an interview w/ David Johansen aka Buster Poindexter (on the Cafe Carlye residency, NY Dolls status, Mitch Ryder & more)
interview by Jonathan Dick, photos by Michael Wilhoite
David Johansen wears enough hats that discerning between the art and the artist can prove to be a difficult task. It's an aesthetic that speaks both to his influence as a founding member/vocalist of seminal protopunk innovators The New York Dolls and what's been an uninhibited pursuit of his own artistic vision in a number of ways from various musical side projects to film roles. Johansen's Buster Poindexter persona that while primarily known for the late 80s hit "Hot Hot Hot," a song he's admitted to loathing, but nonetheless helped to propel the persona itself as well as establish his own versatility as an artist. This month sees the return of Buster Poindexter with a series of performances at the Café Carlyle from February 10-21 (tickets). We spoke to Johansen about the performances as well as his own history growing up surrounded by music and when listeners can expect to see The New York Dolls again.
BV: You're revisiting the Buster Poindexter persona again with the series of shows at the Café Carlyle. What was the motivation to do this now?
DJ: The Buster thing, the way it's gone down, I've been doing the New York Dolls for like eight years. We started out wanting to do one show, and then we played for eight years and making pretty records. I just decided to give that a break for a while and be home. Instead of New York being a place where you just keep your stuff, I decided to live here awhile, and to make a living. I decided to do a show that could only be played in New York.
Speaking of which you actually had a performance with the Arcade Fire there in Brooklyn. How did that come about?
Oh, they just called and asked if we'd come out there and do a number with them.
You've had an incredible amount of influence on fans other musicians throughout the years, but I'm wondering about your own story. What does your own journey look like? How have you evolved as an artist?
As an artist what you wanna do is inspire so that's good. As far as I'm concerned with what I do, there's several things I do. Say I'm doing a New York Dolls show - you wanna hear New York Dolls songs. Say if you come to a David Johansen show - you wanna hear the David Johansen repertoire. You know, the 'Funky But Chic' and things like that. Over the years, though, I've had lots of other interests in songs. I love so many different kinds of music. Just a lot of music. I'm constantly turned onto things that really speak to me. There's a lot of songs that I wanna sing, and what I have to do to do that is find the right milieu, so to speak. I did a couple of records as David Johansen and the Harry Smiths. We did a lot of fairly obscure folk blues kinda songs way back. The great thing about the Poindexter operation is that it's a conceit that I sort of created unconsciously. I was gonna do it once or something, and I just kept doing it because I liked it so much. I never really have a plan like oh, I'm gonna do this for a long time. Sometimes things turn out that way, though. The Poindexter thing, though, there's so many songs that I hear that I wanna sing, and there's really no place for me to sing them unless I'm making a special kind of show where this is a show where I'm gonna sing whatever I wanna sing, so people don't come expecting to hear preconceived ideas about what I'm gonna do. It's a great adjunct in my life because so many people I know who are musicians are not singers mostly because musicians can play in a lot of different bands and do lots of different kinds of music, but singers, a lot of them get stuck in their audience's expectation of what they're gonna do. When you get into that and what began as a kind of creative free expression of somebody's consciousness then it becomes almost like a trap. I know people who it's like punching a clock for them. For me, music is such a huge part of my life, and I have eclectic interests. I like to be able to have the opportunity to give voice to them.
There is that versatility with you and your career from the Dolls to Poindexter to film work to these Café Carlyle performances. It's almost like a pressure valve element given the different personas, etc. I think there's a kind of psychology to that dynamic.
Yes, absolutely yes. That's what it is. There's so much music that the masses are kinda trained to listen to, it's really difficult for them to accept far ranging repertoires from people.
Was there a beginning point to that eclecticism for you where you knew music was exactly what you had to do?
Yeah, probably. When I was a kid I had older brothers and sisters and also my parents were into music, so music was playing when I showed up. There was always a lot of music going on, so I didn't have to go out and find what was already there. But as a kid, you know, you start hearing things that really speak to you. There were songs that I heard when I was a kid that I used to love to sing and stuff like that. I would say like when I was about fourteen or so I started with my friends making bands and stuff like that, singing. We used to go to shows, and when I was a kid I think they were at the Paramount. A little before that during my brother's time they were at the Brooklyn Fox Theater which was in downtown Brooklyn, and they were called the Murray the K show. Murray the K was a disc jockey in New York who was quite a character, and he used to put on shows that would run for like ten days, and they would have an incredible amount of acts on them, and the shows would run continuously all day, so each show would run like six times a day. Bands and singers would come out and do essentially their current hit or if they had a lotta hits they'd maybe do a medley, but really nobody would be on the stage for more than five or seven minutes. I remember one show I went to when I was in my early teens that had a lot of great acts on it, and all of a sudden Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels comes out, and he just blew my mind, and I thought "Oh man, this is what I gotta do. This is it." I would say that was an epiphany there. I already had an interest in music, but I didn't have any idea that I was gonna continue doing it. I didn't have any idea about anything, really. When he came out, though, he was just such a dynamic performer, and his band was so great I thought "Wow! This is so wonderful! This is the greatest thing that could ever be!"
