Rock’N’Roll Still Has the Riffs

By Rob Patterson

A reader recently wrote to assert that “ideas for new music have run their course.” Perhaps. But I say to that: So what?

There are only so many notes in music. But that doesn’t mean that music can’t continue to be fresh, engaging and entertaining. The entire history of the music that I love the most — rock’n’roll — is the art of creative appropriation and reinvention of the same old saw. The basics were established early on: a succotash of blues, country, R&B and the folk song tradition. Yet as the music approaches its seventh decade, it can still take what may seem hoary elements and make them rock again and feel if not new than definitely fresh.

Case in point: The New York Dolls. If there ever were a rock’n’roll band destined to never return, much less return with panache, style and credibility, it was the Dolls. Their original run from 1971 to 1975 was as ill-starred as a musical career could be. Decadent, trashy, androgynous, outrageous and reputedly sloppy and not particularly musical in live performance, they were the darlings of a small coterie in downtown Manhattan, found at least a measure of success in Europe, and barely had any appreciable sales impact in America with their two albums.

Their first drummer died from alcohol and drug poisoning. Their lead guitarist, Johnny Thunders, a notorious drug abuser, died from a reported overdose in 1991, and second drummer Jerry Nolan passed away that same year from a stroke. They were all but a model for “live fast/die young,” and about as unlikely a group as ever to get together again.

Yet the impact the Dolls had was near nuclear. They all but single-handedly germinated the New York scene to follow that was ground zero for punk rock and new wave. Superstar bands like Kiss and Motley Crue tore pages from the Dolls book and made millions. Countless other acts cite them as an inspiration.

The three remaining members — singer David Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane — reunited at the request of one of their biggest fans, Morrisey, to play England’s Meltdown Festival, for which he was the curator. Not long after, Kane died of leukemia.

But the Dolls persisted with only Johansen and Sylvain remaining from the original line-up, joined by players who shared the band’s spirit like bassist Sami Yaffa from the band Hanoi Rocks, another act influenced by the Dolls. And lo and behold, they’ve become one of the finest rock’n’roll acts playing today.

They re-debuted with the album One Day It Will Please Us To Even Remember This, full of catchy tunes, propulsive rock and slightly edgy fun galore. This year’s follow-up, ’Cause I Sez So, proves its charms were no fluke.

And yep, there’s nothing new on either album. Like the Dolls of yore, they draw from Chuck Berry, the girl groups of the early 1960s, Brill Building pop songwriting, the Rolling Stones, classic R&B and a slightly bad-boy downtown Manhattan consciousness, to name a few strains within their sound. Yet it all still sounds fresh and vigorous, not just reminding me why, as a young teenager, I fell in love with rock’n’roll, but evoking that love again. And twice now in live performances, the revived Dolls have done that as well.

Meanwhile, time has proven that such songs from the Dolls’ first run as “Personality Crisis” and “Looking For A Kiss” are indeed rock classics. And to yet again prove that rock doesn’t need to be new to be worthy and notable, on their new album the band refashions their song “Trash” from a thrashing guitar-stung rave-up into a lilting slice of reggae. And it works, because music doesn’t have to be new, but instead just needs new, imaginative and energetic approaches applied to great songs.

The reader who wrote said, “perhaps you are not getting old,” which would make some of my younger music buff friends laugh, as they too often accuse me of being aged and jaded. That reader also notes how even if the Rolling Stones may still be touring and packing arenas and stadiums, they haven’t made an album worth a damn in some time (my words, not hers).

Again, I say: So what? When I saw them live some three years ago, they were better than I’d ever seen them, vigorous, tight and exciting. And even if their albums have long been lackluster, their offspring, the Dolls, are making albums that renew that same spirit.

Rock’n’roll and popular music doesn’t have to be new. It just has to be good. And there’s still much kick left in that old mule.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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