Part two of David Johansen’s Your Hometown episode is the portrait of an artist in the process of becoming. If Staten Island was the setting of David’s coming of age, Manhattan would him into his next act. Hear David talk with host Kevin Burke about living in the East Village, the early days of the New York Dolls, the birth of Buster Poindexter, and performing at the Café Carlyle. David’s hometown journey is an invitation to dive into what it means to be an artist and to find what in their origins stories is knowable and what remains enigmatic – even to them – as they continue looking around the corner, following their instincts and their muses.
“I remember at one time we were playing some big Halloween costume ball at the Waldorf, and there was a picture of me in one of the columns in the Daily News and it said, “Big man on the Halloween scene,” and my father really took that to town every time I would see him. ”
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New York Dolls – Personality Crisis (1973)
Prince Buster – Enjoy Yourself (1968)
New York Dolls – Bad Girl (Demo) (1972)
“Cabaret in the Sky” (1974) from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNTN1gpuz38
David Johansen – In Style (1979)
“Wilkommen” from Cabaret (1972)
New York Dolls – Stranded in the Jungle (1973)
Buster Poindexter- Whadaya Want (1987)
Edvard Grieg Impromptu, EG 175 (1896)
David Johansen – Mara Dreams the Moongate of Uncommon Beauty (2007)
David Johansen – Piece of My Heart from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUxAIMvuqQk (2016)
David Johansen & Larry Salzman – James Alley Blues (2005)
Oh Madeline “Play Crystal For Me” from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UlhfUzsu6A&t=1s
All Dolled Up: A New York Dolls Story Found Tapes from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92HhdXuqc4g
New York Dolls footage Local TV Story, 1973 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGnZ4RsUpBE
Man’s Country New York Gay Bathhouse commercial from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Er1Ri3qKavw
From Hot, Hot, Hot to Camelot, Buster Poindexter Plays Café Carlyle from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxULtuLMNiI
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
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. 16. David Johansen Pt. 2 – 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: I remember at one time we were playing some big Halloween costume ball at the Waldorf, and there was a picture of me in one of the columns in the Daily News and it said, “Big man on the Halloween scene,” and my father really took that to town every time I would see him.
Kevin Burke: “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 Personality Crisis by New York Dolls (1973)
Kevin Burke (VO): Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed the intermission in this special two-part interview with David Johansen. That tantalizing article, as his nun teacher used to call him, who from his time as the lead singer of the New York Dolls to his turn as the coolest of cool singers, Buster Poindexter, has fascinated us throughout his long epic career. This really is a portrait of an artist in the process of becoming. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, this is the time to switch back to catch up. When we left David, he’d just had a scary encounter over the draft during the Vietnam War. He couldn’t go into the details, but suffice it to say, he didn’t end up in Saigon. It was the East Village in Manhattan that was calling to him. Now, David had grown up on Staten Island. There were brothers and sisters, adventurous bike rides with friends, a sort of purgatory at Catholic school, and a sense of freedom that came with switching to the public high school, where he fell in with fellow beatniks and started a band called The Vagabond Missionaries. Staten Island was the setting for David’s coming-of-age years, and Manhattan would see him move into his next act. Now, as you listen to David talk about the early days of The Dolls and beyond them, think about the nature, the essence of being an artist and what in their origin stories is knowable, and what remains enigmatic—even to them—as they continue looking around the corner, following their instincts and their muses. We pick up my conversation with David after I asked him about the five-mile run the Staten Island ferry makes between his hometown and Manhattan. I wondered, what was it about the city that was pulling him toward it?
David Johansen: Oh, I knew I was going to live there for a long time, yeah.
Kevin Burke: How did you know? Like, what was it about it?
David Johansen: Because there was no place else, there was no place else to live where you could, like, pursue what I was pursuing.
Kevin Burke: So, when you had that dream of New York, what was the dream?
David Johansen: It wasn’t a dream. It was just like everybody you would meet, you know, would be smart and alive. And just kind of break out of that, of people being like, predestined to some kind of drudgery or something, you know. I was in school and this guy, I kind of knew, but he said to me, “You know, if you’re looking for a job, I know this guy on St. Mark’s Place who’s got like a little tchotchkes shop,” he didn’t say in so many words. “And you could work there.” So I went and saw this guy, Lore Wilson his name was. And then, you know, I wound up working in the basement making, cutting out earrings from beer cans, selling them as pop art in the mail order department. But through him, I met the people in the Ridiculous Theater, you know, Charles Ludlam, Bill Vehr, like that. So I was like, these are like the greatest people I ever could imagine. You know? So it just kind of like when I finished school, I just, you know, decided that’s where I was going to live.
