Perfect Sound Forever

David Johansen

Photo by Catherine Carter

interview by Jason Gross
(October 2007)

Maybe it shouldn't always be a given but we here at PSF like to give our readers the benefit of the doubt, so we'll assume you've heard of a Gotham proto-punk ensemble called the New York Dolls (circa early/mid '70's). You probably also know that its erstwhile and current leader was one David Johansen who carved out a solo career for about a decade (late '70's through mid '80's) before transforming into Buster Pointdexter and tasting some commercial success and then becoming Johansen again and then participating in a Dolls reunion but not before forming a blues rock band called the Harry Smiths and doing some stints on the small and large screens. How does someone keep up with all these personas? We wondered about that ourselves so we interrogated Johansen himself last summer to find out how he keeps track of all these identities and how they all come together under one artistic roof.

PSF: When you grew up, what was your musical background?

Well, I come from this family (of) six kids and you know, fairly musical house. My father used to be a singer, kind of semi-professional when he was a young man. Everybody sang and everybody was in the musicals at school except for me. (laughs) I was n the corner, smoking cigarettes. I think it's kind of funny that I'm the one who wound up being in show business.

PSF: What were you like as a teenager?

I was kind of like a beatnik kid I guess... You know, I read a lot of books and thought deep thoughts. (laughs) But you know, I was in band starting when I was about 13... Battle of the bands and playing at dances and playing at parties and stuff like that.

PSF: What kind of stuff were you playing then?

I would say kind of like what you would call now R&B, like soul music mostly. Wilson Pickett and things like that.

PSF: When you met up with the guys who became your bandmates in the Dolls, what kind of idea did you all have about the kind of band you wanted to start?

Well, when I was about 16, I got a job on St. Mark's Place at a store and the man I worked for... I was working at this like chachka store. We used to do stuff like... he had a mail order business. I would have to cut out a logo on a beer can and put a hole in it and make earrings out of it. It was like a pop art kind of a thing. So he had this kind of medieval kind of basement under the store with moss on the walls. When I went down there, there were all these garish sequined costumes. I was like "Wow, what is this stuff?" And he said that he was the costume designer for Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theatre. And through him, I went and met them and did... I guess you would call it an apprenticeship with them. I did sound, I did lights and sometimes I played the guitar and sometimes I was a spear carrier. I never really had any kind of main acting jobs but they threw me in a crowd scene. Through that experience, Charles taught me a lot about making a show and making a spectacle.

And then, as far as the Dolls are concerned, when we met, we were all fairly like-minded about making a show and going back to the orignal ethic of rock and roll because it had become fairly monotonous, (with) solos and things like that. We had the idea to make it short and sweet and make it explode.

PSF: And you married it with the concept of those costumes you found...?

Essentially yeah... but we were all kind of dressed up when we met. It wasn't like we sat down and said "Let's get rid of these blue jeans and put on these costumes..." We liked dressing up, which was kind of like a thing that was happing in the Village anyway so there were a lot of people doing that.

PSF: You mean, guys wearing women's clothing?

Yeah... kind of like mixing and matching and going to thrift stores and wearing man-tailored jackets that were made for Marlene Dietrich. We were trying to look mod but... that's the way it came out! (laughs)

PSF: Do you think that you kept that image for the Dolls intact throughout when the band was together for the first time?

I don't think we even thought about really having an image. I think we just into doing it so it wasn't like anything we really discussed. We just did it and then... as it went along, it got more outrageous because I guess we got more fearless about it or something. And then, we were trying to raise each others' eyebrows a little bit. It would be a bit of one-upmanship like that but in a healthy way.

PSF: How's that?

Oh, I don't know... Just about stuff that people would drag out and start wearing like Arthur (Kane, bassist) starting wearing a tutu and a pair of parachuter's boots. It was like his main outfit for a while for a whole period there. He was like "OK, this is enough clothes for me- I'm traveling light on this tour." Stuff like that. So I imagine that when we first met, he wasn't wearing a tutu but he was wearing something outrageous.

PSF: I've heard that when you were working with Malcolm McLaren, he also tried to change your image.

