Posted: December 15, 2010 03:26 PM
Opening for The New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center, December 19th, 1972
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Billy was dead!
Jesus, the New York Dolls hadn't even signed a record contract yet and already one of them had died!
Given the trajectory of the New York Dolls' career and personal histories, Billy Murcia's death by misadventure was sadly fitting.
Being a groundbreaker is almost always a thankless task.
David Bowie has said that his career luck came from the fact that he was always second with an idea.
The New York Dolls were the pebble thrown in the pond. They sank to the bottom having caused hundreds of ripples.
Oh, my Dollies, my Dollies -- a hard tale to tell. These were really good friends of mine. Four of them are gone.
Well, [sigh] let's start from the beginning...
It was 1972 and Rock was beginning to suck!
Genesis, Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Chicago, et al, were turning Rock into a smug, bloated, empty exercise in meaningless virtuosity. Even The Who and Led Zeppelin were getting "serious." Lyrics about "Sharp distance" and "dogs of doom" were driving me up a wall. Where was the glamor, where was the danger, where was the potential for parental hatred? I didn't know what I wanted, but, I knew that this pretentious twaddle was not it!
The British Guitar Pop of T Rex, Slade, Sweet, et al was fun but twee -- like a meal of cotton candy with an occasional cherry cordial or french fry thrown in.
My own band, The Planets, were in the formative stage. We worshiped The Who.
I was writing Power-Pop songs with titles like "Lois Lane" and "Hmmmm!" and "Sissy In Disguise," playing guitar like Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix in a blender. Every song was about 250 bpm. There was skill involved, but, we weren't breaking new ground, just emulating to the best of our ability, working on a set of songs so we could start gigging, and I could finally show off the windmills I'd been perfecting.
Then, in the middle of spring, little ads featuring the Campbell Soup kids started appearing in the Clubs & Music section in the Village Voice. A band calling themselves The New York Dolls were playing fairly often at a place called the Mercer Arts Center. The ads were cute 'n' clever and the band's name was absolutely incredible and it seemed like they were playing at MAC every Tuesday. Intrigued, but, lazy ass that I am, I didn't bother to check 'em out.
One day in late July, I bumped into my pal, Peter Jordan at a guitar shop on West 48th St. I hadn't seen him for awhile and was surprised to learn that he was a roadie for the (beginning to buzz) Dolls along with another dear friend, Desmond Sullivan (guitarist in the current Planets). Peter, who, like me, was a music snob through and through, passionately urged me to check out this band. "They're really different, Binky. I think you'll dig 'em."
Oddly, later that same day, I got a call from another old music-freak-snob pal, J. A. "Binky, you gotta come see The New York Dolls with me. I saw 'em last week. This time I'm bringin' tomatoes. You won't believe how bad these guys suck. They're outta tune, they can't keep a beat. It's the most amazing bullshit I've ever seen. I was in hysterics."
By that next Tuesday, cranky J. A. had lined up several pals, and I gathered up The Planets, and about 10 of us met at the Mercer Arts Center. J. A. had thoroughly poisoned everyone. We were all out for a good dose of outraged snobbery.
We'd been warned the band always went on late. Having waited 'til midnight to show up for the gig, me and my pals still wound up sitting for well over an hour waiting for The New York Dolls to perform. But, our seats were perfect -- about 6th row center in this little 300 stadium-seat theater called the O'Casey, one of about 4 or 5 separate performing spaces that comprised the Mercer.
The longer we waited, believe me, the more The Dolls were gonna suck.
Finally, at about 1:30am, there was a commotion by the theater's entrance. There were strange looking people coming in.
Out of a knot of these people stumbled a guy with curly black hair, sorta like Marc Bolan's, wearing a little girl's sweater, bare midriff, tatty old lady scarf around his neck, bright red lipstick, and... were those women's shoes? He walked behind the drum kit and looked around and saw that no one had followed him. He stood up from the kit and started yelling "Guys! Guys! Guys!" in monotone.
Two more of the Guys come out, one who could be the drummer's twin, wearing a red ribbon bow tie about a foot wide, some kind of shiny all black suit, some satin, and a Les Paul Junior. The other, was the tall blond bassist, who wore thigh-high red platform boots, short-shorts and a leopard leotard top.
