How does one capture the life of David Johansen, front man for the New York Dolls and later a solo artist? It's a massive feat best left to master storyteller Martin Scorsese, who finally turned his camera on the legendary downtown artist, adding him to the roster of other Scorsese subjects: The Band, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. At first glance, Johansen might seem unlikely to be included in that company, but he is an essential cultural and musical link to a long-gone time in New York City.
In the documentary Personality Crisis: One Night Only (2022), co-directed by David Tedeschi and now streaming on Showtime, Johansen receives the star treatment with exquisite film and sound quality to record his January 2020 residency at the Café Carlyle, marking Johansen's 70th birthday and his 50th year in show business. The last surviving New York Doll appeared as alter ego Buster Poindexter, sporting his trademark pompadour but singing the songs of David Johansen. Don't worry, "Hot Hot Hot" (1982) is not included in the set.
Scorsese weaves through live performances, anecdotes, archival footage, and interview segments by Johansen's stepdaughter, Leah Hennessey. The film traces Johansen's journey full circle, from growing up in an opera-loving household on Staten Island and playing in teen bands, to his early experiences in Manhattan’s East Village, to reuniting the remaining members of the New York Dolls at the behest of Morrissey for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London, and back to playing small rooms as a man in his spiritual and intellectual prime gained from a lifetime of experiences.
Whereas tourists might have seen drugs, crime, and danger in the East Village of the late 1960s, young Johansen emerged during one of the most fertile periods in downtown New York: he worked in avant-garde theatre at the Mercer Arts Center, hung out at the Chelsea Hotel, gleaning knowledge from the older residents, knew activist Abbie Hoffman, and participated in Play-House of the Ridiculous. Those credits would give anyone eternal bragging rights, but at age 21 Johansen joined the New York Dolls in 1971 to push cultural, visual, and musical boundaries far beyond their solemnly artsy counterparts in the Velvet Underground.
When the New York Dolls hit the scene, their sound was the antithesis of Beatlemania, the singer-songwriters of Laurel Canyon, psychedelic San Francisco, and British art rock. The Dolls were a glam street gang more like the MC5, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper than Roxy Music, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie. And they had the influence of Andy Warhol's Factory across Union Square Park from Max's Kansas City, where the Dolls hobnobbed with artists and scene makers. Johansen was at the center of everything with Factory starlets Holly Woodlawn, Ingrid Superstar, and Penny Arcade.
Unfortunately, all of this is relegated to 1970s musical lore. Few of us have had the opportunity to see the original New York Dolls perform except on television programs such as The Midnight Special, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, Germany's Der Musikladen, and the UK's The Old Grey Whistle Test. Their radical fashion, moves, and music must have been like seeing rock and roll for the first time. The Dolls' daring fabulousness was evident on the cover of their debut self-titled 1973 album produced by Todd Rundgren, featuring the band resplendent in make-up, coiffed hair, and women's clothes – which reminds us that gender-fluid imagery is common in the 21st century, but men wearing women's clothing in public back then might have been grounds for arrest. Furthermore, mainstream hard rock fans might have hesitated to admit liking the Dolls, let alone buy their records.
The follow-up album was Too Much Too Soon (1974), produced by Shadow Morton of the Shangri-Las fame. Their sophomore offering was a unique collection of covers and demos, but neither record was a smash hit. The band was already coming apart at the seams because of drugs and alcohol well before the band played their last gig at Max's Kansas City in 1977. However, the Dolls’ and Johansen’s legacies were set in stone. Often credited with being among the proto-punks who inspired countless fledgling musicians from punk to metal in the US and UK, the Dolls’ music, attitude, and stagecraft continue to make an impact on anyone hearing and seeing them for the first time.
Johnny Thunders (1952 – 1991) and Jerry Nolan (1946 – 1992) went on to form The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell of Television (among others), Sylvain Sylvain (1951 – 2021) had a lifetime collaborative relationship with Johansen, and Arthur Kane (1949 – 2004) moved to Los Angeles and eventually ended up pawning his guitars as he collected a meager salary working for the Church of Latter-day Saints. Johansen formed another band and took side steps as Buster Poindexter, a jazzy/bluesy lounge lizard working clubs such as Tramps, the Bottom Line, The Cutting Room, and even Kutcher's, the famous 1980s Borscht Belt resort in the Catskills.
Throughout his career, Johansen recorded six solo albums, four as his alter ego Buster Poindexter, and two as David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, an ode to Harry Everett Smith, a musicologist living at the Chelsea Hotel who compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music from old 78RPM records. 50 years after the release of the Dolls' first album, Johansen is the last remaining member.
He is also one of the last remnants of the Warhol-era and of places that only exist in downtown mythology like Gem Spa, a newspaper stand on St. Marks Place known for its egg creams; the notorious Hell's Angels' clubhouse on Third Street; Matchless Gifts on Second Avenue, a curio shop which eventually became the Hare Krishna headquarters; and naturally Max's Kansas City, a Mecca for artists that far surpassed the musical palate of CBGB.
Scorsese's film is thoroughly engaging because of its non-sensational honesty, as Johansen is an apt raconteur, and his group, the Boys in the Band gives his road-worn robust voice ample space to express the sentiments of an older man finding new meaning in his work. But that doesn’t mean Johansen is an old codger. He still delivers the Dolls’ signature hit, “Personality Crisis” with all the robust energy and panache of his youth. The film’s theme is perfectly encapsulated by none other than Penny Arcade, seated at a table with Debbie Harry: "We have fulfilled the premise of becoming." A poignant observation that it takes a long time to grow into yourself – that's if you survive.
There are no scheduled dates for the next residency at the Café Carlyle. Still, you can catch David Johansen on his Mansion Of Fun show on SiriusXM where he shares his profound musical knowledge. If you can't get enough New York Dolls documentaries, check your streaming services for New York Dolls – All Dolled Up (2005) by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen, Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders (2014) by Danny Garcia, and in-depth film about Arthur Kane entitled New York Doll (2005) by Greg Whiteley.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Montecruz Foto.