DATE July 28, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Johansen talks about being a member of the New
York Dolls and performing as Buster Poindexter
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is musician and actor David Johansen. He was a founding member and
front man for the early '70s glam band, the New York Dolls. Later, in his
lounge-lizard persona of Buster Poindexter, Johansen had the hit "Hot, Hot,
Hot." The Dolls formed in 1971. They were one of the first straight bands to
dress glam. They wore lipstick, eye makeup, platform heels and sexually
ambiguous clothes. In a recent New York Times profile, Will Hermes wrote,
"For a band that effectively lasted three years, made two records and achieved
but a dusting of fame, the Dolls' do-something spirit left a huge platform
booted imprint on rock history."
Their sound was loud and rough, and as the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock
& Roll says, they set the stage for the punk movement that followed five years
later. Two years ago, Johansen and the other surviving members of the New
York Dolls reunited for a festival in England. Initially conceived as a
one-time reunion, that performance led to other shows and a new studio
recording, their first in over three decades. It's called "One Day It Will
Please Us to Remember Even This."
Terry spoke with David Johansen in 2004. Before we hear their conversation,
here's "Dance Like a Monkey" from the new Dolls CD.
(Soundbite of "Dance Like a Monkey")
NEW YORK DOLLS: (Singing) "You designed so intelligent, ain't no way that was
an accident. C'mon shake your monkey here. My...(unintelligible)...little
creation there. Oh! Ain't going to anthropomorphize you. All perversely
piling up inside you. Yeah, little girl, you look so sweet. You gotta dance
like a monkey, dance like a monkey, child. Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, you just
started 10,000 years ago. Presto, Adam and Eve, and go, man, go. Abel died,
Cain took his life and went straight to the jungle to find a wife. Wow!
Nonbelievers blame it all on him. (Unintelligible). (Unintelligible). You
gotta dance like a monkey, dance like a monkey, child. Drop your hands and
clap your feet. You gotta dance like a monkey, dance like a monkey, child.
(End of soundbite)
TERRY GROSS, host:
David Johansen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You want to tell the story of how
Morrissey invited you to reunite the band and/or the surviving members of the
band and do this concert?
Mr. DAVID JOHANSEN: Well, when he was a kid, he was the president of The
Dolls fan club and he--so I've had a couple of run-ins with him over the years
and so he wasn't, you know, a total stranger to me. So he called me up and,
you know, so I wasn't, like, shocked that he called me, because sometimes he
asked me what a word in a song means or something. He's kind of like a
Dolls-ologist, and usually I have no idea what he's talking about.
But he proposed this--what is it called?--the Meltdown festival, and
it's--every year in London they have this--I don't know how long it lasts, two
weeks or something. And they get some English rock 'n' roll star to curate
it, and he asks, you know, his favorite groups or singers or acts, or
whatever--I mean, it could be a ventriloquist; it could be anything. So he
asked me to do this, and when he asked it, I--it was the last thing on my
mind, you know, it was the furthest thing from my mind so, I was like, `I
don't think so,' and he was like, `Oh, please, please, please.' And you know,
I said to him, `Would you do that with your old group?' and he said,
`Absolutely not.' And I said, `Aha!'
Mr. JOHANSEN: But then, you know, it was really something I never considered
doing because of, you know, Johnny, who I thought was, like, essential to the
whole thing--Johnny Thunder, being in Woodlawn, or wherever he lives. So I
said, `You know, let me sleep on it.' Because I had been going through this
phase--I think I'm kind of still in it--where I don't want to reject things
out of hand, you know, that kind of like `been there, done that, let's do
something else' kind of thing. I just want to give things a little more
consideration. So I considered it and I thought, you know, it'd be great to
get together with the cads and play a little and have a couple of laughs. And
so I acquiesced the next day, I think, or the day after that.
GROSS: So when you were on stage, you know, with the reunited and the new
version of the Dolls and you were doing the old Dolls songs, did you have any,
like, flashbacks to things that you had totally forgotten about? Like, did
memories, like, surface of things that were really interesting, that you had
completely forgotten about until you were back in that setting again?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, I have memories but, God, they're vague, you know?
(Laughs) I mean, I remember the first time we made a record with Todd
Rundgren, and the only thing I remember is the lights on the control board, I
thought they were really pretty.
Mr. JOHANSEN: And that's really the only memory I have...
GROSS: Any historian would want to know all about that.
