David Johansen is one of the all-time front men in music and an artist who keeps changing the game – not by degrees but by solar systems. In the 1980s, he had everyone feeling “Hot, Hot, Hot” as Buster Poindexter. Then he showed up as the taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past in the Bill Murray film Scrooged. Before all this, he was the glammed-up lead singer of The New York Dolls, the mythic rock band of the downtown NYC scene of the 1970s. Hard rock, punk rock, glam rock, heavy metal – the Dolls sit atop a lot of family trees. To this day, whatever room he walks into, from loft spaces to the swanky Café Carlyle, David Johansen owns it.
In part one of this epic two-part interview, David talks with host Kevin Burke about coming of age on Staten Island in the 1950s and ’60s, a kid riding bikes, buying and listening to records, going to Catholic School, joining a band, and graduating from high school at the height of the Vietnam War. How did he get from the house his grandfather built on the North Shore to the pulsating East Village at the dawn of an era he’d help define? This is the origin story of a true original.
“The guys I used to hang around with, we were thinking, ‘Oh, let's start a band.’ Well, one guy’s like, ‘Well, I was in a German Bugle Chorus, so I'm going to play drums.’ Okay, that's good. And I'm just really thinking about, you know, like, the schleppage factor of being in a band. And so when they all had picked their instruments, I said, ‘Ok, well, I'll be the singer.’ I didn't, like, push it in there, I just waited till they all— they all had dreams of being a bass player or whatever.”
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Buster Poindexter – Hot Hot Hot (1987)
New York Dolls – Jet Boy (1973)
David Johansen- Heart of Gold (1987)
David Johansen – Animals Medley (live) (1982) from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zc-DQiI8tA
Enrique Caruso – Vesti La Giuba, Pagliacci (1907)
David Johansen – Big City (1979)
David Johansen And The Harry Smiths – Well, I’ve Been to Memphis (2000)
Howlin’ Wolf – Tail Dragger (1969)
Robert Preston – “Ya Got Trouble” from the Music Man Soundtrack (1962)
The Platters – The Great Pretender (1960)
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels – Sock it to Me, Baby (1967)
The Fantastic Johnny C – Boogaloo Down Broadway (1967)
Wilson Pickett – In The Midnight Hour (1965)
New York Dolls – Personality Crisis (1973)
Janis Joplin – Bye Bye Baby (1967)
New York Dolls – Lonely Planet Boy (1973)
All In The Family Opening Theme (1971)
“Horn Battle in New York – Carnival Miracle vs Harbor Tug” from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeAJbDSITAk
“Traditional Latin Catholic Mass Easter Sunday” from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6AOvStZS64
Clip from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1961) from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5yvMExqKNA
“Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” From my Fair Lady (1964)
Murray the K at the Brooklyn Fox from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHu9Y0zI0t0
Bob Dylan, talking on the radio, 1966, 26th January, 1966 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VG1pITY_m8E
A special thank you to Mara Hennessey
A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
For more, including information on live events, check out our NYC series page at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast
Ep. 15. David Johansen Pt. 1 – Staten Island
Kevin Burke (VO): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at YourHometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
David Johansen: Well, the one who made the most impression on me was Sister Regina. She was a really old fashioned, kind of tough, Irish woman. She taught the fourth grade. She used to say to me, “Johansen, you tantalizing article, you,” and things like that.
Kevin Burke: [laughs] What were you doing that elicited that?
David Johansen: I don’t know. Just being me, I guess.
Kevin Burke (VO): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked—a lot. But the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there— before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
[Tape] Clip from Hot Hot Hot by Buster Poindexter (1987)
Kevin Burke (VO): My guest is a tantalizing article and isn’t one to be pinned down. In the late 80s, he had everyone I knew feeling hot, hot, hot.
Every party I went to involved doing the limbo to this song. And from the video, I could see he was this lounge singer with a pompadour hairstyle and tuxedo. His name was Buster Poindexter and he was a riot. A year later, the same guy showed up as the ghost of Christmas past in Bill Murray’s Scrooged, driving a checkered cab and chomping on a cigar with a fiendish, gravelly howl. It was only much later that I realized that before all of this, this same guy had been the glammed-up lead singer of the New York Dolls, a mythic rock band of the downtown scene of the 1970s. Hard rock, punk rock, glam rock, heavy metal— the Dolls sit atop a lot of family trees. And this guy was their front man.
