New York Dolls co-founder David Johansen helped pave the way for punk
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. David Johansen is a founding member of the New York Dolls, a legendary 1970s band that never sold many records but paved the way for punk rock. He's also performed in his persona, Buster Poindexter, a pompadour-wearing lounge lizard, and he's played the blues with his band David Johansen and the Harry Smiths. Johansen is the subject of a new Showtime documentary, co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, called "Personality Crisis: One Night Only." Much of the documentary is built around Johansen's 2020 performance at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City as Buster Poindexter. It also includes new and archival interviews with him and others.
Here's a clip from the documentary with the English singer and songwriter Morrissey. He says he was obsessed with the New York Dolls as a teenager because they brought a sense of danger to rock. Their music was loud and rough, but more than that.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PERSONALITY CRISIS: ONE NIGHT ONLY")
MORRISSEY: So here were boys who were calling themselves dolls. And they looked like prostitutes, male prostitutes, which at the time - you have to remember, it was a long time ago, and all of that kind of thing was really taboo.
DAVIES: English singer Morrissey from the new Showtime documentary about the New York Dolls. Terry Gross spoke to David Johansen in 2004. The surviving members of the band had just reunited at the request of Morrissey for a festival in England. Their performance was recorded on a CD and DVD called, "The Return Of The New York Dolls (Live From Royal Festival Hall)." The interview starts with a track from the album called "Looking For A Kiss." The Dolls used to play this one in the '70s. It was written by David Johansen, who also sings lead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOKING FOR A KISS (LIVE)")
NEW YORK DOLLS: When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V. (Singing) I always saw you just before the dawn. All the other kids were just dragging along. I couldn't believe the way you seemed to be, remembering the things you used to say to me. You know I can't be wasting time 'cause I got to have my fun. I got to get some fun. I got to keep on moving. Can't stop till it's all done, 'cause I'm never done. Listen when I tell you - you got no time for fits. I just got to make it. Can't afford to miss. And there's one reason I'm telling you this. I feel bad. I've been looking for a kiss.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: So when you were on stage, you know, with the reunited and the new version of the Dolls and you were doing the old Doll songs, did you have any, like, flashbacks to things that you had totally forgotten about? Like, did memories, like, surface of things that were really interesting that you had completely forgotten about until you were back in that setting again?
DAVID JOHANSEN: Well, I have memories, but, God, they're vague, you know? I mean, I remember the first time we made a record with Todd Rundgren. And the only thing I remember is the lights on the control board. I thought they were really pretty. And that's really the only memory I have...
GROSS: Any historian would want to know all about that.
JOHANSEN: ...Of making that first record. That's the - and, you know, people think I'm kidding when they ask, well, what was it like making that first record because, you know, it kind of became this benchmark kind of record? But that's really the only memory I have of it. But, you know, the thing that struck me was I had to kind of sit down and listen to the music, and write the words down and learn them. And I thought...
GROSS: Oh, you had to relearn your own songs?
JOHANSEN: Yeah, because, you know, I hadn't sung them in God knows how long, you know? I mean, it wasn't like I had to relearn them from scratch because they kind of come back to you. But I had to have some kind of thing to look at. And, you know, I find that when I write something, it goes into my head better than if I just try to memorize it. So I was writing, for example, like "Human Being," and I was thinking, God, how did I write that song? This is great.
JOHANSEN: I mean, it really holds up, you know? It's kind of like a declaration that I think is timeless. So there's a lot of stuff like that in the songs, which - let me explain something to you. There was a time, you know - and when we started the Dolls, and we were really such a gang, and it was like us against the world, and we were really trying to evolve music into something new, and it was, you know, very kind of almost militant to us.
