Too Much Too Soon is one of the first proto-punk albums I played incessantly. It has a somewhat different attitude than what punk ultimately became once it was recognized by the mainstream. The Dolls were rebellious, of course. Dressing in women’s clothing and prancing around onstage without a hint of self-consciousness though all were straight? Check. Bringing a nasty New York City sensibility along with a nod to the fun girl groups of the 60s? Check. They were apolitical, more along the lines of the Ramones, though with a nicer shoe collection. The Sex Pistols and The Clash, among others, took the role of provocateur in the political realm. The Dolls were just fucked up rock and roll fun.
Sylvain Sylvain, the Dolls’ guitarist, was asked upon the occasion of former Dolls and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s death in 2010 why McLaren was so fond of the Dolls.
Because it was raw. It was a slap in the industry’s face. He saw that in us.
He saw that you didn’t have to be a great singer or to be like Jeff Beck
to call yourself a guitarist. It was the love of different and weird.
And as contrived as it may have been, it was brilliant. Wearing women’s boots and heels onstage. Just being scandalous and dirty. The sound of David Johansen’s voice. I love the cover of the album where he looks like Robert Plant playing with an 80s hair band. I love that he looks like Mick Jagger in drag. I love the way he fucks around—in a good way—with Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’.” That white boy can sang!
And seriously, looking at just the pictures from this 1974 album you can totally see how 80s hair bands ripped off the Dolls’ drag-queen-yet-totally-into-chicks aesthetic. And that’s okay. But I find the Dolls far sexier than anyone from Motley Crue or Poison. The Dolls, as much as they were interested in shocking people and being weird just ‘cuz, I believe they were so much more real than any of those metal bands. There was a lot of posturing from the Dolls, a lot of poking fun of masculinity and society and shit, but they just seemed like so much more fun than metal dudes. Maybe it’s a New York thing. Maybe it’s because their cockiness and swagger were not obnoxious or offensive like it was with metal bands. Their total comfort wearing pumps. I don’t know. But I can tell you this, I would’ve fucked any one of them. They were dirty boys, but they were real.
“Babylon” is clearly about the gritty part of New York City life. Turning tricks, partying, getting busted. Hell yeah.
I was drivin’ out tonight and boys I was gone
The coppers asked me where do I come from
One looks at my cards, one checks my I.D.
With this junk on my face, it’s easy to see
I’m from Babylon
I gotta get away, to Babylon
I can’t stay,
Babylon havin’ too much fun, Babylon…
She’s been massagin’ all day but she’s thinkin’ ’bout you daddy
Thinkin’ ’bout you daddy ’til they all go away
And when she up there dancin’ she’s just tryin’ make a buck
Tryin’ make some money gonna give you all a look
A typical New York night in 1974, apparently. Cruisin’ around with your friends, getting pulled over by the police who can’t really tell who you are with all that makeup on. Too much fun! And then your girlfriend is working in a happy endings massage parlour, but she absolutely just sees it as a way to make money; she’s thinking about you the whole time! Same as when she’s stripping. It’s all for the money.
We’ve all been there, right?
“Stranded in the Jungle” is a cover of a song performed by several artists, including The Cadets, in the 1950s. David’s voice on this version is irresistible! He does something deeper with it than other renditions. I don’t know how to explain it. The Dolls just camp it up more than the rest. It’s a funny and catchy tune. You need to get all up in this song.
One of my favorite Dolls songs is “It’s Too Late.” David has the moves like Jagger on this one. You’ll find yourself enunciating each word just like our hero Mr. Johansen, screaming and preening.
Got the invitation to that seventies expose
But how she ever gonna love you when she can’t parlez vous your Francais
You know that she can’t stop dancin’ and that’s just about to make you scream
When you where actin’ so damn fine
You tryin’ hard not to be so mean
And you’re tryin’ to tell me
That how many times I gotta tell baby it’s too late
It’s too too late
I told you a thousand times baby it’s too late
That’s when I saw your mama and she’s the blonde queen of the prom
And you’re the little heiress to the kingdom from the flesh right down to the bone
Cause I saw you last night darlin’ on the midnight flight to the stars
But you spend most your time in the powder room where you chit chat with Diana Dors
And you tryin to tell her
This is a pretty bitchy song. I love the line about chit chatting in the john with Diana Dors. I mean really, who else has name-checked Diana Dors in a song?
“Puss in Boots” is also a fun sing-along.
And now you’re walkin’
Just like you’re ten feet tall
Oh, boy, girl, that’s just all
That’s how the song begins. It can be read as the story of a boy who likes to wear women’s shoes, and he needs to keep moving otherwise he’ll get his ass shot. Maybe I’m not reading the lyrics correctly, but that’s what I get from them.
