Taking out the Trash with The New York Dolls
Every home should have at least one New York Dolls album. Hell they pretty much single handedly invented punk rock and, despite spectacularly imploding following their ill fated decision to employ a pre-Pistols McLaren as manager, their 70’s albums remain two of the most influential rock n roll records of all time. If you think Peter Doherty is a tortured genius then you only need to look back through the annals of the Dolls to see how he’s modelled his persona and tragic lifestyle upon guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Dolls never took rock n roll lightly, they were, as Richey Edwards would have it, 4Real; drummer Billy Murcia died of an overdose during their 1972 UK tour, Thunders somehow managed to stay alive until 1991 while Murcia’s replacement Jerry Nolan passed away just weeks later.
(New York Dolls: Paul Bachmann)
Most tragic of all was the tale of Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane whose 30 year dream of reforming the Dolls was realised in 2004 when uber-fan Morrissey invited them to London to perform at Meltdown. Kane left his job at the local library and the band made a valedictory return to the stage. The joy was to be shortlived however, just 22 days after the reunion concert, Kane thought he had caught the flu in London, and checked himself in to a Los Angeles emergency room, complaining of fatigue. He was quickly diagnosed with leukemia, and died within two hours. He was 55 years old. The surviving members, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, quickly made the decision to carry on with the tour and to record a new album titled One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Released in 2006 the album, and its 2009 successor Cos I Sez So, feature guitarist Steve Conte and he's here to chat to The Music Fix in advance of the legendary Dolls upcoming tour of the UK.
(Steve Conte: John Rahim)
Hey Steve, thanks for sparing us a little of your time, it is great to hear from you but, I must admit, I'm worried for your health. When I look at the catalogue of death and destruction and disaster that has played a defining part in legend of the Dolls, and indeed many of the bands who took inspiration from their “for real” attitude and image, it would seem to be a brave man that would jump aboard this particular train. When you got the call did you ever stop and think, ‘hang on Steve, what are you getting yourself into here’? Or at least check that your life insurance policy was up to date?
Funny, I have thought and joked about that! but seriously I think that if this "gig" had presented itself at another time of my life I could have easily gone the way of the ones that are no longer with us. I hate to be so cosmic but once I started making the right choices in my life good things started happening; career, love, etc. All I need now is money - haha!!!
There’s a hell of a musical legacy for you and the guys to live up to, so the deconstruction of ‘Trash’ and reinvention of it as a lilting reggae number appears to be a masterstroke. Was that part of a deliberate plan to subvert expectations or was there always a frustrated calypso band lurking under that glam rock façade?
It was purely a happy accident. Nothing this band does is premeditated. In fact everything is of the moment because that's the ethic--"don't do any work until you absolutely have to"
It must be hard to fill the shoes of someone like Johny Thunders but, with a few writing credits on the album, do you feel like you've established yourself as part of the band?
Absolutely. Of course I come up with my own parts for the songs others write and I have ideas about production and arrangements for the albums. Between the last 2 records I am a writer on 8 songs...I think.
Jim Steinman once described Dolls producer Todd Rundgren as a 'genius' – was that your experience?
Todd didn't do anything that made me think that...although I was hoping he would because I'm a huge fan of his work. But I think what his genius was on this production was keeping it rough, letting the band be the band and not trying to tart it up to be modern or whatever.
(New York Dolls: Max Lakner)
Like me, a lot of UK fans will have discovered bands like the Dolls and MC5 as teenagers in the late 1980s due to the popularity of 2nd and 3rd generation bands like Guns n Roses. Songs like ‘Personality Crisis’ and ‘Jetboy’ certainly stood out as great rock music but by then, as Jane’s Addiction put it, nothing was shocking. From such a distance it is almost impossible to imagine just how much of an affront the cross-dressing Dolls were to the conservative values of America at the end of the 1960s. I literally can’t imagine anything causing such outrage now – do you think that is due to a change in society or has rock n roll become just another safe career option?
Well I certainly see a lot less of what I consider to be true talent out there these days. there are a few but it's mostly stuff that's been done before. I think back in the old days everything was a mystery...how do you write those songs and play those riffs and write those lyrics and find those clothes or style. Now you just google it and you can have the whole art world at your finger tips. I'm not gonna be impressed if 16 year olds show up writing like Burroughs and singing like Piaf now...it's easy to get pointed in a with internet links.
