New York Dolls & Modern Lovers
The Endless Party (of '72/'73)The State of Rock in early 1972 sounded dismal, the airwaves dominated by CSN&Y rip-offs like America and the fabled Batdorf & Rodney; the deft noodling of ELP and Yes; more Beatle solo albums; dreary singer-songwriters galore. This around the time of Layla, an album liked by my best friend's parents, a year when a piqued New York DJ yawned on air after spinning the latest Paul McCartney snooze "Mary Had A little Lamb." The occasional good tune gave temporary solace, but what the hell did ELP's ditty "Lucky Man" have to do with my youthful angst?
by Jim Rader
Grand Funk and Alice Cooper rocked, but their hype put me off. Lou Reed's first solo effort, though boasting good songs, suffered from session players borrowed from Yes. The Stooges had apparently disbanded, after only two albums.
A friend dragged me to an Allman Brothers concert that March and I spent the next month trying to figure out why I didn't like them.
I often heard--and used-- the then-popular expression "get off." Originally junkie slang for getting high on skag, "get off" suddenly also pertained to rock. From a car radio that summer, between Gilbert O'Sullivan and "Layla," The Raspberries "Go All The Way" prompted driver Mike F. to exclaim: "I get off on this song!"
"Oh wow—yeah," I responded, lost in a vibe.
At the advanced age of nineteen, we both turned red- but he didn't change the station. The Raspberries' overt throwback to the early Beatles excited musically but embarrassed socially because it deliberately recreated the "simple" rock n' roll of our bygone pre-pubescent years. The lyrics pandered to teenybopper fantasies; the chords and vocal shamelessly aped vintage McCartney.
But the Raspberries eluded the Beatlemania tag via modern production, an ironic stance, and performance. They played to excite, not impress. I visualized them playing a high school gym rather than a vast impersonal arena; though image-conscious and ambitious, they lacked the dwarfing distant majesty of the entrenched rock idols. To boot, they sounded too raunchy to be written off as bubblegum.
Other promising noises turned up in late '72, usually from England, where Bowie, T-Rex, and Mott the Hoople played short, catchy songs peppered with lyrics either surreal or relevant. The Stones came through with Exile On Main St. Suddenly flashy images came back, hybrids of Mod color, Little Richard lame, make-up, and hazardous platform shoes. These rockers differed musically from each other, so their Look, rather than Sound, determined their nom-de-genre: "Glitter Rock," a trend that inspired the U.S.A.'s Lou Reed to hang up his jeans for a while.
By summer's end, Rolling Stone wrote up an "underground" Glitter band from New York City called The Dolls, who played obscure venues and wrote street-wise, humorous songs about their own little scene, rife with drugs, confused sexuality, and bizarre clothes. The Dolls didn't have a record label, only a long-term residency at the Mercer Arts Center, a SoHo theatre-club complex noted for presenting the first dramatic adaptation of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."
In November, The Dolls' original drummer Billy Murcia overdosed during a brief British tour, ironically increasing the band's "decadent" reputation. Several weeks later they would play New Year's Eve at the Mercer Arts Center with new drummer Jerry Nolan, supported by the even-more obscure Modern Lovers, Queen Elizabeth (Wayne County), Eric Emerson (Factory alum) and Ruby & The Rednecks. The event advertised as "The Endless Party."
Recently transplanted from Bridgeport, CT to New York City, I contacted old high school buddy Joe V. to talk up the New Year's bash. Initially he reneged, dismissing the Dolls as "an Alice Cooper ripoff."
"No, man--this is something else," I persisted.
"Yeah, sure man. Well, where is this ‘Mercer Arts Center'? Are you gonna get us lost again?"
I sighed at his reference to one of my wild goose chases, a 1970 jazz fest on Staten Island (we missed Pharoah Sanders but got to witness The Last Poets).
"We'll get there, man," I assured. "It's right in The City."
I knew he couldn't resist; my jazz fest fiasco paled against my exposing him to Velvet Underground and Mott The Hoople albums. A week before the Mercer gig, we talked again and Joe V. announced that more homeboys from Bridgeport, CT would meet me in Grand Central station: future Marvel Comics inker Kris and his companion Kenneth; and Cholly, a small town schizo-eccentric given to extemporaneous impressions of Peter Wolf's stage spiel.
