Tuesday, 25 January 2011

David Johansen by Karen Schoemer

Karen Schoemer later wrote for Newsweek, New York Times and Rolling Stone, and in 2006, her book “Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair With '50's Pop Music” was published by Simon & Schuster.

Back in 1987 though, she interviewed David Johansen, in his Buster Poindexter persona, for issue 7 of WANWTTS. His version of Arrow's “Hot Hot Hot” reached #45 in the US Charts in 1987 and he released four albums in total under the pseudonym, the last in 1997.

He's obviously better known to "our readers" as lead singer in the New York Dolls, so the good news is that Karen does get to ask him some stuff about the NYDs. Fair to say that his responses regarding the Dolls lack a degree of enthusiasm and certainly do not point to the likelihood of a future reformation.

An Interview With Buster Poindexter by Karen Schoemer

“Call him chameleon, conceptualist or dirty old punk, David Johansen by any other name can still shake more action than any other would-be queen from the Staten Island school of braggartology. Thirteen years after the Dolls' demise and almost five years since the last Johansen solo LP, the name's changed to Buster Poindexter, and the music's become a brandied retro fusion of soul, swing, R & B and R & R. Buster and his Banshees Of Blue have been the toast of the New York City neo-cabaret circuit since their inception a few years ago; now with a hot hot hot self-titled album on the charts, overtly goofy videos plastered all over MTV (including the hap-hazard lip-synced Yuletide Yammer “Zat You, Santa Claus?”), several film appearances in the works (“Candy Mountain” due out this Spring and an updated version of “Scrooge” with Bill Murray for Xmas '88, in which Buster plays the Ghost Of Christmas Past) and guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, Buster and his Banshees' lounge-styled hoe down has truly become a phenomenon. But don't be fooled by the natty duds and scooped hair-do. Underneath this tuxedo-clad, martini-sipping dude skulks a gritty humorist and sanguine street philosopher, surprisingly similar to the personas he left behind. After all, it's the late '80's , and he's still turning tricks on an unsuspecting music public."

KS – When you were growing up on Staten Island, did you have a big collection of '45s?

BP – Oh yeah! I came from a pretty big family – there were six kids in my family. The collective record collection was pretty impressive. My older brother, he would listen to more '50s style stuff – he probably thought Bobby Rydell was really where it's at. My older sister would bring home Bob Dylan and the Beatles stuff. Also, I had an aunt, and still do, who had a great record collection from the '40s and early '50s, so we used to listen to a lot of her records, like jazz, Louis Armstrong. There were a lot of influences there.

KS – Did you always want to be in a band?

BP – Probably from about the time I was 13 or 14. Before that I didn't really have a clue, but I didn't care. When it got to the time when you gotta start thinking about what you're gonna do, I just decided I was gonna be in a band, be in show business. So I never had to get acne or anything, 'cause I knew what I was gonna do.

KS – When was your first band?

BP – When I was about 14, I guess. We'd play Wilson Pickett, “Midnight Hour”, “Boogaloo Down Broadway” by Fantastic Johnny C

and “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells. It was a big band, we had about seven guys. More like a gang than a band. A social club. We were called the Vagabond Missionaries. Then I was in another band with some of the same guys, called Fast Eddie & The Electric Japs, 'cause we played all Japanese equipment, real crummy equipment. We used to pride ourselves on that - it was part of our shtick. We did a lot of R & B in that band, too, but we would also start experimenting with some psychedelic music at that time. We used to play solos; we played at the Hotel Diplomat with a band called The Group Image who were like the Jefferson Airplane of New York.

KS – I recognise a couple of songs on the new album, but a lot of them I'm not familiar with. “House Of The Rising Sun” I know from the Animals....

BP – That's a traditional song. Leadbelly used to sing that, Libby Homan used to sing it. I don't think they knew who wrote that song. It's probably the oldest song on the record. I wrote two of the songs. “Cannibal” I wrote with Joe Dileo who's my piano player, and “Heart Of Gold”.

KS – Where did you find “Screwy Music”?

BP – That's an old Jimmy Lunsford Orchestra song. It's a Sonny Coleman arrangement.

