New York Dolls (Sylvain, second from left). Janet Planet asked me what I was doing in New York, and I said, “Well, I came here to see the Ramones and to check out the New York Dolls bit.”
A San Diegan by birth and by preference, Michael Page grew up during the ’50s and ’60s in Kearny Mesa, where he learned to play bass guitar. During his teens and early 20s, he joined the King Biscuit Blues Band and the Fly People. He formed a band called Ruby and the Snakes. While in L.A. with his girlfriend Lisa, he met Iggy Pop, and unbeknownst to Page, his girlfriend invited the rock star down to her house. Her house was the opulent Gagosian mansion, in which her father, a con artist, had installed his family. Page’s story continues below.
Sylvain used to say that the Dolls taught KISS how to light their cigarettes.
Right about then, one of the biggest things that ever happened to me, apart from meeting the King Biscuit Blues Band, happened. I lived in this little cottage on Bishops Lane. And the people that owned the property were the Ballards, a Hispanic family with roots in La Jolla. This girl Vickie Ballard lived next door to me and became a friend. She had a sister named Elizabeth, and I’d heard that she was an exotic, wild girl who lived in New York City. So I met Elizabeth one day when she came here from New York to stay with her sister.
Criminals (Michael Page, front center). Sylvain and I started a group called the Criminals. But we had all this Dolls heritage and stuff.
The minute I laid eyes on her, I thought, wow! Elizabeth was probably one of the most strikingly beautiful girls I’d ever seen in my life. The exotic thing. She was a New Yorker, and she was well-read. And she was from another planet that had nothing to do with San Diego. I was real hesitant about even approaching this girl, because she had an aura, and her vibes were something else.
Michael Page and Andy Warhol at CBGB. "We look like we’ve been friends for 20 years."
But I finally got to talk with her a little bit. And she saw what I was up to. She heard the music that I was playing and she said, “You know, I don’t know if you’re into advice, and I’m not into giving advice, but you don’t belong here. You’re wearing black fingernail polish. You’ve got dyed hair. You’ve got these tiger-tusk earrings.” See, this is the stuff that attracted my girlfriend to me. When my dad saw me in that getup one day, he pulled me aside and said, “You know, son, if I ever thought you were gay, I’d have taken you rabbit hunting. People get accidentally shot rabbit hunting and killed.”
Well, it was like, Dad, leave me alone. I’m not gay. It’s just that we’ve got a new culture thing going, and we explore. This is some stuff that we’re doing, and look at the chicks that it’s landing for me. But Elizabeth said that I didn’t belong here. She also said that I was way ahead in what I was doing musically. And finally, she said that if I was serious about making any kind of career in the arts that I should consider New York City.
She was involved with underground theater as an actress, and that was her deal. She had gotten into the Andy Warhol theater thing. But she really opened up doors for me when she said, “If you ever want to come and see what’s going on, here’s my address and phone number. New York is where bohemians, writers, and poets are all congregating now. There’s an explosion going on right now in New York that is beyond description. I can’t even explain what’s going on. But New York, right now, is turning into one of the art and culture centers of the world in a big way.”
She said, “There are bands that you haven’t even heard about, like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Television. And also this band called the New York Dolls.” And I said to her, “I kind of know about the New York Dolls a little bit. I’ve heard about these guys, and I’ve seen pictures of them.” And God, they looked freaky. They wore platform shoes, makeup, wild hair, and all that shit.
Well, it came to a head all at once. The whole face of rock and roll was going through another major change, and there was an explosion of groups that happened. We’re talking about Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and the New York Dolls. Then Max’s Kansas City, a restaurant and rock and roll club in New York, became popular, and everybody went there.
Before Max’s Kansas City, there was a place called the Mercer Art Center, which is where it all started. What happened was that a cauldron had been simmering in New York City for a while. You know, people don’t live in New York City because it’s a bitchin’-ass place to live. You move there for a particular reason. People moved to L.A. to try to get a record deal, but L.A. is surrounded with all this shiny jive, and nothing’s going to happen. No one that I know has ever signed a record deal in L.A. Unless someone reminds me of someone that I don’t know about, no one has ever come from L.A. down to San Diego and signed a band. Maybe blink got to it recently, but I’m talking about earlier San Diego bands.
I mean, there are bands that are from San Diego. The Cascades, with their song,“Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain.” They’re from San Diego. And the girl that did “Angel Baby.” She’s from here. Iron Butterfly. But that’s about it. San Diego has had a couple of things happen, but it’s not known for putting rock and roll people on the map.
Anyway, Elizabeth was established in New York and was living there with a guy named Michael Winsett, who was from La Jolla. Michael’s dad was a judge [Roger Ruffin], and his mom was a radical wild lady. They’d actually asked his father to step down from being a judge because he kept letting people go for marijuana and stuff. Michael’s dad was about as cool as you could get, and he eventually moved to San Francisco. I saw a picture of him once, where he had one arm around Bob Dylan and the other arm around Eldridge Cleaver. He was married to a lady named Bebe, and Bob Dylan wrote a song about her. And it was, like, holy wow! These people were at the roots of the real thing.
So my girlfriend invited Iggy down to La Jolla, and then I’m invited to New York. It all happened at the same time.
Then Iggy came down a second time. He’d never had any intentions of stealing my girlfriend away, but he didn’t know what the situation was. See, I was living at her place but had this other place in La Jolla so that we could give each other space. Her dad would come into town, and I would often vanish when he showed up. Then at one point, my girlfriend told me that she was falling in love with Iggy. And that wasn’t going to work, because Iggy, right then, had just gotten hooked up with David Bowie again. David, I think, had taken him to a mental place and checked him in. David was a key guy in Iggy’s life many times. And vice versa.
Anyway, David picked him up and swept him off. But it probably did Iggy incredible good to come down to La Jolla, because he got to dry out a bit in San Diego. He got to relax. He got away from all that L.A. stuff. He was really confused about everything that was going on, and my girlfriend probably gave him support. He read good books, lounged around the pool, got his health together, and people were kept away from him. That was her intention, and she did a really good job of it.
But they came down to my house, and it was, like, final. Earlier on, Lisa had convinced me not to worry about anything because our relationship was special and that we had something bigger than anything for me to be worried about. Iggy and I smoked a little pot, drank some beers, and listened to music. That was our deal. He listened to my singer, and he was, like,“Holy shit, that guy is probably one of the best singers I have ever heard in my entire life. What are you trying to do to make this thing go? Because you can’t do it just by copying Otis Redding’s songs.” Then he asked if I had any original music.
Iggy taught me a real important thing right then. I started to play some tapes that I had of our music, and I started making excuses for them. “Well, this was done in the garage in P.B. The mikes weren’t good.” Blah, blah, blah. And Iggy told me, “I don’t even want to listen to the tapes. You’re giving me so many excuses about why I shouldn’t listen to them that I don’t even want to hear them now.” He said,“If there’s one thing I can teach you, man, it’s never make excuses for how bad something sounds. You just told me how bad your band was, so I ain’t even going to listen to it.” And, wow, that was hard on me. But I caught him at another time, and he got to listen to it.