On that warm night, I wore bellbottom "baggies" and a form-fitting polo shirt with a sateen ice cream cone motif, mismatched with a tweed sportcoat and cap. Joe V. and Cholly didn't bother "dressing up," but the tasteful leather jackets of Kris and Kenneth easily outdid me. En route to Mercer St., Kris exhorted Cholly:
Cholly whirled like Peter Wolf: "‘Here's Magic Dick with his lickin' stick! Play "Whammer Jammer" Dickie!'"
Kris asked me: "How do the Dolls dress, Jim? They don't dress down, do they?"
The Mercer Arts Center boasted several rooms. Near the entrance stood a long friendly bar where downtown hipsters chatted and posed. I noticed a few didn't have drinks but seemed known to the bartender.
Kris asked if he could taste my drink, a sugary Vodka Collins.
"Mmm. That's all right, Jim. I can't taste any liquor."
We checked out a smaller cabaret room in white plastic décor that recalled Alex's hangout in A Clockwork Orange. Eric Emerson & the Magic Tramps gyrated on a small stage, waving colorful silk scarves in the air. No seats available, we returned to the long bar.
The rock n' roll kids slithered in, some sporting pricey lame jumpsuits and silver-studded velvet bells from trendy uptown boutique ‘Jumping Jack Flash'; others exhibited campy, thriftshop ‘50's sportshirts and saddle shoes. The "dry ice" tone of the dressier faction, unsmiling and distant, drew rancor from Joe V.
"So who the fuck are they?" he huffed, quaffing on a 7 oz. bottle of watery Piels (55 cents a pop then).
Kris sipped his Vodka Collins through a little plastic straw:
"Well, it's New York, Joe."
Some of the platform-shoed, custom-coiffed patrons seemed musicians, hitting the bar to pose and talk up their upcoming gigs at Coventry (in Queens, Dolls turf) or midtown's dingy Hotel Diplomat ballroom. The women and cross-dressers derived their hair and make-up from ‘50's-‘60's Hollywood. Cholly and I compared notes.
"Hey, Rader--there's a Sandra Dee."
"Very good, Cholly. There goes yet another Marilyn. Sandra Dee is tougher to do."
As it neared midnight, the five of us headed into the Center's small theatre, which seated about 200. No sign of The Dolls yet (who stood out from their peers partly by combining glitter chic with thrift shop funk and partly by being The Dolls). Midnight arrived, largely ignored or unnoticed. I noticed Dolls lead guitarist Johnny Thunders near the stage. A support band started setting up. A short-haired guy, incongruously attired in chinos and loafers, tuned gaudy Doll Johnny's plexiglass guitar; Thunders nodded thankfully and grabbed the ax. Then a scenester took the stage and announced:
"Please welcome the Modern Lovers!"
The guitar tuner took center stage, a hale young fellow in a yellow dress shirt with a turned-up collar: Jonathan Richman, lead singer. His band, comprised of keyboardist Jerry Harrison, bassist Ernie Brooks, guitarist John Felice, and drummer David Robinson, looked rather ordinary in shag ‘dos and jeans, except John Felice, who wore a silver glitter suit that clashed with his buck teeth and Clark Kent glasses.
They lunged into a dramatic opening chord, quelled by Jonathan's spread arms.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he proclaimed in a congested, juvenile voice. "We don't want just a girl to ball!"
Another big chord and: "We're the Modern Lovers from Boston, Massachusetts! We don't want a girl to just ball--we want a girl we can care about!"
The band crashed into a primal riff, crafted from the Stooges. Eyebrows slanting up sincerely a la Jack Scott, Jonathan sang his pointed ditty in the (deliberately?) flat voice of a naïve kid playing rock star. Joe V. and I laughed, not derisively, but in shock. The band took it down for a midpoint recitation:
"I'm walking down the street with my girl friend/ and 28 tough guys say, ‘We're moving in.'"
Harrison led the band back with a Cale-esque organ grind. Jonathan continued:
"I said, ‘I don't care what you guys do to me/ but her—don't touch.'"
I laughed again, reeling between the banality and depth of his lyrics. Jonathan Richman, a poet of his own school, gambled that the audience would "get it." He reminded me of myself--at age thirteen.
The second song offered more off-kilter insight. In a mysterious minor key accented by Harrison's garage organ, Jonathan intoned: "Someday we'll be dignified and old."
Joe V. shook his head in wonder: "This kid looks like Lou Reed."
"A little," I said.
"But he's not serious.
