“David Johansen” Might be the Perfect Album

While reading One Way Out a really strong, engaging oral history of The Allman Brothers Band, I began thinking about all the great music I grew up with, and how so much of it is now being relegated to fading memory. I believe it deserves more, so I am going to revisit these albums, and write my impressions, share the memories they conjure, and I hope they spark renewed interest in the music and stir up your memories of when and where you were when you heard this great art. Please feel free to share those memories and your impressions of the music here. Let’s keep our love alive for the work of these great artists.

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In 1978, I’m a junior in high school, and like most guys that age, I really don’t have a clue. Or, to be more accurate, I have thousands of clues but no idea which ones are true, or matter, but I am learning.

The crowd I hung around with loved Zeppelin, so I listened, and then I did too. My brother Soupy told me Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band were required, so I listened, and agreed. A friend Kevin turned me onto Yes and Frampton and Elton John, and I connected with those as well. Roger turned me onto Genesis and Peter Gabriel; mind blown.

And then their was Head. This friend was given this nickname because he had a uniquely shaped noggin, but that wasn’t his greatest attribute. Head’s true talent was being ahead of the curve musically. He was into Aerosmith with “Get Your Wings” right before they exploded with “Toys in the Attic”, Nugent before he broke big (and wayyy before his current incarnation), Judas Priest before they made it, and so on. He was uncanny.

He once casually sold me the New York Dolls “Too Much Too Soon” and shattered my definition of music as a visceral experience.

And then he turned me onto David Johansen’s debut solo album. All the other music was fun and great and amazing, but David Jo’s album hit me right to my core, energizing my then youthful spirit, my imagination, my idea of what New York City was, and my sense of what rocked my feet, my fists, and my heart.

I have never been the same.

With help from fellow Doll Sylvain Sylvain and guests including Joe Perry, Felix Cavaliere, Nona Hendryx, and Seventies violinist-to-rock-stars Scarlet Rivera, the album’s sound was dirty, sloppy, beautiful, and always right there with you. Sometimes it was huge, with guitars slamming into horns, chasing bass lines, other times it was just a the sound of heartbreak in the form of Rivera’s mournful violin, or broken down cafe piano that built to … well, at that age, it built to a whole world.

For me, this album was the defining sound of lower Manhattan, the Bowery, the Village when I first began sneaking down there to check out that wild, dangerous, creative scene, sneak into the record stores and book shops, and, a little while later, the pubs and small concert venues.

“David Johansen” was my introduction to entire genre of rock, a lifestyle, a life. And it has never really left me. So let’s celebrate.

From the first drum roll into the dirty guitar and rhythm groove of “Funky But Chic” I always get energized. I find it impossible not to dance to this song. Not club dancing, David Jo-style moving, like Jagger in a dive bar. The words shuffle on the edge of logic and they don’t care if you understand them or not — If you do, you’re in, if not, you gotta go. man. This is party as lifestyle, bopping down the sidewalk in the Bowery or the Village, or, for me, The Bronx. i wanted those shoes that made him “feel rockin’.” Still do.

“Girls” summed up all my desires about the opposite sex at that age. The excitement of being around them, thinking about them, seeing one walking down the street, as adolescent and goofy as it was, that was exactly who I was in 1978, and so was just about every cool guy I knew. Girls were magic, as sexist as that sounds. They were our obsession and our aspiration and the reason we strived to accomplish anything. These days, I have been married 27 years and most of my motivation is still to impress the Girl. Some things don’t change, ancient primal attraction is one of them, and this song celebrates it.

“Pain in My Heart” starts like a second cousin to the Doll’s “Stranded in the Jungle” but then comes right back down to reality, and heartbreak. As an awkward teen, I lived with this pain constantly, and when this rollicking song came on, everything was better. That’s the pure power of Rock’n’Roll and Johansen delivers it with a special immediacy and approachability that just doesn’t age. Great song.

Can we pause for a moment to talk about David Johansen’s voice. His is the kind of voice that gets thrown out of the church choir. And the Glee Club. Low and rough-edged and infused with that glorious New York City accent. Part croon, part shout, part blues, part ragged howl, part heartbreak, and part joyful yelp, Johansen’s voice shouldn’t work at all. But it does, every time, because every “flaw” is laced with character, each supposed defect is infused with heart. No matter what he is singing about, David Jo means it to the core of his being and that’s what connects us to the Dolls, and his solo work (such as this gem), and every other persona he’s embraced. Thank God for his voice.