So we kind of became friends. Not supergood friends, because we’ve still got that thing with Lisa, and I’m jealous. But he is Iggy Pop. And the stuff that came out of his mouth. I never knew that he was an intelligent guy. I thought that because he did songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” He came from another thing that had nothing to do with the blues, you know. Iggy was doing “Sister Midnight” and songs like that then, because he brought down a tape that he had played for my girlfriend which I hadn’t heard before. It was something he and David Bowie were doing. Another song on it was called “Lust for Life.”
So this stuff happens all at once. Then, kaboom! The government hears that we’re living in the Gagosian mansion after we’d put them off for a long time. We had Time magazine camped out on our doorstep, and we’re being thrown out of the place. When the sheriff ’s department came with an eviction notice, Time magazine was out there, and 60 Minutes. And, of course, I’m the one that they’re interviewing because I’m the only one that shows his face to ask, “Please, guys. You’re standing in front of the cameras, and we’re going to call the police.” Then the guys from the sheriff ’s department said, “We are the police.” Then I get this question,“And how do you feel about having to move out of the house?” And I don’t know what the hell’s going on. But the government learned that we were living there after we’d been putting them off for a long time.
So Lisa and I and her family moved out of the Gagosian mansion and into Rancho Santa Fe. Now, Lisa’s family would have been blackballed from Rancho Santa Fe. Everyone knew who they were because they were on the front page of the newspapers. So I went in and leased a house in Rancho Santa Fe in my own name and paid with thousand-dollar bills — in cash — and we all moved in. No one was going to lease them a house after they had been thrown out of a house for fraudulent deals, right? I could rent the house because they didn’t know me in Rancho Santa Fe. Actually, I was being used like this all the time that I was living in the Gagosian mansion. I would deliver documents, fly in a plane, go to Chicago, and no one knew me, so it was okay. Well, we moved to Rancho Santa Fe, bought some horses, and got it all set up, and we were doing that thing.
The Rancho Santa Fe housing association found out that the clan had moved into a house under false pretenses, and they threw us out. And that’s when the Preston Fleets offered me a job. I’m living in Rancho Santa Fe anyway, so I just move in with the Fleets. Lisa told me not to worry, that she was going with her mom and dad to rent a place in Pacific Beach. And so they ended up moving there.
So I’m working for Preston Fleet and teaching tennis to the Fleets. But now I’ve got a broken heart. And this girl Elizabeth had planted a seed in my mind about going to New York. Well, I went to Mr. Fleet and told him that I needed to go. I was doing well financially. Mr. Fleet had given me a Mercedes, and I’ve got a Bentley. I have money. I’m teaching tennis. But I’ve got to go explore. I’ve got this thing burning, and I’ve got to see what the hell is going on in New York.
I had a meeting with Mr. Fleet. He tried to keep me with the family and offered me a position with Fotomat, which he owned, so that I would stay there and help his son. I’d started establishing a relationship with his son, and it was difficult for me to leave that situation.
Mr. Fleet told me that what I was planning wasn’t the smartest thing that he’d heard of. Mrs. Fleet was one of the coolest people on the planet. She pulled me aside one day and said,“You know what? I’m only going to give you one piece of advice.
“First of all, go for it, if that’s what you want to do. I know my husband is trying to keep you here, you know, but you’re a lovely young man, and I really love you a lot. The only advice I’m going to give you is to never, never lose that sense of humor that you have, because it’s one of your best gifts. Your sense of humor is going to keep you afloat. But go for it.” She was such a sweet lady, and I loved her to death for that.
So I looked in the San Diego Reader, and they had some ads labeled “Rides.” I found a hippie who was going from San Diego State to Connecticut and wanted someone to share gas expenses with him. And it was, like, I had to put this together now. I’d saved up whatever finances I had. I don’t remember where I went for the last few days that I was in town. I made arrangements for the ride. I moved back to San Diego for a little bit from Rancho Santa Fe. I think I stayed with my parents for a short time.
Of course, my friends were really concerned about me. The ones that really cared about me were saying, “Mike, you know, this is insane. You’re going just because this girl said that all this is going on in New York City? You know what? You can’t surf in New York. What do you know? All you know is surfing and the blues.” And I thought, well, that’s what you know about me. You don’t know me, man. I don’t surf that much anymore. That’s not a big, huge thing in my life.
Well, I’d just finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. You want to talk about timing. I’d just finished On the Road and another book called Siddhartha. And right about then, I was gone, baby. There was nothing that could hold me here.
So I got the ride. I called up this guy, and boy, oh boy, we had nothing in common. It was a guy and a girl. He had a good-running car, and we were splitting gas expenses. This girl had a little bag of pot, and, boy, as soon as he found out that she had it... After we hit the outskirts of San Diego and were going up over the mountain, she said something about taking a break. And we pulled over to the side of the road, and he went through all the bags, saying,“I want everything out of here. I’m making this trip, and it will be drug-free.” And I said,“Wait a minute. You’ve got sandals on, and you’ve got a bumper sticker that has some hippie thing on it.” It’s like, boy. And that saved the girl, because she wasn’t going to be able to make the trip without taking the pot. We just drove straight through. He drove, she drove, and I drove. I don’t recall even stopping at a hotel. We just went. And I’d never done anything like that before in my life.
I just wanted to get out of San Diego and get to New York. Up until then, I’d never really left San Diego. I’d been to San Francisco, and I’d been to Arizona. Mexico. And that’s it. I’d never been anywhere in my life. But there was so much open road in Nebraska, and the roads all seemed to be the same after a while. And we’re not being tourists. We’re making time.
So we cut across the shortest route all the way to Connecticut. He dropped me off in Connecticut, and I remember that I’d brought the Kerouac book and Siddhartha with me. I had a banged-up beater acoustic guitar, a small suitcase, and a couple hundred bucks. What was going on in my mind I have no idea. And if I’d ever stopped to think about what I was doing, I probably would have never made it.
I had a roommate in La Jolla, a guy who came from Connecticut. And he had a friend who came from Connecticut one time to stay with us in La Jolla for a week or so. And when he was leaving, he said, “If I can ever reciprocate, let me know.” So I took him up on it. I ended up staying for a few days at his place in Connecticut. And I met a couple of guys with leather jackets and high-topped black sneakers, which were now happening, of course.
And they’re going to ride in to CBGB, a restaurant in the Bowery in New York City, to see the Ramones. And it’s, like, well, bingo! But it rained that night, and they called me and said,“We don’t drive into New York City in the rain. People drive like maniacs then, and we’re not going.” I said, “ Well, I’m going. How far is New York City?” They said, “Well, there’s a train station here.We can take you to the train station and you can get into Manhattan.” And so I did. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to see the Ramones.
