The New York Dolls Bring the Sleaze to the City

In the evolution of rock and roll, the New York Dolls have always been a missing link between the hard-edged glam of the Ziggy Stardust era and the Ramones’ punk/pop minimalism.

The band’s first performance was Christmas Eve 1971 in a homeless shelter, and their name came from the New York Doll Hospital, a doll repair shop.

Most of their songs were written by charismatic front man David Johansen and the legendary junkie guitarist Johnny Thunders.

With their drag queen looks and hard drugging lifestyle, they tore a memorable rip in the polite fabric of mid-seventies pop music before imploding in 1975.

Their influence on emerging New York bands like Blondie and Television was immense and their stylistic fingerprints can be seen from the smallest punk bands to the biggest hair metal acts playing ’80s stadiums.

The band reformed in 2004 and has released two albums of new material since. Sunday night they played at the Grand Ballroom, Regency Center in San Francisco, CA.

Opening for the band was The Cliks, a Canadian female power pop trio touring their second album Dirty King.

They made a real big sound for just three people with an impressive use of dynamics. Their set was catchy, blissful, and all too short.

They were an obvious choice for an opening act because they were like the literal grandchildren of the headliners—from the lead singer’s gender ambiguous stage presence to the pop power of their hooks.

The Dolls hit the stage and roared into “Looking For A Kiss” with its lines of “shooting up in your room” and for the next hour and forty-five minutes the audience was treated to an epic display of pure New York sleaze rock.

Guitarists Sylvain Sylvain and Steve Conte build castles of raging guitar, sounding more like three musicians than two while frontman David Johansen is Mr. Entertainment personified.

When added to the powerful rhythm section, these elements created an unstoppable rock and roll machine. By the third song, “We’re All In Love,” the audience was blissfully singing along.

One of the great things about the New York Dolls is that they can still play their songs at the same tempos they played them in the early seventies.

Not all reunion bands can make the same claim. They don’t dress like drag queens anymore and instead look like a scruffier version of the Black Crowes.

Their set was a combination of new songs and old, and it was hard to tell the new ones from the old (I mean that in a good way).

These issues of age were one of the show’s great ironies: every song David Johansen sang was about “drowning in a sea of drinks” and excessive debauchery; they even sang a song called “Pills.”

Yet he’s standing up there looking great for his age—slim, healthy, and spunky, with all his marbles intact—it’s like the whole show was an advertisement for the rock-n-roll lifestyle.

The Dolls have a fantastic songbook and Sunday night’s show was a joyous stroll through it.  There was a pitch perfect “Better Than You” and a version of “Private World” with guitar leads that were just nasty.

Sylvain Sylvain played an acoustic tribute to Johnny Thunders that included bits of “Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory."  There was a blistering version of “Trash” where the raw seeds of punk were heard germinating.

The show’s energy kept building until climaxing in a triumphant “Jet Boy” and an encore closing “Personality Crisis” that made you feel you were watching a naughtier version of the Rolling Stones.

The whole thing made you feel dirty ... but in a good way.

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