Based upon an earlier piece, this was prepared for inclusion in my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), but is not part of that book’s current blueprint.
An infinite number of tracks can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
THE NEW YORK DOLLS: “Personality Crisis”
Written by David Johansen and Johnny Thunders
Produced by Todd Rundgren
Single from the album New York Dolls, Mercury Records, 1973
Blame the New York Dolls for KISS. Blame the New York Dolls for the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and all of ’70s punk and whatever it lead to. I guess we should blame the Dolls for ’80s hair metal, and probably for Guns N’ Roses, too. The New York Dolls bear at least a share of the responsibility for all of that.
God bless ’em. Maybe not for the hair metal, nor really for Guns N’ Roses, and one’s mileage may vary in the subject of KISS. But the Ramones? Pistols? Punk itself? Oh yeah. God bless the New York Dolls.
I was in middle school and high school when the Dolls existed in the early to mid ’70s, and they completely escaped my notice. I doubt they ever got any AM radio spins in Syracuse. I’ve read that the group played at The Lost Horizon sometime during this span, so maybe there was a local FM station playing with Dolls, but if so, I missed it. I never even heard of the New York Dolls; I didn’t hear ’em on the radio, didn’t see ’em on TV when they appeared on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, didn’t read ’em about in the few rock mags I perused prior to their combustion and implosion in 1975. All of that would come later for me.
The first time I remember seeing the name “New York Dolls” was in the tabloid pages of Phonograph Record Magazine in 1977. No. Even as I type that, a sudden memory warns me away. The Dolls were referenced (in derogatory terms) in a rock history book that I read some time before that; the book’s snooty British writers dissed the Dolls in no uncertain terms, with no less an authority than Mick Jagger hisself stating that the New York Dolls were like Stones contemporaries the Pretty Things, only prettier. I’m grateful to that largely-forgotten book for stoking my nascent interest in the Kinks, but still resentful with how casually its myopic pundits slagged the Dolls and the Monkees.
The take on the Dolls in Phonograph Record Magazine wasn’t necessarily positive either; a report on the New York scene mentioned Big Apple advocates and scenesters who “still think they were right about the New York Dolls.” “Right?” Wait. What..?! But there was also an underlying sense that at least some of PRM‘s scribes had some affection for these gaudy, glittery enigmas.
Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, I wondered: who the heck were these New York Dolls?
I was the last of my siblings still living at home. For Christmas of ’77, it was decided that my parents and I would travel to see each of the robins who’d already left the nest. That meant visits to Albany, Nashville, and Cleveland. In Nashville, a stop at a J.C. Penney store revealed an LP cutout bin that included the New York Dolls’ eponymous 1973 debut.
It seems unlikely that I’d never seen a Dolls album before. Surely there’d been one in the racks at Gerber Music or Camelot or Cleveland’s Record Revolution during the many, many times I’d rummaged through, seeking sounds. But if so, I’d never payed it any mind. The New York Dolls weren’t on my radar until punk put them on my radar. I stared at the record in Nashville. Something like three bucks, maybe three-fifty, maybe. I turned it over and back over, examining the graphics of this strange group in their makeup and mascara, uncertain….
And I put the record back on the shelf. On to Cleveland!
It didn’t take long for me to regret that choice. I’m not sure why I hesitated, nor why I opted out. I guess, after all I’d read, I was still unsure if I’d care for the Dolls. In that moment, I was unwilling to take the chance, even at a discount. But yeah, regret came soon thereafter. I still hadn’t heard the New York Dolls, and I’d just blown my chance to hear ’em at a lower price.
Meanwhile, the Dolls’ mystique grew in my mind. Now, I read about them in Rock Scene, I learned a greater appreciation of their influence on the punk rock I loved, and I cringed the next time I saw a Dolls album available for sale: a 2-LP import set, priced outta reach like a 2-LP import set should be. Oh, the humanity…!
In January of 1978, I saw the Flashcubes for the first time. I saw the ‘Cubes as many times as I could, whenever I was back home during school breaks. The Flashcubes had great original songs, great energy, and great taste in covers. Via the Flashcubes, I heard my first New York Dolls song: “Personality Crisis.”
I recognized the title from Rock Scene. Awrighty. The Flashcubes proved to me that “Personality Crisis” was magnificent, and I further kicked myself for my folly in Nashville.
It would still be almost another year yet before I’d finally hear the Dolls themselves, courtesy of a compilation album that included “Personality Crisis” and “Who Are The Mystery Girls” by the mother-lovin’ New York Dolls.
In July of ’79, the Flashcubes opened for former Dolls frontman David Johansen at The Slide-Inn in Syracuse. I’d heard a bit of Johansen’s eponymous solo album, and was blown away by his live set. Before that show, I’d tried to describe the New York Dolls to a friend who hadn’t heard them, and I settled on saying the Dolls were a cross between KISS and the Sex Pistols. Inaccurate, I guess, but best I could do at the time. Johansen included a trio of Dolls favorites in his setlist: “Babylon,” “Personality Crisis,” and Bo Diddley‘s “Pills.” And we saw that it was good.
“Personality Crisis” remains the New York Dolls’ signature tune. It’s trashy and messy, a puff of smeared mascara and loud guitars, a six-string catfight on high heels and just plain high, Eddie Cochran with lipstick, the British Invasion in fishnets, the Pretty Things, only prettier. Jerry Nolan pounds, Killer Kane plonks, Sylvain Sylvain plugs in and plays, while David Johansen preens and pouts, a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon. And guitarist Johnny Thunders? God knows where his head was or what it was doing–one suspects he may not have known where his head was or what it was doing–but the result is riveting, out-of-body, a noise that couldn’t possibly have been made anywhere amidst the green or gravel of this lonely planet, boy. It’s almost a parody of the strut of ’70s rock, but it’s either too self-aware to be accidental or too oblivious to be premeditated. In truth, it is both. Lookin’ fine on television! A personality crisis indeed.
If you like what you see here on Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do), please consider supporting this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon, or by visiting CC’s Tip Jar. Additional products and projects are listed here.
This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.
I’m on Twitter @CafarelliCarl