I jumped on the train, and they’re looking at me, like, “Dude, you’re nuts. I mean, you’ve never been out of San Diego, and you don’t even know your way around here.” I said, “Just get me on the train that’s pointed towards New York City, and I won’t get off until I know that I’m there.”
Well, I arrive at Grand Central Station, and it’s my first dose of New York. It was nighttime. I’d taken the train in, so I hadn’t gotten to see anything yet, and I didn’t know where I was. The train stopped and I still can’t see anything. It went from basically underground to I don’t know what. It was just like any busy, huge terminal, like I’d never been in before.
The girl at Information didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked where CBGB was. Then I asked her, well, how do I get to the Bowery? I didn’t know that the Bowery was considered to be desolation row. And she said,“I don’t know where CBGB is, and definitely I don’t think you want to go to the Bowery. Do you have relatives in the Bowery?”
It was like, God, eventually, I hope I do. So I said,“Then which way is Greenwich Village?” She said, “That I can help you with. Get on the E train, and get off at Greenwich Village.”
I got down to Greenwich Village, and I was there. But it was nighttime, and I couldn’t see much of what was around me. I was scared, and I was just thinking, did I do the right thing?
So I called Elizabeth. Thank God she was home. And I said,“Hey, this is Mike Page.” And she said, “Oh, my God. Well, that’s really cool. What’s it like in San Diego?”And I said,“I’m not in San Diego. I’m downstairs.”And she said,“Downstairs from where?” I said, “I’m here.” “You’re here where?”“I’m in Greenwich Village.” “Oh, my God!”
I said, “Well, remember you said...” And she said, “Yeah, but, you know...” She hadn’t expected me to do it. Then she said, “Well, hold on. I’ll be right down.” I told her where I was and so she came down. I was at a phone booth. There were a lot of people around, and I was scared. So she came down and got me, and she lightened up immediately when she saw me. She said, “Oh, my God. You really made it .” And then she said, “Jeez, now we’ve got to figure out what to do.” And I was, like, What to do? I thought you said I could stay with you.” She said, “Well, I live with my boyfriend and my son.”
So we went upstairs to her place, and I met Michael Winsett. And it was like, holy shit, this guy was for real. He was one of those really well-read guys who was involved in underground theater in New York City. Well-connected and the whole deal. And he’s, like, “Wow, so you’re here. Now what?”
I told them I didn’t know what to do and that I was scared. But Michael didn’t say, like, Take your things off, relax, and settle down here. So I said,“Well, I’m here to see the Ramones play at CBGB.” And he told me, “Well, you’re probably too late for that.” I don’t remember what the occasion was. But whatever happened, he then said, “You know, you can see the Ramones anytime. Patti’s having a party tonight.” And I said, “Patti who?”“Patti Smith.” So, I said,“Well, who’s Patti Smith, and what’s going on with her?” I got into a Patti Smith party the first night I was there. She was the poet and singer who was on her way to becoming a big deal.
We go to the party, and later Michael said, “Well, we’ve got to figure out what to do with you.” And I said, “Well, I was kind of hoping that I could stay on the couch or something.” And he said , “No, that’s not really going to work. This is, like, my family and stuff.”And I said, “Well, is there some kind of hotel around here someplace that’s really cheap?” And he said, “You’ve got money?” And I said, “Oh, I have a little bit of money, yeah.”He said,“Do you have $20?” “Yeah.” And he said, “Give it to me and you can stay on the couch.” And I said, “Cool.” I didn’t know that he ran down to the Lower East Side later and scored a couple of bags of dope. I didn’t even know what dope was, or whatever. But it was just cool, that this was going to get me in somewhere.
So we goofed around, and I ended up spending the night there. But I don’t even recall going to bed. I mean, we stayed out all night long. I think Elizabeth got a sitter for her son Damien. They introduced me to Greenwich Village by night, and I was looking around, trying to take it all in. The next thing, night turned to day, and it was, like, oh my God! This is where we are. As soon as the sun came up and I saw those buildings and saw where we were, I was amazed. I had met all these people, and I was kind of tired and disoriented and everything, but it was, like, oh my God, I’m here!
I don’t remember very much about that first night. We got a little bit of sleep, then woke up at some point and hit the streets. Michael asked if I played anything, and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got this guitar.” And I showed him what I played, and he said, “Holy shit, man. Do you have any more money?” And I said, “No, I didn’t bring much .” He said, "Well, I can’t believe you didn’t bring any money with you. That isn’t smart. Well, we can make money.”
So we started becoming friends a little bit. And I said, “How do we make money? ” He said, “Well, you have your guitar. Let’s do it.” So Elizabeth and Mike and I went down with our guitars. They lived right in the center of Greenwich Village, at Prince Street and Sullivan, right in the area where they filmed the movie Mean Streets. And we stood on the street corner and did Bob Dylan songs. And pretty soon, we had $20 in the hat, enough to buy us smokes, beers, and a couple of slices of pizza. And Elizabeth was singing. She had a god-awful voice, but she just looked so insane that it didn’t matter. She’s banging on a tambourine and singing as loud as she can.
Michael knew the words to all the Bob Dylan songs, which I didn’t know. So I just faked along with them. And here we are. My second day in New York City. I’m hanging with some bohemians in Greenwich Village. And we’re making money doing music. This is easy. And Michael and Elizabeth had this happy-go-lucky, don’t-worry-about-a-thing attitude.
One thing led to another, and I’m kind of fuzzy about what happened, but they made me a little bit more comfortable about staying there, and I offered to help out a bit. Elizabeth’s son Damien was doing commercials, and they asked if I could escort him to Madison Avenue while he auditioned for commercials. It would be help that they could almost pay me for. And it’s, like,“Yeah, if I only knew where I was and how to get places.”“Well, you just take the subway.”“What’s a subway? I’ve never been on a subway.” But it’s all streets and avenues.
Michael was involved in underground theater, and right off the bat, I meet Divine. And I had no idea who Divine was. But that day, Divine was dressed as his man-figure. Now, I don’t know Divine from John Waters. But I started hanging out with Mike a bit, and he was involved in the Theatre of the Ridiculous, the La MaMa Theater, and the Truck and Warehouse. These are all institutions that were happening at that time.
Elizabeth was an actress and just knew all these people. And she was so glamorous. She was such a beautiful entity, who just exploded energy.
But I couldn’t put my finger on what she did, you know? She wanted to sing, and she was not really a singer. Anyway, it didn’t matter. They just took me into their little thing. They lived on the third floor of a Greenwich Village walk-up, and it was real bohemian. People lived above and below them and all over everywhere.
There were a couple of key things that happened around this time. One day, I took a walk around the block, and there was an old lady dressed all in black. A real old lady. And she was sweeping the front of her steps. I asked her if I could take the broom and help her sweep. At first, she thought I was there to mug her or something. She didn’t know what the hell was going on, because people in New York didn’t do that, I guess. But I thought this lady was too old to be sweeping, so I helped her. Well, word got out. There was a don they had there, like in the mob. I was in an Italian neighborhood, and a real don watched out for the whole neighborhood. He was an old don, but he was the real thing.