" "I can't tell."
The remainder of the set held to Jonathan's ‘50's philosophy: "I'm Straight," "She Cracked," and "Girl Friend"--the titles alone were statements. Only a few in the audience clapped, including us. The Modern Lovers looked unfazed. Between songs Jonathan explained: "I'm not a tough guy!"
He introduced a doo-wop ballad: "This song is about a girl I wanted to talk to, but she didn't want to talk to me."
Our peanut gallery: "Awwww!"
Jonathan pulled a sad face, sinking his head. He used his face like the mime Marcel Marceau.
Clearly some of the crowd wrote him off as a nuisance, to be tolerated until The Dolls came on. The glitterati in the front row didn't clap but at least watched. Over a "slow dance" doo-wop groove, Jonathan declaimed pithy Platonisms; a bespectacled girl in a conical party hat sat on the stage's edge, tooting along on a cardboard noisemaker.
The Modern Lovers concluded the set with the legendary "Roadrunner," a stellar performance with Jonathan improvising: "That's right. I'm really gonna talk to my girlfriend--and we won't use any drugs or alcohol or cigarettes, or any of that bullshit that you people use!"
This finale received a bit more applause. Two glitter dudes in the first row discussed the band.
"But the whole trip is like the old high school dance band."
"Yeah, but that's so cool."
"Yeah. These guys are great."
Joe V. and I noticed the offstage Jonathan sipping a 55 cent Piels.
"Now shame, shame!" we joked.
Again, Jonathan pulled the sad face.
The Dolls didn't come on for about another hour. The same scenester spieled the crowd: "The band's back there getting high." He continued rapping, blah blah The Dolls, prompting Joe V. to shout, "We don't want another MC5," alluding to the jivey rapping on that band's live album.
The room now filled with more glitterati, thrift shop funksters, teenagers in Alice Cooper makeup, and the real Alice Cooper, dressed in tails, accompanied by his lovely wife. The couple sat in the last row; Cholly pointed them out.
"Hey, Vince!" I greeted Alice by his real name.
"Oh, no--not you again," he responded.
This bit of fun took the edge off The Doll's hype-tinged waiting period. Bored, we risked our seats to check out the other rooms, the long bar now crowded with thin young men and women teetering in four-inch platforms. A crowd of funky street kids stormed in; one chunky girl wore a ‘50s white slip, black high-top sneakers, and a ‘50s toy cowboy holster. Many that night competed for the ultimate extreme look.
"You know what?" I addressed Joe V. "That Jonathan kid is dressed cooler than anybody here. He knew they'd all try to out-weird each other tonight, so he dresses ‘normally' and comes off weirder than them!"
"Man, you're getting carried away," he chided. "That whole thing is just a big goof."
"No, it's not," I argued. "Don't you see that he's doing the last thing left? He's doing innocence."
We wriggled through the crowd to the Clockwork Orange lounge. Ruby, a cross-dresser modeled after Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis, snarled her way through the ‘50s Country oldie "I Don't Wanna Ricochet Romance," exuding caustic nostalgia.
Concerned for our seats, we returned to the concert room and met Jimmy of Brooklyn, a jumpy kid in jean jacket and Alice Cooper make-up who approached us gregariously: "Man, I'm glad you guys are back! You guys are rowdy! You guys wanna party! The rest of this crowd is dead! Buncha fucking zombies!"
"They're all on downs," I responded.
"Yeah, downs!" he came back. "Hey, I'm Jimmy, man! Which part of Brooklyn are you guys from?"
"We're not from Brooklyn, man," said Joe V. "We're from Connecticut."
"Connecticut! Far out, man!" We traded a few more crowd put-downs with Jimmy, who then returned to his friends (also in Alice Cooper make-up). The room now packed, The Dolls hypester returned to the mic: "The band's almost ready."
They came on a few minutes later, to the cheers of twenty-or-so hard- core fans, mostly photogenic young women. Though similarly attired to their scene peers, the Dolls oozed a regal sleaze that evoked the early Stones' mystique.
Singer David Johansen looked bummed out, his frizzy hair combed over his eyes. Seven-oz. Piels in hand, he sat in a folding chair and lowered the mic. The band charged into their "hit," "Personality Crisis," the only lyric I could decipher through the volcanic volume. Through hidden eyes Johansen scoped the audience ambivalently; pallid towering bassist Arthur Kane stared into space; lead guitarist Johnny Thunders aped Keith Richards, dancing madly backwards; the "cute one," diminutive rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, pouted coyly over his wide-body Gretsch "White Falcon." New drummer Jerry Nolan's straight- ahead hammering held the sonic explosion in check. A guest artist, tenor saxist Buddy Bowser, funked it up.