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...of making that first record. You know, people think I'm
kidding when they ask, `Well, what was it like making that first record?'
because, you know, it kind of became this benchmark kind of record.
GROSS: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Mr. JOHANSEN: That's really the only memory I have of it. But, you know,
the thing that struck me was, I had to kind of sit down and listen to the
music and write the words down and learn them. And I thought...
GROSS: Oh, you had to relearn your own songs?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah, because, you know, I hadn't sung them in God knows how
long, you know. I mean, it wasn't like I had to relearn them from scratch
because they kind of come back to you, but I had to have some kind of thing to
look at. And, you know, I find that when I write something it goes into my
head better than if...
GROSS: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...I just try to memorize it. So I was writing, for example,
like, "Human Being" and I was thinking, `God, how did I write that song? This
is great.' (Laughs)
Mr. JOHANSEN: I mean, it really holds up; you know, it's kind of like a
declaration that, I think, is timeless. So there's a lot of stuff like that
in the songs which--let me explain something to you. There was a time, you
know, when we started the Dolls and we were really such a gang and it was like
us against the world, and we were really trying to evolve music into something
new and it was, you know, very kind of almost militant to us. And then over
the years, you know, in the history books, you know, like the Rolling Stone
Complete Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, or something, you know, you go into
Coliseum and sit down and you look in the appendix and see where your name is
and see what they say about you. It's not like you buy the book. And they
would always say, you know, `They were trashy, they were flashy, they were
drug addicts, they were drag queens,' you know? And that whole kind of trashy
blah-blah-blah thing, I think, over the years kind of settled in my mind as,
`Oh yeah, that's what it was,' you know?
And then by going back to it and deconstructing it and then putting it back
together again, I realized that, you know, it really is art and that some
critic at one time had come up with this catchall phrase that, as you know,
once somebody says it, then everybody just looks it up and they say it because
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...nobody has an original idea.
GROSS: Well, in spite of the fact that you don't remember a whole lot about
parts of the early days of the Dolls, do you remember writing a song,
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, you know, I don't remember exactly sitting down and
writing the words, but I remember where I got the name, because I was kind of
like an acolyte in Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre when I was a kid. This
is when I was, you know, 17, 18, 19. And Charles...
GROSS: And let's just describe what Charles Ludlam's Theater was. He used to
dress in drag a lot as the leading lady in these, like, Greta Garbo kind of
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah. But it was so much more than that.
Mr. JOHANSEN: It was really very intelligent stuff that he used to do. And
he used to combine a lot of genres of...
GROSS: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...you know, classical playwriting in, you know, like Moliere,
he would put in with something kitschy that was present, you know, present-day
stuff and he would put--he would make this melange of ideas that were just
so--they would come out so original and brilliant that--you know, people throw
the word `genius' around, but he was actually a genius. He was one of the
most intelligent people I think I've ever met. But I think one day we were at
a rehearsal or something, and he just said, `Oh, God, I'm having a personality
crisis,' and I just thought, `Oh, that's really good,' and I wrote it down,
you know, "Personality Crisis." And that's really all I remember about writing
the song, and the song came from that.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Personality Crisis" as performed by the New
York Dolls at the Meltdown Festival over the summer? So this is from the new
CD, and there's a DVD version of this, too, "The Return of the New York
(Soundbite of "Personality Crisis")
NEW YORK DOLLS: (Singing) "Whoa! Yow! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, baby, no!
No, baby, yeah! Yeah, no, no, yeah, no! You're my sister. I'm your mother.
We can't take her this week. Her friends don't want another speech. Hoping
for a better day to hear what she's got to say. All about that personality
crisis. You got it while it was hot. Come on! But now frustration and
heartache is what you got. Whatcha got? Personality!"
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: The New York Dolls with frontman David Johansen.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with David Johansen. The New
York Dolls have just released a new CD. A 2004 reunion performance, recorded
at a British music festival, was also released on CD and DVD.
GROSS: In the liner notes for the DVD and the CD, you write about Arthur
Kane. This was his last performance. He was the bass player of the band.
And it was Arthur Kane who knocked on your door and recruited you to be in The
Dolls when the band was being formed. He died just a few weeks after the
concert. Did you even know he was sick?
