In November 1973 the New York Dolls made their second visit to Europe, the first the previous year having ended in disaster with the drug-related death of original drummer Billy Murcia in London. Thanks to Roy Hollingworth, our first New York correspondent, and photographer Leee Black Childers, Melody Maker had been unusually supportive of the Dolls, perhaps seeing in them the link between straight rock and punk that Nina Antonia dwells on her Dolls biography Too Much Too Soon. “Dirty angels with painted faces, the Dolls opened the box usually reserved for Pandora and unleashed the infant furies that would grow to become Punk,” writes Nina in the introduction to the book. “As if this legacy wasn’t enough for one band, they also trashed sexual boundaries, savaged glitter and set new standards for rock’n’roll excess.”
Some of that excess happened on this trip to Paris…
On November 28, 1973, The New York Dolls travelled to France. It could have been turbulence or it might have been a champagne hangover from the forty bottles of bubbly consumed the previous day, but Thunders and Nolan felt so sick on the journey that for once neither of them were particularly into booze that day. Being a Doll wasn’t a healthy option at the best of times but Johnny and Jerry’s symptoms were a little different from the usual morning-after-the-night-before nausea. [Soundman] Peter Jordan: “I noticed that Johnny and Jerry were acting a little funny. That was the first time I became aware of their abuse of narcotics. When Jerry joined the Dolls he didn’t even smoke cigarettes, he didn’t do any kind of drugs, he didn’t drink. If he did go out and have something to drink, it’d be something really corny like whiskey and soda. It was a surprise to me that either of them had gotten into heroin. Johnny was a hip guy and he’d been around the block, even though he was very young. Frankly, there was enough aggravation already going on, so the last thing I expected anyone to do was get strung out on heroin.”
The Dolls’ arrival at Orly Airport became infamous, with Thunders taking over the late Billy Murcia’s unfortunate predilection for public vomiting. Waiting alongside the gathering pack of press photographers at the airport was Patrick Taton, a dour French employee of Mercury Records who was supposed to look after the band during their visit but in private kept a damning dossier which he later submitted to the record company. Paul Nelson [Mercury A&R man to signed them to the label] managed to liberate the confidential file which begins at Orly. “Thunders got sick right on the airport floor and had to leave the scene for a minute to pull himself together and make a decent comeback,” wrote Taton.
Splattered with vomit, the photographers and reporters wiped themselves down and returned to their news desks to write realms of salacious prose and develop their pictures. Sylvain: “It was all over the press, The Dolls arrive in France and they are degenerate, drug addicted faggots.”
Only NME’s Nick Kent, no stranger to decadence having studied chemical abuse in the court of The Rolling Stones, was able to inject a little humour into the scenario... “Johnny Thunders throws up. Bl-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-h! God knows how many photographers are there: Paris Match, Stern magazine – all the European rock press and the nationals. The record company folks have arranged a special little welcome. Bl-a-a-a-a-g-g-h-h! The members of the band look stone-faced and wasted, wondering if he’s maybe going to fall into his own vomit...”
The Dolls eventually made it to their hotel, tailed by Taton, who noted: “The band gave us a hint as to their drinking capacities, which we had to discover at our own expense. In the afternoon, Thunders got sick again and had to be replaced by one of the road managers for photo purposes.” When the Dolls played in Lyons that night, Patrick Taton did not share in the audience’s enthusiasm, nor did he the following evening in Lille. Instead he waited for the band’s Paris début, poison pen at the ready.
Les Poupees Du New York enjoyed a riotous first night in the French capitol. Their entourage now included Malcolm McLaren and his couturier friend Jean-Charles Castellbajac, who was celebrating his birthday. They all sat down to dinner at La Coupole, a chic brasserie in Montparnasse. Before the dessert arrived, the band’s management wisely bailed out and returned to the hotel, conveniently assuming that McLaren would foot the bill. Malcolm McLaren: “I suppose their managers thought that us Europhiles had money to burn, being foolish entrepreneurial shopkeepers who were running around after the Dolls, but of course I couldn’t pay the bill. It was a banquet for twenty people, including all these various hangers-on and because it was Jean-Charles’ birthday, I’d ordered a huge cake. We had to run for it and these two young French journos got collared by the staff and slung back into the restaurant, where they had to find a way to pay the bill. We finally got back to the Ambassador Hotel, where the Dolls were staying and collapsed, exhausted from running all the way. I suppose that was my first real affair with the Dolls, my initiation into their lifestyle and I was attracted enough to continue.”
The following day, at 12 o’clock sharp, Patrick Taton sat down in the bar of the Ambassador Hotel to takes notes on the Dolls’ press conference. Unsurprisingly, at that early hour, the band were nowhere to be seen. Marty Thau had been attempting to corral his unruly charges since nine o’clock that morning but had only managed to locate three of them. Meanwhile, the bar area was spilling over with reporters from Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany and France. To stave off any ill-feeling about the band’s tardiness, Thau threw open the bar. Marty: “It was like a United Nations gathering of rock’n’roll writers. I knew the press conference was never going to take place at 12, so I told the writers to have a drink and wait for the band. By four o’clock there was an $8,000 bar tab which Mercury had to pay for and they weren’t too happy about it. I got yelled at for it but we certainly got a lot more than $8,000 worth of press out of it.”
