Zat You, Buster Poindexter?

Buster Poindexter/David Johansen in New York City, 1989. Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

Of the dozens of “advance” CDs or streaming audio links I receive every week, I can usually tell you exactly what I think without hearing a single note. Did I like Radiohead‘s The King of Limbs? I didn’t, because I can’t hear a Radiohead song without remembering that time I dropped acid in Chicago and spent a miserable afternoon listening to Kid A with a skinny, pale drug dealer with a frizzy afro and pencil-thin goatee dissect the lyrics for me in unnecessary detail, explaining the (probably nonexistent) allusions to the Great Gazoo and Highlander. What about Alexi Murdoch’s newest album, Towards the Sun? It might be great for all I know, but I can’t hear his voice without remembering “Orange Sky,” which makes me think of Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. and every other teen TV drama he sold that song to, and now I have a Pavlovian response to his music. His delicate mid-range tenor makes me imagine teenagers with flawless skin kissing each other in rainstorms.

It happened to me again recently, when I received a promotional copy of the newest album by the New York Dolls, Dancing Backwards in High Heels. It took me almost a month before I finally mustered enough enthusiasm to give it a listen. I wanted to care, I really did. The advance buzz had been mostly positive, occasionally glowing. And any band that still exists only because of Morrissey’s shameless begging can’t be all bad. But for me, the New York Dolls will always be Buster Poindexter’s punk image makeover band.

I can still vividly recall the first time I heard the New York Dolls’ eponymous debut. It was in 1989, in the college dorm room of a girl with purple dreadlocks. I wanted very badly to sleep with her, which may explain why I agreed to listen to a band fronted by a guy who, to the best of my knowledge, hit his artistic peak with the 1987 single “Hot Hot Hot.” I was caught off guard by “Personality Crisis,” recorded almost two decades earlier, which was admittedly catchy as hell. But I couldn’t shake the mental image of Poindexter’s pompadour, or that album cover of him in a tuxedo, sipping a martini with an expression of “you caught me” delight. You don’t get to pick a new identity unless you’re David Bowie. He can be Ziggy Stardust one day and then the Thin White Duke the next, because both of those stage personas are fucking awesome. But he’s the exception that makes the rule. Everybody else is subject to the rock ‘n’ roll law of diminishing returns. It’s why Mike Nesmith had such a hard time. You start your career as a Monkee, there’s nowhere to go but down.

“You know what Morrissey said,” the purple dreadlocked girl told me somewhere around the middle of side one. “Mick Jagger stole all his dance moves from David Johansen.”

As much as I wanted to see her naked, those beautiful lavender locks cascading over my chest or slapping me hard across the face like tiny fists made out of matted hair, I just couldn’t let that ridiculous logic go unanswered. “How can you say that?” I asked, trying not to scowl. “It makes no sense. It’s like saying Muddy Waters learned how to play the blues from George Thorogood.”

We argued through the rest of the record, and by the final crashing notes of “Jet Boy,” it had became painfully obvious that we weren’t in any way musically compatible. “I guess there’s no point in asking if you’re a fan of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers,” she said with an eye roll.

“Tom Petty’s band?” I asked, incredulous. “Well, I guess that explains the Traveling Wilburys. Poor guy can’t keep a band.”

I did not get laid that night.

Twenty-plus years later, listening to the New York Dolls’ latest album, I felt a strange mix of emotions. I wouldn’t call it regret. It’s not like I was realizing just how wrong I’d been about Poindexter, and how even a modicum of knowledge about New York City punk history might have meant the different between another self-gratifying college night and some insane pseudo-Rastafarian sex. Because you can’t be wrong about musical first impressions. But you can change your mind. It’s like going to a high school reunion and the person you thought was dorky and aggressively uncool during your youth is suddenly badass. They may not be doing anything differently — they’ve got the same embarrassing fashion sense and awkward social skills — but somehow, with the addition of a few wrinkles and gray hairs, they just seem more interesting than they were back in high school.

When I listened to Johansen on the new Dolls’ album, scat-singing lyrics like “Da dom dom dip do do da dippy dom dom,” I wasn’t reminded of Buster Poindexter. Instead, it made me think of his post-Poindexter (actually pre-Poindexter) band, where he’d tried to overhaul his “Zat You, Santa Claus” mainstream image with a punk facelift. Except, of course, just the reverse was true, and I’d discovered his musical evolutions in the wrong order. In my distorted chronology, Buster Poindexter’s transformation to David Johansen seemed so disingenuous and hack at the time. But with a few decades under his belt and his voice sounding haggard and dangerous, I kinda believed his punk authenticity. I was hearing the Dolls as most people heard them during the ’70s. It just took me a little longer to get there.

I felt like I should give the old Dolls another chance. I went to the nearest used record store to find their old LPs — downloading their songs from iTunes seemed like cheating — and also, I’ve always loved the comforting mildewy smell of a used record store. It’d been a few years since I’d been in an actual record store, and I was like a prepubescent kid lost in a shopping mall. I couldn’t find the New York Dolls to save my life. And I didn’t want to ask, because then I risked becoming the musically unhip dad character in a Nick Hornby novel. So I searched and searched. Was it in the Punk section? Nope. Alternative Rock? Not so much. Plain ol’ Rock? Not even close. I finally found them in Indie Rock, which seems like an unnecessary splinter category from Alternative (not that I’d ever bring this to management’s attention). In their Doll’s selection, they only had a “Millennium Collection” greatest hits, which was far too depressing to buy. I was hoping for the self-titled debut or Too Much Too Soon or even one of those Paris live albums. But a “Millennium Collection”? Unless I’m a teenager looking for a quick primer in Joe Cocker or Supertramp, there’s just no way.

However, while flipping through the N’s, I did discover that Mike Nesmith had a lot more albums than I gave him credit for. And some of them have moderately funny titles. Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash? I don’t know what that means either, but for $2.99 on vinyl, I had to buy it. So who knows, maybe there is life after the Monkees after all.

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