And then over the years, you know, in the history books, you know, like the "Rolling Stone Complete Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll" or something, you know, you look in the appendix and see where your name is and see what they say about you. It's not like you buy the book - and would always say, you know, they were trashy. They were flashy. They were drug addicts. They were drag queens. You know, and that whole kind of trashy blah, blah, blah thing I think over the years, kind of settled in my mind as, oh, yeah, that's what it was, you know? And then by going back to it and deconstructing it, and then putting it back together again, I realized that, you know, it really is art and that some critic at one time had come up with this catchall phrase that, as you know, once somebody says it, then everybody just looks it up and they say it because nobody does...
JOHANSEN: Nobody has an original idea.
GROSS: In spite of the fact that you don't remember a whole lot about parts of the early days of the Dolls, do you remember writing the song "Personality Crisis"?
JOHANSEN: Well, you know, I don't remember exactly sitting down and writing the words, but I remember where I got the name because I was kind of, like, an acolyte in Charles Ludlam's "Ridiculous Theatre" when I was a kid. When - this is when I was, you know, 17, 18, 19. And Charles...
GROSS: And let's just describe what Charles Ludlam's theater was. He used to dress in drag a lot as the leading lady in these, like, Greta Garbo kind of roles and...
JOHANSEN: Yeah, but it was so much more than that.
JOHANSEN: It was really very intelligent stuff that he used to do. And he used to combine a lot of genres of, you know, classical playwriting and - you know, like Moliere, he would put in with something kitschy that was present - you know, present-day stuff. And he would put - he would make this melange of ideas that were just so - they would come out so original and brilliant that - you know, people throw the word genius around, but he was actually a genius. He was one of the most intelligent people I think I've ever met. But I think one day he - we were at a rehearsal or something, and he just said, oh, God, I'm having a personality crisis. And I just thought, oh, that's really good. And I wrote it down - you know, personality crisis. And that's really all I remember about writing the song, and the song came from that.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Personality Crisis" as performed by the New York Dolls at the Meltdown Festival over the summer? So this is from "The Return Of The New York Dolls."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERSONALITY CRISIS (LIVE)")
NEW YORK DOLLS: Woo. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, baby, no. No, baby, yeah. Yeah, no. No, yeah. No. You're my sister. I'm your mother. (Singing) We can't take it this week. And her friends don't want another speech. Hoping for a better day to hear what she's got to say all about that personality crisis - you got it while it was hot. Come on. But now frustration and heartache is what you got - what you got. Personality, personality...
DAVIES: That's the New York Dolls. We're listening to Terry's 2004 interview with David Johansen, who co-founded the band in the 1970s. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAKE SONG, "SHADOW STABBING")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with David Johansen, who co-founded the band the New York Dolls. They spoke when the band reunited for a festival in England. Their performance was recorded on a CD and DVD called The Return Of "The New York Dolls Live From Royal Festival Hall." Johansen is the subject of a new documentary on Showtime, co-directed by Martin Scorsese.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: In the liner notes for the DVD and the CD, you write about Arthur Kane. This was this was his last performance. He was the bass player of the band. And it was Arthur Kane who knocked on your door and recruited you to be in the Dolls when the band was being formed. He died just a few weeks after the concert. Did you even know he was sick?
JOHANSEN: No. And neither did he. You know, he had had this incredible life - Arthur. And he was just this really brilliant guy who had this incredible insight into reality that was - it was just one step to the left of probably the most radical people I had ever met at that point. And I don't even mean, you know, politics. I just mean the way he saw things. And they were always spot on. And he was just so brilliant to me.
And then he kind of - he had come from this family that was just like hell on earth. And he got a taste for the booze and went through, like, a lot of years of just being drunk all the time. And he would - he got - I remember he got to this point where you would just say, hi, Arthur, and he would just say, woof.
JOHANSEN: His only word became woof. Anyway, he went through all this stuff - I mean, I can't begin to tell you - in his life. He fell out a window. He did this. He got hit by a car. He did this. He did that. And then he came out the other side, and he got involved with, like, you know, the Mormons and became the librarian at the family history office at the Mormon tabernacle.