KS – Did you find most of these songs on the records you'd collected?

BP – Yeah, mostly, or somebody'd steer me in the right direction.

KS – How much does your show change from week to week?

BP – It all depends on where we're playing and what band we're using. Sometimes we use a rhythm section; we have another act that we do that is just guitar, bass, drums and piano. I guess eventually we'll just go out with the bigger band, it's more fun....I don't know if it's more fun, it's more massive. I like having a big entourage around me.

KS – You like people to call you Buster?

BP – Oh, I don't care. I mean, y'know, that's an old nickname I've had for years, so people have called me Buster for ages, my friends and stuff. I answer to it very readily.

KS – Where did you get it?

BP – It's just a nickname I've had since I was a kid, like the kind of name you write on the subway and stuff, like a nom de guerre. A nom de subway.

KS – How old were you when the Dolls got together?

BP – Oh, I don't know. I guess about 20.

KS – And they were together for....

BP – Three or four years maybe. I don't know.

KS – Do you not like to talk about that?

BP – No, it's a very long time ago. I don't really recall specifics. I have a general picture of what went on, but it was kind of like my college days. I'm pretty well adjusted.

KS - I remember when Buster Poindexter started to play, you wouldn't say they (Johansen & Poindexter) were the same people. Is that right?

BP – Yeah, I guess so. I don't think I did too many interviews. Maybe. Probably it was just something I was having fun with. Because you know, when I started Buster Poindexter, I didn't want people to say it was David Johansen as I didn't want people to come expecting a Johansen show. So I used a different name for a different kind of music. I didn't care who came, I just didn't want people expecting to hear “Funky But Chic”. I think the name's more suitable for the kind of music I'm playing. So I just think of myself as Buster Poindexter.

KS – Period?

BP – Yeah. My mother doesn't call me Buster. Old ladies on the street do. They say (wags a finger) “Listen here, Buster!”

KS – So when you changed, did you want a style of music that would appeal to more people?

BP – Yeah. First of all, I like this music very much. When I decided to do it, I guess I thought it would be good because I wanted to be entertaining people who are around my own age. I wanted to make music for people who'd already been through that whole rock'n'roll....the punk thing.

KS – You think you're through that stage? Do you think it's a limited format?

BP – I think it's wonderful.,it's a wonderful part of the rites of growing up. But it's not so much for me any more because I'm older. I'm trying to do something that's more enjoyable...it's rough when you're doing something and you're not having fun at it, for me. It's written all over my face. I like to do something I can throw myself into, body and soul.

KS – When I saw you at the Bottom Line, you told this story about lying in a motel room, and suddenly realising you didn't want to do rock'n'roll any more. You called your friend....

BP – (laughs) Eeek-a-Mouse.

KS – But was there really one moment?

BP – What happened was, I started doing a Buster Poindexter show Monday nights at Tramps, which is an off-night for musicians, so I was performing for a lot of musicians and a lot of people who knew what this thing was about, 'cause we didn't publicise it. Lisa Robinson picked up on it and started putting it in the Post; but basically, in the beginning, I was just playing for the cognoscenti. Then we started playing weekends, and I started doing the other thing less and less, and at one point I just didn't do it any more. So it was a gradual withdrawal. I would be out doing my rock'n'roll show – I mean, what I'm doing now is rock and roll, it's just a lot more sophisticated than basic three-chord rock'n'roll – I would be up there singing, and the kids would be up there with their Hitler youth moves, and I would be getting older and they'd be getting younger every year. It got to the point where I didn't think they really understand what I was doing. I've always done things in a tongue-in-cheek, multi-level way.

KS – Even now?

BP – Especially. I think it's more obvious now.

KS – I don't know if this could be more tongue-in-cheek than the Dolls....

BP – (pause) It was a lot of fun, the Dolls. People had a lot of fun at the shows. There weren't too many bands around then, either. Not like today, there's a lot of stuff going on today. In those days we had to create to make things happen. There was no place to play for one thing. We'd have to invent places to play, practically, like a bar or something. We'd have to talk them into renting a PA and talk 'em into letting us play there. And then we'd try to convince them that we could bring in a crowd. So these places started opening up.