So he was watching out for the neighborhood. And this was his wife that I did the sweeping for. So the next thing, she’s, like, “You know that new boy...” Because everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood.“That new boy from California. He’s a nice boy.”And that did it. I was accepted into the Italian community of Little Italy.
The same way that I swept this old lady’s place, I saw a girl that was out sweeping the front of this antique shop one day. She’d seen me on the street a couple of times already. So I offered to take the broom from her and sweep up the front. Then she asked me, “What’s your story? Who are you and what are you doing here?” I told her what was happening. And she said,“Well, gee, do you have a job or anything?” “No, I don’t.” “Would you like a job?” I said, “Doing what?” And she said, “I have an antique store here, and it’s a mess inside. I have all these collectibles and clothes and stuff. I have cats, and the cats are peeing. I need somebody to organize it, and you’re offering to sweep and clean up. Do you think you can handle something like that? You can live in my basement, and I’ll give you a small salary.” And it’s, like, bingo. There it was. Real bohemian digs straight out of Mean Streets.
Another thing that happened around this time was that Mike realized he had to go back to San Francisco, and Damien was to go along. At that time, Mike was involved in a couple of different plays. He asked me if I wanted to be involved in a play he was doing called Cars and Guitars. And I said, “Duh. That’s what I do. Cars and guitars. Those are my two interests.” He needed to know if I could help him with some of the music that was happening for the play, and I said, “I think I can do that.” Unbelievable!
Anyway, Mike tells me that he’s got to go back to San Francisco. I think he was looking for financing for some of the plays that he was doing, or he was going back to see his parents. Whatever. But he said, “You know what, why don’t you go back to San Francisco with me? And maybe you can work on this other play, too, called Short Butt Suite. It’s about six prostitutes.” He needed six different songs for the six prostitutes in the play. One prostitute was a runaway, and I could do that. One prostitute was a glamour girl, and I could do that. One was a black soul girl. And I could do that.
So we hop in a driveaway car and leave New York. Just before we leave, Mike asks the drive-away people, “Is it okay if we go by way of New Orleans?” And they said, “Absolutely not. You’re limited to exactly 2853 miles,” or whatever it was. “And you’re allowed seven days to drive the car to San Francisco.” See, we weren’t being paid anything and we paid for the gas. But by doing so, we got a free car. So, of course, right after we got out of New York, we headed down to New Orleans. Mike disconnected the odometer someplace down south. And he was the best guy in the world that I could make a trip with, and Elizabeth’s beautiful little boy Damien was with us.
The big deal was that Mike was one of the most well-read guys, and he knew everything about the theater and music. I’d never been around somebody that was so well-read about the arts and everything. He was a likable, highly intelligent guy. Just mind-boggling.
So we get down to New Orleans. I look up an old girlfriend of mine who’s from San Diego. We eat mushrooms while singing the Delta blues with our feet in the Mississippi. I think back to the book On the Road and realize, well, I’m doing it. I’m doing the whole thing. It seems like I continually act out books I’ve read. First it’s Huckleberry Finn. Then it’s On the Road. I’ve been told I should be writing books and that I should write a book about the stuff that I’ve done. But that’d seem like I would be closing a door on it, and it’s just kind of starting.
Down in New Orleans, the car broke down, and, of course, we had a Toyota. The mechanics laughed at it and said, “A Toyota. It’s not a Ford, and we’re not going to be able to fix it.” But somehow they got it fixed. We hooked up the odometer again, drove the car, made it all the way to San Francisco. And I’ll never forget it. I was playing the guitar all the time. We’re in New Orleans, so we do New Orleans songs. We’re in Texas, so we do Texas songs. I didn’t have a care in the world.
We get to San Francisco, and the funny thing is, we end up driving 500 miles less than what the actual distance is, because the odometer was disconnected. When we dropped the car off at the owner’s place, they were happy because the car was waxed and cleaned. And then we went to Mike’s parents’ place. The judge and Bebe. They lived in the Presidio District of San Francisco, and they had an extra room in the attic. And they said, “If you guys want to stay here for a bit and work on your play, it’s okay. We know that you get high and all that stuff. But as long as you’re doing work up there, that’s the important thing.” But Michael ended up getting loaded on dope more often than not.
So that was my introduction to creative work. We overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, with all the cotton-candy fog and stuff. It was beautiful, just beautiful. And this family was the most bizarre family that I’d ever met in my life. By this time, the judge is a corporate lawyer. He would come home from work, and he had this little ritual — cognac and classical music. And talk about being well-read and intellectual.
The judge’s father was a theater critic in Paris and New York, and he worked for the largest newspapers in the world. And he was a dandy. The judge showed us pictures of when his father was in Paris, with the top hat and the gloves and the cane. And he spoke all these different languages.
Mike started doing a bit of dope, and he was drinking more than I was. He was one of those guys whose health wasn’t going to cut him much slack. He was one of many gifted, talented artists that suffered from indulgence and didn’t know moderation. But I knew what that was like, because I’m one of those people who can’t spell moderation also.
So we’re in San Francisco. We knock out the plays and fly back to New York City. Now we’ve got a new hot play going. We had a meeting about the play and invited all the potential cast members. Michael sat everyone down to give a brief rundown of the play, when the dope kicked in. He began nodding in and out and couldn’t finish a complete sentence. I couldn’t believe it, and Liz was shocked. Everyone was. One by one they departed between Michael’s nods, and soon the room was empty, putting an end to my Off-Off-Broadway musical-theater career.
By that time, Elizabeth and Mike have moved to a big loft on Crosby Street. It was right in Soho, right at the center of the explosion that was happening. You could get a loft for, like, $300 a month back then, and lofts had lots of space. You could have a dance company there, or be an artist with a couple of galleries and room for your paintings. Lofts were great. The loft that they got was where uniforms were made for the Civil War. They had sewing-machine things still on the floor where the machines were bolted down. In lofts, you’d go in and sand down the floors and usually have the brick exposed. You’d put the windows back in and build some kind of toilet apparatus. And that was it.
You could do anything you wanted to with a loft. It was just a matter of how much money you had to put into it. And people were doing business out of them. People were taking old, cruddy, raw lofts and varnishing the floors, and that made all the difference. Then they’d finely furnish the thing, have nice painted walls, areas, and kitchens, with light, space, and fans — all that kind of stuff. There was an industrial elevator that went up the five floors. There’s a romantic thing about lofts. I dig the hell out of them. And you’d stick a big bar across the door at night so that people couldn’t get in.