Mr. JOHANSEN: No, and neither did he. You know, he had had this incredible
life, Arthur. And actually, a friend of his is making a documentary about it
as we speak, and I guess it'll come out sometime, and people can get an idea
of what his life was like. He was just this really brilliant guy who had this
incredible insight into reality that was--it was just one step to the left of
probably the most radical people I had ever met at that point. And I don't
even mean, you know, politics. I just mean in the way he saw things. And
they were always spot on. And he was just so brilliant to me. And then he
kind of--he had come from this family that was just like hell on earth. And
he got a taste for the booze and went through, like, a lot of years of just
being drunk all the time. And he got--I remember he got to this point where
you would just say, `Hi, Arthur,' and he would just say, `Woof.' His only word
Anyway, he went through all this stuff--I mean, I can't begin to tell you--in
his life. He fell out a window. He did this. He got hit by a car. He did
this a few times. And then he came out the other side, and he got involved
with, like, you know, the Mormons and became librarian at the family history
office at the Mormon Tabernacle. And so he was, like, this Mormon, but with
this really kind of demented outlook on life that--so he wasn't, you know,
like a proselytizer. When I saw him again, he said, `You know, I'm not a
proselytizing Mormon.' But he just was so wonderful, and I can't explain to
you what kind of a guy he was, because there's no one you can compare him to.
GROSS: Well, let...
Mr. JOHANSEN: He had this very high voice, and he was six foot five or
GROSS: Let's talk about how he did recruit you for the band. He knocked on
your door, your apartment in Manhattan. You were, what, around 19 or
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah.
GROSS: What did he tell you about this new band?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, there was a guy who lived in my building who I used to
kind of, you know, jam with and strum guitars, and he was this Colombian guy
who played bongos. And we used to just sit around and play music. And he
knew Billy Murcia, who was the original drummer in the Dolls. And he told
these guys that--who were looking for a singer that I was a singer, and he
thought I was a pretty good singer.
And so one day, Arthur was just at my door with Billy, and Arthur was about
three feet taller than Billy and he just said, `I hear you're a singer.' And I
said, `Yeah,' and I invited them in, and we started talking, and they said
they had a band and they were looking for a singer. And I was looking for a
band, and we just--really that day actually, we left my apartment and went,
like, four blocks up the street to Johnny Thunder's apartment where there was
some drums and guitars and stuff and started to play, and we were a band
GROSS: What were some of the things that you knew you didn't want to be
about, the kind of music that you thought had ended?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Oh, you know, at that time, there was, like, these
interminable drum solos. And you know what happens when the drum solo stops.
That's the worst. Then the bass takes a solo. And stuff like that, you know.
And we just wanted to kind of have some really wham-bam songs. And I mean,
for me, the whole thing was, like--if you have to compare it to
something--like a Little Richard kind of presentation.
And I can remember when I was really young and I would go to the Merita Kay
shows, you know, and I saw Mitch Ryder. And, you know, these shows had 30
acts, and everybody would come out and do two or three minutes, and Mitch
Ryder would come out and do a medley of his three big hits. He would come out
in, like, kind of like a tuxedo, and within 45 seconds, he was half naked and
sweating like a pig. And we just wanted to make an explosion, you know, of
So that's what was missing. You know, rock 'n' roll had become very kind of
pedantic and meandering, and it was looking for something, but it was like an
actor in search of a play or something, you know.
GROSS: Now on the album cover of the album "The New York Dolls," you're all
dressed in this kind of trashy drag with a lot of eye makeup and lipstick.
You're wearing a bouffant wig. I assume it's a wig.
Mr. JOHANSEN: No, it wasn't a wig.
GROSS: It wasn't a wig?
Mr. JOHANSEN: No.
GROSS: You teased your hair for it, 'cause it's very bouffant.
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah, they--well, somebody teased it.
GROSS: Somebody teased it, right. And you're wearing what looks like capri
pants and high-heeled clogs, an open cardigan revealing your bare chest. And
you're staring at yourself in the mirror of a makeup compact?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Right.
GROSS: And the band's name is written in lipstick.
Mr. JOHANSEN: Right.
GROSS: For those of us who didn't get to see you on stage, how did that
compare with how you actually looked on stage?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, that was probably, you know--I mean, I think, you know,
to the average civilian, it probably didn't look any different, but to us, we
were, like, dressing up a little bit more, make it a little special for the
record cover, you know.
You know, Sylvain was in the rag trade with Billy. They had this little
sweater company called Truth of It. Well, they sold it to this company called
Truth And Soul. They used to make these Poorboy sweaters. They had a loom.
