The New York Doll Turned Lounge Lizard


The best-laid plans often go awry and, occasionally, something even better happens. The plan was to meet David Johansen of New York Dolls for Saturday afternoon tea at Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper East. Due to car trouble involving a dying battery, however, we sat in his black Acura sedan on Third Avenue. Johansen, who also performs under the name Buster Poindexter, was uptown getting his hair done at Mizu New York Salon. When he stepped out of the car accompanied by his wife Mara Hennessey, his hair was sculpted into one of his characteristic skyscraper pompadours.

Johansen was among the first glam punk rockers of the early 1970s and influenced bands such as the Sex Pistols, Kiss, the Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, and the Smiths. The Dolls were the fashion pioneers of rock, the first to defiantly wear big hair, dresses, high heels, platform shoes, red vinyl pants, lipstick, and glittery vintage thrift shop finds. The band dissolved in 1977, although a few of them including Johansen reunited again in 2004.

In the late 1980s, Johansen invented a new comic persona for himself called Buster Poindexter. As Poindexter, he resuscitated the lounge music genre that, while popular in the ’50s and ’60s, had come to be seen as passé, and refashioned it into a vehicle for his over-the-top-personality. With his with big, carefully arranged hair, glittery tuxedos and formal wear, and exaggerated singing style he became a crooner. He had some hits, in particular his song “Hot Hot Hot,” and began working as a character actor with roles in films like Scrooged (1988). Since the early 2000s, he has hosted “David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun,” a weekly show on Sirius Satellite Radio.

A still youthful 64 years old, Johansen, who was born and raised in Staten Island, has just finished a five-night residency at Café Carlyle in New York. The show was such a success that venue has already invited Johansen back to perform next spring.

GERRY VISCO: So, David, this is your third gig at Café Carlyle?

DAVID JOHANSEN: Yes, the first time we played was a 10:45 PM show last Halloween and it was great.

VISCO: Did people come in costume?

JOHANSEN: Yes, and then we did another one. Now we’re going to do the suppertime show. We did two late shows. I guess they were testing us to see how it would work out. It sold out both times so I guess they decided that they would do a week. Sometimes they have people there for two weeks.

VISCO: What are your other plans?

JOHANSEN: We’re going to keep playing places around town or a little out of town, but not that far. The first time I did Buster we used to play at Tramps on 15th Street and it was great. The vibe in the Café Carlyle actually reminds me of it because it’s a small room like that and it gets a little rowdy.

VISCO: I guess the drinks are more expensive.

JOHANSEN: Definitely, but just the feeling of the room.

VISCO: That’s the thing about the Carlyle, it’s old New York and it’s fabulous. And after this?

JOHANSEN: We’re just thinking about the Carlyle right now but I want to keep doing Buster shows and we’ll probably make a record. 

VISCO: Do you usually like to write all your own songs or do you prefer to do covers?

JOHANSEN: When I do Buster, the whole idea of it is to sing songs that I want to sing that are not essentially “rock songs.”

VISCO: I’ve read a lot about you in the past. I went to see you when The New York Dolls came to Boston. It must have been 1972.

JOHANSEN: We really started playing in ’72.

VISCO: As a teenager, seeing the New York Dolls perform was a major event in my life. It was at The Other Side, a cool, very outré gay club with wild, crazy drag queens. It was so exciting to see you then, and here you are! I knew a lot about you before you transferred to Buster, but would you say you transitioned because you wanted to sing those songs?

JOHANSEN: The Dolls were a rock band and we used to travel all over the place in a van. I was living on 17th street and Third Avenue and I had this bar in my neighborhood, Tramps. It was a nice quiet neighborhood then. Tramps was a little bar and had bands and singers I liked—such as Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton—who’d do residencies. I liked to hang out there. I decided to do four Mondays at this little cabaret, and I used that moniker because I didn’t want people to be coming in and yelling for songs that I was famous for. I could just do what I wanted. Then that month, without any publicity or anything, it became very popular, so I started doing weekends there. It wasn’t a plan or anything, it just happened.

VISCO: It was an experiment. And you developed this fabulous Buster Poindexter look very different from your New York Doll look. You were always a master of different fabulous styles.

JOHANSEN: Which was funny, because I had a band and the players, and I got them for their playing ability as opposed to the way they looked. I figured, “What are they going to wear? They might as well just wear tuxedos.” And then I didn’t have to be thinking about what they’re going to be wearing when they show up at work. The fact that we wore tuxedos opened a lot of doors for us to play society gigs.

VISCO: In the ’70s lounge became a bit passé. Now lounge music is viewed as retro and nostalgic. You were an innovator. I don’t think a lot of people know that you recreated lounge.

JOHANSEN: Well, like a lot of stuff I do, 10 years later it becomes popular.

VISCO: Vocally, did you feel like you had to change your style of singing?

JOHANSEN: No, because I don’t even know what my style of singing is. I sing to suit a song. It gave me a lot more variety of things I could do with my voice. When you’re playing in a band, when I was in the Dolls, we all got together and nobody really knew how to play, though everybody could play an E. So we sang all the songs essentially in E. That’s kind of limiting if you’re a singer.

