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Members include David Johansen (born David Jo Hansen on January 9, 1950, in Staten Island, NY; son of a light opera singer/insurance salesman and a homemaker; married and divorced Cyrinda Foxe, married Kate Simon), lead vocals; Johnny Thunders (born John Anthony Genzale on July 15, 1952, in Queens, NY; died on April, 23, 1991, in New Orleans, LA; son of Emil and Josephine Genzale), lead guitar, vocals; Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi in 1949 in Cairo, Egypt; divorced; children: Odell), rhythm guitar, vocals; Arthur Harold Kane Jr. (a.k.a. Killer Kane; born on February 3, 1949, in Bronx, NY; died on July 15, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; attended Pratt College, earned degree in hotel management), bass, vocals; Jerry Nolan (born on May 7, 1946, in Brooklyn, NY; died on January 14, 1992, in New York City), drums. Addresses: Record company---Sanctuary Records Group, 45-53 Sinclair Road, London W14 0NS, England, phone: +44 (0) 20 7602 6351, e-mail: customerservices@sanctuaryrecords.co.uk. Management---Darren Hill, Ten Pin Management, phone: (401) 726-3728, website: http://www.tenpinmgt.com.

An American "glam rock" band of the 1970s, the New York Dolls have often been considered as among both the best and worst groups in history. The Dolls are viewed most often as a seminal outfit whose sloppily played yet sharply crafted songs, outrageous demeanor, powerful stage presence, and self-destructive behavior paved the way for such musical genres as punk rock and hair metal (heavy metal with an elaborate fashion sense). Though the Dolls put out only two studio albums in their short existence, they are acknowledged as one of the most important yet underrated groups in rock music, a band of true originals who never achieved mainstream success but were far ahead of their time. In addition, the Dolls are regarded as a consummately tragic band, due to the premature deaths of four of their six members.

The group's definitive lineup was composed of David Johansen on lead vocals and harmonica, Johnny Thunders on lead guitar and vocals, Sylvain Sylvain on rhythm guitar and vocals, Arthur "Killer" Kane on bass, and Jerry Nolan, who replaced Billy Murcia, on drums. As New York street kids with a mutual love of rhythm and blues and early rock, the Dolls played short, witty original songs and covers by artists like R&B pioneer Bo Diddley and 1960s girl group the Shangri-Las. Though technically limited, the Dolls played fast and loud, with an energy bordering on aggression. They also had a particularly distinctive appearance---though heterosexual, they dressed in drag, wearing women's clothes and makeup. As performers they were raunchy and theatrical, often baiting their audiences or falling off the stage. The group was controversial: though disliked by many critics, they were applauded by young people who related to their rebelliousness and humor, as well as to the visceral quality of their music.

Looking for a Good Time

Speaking to Robert Christgau of Newsday, Thunders said that the Dolls saw themselves as "just a bunch of kids looking for a good time." Sylvain chimed in, "That's right, apple pie and ice cream." Sylvain, a Sephardic Jew born in Cairo, came to Queens, New York, after his family was exiled from Egypt during the Arab/Israeli War of 1956. He was the best friend of the Dolls' original drummer, Murcia, who had moved to Queens from Bogota, Colombia. Sylvain and Murcia designed clothes for the Truth and Soul line and played music in bands like the Pox and Actress. Johnny Genzale, a striking "bad-boy" type who was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, played bass in Actress, then switched to lead guitar. Genzale decided to change his name, first to Johnny Volume and then to Johnny Thunders, after Johnny Thunder, a Wild West hero in DC Comics. Actress subsequently became the Dolls of New York. The name, suggested by Sylvain, was taken from the Doll Hospital of New York, a place where toys were mended. When he left the band to work as a sweater designer in London, Sylvain was replaced as rhythm guitarist by Rick Rivets (George Fedorcik). Rivets's best friend, Arthur Kane, joined the group on bass. Kane was a Bronx boy, a straight-A student who got into the rock 'n' roll lifestyle after his mother died. When Thunders decided to forego singing lead in order to concentrate on guitar, the band drafted Johansen, a Staten Island native who liked Beat poetry and had acted with the Ridiculous Theatre Company, an avant-garde troupe. When Sylvain returned from England, he replaced Rivets, and the group began to play Manhattan clubs as the New York Dolls.

The Dolls played their first engagement at the Diplomat Hotel in New York City, a venue in Times Square. They took up a 17-week residency at the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex that attracted an exceptionally flamboyant audience, which the band tried to outdo. After playing regularly at the popular club Max's Kansas City, the Dolls established themselves as one of New York's biggest downtown bands. They hired Marty Thau, who had worked for several record labels, as manager. Thau attempted to get the band a deal in the United States, but when no record company would touch them, he took the Dolls to England. At Wembley Stadium, the Dolls opened for the Faces, a band featuring vocalist Rod Stewart, a performance that led to contract offers with several English labels. However, Murcia died unexpectedly, of drug-related causes, before a deal could be signed.

All Dolled Up

After returning to New York, the remaining Dolls considered breaking up, but were joined by Jerry Nolan, a former drummer for Shaker, and his addition brought new life and a greater professionalism to the band. Murcia's death had brought the group an additional notoriety, and domestic record companies began to woo them. In 1973 the Dolls signed with Mercury Records and recorded their first album, The New York Dolls, with Todd Rundgren, a noted musician and producer, at the helm. Sporting a controversial cover that showed the band in full drag, The New York Dolls came to be considered a classic record, one that reflected universal teenage concerns and social issues while representing the toughness and spirit of the Big Apple. Ira Robbins of Trouser Press wrote, "This record stands as a testament to American youth in the 70s." In the book Alternative Rock, Dave Thompson later called the LP "the yardstick by which all future glitter-trash merchants would be measured."