[Tape] Clip from Jet Boy by New York Dolls (1973)
Kevin Burke (VO): His real name is David Johansen. And with the Dolls, he exploded onto the scene during the sexual revolution—with his theatrical flair and brash way of stomping around on stage, roaring in makeup, sometimes in high heels, sometimes in platform shoes, sometimes in spandex, sometimes in dresses. There’s a reason people are still talking about the Dolls. Now, a couple of years ago, I saw David in person performing at a private club in Midtown, and he changed again. Now he was a folkie blues singer in a pair of jeans with an acoustic vibe. Cool in his casualness and sounding something like this:
[Tape] Clip from Heart of Gold by David Johansen (1987)
Kevin Burke (VO): Whatever the look, whatever the form, whatever character he’s playing, when David walks into a room, from a dive bar on the Bowery to the swanky cafe at the Carlyle Hotel, he owns it and a scene soon gathers around him. And my interest only deepened when I learned that he didn’t come from any of these worlds, but he’d grown up across New York Harbor in the borough of Staten Island in the 1950s and 60s. A kid riding bikes and going to Catholic school.
I wondered which of his incarnations were costumes? Who is the real David and where was the boy inside of him? And how did he grow up to become one of the all-time front men of music and an artist who keeps changing the game not by degrees, but by solar systems? That’s the puzzle I wanted to piece together: the origin story of a true original. See what you think. These interviews are such an adventure both to do and I hope to listen to.
David and I began our conversation with a quick tour of the house his mother’s father built on the north shore of Staten Island in the neighborhood of West Brighton on Bement Avenue. It was there that Dave and his family moved from the projects when he was a kid. “What was it like there?” I asked him.
David Johansen: I can remember, you know, when I was a little kid walking down the street from the bus stop or whatever, and people would greet me from their porch, “Oh there’s David. Oh hi, David,” you know, it’s kind of, I was very popular in the neighborhood. I was, I kind of like, I was very nice, you know. I was smiling. I was funny. You know.
Kevin Burke: If you could take us on a tour of that home on Bement Avenue, you know, tell us about it. Where you slept.
David Johansen: A tour of the home. My mother’s father built the house. Yeah. And when they, when her mother passed away, I think my parents bought the house from my mother’s two sisters. You know, got two thirds of the house or something at a very nice price. And so we had a rapidly expanding family, so we moved there. I always say it was like Archie Bunker’s house.
[Tape] Clip from All In The Family Opening Theme (1971)
David Johansen: There were three bedrooms. So ultimately three boys slept in one room, and three girls slept in the other room, and my parents had their room.
Kevin Burke: And with your brothers, how did you divide that up?
David Johansen: We had bunk beds and like a daybed, you know, like a single bed. And my older brother took the daybed. I guess, you know, he probably didn’t want to be in a bunk bed with two knuckle-skulled brothers. And I took the bottom of the bunk and built, like, a room out of it, you know, I put my curtains on it. And I remember I had a map of the Solar System above my head. And my younger brother who’s like, you know, two years younger than me, maybe less, he was on the top bunk. He used to fall out once in a while. Roll out.
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
David Johansen: We got along fairly well. I mean, you know, my older brother and I used to kind of fight like Cain and Abel, but he had a record player and he had a lot of records. And when he wasn’t around, I used to play his records. You know, if there was a record of his that I really liked, I mean, I was five years younger than him, so, and I wanted it, he would, like, always make some kind of a deal that I got the short end of, like I would have to give him, like, you know, like a pen knife for some record, that probably cost 29 cents or something. The penknife probably cost a dollar, so. Then I would start thinking about it and kind of like, stewing about it and then when no one was home but the two of us, sometimes we would try to settle our differences, to put it mildly. And ultimately, my mother made a rule that we weren’t allowed to be in the house alone together at the same time. One of us had to leave. I don’t, I never carried any of this animosity beyond being like, 15 or something.
[Tape] Clip from Animals Medley (live) by David Johansen (1982)
Kevin Burke: And as a kid, were you outside a lot of the time?
David Johansen: Oh, I would be outside. I was fairly feral. You know, they didn’t really have the kids so organized. You know, not like they do these days. You know, they just kind of turned you out and tell you to come home when the streetlights come on, essentially. So, I can remember when I was in the projects, for example, at the Todt Hill projects, I would have like a new best friend every day. You know, because there was so many kids there because it was like, you know, post-war kind of housing, right? We would go on these, like great, I mean, to me, they seemed like Ulysses, these epic adventures, you know? There was woods around there, we would go into the woods and discover things. You know, I used to have a friend on the next block who had a paper route, and it would go through this place where years back, it was like the neighborhood of the freed slaves who came on the Underground Railroad. And it was really like an old-fashioned kind of neighborhood. That was just part of his route.
