New York Dolls Too Much Too Soon

New York Dolls Too Much Too Soon
It’s not a great exaggeration to say that punk rock as we know it today would not exist without fashion-focused glitter rockers New York Dolls. While not technically a punk band, they paved the way for groups like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, helping create the audience for original rock music that led to the creation of CBGB and its infamous policy of originals-only. With a career that spanned only a few years, the influence of these young, flamboyant, but surprisingly heterosexual cross-dressers cannot be understated. The band’s success came almost as quickly as their downfall and tragedy, taking members from arenas to barns in Florida in a few short years. The junkie lifestyle for which some were poster boys was also what ultimately killed them, while others went on to work in libraries and, supposedly, drive taxis. With their first record of new material in 22 years landing this month, New York Dolls don’t have anything left to prove, and everything to gain.

A band called Actress, which includes Arthur "Killer” Kane on bass, Billy Murcia on drums, and Ricky Rivets on guitar, recruits a young guitar player named Johnny Volume to round out their line-up. Rivets is soon replaced by the Egyptian-born Sylvain Sylvain, and the band rechristen themselves the Dolls. Volume adopts the last name Thunders, and the band opts to drop the "the” and add "New York” to their name. Recruiting vocalist David Johansen, the band rehearse for a single night at Rusty’s Beanies Bike Shop before performing their first show, a set comprised of R&B and soul covers, at the Endicott Hotel, a homeless shelter in New York City.

In pre-CBGB New York, the band performs at the most unlikely venues, including the Mercer Arts Center, which features rock’n’roll bands on off nights. After playing a powerful set in one of the Center’s smallest rooms for a $3 cover, the band secures a weekly residency, performing every Tuesday in gradually larger rooms. In a city with little exciting, original rock music, New York Dolls become the band to see, mixing aggressive, tuneful music that combines the blues-influenced swagger of the Stones with a distinct attitude and aesthetic that pushes the gender barrier and equally excites and disgusts those who see them. Everyone from David Bowie to Andy Warhol come to see the band play, including Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, who would later claim that seeing New York Dolls was the impetus for the formation of their own seminal art punk band, Television. The band’s continuing popularity leads to an offer to open for Rod Stewart and the Faces in London at Wembley Arena in front of 13,000 people, a significant jump from their previous high of 350. The band dive headfirst into the lifestyle they are now afforded, and with offers of record deals coming in from the labels of Mick Jagger and the Who, among others, it looks like their career is on an upward trajectory. While still in England, however, drummer Billy Murcia ingests a near-lethal amount of Quaaludes and alcohol, and when two groupies place his body in a cold bathtub and force coffee down his throat in an attempt to revive him, he chokes to death.

For almost a month, the band struggle with the decision to continue as the Dolls without Murcia. Eventually, they decide to begin the auditioning process to find a new drummer; while Marc Bell, better known today as Marky Ramone, tries for the spot, Murcia’s stool is filled by Jerry Nolan, whose unique style cements the band’s original sound. Signing with Mercury Records, the band record their self-titled debut album in a week with producer Todd Rundgren. While New York Dolls peaks at #116 on the Billboard charts, it is critically praised for its brave new sound, though the femmed-up band shot that adorns the cover makes many uptight music consumers uncomfortable. The band travel back to England where they perform on BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test. Ripping through a set of originals, the band are as over-the-top as ever, which leads the show’s host, Whispering Bob Harris, to refer to them as "mock rock.” While Harris hates the band, a whole generation of UK teenagers latch on to the Dolls’ raw musical style and distinct fashion sense; some later credit the performance as the turning point in the English punk movement. (And five years later, Sid Vicious will mug Bob Harris in a London pub.) The band’s popularity as a live act begins to soar despite their flagging record sales, and a sold-out show at Paris’s Olympia Theatre leads to an intensely violent clash between police and some 4,000 fans who cannot get into the show; those who do, witness Thunders smashing his guitar over the head of a spitting audience member. A similar situation arises when the band play New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Halloween and 6,000 fans arrive in full glam regalia. Only half get in, and the remainder trash the hotel’s lobby. The band themselves smash a plate glass window and hit the stage two hours late, prompting influential rock promoter Howard Stein to swear he’ll never book the band again. While continuing to tour, Thunders meets groupie Sable Starr, who is only 16 at the time. The two begin a tumultuous love affair, and when Starr runs away from home, a warrant is issued for her arrest at the behest of her anxious parents. Expecting trouble, Starr heads straight for New York City while the band head out for their next batch of shows. Cyrinda Foxe, future wife of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, is erroneously arrested while waiting for the band at the airport, and, while annoyed, is flattered to be mistaken for 16 years old. (She’s 21.) Groupie troubles continue when Kane has his thumb split open in his sleep by Connie, an infamous New York groupie. Unable to play, the band recruit Peter Jordan as a temporary replacement. Sylvain and Johansen meet and befriend Malcolm McLaren, who is in New York to promote his Let It Rock designs with Vivienne Westwood.