The other guitarist sauntered on with his back to the audience. He turned around and I was dumbstruck. The guy people had been calling "Johnny Thunders in The Dolls" was Johnny Genzale, who I'd known from the Fillmore East since 1968. We're even in the same photo in the booklet that comes with recently released The Deluxe Get Your YaYa's Out LP with Mick Jagger on his knees on page 39. Genzale and I were both always at British bands' shows. Anyway, my sorta pal Johnny had on these ultra-weird pants made of industrial quilting; they looked like chaps. His white platform boots seemed to be made for girls and his black cowboy shirt (same one he's wearing on the first album cover) for a little boy. His hair was wilder and more Kartoony Keef than I've ever seen it. Make no mistake, Johnny Thunders Genzale's hair was The Solitary Template for the entire Hairband look a good ten years later. He had on a clear body Dan Armstrong guitar (see Keith Richards on "YaYa's"). Very Rock Star guitar! By the third time I saw the Dolls, John had covered every inch of the clear body in multi-colored candy sprinkles. A fantastic idea!
Lastly, on came the singer. Wwwwwow!
This guy, who looked like a cross between Boris Karloff and Jagger, was wearing a gold lame suit, but, a suit for a suburban woman of means. Kinda like a Mad Men-era cocktail ensemble: trim gold 3/4 sleeve jacket, tight gold capri pants, his hair in a bun (!) on the top-front of his head, like a cigarette girl in a movie in the 1940s, and simple elegant black 4 inch heel women's pumps on his bare feet.
Lethal and wholly unexpected charisma across the whole stage. They hadn't played a note yet and I was swooning.
This was, without a doubt, the most outlandishly cool looking band I'd ever seen. They were intensely street-ragamuffin. These guys were not changing into stage outfits. They were strolling on stage in their street clothes. They were living it! And by the way, if and when you see pictures of The New York Dolls and you think, Jeeez, they look like everyone else, what's the big deal?, remember this:
Everyone else looks like The Dolls.
[Since this stroll down my memory's sinkhole was published, photos of this very gig I'm describing have turned up on Facebook, thanks to my pal, Kristian Hoffman. I got some of it right regarding my description of the Dolls' fab gear... But, a lot wrong.
Billy, I got right and David Jo, mostly...
Yes, to everything above (gold lame, etc.) except for his black boots with maroon wedge heel... real Emma Peel numbers. His black pumps came out with the women's beret the second time I saw him. Also, he started out with a little black leather jacket over his gold lame.
Johnny... He was the one in an all-black suit, not Syl. He had a vague gunslinger vibe with his creme satin China Doll blouse and white boots... I got his boots right up there.
And his pants were weird!
Arthur... white boot turquoise knee socks over torn black pantyhose and a white and turquoise cheerleader's jacket. The look I described above is a real one, just not that first show in August.
Syl... Wow, I'd totally forgot that along with David's odd bun-in-front hairdo, Syl had his Bolan curls slicked back like a hitter, a jean jacket, bright yellow pants with bright red window-pane squares, and women's royal blue suede boots.
Okay, back to the gig.]
Johnny counted off and they went into "Bad Girl".
The song was dead simple, in E (duh!). Maybe 4 chord changes. And, incredibly, a masterpiece.
The band's musical skills were rudimentary. The singer seemed to have a 4 note range. None of that mattered. Actually, it did matter. It felt as if I hadn't heard music this crude in years, maybe ever. The Dolls were attacking this song with a primitive rawness I hadn't heard more than a few times in my life, like a highly sexualized and glamorous androgynous Velvet Underground meets early early Stones.
By the time they'd finished with that opening number, they were my second favorite band on Earth, after The Who.
I boldly announced this to all the guys who were with me, (I recall at least a few being incredulous) and then spent the next 30 minutes or so in a kind of Rock 'n' Roll Bliss that I hadn't experienced in years.
Towards the end of that first set I saw, they launched into a song called "Frankenstein" and by the end of the song, David, the gold lame singer, was openly weeping, tears running down his cheeks. What the f was going on?!
Tuesdays became New York Dolls Night. That's what was going on!
My girlfriend and buddies would try to get there as late as possible, once showing up at a quarter to 2. Didn't matter. You always waited for The Dolls, along with more and more people every week. The word-of-mouth was now fast and furious. Soon you had to start showing up early just to get a seat. Damn!