And he was - so he was, like, this Mormon, but with this really kind of demented outlook on life that - so he wasn't, you know, like, a proselytizer. But he just was so wonderful. And...
GROSS: Well, let's...
JOHANSEN: ...He had this very high voice, and he was 6 foot 5 or something.
GROSS: Let's talk about how he did recruit you for the band. He knocked on your door at your apartment in Manhattan. You were - what? - around 19 or something.
GROSS: What did he tell you about this new band?
JOHANSEN: Well, there was a guy who lived in my building who I used to kind of, you know, jam with and strum guitars, and he was this Colombian guy who played bongos. And we used to just sit around and play music. And he knew Billy Murcia, who was the original drummer in the Dolls, and told these guys that - who were looking for a singer that I was a singer, and I was - he thought I was a pretty good singer. And so one day Arthur was just at my door with Billy, and Arthur was about three feet taller than Billy. And he just said, oh, I hear you're a singer. And I said, yeah.
And I invited them in, and we started talking, and they said they had a band and they were looking for a singer, and I was looking for a band. And we just - really, that day, actually, we left my apartment and went, like, four blocks up the street to Johnny Thunders' apartment where there were some drums and guitars and stuff and started to play. And we were a band, essentially.
GROSS: What were some of the things that you knew you didn't want to be about, the kind of music that you thought had dead-ended?
JOHANSEN: Oh, you know, at that time there was, like, these interminable drum solos. And you know what happens when the drum solo stops. It's the worst. It's - then the bass takes a solo...
JOHANSEN: ...And stuff like that, you know? And we just wanted to kind of have some really wham-bam songs. And I mean, for me, the whole thing was like - if you have to compare it to something, like a Little Richard kind of presentation. And I can remember when I was really young, and I would go to the Murray the K shows, you know, and I saw Mitch Ryder. And, you know, these shows had 30 acts, and everybody would come out and do two or three minutes, and Mitch Ryder would come out and do a medley of his three big hits. He would come out in, like, kind of like a tuxedo.
JOHANSEN: And within 45 seconds, he was half-naked and sweating like a pig. And we just wanted to make an explosion, you know, of excitement. So that's what was missing. You know, rock 'n' roll had become very kind of pedantic and meandering, and it was looking for something, but it was like an actor in search of a play or something, you know?
GROSS: Now, on the album cover of the New - of the album "The New York Dolls," you're all dressed in this kind of trashy drag with a lot of eye makeup and lipstick. You're wearing a bouffant wig. I assume it's a wig.
JOHANSEN: No, it wasn't a wig.
GROSS: It wasn't a wig.
GROSS: It used your hair for it because it's very bouffant...
JOHANSEN: Well, somebody teased it. I didn't do it.
GROSS: Somebody teased it, right. And you're wearing what looks like capri pants and high-heeled clogs and open cardigan revealing your bare chest. And you're staring at yourself in the mirror of a makeup compact.
GROSS: And the band's name is written in lipstick.
GROSS: For those of us who didn't get to see you onstage, how did that compare with how you actually looked onstage?
JOHANSEN: Well, that was probably, you know - I mean, I think, you know, to the average civilian, it probably didn't look any different. But to us, we were, like, dressing up a little bit more, make it a little special for the...
JOHANSEN: For the record cover, you know? You know, Sylvain was in the rag trade with Billy. They had this little sweater company and - called Truth and - well, they sold it to this company called Truth and Soul. They used to make these poor boy sweaters. They had a loom. And through that, they knew a lot of people who, actually, are very kind of famous designers now but who were just getting started. And I think it was, like, Betsey Johnson and these women that she used to work with, they had a store on St. Mark's Place. And they knew a photographer. And they knew a makeup guy. And they knew this and that, you know? We didn't know anything about that, so I think they helped to facilitate that photo session.
GROSS: What inspired your interest in or willingness to be in a kind of drag for performances? I mean, you mentioned you had been with Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous theater. And drag was often a part of their performances in theater. So where did you see it fitting into your music?