Kevin Burke: Where did you first stay?
David Johansen: Oh, I got an apartment on Third Street. The Hell’s Angels block. It was a seven floor walk-up, like a railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen, and it was like 40 bucks.
[Tape] Clip of Oh Madeline “Play Crystal For Me”
Kevin Burke: Charles Ludlam is a fascinating character. And you know, you think about some of his plays, like A Big Hotel and Bluebeard. But what was your exposure to that and what impression did he make on you and what he was doing?
David Johansen: When I first met them, they would do like plays in like a gay grindhouse way down on West 42nd Street. Like the gay porno, movies would end at like midnight, and then they would set up and do play, like they would change the crowd, of course, but they would do these plays. When I met them, they had just really started their club.
Kevin Burke: Did you sometimes perform with them in mind?
David Johansen: Well, you know, I would be a spear carrier.
Kevin Burke: [laughs] What attracted you to them?
David Johansen: I just thought they were, you know, the majority of people that I knew they were doing things like what I how I considered correctly. They weren’t, you know, and they all came from other places really to be themselves, so to speak.
Kevin Burke: But I’m thinking you, I mean, two or three years before this you’re in Catholic high school. Right? And now you’re on 42nd Street, these shows. You know, it’s such a such a shift.
David Johansen: Well, let me let me explain.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. Yeah.
David Johansen: You know, like I used to go to Greenwich Village a lot when I was a teenager, you know, before I left Staten Island. I used to go there a lot, you know. And when I was a little kid, like even like in the ‘50s, my Aunt Pat used to have a girlfriend who lived upstairs from I think it was called O’Henry’s Steak House, it was on 6th Avenue and 4th Street. So she used to take me there a lot. And I remember we were going to these restaurants like we would go to this like, Jamaican restaurant where people were all gaily colored and people were singing and laughing.
[Tape] Clip of Enjoy Yourself by Prince Buster (1968)
David Johansen: So, you know, I always had, like, a very strong affection for Greenwich Village.
Kevin Burke: And what’s your plan? Are you kind of just open and seeing where things go? Or do you have a sort of a goal in mind at that time?
David Johansen: I wanted to be in a band. But—
Kevin Burke: The Vagabond Missionaries—
David Johansen: I hadn’t really found one yet.
Kevin Burke: The Vagabond Missionaries sort of, that ended?
David Johansen: Yeah because, you know, they moved on, some of them got drafted and you know, whatever.
Kevin Burke: OK.
David Johansen: Some of them, you know, started working for Con Ed, you know, I was kind of finished with. We were all finished with that.
[Tape] Clip from All Dolled Up: A New York Dolls Story Found Tapes
Kevin Burke: But so often in New York, proximity is key, and it sounds like that played a role in meeting Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia. So in terms of where you’re living and how you discovered the guys that would eventually become The Dolls with you, if you can tell that story but tell it in the most local way you can. There’s so much myth around a band like that, just thinking about as a New York occurrence, sort of a local event. What can you?
David Johansen: I think, you know, the catalyst for me was like I used to work for Lore Wilson, and he would always like in a very bitchy voice, say to me, “You’re not going to be in a band, you’re never going to do nothing.” And I would be thinking, like, “I’ll show him. I’ll show him,” because I’d be like cutting up that metal with the metal scissors. And so, one day Billy and Arthur came to my door and they said that they heard I was a singer. And then we went over to John’s apartment and played a couple of songs. And I just thought, you know, “Why don’t I just throw in with these guys and see what happens?”
Kevin Burke: And the band sort of originated before you, but you became the lead singer of The Dolls. And I’m just wondering what you think you brought to the dynamic. I mean, other than your talents, what were your—
David Johansen: Brains.
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
David Johansen: They didn’t really have a band. They just had like an idea for a band.
[Tape] Clip from Bad Girl (Demo) by New York Dolls (1972)
Kevin Burke: It was like late ’71, something like that?
David Johansen: Yeah.
