In the April 19th issue of The Village Voice, an item in the "Scenes" column noted that heroin, sniffed ("no needles, please"), was staging a comeback at parties in the Hollywood Hills, where people would "go downtown" with a snort, then "go uptown" with a wake-up toot of coke.
"You can bet that if it catches on out there," it read, "it will sweep its way through New York press parties by mid-summer."
The rioters at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in '69 were, by and large, not closet cases; they were warriors, and drag queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. (for "Pay It No Mind") Johnson were on the front line. Richard Hell remembered James "Sweet Evening Breeze" Herndon, the real-life cross-dresser immortalized in Carson McCullers's Suttree, who cut a striking figure on the streets of Lexington. In Hell's new home, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn – variously cast by Warhol in films such as Women in Revolt and Flesh – were celebrities. Queen Elizabeth's front man-woman Wayne County was mixing drag with crude garage rock, and Reed appeared in full drag on the back cover of Transformer. Now the Dolls, who played their first proper show in a Times Square welfare hotel with Curtis as a support act, were ramping up their own cross-dressing. Boys with long hair were no longer shocking, at least in New York. But add lipstick, panty hose, and high heels . . . people noticed. What, after all, was more badass and transgressive than a New York tranny?
The Dolls were émigrés in Manhattan. Sylvain Mizrahi began his musical career playing a toy oud in Cairo. His father was a banker there until 1956, when the Suez Crisis made Egypt an impossible place to be Jewish. The family moved to France, then to Buffalo, New York, and wound up in Queens, where Mizrahi got kicked out of Newtown High School for, as he put it, "lookin' like a fruitcake – because I was wearing bell-bottoms and had long hair."
He and his Queens pal Billy Murcia soon formed the Pox (with the inevitable "Catch the Pox!" gig flyers), playing their first gig at Crawdaddy's, a club in the West Fifties owned by the R&B legend Lloyd Price. The Pox played tough, hard rock á la the early Who. It wasn't hippie music, but something newer and older, with a sensibility the Dolls would inherit.
But not for a few years. When the Pox failed to take off, Mizrahi and Murcia turned their attention to the schmata trade. With help from Billy's Colombian mom, they set up a business – Truth and Soul Fashions – manufacturing trippy South American-style sweaters and tie-dyed bikinis upstate in Woodstock. They sold wholesale to various shops; one customer was a young designer named Betsey Johnson. In '69, the men drove over to Bethel on the other side of the Catskill Mountains to sell their goods at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which had been relocated out of town at the last minute. Restless hustlers, they soon pawned their designs to a large-scale manufacturer in Brooklyn, took the money to Europe, and blew it on hash, clothes, and musical gear.
Back home, they hooked up with the art school dropout Arthur Kane, a quiet, blond, extremely tall Irish kid from the Bronx, and Johnny Genzale, an Italian baseball obsessive and sartorial cockatoo from Queens who, like Mizrahi, had been kicked out of Newtown High School. The lead singer, David Johansen, was a troublemaker from Staten Island who had gotten expelled from Catholic school. "They just realized I was not the right person for them," he told me decades later in a café on Twentieth Street, exploding in a phlegmy laugh. "Because they couldn't break my spirit. They don't try to break everyone's spirit – only the people with spirit."
Johansen had been in San Francisco, mostly hanging around the Fillmore West; he worshipped Janis Joplin and pictured himself as her onstage, wailing hot-wired blues. When he wound up back home, he shifted his studies to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue, played with a few half-assed bands, got involved with the fringe theater scene. He hooked up with the Warhol actress Diane Poluski, a few years his senior, who introduced him to the inner circle at Max's. After a visit to the band's Upper West Side rehearsal space, located in the back of a bike shop, the twenty-one-year-old singer signed on.
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