JOHANSEN: Well, you know, we were - you know, the hotbed of revolution at that time was, you know, St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue. And through that, you know, there were so many artists there and, you know, actors and people who were doing these plays, like the Ridiculous people. And there was, you know, filmmakers and poets and painters. And we were the band of that crowd. I mean, it wasn't like we were the band of even New York City, you know? We were the band, basically, of the East Village, you know?
And it wasn't so much like a sexual thing because, you know, like, sexuality refers to, like, biological aspects. It was more like a gender thing, you know? And gender is, like, you know, like, the cultural differences that grow up around the biological differences. So instead of, like, male and female, like, gender is really masculine and feminine, right? I think the trick for us at the time was to decide which characteristics were sex and which were gender, you know, and - you know, because there's certain things males do, and there's certain things females do. I mean, the universe didn't make two sexes for nothing.
GROSS: Did a lot of people early on assume that you were gay because of the way you dressed in performance or because of the...
JOHANSEN: I don't know. I don't know. I mean, it was obvious we weren't gay. I mean, you know, I...
JOHANSEN: But maybe to some people it was, you know? You know how some people - I mean, to some people, everybody's gay, you know? (Laughter) Like, you could say, like - you could be talking to somebody and go, oh, that Hitler. And they go, gay, you know? So I mean, some...
JOHANSEN: Some people just think everybody's gay. But I don't know.
JOHANSEN: We were, like, these kind of straight kids from - you know, from St. Mark's Place, you know? And we just had this idea that, you know, at the time, masculine meant strong and assertive. Feminine meant weak and demure. And this was a time of, like, redefinition of the roles, you know? It was overdue. And it was just part of evolution, I think, you know? And everything kind of transcends and goes beyond what went before. And otherwise, what's the use of doing anything, you know?
DAVIES: David Johansen, co-founder of the 1970s band the New York Dolls, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. He's the subject of a new documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese on Showtime titled "Personality Crisis: One Night Only." Later, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Eight Mountains."
Here's David Johansen performing in his lounge lizard persona, Buster Poindexter, from the new documentary. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PERSONALITY CRISIS: ONE NIGHT ONLY")
JOHANSEN: (As Buster Poindexter, singing) I woke up late one day and turned on my TV. They said they had taken over when I was asleep. Well, they were breaking down doors. They were purging and burning people just like me. Well, I fixed a drink. I switched around the channels, but that was all I could see. Well, it's such a boring feeling when you find that you’ve fallen to a totalitarian state. You don't know what's left, but it don't seem right. You just don't feel so great. Bird in the trees were all camping. And the Mexicans was laughing down at the detention center. They didn't seem to care that they were there. I couldn’t find one dissenter. I didn't feel communal. I was intramural cattle. I couldn't see it getting any better. I couldn't call no one. I wish I had a gun. I couldn't even send a letter. Oh, it's such a boring feeling when you find that you've fallen to a totalitarian state. Yeah. You don't know what's left. It don't seem right. You just don't feel so great. When they came to get me, I'd hoped they would forgive me. I tried playing dead. I finished my drink, assessed the situation, put the covers up over my head. I quit.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES' "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to her interview with David Johansen. In 1971, he co-founded the band the New York Dolls. The band never sold many records, but it's become something of a legend, in part for setting the stage for the punk rock movement. Johansen later performed in the persona of lounge singer Buster Poindexter. A new documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi titled "Personality Crisis: One Night Only" about David Johansen is currently streaming on Showtime. When Terry spoke with him in 2004, the surviving members of the band had reunited for a festival in England. Their performance was recorded on the CD, "The Return of the New York Dolls (Live From Royal Festival Hall)."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: The band was so - originally so used to performing in - like, in Manhattan, in The Village, where people, like, knew the band. The people who came were a part of the same, like, arts subculture that the band was...
GROSS: ...A part of. But when you went on the road in America, did you start playing in places where people weren't kindred spirits in the same way and they didn't necessarily get what you were doing and didn't know how to react to it?