Kevin Burke: And in terms of being a front man of this group, you mentioned a lot of things already. We’ve talked about Howlin’ Wolf, Janis Joplin and as you start to think about the role of a front man, what you’re going to do with it, where are you pulling from in terms of your character?
David Johansen: I didn’t think about it. I just was it.
[Tape] Clip from New York Dolls footage Local TV Story, 1973
Kevin Burke: How did you decide what you’re going to wear, that first show or those early shows?
David Johansen: I think I wore a white suit, like a white linen suit that was an antique, but I can’t even remember where we played, you know, like some loft party or something. I mean, the first time we played in front of people we were, we were rehearsing up in the Upper West Side in the wintertime in a bicycle shop. We broke down bikes and then there was a welfare hotel across the street, and some people from the hotel came over and said that they were having their Christmas party and their entertainment didn’t show up or something like that, and would we come over and play. So we went over there and played, you know, Otis Redding kind of songs like, “Don’t you mess with Cupid, you know, my kind of stuff.” Yeah. You know, pretty soon after we started playing, we went to play at the Mercer Arts Center, like, every Tuesday at midnight or something like that, you know, in the Oscar Wilde room. And we were kind of like, I would say, you know, for lack of a better description, we were like the band of the neighborhood. And it was a beautiful scene, you know? And I guess me as being like the chief speechwriter or, I mean, lyricist, I would write songs that I guess reflected that in a way. Not like purposely, but…
Kevin Burke: And what was the beauty? Was it the diversity?
David Johansen: What was the beauty?
Kevin Burke: Yeah, when you say it was beautiful.
David Johansen: It’s just people being creative, you know, smart people being creative, so to speak. So, you know, there were a lot of people who would come to that Tuesday night soiree who were just, you know, getting started this far is like they were going to be like, you know, a fashion designer or film maker or, you know, you name it, right? And they would all, not all, but they, those kinds of people would come to the show and, you know, like network with each other and stuff, you know. And we were just like the band, really, you know? So it was it was cool.
Kevin Burke: The band sits at the intersection of so many interesting labels that we put on things: glam rock, heavy metal, hard rock, punk rock. But it’s for you, as you say, you’re just doing your thing. But in terms of the style that you were going to bring to it, particularly the high heels and put, you know, wearing a dress and lipstick and makeup and that sort of performative aspect to it, you know what, where that come from?
David Johansen: Well, we you know we, most of us, lived in the East Village, and that’s like, you know, like, people were like doing it. I mean, people were decked out in the East Village in those days. I mean, not the majority of the people, maybe, you know, maybe not even half the people with the people who like counted, you know, were doing this thing in all different forms. I was good friends with Jackie Curtis.
[Tape] Clip from “Cabaret in the Sky” (1974)
David Johansen: That whole gang of people, from the get-go I was already dressed up. So were the rest of the guys. There were a lot of great thrift warehouses in the East Village and everything’s been picked dry now.
[Tape] Clip from In Style by David Johansen (1979)
Kevin Burke: I was thinking about the younger, the boy in you, how you trusted your instincts. When did it, when did you feel that the boy inside of you, the self inside was clicking and in sync with the physical part of the body that you were in, you know, versus the kid who was, you know, humiliated in the sixth grade by the nun, right? Or riding your bike or getting chased through the passageways of Brooklyn under the BQE. When did you feel like the voice I’ve had inside, the story that’s been in me, it clicks now?
David Johansen: I didn’t know it, but I’ll let you know when it happens.
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
David Johansen: Yeah, you just kind of do things that interest you, right? So if I lose interest in something, then you know, usually something else comes along like, that’s, you know, the same thing musically, you know? So with music, I the way I figure it, there is like so many musics on the planet that you probably couldn’t even hear like a song from each genre in your lifetime, you know what I mean? So. I have a thing like that, I noticed like if music’s playing, if I’m in a store or something, right, and if I’m not interested, if doesn’t catch my interest, I don’t even really hear it, you know? And then something will come along in the mix that says was like, “Wait, wait, what is that?” And then I I’ll try to find out, you know, where it was and pursue that or whatever.
Kevin Burke: I’m thinking of the gay liberation movement, Stonewall’s in ’69, sexual revolution is happening, you’ve got Liza Minnelli in cabaret and “Liza with a Z” you know, in ‘72. You know, where does where do the dolls fit in that milieu in New York?
David Johansen: Where do we fit?
Kevin Burke: Yeah, in terms of—
David Johansen: Just right there.
