In the Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy (gimme a break, I was theater geek in high school, ok?), Miss Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessy Turra the Texas Twirler sing the show stopping “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” to coerce the virginal Louise to join their ranks as down and dirty strippers. They sing, “Get yourself a gimmick and you too can be be a star!” The New York Dolls, must have really related to Louise, who would later become legendary burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, because they, too, got a gimmick. And what a gimmick it was.
There is no getting around the New York Dolls proclivity for wearing women’s clothing. While cross dressing isn’t necessarily an original idea among pop stars (Bowie had been wearing dresses since the late ’60s and Little Richard donned more massacre than Tammy Faye long before that), the New York Dolls weren’t trying to be androgynous. While they may have looked fantastic in lipstick and platforms, they were still men underneath all the glamour. To this humble writer, they look downright uncomfortable on the cover for New York Dolls. They weren’t striving to be women, they were striving for something to make them stand out in a crowd, something to differentiate them from other bands forming at the time and even bands that had formed before that. But something that may only be understood in retrospect is that the Dolls didn’t really need a gimmick. They packed enough musical wallop to stand apart on their own.
While teenage angst wasn’t a new concept for rock `n’ roll, and it continues to remain one of its pillars, the Dolls wrote about a different kind of angst. Their angst wasn’t for the bobby soxers or the sweater vest wearers, but for the freaks, the kids who didn’t belong. The Dolls were a bunch of hard-partying junkies and their music reflected that. “Personality Crisis,” one of the band’s most recognizable songs, is about finding yourself in world where you have no place. “And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon / Change on into the wolf man howlin’ at the moon,” lead singer David Johansen spits. Like the angst that the Dolls made their own, they had the ability to take different forms of pop music and bastardize them to fit their particular taste. The Dolls are really an Americana band at heart. They gathered all forms of so-called low culture and took it even lower, giving it a singularly New York Dolls spin. Even their transvestite leanings were a tip of the hat to the theatricality of rock `n’ rollers of yore like Jerry Lee Lewis and
Elvis Presley. “Trash” boasts Beach Boys backing vocals and steals a line from pop song “Love is Strange” by Mickey and Sylvia. Hearing Johansen say “How do you call your lover boy?” steals Mickey’s eternal question to Sylvia away from the ’50s and throws it smack dab into the ’70s.
The Dolls mere existence essentially kickstarted the punk movement. “The Sex Pistols were influenced by the New York Dolls and aren’t ashamed to admit it,” Todd Rundgren, producer of New York Dolls (yeah, the same guy who wrote “Bang on the Drum all Day,” how crazy is that?) once said. But what separated the Dolls from their punk progeny was their incredible musical talent. Johnny Thunders remains one of the greatest guitarists to ever grace the punk scene and, while it would be frowned upon scant years later, he wasn’t afraid to indulge himself in a solo every now and again. Check out the guitar shredding that takes place on “Jet Boy” and is later showcased in his post-Dolls band, the Heartbreakers. But there’s an inherent sloppiness to Thunders’ style that gives the Dolls’ songs a rather shambolic feel. Johansen is a completely mesmerizing leader. His gruff voice has the adverse ability of making even the grimmest of topics sound like a good time, be it searching for a fix after a long night of turning tricks (“Looking for a Kiss”) or going inside the mind of a traumatized Vietnam vet who can’t take his mind off of a woman he left thousands of miles away (“Vietnamese Baby”). Drummer Jerry Nolan, bassist Arthur Kane, and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain keep the rhythm section deceptively simple, though, allowing throngs of kids to say, “Hey, I can do this!” and promptly form their own bands.
The New York Dolls were able to capture the spirit of New York City in the early ’70s and created history in the process. While they would later implode under the management of a pre-Sex Pistols Malcolm McClaren, the Dolls wrote what is arguably the most influential of the proto-punk albums. Gimmick or not, it must feel pretty cool to create a genre.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
The Stooges – The Stooges
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
The Sex Pistols – Nevermind the Bollocks, it’s the Sex Pistols