Kevin Burke: OK.
David Johansen: They had, you know, their own funeral home and everything. It was really great. I remember there was a creek and if you went to drink out of it, they said, “You’ll get polio!” And we would go by the creek that ran by the dyeworks and see what color dye they were making that day because the creek would be like, orange, or blue, or whatever. It was, you know, adventures in, especially in, like, a toxic waste site. So, did a lot of that. And then, you know, in the summer, we would go and swim at the Kill Van Kull, which was really, really toxic. Used to go in there because, you know, if you didn’t jump off the pilings into it, you would be like a chicken, so you had to dive in.
Kevin Burke: And what would you say was the most dangerous spot you were ever in as a kid?
David Johansen: You know, I used to kind of like, get in dangerous situations very often, you know. So, you know, like you would, the train went by there, we would jump on the train while it was moving, ride it to the next, to Port Richmond. I got a bicycle for my birthday, I think when I was 11 and we used to go far afield, me and my friends, whoever my friends were that day. But we would, you know, go out to South Beach, there used to be an amusement park out there. It’s pretty far for a little kid, you know. One of our favorites was to take the Brooklyn ferry and then ride under the BQE and over the Brooklyn Bridge and come back on the Manhattan ferry. And as we would go through the neighborhoods under the BQE, kids would just like start charging out of the streets and throwing stuff at us and it was crazy. We used to, like, really go fast, like, “Oh my god!” [laughs]
Kevin Burke: Who the hell are these kids?
David Johansen: Where we came from we weren’t really territorial. If somebody came through the neighborhood, we would be more like, “Oh, this is, you know, fascinating or whatever.” But those kids they were like, “Get out of here!”
[Tape] Clip: Horn Battle in New York – Carnival Miracle vs Harbor Tug
Kevin Burke: How old were you when your parents started letting you ride without them?
David Johansen: Oh, they didn’t know about these adventures. I mean, they used to hear about them. Oh, my mother would say, “My, you know, so-and-so saw you in South Beach,” and I would be like, “You sure it was me?” So no, these adventures weren’t sanctioned, but we didn’t really have that kind of relationship where you kind of, like, give an itinerary to your parents in the morning or something. And I think, you know, probably when I wasn’t around things were probably more peaceful anyway.
Kevin Burke: Were you the loud one in the house?
David Johansen: I don’t know what, I was just always kind of breaking these imaginary rules that I wasn’t really, that I didn’t know about.
Kevin Burke: And were your parents strict with you?
David Johansen: Were they strict?
Kevin Burke: Yeah. When you talk about imaginary rules, like what?
David Johansen: Well, my father was strict. I don’t know if he was actually strict, or if he was just going through the motions. But, you know, he’s from Europe, you know?
Kevin Burke: What were the kinds of things that you would do that would trigger that kind of reaction from him?
David Johansen: Smoking. Drinking. Not going to school.
Kevin Burke: And you broke all three of those rules?
David Johansen: Oh, I mean, I could go on and on, but you know. He was just trying, I guess, you know, to keep me out of jail.
[Tape] Clip from Animals Medley (live) by David Johansen (1982)
Kevin Burke: I know that your mother worked as librarian. In fact, your parents met in a bookstore. I saw your father in the 1940 census. He was listed as a book man at a bookstore. And so, given that connection between the two of them, were books and reading important in your in your house?
David Johansen: Yeah, sure. My father used to go to the library whenever, like Monday night or whatever evening and get like 10 books and bring them back the next week and get a bunch more so.
Kevin Burke: And did your mom work at the local branch? Where was she working as a librarian?
David Johansen: At the College of Staten Island. My mother would sometimes pick out a book for me to encourage me to read, you know, when I was really young.
Kevin Burke: I’ve gathered that you only had one grandparent who was really alive when you were coming of age—
David Johansen: My father’s mother.
Kevin Burke: Yeah, Marie. Did you, did you know her? And where was she in your life?
David Johansen: She was great. She was great. I mean, me and my father used to go visit his mother every Sunday for like an hour, right? Wasn’t far from where we lived. I used to go with him a lot. And she used to have parties and we used we used to go there on Christmas Eve and have all kinds of fish and stuff. All of my father’s brothers and his sister and cousins would be there.
Kevin Burke: And your father, Gunvold, reading about him, he grew up on Orange Avenue—
David Johansen: He did. You know a lot about my family.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. And after the war, he goes from working as a book man, as I mentioned, to working in insurance as an insurance sales rep. I was going to ask you what you remember about his working life and what impression it made on you seeing him work in insurance?
