Lookin' Fine on Television
By Nadya & Bob Gruen (MVDvisual)
"You had to see them live," say people trying to explain why everyone doesn't love the New York Dolls. I've always thought this was bushwa myself. The Dolls put out two great, enduring albums on Mercury in the '70s‑-New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon‑-and more than three decades later followed with an even more unlikely masterpiece: 2006's prophetically entitled One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Many people love these albums without benefit of live exposure, and as someone who saw them many times between 1972 and 1975, I have dutifully checked out club recordings of varying legitimacy without finding one I played again after the pan was finished. Yet I do know several converts who went back to the Mercurys after the reunion shows of the '00s: David Johansen and Syl Sylvain plus sidemen, the other three having died by then. So if you've never gotten the Dolls, maybe you should give this DVD a try.
And if you're a fan, you definitely should, because unlike those lousy club tapes this document does convey aspects of the Dolls' magic during their brief heyday that the studio albums hint at indirectly if at all. Don't expect crystalline sound or snazzy visuals from this footage, which was shot in blurry black-and-white on portable video cameras by ace rock photographer and passionate Dolls fan Bob Gruen and his wife Nadia Beck. But augmented by offstage business and a few interviews, including one by ace rock reporter and passionate Dolls fan Lisa Robinson, it reminded me and my date from back then of just how vital and unprecedented this band was. Johnny Thunders, whose junkie years falling off the stage on the beat with the Heartbreakers left quite an impression, is especially heartbreaking: neither tall nor a muscleman, he exudes the confidence that comes with a naturally sculpted torso, healthy skin tone, and Roman-schnozzed good looks. What happened to his pre-Dolls band? "They kicked me out because I was a creep."
The Dolls, of course, made being a creep an art form. Says their most experienced musician, drummer Jerry Nolan: "I've been playing so long and I never advanced. That's why I'm with these guys." The polka-dotted Sylvain represents for "good old Queens." Arthur Kane, a big geeky guy wearing sunglasses approximately the size of his head, speaks of his dreams in a faint lisp. And Johansen camps it up shamelessly even if he stole some of his moves from Mick Jagger. With glam still mostly a rumor, the Dolls wave hippiedom goodbye by accentuating genuine gender ambiguity at a moment when mere long hair was identified with Samson, Tecumseh, and Robert Plant. Yet the crowd up front is dominated by the same kind of girls-gone-wild blondes who regularly show up on individual Dolls' arms.
The greatest secret of Lookin' Fine on Television is that the Gruens were such fans, and as such shot so many shows they easily avoided the built-in tedium of live video. Instead of cutting to closeups of the guitarist's deft fingerwork and the drummer's ferocious barrage, ha ha ha, they cut to other performances of the same song. The sound being what it is, you can sometimes detect lip-synching anomalies, but not often‑-Johansen was unpredictable, but he knew what he was doing. Instead what you get is the wittiest clothes sense in pop history. All of them had a knack for costume‑-Sylvain now designs accessories professionally. But Johansen is the focus for good reason. By my count, which may be compromised by the soft focus and by Johansen's tendency to doff and don hats and such while performing, the Gruens meld eight different performances into the opening "Lookin' for a Kiss," during which Johansen wears black training bra over slim-cut pants, gray Edwardian jacket, illustrated glitter jacket, fur-and-glitter jacket, top hat with white coat-and-tails, tailored black jacket with ruffled shirt, broad suspenders over white shirt, and tight white top. Later come shirtless-with-bowtie, shirtless-with-dickie, shirtless-with-suspenders, shirtless-with-painter-pants, sailor cap with short black jacket, vertical-striped shirt-and-pants, sheer red (I'm guessing) wet-look shirt, cowboy hat with bandanna, Marilyn T, pearl choker.
Farewell to hippiedom indeed. Now do you see why it was so much fun to see them? There are 14 songs all told here, and they're great too. But for them you can buy the albums.
Combining a couple recent themes ...
Top 15 Xmas Albums
(in roughly descending order, and leaving out a couple already mentioned more than once)
Various, Christmas Party with Eddie G.
Various, A Very Special Christmas (only the first volume, with red cover)
Phil Kline, Unsilent Night
Various, A John Waters Christmas
Various, Lifetime Music presents Christmas Belles
Various, Where Will You Be Christmas Day?
Carla Bley, Carla's Christmas Carols
Paul Revere & the Raiders, A Christmas Present ... And Past
Various, When a Child Is Born: A Gospel Christmas
Buck Owens, Christmas with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos (and/or) Christmas Shopping
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Various, Bummed Out Christmas!
Various, Blue Yule
Various, Reggae Christmas from Studio One
Various, Little Steven's Underground Garage presents Christmas A-Go-Go
Those Darlins: http://goo.gl/qV1Xl, http://goo.gl/nTPW6
Nancy Sinatra: http://goo.gl/sAiUM, http://goo.gl/auEp0
Kate Bush: http://goo.gl/oVLQR
Nicki Minaj: http://goo.gl/P7jHv
John Lydon, then and now. "We're all ugly and we know it.": http://goo.gl/M89Tm
Tom Greenhalgh, blazer and leopard print: http://goo.gl/8pP9b
Randy Travis, high waist, assertive jaw: http://goo.gl/JzRTO
The (Young) Rascals, post-schoolboy: http://goo.gl/Rcdag
Doug Sahm, Yosemite Sam: http://goo.gl/lPwNC
Favorite individual tracks include Paul's "Wonderful Christmastime", Elton's "Step Into Christmas", Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You", Barenaked Ladies' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings", Harry Connick Jr.'s "(It Must Have Been Ol') Santa Claus", and Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree".