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
David Johansen: I mean, you know? Yeah. I remember that at that time, my father said to me, at one time he said, “I know what you’re trying to do.” And I said, “What?” He said, “Cabaret. You’re trying to be like the movie. You’re trying to be like Cabaret.” I said, “I don’t know. I hadn’t really seen that film.”
[Tape] Clip from “Wilkommen” from Cabaret (1972)
David Johansen: I came to visit my mother. We were eating together, having a couple of drinks. And my mother said, “I’m going to school because your sister, Marilyn,” who, she’s 10 years younger than me, so she was like, eight. “She’s having an exhibit in the science fairs tonight. Do you want to come? And I was like, “No way. I’m not going there.” She said, “Come on, come. It’ll be fun. But you know, my mother used to like, in situations like that, she used to like, use me as a secret weapon kind of a thing because she kind of knew the reaction that she that I would get because I had, like, really long hair, you know, I had like a bracelet on, you know? So we went there. And then Sister Regina is there. And but this time she’s like 150 and she comes running up to me and she says, “Johansen, you look great.” I guess because I had, like, hair like Jesus or something at that time, you know. I don’t know why she thought I looked great, but she did.
Kevin Burke: What were you telling them about what was going on across the channel?
David Johansen: I think they probably read it, read in the papers or something on what’s going on. I never felt any kind of like vibe, let’s say, like brava. I don’t think it was like that. I just think, you know, I was like in a rock and roll band, and maybe they didn’t exactly understand rock and roll, but they thought that I was probably doing a pretty good job of it by charting it up a little bit, you know. I remember at one time we were playing some big— this was in that era, the early days— we were playing some big Halloween costume ball at the Waldorf, and there was a picture of me in one of the columns in the Daily News, they have a lot of showbiz columns in the Daily News. There’s a picture of me and it said, “Big man on the Halloween scene,” and my father really took that to town every time I would see him.
Kevin Burke: What were among the most unusual places you played in those years in New York?
David Johansen: We played at a gay bathhouse called Man’s Country.
[Tape] Clip from Man’s Country New York Gay Bathhouse commercial
David Johansen: Just like a bunch of guys sitting around in towels.
Kevin Burke: And a band performed?
David Johansen: They had like cabarets there. I guess I didn’t know somebody hired us to play there. And we would take any gig we could get because we really wanted to have some, you know, experience. What we were about, like especially, you know, those early days, from my perspective, was just, you know, like this utopian kind of freedom that people should have.
Kevin Burke: Very early on in the band’s story, the drummer, Billy Murcia, died. He was 21.
David Johansen: Right.
Kevin Burke: And so, thinking about that coming so soon after Janis Joplin’s death someone that you really admired from afar and others, Morrison, Hendrix. So I was just thinking, given you lost someone in your band at 21, was an early death, something that you yourself feared?
David Johansen: No, no. I never learned my lesson.
Kevin Burke: The Dolls in that incarnation sort of end in ‘76, you know, and I think your last live show in New York was ’76.
David Johansen: Well, we really ended earlier than that, I think. But Sylvian and I had a band that we used to do Dolls stuff.
Kevin Burke: Looking back at it, just thinking about the kind of a quick run you had— your second album was Too Much Too Soon— is there is there a part of the Doll story and kind of where it sits in the New York music scene and the larger one that it sort of is a forerunner, but that’s not, I’m sure when you’re in it, that’s not how it feels. You don’t feel like you’re a frontrunner of something, you’re just in it. But it’s one of those bands that people look a lot—
David Johansen: What I want to know is how did the Pre-Raphaelites know that the Raphaelites were coming?
Kevin Burke: And what was it like touring with the group? You know, you’re playing locally and then you start touring outside of New York as that group?
David Johansen: Yeah. It was always an adventure.
Kevin Burke: I’m thinking like the contrast between performing out of town and in town. Sort of, you know, were there places that it felt a little bit more risky to be performing as The Dolls?
David Johansen: Yeah. I mean, the first time we played out of town, we played some like club in Long Island and where they, you know, all showed up in like muscle cars. And when I was like, “Oh man, this is like 10 years ago, you know?” And the place, just like, went crazy, like they had to clear the place out. The owner who was like, you know, kind of like, mob-y, was kind of like murderous. It was just crazy. Why?
Kevin Burke: Why? Because of the sound? The look, what? What was so bad?
