The Dolls took their name from the New York Doll Hospital, a toy repair shop across the street from a midtown boutique Mizrahi had worked in. Ditching his last name, he became simply Sylvain Sylvain; Genzale became Johnny Thunders. The Dolls played dives, gobbled up drugs, and loved playing dress-up, their fashion sense inspired in equal parts by the Max's drag queens and Detroit glam rockers like Alice Cooper and the Stooges, in stacked heels, blouses, and makeup. They played simultaneously brute and campy rock 'n' roll that owed plenty to those bands – Thunders spewing metallic riffs, alternately squealing and spitting power chords, over Johansen's sashaying street-punk hollers.
"Personality Crisis" was their defining song, summing up a zeitgeist where who you were on the street, in the club, and in the bedroom was infinitely, confusingly mutable. "You're a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon," sang Johansen. "Change into the wolfman, you're howlin' at the moon—OWOOOOOOOOO!"
One of their earliest gigs was at the cowboy-themed bathhouse Man's Country, located in the basement of 55 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. During one set, Johansen pulled a prop saddle off the wall and put it on Arthur Kane's back and rode him around a bit. The first night, the band were all dosed on MDA. "I think I was selling it at the time," recalled Sylvain. "There was no audience, because all the guys stayed in their cubicles having sex. We weren't sure how to dress for the bathhouse, so the first night we went feminine; I wore hot pants. They didn't seem to appreciate the femme look, although we had a lot of fun on the MDA. The next night we came back in leather and chains and got more interest – everyone came out of their little cubicles to watch us."
Few venues supported live music by rock acts playing original material; you pretty much had to be a cover band recycling the '60s. So the Dolls threw rent parties at their loft at 119 Chrystie Street, two dollars a head. When they heard the Mercer was booking bands, they went on a reconnaissance mission.
"They walked us all through the rooms and everything," Sylvain said. "You had to go through this one place, sort of like a cabaret, and the group Suicide were playing there. I don't know if they were doing their soundcheck or their first performance of the evening – there were like two people in the audience, black tablecloths on the table. And they scared the shit out of me. Marty Rev would glue together all this stuff to make these synthesizers, and Alan Vega was onstage in this wig looking like this kind of – I don't know how to describe him. He was wearing these glasses, like radiation glasses. I was like 'Oh my God, do we have to play here?"
But it was definitely a step up from the baths, so they did, with a residency that gave them the Oscar Wilde Room every Tuesday. They played there for seventeen weeks straight. Lou Reed turned up. Alice Cooper. And one night, David Bowie, the 25-year-old British superstar, producer of Reed's Transformer. Bowie grilled the band about their clothing sources.
On March 20th, the New York Dolls signed a two-album deal with Mercury and got a $25,000 advance. Their debut, The New York Dolls, was released on July 27th.
And on August 3rd at around 5:00 p.m., the Broadway Central Hotel building, with the Mercer Arts Center in it, collapsed. Rescue workers dug through the rubble with shovels and picks; twenty pine coffins were sent down to the site. Many people were carried out. Four people died.
Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, a glam-rock band who also called the Mercer home, were rehearsing in the building when it came down. At first they thought it was an earthquake; they grabbed whatever instruments they could, and made it out. A Long Island band, Mushroom, had been rehearsing in another room; they made it out as well. Alan Vega was walking down the street and could see the Blue Room, where Suicide had just played. "There was just a stage sitting there, with no building around it," he said.
Until the following spring, New York's rock scene was essentially homeless. In the interim, the semi-famous Dolls would travel to L.A., where Thunders would taste the heroin those Voice columnists had written about back in April while hanging around Hollywood with Iggy Pop, one of his heroes.
Thunders was 19. It was his first time. He liked it a lot.
* * *
On certain days, if the sun was out and you cocked your head just so, you could still hear Sonny Rollins searching for a sound on the Williamsburg Bridge. Or at least you could imagine it. Rollins became a fixture up there in the early '60s, when he'd grown sick of the liquor-and-dope-fueled jazz club scene. He took a hiatus from gigging, and as he didn't want to disturb the neighbors in his Grand Street apartment on the Lower East Side, he hit on the idea to practice on the bridge. Out over the water, he’d parry with the sound of tugboat foghorns, weave around the steel-on-steel clatter of the BMT subway trains when they surfaced between boroughs, echo the hum and grind of the automobiles. He'd play for eight, twelve, fifteen hours at a stretch, the criss-crossing lines of girders and cables suggesting a physical geometry for his fast-changing melodic lines.
He bothered no one. After all, only fools even walked under the Williamsburg Bridge. The damn thing was so decrepit, it rained a steady shower of rust on the sidewalk below.
From the Book 'Love Goes To Buildings On Fire' by Will Hermes, Copyright © 2011 by Will Hermes, Published by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
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