union budget (no bread and no dough). Even now I get nostalgic pangs for the time I went on the very last ride of the Myrtle Avenue el with some college friends from Pratt before it was forever dismantled.
Well, all of us young New York Mods and Modettes would especially want to be seen at the Seventy-Second Street park entrance near Bethesda Fountain. People wearing colorful and interesting clothes against the drab grays of the cityscape made all the statues and stuff, everything that looked old and dirty, seem to look new and Mod-erne. This was the site of the true outdoor catwalk of street fashion, center stage for the mad Mod fashion parade. Usually some nutty people would be climbing all over the fountain in various states of dress and/or undress. And future rock-and-roll devotees would be traipsing about while posing and "Looking for a Kiss" — searching for someone to love, or for mass acceptance from the crowd of gawking bystanders.
Well, after spending a few hours as if on citizens' patrol watch, Rick and I hopped in our mutually owned hippie bus and headed downtown to the West Village to our favorite pizza place. After parking the bus wherever, we started walking toward our destination, and I noticed this odd couple of characters strangely and colorfully haberdashed in what can only be described as fashions from beyond the pale horizon standing in front of our favorite pizzeria. Well, I remember thinking, at least they know where to get a great slice of pizza. And this is information that every upstanding New Yorker should be required to know. Then I thought, Who knows? Maybe these two just look like they're from another world but are somehow very together. They were certainly dressed alike.
So I said to Rick, "Hey, there's that outer-space version of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. I'd sure love to know what that's all about. Where does he get those clothes that no other man would ever have the cojones to wear? I've seen him wearing styles and colors that simply can't be found in any men's stores that I know about. When I shop, I look everywhere imaginable, high and low, leaving no stone unturned. Men wearing skin-tight pink/purple/chartreuse velvet suits? How could this be? In black-and-white-and-shades-of-gray New York? And how come she's dressed like a Raggedy Ann puppet with round rouge cheeks and a huge shocking mop of red hair, wearing a totally camp fifties oversized pink polka-dot prom dress? Could these two be the legendary Puppet People of Planet Iarga?"
The male had a totally exaggerated comic-book over-the-top rock-and-roll rooster-cut shag hairdo. Roll over Cousin Itt, you've got some serious new competition in the hair department! His crowning glory was a mass of long jet-black hair, definitely a Keith Richards/Rod Stewart-inspired coiffure, only his version was much larger — probably beyond what many state and federal laws allowed. How wild looking could you get? The entire look was too much, too soon. This one-of-a-kind New York City character oozed charisma. And, since this chance to meet him might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I said to Rick, "You know, we've seen these two rock-and-roll oddballs everywhere we go. They were there with us checking out the Yardbirds when they played at Action House out on Long Island. We also saw them at the Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart) concert at the Fillmore East. And we've seen them eating snowballs (chocolate ice cream desserts) at Nobody's Café. I'm gonna go say hi and introduce myself and see what happens. Curiosity has gotten the best of me!"
Then Rick said to me, "Hey, I heard he's a bass player!" I started thinking, Hmmm ... if I'm gonna say hello, I'd better tell him that I'm a guitarist so we can at least have an excuse to jam. My only criteria was that he was indeed a real musician and not just a flaky posing non-player dressed in fabulous threads. I too was an aspiring bass player, but two bass players were too many, and I had only seconds to get my pitch together.
When we got a little closer, I brazenly marched up ahead and said, "Hey, I hear you play bass! Well, I play guitar! Wanna jam sometime?" That was as many words as I could muster for the occasion.
Much to my surprise, he politely said, "Yeah, OK ... sure!" And then, "I guess we should exchange phone numbers so we can get in touch, huh?"
I said, "Yeah, great!" And that's just how simple that intro was for us. Contact with alien life forms now confirmed as new reality.
Well, we were soon chatting on the phone about places we knew where we could rehearse. Happily, my new friend, John, said that he also had a friend (Billy Murcia) who would love to play drums with us. Unbelievably, that little tiny bit of initiative on my part got the proverbial ball rolling toward our mutual rock-and-roll dream fulfillment. Our collective future careers appeared to be destined to begin with team spirit. It all felt very natural, organic, and slightly preordained.
As if we were actors going to the first day of rehearsal for a play, we were coming together to flesh out our rock-and-roll dreams by pooling our collective talents. I was thrilled at the coming together of our new young heroic music friends and their refreshingly swashbuckling personal style. This core of characters (Johnny, Rick, Billy, and I) made up the nucleus of the future New York Dolls and the players on the Actress album. From day one, we were totally committed to our democratic solidarity and were heading for our prime destination — Superstardom or Bust! Our objective was most lucid — to co-create our futures by becoming the world's most outrageous rock-and-roll band of all time.
We had booked some time in a rehearsal studio in New York's Flower District in the West Thirties. It was a lazy golden fall afternoon in Manhattan when Rick and I arrived and parked somewhere. We found that the studio was on the ground floor and had street access. As I was about to go in, I heard someone playing a guitar riff that I myself didn't know how to play. It was raunchy, nasty, rough, raw, and untamed. I thought it was truly inspired — indeed, just what the doctor ordered. But I couldn't help thinking, Hey, I'm supposed to be playing guitar today! So what's the story? I decided to wait outside the door for just a few more moments — to just listen.
Well, to my amazement, wielding this oddly different-sounding garage-barrage of electric guitar sounds was my new music buddy Johnny. A little yellow bright-idea lightbulb started flashing in my head that seemed to signify that my next move was about to change everything. So I turned to him and said, "Hey, mind if I play that funky old Fender bass? Well, plug me in! I know exactly what to play to go with what you're now playing on guitar. Let's hear what it sounds like." And it sounded great to us. We had hit the nail on the head.
