Perfect Sound Forever

David Johansen

DJ as of his first solo album (1978)

Part 2 of the interview by Jason Gross

PSF: You also did some TV roles- OZ, Pete and Pete. Did that come around as a result of the movie roles?

I think it was just like... Tom Fontaine called and Oz was kind of like a New York thing. Most people I know are on it. He called and said "You wanna do this thing?" And I didn't even know it going to be for three weeks. I was like "Yeah, I'd like to do that." It's just fun to do. The same thing with those little bits. People just call up and say "Oh, come on down- we're having fun doing this. Do it with us." Sometimes I do it, sometimes I don't.

PSF: But you don't pursue it like you said.

Yeah, it's not really a passion. It's something that I just do. I'm not really trained at it. I've had directors say "OK, now we're going to start this project. I don't want you to think you're gonna act in this." (laughs)

PSF: Are you still open to that?

I'm not adverse to it. If things work out where I have time. It's good sometimes to get a pay check that you don't have to share with 20 people. You can buy a car or something. It's good.

PSF: Then there was the Harry Smiths. How that did that come about?

I think that the last record I made as Poindexter was called... Buster's Spanish Rocketship. Which I think is funny... Spanish rocketship! I found out that a Spanish rocketship is what took Timothy Leary's ashes into outer space. (laughs) But anyway... I did this really kind of intense Latin music exploration and study. I went through the whole thing with Latin music, all the way back to the beginnings of anything I could get my hands on out of Cuba. And I just listened to that kind of music for two years. I just kind of absorbed it, became kind of obsessive compulsive about it.

And then we finished that project and when it was over, I started listening to a lot of old country blues songs and Appalachian songs and stuff that I had grown up with essentially. I think something in my head had changed and shifted from doing that Latin thing where I started hearing that music in a new way and it became like... something really fresh. You can get to a point where you go "If I ever hear another blues song, it'll be too soon..."

But all of a sudden, I had this kind of new feeling towards a lot of these obscure blues songs that I had collected over the years. Allan Pepper who ran the Bottom Line was doing an anniversary series and he asked me to do something other than what I would normally do, which is something he likes to do with people. When he said that, I knew exactly what I was going to do within the conversation- what kind of songs I was going to sing. So we put a little band together and essentially it was for that. But then it got a really good write-up in the Times and we started getting offers to play here and there. So we decided to keep doing it. And it was a lot of fun.

PSF: Even with having the Dolls around now, do you think you'd pursue that again?

Yeah. I mean, there's so many kinds of music that I love. For me, it's always been good to absorb some kind of genre. It alters me and it alters my capacity to appreciate music more. Music means a lot to me. It's something that's good to nurture- your enjoyment of it and your passion for it. And all these things, you bring it to whatever you're doing so it just enhances what you're doing.

PSF: How did the Dolls reunion happen?

Morrissey was curating that (Meltdown) show. I don't know, I just... I was kind of going through this thing where I decided to consider things and not just dismiss things opportunities whereas I'd normally say "I can't do that 'cause I'm doing this" or whatever. Kind of looking straight ahead and not seeing the periphery. He kind of came in from the periphery while I was going through this conscious decision to try to consider things that are slipping up on the side because you can miss out on a lot of life if you just stay too focused.

So we kind of hemmed and hawed a little bit, he and I, and I decided I would think about it for a couple of days. Then I thought it would it would really be a lot of fun to get together with Syl and Arthur and essentially, it was going to be one show. So I didn't have to go through this neurosis about putting a band together because it wasn't like "Oh, if I play with this, is he gonna turn out to be a lunatic in two years...?" It was very easy to put it together.

