In 1974, I happened to see the New York Dolls open for Mott the Hoople at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in New York City. In retrospect, I was too young to appreciate it. All my youthful innocence saw was a sloppy performance by some guys wearing dresses. I later got what this punk rock business was all about and realized what a brilliant and creative performer David Johansen was. Since then, I have followed him through all the varied stages of his career. I loved the thrashing rock of the David Johansen Group, the lounge lizardry of Buster Poindexter and His Banshees of Blue, the Delta Blues of the Harry Smiths, and the well-received revival of the New York Dolls. This night marked the second time I saw his latest incarnation—a stripped down, intimate career retrospective with Johansen backed only by his long time musical associate Brian Koonin on guitar.
This would also mark my second visit to the expanded house-concert setting of Split Level Concerts at the Hamilton Stage. The 199 seats in the venue were almost full for a Friday night of laid-back, sophisticated entertainment consisting of two sets: one hour for the first and then 45 minutes for the second. The always fashionable Johansen looked “funky but chic” in a double-breasted black sweater over an orange tee shirt that matched the stripes on his gray Adidas track suit pants accessorized with a pair of black high top Converse sneakers. This was a stark contrast from the last time when I saw him in his more usual black leather jacket, white tee shirt and black jeans. Wearing glasses and carrying a note book, he sauntered onto the stage with a buoyant smile, looking more like a hip college professor than a punk rock icon.
With Koonin’s acoustic guitar leading the way, the 63-year old Staten Island native wasted no time kicking things off with his best known solo song, “Funky But Chic.” He followed it with “Melody,” a lost pop gem from his second record after the Dolls disbanded. Stripped down of their lush full band sounds, Johansen’s deep vocals and expressive delivery gave these songs and several others a new life. Other than the guitar, an occasional harmonica, and his crooning vocals, only Johansen’s engaging wit and charm carried us through the evening.
The rest of the set included a few more classics from his solo records featuring the show-stopping “Frenchette,” and the beautifully sensitive “Heart of Gold,” a song that typically closes a Buster Poindexter or a David Johansen show like it did tonight. The only other Poindexter-era song tonight was the jazzy blues ballad “Somebody Buy Me a Drink” which fit in well with the other blues-based covers in his set. A new song written with Koonin, possibly titled “I Ain’t Got No Death to Die,” comfortably fit into this style as well.
These days, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain remains the only other surviving New York Doll. Therefore, the revival of the band name has simply become Johansen’s chosen means of releasing new material for his last three efforts. Tonight’s set included four recent Doll’s cuts, but Johansen did go back into Doll’s history for two oldies, a lively rendition of the classic “Looking for a Kiss” and a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills.” The latter is a staple of the Doll’s live set and the lone cover song on their debut album.
Tonight marked the 32nd time I have seen Johansen live and hopefully will be far from the last. In fact, I am thrilled to hear that there have been some recent Buster Poindexter shows in the New York area. Johansen has always been one of my favorite performing artists, and tonight he proved that he will continue to be for a long time. Who would have thought such a thing back on that night at the Felt Forum almost 40 years ago?
- Funky But Chic
- Boom Boom (John Lee Hooker cover)
- Temptation to Exist (New York Dolls song)
- Well, I’ve Been to Memphis (George “Daddy Hotcakes” Montgomery cover)
- I Ain’t Got No Death to Die (unrecorded original)
- Eight Men, Four Women (O.V. Wright cover)
- I Ain’t Got Nothing (New York Dolls song)
- Ham Hound Crave (Rube Lacey cover)
- Somebody Buy Me a Drink (Oscar Brown, Jr. cover)
- Making Rain (New York Dolls song)
- Rocket 88 (Jackie Brenston cover)
- Maimed Happiness (New York Dolls song)
- Richland Woman Blues (Mississippi John Hurt cover)
- Big City
- Pills (Bo Diddley cover)
- Looking for a Kiss (New York Dolls song)
- Heart of Gold
David Johansen – Vocals and Harmonica
Brian Koonin – Guitar