After I got back from San Francisco, I ended up staying with Elizabeth and Michael in the loft for a bit. But I went back and forth, because I was also living at the antique shop basement. When I lived in the antique shop, John Lennon and Yoko had a place right down the street, and I used to see them all the time in the Village. But I respected their privacy and never even said hi to them. But the Village was just on fire. You could see when things were starting to happen. For example, Peter Max, the Beatles’ artist, got a studio there.
How I ate was that I’d go to art-gallery openings on weekends that were open to the public. It was basically the elitist, beatnik, bohemian types that knew about these openings. I’d go in, drink my fill of wine, eat gobs of cheese and crackers, look at the artwork, and have conversations with people. And that was my main sustenance. That was how I ate. People could also go to Max’s Kansas City on a deal and eat free, and we had a deal that eventually happened later with Max’s for food and stuff.
There was a whole cultural thing going on in New York at the time. See, in those days, you had to be in Manhattan, living there, for anybody to take you seriously. If you were from Queens, or if you were the Dictators from Brooklyn, it really wasn’t going to fly. You had to be from Manhattan. Once you left the island, you left the energy. Then you were someplace else and there was no point to it. I’d seen bands that came from Connecticut or somewhere to play at CB or Max’s, and it just wouldn’t happen for them.
The funny thing is, I never was able to venture very far north in Manhattan. I’d go to Central Park once in a while during the daytime, just for something to do, you know. You could pretty much walk all around New York, and I enjoyed walking. My friends were the Italian guys, and we’d do a little sight-seeing or take a carriage ride in the park. But other than that, uptown Manhattan didn’t have it. I was a Village guy.
One thing led to another, and Elizabeth and Michael took me to CBGB. I saw the Ramones and Talking Heads. The Talking Heads I couldn’t figure out at all. It was, like, I don’t know about this, boy. I was a San Diego blues guy, and they were just these collegiate guys who were probably out of tune.
My first time at CBGB was, like, oh my God. Is this it? I knew it was in the Bowery, but I didn’t know what the Bowery was. I didn’t know it was on skid row. CBGB was this place with a lot of graffiti on it. You went inside, and there was some kind of distinct smell or something. I couldn’t put my finger on it immediately. Later, I realized it was a urine smell, but I couldn’t imagine it being that. CBGB was just a dark, black cave. I remember going to the bathroom, and there were two inches of piss on the floor. It was, like, how am I going to get to the toilet?
But it was just vibes! The vibes were so heavy, it was insane. There was an explosion. It was just like being in Liverpool with the Beatles playing the Cavern. It was there. And Michael and Elizabeth introduced me to this little cult circle of friends that they had.
CBGB was just a hole. It was a long place with a little stage in it, but it was the same stage that I’d seen in pictures. CBGB was a hole and it was in the Bowery, but it had the wildest music. It was a single-story thing with bathrooms downstairs, and all kinds of wild shit went on in those bathrooms. But it was one of the birthplaces of rock and roll. The Cavern in Liverpool wasn’t a really desirable place either. It was hot and sweaty, and all these people would just be jammed in there. But there was something going on there too.
Andy Warhol, the pop artist, used to come to CBGB, and he often came with people that worked for him. But usually he came with a guy. I got my picture taken with Andy once when he was at CBGB, and it happened in a really tricky way. My roommate was a photographer, and I said,“Look, there’s Andy.” He said, “Why don’t you go over and I’ll take a picture of you with him.” And I said, “You know what. I think I’ll do that.” So I went over and sat next to Andy. When my roommate came to take the picture, I looked over at Andy, and it looked like we’d been friends for years. And he got the picture. Apparently Andy wasn’t real happy about this because he sent the guy he was with over. The guy took a camera and flashed it in my face so that I could see what it was like to have a picture taken. That was funny, because I didn’t care. So I have a picture of Andy and me in which we look like we’ve been friends for 20 years. Taken at CBGB.
But Andy was into a different deal. There was a little circle of his, and they had the Factory and all that. He ended up getting really successful. And pretty soon, people started listening to his opinions. The Factory was near Max’s, but a little bit further uptown, whereas Max’s was midtown, and CBGB was in the Bowery. So the underground music that was happening at that time — the Dolls, the Ramones and Talking Heads, Blondie — was performed in an area from midtown down to the Bowery.
I went to Max’s Kansas City, and it was something else again. CBGB attracted bands like the Dead Boys and the Ramones. That kind of thing. But Max’s attracted a higher echelon of people. Max’s was where you went to see the New York Dolls, and Max’s was where you’d probably run into David Bowie. If Andy Warhol’s going to be somewhere, he’s probably going to be at Max’s. You could people watch there. And people were concerned more with their dress at Max’s. Not everyone’s wearing leather jackets and torn jeans, at least not there. People are experimenting a bit. Max’s was also in a regular neighborhood.
The New York Dolls started at the Mercer Art Center when rock and roll was dying to go someplace. But there was no direction to it. Then a couple of things triggered it, and it all fell into place. Now, I’m not going to be the guy to sit and tell the exact history of when everything happened. But the time was ripe, and people were ready for change. The world needed something, because everyone was just bored to death. Being bored was the big thing then. The people that were involved in that all went on to different things. Mercer kind of started the whole explosion that was happening.
Another thing happened about then, and it was one of the craziest things. I’d met this little group of people, and things were going along okay. But there was a girl that I knew from Bonita named Janet Planet. She was probably one of the first groupies that I’d ever met, and she was a buddy of mine. She was there when I first met Iggy Pop in L.A. in that house.
Anyway, Janet ends up living in New York City, and Elizabeth and I bump into her on the street. Elizabeth is going,“You know Janet?” And I go, “Janet and I are friends from way back. Janet was, like, the first girl that I went to rock shows with. She and her friend Marsha showed me how to go backstage and hang out with the guys in the band. They got my first backstage passes to the Who, you know.”
Anyway, somehow Janet Planet is there on the street. She asked me what I was doing in New York, and I said, “Well, I came here to see the Ramones and to check out the New York Dolls bit.” She said, “You want to check out the New York Dolls? I’m marrying the Dolls’ guitar player, Sylvain. Sylvain and I are getting married. Do you want to meet Sylvain right now?” Forget about it. It was crazy. Just too crazy.
So I met Sylvain at the antique-shop basement where I was staying. Sylvain came into the basement, and we hit it off right away. But I was kind of overwhelmed, because he’s the guy I’d been seeing in all these photos and on TV. And he was way up there in the rock-star thing. But he was just a real cool cat.
By this time, I was playing Max’s Kansas City with Ruby Lynn Reyner, who is pretty well known already from underground theater. She was an Andy Warhol girl and that kind of thing. The band was called Ruby and the Rednecks, and I had flaming red hair, and I was called Michael Flame.
Previously, I’d seen the New York Dolls on the TV show Rock Concert. Then the Dolls played in San Diego, and I went to see them. They played at the old Palace, and I was blown away. Here they are. The American Rolling Stones. The sexual thing and their cross-dressing isn’t going to bother me because I know what they’re doing with that. They’re playing an angle. That whole androgynous thing has always been a part of rock and roll anyway.