David Johansen: He used to say to me, “Don’t ever sell insurance, whatever you do.” But you know, when he was a young man, he sang, you know, semi-professionally. But he was, you know, a very good classical singer. And over the years, I met people who, like, really love the way he sang and encouraged him.
Kevin Burke: Can you still hear his voice in your head?
David Johansen: Yeah. You know, he sang, he knew all the operas. He sang Gilbert and Sullivan in shows and stuff like that.
Kevin Burke: And where did that come from? Because I know he was Norwegian, his father was a carpenter in the shipyards. So where did he get that from?
David Johansen: Tell me about his father. No. [laughs] I’d say “Oh, oh, was he?”
Kevin Burke: Gustav. Yeah.
David Johansen: Where did he get that from?
Kevin Burke: Yeah, just thinking, you know—
David Johansen: I guess, you know, he was in school, high school, Port Richmond High School. And he did some singing there, you know. I guess he kind of like stood out as somebody who could go the distance as far as his voice was concerned. And he was very handsome.
You know, he used to have this big radio, like a big square wooden radio, I think it had a record player in the top, but it was a nice sounding radio. And if we were working outside the house, he would put it in a window, on a Saturday afternoon, and wear his old army fatigues, and I would be holding the ladder and he’d be up there singing along with the Saturday afternoon opera, you know, from the Met.
[Tape] Clip from Vesti La Giuba, Pagliacci by Enrique Caruso (1907)
David Johansen: My friends would walk by and go, like… And I’d go…
Kevin Burke: Shrug your shoulders.
David Johansen: Just like, we didn’t speak out loud because…
Kevin Burke: But did he seem happy when he was doing that? Your father was in a different place?
David Johansen: Yeah, he was happy.
Kevin Burke: Versus seeing him work during the week in insurance. You were saying he’s like, “Don’t do this?”
David Johansen: Yeah, he didn’t care for that job so much. But, you know, he had a family to support. My mother had a lot of kids and, you know, he needed a gig to keep the home fires burning, so to speak.
Kevin Burke: And did he still perform locally when you were a kid? Or was singing just something he did at home?
David Johansen: You know what he did? He used to earn a little extra money, he used to know a lot of the different liturgies, and he would go around on Sunday mornings and do a couple of different services from the choir loft and make a couple of bucks from there. He wasn’t at all a religious guy, like, but he knew a lot of liturgies.
[Tape] Clip: Traditional Latin Catholic Mass Easter Sunday
Kevin Burke: I know you started out going to the Sacred Heart school on North Burgher Avenue, right?
David Johansen: Yeah, actually, I started out in St. Teresa’s School.
Kevin Burke: Where was that?
David Johansen: That was in Todt Hill.
Kevin Burke: OK, so you transferred over to Sacred Heart?
David Johansen: I transferred over into the third grade.
Kevin Burke: Which is where your mom had gone, right? Sacred Heart?
David Johansen: My mother had gone there and actually quite a few of the nuns that taught her also taught me.
Kevin Burke: What are your memories of those nuns? The most vivid?
David Johansen: Well, the one who made the most impression on me was Sister Regina, who had also taught my mother, but my mother told me she was old then. I don’t know, she was really old I guess when, well, just seemed really old. She was a really old-fashioned kind of tough, Irish woman. She taught the fourth grade.
Kevin Burke: So, your second year there, OK.
David Johansen: And she used to say to me, “Johansen, you tantalizing article, you,” and things like that.
Kevin Burke: [laughs] What were you doing that elicited that?
David Johansen: I don’t know. I don’t know. Just being me, I guess.
Kevin Burke: This is pre-Vatican II?
David Johansen: She used to call the girls, “You brazen hussy, you,” And I used to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy.” But, you know, my name is Johansen, so she used to equate me with Martin Luther when she looked at me, which pissed her off to no end, I guess. And she never treated me really in a way that I would like to be treated, let’s put it that way.
Kevin Burke: And did it get physical?
David Johansen: I don’t know if she ever slugged me.
Kevin Burke: What did your father think about you kids going to Catholic school?
David Johansen: Well, I would sometimes come home, say, from the sixth grade and I’d be really down in the dumps and he’d say, “What’s the matter with you?” And I would say, “Oh, the nun—” I forget her name. Sister Evangeline, I think her name was. “She humiliated me in front of the whole class. And she was really mean.” And my father said, “That’s because you’re Catholic.” [laughs]
Kevin Burke: And you stuck with Catholic school. I mean, from Sacred Heart, you went to St. Peter’s Boys High School, right?
