"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The new "Dolls": Is America's greatest cult band back (in any meaningful sense)?

The Good Old Days

Let’s finally just say it. The New York Dolls by the New York Dolls is a Great Record. I don’t mean a great record as in a condescending 225th out of some panel of critic’s 500 best. I mean it’s one of the Great Records, impertinently elbowing its way in among British Royalty like the Beatles and Stones; cheerily bumming smokes off their own countrymen from places like Tupelo, Mississippi and Hibbing, Minnesota.

Other records may have gone deeper into soul and spirit, but for sheer screaming, nuts, up the walls, electrifying, testifying, snake-handling, wave your arms in the air like you don't care, bringing all the noise, white light/white heat, once in a lifetime, out on the far careening edge rock and roll ecstasy, I've never heard its equal, in four decades plus of listening to rock and roll.

Seeing the Dolls was--I have to use what is now a rock cliche--a religious experience. The wave of energy and charisma that came off the stage left you feeling that you had had an encounter with the essential heart of the music, that you had been given the chance to know what it was like to see Elvis singing off of a flatbed truck in Memphis in 1954, the Beatles at the Cavern Club, the Stones at the Marquee, Robert Johnson in a Misissipppi juke joint. The Dolls made me more interested in the roots of rock and roll, in tracing it back thru gospel music and field hollers and back to Africa, to find out what was the nature of this power, what was its source, and how do you wield it.

The exta edge in the Dolls music is the realization that it could all fall apart. That’s what makes the music feel so shockingly alive.Taking the stage, for the Dolls, was taking a dare. It was like watching a high wire act every night. The sense that the musicians are actually risking something, are taking a gamble, jaded my palate, giving me less patience for other, safer musicians, who make up, after all, the vast majority of what gets on record.

Well now, a band in 2009, having the nerve to call themselves the New York Dolls, has put out a record. The second under that name in fact. Who has such nerve? The two still-breathing New York Dolls, never lacking for nerve, of course. Singer/songwriter David Johansen and second lead/rhythm/songwriter Sylvain Sylvain. Is it a piece of crap, as you might assume? No, strangely enough. 'Cause I Sez So might be the only reunion that has actually captured a little old magic in its sails, and worked up some new at the same time.

I am reflexively skeptical of reunions, solo albums, partial bands struggling under an old name, etc. When it comes to rock & roll, I believe in magic, and I don't think magic rings twice, or can be forced. This goes double for bands that I loved. I had zero invested in whether this "New York Dolls" album was going to be any good or not, and I didn't even buy the first (re-union) one. But lo and behold -- something really peculiar has happened.What it sounds like is that, instead of being backing guys for Johansen--which is how his solo bands always seemed to me--a pretty tough rock & roll band with some interesting ideas and more chops than they need recruited Johansen to sing for them and pitch in on the songwriting. Or, from another angle, to this Dolls fanatic, this sounds like the best post-Dolls project Johansen's ever been involved with. The kind of thing we wanted him to do from the beginning. And strangely, while being a very good band in their own right, these "Dolls" are good in ways that remind you of the original band, without ever making any conscious hommages to the old days. Something of the Dolls sashay and sneer are there in the title cut, and the last, "Exorcism of Despair." And "My World" is not what I was looking for on this record--one for the all-time Dolls greatest hits line-up. If you've ever wondered what the Dolls might have done had they been able to keep on making records, this suggests an answer: A kind of Bo Diddley maracas shuffle taken from its its earthy roots and set against a turbulent sky. With little oriental-sounding scalar hooks, and a perfectly conceived wah-wah(!) break that cracks open the song in the middle.

David Johansen is as distinct a presence on a record as Tom Waits, and it takes some real group-first, me-second solidarity to deploy his larger than life New Yawk eccentricities to add color and character without having him take over the record. Ego's are being submerged toward the greater good here, and maybe that's what makes this different from so many of its ilk.

By the way, don't miss the great new book, New York Dolls, Photographs by Bob Gruen,. The legendary rock and roll photographer and Dolls maniac chronicles the band in all their brief but blazing glory in over 230 great photographs, most never published before.

1 comment:

  1. On May 22, 2009, at 1:15 AM, traceyannhill wrote:
    "There's a little cafe, where they play guitars all night and all day" Bruce Springsteen, Rosalita

    Well, as I've told you before, that cafe is the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California. Tonight, Robert treated me to an epic, serendipitous New York Dolls performance at the Belly Up (locals call it the BUT).

    Christopher, I wish you could have been here! David was at his best: ultra-chic, cocky and melodic, a skinny Mick Jagger look-alike - but better, fully engaged in his performance. It was about as perfect as a last-minute concert could be -- $22 tickets, and the Dolls were already on stage playing "Stranded in the Jungle!" as we walked in. I was celebrating finishing my semester in Library Tech -- already ecstatic.

    And, upon your advice, and with Robert's great ingenuity, we found my two Dolls LPs buried in the garage and brought them along.

    We moved ourselves smartly on up to stage right -- literally almost on the stage, but seated. Started waving the first LP, and Sylvain Sylvain strode right over to me (he was playing about 3 feet from us) and said "where am I on that cover?" between songs. Robert's take was that he wasn't on the first New York Dollsalbum cover; I thought he was challenging me to pick him out of the transvestite/glam cover shot! Then we flashed him "in Too Much Too Soon."

    The take-away is our Syl - remember your crush, Boo? - signed both my albums. And, more importantly, their performance was a smash hit in Solana Beach, CA, and the first gig on a cross-country tour! The Dolls came roaring back with an encore of "Personality Crisis." Crunching guitars, killer drums, David on the harp, and all the same fun-loving chemistry we got to know so well when we attended their shows. The audience was singing along with the "friend of a friend of a friend" chorus -- some old fans, and I think many new ones. The Dolls seemed pretty gratified with their reception at the friendly confines of the Belly Up.

    We got awesome pictures of the night (2 attached). Main thing is, the Dolls gave us a slice of heaven after months of stressing out over school, work, kids, finances, etc. Robert's critique of the show - "that's the sh*t!" No higher compliment could be paid. Oh, and I got a sweet Dolls T-shirt, and Robert bought the new cd, "'Cuz I said so." Wish we could've captured David for that Aquavit cocktail after the show ... maybe next time.