The New York Dolls weren’t like what I’d been hearing about and the pictures that I’d seen. See, the pictures were staged and were done in a gallery. The Dolls were basically a rock and roll band. But they were wearing high-heeled shoes. Platforms. And I’d never seen platforms on men before. They invented that stuff. And they had cigarette, plastic-type tight pants, and it’s like, dudes, don’t wear that. People are wearing bellbottoms. And you’ve got to think of what was happening at that time musically. There were some god-awful songs like “More than a feeling...more than a feeling.” And people had had it with the music that was coming out. Then, it was just no más. No more of this crap. And it all happened at one time. All of these new bands were exploding all at once.
Basically what the bands at that time were saying was, fuck the establishment. Whatever rules the industry has laid down for us are hogwash, and we’re not going to take it anymore. At that time, the new bands were rejecting all of the biggest groups. They weren’t rejecting the Beatles or Stones, who were the founders of all that stuff. But they were rejecting anything that was corporate. Any band that took two years to make an album. Any band that had their own Lear jet. Any band that you could hear in the supermarket. Establishment bands. Corporation bands. And there were a lot of them. These bands were so unremarkable. And there were so many of them that basically I just didn’t listen to music anymore. I was having enough to do with my little cultish underground stuff. And you had Alice Cooper. I could just hear the rednecks saying,“Who’s Alice Cooper? That’s a girl’s name.” And then I saw a picture of these guys, and I thought, oh, my God, give me a break. They had hair down to their waist. They were wearing girls’ clothes. And their first album was just god-awful.
Actually, there weren’t very many of these groups that were good by my standards, because I’m judging everything by the blues, or maybe by Cream or Jimi Hendrix. Those were the exploratory musicians. That kind of stuff. These guys were not any of that. They were just in-your-face, loud, and with an attitude. And they were saying, “Here we are, and we aren’t going to leave until you pay attention. And you know what? If you don’t dig it, you can turn it off and you can leave, because there are people here that do dig it. And the rest of you, screw ya.”
But that’s common. I’ve just seen a movie here recently called Metamorphosis, which presented the history of rave music. They interviewed these kids, and they said, “Listen, this is what we do. We dance to 158 beats a minute. We have our own culture, and we do our thing. We work at it, just like you people who did your thing. We wear Nike shoes, and we do what we do, and you know what, it suits us fine. If you don’t like it, good-bye.” And it’s, like, good. I like seeing that attitude again, because it needs to happen. It happened with the groups that I worked with, because I was lucky enough to get involved with some of the bands that were the beginners of major cult movements. Iggy with punk and the New York Dolls with glam.
Right when I met the Dolls was when they got cited in Rolling Stone for being the best new band and the worst new band of the year, all in the same year. They were the thing that was happening in New York City at the time. They were way up there. The New York Dolls were the Rolling Stones, and they put New York City on the map. But once I was in their little cult, I didn’t ask any questions about who they were or how their band was named. I was just lucky to be in. And they were saying about me, “Holy shit, this guy knows some blues stuff.”
The Dolls started it, invented it, and opened the door for it to happen. Anybody that follows after that I can’t take as seriously. I see this stuff go on all the time, and I see where it comes from. It’s nothing original, just copying. Just like I was saying about the blues thing. Why copy a white guy when you can copy the black guy who originates something. Just go to the black thing. People aren’t coming up with original ideas for different looks or expressions, because this stuff has already been done 15 years previously.
What did the Dolls sing about? The song “Trash” is a good example. Don’t pick it up. Don’t take my love away. They also sang about personality crises. Looking for a kiss. But it was all trash. “Trash” would be, like, a tart girl. Poor white trash. Then there was rock and roll trash — the groupies. The groupies started happening. Insane. And then the groupies would try to outdo each other. And you’ve got some of the hottest-looking girls on the planet that are vying to hang out with the Dolls guys.
The Dolls don’t care if people think that they’re gay or queer. It’s like they were kind of laughing all the way to the bank — not all the way to the bank, though. Mercury Records pretty much went bankrupt working with them, and the Dolls were never a financial success. It was strictly an underground-artistic thing which spawned huge movements and opened the doors for tons and tons of new groups.
Max’s Kansas City was a Dolls place, and the Dolls would sell out any show that they were doing there well in advance. It was a big event. The Dolls didn’t play CBGB. They did Mercers, and then a new configuration played a little while at Max’s. After that, the Dolls went touring and stuff. And when they came back, they were too big to play at Max’s Kansas City. So they would play big events, like the Palladium. And then things just kind of fell apart, and everybody went their separate ways.
KISS was one of the bands that would come to watch the Dolls play. They would have pencils and paper, and they would take notes and sit right up in front. Sylvain used to say that the Dolls taught KISS how to light their cigarettes. And KISS doesn’t deny it. KISS, though, ended up taking it to the next level, and they became commercially successful. You know, KISS is KISS. They’re multibillionaires. But the Dolls were the real thing. Artists. How many times is that going to happen? The Dolls never made the top 40 or the top 10. They didn’t even make the top 100. But in the audiences that they were concerned with, they were number one.
Malcolm McLaren managed the Dolls for a while, until he started pushing them into areas that weren’t good for them. And then they decided that they were doing fine on their own. To them, Malcolm was just an English dude that was pushing pencils for them, and he made some cool clothes. But Sylvain was also a clothes designer, and he told me some stories about the clothes the Dolls wore. He told me how the Dolls invented platform shoes. They took some ice skates, pulled off the skates, and took them to a cobbler. The cobbler was, like, “Are you crazy? You’re going to build these things on there?” “Yeah. Just do it.”
When Malcolm was managing the Dolls, his brainstorm incorporated displaying a Communist hammer-and-sickle flag and doing the Red Russian deals. His thinking was, like, “If there’s something you can hate more than a fag, how’s about a Commie fag!” Really poke the publicity hornet’s nest! That’s when Malcolm got his walking papers. Good-bye!
Their drummer, Billy Murcia, was Sylvain’s very best friend, and they’d shared a hotel room when they went to England on tour. Sylvain came back to the room and found that Billy had drowned in the bathtub. And it just tore him up.
Now, Sylvain’s bright. He was born in Cairo and raised in Paris. See, you’re talking about New York City here, the world’s melting pot. That’s what happens in New York. You cross a street, you’re in Little Italy, and it’s all Italian. You cross another street, and you’re in Chinatown, with the ducks hanging upside down and everyone speaking Chinese. It’s a melting pot. But Billy died in England, and Jerry Nolan took his place. Billy died before the Dolls got famous. He died when they were getting notorious.