It was something like he said because when he went to England, he was trying to get the Sex Pistols started and he told them that he was managing the Dolls and whatnot. But in fact, he was a guy we knew for years for having a London store that we used to go (to) and look at stuff. From time to time, we would make a special order of stuff we wanted. Sometimes, we would send it to him. So, at one point, Sylvain and I had written this song called "Red Patent Leather" so we decided we wanted to make a show around it because we were debuting a lot of new material. We were going to use that as the motif of the show. So we actually called him and ordered these clothes and he came over to New York with them. He had hung around us with before, like he went to Paris with us because he was kind of fascinated by us. He came over with those clothes and it was about a month before we expired. I think he was having trouble with (designer) Vivienne Westwood- I think they were on the rocks or something and she probably told him to get lost for a while to get some room to breathe. So he came over and hung out with us for a while but it was really kind of at the end of our tether. After that, I know that he went and said that he was our manager and he had done this and that. But he had really just facilitated ideas that we had come up with.

PSF: But was he pinning up Communist flags at your shows?

In fact, he may have pinned it up but we made it. He had a tape measurer around his neck, a pair of half-glasses and pins in his mouth. That was his kind of a thing. I had made this huge red flag and put a hammer and a sickle on it and I thought it would really be funny if we called the show a "Communist party." Apparently, my sense of humor was a little colloquial.

PSF: So some people thought you guys were really Communists?

Yeah, I think so. I don't think people really... I didn't realize that people still had this Commie/McCarthy mentality. (laughs) I thought that was from the '50's or something. Little did I know... But you know, it's good when you do something like that because you really find out who your friends are, at least the ones with a sense of humor. But it was really done for a big laugh and then I think a lot of people were shocked by it. But that was true for a lot of things we did, you know. People would be shocked by things that we really did to kind of be amusing or to help people have some fun. (It was) aspects of our presentation, which some people thought was a threat to the status quo or something. It's always like... if people think this is going to destroy the moral fabric, it always makes me think 'your moral fabric must be pretty mothy if you think something like this...' It's entertainment, for Christ's sake! What are you gonna do...?

PSF: When you started your solo career, how did you think about making an identity for yourself outside of the band?

I kind of went through a Jungian phase of life kind of change thing where... I think towards the end of the Dolls, I had gotten, it sounds silly but... I think I'd gotten a little full of myself and thought 'oh man, I'm like a rock star...' I think around the time when I was getting that thing together and writing those songs, in retrospect, I was going through this looking at myself and thinking like 'You're really a kind of a fool. You should get down with the people a bit more.' Which was kind of like our (the Dolls') ethic when we started but then you start getting full of yourself or something... So I think I was trying to get a little right-sized. So, I just wanted to make an entertainment that was... I got into this thing where people would say 'You're a rock star' and I would say 'No, I'm a rock singer' and stuff like that.

PSF: How do you look back at that time now?

Well for me, that's when I really paid my dues and learned my craft. With the Dolls, we essentially had this rarified existence because we exploded so quickly and started playing all over the world. With the Johansen band, we did go all over the world but also, I spent a lot of time in a van going from town to town and playing like... 300 nights a year. I was just in a working band and we played clubs and then we would have to open for all of these... "heavy mental acts" in hockey rinks. And we would just work, work, work, developing a bit of a work ethic.

PSF: So that's not the kind of thing you ever did with the Dolls then?

Not so much. I mean, with the Dolls, it was more like... We played a lot but it wasn't that... work orientated but I hate to say the word 'work' because when you make music, you really are playing. With the Dolls, if they said 'OK, you're going out for six months and never coming home,' we would have said 'that's what you think!' (laughs) 'Maybe we'll go out on the weekends but we're coming home during the week.' But with my own group, it was a more intensified work schedule.

PSF: What led you from that to Buster Poindexter?

(It was) kind of as a lark. I was in a band with six people and there, everybody has their different tastes in music. I think the majority of the people I was traveling with, I found their musical tastes pedestrian. I would just put on headphones and listen to cassettes that I would make and my friends would make me. I was listening to a lot of jump blues, the predecessors of rock and roll music, like Jimmy Liggins and Wynonie Harris.