Back in my youth I had no older siblings to turn me on to "edgy" stuff, I had to find it on my own in a clueless suburban vacuum. We've heard it all before; MTV watered down the quality of music, then the digital age made it possible for anybody to make records with samples, loops & pitch correction. But there's always gonna be someone pushing the envelope like GG Allin and those kind of shockers. Its a sociological question really and I'm just a musician whose days of debauchery are well behind him (I am married to an incredible woman & have a beautiful son that I want to be around for!)
It must be frustrating for Syl and David to be recognised as two of the most influential rock musicians, icons if you will, of living memory and yet to have seen bands like Kiss, Guns n Roses and Motley Crue rake in the cold hard cash. Obviously it is impossible to turn back the clock, so what defines success for the New York Dolls in 2009?
I don't put GNR in that category- they had some soul. As much as I partied to Kiss songs in my youth - gene & paul aren't really in the same league artistically as David & Syl. Kiss and Crue had the image, biz and some musical talent but it was more of a premeditated, superhero/comic book thing as compared to the visceral, tortured artistry of the Dolls. Today we still get to make the kind of music we love. There's no filtering through "this is what the fans want" - that's success.
What are the audiences like at a Dolls show these days, have they all grown up with the band or are there a bunch of curious kids there too?
All kinds...from 60 to 16...people reliving their past and kids seeing where their music came from. It’s awesome.
Do you notice any major differences between crowds as you travel the globe?
Yes, audiences outside of America are more open minded to music for its own sake. It doesn't need to have a marketing plan, a TV show, a hot 19 year old, washboard abs, an MTV hit - if its good its good.
I found the comeback documentary, which documented the incredible transformation of Arthur Kane back into ‘Killer’ Kane to be one of the most emotionally uplifting and ultimately heartbreaking pieces of film I’ve ever seen. What was it like to actually live through that?
It was so surreal and sad, you wouldn't write a tragedy like that. I feel honored to have known Arthur for the short time I did. He was very sweet and supportive of my joining the band.
Steve Conte seem to have an innate, chameleon like ability to adapt to disparate surroundings – hopping between jamming with Gloria Estafan, rocking out with the Dolls and fronting up your own bands, not to mention all the ad hoc link ups that seem to fall your way on a regular basis. Steve Conte is a man in demand but there must be someone left, alive or dead, that you really wish you could have jammed with but so far never got the chance?
Oh god yes. Dylan, Jeff Beck, Chrissie Hynde, Ziggy Marley, Keith Richards, Terry Reid, Paul McCartney, Prince...as far as dead people the list is too long but it would include all the jazz/blues men & women!!
It sounds like an urban myth but is it really true that you spent some time doubling up for Paul Simon?
True, I was his "stunt singer" in rehearsals starting back in 2000 till 2005. When Paul would not be able to be there or if he just felt like listening to the band he'd hand the lead vocal duties over to me. In 2008 I was thrilled that he asked me to play guitar and sing 2 of his songs in his revision of the show "The Capeman". We did 6 nights at Brooklyn Acadamy of Music with Oscar Henrandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a 20 piece Salsa band. Amazing!
Steve Lillywhite has been bigging up your Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth album and he’s clearly a man of great taste. Is the Crazy Truth where you see your future or will you still be taking calls from those in need of your rock n roll services?
I am a working musician so if I get a call to back someone up and it agrees with me on a number of different levels, sure. The Crazy Truth is a great band and we will do more recording, touring but I'm already working on something opposite - a solo acoustic record.
Thanks for your time Steve and good luck with the tour and your new album. See you in Bristol…
(Steve in action with the New York Dolls: Paul Bachmann)
The New York Dolls play the Cambridge Junction (Dec 2), Bristol Anson Rooms (Dec 3), London HMV Forum (Dec 4), Southampton Talking Heads (Dec 6), Leamington Spa Assembly (Dec 8), Liverpool O2 Academy (Dec 9) and Edinburgh HMV Picture House (Dec 10). National Ticket Hotline: 08700 603 777. Book Online: www.seetickets.com. Further info: www.nydolls.org.
Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth
The Debut Album in stores 10/20/09
On Varese Vintage Records.