Johnny Thunders, the Dolls’ guitarist, was mindboggling. All those guys were. Their personalities were something else. The bassist, Arthur Kane, was a guy that was kind of lost in the whole thing. Arthur is still alive and doing well, but I haven’t seen him in forever. He’s living up in Los Angeles and he’s doing okay. Johnny Thunders passed away down in New Orleans, and there’s still a lot of mystery about that. He died of an overdose, and he’d just gotten clean. He’d just come back from Sweden, he had a lot of money, and he’d just kicked dope. And it’s weird. For me, the door is not totally closed on why he died. But I guess it is in the eyes of the public. The Dolls’ lead singer, David Johansen, is now an actor.
Anyway, Malcolm takes whatever knowledge the Dolls had about manipulating the media and other ideas they had about angry, creative youth and takes these ideas back with him to England. In England at that time, kids were getting out of school and going on the dole, with no possibility of employment. Things were really bad in England. Really bad. Malcolm had a clothes shop on Kings Road called SEX. So, he invented the Sex Pistols. He owned the name Sex Pistols, and he owned the name Johnny Rotten. Johnny was just a guy that hung out at his place.
Sylvain had a letter from Malcolm which is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In the letter, Malcolm asked Sylvain to come over to England, saying that he had this new band called the Sex Pistols. He told Sylvain that if he’d like to come over and join, that the band could really use him, that they needed some musical training. Sylvain ends up sending them some guitars. The guitar Steve Jones uses that he’s known for playing is Sylvain’s guitar. Sylvain gave them some backing to get them on their feet. And then the Sex Pistols just took off.
So the Sex Pistols had their thing that happened over there, but it was very similar to what the Dolls had done. They were just notorious, but they weren’t that great a band, you know. A lot of people think they’re the greatest thing in the world, just like people think the Dolls were. But a lot of people thought the Sex Pistols and the Dolls were godawful too. Whatever. A lot of people think Iggy Pop is god-awful, and I think some of his stuff is the best stuff that I’ve ever heard. So it’s all a matter of opinion.
People today call the New York Dolls a glitter, or glam, rock group, and some people associate the Dolls with punk rock. The problem is that the music industry needs to categorize what you’re doing. They’re not willing to take a chance on something brand new. But these new bands didn’t fit into the standard categories. Iggy wasn’t just punk and the Dolls weren’t just glam. They were happening at the same time, but they didn’t have anything in common except that they were breaking all the rules and any formats that had happened before. Structures and institutions that told them to behave in a particular way. There were no more rules. Period.
You know, what was the Velvet Underground, anyway? They weren’t punk and they weren’t glam. They were just the Velvet Underground. They were individuals. And it was hard for me to recognize something like that, because I was such a blues-based guy. When I first heard Iggy Pop’s stuff, I just was not into it. I didn’t understand it. His first few albums I accepted because they were different from the norm, but I didn’t like them. Then when the Raw Power album came out, forget it. I’d never heard music like that. That was walls of Marshalls, loud, in-your-face rock and roll, with a maniac on the stage who is doing theatrical things with peanut butter and glass — things for shock value that had never been done before. And he’s doing this stuff for real. Little Richard was a showman, and so was Jerry Lee Lewis. All of those guys contributed. But there was a certain point when all of a sudden new things were happening, all out of control.
Before that, nothing much was happening theatrically. What did you have? Arthur Brown’s “I am the god of hell fire.” Mick Jagger. Iggy took it to a performance level. And other groups started bringing props to the stage. They began to realize that the stage was the place where you presented a show, beyond just music. I’d seen other groups, like the Tubes. The Tubes put on a theatrical show. And David Bowie ended up doing this to the extreme.
To me, a punk was a guy who’d been molested in prison. That’s what I knew of punk. It was never anything to be proud of. I’d never call myself a punk. It would be the last thing in the world you’d ever want to be called. Actually, the word “punk” came from a buddy of mine named Legs McNeill, who coined the phrase. He was a writer who was hanging around a lot with the Ramones, and the Ramones were the first ones that the word kind of stuck with. And then this stuff all happened at once. Everybody’s writing about it. And somehow the Dolls got the punk label too, although they started up with the glam thing.
I don’t even know what glam rock is, and the Dolls didn’t know either. It was just something to mix up the state of boring confusion that was rampant then. The Dolls encouraged an attitude that nothing mattered very much. And it was, like, get boisterous. Get wild. And, of course, New York has the wildest underground weirdoes of all. You know, New York has millions of people populated in a small little island, mainly artists and stuff. New York is so compressed, and it’s all straight up. And, like I said, you don’t come to New York to live because they have beautiful streets. You come there with a goal in mind. Usually the goal is to make something out of what you’re doing, of whatever particular talent that you have. It’s, like, if you want to catch trout, go to a lake. If you want to catch sea bass, go to the ocean.
Glam rock was just a way of dress — an expression. You can look at their album covers, which, by the way, are all tongue-in-cheek. I’m not saying that they were doing it as a goof, but they started something that was just, like, well, here we are. Check this out. And it had never been done before. You’ve got these guys poured into these pants, with fashions that they’ve created themselves. And they basically looked like drag queens.
The only other band I’d heard about that was like the Dolls was a band called Cycle Sluts, out of San Francisco. But they had beards, and they were like biker transvestites. That didn’t work. Good try, though.
This stuff happens in the rock and roll thing, with the people that are into it and the gossip and stuff. That’s how the New York Dolls developed. They learned how to manipulate the press and the media. The press first wants to hear something. Then after a while, they want to hear anything, but particularly something that’s really bizarre, like Ozzy Osbourne and the bat-biting incident, which never really happened. And one of the most bizarre things that happened to the Dolls was being named the best and worst band of the year, in the same year.
When I saw the Dolls in San Diego, I thought, whoa, this is not a normal rock and roll band. They weren’t punk, because punk rock hadn’t been named yet. Iggy didn’t have a name to what he was doing. Alice Cooper didn’t have a name. But then Alice Cooper never really ended up having a name, did he? The naming came about due to a very small little circle of press people, and it was pretty interesting how it all related.
These groups didn’t start out with any kind of a set plan, except to rock the boat of what was happening and tell the lawmakers that they were fired. Nobody came out inventing anything that had a name. But in the music industry, things needed to be categorized for marketability. In fact, if you look at the way rock and roll used to be, it was, like, what style rock and roll do you do? Well, there were only a few different styles. But now when you look at it, in every record store that you go to there are so many different styles that it’s hard to categorize them all. But when you’re artists and you’re asked to pick out what category you want to fit into, the artists would say, wow, that’s a rough one. So the businessmen would pick a category for you, and you’re in a structure once again. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Iggy didn’t go out to invent punk, and the Dolls didn’t go out to invent punk or glam. They were just a bunch of guys who were out to try something completely different. And, after the fact, what they did got named.
When the Dolls broke up, Sylvain and I started a group called the Criminals. But we had all this Dolls heritage and stuff. And we were asked,“Do you consider yourselves to be so-and-so?” Well, right off the bat, ouch. We don’t consider ourselves to be anything. We’re the norm for New York, and we were actually a pretty good band. And a lot of times, it didn’t seem like you really needed to know much about music to play in the groups back then, as long you did something theatrical. As long as you were making some kind of a statement.