And through that, they knew a lot of people who actually are very kind of
famous designers now, but who were just getting started. And I think it was,
like, Betsey Johnson and these women that she used to work with. They had a
store in St. Mark's Place, and they knew a photographer, and they knew a
makeup guy, and they knew this and that. And you know, we didn't know
anything about that stuff. I think they helped to facilitate that photo
GROSS: What inspired your interest in or willingness to be in a kind of drag
for performances? I mean, you mentioned you had been with Charles Ludlam's
Ridiculous Theater, and drag was often a part of their performances in
theater. So where did you see it fitting into your music?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, you know, we were, you know--the hotbed of revolution at
that time was, you know, St. Mark's Place on Second Avenue. And through
that, you know, there were so many artists there and, you know, actors and
people who were doing these plays, like the Ridiculous people. And there was,
you know, filmmakers and poets and painters, and we were the band of that
crowd. I mean, it wasn't like we were the band of even New York City. You
know, we were the band, basically, of the East Village, you know.
And it wasn't so much like a sexual thing, 'cause, you know, like sexuality
refers to, like, biological aspects. It was more like a gender thing, you
know. And gender is, like, you know, like the cultural differences that grow
up around the biological differences, so instead of, like, male and female,
like, gender is really masculine and feminine, right? I think the trick for
us at the time was to decide which characteristics were sex and which were
gender, you know. And, you know, because there's certain things that males do
and there's certain things females do. I mean, the universe didn't make two
sexes for nothing.
GROSS: Did a lot of people early on assume that you were gay because of the
way you dressed in performing or because of the album cover?
Mr. JOHANSEN: I don't know. I don't know. I mean, it was obvious we
weren't gay. I mean, you know, but maybe to some people it was, you know?
Mr. JOHANSEN: You know how some people, you know--I mean, to some people,
everybody's gay, you know. Like, you could say, like--you could be talking to
somebody and go, `Oh, that Hitler,' and they go, `Gay!' you know.
Mr. JOHANSEN: So I mean, some people just think everybody's gay, but I don't
know. We were, like, these kind of street kids from, you know, from St.
Mark's Place, you know. And we just had this idea that, you know, at the
time, masculine meant strong and assertive, feminine meant weak and demure,
and this was a time of, like, redefinition of the roles, you know.
GROSS: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Mr. JOHANSEN: It was overdue. And it was just part of evolution, I think,
you know. And everything kind of transcends and goes beyond what went before.
And, otherwise, what's the use of doing anything, you know?
DAVIES: David Johansen speaking with Terry Gross. Their conversation
continues in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
NEW YORK DOLLS: (Singing) "Oh, breakdown..."
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Our guest musician and actor, David Johansen, was a founding member and
frontman for the early '70s glam band the New York Dolls. The surviving
members of the band have reunited and released their first recording in three
decades. It's called "One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This." Terry
spoke to David Johansen in 2004.
GROSS: Let me ask you about a couple of bands and what your first reaction
was when you heard them or saw them and how that affected you. Let's start
with Mick Jagger since, you know, I think you've been very influenced by him,
particularly the early Rolling Stones stuff. So what was your first reaction
to seeing the Stones, seeing Jagger?
Mr. JOHANSEN: When I was a kid?
Mr. JOHANSEN: You mean, like on "Ed Sullivan" or something?
GROSS: Or "Hollywood Palace."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did you see that one?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah. I mean, I thought they were great, you know?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah, I mean, I thought they were so cool, you know, and I
like their music, you know, because--I think probably the first record I ever
bought when I was a kid was like Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters and music
like that. So I think when the Rolling Stones came out and they were playing
that kind of music, I thought, like, `Oh, white people can play this music?'
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...that's a revelation to me.
GROSS: The Shangri-Las. What did you first think when you heard or saw them?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, that's kind of like a camp thing. I mean, you know, The
Shangri-Las were like the ultimate girl group. I mean, you know, you take The
Ronettes and the Shirelles and on and on and on, and they were actually
making, you know, real music, whereas The Shangri-Las were kind of like a
cartoon, you know? And I just loved that aspect about them. And, I mean, you
know, they couldn't sing and--I don't know. But they had these songs that,
you know, Shadow Morton would dig up for them that were these just perfect
kind of teen Melos, you know, as they say in Variety, like these melodramas
that--the first time I saw them, I just thought they were such a hoot, and
just--I thought they were perfect. Let's put it that way. I mean, I thought,
`This cannot be improved upon.' This is the height of pop kind of fun and
drama and everything--sex--everything rolled into one. It was just...
GROSS: Their most famous song is probably "Leader of the Pack," but...
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...the Dolls did a cover of "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," but it was
"Give Her a Great Big Kiss" when you did it. And...
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah. On the new DVD we do another one--which one is it?
It's not "You Can Never Go Home Anymore." It's--oh, "Out in the Streets" we
do. You know that one?
GROSS: Yeah, well...
Mr. JOHANSEN: (Singing) You don't hang around with the guy no more.
Yeah, we always do a Shangri-La song; it's just a superstition.
GROSS: Well, I thought we'd go back to 1973 for this one and hear "Give Her a
Great Big Kiss."
Mr. JOHANSEN: All right.
GROSS: This is really a lot of fun. So, OK, let's hear it. Here is it.
(Soundbite of "Give Her a Great Big Kiss")
NEW YORK DOLLS: (Singing) "I'm going to walk right up to her. Give her a
great big kiss. Ow! I tell her that I love her. I tell her that I care.
I'll tell her that I'll always be there. Hey, is she a good dancer? Well,
what do you mean is she a good dancer? Tell me, how does she dance? Close.
Very, very close. Tell you more. I'll tell you more. I'll tell you more.
I'll tell you more. OK, I bought myself a sweater. I thought it'd match her
eyes. Dirty fingernails. Oh, boy, what a prize! (Unintelligible).
(Unintelligible). (Unintelligible). (Unintelligible). When I see her in the
street, my heart takes a leap and skips a beat. I'm going to walk right up to
her, give her a great big kiss. Mm-wah! Tell her that I love her. I tell
her that I care."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The band was originally so used to performing, like, in Manhattan in
the Village where people, like, knew the band. The people who came were a
part of the same, like, arts subculture that the band...
Mr. JOHANSEN: Right.
GROSS: ...was a part of. But when you went on the road in America, did you
start playing in places where people weren't kindred spirits in the same way,
and they didn't necessarily get what you were doing and they didn't know how
to react to it?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yes and no. I mean, it's very interesting. Like, you know,
there were, like, Rust Belt places, you know, like Detroit and Cleveland and
places like that, that people would go crazy for us. And they would come to
the shows all dressed up, you know, and--Chicago. And, you know, we were
really well received in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And we used to play a
lot in Florida, you know, Miami, and we used to play in Atlanta and be very
And then we used to also--you know, we were friends with Lynyrd Skynyrd at the
time. We were kind of kindred spirits, and we would go on tours of like state
fairs and, like, tertiary markets in Missouri together. And we would have a
great time, you know. I know in Memphis I got arrested on stage one night for
allegedly--you know, it was like the Alice Tully Hall of Memphis, and it was
this nice clean room. And there had been articles in the newspaper that we
were coming to pied-piper all the children to the end of the world or
whatever. And we thought it was funny when we read it, but I actually got
arrested on stage and...
GROSS: What for?
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...went to the hoosegow in Memphis, which is--I was dressed
like Liza Minnelli at the time, so it wasn't the most relaxing night I ever
GROSS: (Laughs) How did people respond to you in prison?
Mr. JOHANSEN: In jail?
Mr. JOHANSEN: I just, like, hid under these, like, Lysol-smelling, like,
army blankets. And then this guy woke up and he went like, `Oh, damn, you're
David Johansen,' and I was like, `Quiet, quiet, quiet.' And then he woke up
this bear, and the bear was growling and I was like, `Oh, my God.' My knees
were like, you know, rattling under these covers. But I got bailed out at,
GROSS: What were the charges?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Inciting a riot. You know, the cops wanted to mess the thing
up, and they started beating on kids 'cause they got up and danced. And I
stopped the music, and I started explaining to this officer that this child he
was abusing may be, you know, the mayor's kid or a nephew or something and his
job would be in jeopardy. And then they just threw me in cuffs and dragged me
away for inciting a riot.
Mr. JOHANSEN: I may not have used the exact same language.
GROSS: Right. I understand. (Laughs) Why did the New York Dolls break up?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Inertia. I don't know. You know, I think we got to a point
where--I like to think, you know, it was a project that we finished, but there
was, like, factions in the group that were, you know, more interested in drugs
than in playing music. And it just kind of became for me--I mean, I can only
speak for myself, you know? It--for me it became untenable.
GROSS: What did you think when you saw the Sex Pistols, the Ramones? Your
band, the Dolls, preceded punk, but it was certainly influential on a lot of
punk bands and had the same sensibility in a lot of ways. So when you saw
that sensibility just really become so popular, what did you think?
Mr. JOHANSEN: I thought every new idea begins as heresy and winds up as
superstition. I think--I never saw the Sex Pistols, but I saw the Ramones
because they used to rehearse down the hall from me. I forget if I was in The
Dolls or in my next band. But I remember Joey Ramone came to the room I was
rehearsing in, you know, they have these buildings in New York with a hundred
bands playing at once. It's like--it would drive a monk insane. And he came
by and said that he wanted me to come down the hall and hear his band, and I
went down the hall to hear his band and I probably said, you know, `You're a
nice guy. Why don't you just give up?' You know? I told the Talking Heads
they should give up. I mean, I would be the worst A&R man in the history of
show business because I'd tell all these bands in the beginning that, `You're
a good kid. Why don't you get a real job and a house?' you know. So I
don't--what do I know? I didn't think anything about it being influenced by
me or anything like that. I was just--probably I had a headache and the music
was really loud.
DAVIES: David Johansen, one of the founding members of the New York Dolls,
speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIS: Let's get back to Terry's interview with David Johansen. The New York
Dolls have just released a new CD, their first studio recording in over 30
GROSS: I want to skip ahead to the '80s and '90s when you performed a lot as
Buster Poindexter. And, you know, the New York Dolls were so into a kind of
pre-punk sensibility and were very high energy and very raw. And, you know,
Buster Poindexter is much more of a kind of lounge, more Vegas-oriented kind
of persona. You know, instead of in drag on the cover, you know, the Buster
Poindexter character is in a tuxedo. And...
Mr. JOHANSEN: It's all drag, Terry.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. No, no, but that's exactly the thing. I
Mr. JOHANSEN: You know, I mean, Birkenstocks are drag. You know what I'm
saying? Everyone is like...
GROSS: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Mr. JOHANSEN: Everybody is saying something with their clothes, you know.
GROSS: So have you always felt like you were standing back and knowing that
any kind of drag that you were putting on, any kind of outfit or whatever you
were putting on for a performance was always that, that you always knew it was
some kind of drag or another?
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah. Yeah. You know, the thing that Poindexter--there was a
little club, like a saloon, an Irish bar around the corner from my house. I
was living in Grammercy Park; it was two blocks from my house. And it was
kind of like my watering hole. And they would have bands there like Joe
Turner or Charles Brown or Big Maybelle, and they would do residencies there.
So they would play like three or four nights a week for a month, say, you
know, and there was a room upstairs where they would live.
Monday night the back room was dark, so I had decided I was going to do this
little, like, roads--barrel house, kind of roadhouse show where I could just
sing whatever songs I wanted to sing. And I was going to do it for four
Mondays. And I went in there, and I figured I'd use a pseudonym so people
wouldn't be coming in screaming for, you know, `"Pokey Butt Cheek."'
Mr. JOHANSEN: So I went in to do that, and I just picked whatever songs. I
had been listening to a lot of jump blues at the time, but I also did, you
know, like "The Seven Deadly Virtues" from Camelot and, you know, just
whatever songs I wanted to sing.
And by the end of four weeks, I started doing weekends, and it just kind of
organically built into this--it started out as a three-piece band and wound up
as like a 15-piece band. So I think by the time it got to the national
awareness, it did have this kind of Vegasy kind of idea to it, but it started
off more kind of like the Louie Prima days in the '50s of Vegas. You know
what I'm saying?
GROSS: Right, right, right. Well, that image was encouraged--like on the
cover of the Buster Poindexter album, you're drinking a martini...
Mr. JOHANSEN: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...in a tuxedo with your pinkie ring.
Mr. JOHANSEN: And then I was back on--see, I was walking to work. I was
making a nice living, and then we had a hit and, you know, it all went to hell
because we had to go back on the road.
GROSS: Right. Well, I want to play something from the Buster Poindexter era
Mr. JOHANSEN: Don't play "Hot Hot Hot."
GROSS: No, I wasn't going to. I was going to play...
Mr. JOHANSEN: Thank God.
GROSS: You're really tired of it?
Mr. JOHANSEN: It's the bane of my life.
GROSS: Oh. I was going to play "Bad Boy."
Mr. JOHANSEN: OK.
GROSS: Tell me why you recorded this. This is a cover.
