At 73, David Johansen has lived many lives—most notably as the lead singer and primary shit-stirrer of the legendary New York Dolls, then as his doppelganger Buster Poindexter, the hard-living, raucous lounge singer who scored an international smash in the mid-1980s with the song “Hot, Hot, Hot.” And yet, many people might only have a cursory knowledge of the music he’s made during his lengthy, legendary career.
Personality Crisis: One Night Only, streaming now on Showtime and directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, aims to rectify that—though its subject remains humble about his trailblazing proto-punk band.
“We played music to the best of our ability and that’s the way it came out,” Johansen casually tells The Daily Beast about the Dolls. “And a lot of people who were fans, they took it as, ‘This is revolutionary! It’s wonderful!’ We didn’t really have any plans like, ‘Let’s have this effect on people,’ or anything like that. We just played.”
Anchored by a rollicking performance by Johansen in the intimate cabaret room at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel, the doc tells of the rocket ride to near oblivion of the New York Dolls, a group of East Village miscreants who were contemporaries, and East Coast soulmates, of bands like MC5 and the Stooges. The Dolls frequently wore makeup and women’s clothes on stage, though it wasn’t drag per se. It also, however, wasn’t the more arena-friendly fair that KISS and Alice Cooper rode to stardom, nor was it as glam as early-’70s Bowie or T. Rex.
Instead, it was bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred rock ’n’ roll in a package that was shocking for its time and could have gotten the Dolls arrested even today. Still, as The Smiths frontman Morrissey says in the film, every song on the New York Dolls’ debut album was a potential hit single.
While a good half of the film’s two-hour run time is spent on the story of the Dolls, who lasted just a few years in their original incarnation, it’s a crucial setup for what comes next: Johansen’s solo smash with “Funky But Chic,” then Buster Poindexter, then the Dolls’ reunion (at the behest of Morrissey) in the early aughts, followed by Johansen finding a home on satellite radio with his fascinating Sunday morning show, Mansion of Fun.
In speaking about the origin story of the new film, Tedeschi—who is Scorsese’s right-hand man when it comes to his music-centric films, including No Direction Home, Living In The Material World, and Rolling Thunder Review—told The Daily Beast, “[Johansen] invited me and Marty, who’s been a fan since the ’70s, to the show, and we were blown away. David told the story of his life and, of course, we love stories. And David’s such a raconteur. We looked at each other when the performance was over and I said, ‘We’ve got to do something with this. We’ve got to film it!’
“Working on these films, we have a lot of freedom,” Tedeschi added. “With music films, something’s always lost in the translation. So our aim was to recreate the feeling that we had when we left the live show for the first time.”
By that measure, Personality Crisis succeeds, and then some.
Below, Johansen chats with The Daily Beast about his legendary career, the current pearl-clutching cultural climate, and what it’s like to watch yourself on the big screen.
There’s a great line, early on in the film, where you say about rock ’n’ roll, “It’s the lie that tells the truth, because it gets to the point.” That seems to be your ethos, and it seems to be the ethos of this documentary too, isn’t it?
I guess. I don’t know, I haven’t really considered that. But what I meant was that’s how some people, if they can, describe camp. But you know, we just saw the film last night. I thought it was really good.
Had you not seen the final cut before last night?
We saw it at the premiere, which was in October. But I don’t think I took it all in at that point. Last night, it seemed like I hadn’t even seen it before. It was good.
Two hours of your life’s story on a big screen in a room full of people—are you able to detach from that at this point in your career, or is it still a little bit strange and overwhelming?
Both. I look at it like I’m like a fan, in a way, if you know what I mean. I don’t say that as a pretentious thing, but I was just enjoying watching the film. I didn’t really have that many cringe moments. You know, you see yourself in a film and it’s like, “Oh my god.” But I enjoyed it. It was refreshing.
What makes you cringe? Is it the old stuff or the new stuff?
I think it was just some of the things I say. Like, I don’t know if I even said it in the film, maybe I didn’t… but a lot of times, people will ask me, “We’re doing a documentary on whatever,” you know, some aspect of rock ‘n’ roll. “We’re doing a documentary on punk. Will you be in it?” And I just say no, because it’s going to be there forever, right? It’s a movie. And every time I’ve done that, which is rare, I see it eventually and I think, “I’m an idiot.” Because an opinion is just representative of that one day. It’s like, next week you’re not going to really have that opinion. It’s going to evolve. So they’re catching you in a moment that you’re going to transcend. That’s why I avoid it.
