The Rolls Royce parked outside the hotel is an elegant, burgundy-colored machine, and it’s just flamboyant enough to capture the attention of David Johansen, frontman of the New York Dolls, who is having a quick smoke on his way to the band’s gig at the South by Southwest music festival on Friday. The rest of the Dolls are nearby, and he’s standing on the sidewalk in a black velvet jacket with white patent-leather boots.
A van awaits him and the band for the five-block journey to a club called Smokin’ Music and a 12:30 a.m. set time. At the venue, they’ll perform another euphoric, ribald revue of early-'70s protopunk in addition to new songs from their upcoming album, “ ‘Cause I Sez So,” due out in early May.
The Dolls were just one of nearly 2,000 acts performing in Austin during SXSW, but few others can match their tragicomic story and lingering influence. Like the Stooges and the MC5 before them, the group’s brand of stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll paved the way for the Ramones and Sex Pistols: Before they flamed out in 1975, the New York Dolls helped father the punk movement.
Johansen is still admiring the luxury car when a young family approaches him. “Excuse me,” the father says, “can my son take a picture with you?” His boy looks about 10, and he’s wearing a black T-shirt with a skull across his chest. “Yeah, su-u-u-re,” Johansen agrees in a raspy, Staten Island brogue, and soon the singer and entire family are posing for a snapshot by the Rolls.
The New York Dolls were last in town like this in 2005, when the reunited band was in search of a new record deal, and had one before the festival was over. “I remember Lucinda Williams had this record years ago, and she used a lot of local geography in it,” Johansen says now. “She made this place sound really great.”
The new album is the group’s second since re-forming in 2004 at the invitation of British rock crooner Morrissey, curator of that year’s Meltdown festival in London and the onetime teen president of the Dolls’ UK fan club. Only two original members -- Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain -- lived to see 2009, but “ ‘Cause I Sez So” remains true to the band’s unique cocktail of trash, glam and attitude.
From the beginning, the Dolls were raw and flamboyant, street-smart and hilarious. They were a shambolic, cross-dressing antidote to the fussy arena rock then dominating the airwaves.
The best document of their sound and vision was their 1973 self-titled debut, produced by Todd Rundgren, a raucous, exciting record that thrilled critics and rock tastemakers but few others.
Rundgren reconnected with the Dolls early this year to produce “ ‘Cause I Sez So” at his studio in Hawaii. “It’s not like we were trying to recapture the first record, even if something like that were vaguely possible,” Rundgren says, speaking by phone from New York. “Most everyone in the band has family. They don’t look at this musical enterprise as a diversion or accident. This is a serious musical platform. David being the principal lyricist, he’s taking full advantage of it, but singing about things that have contemporary relevance for him. He’s not trying to go back to 1975.”
The album also suggests a widening range since the early days, with the influence not just of time but from the newest Dolls: guitarist Steve Conte, drummer Brian Delaney and bassist Sami Yaffa.
The title song is classic Dolls swagger, but there’s also the sticky blues of “This Is Ridiculous” and the vaguely Spanish riffs of “Temptation to Exist.”
“As a musician you grow,” says Sylvain. “Making records is like having babies. They’re always beautiful to you, because no matter how ugly they are, you’re the parent.”
Johansen had never showed much interest through the decades in a return to his former band, though other Dolls still hoped it would happen, including founding bassist Arthur Kane, who died of leukemia shortly after the London concert.
“Me and Arthur wanted to do this for years and years and years,” says Sylvain. “Not just because we need the bucks or to be seen on the world stage -- which always help an artist -- but just to get back up there and shake that old booty again. It was a stone gas back then, it’s still a stone gas today. If it wasn’t for that, I swear to God, I wouldn’t do it.”
Showtime is approaching at the club, and the band is backstage as Johansen calls them into a huddle. After a moment, the sounds of recorded opera music can be heard from inside, signaling the imminent entrance of the New York Dolls. “Let’s go, guys,” the frontman says, heading toward a cheering crowd, “the fat lady is singing.”
The band opens with “ ‘Cause I Sez So,” a song virtually no one has heard, but soon the crowd is shouting along. For the next hour, Johansen often looks to the side of the stage and his longtime companion in stiletto heels, Mara Hennessey. He winks and smiles and vamps in her direction. “If I make her laugh,” he says later, “then I know I’m doing good.”
The show ends with the Dolls’ early signature tune “Personality Crisis,” and the band lingers backstage as fans and friends congratulate them and ask for autographs on T-shirts, books, albums and a golden acoustic guitar. Two members of Blondie pass through to say hello, and a club employee excitedly rushes over to offer Johansen a bottle of his choice. “Of liquor? We’ve gotta get up in the morning!” Johansen says.
This isn’t 1973 anymore, and the band has another Austin gig in the afternoon. Tonight he looks pleased just to be singing. “I was caterwauling,” he corrects. “Sometimes you’ve got to get along on charm.”