NEW YORK DOLLS (1971–77, 2004–PRESENT). David Johansen (vocals), John Gezale, aka Johnny Thunders (guitar), Rick Rivets (guitar, replaced by Syl Sylvain), Arthur “Killer” Kane (bass), Billy Murcia (drums, replaced after death by Jerry Nolan).
New York Dolls were among the fathers of the punk and glam movements and their blues-based style and glitter/drag image went a long way to inspiring numerous bands musically, and in particular, the L.A. Sunset Strip scene. It would be difficult to imagine the look of a band like Poison, or Cinderella, or the sound of a band like Guns N’ Roses without the New York Dolls. The Dolls were founded in 1971, and by the early seventies the band had established their reputation as innovators largely by their residencies at the (now demolished) Mercer Arts Center in New York City.
The band was led by the charismatic David Johansen (who would later find commercial success as the ubiquitous Buster Poindexter in the eighties), along with guitarists Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain, bass player Arthur “Killer” Kane, and drummer Billy Murcia. Murcia died in 1972 and was replaced by new drummer Jerry Nolan. The band put out two classic records, the eponymous self-titled album, followed by the grittier but more sixties girl-group influenced Too Much Too Soon, which seemed to epitomize the band’s way of life.
After an unsuccessful tour with McLaren managing the band, things got worse and the band splinted down the middle, with Nolan and Thunders taking off to from the more straightforward punk Heartbreakers in 1976. For a while Sylvain and Johansen tried to keep the band going by themselves, but eventually Johansen spun off into a solo career, aided for a while by Sylvain, while Kane went into a downward spiral that lasted for several years. After a short and influential career with the Heartbreakers, Thunders went solo and released brilliant material sporadically throughout the years.
Many have said (e.g., McNeil and McCain 1996) that Thunders became a junkie after the Dolls broke up, with Nolan not far behind. Thunders was also allegedly largely responsible for introducing heroin to the English punk scene and eventually succumbed to a drug overdose under mysterious circumstances in New Orleans in 1991. Nolan died of meningitis in 1992, partly brought on by years of drug abuse. This would have marked the end of most bands but the Dolls’ story was not over yet. A chance for a reunion curated by uber-Dolls fan Morrissey (who had once been the head of the English branch of the New York Dolls fan club) led to a reunion gig at the Meltdown festival in 2004 featuring Kane, Johanson, and Sylvain who played a rapturous set of Dolls classics for a sold-out crowd.
The reemergence of the Dolls following their performance with original bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane at Meltdown marked a new chapter for the band, although tragically Kane did not live to see it, as he succumbed to leukemia shortly after the festival. The two remaining Dolls continued the tour in his memory with new guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sam Yaffa (formerly of Hanoi Rocks), drummer Brian Delaney, and keyboardist Brian Koonin. Their new record, the first in over thirty years, proved to be just as exciting and even more complex than the early Dolls’ records, a rare instance of a band with more deceased members than living members can still be a force to reckon with. The Dolls were a huge influence on metal and glam metal in particular, and Johnny Thunders’s junkie-fueled guitar hero persona (partially based on Keith Richards) was a very obvious influence on the L.A. metal scene of the eighties, and on Slash and Izzy from Guns N’ Roses, among many others.
Discography: New York Dolls (Mercury, 1973); Too Much Too Soon (Mercury, 1974; Mercury/Hip-O Select; 2005); New York Dolls (Mercury, 1977); Lipstick Killers: The Mercer Street Sessions 1972 (tape, Roir, 1981; CD, Roir/Important, 1990; Roir, 2000); Red Patent Leather (Fr. Fan Club, 1984); Best of the New York Dolls (UK Mercury, 1985); David & Sylvain: Tokyo Dolls Live! (Fr. Fan Club, 1986); The Original Pistols/New York Dolls: After the Storm (UK Receiver, 1985); Night of the Living Dolls (Mercury, 1986); Personality Crisis [EP] (UK Kamera, 1986); Morrisse Presents the Return of the New York Dolls Live from Royal Festival Hall, 2004 (Attack/Sanctuary, 2004); One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This (Roadrunner, 2006); Cause I Sez So (Atco, 2009); Dancing Backward in High Heels (429 Records, 2011).