David Johansen: It kind of caused a lot of like sexual tension, I think, between guys and girls. And they started fighting. And they kind of, there was a big kind of airplane hangar of a place and they opened their doors on each side, the bouncers just pushed everybody out. And Billy, the drummer started like making this kind of speech, like a manifesto about how fucked up they were.
[Tape] Clip from New York Dolls – Stranded in the Jungle (1973)
Kevin Burke: And, David, as you think about those years, are there particular sounds or smells or cues that trigger and take you take you back to that time?
David Johansen: Sometimes I will catch a breath of something unidentifiable, but usually that brings me back to being like five or six and coming into the city, you know, and thinking, like, you know, like the first time I smelled it or something, you know what I mean? So that will occur on rare occasion.
Kevin Burke: And can you think of a specific example of something that does that?
David Johansen: Oh, you know, maybe it’s like chestnuts mixed with exhaust fumes mixed with a sizzling hamburger or something.
Kevin Burke: And when they take you back, what are you seeing in your mind? Like, what are the images?
David Johansen: I see that picture of, you know, Whitehall as it was in the Coney Island of my mind.
[tape] Clip from Buster Poindexter- Whadaya Want (1987)
Kevin Burke: Around 1984, you introduce yourself to the public as Buster Poindexter, and that’s how I first knew you as a kid. You know, that that’s how you entered my consciousness, Scrooged and that. And you know, the image of Buster Poindexter is a saloon singer, you know, in the tuxedo slicked back hair. You originally started playing ballads, but that would jump. It would go to jump jazz and you perform at places like Tracks in New York. You released an album a few years later, and it was really a phenomenon. Where did Buster live inside of you before we got to meet him?
David Johansen: Well, after The Dolls, when I had the David Johansen Group, I think we made like four or five records for Sony and we did all that traveling. We played a lot of hockey rinks opening for, I call them heavy metal bands, but all different kinds of bands. And I often say, it was like officiating at Hitler youth rallies. There wasn’t much you could really communicate in, you know, except like through your songs, but you couldn’t really stop and reflect. There was a bar around the corner from my apartment called Tramps on 15th Street, and I used to go there and I decided I wanted to do just like four Mondays of, I didn’t even know what it was, just where I could sing songs that I wanted to sing. Get away from the repetition that I had been doing. And so, I started doing that, and then it just became like a thing, you know. I started making essentially like as much money as I did killing myself on the road, right. And so, you know, it was really kind of like more like me as instead of like presenting this kind of idealized version.
Kevin Burke: The idealized version being what came before?
David Johansen: Yeah. In the years between The Dolls and Buster. Yeah, a lot of times when you’re playing in like an arena, it’s just like pandemonium in there. You can’t really reflect or make a joke even, you know. So I started telling jokes that I like, even though they were groaners, a lot of them. I started picking a repertoire of songs that I always had wanted to sing. And it just kind of came together. And I wanted to use a nickname because I didn’t want people coming and shouting for Johansen songs. I just wanted to be cool.
Kevin Burke: And I noticed in terms of the timing, David, that your father died in May of ‘84.
David Johansen: Yeah.
Kevin Burke: Which is right around the same time that Buster becomes a public, you know, persona. Did your father get to meet Buster?
David Johansen: He came to a lot of shows that I did at The Bottom Line. And you know, I would only invite them to places where they would be comfortable. I wasn’t going to invite them to like a mosh pit or something, you know?
Kevin Burke: But did he, did he live long enough to meet Buster Poindexter?
David Johansen: I think he did, but I can’t remember because—
Kevin Burke: Because in going in the direction you did with that music, sort of ballads, jump jazz, and some of the kind of, you know, classic songs that might have been music that would have resonated with him in a way than some of the early thing that you played.
David Johansen: Yeah, I guess, but I don’t think he was, when he was young, he was into like popular music so much. I think, you know, my mother appreciated it, but I don’t think, I don’t think it was his cup of tea. He was into that Edvard Grieg, man, you know, like. Let me think, let me do some thinking here. He was kind of like Max von Sydow. You know what I’m saying?
Kevin Burke: Yeah. [laughs]
David Johansen: But he dug the rock and roll. You know, when he like he sometimes he would mention the song to me that he really liked. One time said to me, “You know that Bohemian Rhapsody? That’s a pretty good record.” [laughs]
[tape] Clip from Edvard Grieg Impromptu, EG 175 (1896)
Kevin Burke: Did you have the sense, David, that he had expectations of you? Because you mentioned, you mentioned that he said, don’t go into insurance, don’t have this life.