VISCO: Do you have any preference between the Dolls and Buster?

JOHANSEN: Whenever I’m into something, that’s my favorite thing. When the Dolls got back together I was really into that. Then we did it for eight years and went all over the world so it was time to give it a rest.

VISCO: When you were Buster you traveled all over the world as well. Did you feel like it was a different audience then?

JOHANSEN: Yes. It’s hard to explain because as Buster Poindexter we went to so many places and did so many things that I never did as the Dolls. When you’re in a rock-‘n’-roll band like the Dolls, we had to open up a lot of places to play and so that was all new and always refreshing. Now everything is already there for you. When you go and play a town, the PA is there. The machine is ready to just put you in it and do your thing. In those days, we had to chop down trees in the park and build a stage and put up posters all over town and stuff like that. But with Buster, we did so many different kinds of things. When we came back with the Dolls, I wasn’t surprised, but curious, about the way the whole machine is set up now.

VISCO: Your band is very tight.

JOHANSEN: It’s funny because I heard that song “Down in Mexico” and I thought, “Oh, I want to sing this song.” Then I thought, well I would have to sing it as Buster so I put on a show with 20 songs around it.

VISCO: So that’s how you do it. You just get an inspiration.

JOHANSEN: It just starts with what I want to sing. With Buster, the great thing is I can sing anything. I can do a Broadway song or what I like to call a pre-Hay’s Code rock-‘n’-roll or a jazz song.

VISCO: Your show has a very literary quality because you have a patter. How do you develop that?

JOHANSEN: I have a couple of jokes but otherwise, it’s just stuff that comes to my mind. I can engage my sense of humor in the show. Rock-‘n’-roll sets are more like playing at a Hitler Youth rally. When we started with the Dolls there was no punk rock. In retrospect they said, “Oh, that’s punk music.” Once you get branded like that it’s a very limiting and unforgiving audience. If you do anything that’s slightly musically sophisticated it scares the audience.

VISCO: Do you have anything in mind for the upcoming future?

JOHANSEN: I’ve got a couple things in mind but I can’t really say what they are. I’ll do some acting.

VISCO: Your Scrooged role was unbelievable.

JOHANSEN: Yeah, that was fun to do. We often played at The Bottom Line and Bill Murray was a fan. He said one day, “Hey, do you want to be in my next movie?” I was like, “Of course!” He’s great. He gave a lot of support for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater.

VISCO: You’ve been performing for decades here in New York and you’re a survivor. How do you feel about the world today as opposed to when you got started?

JOHANSEN: The world today is the same as it always was but people know more about what’s going on in the world than they used to. So many parts of New York now are so crowded—you wonder where these people come from. But time marches on. I could go on about it, but everybody knows all about gentrification: “We’re going to take this dumpy neighborhood and turn it into a gold mine.”

VISCO: Where did you spend the most time?

JOHANSEN: I grew up in Staten Island, the Lower East Side, and the East Village.

VISCO: Do you feel like you’re a Lower East Side icon or personality?

JOHANSEN: Not really. Maybe the Dolls are, but I’m a New York personality. I’ve lived in all different neighborhoods in New York City. You know how Times Square used to be? You’d walk through there and it would be interesting and now it’s like a mall full of people from other places.

VISCO: You must have known some really interesting people.

JOHANSEN: When I was a kid I started working at this store on St. Marks Place called Matchless. I worked for a guy named Lohr Wilson. I was about 17. They sold tchotchkes. We’d cut out the logo on a can of Budweiser and put a hole in it and put hooks on it for earrings. He had this basement, which was a water-dripping-down-the-brick-walls kind of a place, where he had all these insane, glittery, beautiful costumes with plumes and sequins. It turned out he was making the costumes for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater.

VISCO: Oh wow.

JOHANSEN: I started going to their rehearsals and meetings and I met all those people and got involved with them. That was really the start of my career. I absorbed a lot. Charles really knew how to put on a show and make it compelling. I learned a lot from him in those days.

VISCO: Were you in the shows?

JOHANSEN: I’d be an extra, like a spear-carrier. I’d also do the lights or the sound. Not well. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. If it was a musical, I’d play the guitar. I’d been in rock-‘n’-roll bands when I was a kid, in high school, and then I met the guys in the Dolls and we started doing that. I’ve just been doing that ever since—music and a little acting.

VISCO: How did you develop some of your fashion ideas? Looking at some of your old videos, I have to say, you were way, way ahead of your time.

JOHANSEN: Maybe not for New York—we were right on time—but for the rest of the country it was. We had our own thing and then England had theirs. When we all met on St. Marks Place we already looked like the way we did in the Dolls. That’s how we noticed each other. It wasn’t like we got together and thought “Let’s do this.”

VISCO: Where did you shop back then?

JOHANSEN: A lot of thrift stores. We had a guy in the Dolls who passed away in the early days, Billy Murcia. His mother used to go to London a lot and she’d bring back shoes for us from the Chelsea Cobbler, places like that.

VISCO: Would you say you were more glam rock or punk?

JOHANSEN: I can never decide if we were glam or glitter rock.