David Johansen: I did. Yes, because my brother had gone there.
Kevin Burke: I saw his ‘58 yearbook from Sacred Heart, and he said he wanted to go into the priesthood.
David Johansen: Well, yeah, everybody wants to be a priest at that age.
Kevin Burke: But I’m guessing not you. And given—
David Johansen: Me, I entertained it for five minutes, you know.
Kevin Burke: Yeah?
David Johansen: Yeah, they used to take us from the school up into Dunwoody.
Kevin Burke: Oh, yes.
David Johansen: And you see how the priests live. But they would always put out like eclairs and things like that, so you would think, “Oh man, this is great. Look at all these pastries.” But apparently, they didn’t do that every day, just like when they had the visitors so they could get some fresh recruits, you know.
[Tape] Clip from “Traditional Latin Catholic Mass Easter Sunday”
Kevin Burke: I saw, I think it was a ’64, ‘65 yearbook, and there you are in the yearbook and you’re in one of the class pictures and you have your bow tie and your jacket on. And you’re in another photo on the field and track team and you’ve got your buzz cut. Who is that boy inside there? You know, what did it feel like to be him? And, you know, on the track team with that kind of costume, a certain costume, right? It sounds like it wasn’t very pleasant.
David Johansen: It was not so pleasant. I think I was on the track team because my brother was, like, a track star, so. You know, the track team was good, and I’ll tell you why. Not for the running so much, but we used to go to meets every Saturday. But you would like, you know, be running against these guys from like Boys High and all these other schools. And you learn a lot about, you know, just being in the world. You know what I’m saying? And then after the meet, we would go, you know, to like Times Square or something, you know, Village, you know, places like that. So it was good in a lot of ways. It gave me the opportunity to travel. You know, taking the subway and stuff. You know, reading the graffiti. It felt like, “Oh, this is great.”
[Tape] Clip from Big City by David Johansen (1979)
Kevin Burke: You think, this is ’64, ’65, and then you switched to public high school. Port Richmond?
David Johansen: Right.
Kevin Burke: So, tell me about that switch and why the switch and what happened?
David Johansen: Oh, I just, you know, I just say it was my academic credentials. I mean, you know, you have to take Latin and it’s like you have to learn like a hundred verbs and all their forms of each one. What do they call those? Conjugations? And I just, you know, I had better things to do with my time. I think, I was at the point then when, you know, I think I had decided I just want to be a beatnik. But anyway, I had to kind of endure that for a couple of years. But then I went to Port Richmond High School.
Kevin Burke: And how about the transition, David, to the public high school? I know your dad had gone there.
David Johansen: Well, you know, the first day you have to kind of make friends with like a big, tough guy so nobody messes with you.
Kevin Burke: Who was the big guy?
David Johansen: Oh, I had a variety of them. I knew, I met a lot of people who had similar interests, you know. Like, people who, like, wanted to read Kerouac and Burroughs and people who were, like, listening to like, you know, like Charles Lloyd and it was cool. I mean, not the whole school wasn’t like that, but there was like, you know, a group of individuals who were kind of like “Maynard G. Krebs” people. [laughs]
Kevin Burke: And how long did it take you to find them? Was it a difficult transition?
David Johansen:, I was free, you know.
Kevin Burke: You were free.
[Tape] Clip from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1961)
Kevin Burke: You mentioned your older brother’s collection, your father’s, you know, love of classical music and opera. How did you begin to cultivate your own ear, your own taste?
David Johansen: You know, when I think back on it, there’s certain records that I like to play, you know, because we had a record player and I guess it was in the dining room. And I used to play like a lot of show tunes. Music was on all the time, so they would play, you know, sometimes they would play a show while we’re having dinner or something, you know. And there was a couple of records from just, for example, a couple of records from the Harry Smith Collection. I always liked those for some reason. I didn’t really even know what they were. And my mother’s sister, my Aunt Pat, she would come back from like the Caribbean or something with some kind of, like, a Caribbean record or calypso and give it to us and I always liked those. So, you know, and I liked my brother’s, like, some of his doo wop records and stuff like that, you know. And then my older sister, she always loved Bob Dylan from, like, the get go. She went to see The Beatles at Carnegie Hall.
Kevin Burke: Did you really? Wow.
