I had free HBO weekend recently and managed to catch the first, Martin Scorsese-directed episode of “Vinyl,” a miniseries about a record company executive in the early 70’s. Didn’t do much for me, too many cliches and especially too many Martin-Scorsese-cliches (did we really need a brutal murder?), but I was pleased that the episode’s hallucinatory epiphany scene (did we really need it to be hallucinatory?) takes place at a New York Dolls concert, with a young actor who looked remarkably like David Johansen strutting onstage lipsyncing “Personality Crisis,” which I hadn’t heard in a while.
My first college roommate was a big New York Dolls fan, and it was on his very expensive turntable I first heard that song. I was intrigued, by the racket and how funny that “looking fine on television” aside was. I would have listened more but my roommate decided after a couple of weeks that maybe it would be better if I didn’t use his expensive stereo or touch his records and by mid-semester he wasn’t my roommate anymore. But based on my brief exposure and a Paul Nelson-written rave review in Rolling Stone I bought David’s first solo album and fell in love. It was sarcastic and in your face and by turns open-/broken-hearted, all things I wanted to be, and sounded in I think Paul’s phrase like the best record the Rolling Stones never made. Ah: “Cool Metro.” Ah: “Frenchette.”
That summer I drove 45 minutes by myself to see David at some hole-in-wall club, a great show with an enthusiastic crowd. Before it began David walked into the bathroom and took a spot at the urinal next to me, giving a lots-of-teeth grin at my doubletake. My brush with celebrity!
The second solo album was not quite as good but did have “Melody” and “Flamingo Road” and then Wikipedia tells me that David went on to make three more solo albums but I missed these entirely. I bought the first Buster Poindexter album (David’s lounge lizard, jump-blues alter ego) and didn’t play it much but did go to see David do his Poindexter shtick live twice and both times were terrific fun. I have fond memories of David/Buster leading the audience in “12 Days of Christmas,” forcing us to redo “five golden rings” until we’d invested it was the passion and theatrics he desired.
Speaking of Christmas, David shows up for a funny cameo in “Scrooged” in 1988 or so, and over the years there are other unexpected appearances. He does a pretty terrible acting job in a pretty good segment of the “Tales from the Darkside” movie. He’s on a Bill Morrissey album, writing a liner notes blurb and contributing an over-the-top vocal to a mediocre song. How would they even have met?
I read about David’s Harry Smiths project in 2000 but it didn’t sound up my alley (versions of songs from the Anthology of American Folk blue and country music collection from the 1920s/30s, and please God never let me be in another conversation with someone haranguing me about great this collection is). Nine years later he coughs up a New York Dolls reunion album, something very few people on earth have been anticipating, which is a mixed bag but includes at least one great song, “Lonely Too Long.” Then two years later there’s another New York Dolls album, “Dancing Backward in High Heels,” and this one sounds just as brash and funny and compassionate as that first solo album and which I end up playing just as obsessively.
How can a 60+ year old man still sound brash? Listen to “Streetcake.” How can he at the same time sound ruefully aware of the passing of years? Listen to “Kids Like You.”
I wrote here that to be a fan means to be let down, and I believe that’s true. It also means to grow up with someone in a weirdly parallel, lopsided way, to have a fellow traveler. You spot them occasionally as you travel, at some roadside place or rest stop. Sometimes you walk over and give them a hug and sometimes you just nod across the room, depending on your mood and how friendly they look. Either way you’re reminded to never underestimate the value of a familiar face.