The grass-roots rock scene that developed in lower Manhattan in the early to mid-'70s confused and threatened the rock establishment, but in one sense it was profoundly traditional. Bands as diverse as the New York Dolls, Television, Blondie and Mink DeVille made clear their desire to recapture the raw, unpredictable spirit of '60s rock and throw it in the face of such mainstream stuffed shirts as Yes, Pink Floyd and the Eagles.
Their music was ultimately dubbed punk rock, but these groups differed significantly from the teen-age garage bands of the mid-'60s whose untutored music had also been labeled "punk." These '70s successors, though often equally sloppy as musicians, tended to be older and better educated. Some could even be called scholarly.
Few would have put the New York Dolls in that category at the time -- the quintet's ragged performances and androgynous image typed them as bad-boy know-nothings. On their two albums, however, the Dolls resurrected such varied blues, pop and soul obscurities as Bo Diddley's "Pills" and Archie Bell and the Drells' "(There's Gonna Be a) Showdown," and incorporated quotations from the Shangri-Las' "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" and Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" into their own "Lookin' for a Kiss" and "Trash," respectively.
Buster Poindexter: 'Buster Poindexter'
From the band's latter days into his solo career, former Dolls lead singer David Johansen's writing and borrowing became even more eclectic, until he finally enlisted an alter ego -- one Buster Poindexter -- to perform great old songs that didn't fit his rock 'n' roll act. With Johansen's solo career as commercially inauspicious as the Dolls' had been, the tuxedoed Poindexter gradually took center stage. Now Johansen, who has sometimes claimed he never again will perform under that name, has released his first album in his lounge-lizard guise, "Buster Poindexter" (RCA 6633-1-R). It's fun, but it doesn't support the notion that Johansen's talent can be fulfilled as the singer of other people's songs.
Even assuming that such is Johansen's calling, the overdone "Poindexter" is something of a miscalculation. Where Poindexter usually performs with a quartet called the Banshees of Blue, as he will next Tuesday at the Roxy, this album employs a horn section and backing vocalists; on some of the songs the added weight smothers the rough-hewn spontaneity that distinguishes Poindexter's club performances. Since they have the resources, producer Hank Medress and Banshees musical director/keyboardist Joe Delia figure they might as well use them. For songs like "Screwy Music," a ready-made Poindexter theme song, they've devised period-correct arrangements that unwisely put the vocalist into competition with the originals and sabotage his efforts to claim them as his own.
Johansen's affection for these songs comes through, but he's still fundamentally a rock 'n' roll singer -- the most effective tracks here are up-tempo romps like "Good Morning Judge," Lieber and Stoller's "Whaddaya Want?" and Johansen and Delia's "Cannibal." (His taste in his own songs, by the way, is less reliable than his judgment of others'. The album's only other Johansen tune, "Heart of Gold," is a by-the-numbers ballad previously recorded on his third album, "Here Comes the Night," and is inferior to at least a dozen other originals on his four studio albums.)
The most promising path for Johansen is one that introduces his rock songwriter side to its cabaret cousin. Indeed, that's what happened with his most recent -- and best -- solo album, 1984's "Sweet Revenge." On that record, Johansen compositions such as "I Ain't Working Anymore" and "The Stinkin' Rich" married the gutsiness of the Dolls with the Depression-era sensibility of many of Poindexter's favorites. After three albums fettered by overcalculated production, "Sweet Revenge" finally broke free, so it's disappointing that Johansen has declined to explore the course that disc suggested.
If Johansen really intends to build an entirely self-sufficient career for a persona that began as a busman's holiday, he should at least consider recording more original songs and attempting to simulate more accurately the freewheeling atmosphere of his club shows, perhaps even by recording live. Like Alex Chilton's new record, "Buster Poindexter" is a ya-hadda-be-there disc, a souvenir from a party better appreciated in person.
Willy DeVille: 'Miracle'
Though Mink DeVille played regularly at CBGB's when that club was the center of the New York punk scene, bandleader Willy DeVille was never an experimentalist. Smooth make-out music in the white-soul tradition of Van Morrison, with a Latin accent, was and is his vocation. "Miracle" (A&M SP 5177) continues in the same groove, flavored by a new but apt ingredient: Dire Straits.
That band's leader, Mark Knopfler, produced this collection of creamy adult rock, and his influence is pervasive. Knopfler cowrote only one of the disc's nine originals, "Spanish Jack," but his distinctive melodic style obviously colored songs such as DeVille's "Southern Politician."
DeVille is a romantic with a tendency toward the florid, but Knopfler has adopted a muted, small-ensemble style -- the first song, "(Due to) Gun Control," features only guitar, synthesizer and vocals, and the other arrangements are similarly sparse. The result is a subdued, cohesive mood, though breaking the lock-step midtempo flow with an upbeat tune or two wouldn't have hurt.
Knopfler clearly intended to make a still-of-the-night record that showcases DeVille's singing, though, and in that he's succeeded. DeVille may not be much as a lyricist -- "Gun Control" courts controversy by borrowing a couplet from the NRA ("Guns are now outlawed/ And only outlaws have guns") and then doesn't bother to make a point -- but his lilting melodies fit his soulful croon. "Miracle" is hardly that, but it is charming in its modest way.