David Johansen is a Rock and Roll Player
by Michaelangelo Matos June 1, 2009
The shuffler: David Johansen, the New York rock legend who formed the New York Dolls in the early ’70s and paved the loud, unkempt, pop-savvy road that would eventually lead to punk. He’s released many solo albums, worked with groups such as the Harry Smiths (traditional Americana), and performed as the infamous tropical novelty act Buster Poindexter. Johansen talked to The A.V. Club from Los Angeles as the Dolls, reunited since 2005, revved up their new tour.
The Larks, “My Reverie”
David Johansen: It’s from Debussy, Claude Debussy. [Johansen’s partner Mara interjects.] No—Mara’s saying it’s “Deb-you-see.” I just say “Deh-bussy.”
The A.V. Club: Are you a Debussy fan as well?
DJ: I like the Larks and I like Deb-you-say. And here they are together.
AVC: Do you remember when you first heard it?
DJ: I have an older brother, and when I was a kid, he had a lot of doo-wop records; I imagine that’s when I heard it. He used to get a lot of records, and I used to covet them when I was 4 years old or whatever. I would play these records on a Victrola, endlessly. I used to sing along to these songs when I was a little kid. The Platters, you know; the ones with really good singers. The Diablos was another biggie.
AVC: When did you start buying your own records?
DJ: When I was 12 or something. There was a rock ’n’ roll record store not far from my house. It was called Du-Dels. I think the first single I bought was “Tail Dragger” by Howlin’ Wolf, and I think the first LP I bought was Lightnin’ Hopkins; I don’t remember what it was called.
AVC: You were a blues fan when you were 12?
DJ: Yeah. When I was 12, I don’t know if I knew it was blues or not, but I liked it. When I was a kid, they had this Hootenanny era. There was a radio station in New York—I can’t remember what it was called—but every night from 9 to 10, there was a pretty hip cat who would play folk music and blues, and the blues kind of got my ear.
AVC: A lot of songs on the new Dolls album have a pretty bluesy feel. Is that deliberate?
DJ: I think we as a band, as individuals, understand that all popular music stems from blues and jazz and even pop, but rock ’n’ roll especially comes from blues. What we’re trying to do is play rock ’n’ roll, but other people call it different things.
Charles Lloyd, “Beyond Darkness”
DJ: He’s a very hip cat. He made a double record a couple years ago called Lift Every Voice. It’s so great; I can’t recommend it enough.
AVC: How did you encounter it?
DJ: When I was a kid, I had some Charles Lloyd records. In the ’60s, when I was in high school, he was hip and happening—I wouldn’t say to the general public in my school, but maybe 10 of us considered ourselves connoisseurs. A lot of people in that group had Charles Lloyd records; that’s how I got onto it. I must have read about this particular record. I think music writers, most of them, aren’t very good, but sometimes someone is eloquent enough to put you onto something. I read about music—not just anything, but if I saw something about Charles Lloyd, I would read that. And if it was done well, I would finish reading it, instead of taking the newspaper and going “ACK!”
Lucky Millinder, “Shorty Pt. 1 & 2”
DJ: He’s like a jump-blues guy. I call it pre-Hays Code rock ’n’ roll—that’s my term for [pre-rock R&B]. You know what the Hays Code is? It’s when they started censoring movies. Sometimes on TCM, they have pre-Hays Code movies.
AVC: Do you watch a lot of TCM?
DJ: I don’t know if I would say a lot, but we enjoy it, me and Mara. As far as movies and the band is concerned, there’s no accounting for taste.
AVC: How does it work on a tour bus with the Dolls?
DJ: There’ll be movies that everybody likes and will watch, and then there are movies that different cliques watch. We’re just starting this particular bus tour, and the tour movie will probably be Anvil! The Story Of Anvil. I imagine that will rise to the top. I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve heard, it should. The more like Spinal Tap, the better. It helps you make sense of your predicament. The whole feeling of not knowing where you are and not really giving a fly is pretty spot-on.
AVC: Did you get into jump blues like Lucky Millinder after becoming a rock ’n’ roll fan and working your way backward?