The band’s hedonistic lifestyle evolves as their success grows. Nolan and Thunders get seriously into heroin, while Kane’s alcohol addiction continues to plague the Dolls’ live shows; frequently, he is so drunk that he is unable to speak, and his bass parts are played from offstage by Peter Jordan. The band continue to play an important part of New York’s burgeoning original rock scene, performing a legendary show in full drag at Club 82, the first time the band have wholly adopted the transgendered image they have played with over the years, although Thunders refuses to dress in full drag. Too Much Too Soon, a title that would prove prophetic in the coming years, is released to generally poor reviews and dismal sales. Many criticise the album’s more poppy feel, although songs like "Who Are The Mystery Girls” have continued to hold relevance and excitement as they age. Still, the album’s reception, even from fans of the band, is overwhelmingly negative, and in an attempt to revitalise their image, Sylvain and Johansen talk McLaren into returning to New York to manage the band. Excited by the opportunity, McLaren accepts, bringing with him a new image for the gutter-glam stars: red leather. Toying with communist imagery, McLaren and Westwood play on American paranoia and attempt to politicise the band by marketing them as Mao-loving rock ‘n rollers. The idea, unveiled during four poorly received shows in New York, is a miserable failure, completely distancing the band from mainstream musical culture and leading their hardcore fan base to question their motives for the change. McLaren’s ultimate legacy with the band, however, is in sending Kane to rehab and enrolling Thunders and Nolan in a methadone clinic; while he may not have saved the band, he is credited with saving the lives of its members.

Back on the small club circuit, the band heads down to Florida to play a tour McLaren has booked. The band hates the venues, which are often filled with no more than 20 people, with Nolan and Thunders in particular blaming McLaren for the miserable reception. The two are also relying on a small group of young kids to travel to Miami every day to buy them heroin, but when one of them is arrested, beaten, and spends five days in jail, all the kids get scared and refuse to supply either with any more drugs. Fed up with the tour and needing to score, Nolan and Thunders announce that they are leaving the band and returning home to New York. While the reason for their departure is initially seen as the result of issues with McLaren’s management, it will later be revealed that they were mainly looking to try Chinese Rocks, a type of heroin making its way through New York’s Lower East Side and made famous by the Ramones song of the same name. Intent on completing the tour, Sylvain, Johansen, and Kane recruit Blackie Lawless, who would go on to perform in W.A.S.P., but Kane leaves soon after Connie arrives in Florida, fleeing to L.A. to get away from her. Sylvain and Johansen struggle to continue the band without Kane, Nolan, or Thunders, playing the occasional live show, but the band slowly dissolve over the next two years in tragically unspectacular fashion. Back in New York, Nolan and Thunders look to form a new group where Thunders can function as a front-man. Television bassist Richard Hell, himself looking to front a group, agrees to join two days after leaving Television. Adding Walter Lure on second guitar, the band dub themselves the Heartbreakers.

Ego drives Hell from the Heartbreakers, as he and Thunders argue over who should be singing the majority of the songs. Billy Rath, a part-time gigolo, is tapped for bass duties. The band play around New York for a growing audience, and after reviewing one of their shows for New York Rocker magazine, Nancy Spungen begins to follow the band around, attaching herself to Nolan in particular. Around the end of the year, the band leave for a tour of England with one-way tickets and no work permits. Nearly denied entry upon their arrival, McLaren has to haggle with immigration employees to let the band into the country. The Heartbreakers bring two things to the UK with them: Nancy Spungen, and heroin; as part of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK tour with the Clash and the Damned, the Heartbreakers are often blamed for introducing the drug to the English punk scene.

New York Dolls officially break up, though by this point, no one is really paying attention. The Heartbreakers, riding waves of positive reviews and energetic audience reception, record their only studio record, L.A.M.F. ("Like A Motherfucker”). The record is released by Track Records, run by the managers of the Who, but its awful mix leads to terrible reviews and poor sales, nearly bankrupting the label and the band. Nolan quits over the mix issue, and is replaced for a brief period of time by Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. Nolan returns as a "hired musician,” claiming no membership to the band itself, but soon leaves again to be replaced by original Clash drummer Terry Chimes. The turmoil within the band, however, leads to the inevitable break-up by the end of the year, with Lure and Rath returning to New York while Thunders remains in London.