“Not That Much” sounds like an Aerosmith song on a really cool day in the studio. There’s a good reason for that; Joe Perry handles the lead guitar work here. The crunchy fuzz of the groove is enough to make this a classic, but the lyrics are a treatise on reluctant love and the burden of past traumas on a relationship that is mired in past pain — “compared to what she had to do last year” — and is paid off in the very last line — “to all the times her heart was full of FEAR!”

“Donna”. Oh my God, what a heartbreaking ballad. When I heard this, I fell in love with Donna, too, whoever she was. And I played the Hell out of this after every break up. My parents were probably were wondering who this Donna was in the neighborhood who kept crushing me. David Jo does melodrama so well, and this song is an Oxygen channel movie waiting to happen, just so much cooler. The guy sounds like he’s on a street under a dim lamppost singing up to a tenement window. And the coda suggests he’s there all night looking up, waiting for just one more chance.

This album came out back when albums were albums, heaven sent vinyl. With two sides. And how each side started was always key. Side two here starts off like the launching of a rock concert, or the roaring of the coolest Mustang down your street, windows open blaring that sound of rebellious freedom and lust and owning the night. “Cool Metro” is the kind of cool song that echoes the Dolls and Aerosmith and the Stones, and that feeling on a summer’s night when you were with all your friends and everything was possible and probable and this was the greatest place on Earth, not matter where it was. “I FEEL COOOOOOL!” Yeah, boyyyyyy. All this plus Perry again. Perfect.

“I’m A Lover” starts with Jo talking heart to heart with his love, then slams into pure Dolls, complete with the most attitude-filled “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus in all of rock. Sylvain Sylvain is all over this song. Pre-rap bravado sounds best like this. Against a wall of raunchy energy, David Jo declares “I wanna be your man! So what if it’s all true? I wanna be whichu!” Fantastic.

The last two tracks are the best. Melodrama rules in “Lonely Tenement” as tragic as “Porgy and Bess” and as beautiful. The heartbreaking victims in this song work their damnedest to survive, but times have gotten tough on all levels, and they are hanging on through the worst of it. Scarlet Rivera soars above the over-the-top arrangement, all heartache and bemoaning of life, simultaneously, all catharsis. It sounds like the darker parts of New York City, at a time when The Bronx was burning, the Sanitation Department was striking, the City was going broke, and President Ford was telling it to go to Hell. What a song….

“Frenchette” made me replace this record a few times. As Head once said, I played the grooves off that record. perfect heartbreak/screw it song. Everything is less that the singer wants it to be, so he does what we’ve been doing the whole album, he escapes into the music. “I can’t get the kid of love I want, so let’s just dance, and I’ll forget.” This song pushed all the buttons, acknowledging what wasn’t working, the painful disparity between what we dreamed about, lusted after, romanced about, and the colder reality that stubbornly existed, and then offered a way to make it better. All in one cathartic build that to this day never let’s me down. This song may very well be the cure for heartache, and it is the perfect transcendent finale to a truly classic album.

Let’s just dance.

</ Ryan is author of City of Woe, available on Kindle and Nook, and in print. For more info, click here.<

About chrisryanwrites

My name is Christopher Ryan. I am a former award-winning journalist turned high school teacher, and I have written since reading S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS when I was in elementary school. I have independently published an award-winning debut novel, CITY OF WOE, plus the prequel short story collection CITY OF SIN, the sequel novel CITY OF PAIN, a high school thriller novel GENIUS HIGH, and several high adventure novelettes for the Rapid Reads series featuring Alex Simmons' African-American adventurer BLACKJACK All are available via amazon.com, as is my children's book, THE FERGUSON FILES - THE MYSTERY SPOT. Additionally, I was nominated for a supporting actor award for my work in the multiple award-winning independent film, CLANDESTINE, from Feenix Films. I blog about writing, life, pop culture, the journey of learning to promote my independently published work, my efforts to secure a traditional publishing contract, and my career as a teacher.
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