Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
Performed by the New York Dolls and written by David Johansen and Johnny Thunders of the Dolls. Click here for a good live version that captures not only the song, but how the Dolls looked and acted. Click here for a recording from the Midnight Special television show. You can listen here to a version form the recent reincarnation of the Dolls. Sonic Youth gives it a go here.
I caught the movie Get Him to the Greek Last Night (bawdy, funny and worth the ticket) which concerns the efforts of a well-meaning music lackey trying to get a drug-addled, alcohol-soaked rock star whose made excess a lifestyle from London to Los Angeles. Along the way, the duo finds themselves coming to New York for a TV interview. As they enter the City, the film runs through a montage of rock clubs, hip scenes and icons all played over a soundtrack of the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” In that instant, it becomes clearer than ever that “Personality Crisis” is a perfect New York Song.
No one song can capture all of the essence of New York City, but this rave distills the crazy energy that careens from reckless parties to scary encounters all with a wide-eyed enthusiasm. Robert Christgau nails the Dolls and this song when he writes, “It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do.”
They Dolls invented glam rock and cut a path the New York punk groups could follow and widen, boys tottering on towering heels swapping lipstick and mascara backstage and ready to fight anyone who got in their way. This song sounds like a 4 a.m. street party that the cops can’t shut down. John Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain wield guitars like flame throwers; David Johansen struts, stutters, screeches, howls and croons and Jerry Nolan’s breakneck drumming keeps its all from spinning out of control. Sure, you can hear the Stones in there – what hard rocking band didn’t take off from the Stones? – and you can hear some Mark Bolan and the Stooges, but there’s also dashes of the girl groups these boys loved so much, just listen to their efforts to harmonize in the chorus. Is it fair to say that had the Dolls not sprung up in the early 70’s, we wouldn’t have had a Ramones and Blondie in the late 70’s?
The song opens with Nolan’s slamming cymbals, Thunders crashing guitar, a run along the keyboards and Johansen’s screaming, “Yeah, yeah, yeah/No, no, no” This ride is not for the weak of heart. No story song, the lyrics sound more like ejaculations from a mad tour that could only happen in New York. The boys can play well-enough, but they work the song, so when Johansen punches out the word “Personality,” Nolan matches with perfect with his drum blasts.
All about that Personality Crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got
(That’s why they talk about Personality)
At one point, Johansen sings, “Wanna be someone who cow wow wows,” and somehow he gets you to know just what he means. The party never ends and things keep happening:
And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon
change on into the wolfman howlin at the moon hooowww
You may have made out with her in a corner last night just before the mirror ball exploded.
When it sure got to be a shame when you start to scream and shout
You got to contradict all those times you were butterflyin about
(You were butterflyin)
Sometimes the song veers into more noise than music, but it’s rock’n roll and they make it work, grunts, whistles, crazed guitars and all.
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The Dolls formed in 1971 and stood out for their dress, energy and ability to rock and roll. They didn’t last long – hard to keep all those personalities and energy contained – to say nothing of what drugs will do to a band. Johnny Thunders died of an overdose in 1991 and a stroke took Jerry Nolan shortly thereafter. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain have reformed the group and still perform from time to time. You can check their website for tour dates and info.
Johansen went onto to forge a solo career under several guises. His early solo work included songs like “Donna” and “Frenchette.” He later formed the campy, Latin-blues dance band working as Buster Poindexter and his Banshees of Blue, a cult favorite during the early 1980s. They would regularly play gigs at Tramps that went all night and attracted the sorts of folks you never seemed to see in the daylight. Great fun. Buster Poindexter even had a hit with the song, “Hot, Hot, Hot,” which Johansen is still trying to live down. Over the past ten years, Johansen’s taken to playing roots and blues with the Harry Smiths. I like his version of “James Alley Blues” and he has great fun with the song, “Old Dog Blue.”