After the release of their first record, the Dolls went on a national tour, supporting English rockers Mott the Hoople. Reviewers commented on the strength of the songwriting by Johansen, Thunders, and Sylvain, and on the inventive guitar interplay between Thunders and Sylvain. Observers also noted the band's campy fashion sense and the resemblance of Johansen and Thunders to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, one of the Dolls' major influences. However, some critics condemned the band as a joke, calling them a group of amateurs who couldn't sing or play. Writing in Creem, Ben Edmonds called the Dolls "the most walked-out-on band in the history of show business." While on tour, the Dolls began to develop a reputation for rock-star excesses: drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, and even riots became standard fare. In England the Dolls appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a popular television program hosted by Bob Harris, who dismissed the band's music as "mock rock" in his on-air comments. While in England the Dolls became friends with fashion designer/entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who ran the vintage clothing shop Let It Rock. McLaren would later have a profound impact on the future of the Dolls.

Stranded in the Jungle

Back in the United States, the Dolls recorded their second album, Too Much, Too Soon (also called In Too Much, Too Soon), with producer George "Shadow" Morton, who had worked with the Shangri-Las. The album was named for an autobiography and film describing the tragic life of actress Diana Barrymore. It contained fewer original songs than its predecessor, and possessed a more polished sound, including female backing vocals and sound effects such as gunshots and gongs. Writing in Phonograph Record, Ron Ross commented that Too Much "chooses to represent the group as entertainers rather than rock and roll saviours. The album expresses their easy going ironic sensibility far more amusingly and accessibly than their first." Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone called the Dolls "the best hard-rock band in America right now." However, Too Much also received negative press for being underdone and overproduced. The group began another tour of the United States, but their problems, including cancelled shows and drug and alcohol addictions, began to cause internal strife. After being dropped by Mercury, the Dolls began to work with McLaren, who created a new image for them based on the Communist Party, complete with red leather suits and a hammer-and-sickle flag. Audiences did not appreciate the band's new politics, and in March of 1975 the Dolls broke up.

After the breakup of the band, McLaren returned to England, where he applied what he had learned from the Dolls to his new creation, punk-rock icons the Sex Pistols. Johansen and Sylvain kept the Dolls going with additional musicians until 1977, then both embarked on solo careers. Thunders and Nolan started the Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell, then worked together in LAMF and Gang War (with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer) before Thunders went solo. Kane formed his own groups, Killer Kane and the Corpse Grinders, with Rivets. Sylvain accompanied Johansen and Thunders on their respective first solo tours, then formed such groups as the Ugly Americans (with Nolan), the Criminals, the Teardrops, and Teenage News. Johansen had the most success as an individual artist. He also worked with the revivalist band the Harry Smiths, as an actor in films, as a disc jockey, and as a painter. In 1991 Thunders died in New Orleans from leukemia; traces of cocaine and methedrine were found in his system. In 1992 Nolan, who, like Thunders, had become a heroin addict, died from a stroke and from complications of pneumonia and meningitis. Kane, a recovering alcoholic, was mugged during the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and spent nearly a year in the hospital. In 2004 Morrissey asked the surviving Dolls to reunite at the Meltdown Festival, a concert that he organized at London's Royal Festival Hall. Johansen, Sylvain, and Kane played with Libertines drummer Gary Powell and guitarist Steve Conte, a boyhood friend of Murcia. That August, Kane died of leukemia; a few days later, the Dolls (with ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa) played Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival.

Although they were often reviled during their career, the Dolls have become legendary as a group that changed rock music, challenged stereotypes, and created the blueprint for subsequent bands like KISS, Aerosmith, the Clash, the Ramones, and Guns'n'Roses. English rocker David Bowie wrote two songs based on his friendship with the Dolls, "Time' and "Watch that Man," and the Sex Pistols dedicated their tune "New York (Dolls)" to the group. Writing in Musician, Roy Trakin said, "Simultaneously stripping down the pretensions which [rock'n'roll] had accrued during the hyperbolic 60s and building them up again with spit and glitter, the Dolls made rock'n'roll matter again." In The New York Dolls: Too Much, Too Soon, Nina Antonia described the band as "the Bowery butterflies that irrevocably changed the course of rock'n'roll." Speaking to Antonia, Johansen called the Dolls "the best high school band you ever saw!," while Sylvain described the group as "five little punky kids who had turned music upside down and started all over again." Speaking to Simon Goddard of Uncut, Kane said, "I don't think the world was ready for us. We weren't designed for the world." In an interview with Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Nolan recalled, "I loved that group so much you wouldn't believe it.... They were my dream come true."

by Gerard J. Senick

New York Dolls's Career

Group formed in New York City, as the Dolls of New York, 1970; later changed name to New York Dolls; Dolls performed during 17-week residency at Mercer Arts Center and played regularly at Max's Kansas City, both New York City; PR man Marty Thau hired as band's manager, 1972; band opened for the Faces at Wembley Stadium, London, 1972; signed two-album contract with Mercury Records, 1973; released self-titled album in same year; toured U.S. and Europe; released second album, Too Much, Too Soon, 1974; group broke up, 1975; ex-Dolls worked as solo artists and occasionally played backup for each other onstage; surviving Dolls reunited at London's Royal Festival Hall, 2004; band (with Sami Yaffa on bass) played at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival in New York City, 2004.

New York Dolls's Awards

Creem Reader's Poll (joint award), Best Group of the Year/Worst Group of the Year, 1974.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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