It's interesting to see the obvious changes that the music industry has undergone since then. Obviously that kind of performance or show like Murray the K would be unheard of now. How have you personally seen those changes occur? Are things just as conducive now for those dynamic artists as they were then, from your perspective?
I don't see why not. There was always a lot of pulp that the business would grind out, they'd play it on the radio, and people would buy it. Every once in a while somebody would come along who was really fantastic. There's certain kinds of people who are singers or musicians, and there's some that think like "Well, maybe I could be an accountant or a dentist, or maybe I'll be a musician," and they take a crack at being a musician, and they do it for a while and they have some success with it, but then their interest in it kind of wanes, and they go back to what they were essentially or originally created for. Then there's some people who it's really the thing that they wanna do, and through thick and thin they will continue to do it, because it gives them such artistic satisfaction on a personal level that whatever the market is doing at that particular moment doesn't really matter and isn't really a concern for them. I'm like one of those people. You know, people will say "Oh, the music industry" and stuff like that, but I have to say I don't even know what that is because what I do is like my own thing. It's not like I'm trying to fit into some kind of industry or some kind of pre-planned marketing strategy or whatever that is. I just do what I wanna do and it works out for me.
Well, that makes sense especially in light of the fact that the New York Dolls themselves were pretty much oblivious and ambivalent to what anyone thought or expected. In my mind, that specific dynamic has shifted now because social media and the Internet have made being apathetic about an audience damn near impossible.
I think what happens - and this is the way it's always been as far as the thing evolves - but there's always like a hundred things that always pretty much sound the same, and then someone comes along that really starts a fire, and then other people start saying "Well, maybe if I sound like that I could be a part of the fire," so they all try to sound like that, and then that fire kinda burns out, and then there's a hundred people doing that and it happens again. There's not that many people with ideas. When you're an artist you have your whole "I like this about that, and I like this about that, and I like the color of those shoes," and all these little bits of things that you dig. It's not like you're writing them down or anything. You're just noticing that you dig that. When you do something yourself you're really using, and subconsciously so, your own taste when it comes to what music you dig. It comes out in that way, and that's really what it is.
Specifically talking about the New York Dolls, David, it's been a few years since any shows. What's the status of the band as of now, and is there any hope for more music or shows in the future?
Well, we did this show for Morrissey, I can't remember what year it was, in London. I think it was maybe 2004 or something, and we thought that was all we were gonna do. Then out of that they made like two shows, and in the spring they were booking all the festivals in Europe for the summer, and a lot of those festivals asked us to play at them, so we played at those. We just kept getting gigs, so we decided "OK, let's make a record," and of course you know it's really kind of a drag to have to play the same songs over and over again, so we started making records and just kept on doing it. We went around the world like a lot of times for about eight or nine years. It's just good, and a lot of bands take breaks. It gets to a point where you wanna do it because it's fun again, but we'll get to that point. Right now I'm into this Buster show, and I think we're gonna record it and see what happens with that. Not that I think we're gonna have a big hit or anything, but I think if we make a record a lot more people will be aware of what we're doing. A lot of people have a misconception about Poindexter being just about "Hot! Hot! Hot!" which was kinda like a freak thing that happened where that song rose to the top on that album, and the rest of the album is really different. The people in New York realize that and get it, but other places that's as far as their thought process goes with it. Talking about nostalgia and stuff like that, I'm probably one of the least nostalgic people there is. I'm always creating stuff for the modern set (laughs).
The Café Carlyle shows are obviously going to hinge on the environment itself. Is that sort of intimate setting what you find most rewarding at this point in your career as an artist?
It's something that I really enjoy. When we first started Poindexter it was down at this place on 15th Street in Gramercy Park called Tramps which was just like a little bar with a backroom where they'd have like Big Joe Turner who would do a residency there and Charles Brown would do a residency there. On Monday, the bar was open but in the back room nothing was going on, and it was the only night of the week where they really didn't have anything going on back there, so I used to hang out there. I was on the road at the time with the David Johansen group, and I was listening to a lot of jump blues like Jimmy Liggins and music like that - the Central Avenue sound, so to speak. I decided I wanted to make a show so I could sing some of this music. I decided I was gonna do four Mondays in that room, and then it became a really hot new thing so we started doing the weekends and it just evolved from there. When we first started in that room, the vibe was really great and it was just in that little room. The thing about the Café Carlyle is it kinda reminds me of that vibe and the intimacy of it where you could just talk and muse on things and sing songs and people are listening, whereas where you're at a concert or an arena it's like "Our next song will be!" (laughs). But in a room like this it's more like "You know, I've been thinking," so it's really where you can talk from your heart and from the top of your head. It's a kind of entertainment. It's not really like anything. It's kind of like its own genre in a way.
The pictures accompanying this interview are from opening night of the Cafe Carlyle run. Get tickets to upcoming performances at Ticketweb.