JOHANSEN: Yes and no. I mean, it's very interesting. Like, you know, there were, like, Rust Belt places - you know, like Detroit and Cleveland and places like that - that people would go crazy for us. And they would come to the shows all dressed up, you know, in Chicago. And, you know, we were really well-received in Los Angeles, in San Francisco. And we used to play a lot in Florida - you know, Miami. And we used to play in Atlanta and be very well-accepted. And then we used to - also, you know, we were friends with Lynyrd Skynyrd at the time. We were kind of kindred spirits, and we used to - we would go on tours of, like, state fairs and, like, tertiary markets in Missouri together. And we would have a great time, you know?
I know in Memphis, I got arrested on stage one night for allegedly - you know, it was like the Alice Tully Hall of Memphis. I mean, it was this nice, clean room. And there had been articles in the newspaper that we were coming to Pied Piper all the children to the end of the world or whatever. And we thought it was funny when we read it. But I actually got arrested on stage and...
GROSS: What for?
JOHANSEN: ...Went to the hoosegow in Memphis, which is - I was dressed like Liza Minnelli at the time. So it wasn't the most relaxing night I ever had.
GROSS: (Laughter) How did people respond to you in prison?
JOHANSEN: In jail?
JOHANSEN: I just, like, hid under these, like, Lysol-smelling, like, Army blankets. And then this guy woke up. And he went like, oh, damn. You're David Johansen. And I was like, quiet. Quiet. Quiet. And then he woke up this bear. And the bear was growling. And I was like, oh, my God. My knees were like, you know, rattling under these covers. But I got bailed out at, like, dawn.
GROSS: What were the charges?
JOHANSEN: Inciting a riot. The cops - you know, the cops wanted to mess the thing up, and they started beating on kids and - because they got up and danced. And I stopped the music. And I started explaining to this officer that this child he was abusing may be, you know, the mayor's kid or a nephew or something, and his job would be in jeopardy. And then they just threw me in cuffs and dragged me away for inciting a riot. I may not have used the exact same language.
GROSS: Right. I understand (laughter). Why did the New York Dolls break up?
JOHANSEN: Inertia. I don't know. You know, I think we got to a point where - I like to think, you know, it was a project that we finished. But there was, like, factions in the group that were, you know, more interested in drugs than in playing music. And it just kind of became for me - I mean, I can only speak for myself, you know? For me, it became untenable.
GROSS: What did you think when you saw the Sex Pistols, the Ramones? Your band, the Dolls, preceded punk, but it was certainly influential on a lot of punk bands and had the same sensibility in a lot of ways. So when you saw that sensibility just really become so popular, what did you think?
JOHANSEN: I thought every new idea begins as heresy and winds up as superstition. I think - I never saw the Sex Pistols, but I saw the Ramones because they used to rehearse down the hall from me. I forget what - if I was in the Dolls or in my next band. But I remember Joey Ramone came to the room I was rehearsing in. You know, they have these buildings in New York with a hundred bands playing at once. It's like - it would drive a monk insane. And he came by and said he wanted me to come down the hall and hear his band. And I went down the hall to hear his band. And I probably said, you know, you're a nice guy. Why don't you just give up?
You know, I told the Talking Heads they should give up. I mean, I would be the worst A&R man in the history of show business because I tell all these bands who - when they're beginning that, you're a good kid. Why don't you get a real job and a house, you know? So I don't know. What do I know? I didn't think anything about it being influenced by me or anything like that. It was just probably I had a headache, and the music was really loud.
