The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon
by Nina Antonia Ominbus Press 208 pages
The New York Dolls’ musical onslaught lasted only from 1971 to 1975, and the band achieved little financial success. But the Dolls’ gritty, bluesy street rock, outrageous drag-queen attire, and drugs’n’booze-fueled decadence altered the course of rock’n’roll and set the stage for the punk movement.
When the Velvet Underground disbanded in 1971, the downtown subculture of New York, which revolved around the club Max’s Kansas City, lost its key musical voice. But the Dolls picked up where the Velvets left off. As Nina Antonia writes in her hard- to-put-down book “The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon,” the Dolls “would go far beyond the the Velvet Underground’s dark, introverted predilections to become the extroverted oracles of Manhattan.”
The author also of “In Cold Blood: The Authorized Biography Of Johnny Thunders,” Antonia strengthens her bold, if not shocking, account of the Dolls’ reckless career by including interviews with band members and those who were close to the group, including sound man Peter Jordan, journalist Paul Nelson, late-period Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren—who eventually managed the Sex Pistols—and many others.
She begins by covering the teenage years of the would-be Dolls. Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, a native of Egypt, eventually settled in New York’s Queens, where he met the Dolls’ late drummer, Billy Murcia, who came from Colombia. The two buddied up with star Little League baseball player Johnny Genzale. When they and others started playing music together, Genzale changed his surname to Thunders after a comic-book cowboy hero. Soon, he switched from bass to lead guitar, and the band was up and running.
Early on, they would call themselves Actress, because of the glitter-style garb they began wearing after bassist Arthur Kane saw the silver jumpsuits worn by Alice Cooper’s band. “I knew we had to look wilder than that,” he tells Antonia. At first, the group’s material was composed mostly of Thunders’ tunes sung by the guitarist himself, but although he possessed a compellingly reedy voice, he wanted to remain the lead axeman. So they brought in David Johansen, a charismatic Staten Island kid with a foghorn voice who looked like a cross between Mick Jagger and French actress Simone Signoret.
Eventually, many compared the Dolls’ ballsy rock to the Stones’ ’70-era songs. At one point, the Dolls auditioned for Rolling Stone Records, but, according to Antonia, Jagger said, “I just don’t think much of [the Dolls] at all.”
The Dolls began developing a loyal following in New York, even though they were far from being musically adept. As Antonia notes, “They managed to take advantage of their shortcomings by playing an imaginative approximation of rock’n’roll that gave their music a sharply dyslexic signature. Thunders’ guitar sound bucked and whinnied like a wild pony, and Kane had his own unique bass technique.”
While rehearsing at a space called Talent-Recon, the band would come in contact with a bluejeans-clad bunch that looked like cowboys. After watching the makeup- and high-heel-wearing Dolls become so beloved in New York, these cowboys made themselves up like monsters and animals and changed their name to Kiss.
During this period, all the gender-bending concerning the Dolls mostly centered around Johansen, Antonia believes. Whether or not it was in jest, the singer wanted to be the first male rock star to have breast implants. “When cornered on his sexuality, David pronounced himself ‘tri- sexual,’ meaning he’d try anything,” the author writes. But she says the Dolls didn’t want to be perceived as being gay. “They were pretty peacocks, not chicks with dicks.”
Around the time of Murcia’s reportedly drug-related death in 1972, the band’s substance abuse began running amok. Thunders befriended the Dolls’ next drummer, the hard-hitting Jerry Nolan, and both mutated into hard-core heroin junkies. Writes Antonia, “Like so many other bands of the time, the New York Dolls ran on a diet of booze and chemicals. Unlike their peers, however, the Dolls never knew how or when to stop.”
In 1991, Thunders, who had gone on to front the Heartbreakers, died from an apparent drug overdose, and Nolan passed away the following year from an illness. Still, all the dope stories surrounding Thunders have clouded the musician’s huge contributions to guitar playing and rock music.
Just as upsetting as the band’s drug abuse was the amount of time it took for them to get a recording contract from a conservative music industry too afraid to take a chance on them. Finally, in 1973, the Dolls signed a two-album deal with Mercury. (The subtitle of Antonia’s book bears the title of the band’s second album.)
Antonia’s book takes a hardhitting look at the New York Dolls, but while she sheds light on the band’s sordid overindulgences, she doesn’t go deep enough into its music. Nevertheless, the Dolls’ overindulgences were a crucial aspect of their tough, grimy persona. As Antonia writes, “The New York Dolls were a self-destructive, hedonistic, split-second comet, a wonderful searing vision that liberated rock’n’roll.”
JEFFREY L. PERLAH