By late afternoon all of The Dolls had assembled in the bar and the interviews got underway. As usual, David Johansen nursed a bottle of Remy Martin, his favourite accessory, as he entertained the gentlemen of the press. If Arthur was a withdrawn drunk, who could on occasion barely negotiate his way on stage, David Jo was a loud lush, capable of being either extremely witty or a mean-mouthed bitch, depending on circumstances. Sylvain: “Arthur and I used to call him Tu Tu Fly – he used to be like a drunk Bette Davis.”
David handed out more scoops to the journalists than an inebriated waitress in an ice-cream parlour. “I’ve checked out all this ‘Paris-is-the-city-of-romance’ thing. It’s just because all the chicks have to get it at least five times a day or else they go crazy,” was among his more piquant observations.
The liquor loosened talk turned to the subject of the Dolls’ projected second album, tentatively entitled Too Much Too Soon, and some of their newer compositions, which gave Thunders – not the most verbally forthcoming of characters – a chance to talk about what he liked best, the music: “Well there’s ‘Mystery Girls’ and, uh, one that I wrote called ‘Jailbreak Opera’. It’s short y’know – no longer than five minutes. I just like to grab everything ya can, throw it all in and get out, y’know.” Johansen jumped right in where the guitarist paused: “Also there’s ‘Puss’N’Boots’, which is quiet sensational. It’s about shoe fetishism or as Arthur observed, it’s about ‘the woofers in relationship to the woofee’. And then we have this ballad which isn’t quite finalised yet, but it’s the most beautiful song since The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’.”
As the journalists began to depart, Sylvain gave them all a parting shot with his toy cap-gun. Marty Thau was left to face the music with Patrick Taton, who had written more in his Dolls’ dossier than most of the press had scribbled into their notebooks all afternoon. Taton: “When the interviews were over, I picked up the bill, which was incredibly high for so short a time. When I told Thau about it, he replied, with utmost contempt, ‘Peanuts for a band like that’ and continued with some of the most insulting remarks I’ve ever heard about a record company and its executives.”
The next entry in Patrick Taton’s confidential Mercury report was made only a couple of hours after the press conference: “Next was a live concert at Radio Luxembourg. Although they had been requested for rehearsals at 17.30, the group were not ready before 19.00 and went to the studio in a frightening state of drunkenness – one of the most nerve-shattering experiences of my ‘business’ life.” The Radio Luxembourg show, which is now available on CD as either Paris Burning or Paris Le Trash, is a lewdly reeling affair with only Jerry’s solidly anchored drumming keeping the band in shape. Sylvain: “If you listen to that recording you can hear what condition David was in. He was a drunken mess. His ego had gone completely overboard and he couldn’t do no wrong in his own eyes. He was trying to talk in French and he was so out of it.”
On December 2, The New York Dolls played a matinee show at the prestigious Olympia Theatre, where the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and James Brown had previously graced the stage. Much to Patrick Taton’s surprise, the band managed to haul their asses out of bed reasonably early, a triumph for the persistent [roadie] Frenchy. It was left to their valet to rouse the band whenever there was something of particular importance on their agenda. Reliving his days as an army sergeant in a training camp, Frenchy would go into the Dolls’ rooms blowing a police whistle in a military style wake up and get moving exercise. Frenchy would also blow his piercing whistle when procuring girls for the band from the audience. ‘“Okay. You! And You! And You!,” he’d yell as the eager conscripts formed an orderly queue.
Not only had they risen early but the Dolls had gone down to the capacious theatre and soundchecked without a hitch. The band took a liquid lunch, which had repercussions when they went on stage in front of a full house at 3.30 pm. Sylvain: “We looked absolutely beautiful. We’d just come from London where we’d raided Vivienne’s shop and got the loveliest things which we were trading back and forth between us. We’re on stage in the mid-afternoon and Arthur was wearing these big white aviator boots that kind of glowed in the dark and this kid in the front row put some LSD on the front of his boots. The whole band had been drinking a lot, and basically Johnny didn’t go to the john before the show so we’re on the third or fourth song, and he had to go. He said something to David and walked right off. That really pissed David off. How could anybody walk off when he was about to sing? I filled in and played some blues... ‘Lone Star Queen’, and the kids started clapping along, Jerry got into it, swinging on a beat and David started blowing the harp, so it wasn’t that bad. Johnny came back, he’d taken a leak behind an amp but the gig ended with a spat between David and Johnny.” In between the encores, Johansen and Thunders sniped back and forth at each other, bickering through their moment of triumph.
After the gig, the French representatives of Mercury Records, including the ever-present Patrick Taton, took the Dolls out to dinner. Naturally Taton, who had appointed himself as some kind of moral watchdog, found plenty to write about: “The band were then taken to a top restaurant. They invited their friends – over 50 people altogether – all of them lavishly drinking champagne and Cognac, making an incredible show of themselves, enraging patrons, and leaving us with a very nice bill.”