There was a saloon in my neighborhood in Chelsea which was literally two blocks from my house, where I used to hang out. It was this Irish bar called Tramps. They used to have resident acts, like Big Joe Turner would come in and work the weekends for three months. They had an apartment for the acts. And Charles Brown would do a stint. Big Maybelle or Big Jay McNelly would do a stint. People like that. So they would have that for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then they would have some kind of ska dance on Wednesday and this and that.

On Monday, the bar was open but this little showroom in the back was dark. So I thought it would be fun to get together a couple of guys and sing some of this music that I'm devouring. My plan was to do it for four Mondays. By the fourth Monday, it was a bit of a sensation so I started doing it on weekends. I was making essentially as much money as I was schlepping all over the country and (now I was) walking to work. I kind of phased out the other thing and the Buster thing took over but it wasn't a plan or anything. It was a convenience.

I had been doing that Johansen thing for several years. I had been yearning to get a life. (laughs)

PSF: Or a different one...

Yeah, well besides sitting in a van. We would travel 300 miles, do a show, get in the van, travel 300 miles, sleep, get up, travel 300 miles...

PSF: When you first did these new shows, did you use your own name or were you "Buster"?

I decided... Buster Poindexter was like an old nickname of mine from when I was a kid. Some kids called me 'poindexter' because I read books. Some of the ladies in the neighborhood would call me 'buster' because I would be... let's just say, cutting through their yard or whatever. (laughs) So I used that name because I didn't want people coming to this little cabaret and shouting "Funky But Chic!" I just decided that I would come out as... I didn't even say in the ad "David Johansen as Buster Poindexter," I just said "Buster Poindexter." ...Which had been the name of my publishing company through the Johansen Band years so if you read the small print, you would have seen it, which not many people do. But I just wanted to do something like... that was divorced from that and do something to clear my palate.

PSF: Do you think that worked then?

Well, it turned into quite a phenomenon. I mean the band started growing and people would come and play. I'd look over and all of a sudden, there'd be a sax player there. "Who's that guy?" People would come and sit in. It was very musical so the band just kind of grew organically. After a while, there were thirteen people in it.

PSF: Where you surprised when got a big hit then with "Hot, Hot, Hot"?

I was because that was just a song that I heard when I was down in the islands. I thought 'When I go back, I'll sing this song." There's a lot of songs that I hear and I go "I really wanna sing that song..." Sometimes, I have the opportunity to do it and sometimes I don't. And when I don't, I put it in this rolodex in the back of my head and eventually I sing it. There's just certain songs that I wish I had written. But that song I thought "that's a really fun song so we'll do it." It was always a crowd pleaser at the shows so then when we got around to making a record, we recorded it. But I had no idea it was gonna happen like that...

PSF: How do you look back on those days?

You know, it was really good. I think in a lot of situations up until that time, I had... This is just speaking as far as my social outlook on society. But I think a lot of what I had been doing was kind of like preaching to the choir. The thing about Poindexter was that it opened things up and brought me into places that I wouldn't have normally been invited. I got to observe a lot of things and hopefully in some small way had some kind of positive influence on people.

PSF: How did you decide to end that?

It just kind of got where the gigs were not coming fast and furious. The band was together for a long time and it became like a little family. But it wasn't really able to make a living from it anymore. I guess after a while, things start to become a chore. When that happens, it doesn't jibe with my philosophy about playing music.

PSF: Was this around the time when you started doing movies?

Yeah, it was during that and a little after that. But essentially I never pursued it. It was just like... somebody just wanted me to be in their movie or something. So, it wasn't like I was going around and taking auditions.

PSF: Do you think that pushed your music career aside?

No, I don't think so.

PSF: So you were doing both things at the same time?

Yeah. Bill Murray was a friend of mine and he was into the music I was playing. I would do this thing where I would tell jokes on stage or these long convulted, abstract stories that he thought were really funny. One day he said "I'm making a movie. You wanna be in it?" I was like "Yeah!" Actually, when I was making that Scrooged movie, I was still doing gigs while I was doing the film.

See Part II of the David Johansen interview

Also see our article about a '72 live show of the New York Dolls

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER