i’m a human being: the dolls in nyc

The New York Dolls
Irving Plaza, NYC
28 April, 2005


So it is all very well and good to be on your high horse about reunions and how they pander to nostalgia of the worst sort, and let’s just let it go, and I am glad, for example, that Westerberg never got any quasi-Replacements back together, and there is part of me that is thankful that my memories of the Clash are still pure (but on the other hand I used to dream about seeing a reunion. Honestly, I had this reoccurring dream about seeing them at Key Arena and pogoing around at the back of the floor with Mark Arm from Mudhoney). But, then, I could kill myself that I didn’t see the Velvet Underground with Sterling Morrison, for that brief interlude in which Reed and Cale put their egos aside. That was beyond impossible and it happened and I missed it. Forever and ever.

So, now, the New York Dolls. The closest I ever came before was Sylvain, JT and David Jo on the very same stage (I have a photograph of this momentous occasion) at Irving Plaza during a three-night Thunders stand (I went all three nights. Did you even have to ask?) And of course, Underground Garage last summer, which was kind of this communal experience of being in the same place with the Dolls, not long after we lost Arthur, and while there was something absolutely wonderful about the experience, standing in a muddy field with several thousand other people was not exactly how I envisioned seeing the Dolls would be like.

True confessions: so in my fantasies about seeing the New York Dolls at, say, the Mercer Arts Centre, there was glitter and velvet and hair spray and lipstick and fishnets, and, to be honest, cigarettes and alcohol and illicit substances of some kind. I would have looked fabulous and been fabulous. Tonight, I had to settle for running home from work, and throwing together something that, if I was lucky, might perhaps live in the same area code as fabulous. There was velvet and lip gloss and hairspray and cleavage, and instead of a limo I allowed myself the cab up to Irving Place. I settled for a $9 Jack and coke and let any considerations of decadence, or at least mild intoxication, fall by the wayside. After all, nowhere in my fantasy figured having to get up for work at 8am the next morning.


After an opening band so forgettable I almost took pity on them, suddenly I could feel that forgotten yet familiar knot in my stomach, accompanied by more than a smidgen of beating heart, butterflies, ohmygodtheywillbeonthatstage, I am in the front row front row front row, teenage fangirl symptoms tonight, as the clock struck down to showtime. I didn’t expect it, at all. I was almost sad, you know, I don’t really have that anticipation any more, I don’t have time for it. I am plenty excited when the lights go down and ecstatic when the music begins, but I miss the waiting. I miss looking at the calendar and being frustrated that it’s so far away. I miss counting down the days to the show. I miss the pre-show ritual day-of, the checklists and the planning outfits and the small waves of energy that would pulsate every few hours when I would think about where I would be at 8pm that night.

But, tonight. The New York Dolls. At Irving Plaza. In New York City.

I know they wouldn’t be doing this if it sucked, but they are so beyond just perfunctory reunion, this is an absolute labor of love, this is the return triumphant, this is claiming what is theirs by birthright. David Johansen has never sounded better than he does right now, and Sylvain is having the time of his fucking life — as is the rest of the band, who are grateful and happy and humble to be there, and their love for the music they are playing is so incredibly present. I mean, look at Steve Conte: filling Johnny Thunders’ shoes is an unenviable task, not just because of the legend – and it is The Legend – but people forget that with JT there honestly was so much brilliance there (even when he was fucked up you would see those glimmers which is why you would go to a three night stand at Irving Plaza). So you have the fans who are unforgiving and big ass platform shoes to fill and yet you want to bring something of your own to it, this wouldn’t work with session musicians no matter how competent, you have to have that feeling or it would just fall down flat. And Steve Conte has all of this. He loves what he is playing and he loves being on that stage and he is unapologetic for his own talent at the same time, and while he thoroughly embraces it he does not try to claim it as his. I don’t know if this explained it well enough but this whole operation would have fallen down flat with the wrong guy in the JT role, and having Conte’s spirit there is, I think, a big part of why this reunion doesn’t suck. My only problem was that being on the rail in front of Syl meant that Conte’s blistering solos were sometimes a challenge to hear.

Looking at the setlist now, I am thinking “ah, fuck, I’d like to hear ‘Babylon’ or ‘Vietnamese Baby'” but in the moment all I could think was that we were getting everything we wanted and then some. Johansen is still a master at commanding the stage. Dripping in rhinestones on every finger and so many on the wrists it’s like diamond sweatbands, this is the man who invented glam. Realize this. Pay homage. Take notes. Hope you are half this fabulous now, much less at his age.

Syl: “David, you’re such a fag.”
David: “What did you say?”
Syl: “I said you were a fag.”
David: “Oh, thank god, I thought you said I was fat.”

Welcome to the Dolls comedy hour. Seriously, though, the affection present between the two keepers of the legacy who are left – as a fan, what a joy and a privilege to be able to witness them enjoying themselves and their music and the adulation it creates onstage. It’s theirs. They created it. They deserve it, and it’s about fucking time. They deserve to have a packed house jumping up and down and singing every word to every song back at them – and I mean every song. It wasn’t just “Personality Crisis” or “Pills,” it was “Mystery Girls” and “Jet Boy” (oh was it “Jet Boy.” The place almost exploded) and “Private World.” The mosh pit was inspired by “Frankenstein” (dedicated to our president) – that song is supposed to start a white riot and it did, bringing much needed life and energy towards the end of the set.

The one song I had to hear, had never heard a Doll sing, not David ever (and I have seen Johansen play live more than I have seen the Who, but let’s also realize that there was a time you could see him somewhere in the tri-state area on a weekly basis) – I would have chased this song forever, but I could see it at the bottom of the setlist, in the encore position, and even knowing it was coming didn’t ruin anything, didn’t spoil the impact of actually hearing it.

And if I’m acting like a king
I’m a human being
And if I want too many things
Don’t you know that
I’m a human being
And if I’ve got to dream
I’m a human being

And the crowd knows this one by heart, too, and it is loud and raucous but it is sweet and pure and light and positive, not to get all hippie or anything but it’s the good stuff, the real thing, the heart of it all, right here, in this room. You come full circle, you go 20 years, 30 years, you come back to where you start from and you see the same people in the same place and it is, truly, homecoming.

The best thing, the sweetest thing, on top of all of this, was the smile, the sheer unadulterated joy on David’s face at the end, as he looked at the crowd, the audience he deserved, finally, after all the years of not having what was rightfully his, there is grey hair and pink hair and kids who weren’t even born when I was listening to “Human Being” through headphones and dreaming about (as Patti would say), I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York city. They were all there, and I was there, and this was the band that inspired the big bad crazy secret fabulous dreams all those years ago.

I stumble out of Irving Plaza, slowly, not wanting to go anywhere too fast just yet. My voice is ragged and my feet hurt and 8am looms and I could give a fuck. I want to stay out all night, I want to take over a jukebox at a bar, I want to sing and shout and dance until the sun comes up.

And if I’ve got to dream, well, I’m a human being.