David Johansen: Yeah. So, she had that kind of side of it, the FM side covered, you know. So, you know, I guess I just took all that stuff in by like osmosis, you know. I didn’t really particularly have an opinion about it, but I like it. I like a lot of different kinds of music.
[Tape] Clip from Well, I’ve Been to Memphis by David Johansen And The Harry Smiths (2000)
Kevin Burke: I heard that you would shop a lot at the Dew Dale record store.
David Johansen: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right
Kevin Burke: On Port Richmond Avenue.
David Johansen: That’s right.
Kevin Burke: I think 224. What was the ritual, you know? Did you just kind of stick in one section or were you living in all the sections?
David Johansen: This is kind of like, This Is Your Life. I’m like, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did.” I used to go in there and a couple of times I would buy, like, a 10-pack, you know, of 45s that like, didn’t make it and—
Kevin Burke: Like remainders? Like they just would bundle them up?
David Johansen: They would put them in like a plastic bag and sell like 10 of them for a buck or something. And you could see what was on either side of it. But you didn’t really know it’s in the middle. I did that a couple of times. And you know, it’s funny because I still remember some of those songs. And I think the first 45 I bought, like, was Howlin’ Wolf singing, “I’m a tail dragger, baby. I wipe out my track.”
[Tape] Clip from Tail Dragger by Howlin’ Wolf (1969)
David Johansen: I bought that and then I saved up for an LP, and I bought a Lightnin’ Hopkins LP. So I think those are the first two records that I actually bought in a store.
Kevin Burke: And do you still have any of those records?
David Johansen: No, no, I don’t have anything.
[Tape] Clip from “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” from my Fair Lady (1964)
Kevin Burke: I’ve seen you talk about seeing My Fair Lady as a kid.
David Johansen: Oh yeah.
Kevin Burke: And you were— on Broadway, I assume you saw it?
David Johansen: What’s that?
Kevin Burke: You saw it on Broadway?
David Johansen: I did, yeah. What year was that? ‘56 or ‘57?
Kevin Burke: ’56.
David Johansen: I did. I went to see— I was six, I guess. And my Aunt Pat took me and a couple of my brothers and sisters, maybe my sister and my older brother, to see My Fair Lady.
Kevin Burke: Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews?
David Johansen: Rex Harrison made quite an impression on me, yes. He was really great. But I like, you know, spectacle and shows. I think the next year we went to see The Music Man with Robert Preston.
Kevin Burke: Yeah, wow.
David Johansen: He was— made quite an impression on me.
[Tape] Clip from “Ya Got Trouble” by Robert Preston from The Music Man Soundtrack (1962)
Kevin Burke: Did you have, at a young age, a kind of an epiphany that this is calling to me? Or is it just something that you were kind of, you know—
David Johansen: I entertained the thought of being, you know, Rex Harrison, Robert Preston. I, you know, I started singing because I would I when I would be alone in the boys’ bedroom and I would get to play some of my brothers records without him being around, you know, I would sing along with the records. I used to like The Platters. The singer had a very swooping voice.
[Tape] Clip from The Great Pretender by The Platters (1960)
David Johansen: I would, you know, sing in the mirror and stuff like that when I was nine, ten, whatever. I liked to sing. And it’s funny because most of my brothers and sisters, if not all, were in show business in high school. I mean, they were in, like, the high school productions of Brigadoon or whatever. And I was always like, “I want to like, hang out in a corner and smoke cigarettes with my friends,” you know? But then I was the only one who actually got into show business. So, it’s kind of ironic that way. I didn’t really, you know, I didn’t really go crazy until I went to the Murry the K show.
[Tape] Clip: Murray the K at the Brooklyn Fox
David Johansen: Murray the K was a disc jockey in New York, and he would put on these extravaganzas. So, one year he had, he had a lot of great acts, but Mitch Ryder just kind of blew my mind: “Jenny Take A Ride” and “Sock It To Me Baby”…
[Tape] Clip from Sock it to Me, Baby by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (1967)
David Johansen: The guys I used to hang around with, we were thinking, “Oh, let’s start a band.” Well, one guy’s like, “Well, I was in a German Bugle Chorus, so I’m going to play drums.” Okay, that’s good. And I’m just really thinking about, you know, like, the schleppage factor of being in a band. And so when they all had picked their instruments, I said, “Ok, well, I’ll be the singer.” I didn’t, like, push it in there, I just waited till they all— they all had dreams of being a bass player or whatever.
Kevin Burke: And what was in the air when you were 15 to think, the guys were thinking about starting a band? I mean, ‘65.