And so, Dolls and Dollettes, that's how the sound of the New York Dolls came together — just by trading instruments. My adventurous new pal Johnny had just earned his promotion to lead guitarist. He had a "singing sword" signature guitar sound that was purely his own invention. But evidently no one else he had played with would give him a chance to show people what he could do with a guitar — only me. His sound was rich and fat and beautiful, like a voice. And John was more than ready to make the great leap from lowly, lonely, unloved bass player to lovable rockin' lead guitarist and lead singer of the New York Dolls. Now I was the one left with the fabulous opportunity to become the lowly, lonely, unloved, and useless bass player.
At the time I hadn't fully understood just what the vote of confidence, musical promotion, and spirit boost really meant to John. I'm sure he didn't think about it right away either. But our swap was the way things were meant to be. He was more naturally suited (even down to the size and shape of his hands) to play guitar. Truthfully, I had only been brushing up on guitar hoping that it might help me get into a band sooner. I was very heavily infatuated with (and I still deeply love) playing electric bass (subsonically speaking). I also loved my solid role as anchorman and prime mover. It was my job to set the tempo of each song as well as the general pace of the show. So my worries about having too many bass players for one band had been resolved. I later found out that John, like me, played some rhythm guitar too. That basic guitar background greatly helped both of us adjust to our transitions. There seemed to be an invisible hand or guiding light overseeing our actions and making everything flow smoothly and feel correct. The pieces of the larger puzzle were falling into place well as if on cue. Years later, I've come to understand that the Spirit of Truth (also called the Holy Ghost) can be a great blessing to humble creative people. In fact, it helps facilitate group creative synergy. But it can only aid people under circumstances of unfeigned honesty. Truth begets larger truths. The Holy Spirit is especially helpful in creating things, but only if the spirit of fair play is alive and well. Lies and deceptions chase it away.
Of course, over the years since, no one has ever given me any credit for anything about the Dolls. But don't cry for me, Argentina. My giving John the freedom to play guitar unleashed upon the world a refreshingly daring gigantic new presence. Johnny Thunders created his own niche in rock-and-roll history with a combination of attitude, looks, and high musical personal style. He broke the mold completely. He was a real-life Buckaroo Bonzai, a rock-and-roll brain surgeon. Like that Kinks song about a cowboy hero — "Johnny Thunder lives on water, feeds on lightning." Johnny had a new melodic twist on the "chain-saw" rock guitar sound. He influenced punk, gnu wave, and alternative music for generations to come. He pioneered his very own Wall of Sound sonic vision. It may be a lot easier today to sound like Mr. Thunders with new computer-chip technology, but nobody before or since could conjure up his rock-and-roll liberty-or-death attitude. That uncompromising force will always be at the very heart of punk rock. Just about anyone who can learn to play one note on electric guitar and can write their own lyrics can say and play anything they'd like anywhere they want if they can pull it off (did anyone see Roseanne Barr fronting a "professional" punk band at the Viper Room?). That too is part of the Johnny Thunders legacy. Not that long ago (in 1999), standing outside the Whiskey a Go Go, I saw four Johnny clones in one rock band and thought, Hey, are these young guys taking over the planet or what? It was as if every rock guitarist in the world had been waiting for the day when someone would come along with enough sheer moxie to incorporate the use of sonic feedback and overtones into their music without relying on external "outboard" gear. Johnny didn't use fuzztones, wah-wah pedals, or other battery operated and generally unreliable plug-in devices to achieve his famous golden singing guitar tone. His pure and true sounds came from plugging old Gibson guitars (such as the Les Paul Jr.) into the newer and more modern amplifiers that were much more powerful than earlier rinky-dink equipment. Companies such as Marshall and Ampeg came along with superior high-volume amps for making more noise playing larger venues such as stadiums. John had discovered that certain old Gibson guitars really came alive when plugged into monsterific sized amps. Ask any electric guitarist what it's like to play a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp. Crunch-ability!
P.S. While reflecting on this subject a few years later and still writing this book, another piece of the puzzle came to me. I remembered that John and Janis had generously thanked me for agreeing to play the lowly bass guitar in favor of John's promotion to lead guitar. My thanks came in the form of a wonderful but totally unexpected gift that fit my persona perfectly: a beautiful brown-and-white tawny checkered Wild Wild West cowboy suit, circa 1880s. It had a brown leather trim collar and cuffs on the jacket plus leather trim on the pockets and belt loops of the double-pleated pants. Whoa, partner! For someone dying for true love, this suit was the very next best thing! I had a dark pink Edwardian tiered ruffle shirt with white lace trim (it took me six months to pay for it on hold in an antique store) that I used to call my Brian Jones Special. Wearing both these items together made me look and feel like a wealthy riverboat gambler on the ole Mississippi, and ready to go out and find true love in a local dive. I've always fancied that old-fashioned Joseph Smith and Brigham Young frock coat, high-collar lace shirt, britches-and-boots American West pioneer look. For years I wondered just why John and Janis would give me something so cool but not tell me what I had done to deserve it. But a little bird recently let me know that it was a wordless thank-you gift in recognition for my part in Johnny's promotion to lead guitar, lead singer, and rock god (and my subsequent demotion to unpaid deaf-mute backseat passenger). It took me a long time to figure that one out — it was a real riddle for me for years, kids. But better late than never. Puzzle solved, chapter closed. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I, doll by Arthur Kane. Copyright © 2009 Arthur Kane. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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