Mr. JOHANSEN: Well, I don't know. It's just a good song. It was written by
Lil Armstrong. I always liked it ever since I was a kid.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. Well, let's hear it. This is from the "Buster Poindexter
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHANSEN: (Singing) "Bad boy. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la,
la, all dressed up in fancy clothes. I've taken the trouble to change my
night into day. You know that old hot, blazing sun? He ain't gonna hurt my
head 'cause you know he's going to find me right there in the shade. I can
see all the folks. I can see they all--ha, ha--laughing at me 'cause I'm just
naturally crazy, lazy. Bad boy. La, la, la, la, la, la..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's "Bad Boy" from David Johansen's album "Buster Poindexter."
David Johansen is my guest. And his first band the New York Dolls has a
It seems to me that you've had so many different characters you've inhabited
as a performer. And I'm wondering how much you think your career as an actor
has come into play in your career as a musician, you know? Because before you
were even in the New York Dolls, you were with the Ridiculous Theater Company
in New York, and over the years you've been in, you know, a lot of movies as
Mr. JOHANSEN: Yeah. I guess, you know, there's a lot of kind of acting
involved. You know, I have this friend Elliott Murphy, who's a singer. He
lives in Paris now. I remember when I started doing Buster Poindexter, he
used to say to me, `David, you know, Buster Poindexter is so much more like
you than David Johansen is,' you know, if you get what I'm saying.
Mr. JOHANSEN: In other words, with Buster I really kind of went on stage and
really didn't edit myself and just kind of said whatever came to my mind and
didn't have many filters, whereas prior to that in the period of my--I guess
you would call it solo career, although, you know, you're always in a band, so
it's never really a solo career. But I had the David Johansen group or band
or whatever it was called, and we used to open for a lot of bands in hockey
rinks, you know.
And you kind of go out there--at that point I was going out there and kind of
presenting this what I thought, like, ideal picture of myself. You know what
I mean? This pleasant fellow, you know, whereas Buster was really kind of
more warts and all, you know? And I think by doing that, it helped me to be
myself more, you know, whereas--so now when I go on stage I'm not like biting
my nails. I go like, `What am I going to do? How am I going to be?' Blah,
blah, blah. I just don't even think about it because I'm just going to go out
there and essentially be whoever I am at that moment. You know what I'm
GROSS: Yeah. You once said back in the Buster Poindexter era, `Buster can
have this great life in the public eye and take the rap for everything, and
then David can go home.' (Laughs)
Mr. JOHANSEN: Exactly. You know, it's funny because my mother when Buster
came out, she said, `You know, this is the most genius idea you've ever come
up with. This is great.' And I think that was her idea that, you know, Buster
could take the rap. And politicians should do it.
GROSS: Now you have a show on Sirius, which is one of the satellite radio
Mr. JOHANSEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Who are you as a deejay? Are you just yourself, or do you have a...
Mr. JOHANSEN: I have a show called "The Mansion of Fun..."
Mr. JOHANSEN: ...and I'm kind of like Shree Rama Poindexter Johansen. And
I'm very taken with Shree Rama Kirshna lately because I read a biography of
his and thought, `Man, that guy knew how to live.' And he called the planet
the mansion of fun, so I've named my show after that. And I play a really
diverse bunch of music. You know, I play salsa, opera, blues, rock 'n' roll,
you know, you name it. I play a lot of Nino Rota music. I play, you know,
whatever tickles my fancy. So it's really completely free form. And I speak
a lot of kind of Ken Wilber-type forward-thinking philosophy.
GROSS: Well, David Johansen, great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. JOHANSEN: Thank you, Terry.
DAVIS: Davis Johansen of the New York Dolls. Their new album is called "One
Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This." The Dolls will be performing at
7 PM tonight at the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip in LA. A US tour is in
(Soundbite of music)
NEW YORK DOLLS: (Singing) "I was sitting there all alone. I was praying you
would come home. I was listening to an old blues song. Getting a little
impatient, smoking like a mental patient,
happiness...(unintelligible)...cigarettes...(unintelligible)...in a dress.
Tell me who can arrest a mind ensnared by love."