Those Tuesday nights had something I never felt before or since as strongly anytime or anywhere else. Something gargantuan was happening, and you were there.
You were in on it. By your mere presence at Mercer at 2am on a Wednesday morning, you were... elite. The secrets of the world were in that little Off-Off-Off-Broadway theater.
It didn't hurt that every woman that was following The Dolls at that moment was a stunner, by nature or sheer will. Whether the ultra-fashionista girls or the groupie sluts, they were all mesmerizing and proof positive, there was nothing better than being a Rock Star -- and The Dolls were Rock Stars!
And if this point isn't already clear enough, on those Tuesday nights, you'd see people (not just the Dolls) wearing stuff that Bowie wouldn't be wearing for another year and Motley Crue wouldn't be wearing for another decade. By New Year's Eve '72/'73, people were walking into Mercer Arts center with sky blue, lime green, blood red, hot pink hair, at least 5 years before the Punk Revolution in London.
By February, '73, I had a green and red Saturn dyed into my shoulder-length hair. I was a Planet, you see.
The term Glitter started being bandied about -- ultimately, the more encompassing, and one syllable cleaner, Glam was encoded into the History of Both Rock and Roll.
Thankfully, the various Dolls also all turned out to be sweethearts. Johnny and I cemented our acquaintance. It was a good thing, too, because, that first night in August, it was instantly obvious to me that the best possible gig in New York City for The Planets was opening for The Dolls whether at MAC, or the Coventry Club in Queens, or the ballroom at the dilapidated old Hotel Diplomat in Times Square where The Planets eventually played with KISS. It was too much to hope for a gig at Max's Kansas City. We soon started the schmooze with members of the Dolls. But, The Planets would have to wait.
Around the time I first saw them, The Dolls got a wild front page review by Chris Charlesworth in England's much-esteemed Melody Maker. The article was that typical over-the-top rave that the British papers were/are so good at. In short order, The Dolls were off to London (Oh my God, how cool are these guys!) to open for Rod Stewart and do some club dates.
While in London, Billy Murcia, drummer for The New York Dolls, passed out at a party in some silly Brit kids' flat. When they couldn't wake him up after he'd taken several Mandies, (Mandrex = British Quaaludes, more or less) they threw him in a filled bathtub in a lackadaisical no-streets-smarts-whatsoever attempt at reviving him, and left him to drown in 12 inches of cold water.
David Bowie immortalized the poor boy in "Time"...
"... Billy Dolls and other friends of mine..."
The New York Dolls flew home heartbroken, suddenly and tragically minus a drummer.
Just before they'd left for London, the word was that band were thisclose to getting a deal with Mercury Records. Now this!
I mean, it was awful news. But, dig, not even signed yet and there's already a romantic myth drug death in the band. Well, where do you think Guns 'n' Roses got the slogan "They're Gonna Be Huge... If They Live Long Enough"? Too much!
Back in New York, The Dolls were shell-shocked, but within weeks were able to grab an old pal, Jerry Nolan, to be Billy's replacement. KISS's Peter Criss had auditioned and really wanted that gig. I think he wound up doing better for himself, yes?
While Jerry was getting acclimated, Marty Thau, the music-biz guy who first found the Dolls, teamed Leber/Krebs, a booking agency, to manage the band and set up The Final Showcase for the now-more-than-ever skeptical bigwigs at Mercury Records.
Somehow, with virtually no heavy politic-ing, The Dolls' singer, David Johansen, sorta the band's leader, agreed to come to a Planets rehearsal to see if we were worthy of opening their first show back in New York after the Billy Tragedy. He and new guy, Jerry, showed up at our rehearsal space one week night and listened to us do about five songs. David then announced that we were the opening act for their next show, the all-important Mercury Showcase.
"Come down and throw your hat in the ring" said David Jo.
A day or so later, Leber-Krebs (who also had a new band on their roster, Aerosmith) called our manager, the one and only Bob Merlis, to say that the rule when playing with The Dolls was that the opening act had to provide the PA. Same deal as The Ramones @ CBGB when we opened for them in April 1975, before CBGB had its own PA.
