Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Personally, I don't like the cover. The Dolls never wear that much make-up; it's artificial-looking, gives the wrong impression. But this is the kind of band that gives the right impression by giving the wrong impression, starting with the two-strikes name--Dolls and the straights fag-bait you while the gays straight-bait you and the hips trendy-bait you, New York and the rest of the country puts up its dukes. To five young men from the outboroughs of Manhattan, such abuse is liable feel . . . more or less the natural thing.

The cover's chief virtue is its shocking-pink-on-black-and-while classiness. For balance, the back cover is just pink, a typical Mercury schlockeroony--that hideous italic type and somebody misspelled "saxophone." Also on the back is a photograph which is more like the real thing--all five Dolls looking scuzzy in their platforms and tight pants, standing in front of the Gem Spax on St. Mark's Place. Gem's is where kids from Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island tend to gravitate when they're looking for a high time in the city. In Fillmore days it was freak central. Now it's teen-age wasteland, a subway ride away, just like Warhol trash.

Subway music. Almost all the white people who raise children in Manhattan are at least moderately wealthy and arty; they bring up musicians like Janis Ian, Carly Simon, John Paul Hammond. Not the Dolls' kind of people. In the tradition of Dion and Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond and the Shangri-Las, the Four Seasons and the Blues Project, even the Velvet Underground, they grew up in places like Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island. There has never been a band--not even the Velvets--who have conveyed the oppressive close excitement that Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way the Dolls do. The careering screech of their music comes right out of the Cooper Union stop on the Lexington IRT. The music is ugly and raucous and funny; its drive and its style and its ambition are truly manic.

There are obvious analogues--first the Rolling Stones, then maybe the Velvets, the Stooges, Alice Cooper. People mention all four, and that's all right. Nothing wrong with an analytic system--phylum rock, genus hard rook--as long as it is understood that the Dolls are their own animal. Their special genius is a mixture of early-60s pop-song savvy with late-60s heavy-metal anarchism. Most crucially, this means that the deficiencies of Johnny Thunder and Syl Sylvain are acknowledged and exploited rather than exhibited and indulged. Most guitarists invent one or two dynamite riffs and destroy them by repetition. David JoHansen, the Doll's Guiding intelligence, takes those riffs and writes songs around them. It is typical of JoHansen's song intelligence that he has unearthed wonderful compositions by Bo Diddley and Leiber-Stoiler ("Pills" and "Bad Detective," and I bet you never heard of either) that sound as if he wrote them himself. Every one of the 10 originals on this record is memorable. What other 1973 rock album can make that claim?

There were fears that Todd Rundgren's production would smooth the music out, but if anything he let the Dolls push too far in the other direction. JoHansen claims he is afflicted with terminal laryngitis, but he is capable of the kind of sweetness that would add an essential dimension of vulnerability to this album. "Bad Detective" should have been on this LP, leaving the Sonny Boy Williamson and the Shangri-Las medley for the next one. And it is my very sad duty to report that although the songs are festooned with clever little hooks--not only those dynamite riffs, but quotes and intros and pauses, introjections and epilogues, whistles and moans and kisses--they are still raw enough to scare off the average AM programmer until he/she is instructed otherwise.

Those instructions will have to come from the kids of America--most adults really hate it, which is of course heartening. They'll catch on, if the Dolls can break out of New York, and the Dolls can. All good music--all good art, if you'll pardon the French--is rooted in particulars and moves put from there. This is the best hard rock band in the country and maybe the world right now, and it has room to get two or three times as good as it is. I know you don't believe me yet, but listen to "Trash" and "Personality Crisis" and "Looking for a Kiss" three times and then tell me I'm wrong.

I fucking dare you, punk.

Postscript Notes:

Manuscript, no date or publication information. Presumably this dates from 1973, when the first New York Dolls album appeared. Joe Yanosik's bibliography lists several New York Dolls pieces in Newsday: 1972-12-21, 1973-02-18, 1974-05-05. Any Old Way has a Dolls piece, , dated Feb. 1973.