There were a lot of analogies in the movie to our current cultural situation. Obviously, when the film was in production, nobody could have predicted that we’d be in this situation where the conversation would be about certain people being terrified of men in women’s clothing, but there’s a moment in the film where the Dolls played The Shark in Long Island and you looked…
I actually think now that it was called The Barracuda or something…
Right, only out in Long Island would they have a club called The Barracuda. And there’s these tough guys, almost throwback greasers, and you’re like, “Oh, so people are still doing this.” Well, it’s 50-plus years later, and those guys are still, figuratively and perhaps literally, out in front of The Barracuda doing the same thing. Does that blow your mind, that we’ve made so much progress in some ways—or at least we like to think so, in our little artistic bubble here in New York City—and we’ve gotten past all that, and yet, in many respects, there’s still this small vocal group out in front of The Barracuda or wherever, still shouting the same things?
Yeah. Maybe. I would hope that it’s more evolved than that. I think it’s OK as a look. But whatever comes with it, or used to come with it, I don’t really want to be there. It’s a look. “My Fonzie outfit.” [Laughter.] You can do that and be really intelligent as well, so who knows what they’re thinking.
Well, yes, but at your core, you’re a guy from Staten Island. You’ve got to look at our current culture and you have to be able to relate to it in some ways but also roll your eyes.
Yeah. Both. You know, you have to get along in this world, too, so… Try to only think about people that you can enjoy. As for the rest, you don’t have to take the whole package. You can meet them on a level that’s OK for both of you. I don’t want to go too deep with people anyway. With my friends, I do. But that’s it.
Yeah. Steve Jones and I have had this conversation. Because there was a time when he had a lot of invective thrown at him, and he said that at a certain point, he just switched off to people and he had to decide if he could let them in. And then once he did, it was cool, but other than that, he just assumed everybody was kind of on the other side of the argument.
See, I don’t know if I have that attitude, because I enjoy people. I always did.
I want you to know, there’s a Spotify playlist compiling every song from your Mansion of Fun radio show that’s now 311 hours long because it’s everything you’ve ever played on the show. But for me, it’s not just the music you play. You are a wealth of knowledge about, not just the last 50 years of music, but music and culture far beyond that. And over the years, you really developed your storytelling in your side hustle as a DJ. Obviously you’ve always been a great storyteller, handling rowdy crowds in the Dolls, or during your Buster Poindexter days, when you could control a big band and hold an audience in the palm of your hands. But that radio show seemed to take those gifts to another level. Do you feel as though it helped in preparing for the Carlyle shows? Or were the shows really off the cuff, and maybe that’s why you had those cringe moments?
Oh no, in the Carlyle show, I did my own songs, so that was OK. Previous to that, when I did those shows, I did other people’s songs. A variety of genres or whatever. But this time—I even say it in the movie—I didn’t really want to have to buckle down and learn every word of 20 songs. But I still wanted to make a living! So we took the gig and then we just decided that I would sing my own songs and tell tales about my life that are amusing. Because, you know, when I do Buster, I do the rollicking thing. I do a song and then I do a quick joke and then I do another song. But I didn’t really do jokes this time. I did stories that were kind of based on truth, whatever that is. [Laughter]
There’s a great line toward the end of the film when you’re talking to Penny Arcade, and essentially the gist of it was, “What’s the rush in growing up?” To me, that’s the thing that keeps artists creating and fresh and interesting. It’s definitely not playing the same setlist of greatest hits every night and latching onto corporate sponsorships. And that attitude of not growing up seems to really be a through-line in your career.
You know, as far as all that corporate jazz, I never really played that. Really, I’m an artist. I just do things until I don’t want to do them anymore, and then I do something else. People do shows that they have been doing—and will do—for the rest of their lives. Like, the same fucking show. I would kill myself. I’d kill myself if I had to do that. I can understand why they do it, because they’re used to having a certain amount of income. They want to keep it rolling. “Let’s keep this money coming so we can spend it on snowmobiles,” or whatever it is that they buy.
Islands in the South Pacific.
