As I stood in the gallery/boutique/rock club that now stands on the site of the late lamented CBGB, waiting for the reconstituted New York Dolls to take the stage, it suddenly hit me that the Dolls Mark II -- featuring two of the original five members, the others having gone to their eternal reward (or punishment, perhaps) -- have now, with the release of their second post-comeback studio album, Cause I Sez So, made as many records as the original lineup. How bizarre, I ask you, is that?
Of course, no matter how much original graffiti they keep on the walls (much of it behind glass), the John Varvatos emporium is not CB's. And no matter how many albums the post-comeback Dolls make, they're not gonna change rock history the way they did when they helped kickstart the punk movement with New York Dolls and Too Much, Too Soon in 1973 and '74. So does seeing what used to be one of the most influential bands of all time, in the former site of one of the most influential venues of the last 40 years, tarnish our memories of both?
My position on this is clear -- the world is a better place with an active, functioning New York Dolls in it, even if the new guys who replaced the late great Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan and Arthur "Killer" Kane probably weren't born when the Dolls first trod the boards at the Mercer St. Arts Center. The primary mission of the New New York Dolls should be, as Hippocrates said (or was it Isaac Hayes?), to do no harm. This they accomplished admirably with their first comeback album. 2006's One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This had an air of "before we were so rudely interrupted" about it, reviving the band's signature trashy glam-rock sound without doing too much more.
So David Johansen and Syl Sylvain, the two remaining original Dolls, pulled off the resurrection act. But where do you go from there? If Johansen wanted to live a nostalgia trip, or merely find a cash cow to pay his bills, he could've settled for doing his Buster Poindexter routine and singing "Hot Hot Hot" at corporate shindigs from now till doomsday. So I get the feeling his ambitions were a little more grandiose -- he wanted to bring a brand name that's been frozen in amber and deified for three-plus decades into the present as a living entity. And that takes some pretty big cojones to even attempt.
But for the most part, with Cause I Sez So they've succeeded. They've returned to legendary producer/recording artiste Todd Rundgren, who produced their first studio album, but the sound is 2009, not 1973. It may be blasphemy, but I wish the drums sounded as good on their vintage elpees as they do here.
And while it hews to the Dolls' trash-rock template of yore on a couple of tracks, it also reminds me just how much else this band had going on. Sure, they did glammy, Stones-influenced rawk, and it's that sound, on cuts like "Personality Crisis" and "Jet Boy," for which they're best remembered. But they also paid homage to girl-group pop, soul and the blues, to name but three. And it's those aspects of the band that are played up on Cause I Sez So. Hell, they even try a reggae update of "Trash," their 1973 classic. Sorely misguided though the idea may be, even that cut sounds pretty good.
At the record release party at John Varvatos-formerly-CBGB, I had the weird privilege of seeing a Dolls set that contained practically no material written before 2006. So like it or not, I had to judge them based on what they're doing now, not on their former glories. And judging them on those standards, they're a pretty damn good band. Johansen looks like a cross between Mick Jagger and a wealthy dowager -- rail-thin and wrinkled, with a haughty, world-weary expression broken by the occasional wide grin. He's not as sprightly or manic as he was in 1973, but hell, who is? He still has that great, bellowing voice, and Syl Sylvain still plays a mean guitar. And the new guys more than hold their own. Johansen was certainly digging what the band was laying down, with between-song patter like "Cleahly, dat was good."
A slightly weird evening was also a hell of a lot of fun. You can't bring back the past -- or as Heraclitus said (or was it the Jimmy Castor Bunch?), you can't step in the same river twice. But the sorta Dolls at the sorta CBGB brought back memories of bygone days for the old-timers, and it gave the young'uns a taste of what it was like to have been there the first go-round. And what's wrong with that?