Their fans joined them, clapping hands and stomping their platform heels on the old wooden stage.
"They're too fucking loud," I complained to Joe V.
"What? There's no lead guitar, man."
"Yes there is," I shouted. "That guy's a good guitarist. They're all good, it's just too loud."
Johansen introduced their cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills": "This next song is by Diddley-Diddley Daddy."
The fans knew all the words to "Pills," the coolest chicks pointing to their temples during the chorus: "To my head/ To my head/ The rock n' roll nurse/ goin' to my head!" Johansen cued Johnny Thunders' solo with old-time showbiz élan: "Well the rock' n'roll nurse--" pointing the mic toward Johnny, who churned out distorted Chuck Berry bends distinguished by patches of wantonly reckless noise. Under the fans' clomping heels, the stage shook and I feared for its collapse.
"I feel like I'm on the fucking Titanic," I shouted to Joe V.
"What?" Despite the clamor, The Dolls didn't get much applause either. Still disgruntled, Johansen announced: "Listen everybody, there's too many people on stage and the vibes are too fucked up. We're just gonna stop for a while and we'll be back in a few minutes."
The fans groaned as The Dolls left the stage, not to return for about twenty minutes. Kris and Kenneth reunited with us for a comparison of notes.
"They suck!" Joe addressed Kris.
"Oh, c'mon Joe. It's rock. It's three chords."
"There's more than three," I contributed.
The Dolls returned. Johansen took a swig from a 7-oz. Piels and scowled at the bottle: "It's so ridiculous trying to get high off this beer."
They ripped through their original songs; like the Modern Lovers, the titles alone revealed the band's trip: "Jet Boy," "Frankenstein," and "Trash," all displaying simple riffs heard, yet not heard, a million times before. Other covers emerged: Sonny Boy Willamson's "Don't Start Me Talkin'," driven by Johansen's wailing harmonica, and Gary U.S. Bond's silly but soulful "Seven Day Weekend." The set concluded with the original "The Endless Party," highlighted by Johnny's soaring high-fret lead.
At my behest, Joe V. agreed to leave at the middle of The Dolls' second set, during the interesting, but long "Frankenstein." The last set-- starting at 4 AM-- featured the same songs, aimed at a late turnover crowd.
"Oh, c'mon, man!" Joe V. grinned. "I'm getting into this now."
I wriggled my index finger inside my ear.
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid of going partly deaf," I countered.
On the street, I could hear The Dolls a block away.
"If this night told me anything," said Joe V. "It's that rock n' roll is bullshit!"
He smiled when he said this; struck by the statement's Zen-like bluntness, I blurted:
"Huh? What do you mean?"
Joe V. toked on a Marlboro:
"I liked that lead singer-- the way he had his hair over his eyes."
"Yeah, but The Dolls are too obvious," I debated. "That Jonathan kid in The Modern Lovers, he was something else. He knew what was really going on in my head."
"Oh, c'mon, man! I'm telling you that whole thing was just a big put- on."
"Well, his influences were cooler," I said. "The band sounded like the Velvets."
"Yeah, I noticed the organist copped ‘Sister Ray' on that last song."
The discussion went on till the moon went down, an animated exchange that eclipsed the wan dialogue after the Allman Brothers concert. Other people staggered and laughed on the dim drizzly streets, on their way home from other parties, reminding me that The Endless Party held significance only for a small faction of rock fans and critics. Our discussion ended with mutual acknowledgment that both bands were fated for cult status; on the upside, they would always be remembered.
Decades later, The Endless Party still resonates in my rock n' roll heart, despite a few dated aspects. Though laced with ambiguity, Jonathan's obsession with ‘50's pop culture was a trend in the early ‘70's; The Dolls' sometime-macho schtick (best evidenced in "Bad Girl") doesn't jibe with today's "politically correct" consciousness.
However, most of the 1973 songs haven't dated. Time will never diminish the naked pathos of Richman's "Girl Friend" or the street kid brio of The Dolls' "Trash."
It will stand.
Also see our David Johansen interview and our Modern Lovers article
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