I remember that the Criminals did an interview once, and we were asked, “Well, would you call your band new wave?” And our drummer, Tony, answered it in a way that I thought was the best. He said,“New wave. Well, it may be new wave, but it’s the same old beach. Call it what you want to. Just don’t call me late for dinner.”
The New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Iggy were in reality underground bands. They were part of what was called the underground. Bands in the underground movement were not in the mainstream at that time. But it didn’t matter to us, because we never paid any attention to that shit anyway.
We didn’t have time to listen to radio or watch TV because there was so much going on independently with all the bands that were happening. But it was a really interesting thing, and I never really figured it out. Iggy Pop did “China Girl” with David Bowie, and the original version is a beautiful, beautiful song. Then David did his own version of “China Girl.” It’s the one where he’s got Stevie Ray playing on guitar.
David gets a hit record with his version of “China Girl” and makes a couple million dollars or whatever. And they played David’s stuff on the radio, but they would not play Iggy Pop. Now, these days you can’t help but hear Iggy’s “Lust for Life”on Caribbean cruise commercials, and they now use Iggy’s stuff for Nike and Toyota. But at that time, Iggy’s music was part of the underground thing. It’s underground music, and the general public doesn’t know about it.
Well, stuff rises to the top among bohemian artists and musicians, and underground music began to surface. But by the time it’s picked up by the general public, it’s years later. And the general public is not going to go hear Iggy Pop, because he’s too far out. They’d go for Mötley Crüe, but they’re not going to go for the Dolls.
There was a 10- to 15-year span where underground music began to emerge in other bands, and even though it’s the same thing, it’s now 15 years later. So the whole thing is interesting. It’s like independent films. Indie films will not win an Academy Award, but they will win awards at the Independent Film Festival. Yet most Academy Award–winning actors are dying to be in indie films. But it wasn’t a goal of the underground bands to become famous, so it didn’t matter to them. You just wanted to play your form, and New York was where you were allowed to do it.
Anyway, the Dolls fizzled out. It was confusing about what happened next, because everybody was splintering. I didn’t actually play with the Dolls onstage and wasn’t a member of the original band. Johnny Thunders wanted to do his own thing. Sylvain and David Johansen threw their thing together, and I did some shows with them. And that group was known as the Dolls. So, it’s like a gray area and it’s political, and I didn’t give a shit. And they didn’t give a shit either. Nobody did.
But looking back on it, there were a couple of different groups. There were the “New” New York Dolls, where Syl and David Johansen would sing. Johnny had already taken off and done the Heartbreakers with Jerry Nolan. Arthur had gone off to do the Corpse Grinders, or whatever his band was called. I’m on an album that I have called Sons of the Dolls. And these were all the different splinters that were happening with the Dolls.
Sylvain gave me clothes to wear, and I’d just put them on. Basically it was red patent leather pants. Skin tight. I had the red patent leather outfit that used to be Arthur’s. And I looked like Arthur, see, with the long blond hair. Our gigs were really very short term and done in a really small time frame. See, I was more involved with Sylvain in our new deal. But we were all still interconnected. And Dave Johansen would come and play with us occasionally. Johnny Thunders too.
I don’t recall whether it was uncomfortable to wear the costumes. I don’t even remember being onstage. I just remember the whole thing was one big session. Yeah, sure, it was uncomfortable to wear the clothes. I was a skinny little guy in those days, and I was pretty good-looking. And I remember some of the outfits that I had. David Bowie gave me an outfit that was specially made for him for Paratrooper. And David is not a little guy like you’d think. But he was one of the coolest guys I’d ever met in my entire life. He gave me this outfit, the zipper space thing, or whatever, and it was insanely cool. But I couldn’t bend down. It’s just, like, you had to sit there and play. It reminds me of the Spinal Tap stuff, you know.
Sylvain and I splintered off to do the Criminals. And we had a big deal happening with the Criminals, because we were a musical band. We’d play an hour- and-a-half set. And we would play Max’s Kansas City. But everybody was still coming to see the Dolls. They thought we were still the Dolls. When we started doing some tours and we’d play up in Canada, the kids were there to see the Dolls. But it’s not the Dolls anymore. It’s the Criminals. We had a whole different trip. When the kids would yell out for a Dolls tune, Syl would shoot them with a prop gun that smoked.
When I hooked up with Sylvain, we would play at Max’s and we’d sell out Max’s strictly on the Dolls thing. But we really had a whole different thing going. It wasn’t the torn clothing and Malcolm stuff with safety pins, Richard Hell, and the Communist flag. We had our own thing with the Criminals.
We had decided to do a hip, slick Las Vegas thing. We wore sharkskin tuxedos and shirts with frills on them. Our deal was like the Sharks and the Jets, and now it’s showtime. And I did a lot of walking bass. I’m kind of a half-assed accomplished bass player, and so I got to play some stuff. People weren’t used to seeing a guy playing upright bass in that context, so we were a whole different deal. You couldn’t pin us down to being new wave or punk. We weren’t any of that. We were our own thing. That’s what I thought was supposed to be happening at that time. Just do your own thing. Don’t copy what somebody else was doing.
It’s one of the interesting things about New York. CBGB was owned by a guy named Hilly, and it had to happen. Hilly’d named it CBGB for “country bluegrass blues,”and he’d wanted to have a country bluegrass club. But there was so much else going on that it wasn’t going to work. CBGB was a dingy old place, and the neighborhood wasn’t going to happen. So it got taken over by these bands that were really enthusiastic about what they were doing. There was an audience there for them, and they just made it happen.
Hilly wasn’t like Mickey Ruskin, who owned Max’s Kansas City. Mickey was a business guy, and Hilly was, like, a real hippie. Hilly was a guy who would take bands out and feed them. He’d have bands come over to his house, watch TV, and wash up. That kind of stuff. Mickey was a little bit more of a business guy, and Mickey got the Dolls.
So there were two different schools, and it was weird how the politics worked. We couldn’t play CBGB and play Max’s on the same calendar date. And I would tell Sylvain sometimes,“Look, I’ve got to pay my rent. We need to play some places.” And Syl would go, “Well, we can’t, though.” Syl made those rules. And it was kind of unwritten. Either you were a CBGB band or you were a Max’s Kansas City band. The Dead Boys was a band that could play both places, and we played in both places, but not too many bands did that. Talking Heads would never play Max’s Kansas City. They’d always play CBGB. And it was the same for the Ramones.
But it was a thing where everybody was really supportive of everybody else. You come and see me play at CB, and I’ll come and see you play at Max’s. Everybody supported everybody. It was a movement. And we’d see bands come and go. Then the Criminals broke up, and Sylvain went solo. He got signed with RCA Records, and they didn’t want the band. Some really bad feelings happened with that, and we really didn’t talk about it.
— Barbara Palmer
Michael Page’s story continues on May 29.