A Dangerous Evening with The New York Dolls

On a Friday evening in November, 2006, my wife and I went to Berbati's Pan, a small club in the Old Town of Portland, Oregon, to see a performance by The New York Dolls. Only two of the musicians who were members of The New York Dolls during the prime years of the band in the 1970s, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, are still alive and active, the others (Johnny Thunders, Arthur "Killer" Kane, Billy Murcia, Jerry Nolan) all having been claimed by drug overdoses and illness. (Being a member of The New York Dolls apparently was a hazardous undertaking.)

I am old enough to remember when the boys in The New York Dolls were young and infamous. In the days of their flighty youth, they were known as much for their splashy makeup, feminine apparel, and devil-may-care manner as for the sound of their primitive music. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain were no longer youthful or comely when I saw them perform in Portland, and they certainly seemed much less infamous than they had when The New York Dolls made their first appearance in 1971, but they continue to hold membership in one of the greatest bands in the history of rock'n'roll.

The New York Dolls released their first album, New York Dolls, on Mercury Records in 1973, and quickly began to create a stir with "Personality Crisis," "Looking for a Kiss," "Trash," "Bad Girl," "Pills," and other seedy songs that impudently celebrated the vulgar side of rock'n'roll. Their second album, Too Much Too Soon, released in 1974, heartily continued in the same direction, but hard living and a lack of wider acceptance were beginning to undermine them, and they came to an end in 1977. Three decades later, The New York Dolls triumphed over their apparent fate and returned with a new album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and went on tour again.

In 2006, Berbati's Pan was filled with oppressive heat and sweaty bodies, as is generally the case in small nightclubs, and most of those in attendance, excepting my wife and me, were thoroughly steeped in alcohol. When the five Dolls (the two survivors of the first lineup, along with three new members) finally saw fit to show themselves, tumbling onto the stage at half past midnight, they charged straight into "Looking for a Kiss." David Johansen, the singer with the band and in his fifties, was as thin and as loose-limbed as ever. Sylvain Sylvain, chopping away at the strings of a black guitar, was fuller at the waist than his younger self, but still looked raffish. It was rock'n'roll as it should be: loud, rough, and exciting.

After the band had played several songs, I got into a brief dispute with a young man whose violent attempt to "dance" was creating a disturbance and endangering the safety of my lovely wife. When I reached over and grasped him by the collar of his shirt, soberly requesting that he stop his unruly behavior at once, he instantly responded by punching me on the left side of my face. Shortly thereafter, much to my surprise and dismay, a couple of bouncers took firm hold of me and dragged me out of the club, along with the young man who had assaulted me. My wife, perplexed and fearful, trailed closely behind and followed us out the door.

Moments later, outside on the sidewalk in front of the club, the doltish bouncers failed to take any notice of either my black eye or the swollen bruise on my left cheek, and were unmoved by the ardent protestations that I attempted to offer. No matter what I said in my own defense (and no matter how vehemently I said it), they would not allow me back inside to see the remainder of the show. The young man who had started the trouble, and who bore no mark of any kind, stood off to one side, continuing to vent his irrational anger and threatening to cause further injury to me.

My wife and I were then left with no apparent choice but to accept an early conclusion to our evening. As we departed from the club and glumly walked away, into the gloom of the bitterly cold night, we could hear the forthright noise of The New York Dolls, insolently ripping through another song. It had not been a particularly happy experience for us, but it certainly had been an experience that we would not soon forget. I offer these words as the moral of my sad tale: rock'n'roll can be randomly glorious, or gloriously random, but it is not always fair.