DAVIES: David Johansen, who co-founded the 1970s band the New York Dolls, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK DOLLS SONG, "SUBWAY TRAIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with David Johansen, who co-founded the band the New York Dolls. They spoke when the band reunited for a festival in England. Johansen is the subject of a new documentary on Showtime, co-directed by Martin Scorsese, titled "Personality Crisis: One Night Only."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to skip ahead to the '80s and '90s when you performed a lot as Buster Poindexter. And, you know, the New York Dolls were so into a kind of pre-punk sensibility and were very high energy and very raw. And, you know, Buster Poindexter is much more of a kind of lounge, more Vegas-oriented kind of persona, you know. Instead of in drag on the cover, you know, the Buster Poindexter character is in a tuxedo. And...
JOHANSEN: It's all drag, Terry.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. No, no, but that's exactly the thing.
JOHANSEN: You know, I mean, Birkenstocks are drag...
JOHANSEN: ...You know what I'm saying?
GROSS: Yeah, exactly.
JOHANSEN: Anyone who's, like - everybody is saying something with their clothes, you know?
GROSS: So have you always felt like you were standing back and knowing that any kind of drag that you were putting on, any kind of outfit or whatever you were putting on for performance, was always that - that you always knew it was some kind of drag or another?
JOHANSEN: Yeah. You know, the thing with Poindexter is we - there was a little club, like, a saloon, an Irish bar around the corner from my house. I was living in Gramercy Park. It was two blocks from my house. And it was kind of like my watering hole. And they would have bands there like Joe Turner or Charles Brown or Big Maybelle, and they would do residencies there. So they would play, like, three or four nights a week for a month, say. You know, and there was a room upstairs where they would live.
Monday night, the back room was dark, so I had decided I was going to do this little, like, barrelhouse kind of roadhouse show where I could just sing whatever songs I wanted to sing. And I was going to do it for four Mondays. And I went in there, and I figured I'd use a pseudonym so people wouldn't be coming in screaming for, you know, (impersonates person yelling) "Funky But Chic."
JOHANSEN: So I went in to do that, and I just picked whatever songs. I had been listening to a lot of jump blues at the time, but I also did, you know, like, "The Seven Deadly Virtues" from "Camelot" and, you know, whatever - just whatever songs I wanted to sing. And by the end of four weeks, I started doing weekends, and it just kind of organically built into this - it started out as a three-piece band and wound up as, like, a 15-piece band. So I think by the time it got to the national awareness, it did have this kind of Vegas-y (ph) kind of idea to it. But it started off more kind of like the Louis Prima days in the '50s of Vegas, you know what I'm saying?
GROSS: Right, right, right. Well, that image was encouraged, like on the cover of the "Buster Poindexter" album - you're drinking a martini...
GROSS: ...In a tuxedo with your pinky ring (laughter).
JOHANSEN: And then I was back on...
JOHANSEN: See, I was walking to work. I was making a nice living. And then we had a hit, and, you know, it all went to hell because we had to go back on the road.
GROSS: Right. Well, I want...
GROSS: I want to play something from the Buster Poindexter era and...
JOHANSEN: Don't play "Hot, Hot, Hot."
GROSS: No, no. I wasn't going to. I was going to play...
JOHANSEN: Thank God.
GROSS: (Laughter) You're really tired of it.
JOHANSEN: It's the bane of my life.
GROSS: Oh. I was going to play "Bad Boy."
GROSS: Tell me why you recorded this. And this is a cover.
JOHANSEN: Well, I don't know. It's just a good song. It was written by Lil Armstrong. And I always liked it, ever since I was a kid.
GROSS: Yeah. OK, well, let's hear it. This is from the "Buster Poindexter" album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BOY")
JOHANSEN: (As Buster Poindexter, singing) Bad boy - la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la. All dressed up in fancy clothes. I'm taking the trouble to turn my night into day. You know that old hot blazing sun - it ain't going to hurt my head. 'Cause you always going to find me right there in the shade. I can see all the folks. I can see they're all - ha ha - laughing at me. 'Cause I'm just naturally crazy, lazy. Bad boy...
GROSS: That's "Bad Boy," from David Johansen's album "Buster Poindexter." David Johansen is my guest, and his first band, the New York Dolls, has a reunion concert that was just released on CD and DVD.