1978 to 1986
Thunders attempts to form a variety of bands, including Gang War with Wayne Kramer of the MC5. While the band never record a proper record, several live bootlegs exist. Thunders’ first solo outing features such notables as Chrissie Hynde, Glen Matlock, and Steve Jones, but none of Thunders’ solo material approaches the level of critical and commercial acclaim he had with the Dolls, or in the early days of the Heartbreakers. Thunders’ heroin addiction is crippling; he is declared "Burnt Out, Wasted, A Drugged Human Wreck” by British tabloids. Johansen also releases several solo records, often accompanied by Sylvain. Kane plays in a small number of unsuccessful bands, deeply troubled by his increasing reliance on alcohol, while Nolan occasionally fills in with Thunders at live gigs.

The best-known Doll-related success occurs when Johansen releases a self-titled record under his new pseudonym, the cheesy lounge-lizard act Buster Poindexter. The album’s single, "Hot Hot Hot,” goes on to become one of those songs you are likely to hear at any mediocre bar, anywhere on the planet, at any given time, should you stay long enough. Johansen will go on to call the song, "The bane of my existence.” As Poindexter, Johansen hosts a variety of shows on VH1, and is a frequent musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Johansen’s continued success in the entertainment realm leads to roles in films such as Scrooged, where he plays the Ghost of Christmas Past. After seeing him on TV, Kane, who has appeared in several films himself as a non-speaking extra, drinks a quart of peppermint schnapps, beats his wife with cat furniture, and jumps out a third story window, shattering his kneecaps and elbow. It is years before he can walk properly again. Two years later, sober Kane finds God and converts to Mormonism. Kane refers to the message he received as being like, "An LSD trip from the Lord.”

1991 to 1992
On April 23, 1991, Johnny Thunders is found dead in his hotel room in New Orleans. While numerous conspiracy theories surround his death, it is generally accepted that the long-time drug abuser overdosed on heroin and methadone. Less than a year later, on January 14, 1992, Jerry Nolan dies while in a coma brought on by a stroke following a bout of bacterial meningitis.

Morrisey, who was once the President of the New York Dolls Fanclub, asks the band to reunite for the Meltdown Festival, an annual event at London’s Royal Festival Hall, which is curated by a different UK pop star every year. The band’s surviving members decide to get back together, and play a single show on June 18. Despite the notable holes left by Nolan and Thunders, the band are tremendously well received. The show is particularly important for Kane, who has been working in a library for minimum wage for the last several years and whose troubled relationship with Johansen has continued to bother him since the band’s break-up. Twenty-two days after the show, Kane is diagnosed with leukaemia. He dies two hours later.

2005 to 2006
The brilliant New York Doll, chronicalling Kane’s life up until the band’s reunion, debuts at Sundance. Despite the loss of three original members, Sylvain and Johansen decide to continue to tour under the New York Dolls name, promising a record of new material, which is released by Roadrunner Records on July 25, 2006. One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This is a shockingly great record; while easily dismissed as a cash-grab, the record is arguably better than Too Much Too Soon, with more of the biting attitude and grit that made New York Dolls so important at its time. Featuring appearances by Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop, and Against Me!’s Tom Gabel, the record appears to hold the promise of bringing the band some of the attention they earned 30 years ago and never properly received.

Essential New York Dolls

New York Dolls (Mercury, 1973)
The band’s defining moment, this record set the stage for what would come later in the decade. Without New York Dolls, there would be no Marquee Moon, no Never Mind The Bollocks, and no Ramones. With the opening chords of "Personality Crisis,” these five dolled-up glitter rockers pushed music in a direction it was waiting for but hadn’t been given the chance. While the record will never hold the cache of punk’s first wave of classics, it remains a great rock’n’roll record more than 20 years later, with songs like "Jet Boy” and "Frankenstein” still possessing the power they did the day they were written.

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F. (Track, 1977)
Currently available online through Jungle Records ( with vastly improved mixes, this collection of Thunders-penned tunes demonstrates the appeal of the guitarist’s strung-out persona. Gritty as hell with a hearty dose of melody, songs like "Born to Lose” became anthems for the legions of hair-sprayed Thunders wannabes, and the record’s sound and aesthetic helped bring about the eventual rise of bands like the Hives and the Strokes. When Thunders wasn’t completely off his head, he wrote some incredible music, and listening to L.A.M.F. is, in many ways, a painful remainder of his tragic downfall.

New York Dolls One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This (Roadrunner, 2006)
A quick spin around the internet will turn up a fairly universal early reaction among critics: "Why doesn’t this record suck?” It doesn’t just not suck though. It fits perfectly into the canon of old Dolls material, as if nothing has changed in 20-plus years. Never mind that only two original members remain, and that most of the band’s early songs were co-written by Thunders. Maintaining the piss and vigour they had in their 20s, Sylvain and Johansen offer 14 tracks of raunchy, R&B-influenced rockers that, despite the obvious trepidation any listener brings to a record like this, is guaranteed to impress any fan of the band’s back catalogue.