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Controversy--What do you think?

David Johansen on cross-dressing and the "third sex"
New York Dolls release first album in 30 years

By Peter Galvin

In the 30 years since the New York Dolls first came onto the music scene, pop culture h

The New York Dolls weren't the first rock stars to wear makeup and women's clothes. Little Richard probably gets credit for that. What the Dolls did do first was to infuse rock music with a kind of raw attitude and anarchic energy. The Dolls were punk before there was any such thing, and their fast and furious take on rock produced two bona fide classics, their 1973 eponymous debut and the follow-up, 1974's Too Much, Too Soon . Critically acclaimed but underappreciated commercially at the time, the Dolls lasted another couple of years in various incarnations before breaking up for good in 1977.

Subsequent years saw Dolls leader David Johansen embark on a solo career, including a trip up the pop charts during the 80s as the lounge-singing Buster Poindexter.

Fast-forward all the way to 2004, when former New York Dolls fan club president Morrissey asked the band if they would regroup to play at the Meltdown Festival, a rock show he curated in London that year. "Basically, we got together to do a one-off show and have a coupla laughs," says Johansen. "We were having so much fun, we decided to continue past the summer, and started writing some new songs." Johansen and original guitarist Sylvain Sylvain form the core of the new New York Dolls, with replacement members filling in for departed legends like Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and Arthur "Killer" Kane. "It won't be very long that we'll be together longer than the original band was," Johansen laughs.

The new album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This,out July 25 on Roadrunner Records, features 13 new tracks, including the new single "Dance like a Monkey." The album also boasts guest performances by Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop, and Bo Diddley.

The gravel-voiced Johansen, speaking with an accent straight out of his native Staten Island, talks about the origins of his band's cross-dressing style, his celebration of a "third sex," and his thoughts on gay marriage.

Peter Galvin: Why do you think the New York Dolls have had such a large influence on other bands over the years?

David Johansen: We all had specific ideas about what a rock and roll band should be. We brought those ideas to the band, and we didn't really pay any attention to any of the sounds or trends that were happening around us at the time. We didn't do any demographic research, we just made the music that we wanted to make. And because it didn't sound like anything else, it was startling. It was almost like folk art: it wasn't made to fit into any commercial genre.

The New York Dolls have always had a strong sexual vibe. Was there something specific you were trying to say about sex back in the 70s?

From my perspective, there was a big celebration of sex going on. All of the music that I ever thought was good was sexy. You know, when I was a little kid, I just loved Little Richard. He really partied it up and made it really campy, sexy and fun.

In the 30 years since the New York Dolls first came onto the music scene, pop culture has been inundated with androgynous musical groups adn singing drag queens. But what was it like back in the early 70s, when you were coming onstage wearing makeup and women's clothes? 

When I was about 16, I joined up with the Ridiculous Theatre Company. I was still in bands, but I would help make costumes after school. I used to work in the basement, and I noticed there were these really garish costumes down there, made with sequins and sparkles. So I went to a rehearsal and met [Ridiculous founder] Charles Ludlam and [writer and performer] Bill Vehr, and they had a profound influence on me, as far as how to put on a show. I never acted in a Ridiculous Theater production, but I would be a spear-carrier. I would do lights, do sound, play the guitar. I was with them for a couple of years, and by osmosis, I learned a lot about show biz presentation.

Also at that time, in the East Village, was the dawn of so many liberation movements. There was gay lib, women's lib, macrobiotic lib. We were essentially the band of the East Village, so we were entertaining all of these people. To me, the obvious place to go was to create a kind of "third sex," as far as self-liberation is concerned, being that everybody has male and female characteristics. We should be celebrating that, as opposed to stuffing it. I thought that was a good idea to celebrate onstage.

Did anybody think, because of the makeup and the dresses, that you guys were gay? Did you ever get gay-bashed?

Some people thought we were gay, and some people didn't. But we were like the toughest gang of dykes you ever saw, so if people came up to us and started something, they would regret it . . .

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