John Taylor, The Planets' singer and spiritual leader at the time, was obsessed with perfection and insisted that we rent a $650 PA system (in 2010, that's about $3,650) -- worthy of a 2500 seater -- for a room that held about 250. When Bob suggested to Leber/Krebs that the show really needed a good PA, more for The Dolls' sake than us, they agreed to split the cost.
That night, Jerry's debut gig, on December 19th, 1972 (38 years ago!), was the first time I ever played songs I'd written in front of an audience.
For the record, The Planets opened the show with Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" and closed with his "Nervous Breakdown," with six originals in between.
We were dressed as Dolls-like as possible... sequins, lace, torn jeans, satin, velvet, make up. We went down well. I recall an encouraging almost nurturing vibe from the audience."Hey, you're good. It's okay. We're here to see The Dolls, but, we'll be nice."
We were insanely loud.
The PA was blasting and I was running my Les Paul through my Hiwatt 200 (!) watt amp into ELEVEN 12" speakers. It was brain-damaging fun! And we got to do two sets!
The Dolls, for a change, didn't keep anyone waiting for their first set. You don't keep the suits waiting at your showcase. The truth -- they were pretty awful.
Although it went totally against their nihilistic image/actual lifestyle, they did definitely give a damn about a record deal, and the presence of at least 7 or 8 Mercury execs actually in suits, must have messed their minds. They were a train wreck. But the execs would likely not have been able to tell a good Dolls set from a bad. My God, they were getting blown out of their seats. So, yes, it was at this gig that Paul Nelson, the writer and visionary A&R man at Mercury, got his wish and was allowed to sign The New York Dolls.
And yes, after the suits had gone home, The Dolls did an astoundingly good set -- at 2:30am.
And the day after the gig, a Leber or a Kreb told The Dolls' roadies (my dear pals, Des and Peter) that The Planets said it was okay to borrow the van we'd rented. Instead of getting our crap outta Mercer and back to our rehearsal room in the space of maybe an hour, we wound up sitting in Mercer Arts for more than 7 hours wondering where the hell our truck was only to find out The Dolls crew had been using it all day. At least Pete and Des were abashed.
Months later, we had to take Leber-Krebs to Small Claims court to get their half of the PA's rental. Eleganza!
Over the next year, I became part of The Dolls' entourage. Between all five band members and my two buddy roadies, I had carte blanche at every gig. I became part of the family. A thrill!
For several months in 1973, they wouldn't go onstage until I'd tuned their guitars. Johnny would insist "Man, no one can tune like Binky. Hey, go get Syl..."
Being part of the few who got to see it somewhat from the inside, it was doubly painful to watch The Dolls falter and fall apart.
Like most New York Rock guys, we Planets were hoping, hell, expecting The Dolls to explode and A&R men (and women) would start scooping up all us NYC bands (something that wouldn't happen 'til CBGB more than 5 years later).
And as friends, it was sorrowful to watch some Dolls get caught up in bad things.
There's one shot in Bob Gruen's hot pink book on The New York Dolls on page 30 where you can see me at The Felt Forum, standing next to Syl's amps (with Desmond, actually) in a bright red jean jacket that belonged to my girlfriend.
The two New York Dolls LPs recorded for Mercury, though wonderful, are almost, but not quite, dog-piss compared to that band onstage on a night where they'd mixed their cocktails just right. Truly, the second most exciting band I ever witnessed after The Who.
When the first LP was released, I had all the Dolls autograph my copy.
David wrote, "Who's the next in line? Binky!"
Johnny wrote, "To my favorite guitarist in the USA."
One night a "friend" stole it.
A hearty Fuck You! to you, S.B.
Band dudes, take note: The secret to the Dolls' groove was this: Johnny always rushed the beat. Syl and Jerry were on beat. Arthur was always behind, almost way behind.
Rrrroar! Chang/Whap! Thump!
It was consistent and created some amazingly exciting noise.
If you're in a band, you wanna hear "Jet Boy."
In the Readers Poll in Creem Magazine,1973, The New York Dolls won Best New Band and Worst New Band, which neatly encapsulates exactly who they were.
For the record, the following is not an opinion expressed, but a fact stated:
The New York Dolls are one of the four Fathers/Mothers of punk, along with The Who, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges.
Their first child... The Ramones.
Four outta five of these bands are already in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.