David Johansen: Yeah, in my neighborhood. Yeah. You know, it was Wilson Pickett. There was The Fantastic Johnny C. We used to play that song “Baby, oh baby, boogaloo down Broadway, baby.”
[Tape] Clip from Boogaloo Down Broadway by The Fantastic Johnny C (1967)
David Johansen: There was all the, you know, Kinks and Rolling Stones and all those English bands. Simultaneously, I would strum the guitar and sing, like, folk music at the hoot night at the JCC. So I always had, like, a kind of like, a folky thing going on and a dance band, but there was a radio show, it was on AM, but it would be on almost, I think, almost every evening for like an hour or two. And there was a guy who really played great folk songs, like the real feal stuff, you know, in like the early to mid 60s, like I used to listen to him almost every night, you know, like I’d have a transistor radio under my pillow or something.
[tape] Clip: Bob Dylan, talking on the radio, 26th January, 1966
Kevin Burke: Do you remember one of the earliest times that you performed locally and started hearing yourself singing how you were finding your own voice?
David Johansen: I remember the first time I played with a rock and roll band, and I think it was like at the battle of the bands or something, one of those events at the school. And I remember the first song we did, I don’t remember what the song was, but I had my eyes closed the whole time.
Kevin Burke: You were nervous, in other words?
David Johansen: I didn’t want to be there. And then at the end of the song, I heard everyone cheering and I opened my eyes and I thought, “Oh, they like it, okay, I could swing with this.”
Kevin Burke: Why did you want to be there? Just think it was kind of like—
David Johansen: I just because, you know, I didn’t really think ahead. Like, all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh my God, how did I get here?”
Kevin Burke: So this is the group of 15 year old friends who said “Let’s form a band” and you waited for them to pick their instruments and you said, “I’ll sing.”
David Johansen: We were about 15, 14 maybe.
Kevin Burke: And is this the Vagabond Missionaries?
David Johansen: Yeah.
Kevin Burke: What were you proselytizing—what made you Vagabonds?
David Johansen: Vagabond-ism.
David Johansen: I don’t know.
Kevin Burke: And was this the same group of friends that you’d take the ferry across to Brooklyn with and ride bikes and come back?
David Johansen: I think some of them would be involved in this, in the earlier years.
Kevin Burke: There’s a vagabond quality to that, I guess you could say. And so you formed this band with these guys and you start performing and rehearsing and what kind of music are you playing? Was it just kind of local?
David Johansen: We were playing like, you know, Wilson Pickett.
[Tape] Clip from In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett (1965)
David Johansen: Sometimes we would write a song. You know, it started out like, if a song had one chord, that would be really a good one to do. You know, like that, because then, you know, nobody knew how to play, so we were like learning how—they were learning how to play, I was learning how to sing. That’s all.
Kevin Burke: And I’m curious about your voice in particular because, we, to those who know you, know your music, it’s a very distinct sort of signature sound. It’s kind of got that kind of resonance to it, and it sounds like the kind of voice you would grow into, right, and experience and all—
David Johansen: Well, I think about, as a singer, I get better as time goes by.
Kevin Burke: If I could be in the crowd at one of these battle of the bands? And there you are, what would it sound like? What would we hear? Was it deep like that? Was your voice always sort of a kind of deep voice?
David Johansen: No, I don’t think so. I think, you know, when I was in The Dolls, I had to like, really like sing loud, so it probably had an effect on my vocal cords.
[Tape] Clip from Personality Crisis by New York Dolls (1973)
Kevin Burke: Being in a band of Vagabond Missionaries, in Staten Island, in school, playing, how much of it was just about like, a kind of a cool social thing to do or how much was it really a true joy and love of the music itself, versus sort of a means to an end?
David Johansen: You know, I was fairly certain that I was going to, like, pursue it. You know, so but for me, it was. I mean, I’m not saying, you know, I’m not the most diligent person. Let me tell you that, ok? If they had, like, an Olympics for laziness, you’re looking at the bronze right here. I didn’t give it a lot of thought so much. I just knew, like instinctually, that I was going to keep doing that. I think I went to see Howlin’ Wolf at Hunter College or something. I thought, “This is great.” The music sounded so great and it. The songs were so great. You know, I don’t know, I just always felt like, “Yeah, this is what I’m going to do.” I never really said, “Well, do I want to do this, or do I want to be an astronaut?”
[Tape] Clip from Bye Bye Baby by Janis Joplin (1967)
Kevin Burke: One thing I’ve read about you is that you really love Janis Joplin. You follow her.
David Johansen: Yeah.