It's far easier for me to make a list of my LEAST favorite Christmas music, because I enjoy most holiday tunes. Most hated songs include:
- "Mary, Did You Know?"
- "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
- "Christmas Shoes"
- "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
- anything involving Jessica Simpson
The Fall - Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
I did NOT know that existed. Pleasing irony. I guess that's kinda the Fall's thing, minus the pleasing part quite frequently though.
I want to talk about fashion in music, too. In order to make it palatable to list-makers, I propose anyone interested post a short catalog of rockstars' fashion moves that they wish they could copy.
Mine are (WITH PICS!!):
5. Probably makes me a dork and wouldn't flatter my girlish figure anyway, but the Specials' short pants and jackets and porkpie hats. http://goo.gl/bSUcV
4. Mick Jagger's tiny 70s cut t-shirts. http://goo.gl/C8BjJ; http://goo.gl/zFCs9
3. Debbie Harry's awesome fashion. I would wear this exact outfit: http://goo.gl/gSys1 but I also like the disco queen looks.
2. Mary Weiss's hair TIED WITH angelic Marianne Faithfull's hair. http://goo.gl/dvRBv; http://goo.gl/htYi4; http://goo.gl/8EXSh
1. Riot grrl fashion incl cutesy kinderwhore shenanigans. http://goo.gl/JMyT0; http://goo.gl/5eTnL
These links are annoying; makes me wish we could post pictures in the comments. Maybe I can petition Windows Live.... I also agree w JockRothko that Those Darlins have very enviable wardrobes...sequins, short skirts, fancy lingerie, cowboy boots. YES.
Bradley: Replacing Nancy Franklin, I hope?
Looks like it, though I've never read Franklin. I tried to, but her articles online are locked for subscribers only. Boo! I want it free and I want it now! (Just kidding... okay, half kidding.)
My favorite pick from the Sufjan Xmas box is "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" Lovely, with complex emotions and based on a true story (even though he changed it from his sounds-like-a-piece-of-work mom to his dad throwing the socks into the fire).
Had a great time at the Bambino concert last night. What an amazing guitarist. My first taureg show and hopefully not my last. It was Bambino's last show in the US for awhile as he heads back to the Sahara.
My favorites this time of year would be:
Frank Sinatra- The Sinatra Christmas Album (Capital 1957)
The Phil Spector Christmas one
Willie Nelson- Pretty Paper
Klezmatics- Happy Joyous Hanukkah
I'm seeing Klezmatics in about a week, can't wait
Gee fellas, it's early yet. Give a guy a chance. But with just a little work I did manage to unearth that Rhapsody list, which is hardly exhaustive
Kate & Anna McGarrigle Seven Joys of Mary
Sufjan Stevens Holy, Holy, Holy (2006 version)
Luther Vandross Silent Night
Louis Armstrong White Christmas
Julia Lee Christmas Spirits
Clarence Carter Back Door Santa
Klezmatics Honeyky Hanuka
Waitresses Christmas Wrapping
Robert Earl Keen Merry Christmas From the Family
Sufjan Stevens Come On! Let's Boogey With the Elf Dance!
Run-DMC Christmas in Hollis
Rufus Wainwright Spotlight on Christmas
Elmo 'n Patsy Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
William S. Burroughs The Junky's Christmas
Aretha Franklin Winter Wonderland
Klezmatics Hanuka Dance
Nat King Cole The Christmas Song
Only piece of Christmas music I ever bought: the 45 'Christmas with the Devil' by Spinal Tap. Just call me Scrooge (oh wait, there's another good Xmas song).
Does anyone remember what was on the Xmas playlist Xgau did for Rhapsody a few years back? (Wish I had thought to write it down.)
Joe: A search for Rhythm & Blues Christmas turns up at least three different albums with that title. What are some of the tracks?
Thanks, Jack Rothko,
I loved seeing and thinking about those early punk women. I don't know as much about riot grrrls as I should—my daughter was young and I didn't go out to late shows much in those years—and I never bonded with songs by L7 or Bikini Kill or Le Tigre, though I heard Kathleen Hanna (talking) at a conference recently and thought she was great. When I read your post, I checked out the excellent and detailed Wikipedia piece on riot grrrls, then googled "riot grrrls throw used tampons." To me it looks like Donita Sparks of L7 in response to some guy heckling the band at a festival once reached in her underpants and threw a used tampon at him. I'm not sure if there were other incidents. But you can see where it would get attention.
And yeah, it brings out some E-ew in me, but in that story I'm on her side, not his. Smith, Harry and Weymouth of course not only wouldn't have done that but weren't even calling themselves feminists, at least in anything I read or heard at the time. But the point was made.
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.