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Only a few years ago, singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain could not have guessed that their band, the New York Dolls, would be an active concern when its 40th anniversary rolled around.
The Dolls' first incarnation, after all, had embodied a quick-burn ethos that made the group a rock-and-roll legend. The band was together for a little more than five years, releasing two albums and setting trends with its glammy look and punky attitude. It was brought down by internal strife and drug addictions, however, and in 1976 the Dolls broke up.
That seemed to be it until 2004, when former Smiths frontman Steven Patrick Morrissey persuaded Johansen and Sylvain to regroup for the Meltdown Festival in England. Afterward, the two surviving original members of the Dolls decided to keep the group together. Three more studio albums followed, including the new "Dancing Backward in High Heels," as well as a couple of live albums.
The Dolls' celebrated past has, in short, morphed into a creditable present.
"We never plan anything," says Sylvain, 60, whose real name is Syl Mizrahi. "We really don't. ... We never planned to stay apart from each other for so many years and, when we first got back together, we thought the whole thing was only going to last a week or two.
"I think you've got to do it because you have to do it," he says. "If I was really rich, I would still be doing this. And if I wasn't, then I'd still be doing it too. You've got to have that attitude of, ‘Man, I've got to do this or I'm going to die.'"
Johansen, 61, says that he's been pleased with the Dolls' trajectory in the past seven years.
"Everybody in the band is really bringing it and playing their best," he says, "and people out there are really getting into it. The main thing is to be sensible about this and not be hasty. We want to keep having fun with it."
This is not the Dolls of the 1970s, of course. Four early members have died: original drummer Billy Murcia of an overdose during a European tour in 1975, guitarist Johnny Thunders of an overdose in 1991, second drummer Jerry Nolan of a stroke in 1991, and bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane from leukemia in 2005.
Johansen understands those who dismiss the current band as the Dolls in name only.
"I think they're totally entitled to that position," he says. "But we were out in L.A. at one point, and [Blondie drummer] Clem Burke was there, and he said to me, ‘Man, David, it's so great, the Dolls. This is the Dolls!' I started thinking, you know, who am I to fight it?"
The New York Dolls were founded in 1971 out of the founders' distaste for progressive rock and the unwieldy jams of the psychedelic era.
"The whole scene was, like, stadium rock," Sylvain recalls. "The songs were like operas. No more cool, three-chord blues songs with sexy little riffs, the stuff we really liked. So we decided we should strip it down and start all over again."
The Dolls had its own sound and its own look. The members sported glammy, drag-style fashions, including some seriously teased hair, and played songs — "Looking for a Kiss" (1973), "Personality Crisis" (1973)," Puss 'n' Boots" (1974) — that drew on 1950s rock and 1960s pop.
It was largely ignored by the masses. Neither "New York Dolls" (1973) nor "Too Much Too Soon" (1974) charted. Nonetheless, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, it was an influential group "setting the stage for the punk movement that followed five years later."
Its influence also touched heavy metal, according to Tommy Lee of Motley Crue, who will be touring with the Dolls this summer.
"When we were growing up, they were in that handful of early inspirations," Lee says in a separate interview. "We were checking out the Dolls, looking at their style, and listening to their music, and were really inspired and influenced by them."
Johansen still feels ambivalent about the amount of attention paid to the group's look.
"When the Dolls came out, I thought we were very musical, and actually more musical than most," he says. "We used to get great reviews for making sophisticated music. But I think people got away from that over the years. The party line in the history books or whatever became ‘The Dolls — they were trashy, flashy. They were junkies. They sounded like a train wreck.'
"I think that party line kind of seeped into my consciousness too," the singer admits. "So for a lot of years I felt like, ‘I can't be bothered with that anymore. That was my wayward adolescence,' or something. Then, when we came back, I started deconstructing these songs and realized the (stuff) is really musical and really good and unique.
"So that's where I'm at about it now."