Oh little master holy
has to change his name
cause all the boys and girls think
that you’re too easy game
don’t you know the shoes
is makin’ him lame
Shut him up boss
keep the change
Just like Puss ‘n’ Boots
I hope you don’t get shot for tryin’
Get shot for tryin’
Shot for tryin’
There’s just one thing
That I’m trying to say
Sometimes you got to get away some place
I don’t know the real Puss in Boots story very well, but I do know that it is about a cat who uses trickery to get things his master desires. This song seems more about a boy who is different and is using fashion to express himself in a way that may prove dangerous to him. But he was just born that way!
The beginning of “Human Being,” Too Much Too Soon’s closing track, sounds like a Nirvana or first-album Foo Fighters song. Here’s one of the places we can use to trace the influence of the Dolls on punk. It also reminds me of the New York-era Rolling Stones, not only because you could easily slip Mick into David’s place without even a skipped note, but because lyrically, it sounds like a lot of the Stones’ anti-love and anti-fame songs. I just have to share the whole song here.
Well if you don’t like it
Go ahead, find yourself a saint
Go ahead now,
Try to find a boy
Who’s gonna be what I ain’t
Now what you need is
A plastic doll with a fresh coat of paint
Who’s gonna sit through the madness
And always acts so quaint
Said yeah yeah yeah
With your new friend
You’re really making a scene
And I see you bouncing around
From machine to machine
And you know
They’re never real, they’re
Never what they seem
And you can try to generate some warmth
And you see just what I mean
I said yeah yeah yeah
And if I’m acting like a king
Well that’s cause
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
Baby baby baby yeah
I’m a human being
And when it gets a bit obscene (wooah)
I’m a human being
And I’ve just got to go around
With my head hung down
Just like a human, babe,
An unknown human being
And I can hold my head so high
Cause I’m a human, a riff raff human being
Why won’t you give me a little sip
Why don’t you try me on a drag of that cigarette
Why don’t you try to give me something that
I will never ever forget
But now don’t you blow it all
On a million dollar bet
Because you’re liable to lose it
On the best lovin’ you’ve had yet
I’m beggin’ yeah yeah oh yeah…
In fact I’m talking about the human race
You’re trying to cover up the big disgrace
I said yeah yeah yeah,
Oh c’mon c’mon c’mon
Yeah, yeah, oh yeah
Well I may think that this whole scene is
Just a too appalling for me
Or I may be the type who’s just a mad about
Every little thing that I see
Well I can color that with mystery
Or make it just what I want it to be
While I’m blowing my change on the fan magazines
With all the Hollywood refugees, screaming
Yeah yeah, oh yeah
Okay. So they’re talking about phony bitchez. And the narrator wants too many things! Hmm. I think he’s confused. Is it just too appalling, all this making-the-scene madness, or is he equally appalled and fascinated as he spends his extra money on fan magazines? I think we are all guilty of this to an extent. I don’t watch reality shows with people who are famous only for being famous. I don’t buy People magazine; I used to, but now these fake celebrities are their favorite cover subjects. I love me some celebrity gossip, don’t get me wrong. But I like hearing about really scandalous shit, not somebody’s fucking new haircut. Gimme a break.
And in real life, I was at one time part of a popular group of glitterati in the gay scene. And it was fucking awesome. We were actually friends outside the nightclubs, too. But we did have a certain persona in the clubs that, though we were not phony, was not necessarily who we were all the time. It was all very glamorous and outrageous and obscene, and we got away with whatever we wanted to do because we were the shizz-nit. I never paid for a drink during those last few years I was a party girl. And what alcoholic could resist that? These days, I could care less about any of that shit. I am a homebody, and though I do sometimes look back fondly at that time in my life, I am a human being and the things I want now are not the things I wanted then.
When I was listening to Too Much Too Soon as often as possible I was at the beginning of my party girl life. I found the Dolls to be incredibly liberating. Their free spirit, their boldness, their fuck youness. Goddamn did I want to be that! I had no idea how to make that happen.
And then I realized that David Johansen was Buster Poindexter. Say what now? It was hard to imagine Mr. Hot Hot Hot in purple thigh high boots and a black mesh shirt. That transformation really impressed me. I think I always kind of felt like you had to be the same forever, that your image had to be as outrageous now as it was when you were younger. When Madonna softened her look for her third album, I remember being so disappointed. Why did she want to look like everyone else? Where were the dirty rags in her hair? The rubber bracelets? Her Boy Toy belt buckle? She had changed her style so many times over the years that we know her as the Queen of Reinvention, but back then, I hated it. I was mad at her. Seeing David Johansen in a tux with his pompadour and singing jazzy, good time songs instead of “Bad Detective” was actually pretty shocking. I doubt anyone else my age in the 80s knew the New York Dolls, so it was not even on our radar that he was ever anyone but Buster Poindexter. I understand now that being an artist means transforming yourself, evolving your craft, and daring to be different from who people thought you were yesterday. The New York Dolls made an impact on music and culture that has not been properly recognized. The artists they have influenced do acknowledge them, but they are not usually part of our collective cultural memory. I’m sure they may be included in a montage of glam rockers or early punk influences in some documentaries. But they deserve so much more.
I’m giving them this essay to show my gratitude for their attitude.