So I went into it thinking that I was going to have a lot of fun doing it and it was going to be a joyful experience. Then, it turned out to be two shows. I had even more fun than I even expected to have and I had expected to have a lot of fun. Also, going into it, I knew that with Morrissey, it was going to be a good operation- we were going to have a place to sleep and they were going to give us something to eat and we could concentrate on making music. (laughs)

So then he asked us to go up to Manchester and play with him. He had this big homecoming up there at some big field. And we did that, a festival kind of stage. So then we started getting calls from Redding and Leeds and all these English mud bathes. So we were thinking that we're having a lot of fun and we're up and running, let's go do these things. And we just really had a lot of fun and it was really invigorating. There was a lot of vitality to it. We kind of kept doing it in increments and then, tunes started popping up in soundcheck. And we started putting some (new) songs together just because that's what musicians do. And we started playing them on stage just to keep things interesting. They were accepted as if they were one of the old songs. People were singing along with them. We thought "We should make a record because we're coming up with really good stuff." So we went down to South By Southwest and (laughs) just said on the stage "We're here 'cause we're looking for a record deal." And then we played a bunch of songs. Then Roadrunner asked us that day- "We wanna make a record with you." So we went with them.

PSF: How does it feel to be a Doll again and to be doing these songs now?

It's really great to have some new songs because we've been singing those... I mean the repertoire of the Dolls was something like twenty songs. Then of course you can add a couple of covers to keep it interesting. But I think when I went back to listen to those (old) songs two years ago to get familiar with them, I started thinking "These songs are really good- it's really musical." I remember when I was a kid and the Dolls was kind of like this tabula rasa that people would project their issues on to and I used to always think that was really funny. But musically, we were so controversial. I remember like in Creem Magazine, we were voted the 'best new band of the year' and the 'worst new band of the year' so we got the most votes in both categories! (laughs) So that was really good.

To me, I was really hubristic about the musicality of the thing. Downbeat Magazine, which was the jazz bible, they would do these 4-star think pieces on the Dolls records about how "this is the new rock and roll and it incorporates the sounds of the city and..." And it would go on and on and on. And I used to think "Well, they get it and they're smart so it must be good!"

Then I think that like over the years, you go into Coliseum Books and you pick up the Rock and Roll Encyclopedia and you go into the appendix and you look yourself up. And it says "they were trashy, they flashy, they were drag queens, they were junkies..." And I started thinking "Oh yeah, that's what it was..." Then when I would go back and listen to the music, I was thinking "This is really fucking good. I can sing this. It's really musical." So I was having a ball singing those songs but it's really great to be able to enhance the show with some fresh stuff when you have to think on your feet.

PSF: The new record seems like it is and it kind of isn't a Dolls record. Any thoughts about that?

I think it's very much... It's hard to explain 'cause you bring so much experience to things when you go through life. It's... one of the hardest things to try to create is lack of experience when you have it. It's really hard to remove that. I have this theory though. You go through life and... I can essentially see a picture of myself when I'm six years old and I know the guy 'cause I'm the same guy. I think I've got the mischievous outlook on things. Then you go through life and you become 15 and you're different and you've transcending who you were but you're really are including it as you go along. When you're 30, you've transcended who you were when you were 20 but it's still there, it's still included. You're just kind of adding to it.

So, there's no way you can really strip that down and just be who you were nor would one want to. But there's the Dolls' spirit and the songs are I would think at this point kind of more worldly than just being about Second Avenue essentially. (laughs)

PSF: But you were also thinking about how these new songs would be appropriate for a Dolls record, right?

Well, there's definitely a certain way that we should write them because they're Dolls songs. But when I get together with Syl, we really just kind of fell into it and started doing what we used to do. And we had written songs for me over the years and songs for him over the years so we always had this natural songwriting relationship but... You could write a song with one guy and then write a song with another guy and it's completely different because each person you hook up with, you have a different alchemy with. We just had this thing where the songs come out that way. Literally, we just put a song together in the loft and the way it sounds when we play it is essentially the way it sounds on the record. It's EQ'd and everything but it's not like we're going to say that we have this idea for a song and we're going to put this grand orchestration on it. They're really the same songs that we play. I think, without giving it too much thought, we just figured "This is what we are. This is what we got. These songs that we came up with are what we sound like." And Jack Douglas of course was a natural guy to get as a producer because he understood that. He had been the engineer on our first record. I like to say that he made his bones with the Dolls. We really essentially just went in and recorded them. We made them sound EQ'd so they're nice... But as far as my contribution as a lyricist, it's kind of almost like when you're in a band like that, you're writing for a party... a political party. It's personal 'cause it's coming through you but you're also trying to include an outlook that all the guys share. So, that's how it works for me.