David Johansen: I always got the feeling that it was like, you know, it’s always your happy kind of a thing. You know, my older brother’s a lawyer, and he worked for this very prestigious firm. I think he sold the Empire State Building once, among other things. But my sister, oldest sister is a schoolteacher, my younger brother’s a librarian. The next one down, my sister Elizabeth, she’s an administrator at the University of Idaho. The other sister which was the youngest sister is a kindergarten teacher.
Kevin Burke: I mean, those are all professional tracks. And then there’s you. Right? So, it sounds like you were on your own, your own path. You know, carving your own way.
David Johansen: Everybody carves their own way. You know.
Kevin Burke: Yeah, yeah.
David Johansen: They all like me though.
[Tape] Clip from Mara Dreams the Moongate of Uncommon Beauty by David Johansen (2007)
Kevin Burke: Tell me about the song that, I mean, beautiful orchestral piece that you composed, “Mara Dreams the Moon Gate of Uncommon Beauty”, which The Staten Island Composers Project commissioned you to write in 2007.
David Johansen: You know, Mara and I love a lot of classical music and so I decided, well, this is a good opportunity to compose one because it’ll get played, you know, like I always think I want to make a piece, but who you know, it’s not gonna really get played. So, this was actually going to get played. So, I started composing this piece. You’ve heard the piece, right? I think it’s pretty good.
David Johansen: I was there while an orchestra performed it.
Kevin Burke: At the St. George Theater, yeah, which was a Movie Palace when you were a kid, did you go see movies there when you were a kid?
David Johansen: Yeah, it’s a beautiful theater.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. You know, a moon gate is sort of like a portal.
David Johansen: That’s a portal in a snug harbor of the Chinese scholar’s garden, which is kind of a beautiful place. And they have that. I think it’s called the Moon Gate of Uncommon Beauty in that building. It’s kind of like, you know, a Chinese architecture.
Kevin Burke: And thinking about moon gates as portals, what, David, are the are the portals for you on the island that when you’re there, are portals back to the little boy that when you go by them or you, you brush up against them, you’re sort of back there?
David Johansen: Well, most places, I mean, you know, most places on the on the north side of town of North Shore, you know? The South Shore is kind of like a lot of the houses are, you know, recent. They all look the same, whereas the North Shore has character. So, there’s a lot of places there that I guess because I think I mean, I think about I have like memories that I haven’t thought about in a long time. Very often, you know. I have memories of walking down the street as being like seven or eight years old and everybody on their porches saying hello to me and I would feel like a million bucks, but I don’t really have that many like recurring memories because, you know, I have a lot of memories yet to unearth.
[tape] Clip: From Hot, Hot, Hot to Camelot, Buster Poindexter Plays Café Carlyle
Kevin Burke: You celebrated your 70th birthday with an incredible concert at the Carlyle Hotel. And now we’re in a different part of New York, which is the Upper East Side, and a storied hotel. I mean, that is that was the New York White House when President Kennedy was in office.
David Johansen: Yeah, yeah.
Kevin Burke: And Marilyn Monroe would go and meet him there. And I was going to ask you, you know, we’ve talked about everything from, you know, the bathhouse to the high school battle of the bands to, you know, the Mercer Theater and the Theater of the Ridiculous. Now we’re at the Carlyle, the Tony Carlyle Hotel, and just what it was like for you, being a New Yorker, being from the city, to inhabit that space sort of that, you know, President Truman lived, you know? [laughs]
David Johansen: You know, in— I forget what year, 2004 or something, I can’t remember— we got the remaining Dolls back together to play a concert in London. Like one time we were going to do it. And then it was like such a hit that we kept doing it. We were doing it for like eight years. And it’s like that’s okay, that’s enough. So, Mara and I came home and we decided that we wanted to stay in New York for a while. So, we started like dreaming up an act and looking around at places we could play and we did a bunch of shows at the cutting room and Ron Delsener came, who’s a friend of ours, and he said, “Oh, we got to take this to the Carlyle,” so he got us into the Carlyle, I think I was on Halloween, actually. And it was a big success. So, then we got asked to play, I guess, for a week. And so, we did that, and then we started just getting like, you know, two-week residences like twice a year, I guess. We get a suite.
