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Music Review

New York Dolls fill their own big shoes

Only David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain remain from the original '70s lineup. Only David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain remain from the original '70s lineup. (Joe Gaffney)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2008

My friend said it best: Nobody can mug like David Johansen. He had first seen Johansen and his cross-dressing band of glam-punk reprobates the New York Dolls perform somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, on a triple bill with Blue Oyster Cult and Mott the Hoople, 35 years ago. In other words, the Dolls were on the prowl and "looking for a kiss" (yep, they did that one Saturday night) before some of Saturday's sold-out Paradise crowd had even been born.

Three decades later, they're still doing it, and Johansen - when he wasn't singing in that guttural, bowery howl of his - is still mugging, smirking, and clowning around, for himself and us. When Sylvain Sylvain and Steve Conte's electric guitars meshed like blunted steel razors on "Babylon," and drummer Brian Delaney's primal beat drove home the cheap thrills of "Trash," an absurdly gleeful Cheshire Cat grin creased Johansen's eyes into crude slashes and seemed to split his face in two.

Back in '73, Johansen looked like a Mick Jagger cartoon caricature. Now craggier in his late 50s, but with a full head of shaggy brown hair, shimmying around the stage in matchstick-thin black trousers, skin-tight pink sequined top, shades, and a chunky belt that may have weighed more than he did, the resemblance was stronger than ever.

The rocket-launched power of "Jet Boy" all but erased the lipstick-smeared traces of the Dolls' tortured history - a tailspin of drugs, disease, and, well, drugs that's left only Johansen and Sylvain still standing (and preening) amid the rubble. As they did two years ago at Axis, the pair of original Dolls led the three newly minted ones in a reading of "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" that segued into "Lonely Planet Boy," a touching tribute to their fallen guitarist Johnny Thunders. Earlier, they dedicated "Private World" to the band's most recent casualty, bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who had co-written the tune with Johansen and died in 2004.

Somehow, the surviving Dolls managed to simultaneously embrace and embody their history with dignity, and yet move on from it with a loose, renewed sense of purpose and fun. Especially striking was how vital the songs from 2006's "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This" sounded alongside the old smudged warhorses. With its '60s girl-group, bubblegum-sweet melody, the newbie "Plenty of Music" proved nearly the pleasure of the swaggering cock-of-the-walk opener, "Puss 'N Boots." Likewise, the hard-won wisdom and grizzled grace that beat at the tender heart of the new "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano" were virtues the Dolls merely hinted at in their younger days. Too much too soon back then? Perhaps. But just enough now, definitely.

The New York Dolls

At: the Paradise Rock Club, Saturday

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