DJ: Yeah. In the late ’70s, I had a band—the David Johansen band, for lack of a better name—and I started collecting, not records, but tapes from people I knew who had jump-blues records. I got into Amos Milburn, that whole Central Avenue set. [L.A.’s Central Avenue was a major R&B center in the 1940s.] I became obsessed with it, used to listen to it on my Walkman in the van. At that point, I was kind of opening for heavy-mental acts in hockey rinks and driving all night to the next place. So I got into that music, and after kind of absorbing that, I started doing the Buster thing.
AVC: Buster Poindexter is still what you’re probably most famous for. Have you given any thought to reviving that persona?
DJ: I have no plans to. We’re hardly even speaking.
Armando Garzón, “Rosa Dormida”
DJ: He’s a Cuban singer. I believe he’s from Santiago. He had a record out a couple years ago called Boleros. I still probably listen to it twice a week. It’s a big hit in my house. Since then, I’ve found two other records by him. His latest is called Escándalo. He’s a bolero singer with the voice of an angel. The little research I’ve done on him [revealed that] he’s an architect. They have that Casa de Trova in Santiago; I think he came out of that scene. I think it might be a musical folklore club. He’s such an incredible singer; we saw him on YouTube. He’s unbelievable, such a beautiful man. Very taken with him.
AVC: Did you get into Cuban music growing up before the embargo, when New York was really a Latin-music town?
DJ: In those days, walking around New York, every bodega and especially record store had PA systems in front. The first Latin music that blew my mind was bumba, which was a Puerto Rican beat. I was a big fan of Hortillo’s band; I had his records as a teenager, with Ismael Rivera as a singer. I loved his voice and I loved that band; it really rocked. As far as understanding it and the whole Cuban-beat culture, I got into that in the ’90s. When I was doing the Buster thing, we would do a tinge of Latin for the xenophobes. We would play a lot of dances and stuff, and the Latin numbers went over really good with the dancers. So I decided I was going to do a record of Latin music. I kind of closed everything else off and just listened to Latin music for a year and tried to find where the one was. [Laughs.] I thought, “Let me get some of the oldest Cuban records I can have,” but then I started with the most modern stuff and worked my way back. It was incredible.
Cesaria Evora, “Tchintchirote”
DJ: I can’t pronounce it. I wasn’t going to attempt it after what I did to poor Claude Debussy. I heard a record of hers somewhere, but I think it was Europe or something.
AVC: Do you have any good stories about record-shopping on the road?
DJ: It’s something you do whenever you can, but it’s harder and harder to find record stores now. One of the great pleasures on the road is finding a really great record store. When I was a kid and started going to Europe, I used to buy the top 10 singles in different countries without even having heard them, just to keep them as a postcard. Now that you can put everything in a computer, you don’t have to drag that stuff around. You imagine there are going to be a lot you’re not going to want to hear too many times.
Willie Colón, “Skinny Papa”
DJ: A bugalú record. Now, bugalú is something we could talk about—a sorely misunderstood genre. I think people probably don’t realize it was this genius genre that came out of New York in the ’60s, which was just great, kind of stripped-down and danceable. There was a lot of shing-a-ling-ing going on. Kind of during the psychedelic era. I call it Puerto Ricans on acid. Probably the most famous song is “Bang Bang” by Joe Cuba. When I was a kid, they had so many different kinds of music on the Top 40. It was pre-demographics. A Latin song could be number one and a Beatles song could be number two.
AVC: That broke down due to demographics in the ’70s. Did you ever encounter anything like that—“the Dolls don’t fit the format”?
DJ: Oh yeah, sure. I think they used to have AM radio in the ’60s, and then for a short time, they started with freeform radio on FM. Say you were into Jimi Hendrix. It was a godsend; you could hear all this great rock ’n’ roll music that was coming out. Then that got formatted; they decided “We can make money off these stations.” They’d get one guy who’d decide what every station in the country would play—maybe three guys.
I listen to radio a little bit. I’m always switching around and cursing. I have a Sirius [Satellite Radio] show. I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. For me, it’s great, because I can play all these records I like and think people should hear. Most people have insufficient leisure to have taste as well, so it’s nice to play songs people might like if they ever come across them.