When the New York Dolls disbanded in 1975, frontman David Johansen began a solo career, achieving recognition as Buster Poindexter, his skewed cabaret alter ego, and acting in films such as Scrooged (1988). The Dolls cranked back into life in 2004 at Morrissey’s behest, and their new album, Dancing Backward in High Heels, is the third release since their shockingly assured return.
Johansen is an admirer of the 19th-century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, and favours a pick ’n’ mix approach to existentialism. Sri Ramakrishna has reinforced a lot of my ideas. My favourite thing about him is that if he was in a tedious situation, he would just beam up, transcendentally speaking. That’s a great facility to have. I was a terrible student at school, but I did find philosophy thought-provoking. There are so many philosophies that I can read randomly, and it transports me to a place where I think about, rather than react emotionally to, the universe. I don’t follow one system: it’s like I’m a cafeteria Catholic.
His sister’s husband is a celebrated scientist. He is a wonderful, smart and warm guy. He puts his human head on and enjoys himself. I always ask him, ‘Where is the universe?’ And he just replies, ‘Don’t even think about that. It will drive you mad.’ Why is there a universe? All I know is we plunge into the absolute as fools, and we emerge from it as troglodytes.
When he was 17, Johansen worked with the subversive Ridiculous Theatre Company. I was working in a tourist store for the guy who made costumes for Charles Ludlam. One day, I went down to this dingy Dickensian basement and found all these beautiful clothes. That’s how I became involved with the Ridiculous Theatre Company. I’d help with the lighting or play guitar. The word ‘genius’ is often used, but it actually applied to Charles Ludlam. He influenced me in terms of performance and his questioning of gender roles.
He advised the fledgling Talking Heads and the Ramones to give up music and do something else. Yes, but for different reasons! I remember saying to Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads, ‘You’re such nice kids – why do you want to do this? You could do so much good for the world if you did something else.’ With the Ramones, they were down the hall from me in a rehearsal studio, and Joey came over and said, ‘Come and listen to our band!’ They had really just begun and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Don’t do this!’ It shows what I know.
The Dolls’ electrifying proto-gothic song ‘Frankenstein’ was inspired by an evening at the theatre. I saw a play by the Living Theatre Company. Their plays were transformative and transcendental. By the time you left, your perceptions were definitely altered. People were running around the stage shouting manifestos – which is exactly what Second Avenue was like, but without the proscenium arch. In one play, they built a human pyramid and lit it to look like Frankenstein, and I never forgot that. The song was about how wider society spawned this uncontrollable scene in New York.
The Mercer Arts Centre collapsed on one of Johansen’s friends. He survived in, like, a bubble. He was sleeping when the place caved in, but that room withstood it. It was an old hotel from the 1800s, and when they modernised it, they took out support beams. One too many subway trains went by and that was it.