Kevin Burke: Oh, nice.
David Johansen: And we take an elevator to work, which is my dream. I used to be in that van and be thinking, if only you could like press a button and be from your bedroom into the dressing room because it’s the schlep that kills you. And this is pretty close.
Kevin Burke: And you knew that at 15, you said the schlep. [laughs]
David Johansen: Well, no, I knew it when I was in my 20s I knew.
Kevin Burke: Yeah, yeah.
David Johansen: But this is pretty close to that. You know, you get in the elevator and then you walk around on stage.
[Tape] Clip from Piece of My Heart by David Johansen (2016)
Kevin Burke: The pandemic turned all of our lives upside down. And one of the ways it turned your life upside down is that you saw in a way as a shelter or a safe place on Staten Island in the home where you grew up. And what has it been like to shelter in your boyhood home?
David Johansen: It’s great because you, there’s, you know, a yard and there’s a porch. And we’ve had a really pretty good run there, you know, as far as being outdoors, you know.
Kevin Burke: And what room you’re staying in?
David Johansen: When my grandfather built the house, he had designed it in such a way that there was a bigger room that was in front of the house that would catch the sunrise. And then I think they built a trolley car on a track on this street, and it was too noisy for him, so they moved to the bedroom at the back of the house which is where my parents stayed and which we stayed, too, because it’s a little noisier in the front of the house. Especially now with all the, all the advances in car stereos.
Kevin Burke: Are you very conscious of the, of your childhood living there now, or does it feel apart and kind of that door closed?
David Johansen: It doesn’t really affect me so much. Every once in a while, I have a memory of I spilled ink on that floor one time when I was drawing with India ink, you know, and it soak through the carpet. So, we, like took the carpet up to have a wooden floor and I saw the ink stain, you know.
Kevin Burke: How does New York speak to you now? I mean, you’ve lived your whole life in and around New York, right? And you, it’s part of you.
David Johansen: You know, I kind of just kind of observe it, and it’s kind of like bemused by it, really.
Kevin Burke: You know, as we get older, all of us, we accumulate ghosts, we accumulate people in our lives who are no longer here. Does that color the landscape in a way for you?
David Johansen: I like to stroll with Bella Abzug? You know, but of course, you know, lots of people, I mean, you know, I’ve lived through like the AIDS epidemic and the Vietnam War and so many things, you know, and now this pandemic, you know. There’s people who I loved have died from COVID very recently, you know. So you know, Hal Willner for example. That is, you know, there’s a lot more dead people than there are living.
[Tape] Clip from James Alley Blues by David Johansen & Larry Salzman (2005)
Kevin Burke: I like to, David, end all of my interviews with the same question. I go back to my favorite New York poet Walt Whitman and and then his book, Leaves of Grass, you know, which he wrote in Brooklyn in 1855 in Song of Myself. He writes this, and I want to ask you about your reasoning. So, Whitman wrote:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
And as we, we come to a close here, I was going to ask you: people 50 years, 100 years, 200 years from now, when they come across David Johansen and your story and your music and they want to know you, and learn about you by communing with you in the places where you lived, where should they look for you in your New York?
David Johansen: Where should they look for me? In front of where the Diplomat Hotel used to be on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue. Because one time The Dolls were playing there and I was standing in front of it by the Christmas Bar where it’s Christmas every day, or was, and I felt like this cosmic vibration that I was in the center of the universe. Really, I did. But do you want to be scorned or forgotten? That is the question.
Kevin Burke: What do you think?
David Johansen: I haven’t really decided.
Kevin Burke (VO): Thank you for listening to Your Hometown, where the local is the epic.
This is a Kevin Burke Production. Visit YourHometown.org to subscribe to the podcast and our various social media channels. And wherever you’re listening, please drop us a review. Every star helps.
For information on live events that we do around the show, visit our New York City series page on The Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/your hometown- podcast.
Now, let me thank the team that works with me on Your Hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich, our editor and sound designer Otis Streeter, our composer-performer Sterling Steffen, and our researchers Shakila Khan and Janmaris Perez. I also want to thank Tunshore Longe, Nick Gregg, and Charlotte Yiu for the vivid illustrations have given our show another dimension. Our social media manager is Mackela Watkins, and our website and branding design is by Tama Creative.
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.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. 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.