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: Coming up, David Edelstein on the movie version of "Miami Vice."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews movie version of
"Miami Vice," written and directed by Michael Mann
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Powerboats streaking across blue water. Moody visuals. Vice cops in cool
expensive suits. It can only be the return of "Miami Vice," now a movie
written and directed by the TV show's creator, Michael Mann. Can it work in
2006 the way it did in the mid-80s? Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the early '80s, the late network executive Brandon
Tartikoff handed the writer-director Michael Mann a piece of paper that read
"MTV Cops." The series that came of that notion, "Miami Vice," was a cunning
mixture of the torrid and the torpid, which is to say, hard action and harder
lovemaking, amid a lot of woozy posturing. Well, it wasn't entirely
posturing. Mann's protagonists are so single-minded that lasting
relationships are impossible. The hero, Sonny Crockett, longs for a
connection, finds it fleetingly, but is invariably left alone with his
expensive clothes. Ah, those clothes. I remember in the '80s donning a
pastel T-shirt under a light suit and thinking myself a very cool fellow
In Mann's new motion picture, Colin Farrell as Crockett and Jamie Foxx's Rico
Tubbs aren't sleek pretty boys like their predecessors Don Johnson and Philip
Michael Thomas. Their suits are roomy to accommodate their pumped-up
physiques. And the look is rougher than the old shows. It's swervy,
jittering with a lot of video grain. But the all-important "Miami Vice" vibe
endures. Although the rumor mill had it that this overbudget film was a
disaster, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.
Mann does nothing so mundane as introduce the characters of Crockett and Tubbs
the way he did in the TV pilot. He simply plops the duo down in midstory.
When a friend of the detectives dies gruesomely after running afoul of some
sneering, neo-Nazi drug dealers, Crockett and Tubbs, and their team of
multiracial male and female cops are drafted by the feds to pose as drug
smugglers, and they whiz off to Haiti to meet with the neo-Nazis' Colombian
suppliers. Their act is prodigious, and what follows is scene after scene of
macho glowering, of violent men sizing one another up, scanning their
adversaries' faces for signs of duplicity or weakness while at the same time
they engage in a dizzying back and forth over the minutia of drug smuggling.
Here's Tubbs and then Crockett in a test of wills with a number two cartel bad
guy, a little sadist called Yero, played by John Ortiz.
(Soundbite from "Miami Vice")
Mr. JOHN ORTIZ: (As Yero) So let's go get equipment.
Mr. JAMIE FOXX: (As Rico Tubbs) Adam 8 500s, carbon composite,
real...(unintelligible)...1400-nautical-mile range, low and slow. We like
caravels and 727s to move the product from source countries to transit from
places like here.
Mr. COLIN FARRELL: (As Sonny Crockett) Big loads...(unintelligible).
Smaller loads into south Florida. We do go-fast boats.
Mr. FOXX: (As Tubbs) So what's the wait?
Mr. ORTIZ: (As Yero) First let's talk logistics. To pick up a load, you fly
it in the hole, we tell you the drop point, and our people then move another
Mr. FARRELL: (As Crockett) Not too fast. The people at the drop point are
our people, not yours. So there's no tweakers, dopers, first-timers, people
we don't know. They didn't do time with us, they ain't doing crime with us.
Mr. FOXX: (As Tubbs) Once we pick up the load, the next time you hear from
us, it'll be a date, time and a place, like there's an 18-wheeler in the
parking lot north Miami with the keys in the ignition. You pick it up, you
drive away. Smooth. That's how we do it.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Mann is great at that kind of showboat detail. But it's the
drug mogul's mistress and accountant, Isabella, played by Chinese art film
heartthrob Gong Li, who really grabs Crockett's attention. He catches a
glimmer of vulnerability under her leggy, ice queen, ultra-competent exterior
and knows deep down, she's as soft as he is. So the pair goes out for
Mojitos, to Havana no less, in a boat that would make Batman gape.
There isn't a lot of gunfight in "Miami Vice," but there's plenty of action.
Mann lingers on Foxx's rippling back as Tubbs and his woman, Naomie Harris,
get it on in the shower, and on Crockett and Isabella on sheets dappled with
tropical sun. Mann ladles on the languorous mood rock, but elsewhere he
brings an urgency to the visuals that's in keeping with his later films, like
"Heat" and "Collateral." He and his cinematographer, Dion Bebe, make
everything vaguely surreal. The hard horizontal lines of office buildings.
The maze of tributaries off Biscayne Bay. The violence is fast and
disorienting. The climactic shootout has the limited perspectives of TV's
"Cops" and the soft pop-pop-pop of distant guns is far eerier than the usual
overamplified cannon roars.
Disorientation cuts both ways, of course. As a thriller, "Miami Vice" is only
semicoherent with an ending that leaves more than one thread dangling. But do
we really need another familiar-to-the-point-of-deja-vu-buddy-cop movie? Even
with its narrative lapses, "Miami Vice" is a sensational trip, gorgeous, gaga,
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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