Kevin Burke: You know, I recently saw the Monterey Pops concert again on TV, ‘67 June. You’re graduating high school. Where does she land in your life and what was it about her that captivated you enough to go on the road and see her?
David Johansen: She’s just so real and great, you know? She’s like, really good. She wasn’t like, you know, full of shit. [laughs] So, I don’t know, she’s just great. To me, she was like the ultimate real rock star, you know?
Kevin Burke: And what was the first— was the first impression her sound or did you see her?
David Johansen: I got that first record, the one they made, I guess, in Chicago or something.
Kevin Burke: You heard her, yeah.
David Johansen: And I loved that record. Then I went to see her, started going to see her. I saw her a lot.
Kevin Burke: And where did you see her? How far did you go to see her?
David Johansen: Anywhere I could. And you know, because there was like a group of people and we like dug Janis Joplin, so we would jump in the car and go somewhere. All around like the tri state area, I guess. But then, you know, I saw her in San Francisco and a couple of other places, but I was in San Francisco. I didn’t go there to see her, you know. She really brought it with her. We didn’t meet her. Yeah, I didn’t want to meet her, you know. I just think I just dug the way she sang, you know? Although one time, I was around that time I was in The Pink Teacup on Bleecker Street and she was in there with some guys in the band when she left, I took her like Pepsi can or something, you know, whatever the can was. And then, you know, I used it for an ashtray until it was full. But I remember I took it.
[Tape] Clip from Lonely Planet Boy (1973) by New York Dolls
Kevin Burke: I’m thinking, you enter a high school with the Kennedy assassination and you leave with the Summer of Love, right? And I’m just thinking, Yeah.
David Johansen: Yeah, ‘67. Yeah.
Kevin Burke: I mean, what a transformation in society, a huge, huge explosion going on and navigating high school in that way. When did you grow your hair out and when did you kind of change your style?
David Johansen: You know, when I lived at home, I had to always get like some kind of a haircut, I guess. Yeah. But, you know, after high school, I kind of moved to the East Village and I didn’t get a haircut for 11 years. [laughs] No, kidding.
You know, my hair was kind of long for the time, I guess, you know, for being in a high school in Staten Island, you know. I just know you go to the barber, like once a month and he shaves your head, that’s about all I remember from it. And they had a lot of great comic books and magazines in the barber shop and you could overhear a lot of conversations about, you know, gambling and things like that, so I didn’t care about the haircut because I was getting so much more out of it than just like getting my head shaved.
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
David Johansen: Next to the barbershop was, I guess you would call us a soda pop stand that very few people frequented. And it was run by a guy named Pappy. This soda’s called Pappy’s. I used to go there and try to see what I could find, but he would be sitting in the back, there was tables in the back and he had one of those visors on. He always had a poker game going and he took bets from, I guess, horse racing or whatever. And he had been there since forever. He would make you a soda. He would deem to get up for the poker table and come in like make you an egg cream or something. He had a cigar stub in his mouth and the visor, so I guess, you know, people in the barbershop would run in there and make a bet or something.
Kevin Burke: And coming out of high school in those years, were you, were you worried at all that you’d be drafted?
David Johansen: Yeah. I didn’t want to get drafted. I had to do a lot of back flips to get out of that, get out of that mess.
Kevin Burke: How’d you do it?
David Johansen: Oh God, I can’t tell you.
Kevin Burke: But I was just thinking coming out, not going to college–that route that so many people took—how did you, you know, navigate that?
David Johansen: You know, I never registered, and so then they found me like the FBI found. It’s a long story.
Kevin Burke: Really? Wow.
David Johansen: It was hair raising.
Kevin Burke: And they found you during the war? It was going on when they found you?
David Johansen: Yeah, it was like, at the height of it. Yeah.
Kevin Burke: Jeez. What, did they come knocking on your parents’ door?
David Johansen: Not only that, they came to the door where I was living. I wasn’t living at home.
Kevin Burke: And what did you do? [laughs] “Are you David Johansen?”
David Johansen: [laughs] I don’t know if I can put this in the podcast.
Kevin Burke (VO): But find out what he did put in the podcast in part two of our interview, as his life shifts to the East Village and a rock band that would redefine the sound coming out of the Big Apple. From the heyday of the New York Dolls to the birth of Buster Poindexter, you’ll hear how the turning points in David’s epic journey as an artist are rooted in his hometown. So, think of this as an intermission and then listen to part two when you’re ready to take that ride with us over to the Manhattan side. Thank you for listening and, remember, everyone’s from someplace and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.