11 Big Reveals From Scorsese’s David Johansen Doc ‘Personality Crisis’
In Personality Crisis: One Night Only, Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about the life of New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, the singer makes it clear he doesn’t want to make it easy for the filmmaker: “I think it’s best to leave an incomplete picture of yourself,” he says. Although Johansen remains somewhat cagey throughout the film’s interview segments, and many of the doc’s most revelatory moments come when he’s onstage as his Buster Poindexter character at a 2019 gig at New York City’s Café Carlyle, Personality Crisis still manages to reveal new dimensions to Johansen and all his personae. He’s often funny and sometimes even profound.
Here are 11 things we learned from the film, which will premiere April 14 on Showtime.
The New York Dolls’ gender-bending attire wasn’t totally intended to shock — it was supposed to bring people together.
“Society was set up very strict — like straight, gay, vegetarian — whatever you want to say, anything you want to say,” the singer recalls of the band’s early days in the film. “I just wanted to bring those walls down and have a party kind of a thing.”
Morrissey convinced Johansen to reunite the New York Dolls by invoking the name of opera singer Maria Callas.
In between songs at his Café Carlyle performance, Johansen asks the crowd, “Have you heard of a fellow named Morrissey? If you haven’t, I’ll clue you in: He was the teenage president of the New York Dolls fan club in England. He’s kind of a Gloomy Gertie but he loved him some Dolls.”
He then went on to explain how this particular Gloomy Gertie grew up to convince Johansen to reunite the surviving New York Dolls, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and bassist Arthur Kane, in 2004. “He called me, and he said, ‘I understand you’re a pretty big Maria Callas fan.’” Johansen says. “And I said, ‘Yes, I happen to be known for that in certain circles.’ He said, ‘Well, you know that film she made where she did a fantastic concert at the Royal Festival Hall?’ I said, ‘Yes, by heart.’ He said, ‘How would you like to play the Royal Festival Hall?… All you have to do is get the Dolls back together.’ And I thought, ‘Royal Festival Hall, Maria Callas…’ I combed every opium den in Chinatown, and I pulled that band together. We were fantastic.”
Before the New York Dolls, Johansen participated in protests with hippies, yippies, and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.
In the mid-Sixties, Johansen lived in a seventh-floor walkup on New York City’s “Hells Angels” block, Third Street. A chance run-in with a neighbor — “a hip college professor kind of guy,” as Johansen describes the man in the film — led him to get involved in the Dadaist/anarchist collective that called itself Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. “Apparently I had the stuff to rally the street if something went down,” Johansen recalls. “So I used to stay on the corner, like go climb up on a lamppost and say, ‘We’re not gonna let these cops blah blah blah.’ And everybody would be like, ‘No.’ And there would be some kind of skirmish. My mother said to me one day, ‘You know what you are? You’re a commie doof.’ I had to think, like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”
Johansen once helped Abbie Hoffman disrupt a New York City street… with a tree.
“I used to really like Abbie Hoffman a lot as a kid… I used to see him all the time,” Johansen says in the film, referring to the anarchist Yippie movement leader. “We planted a tree in the middle of St. Mark’s Place. He was the instigator of that. The ruse of it was that we need more trees on St. Mark’s Place. He said, ‘Where are we gonna get a tree?’ I said, ‘They got trees all over Staten Island.’ He got a van, came to Staten Island, dug up a tree… I think they just put a mound of dirt around it, as I recall. They didn’t expect it to stay. It was in the middle of the street. They just wanted to do something.”
Another time, Johansen tormented rich culture vultures attending classical music concerts at Lincoln Center.
“You know those industrial boxes of Tide they have at a laundromat so you can buy like a cupful or whatever?” he recalls in the doc. “They dumped one of those in the [Lincoln Center] fountain. It was like a comedy movie; it just started foaming up and all these people who were, like, society contributors to Lincoln Center, they were all done up to the nines and they were all slipping in the foam. It was great. It was so beautiful.”
The New York Dolls’ guitarist, Johnny Thunders, lived in luxury compared to Johansen.
While recalling the origins of the Dolls — when Kane and drummer Billy Murcia, knocked on his door and asked him to join their band — Johansen describes his “Hells Angels block” apartment: “One day there was a knock at the door… which was in the kitchen… which is also where the bathtub was located.” After agreeing to join immediately (“I made snap decisions in those days,” he quips) they went up to 10th St., where, he says, “Johnny Thunders had a very nice apartment: The bathtub was in the bathroom, you know what I’m saying? Couple other rooms. I think his mother was paying his rent. I’m not sure.”
Johansen didn’t expect his lounge singer persona Buster Poindexter to take off.
After spending too much time away from home with the David Johansen Group (his band after the Dolls), he wanted to create an act that wouldn’t have to tour. So he invented the character for a Monday night residency at a local blues club called Tramps that he called Buster Poindexter. “With Buster, I can do anything I want,” he explains in Personality Crisis. “People aren’t expecting something else. They come because it’s unexpected what I’m gonna do. They kind of trust that it’s gonna be good, and it’s always good.”
Johansen is just as sick of “Hot Hot Hot” as the rest of us.
The film shows Buster Poindexter leading a conga line through a party sometime in the Eighties, singing his megahit “Hot Hot Hot,” and then cuts to Johansen in the present day looking depressed. “That was, like, the bane of my existence, that song,” he says. “I don’t know how I feel about it now. I haven’t heard it lately. It was ubiquitous… they play it at weddings, bar mitzvahs, Six Flags.”
His fellow Dolls’ premature deaths never made him paranoid.
In one scene of the doc, an interviewer mentions drummer Billy Murcia’s death at age 21 and asks if Johansen ever worried about an early death himself. “No,” he says. “I never learned my lesson.” (He’s now 73.)
Johansen doesn’t have much respect for heavy metal bands.
Recalling how the David Johansen Group toured nonstop, opening for “heavy mental bands,” he looks appalled — even in his Poindexter getup at the Carlyle. “It actually killed me,” he tells the crowd. “These guys, they call magazines ‘books.’ So what are you reading there, pal? ‘Uh, Viva, my book.’ That’s not a book, that’s a Viva magazine. Thank God they had come out with Walkmans by then — and, of course, gin, which they always had.”
After the New York Dolls, Johansen wanted to be a movie star… but the Age of Aquarius worked against him.
In the late Seventies, when Miloš Forman was beginning work on his adaptation of the musical, Hair, Johansen auditioned and hit it off with the filmmaker. Forman liked him so much, Johansen recalls in the doc, that he referred Johansen to choreographer Twyla Tharp, who liked his dancing. The last piece of the puzzle to get the gig was to impress Galt MacDermot, who composed Hair’s music, so he met MacDermot at a rehearsal studio. “He’s at the piano and I come in and I start singing the song ‘Hair,’” Johansen says. “I hadn’t really prepared. But Galt MacDermot stood up. He shut the lid of the keyboard and he said, ‘This guy can’t sing’ And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t dance but I’m a singer.’ That’s what I do. I didn’t get the part anyway. My dreams were crushed. But I only had those dreams for three days so it wasn’t, like, a lifetime.”