KS – A lot of the bands I listen to now say the Dolls were a big influence. That must be a pretty good feeling.

BP – Yeah....I've always been pretty positive. That's how we got the band going – nobody was really a virtuoso or anything, we just decided we wanted to have a rock'n'roll band. And I think, besides musically, that attitude was inspiring to a lot of people. Because people used to revere rock stars, like the rock stars would be up in a gilded cage, singing about some kind of nonsense. And we wanted to change that, to bring it to the streets, so to speak. And then that became a very popular movement, which is probably what is happening today. I mean, you still have your pont seat rock stars, but there's a lot more people involved in making music, instead of saying “Well, I could never do that” Also, we wrote great songs.

KS – Do you think what you're doing now is rebellious?

BP – Intellectually, yeah.

KS – What do you think it's rebelling against?

BP – Mediocrity. You turn on the radio, and so much of it sounds the same. I think that's always been the inspiration to me, mediocrity. It's nice to get people to think a little bit. Most people just accept things, they come into this world and this is just the way it is, they just accept it. But you don't really have to do that, you can shape it and mould it as you go along.

KS – The Dolls did something new, and it seems like musically what you're doing now is almost going backwards.

BP – The Dolls were doing something new? What do you mean? Because they were playing classic rock'n'roll really badly? The Dolls were basically a rhythm'n'blues based rock and roll band, which is kind of an old contraption when you think about it. It was just the way we did it, and the chemistry of the band. Arthur Kane's bass playing is probably a root point in what made that band sound so peculiar. He didn't play bass like anyone had played bass before. He could not breathe and play bass at the same time, so he used to take deep breaths and go (takes a huge breath and mimics playing bass) and then he would play, then he'd take another breath. I think that has a lot to do with it. I think, the last time I thought about it, that was the conclusion I came to.

KS – Then you think, musically, you're going back to the same roots?

BP – Yeah. Well it's just songs that amuse me, basically. It's as simple as that. It doesn't matter whether it's a blues song, a calypso song, or whatever....

KS – Do you come up with stories when you're on stage?

BP – They kind of evolve. I've always been a raconteur of sorts; even in the Dolls I used to tell stories on stage. Probably not in the same language I use now, probably in a more halting, abrupt language; (hoarsely) “You kids, listen to this! The other day I was walking down the street!” It was more like that in those days. Now I can sit there, have a smoke, take my time with it.

KS – Is it weird for you to see people like Mick Jagger still doing the rock'n'roll thing after so long?

BP – You mean, there but for the grace of God go I? No comment!

KS – No, I just mean.....

BP – I think this; when you're making a lot of dough, it's much harder to make a change. I was in a position when I changed my....path.....that it wasn't like any great shakes in the financial department, you know what I mean? I mean, that song “Hot Hot Hot” made a difference in my life and hopefully it will make a difference in other people's lives.

KS – How did it make a difference?

BP – You know like when you're a kid, and you first get in to rock'n'roll, how it first turns you on, because of the opportunities that present themselves to you? Life doesn't seem like such drudgery after all, there's some hope at the end of the tunnel kind of thing, you know? And then you go along with that for a while, and it kind of becomes common place, and you get into something like blues. All of a sudden you find this goldmine – it brightens your life up again and you can sink into that whole-heartedly. And then, okay, you assimilate that. Maybe reggae comes along, and you get into reggae, and it's a whole new ball game, and you're really happy about it. That happened to me, and then I got into soca and the same thing happened to me again. It brings me happiness basically, is what I'm trying to say. The fact is I'm making a living doing exactly what I want. I have made records before that I tried to fit into a certain system like AOR. When you try doing something that maybe you're not wholeheartedly into, and you don't succeed, it's much worse than if you do something you really believe in and don't succeed. If you do something you believe in and then are successful, it's the best of all possible worlds.

(It wasn't long before “Hot Hot Hot” was being described by Johansen as “the bane of my existence”......)

The New York Dolls (DJ, Sylvain Sylvain and others) release a new album in March 2011 - "Dancing Backward In High Heels"

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