It seems to me that you've had so many different characters you've inhabited as a performer. And I'm wondering how much you think your career as an actor has come into play in your career as a musician, you know, because before you were even in the New York Dolls, you were with the Ridiculous Theater Company in New York. And over the years, you've been in, you know, a lot of movies as well.
JOHANSEN: Yeah, I guess, you know, there's a lot of a kind of acting involved. I - you know, I have this friend, Elliott Murphy, who's a singer. He lives in Paris now. I remember when I started doing Buster Poindexter, he used to say to me, David, you know, Buster Poindexter is so much more like you than David Johansen is, you know, if you get what I'm saying. In other words, with Buster, I really kind of went on stage and really didn't edit myself and just kind of said whatever came to my mind and didn't have many filters.
Whereas prior to that, in the period of my - I guess you would call it solo career, although, you know, you're always in a band, so it's never really a solo career. But I had the David Johansen group or band or whatever it was called. And we used to open for a lot of bands in hockey rinks, you know. And you kind of go out there - at that point, I was going out there and kind of presenting this - what I thought, like, ideal picture of myself, you know what I mean? Just this pleasant fellow, you know, whereas Buster was really kind of more warts and all, you know.
And I think by doing that, it helped me to be myself more, you know, whereas - so now when I go on stage, I'm not, like, biting my nails, like, oh, what am I going to do? How am I going to be? Blah, blah, blah. I just don't even think about it because I'm just going to go out there and essentially be whoever I am at that moment, you know what I'm saying?
GROSS: You once said back in the Buster Poindexter era, Buster can have this great life in the public eye and take the rap for everything, and then David can go home (laughter).
JOHANSEN: Exactly. You know, it's funny because my mother, when Buster came out, she said, you know, this is the most genius idea you've ever come up with.
JOHANSEN: This is great. And I think that was her idea that, you know, Buster can take the rap. Politicians should do it.
GROSS: Now, you have a show on Sirius, which is one of the satellite radio stations.
JOHANSEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Who are you as a DJ? Are you just yourself, or do you have a...
JOHANSEN: I have a show called the "Mansion Of Fun," and I'm kind of like Sri Rama Poindexter Johansen.
JOHANSEN: And - I'm very taken with Sri Ramakrishna lately because I read a biography of his and thought, man, that guy knew how to live. And he called the planet the mansion of fun, so I named my show after that. And I play a really diverse bunch of music. You know, I play salsa, opera, blues, rock 'n' roll, you know, you name it. I play a lot of Nino Rota music. I play, you know, whatever tickles my fancy. So it's really completely freeform. And I speak it out of kind of Ken Wilber type forward-thinking philosophy.
GROSS: Well, David Johansen, great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
JOHANSEN: Thank you, Terry.
DAVIES: David Johansen, co-founder of the 1970s band The New York Dolls, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. He's the subject of a new documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese on Showtime titled "Personality Crisis: One Night Only." Here's David Johansen performing in his lounge lizard persona, Buster Poindexter, from the new documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PERSONALITY CRISIS: ONE NIGHT ONLY")
JOHANSEN: (As Self) Tonight, I'm going to do songs that I wrote or co-wrote, I guess, from when I was a teenager all the way up to now. And the one thing I could say, the unifying thing of my existence is that there's always been plenty of music.
(Singing) Feeling a great sadness today. I don't want to shush it or shoo it away. It belongs to the whole world, the boys and girls. It ain't just mine. Like joy and love, it's always there. I don't know how I tune in or why that I care, but I can't pretend it don't feel like the end, and everything is fine. I feel exiled from the divine. Me and these sad friends of mine, we're just waiting down here, drinking beer and losing time. Well, I hear plenty of music. I see superfluous beauty everywhere. Why should I care? What does it matter to me? The myth of life is a song, yeah. And nature's tune - that's a song.
DAVIES: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Eight Mountains." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMMET COHEN'S "PITTER PANTHER PATTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.