When Ramsey Lewis came out with his ‘65 hit “In Crowd,” a teenage David Johansen started telling people he was the “in part of the out crowd.” It’s a fitting description of a subsequent four-decade career that has taken the 62-year old from punk godfather to cheeky lounge singer, unrepentant folkie and back again. Whatever the milieu, Johansen’s proved a singular performer with stage presence to rival Iggy and Bowie.
This week, he’s in town to challenge himself once again. Johansen’s gruff, soulful voice remains a calling card, but for the last couple of years, he’s performed like a singer/songwriter, accompanied only by guitarist Brian Koonin. It’s a change of pace for the frontman of clamorous punkers the New York Dolls and the big, horn-laden bands featuring his alter ego, Buster Poindexter.
“It’s intimate and different and gives me a chance to really sing because the whole thing is just voice and an acoustic guitar,” says Johansen. “We do some songs from the Johansen solo period, some Dolls songs (the more ballad-y ones), stuff from the Harry Smiths and then just some other stuff from nowhere in particular—just beautiful songs.”
Johansen spent his late teens working for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company doing any odd job—sound, lights, stage management, spear carrier. (The late gay dramatist/actor was particularly known for his female roles.) Johansen credits the troupe with increasing his appreciation for “the theatricalism of the ridiculous” and providing the inspiration to don makeup, wigs and dresses as the New York Dolls.
The Dolls started humbly, as an amped-up R&B act, but wound up a bloated mess, calling it quits in ’76, just as the revolution they helped seed was taking root. In the end, they lived up to their ’74 second album title, Too Much Too Soon. “It was kind of prophetic that we called it that,” Johansen says. “It got a little monstrous there.”
It’s here that he sees his career as really starting, with the release of six solo albums—three of them live discs—as he cast about rock, soul, dance and pop seeking a sound.
“With the Dolls, we didn’t really do that many shows. We did maybe 100 shows or something,” Johansen says. “When I went out with the Johansen Group, we used to play every night, 250 nights a year. There’s nothing like that to turn you into a seasoned performer.”
After none of the solo discs made commercial inroads, Johansen developed the Buster Poindexter persona, the smarmy nightclub singer with a full repertoire of jazz, jump blues and pop standards. The whole thing grew from a kind of hootenanny Johansen was hosting during his residency at the legendary Tramps on 15th Street in New York. He’d eventually lead the Saturday Night Live band and score an enormous hit with 1987’s “Hot Hot Hot.” For the next dozen years, Poindexter would swallow up Johansen.
“We started getting hired for a lot of dances and events and things like that,” he says, though the persona grew burdensome with time. “That act brought me into corridors of power that I never would’ve experienced because it was beyond any kind of ideology or anything. I could write a book about it. It was a very interesting time. Psychologically, it kind of gets in there. It starts to take over. Battling with your alter ego is not good.”
Around the millennium, the chameleon-like Johansen made yet another move, this time into roots rock with his band, the Harry Smiths, named after the eminent ethnomusicologist. This was the music of Johansen’s youth before he tired of it.
“There were times in my life I thought, ‘If I never hear another country blues song, it will be too soon,” he says. “But after having gone through this obsessive period where I was just listening to Latin music—because I really wanted to crack it in my own head—when I came back to those old records, they were completely new to me. The songs that I had heard 100 times, I was hearing them in a new way.”
After two Harry Smiths albums, Johansen agreed to a New York Dolls reunion show that turned into eight years and three albums. Indeed, that’s the reason for the current hiatus—a breather. In the meantime, he stays busy. In May, he took part in a Rolling Stones homage at Carnegie Hall, and he’s percolating new ideas.
“We’re just giving [The Dolls] a rest for a while. We don’t want to wear out our welcome,” he cracks. “I’m going to cut some sides for a new kind of label in L.A. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I think I‘m going to do a couple old Philadelphia songs. I’ve been grooving on the Philly scene lately, even before Philly soul.”
Though he’s performing acoustically for now, he won’t rule out a return of the type of big band acts he led as Poindexter. “It’s a possibility,” he says. “I’ve got a couple things knocking around in my head. I haven’t decided which one I want to pursue yet, because you have to make sure your passion is there before you jump.”
Thurs., Jan. 17, 8pm. $15. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. philly.worldcafelive.com
PW's Music Issue 2014