PSF: For the Dolls, what's the future? Do you want to keep the band active for a while?

Yeah, definitely. I'm having a lot of fun doing it. It's invigorating and it's really good. I love the Harry Smiths and I know when I started doing that I'd seen... George Jones and Merle Haggard on some TV show. They were sitting in these chairs and talking "Oh George, remember the time you burned down your house?" And they were going back and forth and they said "Oh, let's sing a song." Then they started singing this song and it was really the same kind of vocal intensity as the conversation. So they were singing this almost conversational way. I thought "That's really great 'cause you'd never get laryngitis and you could do that forever." So I was really enjoying just sitting there and doing these songs conversationally (with the Harry Smiths).

But then you get up with a band and it's a whole different ballgame. It's like you're with these guys and you're creating this glorious racket and I think over the years I learned this from the Cuban drummers... that they don't really play at each other. They kind of beam it up and it goes up to this satellite of love or whatever and beams down to the other guy. Not like forcing it down each others' throats. I think I've been able to incorporate that philosophy into what I'm doing now as opposed to... jamming stuff down peoples' throats. Just kind of like send it up and let it drift down and sprinkle down on them and it's almost kind of a ritual for me that I'm really enjoying. So I'm getting a lot of pleasure with it.

PSF: From all the roles you'd had, are there any other roles that you haven't done yet that you'd like to do?

(laughs) Remember that Nick Tosches book The Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll? Solomon Burke's on a bus and he's telling the guys "I'm an undertaker." They're going "You're full of it!" (laughs) And he pulls into this town and he goes into his funeral parlor and embalms a guy. It's like "Oh yeah, I could anything!" I could be like that, every day doing something different.

But there's lots of kinds of music that I love. I just think that there's so much really great music on this planet, you couldn't even hear... one song from each genre in a lifetime. I keep on discovering music that just like blows my mind and makes me feel so good. As I go through life, musically there's a lot of stuff that I dig. I'm digging bringing all that to what I'm doing now. I'm digging the songs Iím writing now because I think... I'm not saying they're gonna change the world or anything but I think for the people who get the opportunity to hear them, and we'll see how far that goes, whether these songs are gonna be on the radio or whatever... But I think they have something positive to say about existence as opposed to stabbing your friend in the eye with a ballpoint pen or whatever, which it seems like there's so much fucking much about... (laughs) Like all this insane rage and whatnot. I think there's something about the songs we've come up with that are gonna be a breath of fresh air in the marketplace.

PSF: With roles you've taken, do you have any thoughts about all the ones you've taken on so far?

Well... When I was a kid, I had this idea of who I would be in different times of life. They weren't long meditations. They were more like snapshots. But I always feel like when I look at myself, I think "Yeah, I remember when I thought that I was gonna be like this or like that..." So it's not like it's been some kind of intense struggle for me because essentially, I'm an artist and my main art is singing. And I love singing and I love the art of singing and I love so many different kinds of singers. I love Mariah Callas and I love Janis Joplin. It's probably the original music. Somebody was probably singing at the moon or singing about losing their cow or whatever but to me, it's such a beautiful expression and a beautiful way for me to spend my time. I just derive a lot of pleasure from it. When I look at myself through all that, I just feel like I've always pursued what I wanted to do. I'm never really... geared myself towards the marketplace or anything. I've always kind of followed my muse like that. I think there's certain people at some point, I guess it was in the 70's, they decided "I could be a dentist or an accountant or maybe I'll be a rock star." It became kind of like a career opportunity. I think in comedy, the same kind of thing happens but it used to be like Lenny Bruce and then there's these people who are like "What about McDonald's, man..." But I think you could have a modicum of success doing that but I think when your success wanes, you're gonna do what fate had intended you to do. And then there's certain people who... music is their passion and they're going to continue to do it no matter if there's a million people who into it or a thousand. And I think I'm one of those people. I've never really felt like "Oh my God, I'm dying here, I gotta go find another way to make a living." I always just... sang!

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