Yeah. I can’t do that. I cannot do that. I have an idea, I do it, then I kind of run out of gas, I get another idea, then I do that. I don’t have that big money hang-up. A lot of bands, they can take a break for two years and then they come back all refreshed, “OK, let’s do it again.” I’ve pretty much been working my whole life.
“As far as all that corporate jazz, I never really played that. Really, I’m an artist. I just do things until I don’t want to do them anymore, and then I do something else. People do shows that they have been doing—and will do—for the rest of their lives. Like, the same fucking show. I’d kill myself if I had to do that.”
But that is a very young attitude. Besides, you calcify if you’re not using that creative side of your brain. What’s interesting to me is that in the film, the arrangements of some of the songs that I grew up with, I never would have imagined they could be performed in that way. They were new and fresh to me, like new songs, and I loved a couple of them even more than the originals. Did approaching your songs in a completely new way help you rediscover your catalog?
Yeah. In a way. I do that a lot. Even when we got together—the Dolls, me and Syl and Arthur—and we went to England to do the reunion Morrissey convinced us to do, I didn’t think about it very much. But when I did, I thought about how when you open up the Rolling Stone book of “hot 100 bands,” or whatever it is, it says the New York Dolls were flashy, they were trashy, and they were loud. After a while, I wasn’t consciously taking an attitude or whatever, but I thought, “OK, that was that. That’s what that was.” But when we went back to do it again for that first show, after having a break of like, 100 years or whatever, I was listening to it and I thought, “This is really musical. This is good stuff.”
Morrissey says that. He says in the film that if you listen now to that first Dolls record and think about it, every song is a hit song. They just didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time, for whatever reason. So, talk a little bit about your relationship to that legacy. Here in New York, the Dolls loom very large in the fabric of the New York arts community. Do you see it, as you were saying at the beginning, like seeing somebody on the screen and it almost not being you, like you’re just a fan? Are you able to do that? What’s your relationship to the Dolls at this point in your life?
The OG Dolls?
Yeah, the OG Dolls particularly. Although I love those reunion records, but that’s a whole other conversation.
I just feel like I was in college. That was my fraternity, or whatever you want to call it. But most of the time, when I think about it, it’s more about the relationships and things like that. It’s not really about music so much. But I kind of feel like that about a lot of bands that I’ve been in. It’ll sound like I’m dissing the Dolls, which I’m not. It’s just that I think I’m more capable of having good relationships with good people, if you know what I’m saying.
Well, you were kids. It’s hard to pick good people when you’re 18 years old.
Well, you know, I wanted to be in a band with those guys. They asked me to be in the band and I was like, “OK!” In an instant. Because I was dying to do something. I had done bands when I was a kid in Staten Island, so I wanted to keep doing that. Because in Staten Island, the guys didn’t have the hunger. You’ve got to find people with hunger, and you make what you can out of it. We played music to the best of our ability and that’s the way it came out. And a lot of people who were fans, they took it as, “This is revolutionary! It’s wonderful!” We didn’t really have any plans like, “Let’s have this effect on people,” or anything like that. We just played.
In your mind, when you think of the Dolls, is it that twentysomething version of the Dolls, or is it that reunion Dolls? Because the 2000s Dolls is a whole other thing.
Both. Because the second Dolls, that Morrissey convinced us to do, we made some great records. I think they’re really good. The first one we made with Jack Douglas is really good, and then we made one with Todd Rundgren, which is pretty good, and then we made one with Jason Hill that I think is a really great record. And it’s a record that I learned so much about making records during, because we went over to Newcastle to make that record and we had less than a month to make the record. All we really had was this demo tape that Syl had put together in his basement, trying to come up with tunes. So when we were there, I wrote all the words to the fucking record, in whatever time we were there, like three weeks or a month. And the band couldn’t learn to play all those songs, so we actually put it together a track at a time, one instrument at a time. I had never made a record like that. I always made records, like, “OK, let’s play.”
Guys in the room. This is called tracking, David. [Laughter]
Tracking! That’s what it was. And I thought it was fascinating. It came out, I think, great. It’s a genius record, I think.
And I’ve got to say, before we wrap things up, you’ve got to release a live album of the Carlyle Hotel performances in the film, if you recorded them.
Yeah, we’re going to do that.