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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the July 9, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
David Johansen, Beyond Buster
Remember Buster Poindexter, the Latin-rock singer who
recorded for RCA in the late 1980s? He more or less died several years
ago, at a 25th anniversary show for the Bottom Line, a nightclub in
Greenwich Village. That’s when David Johansen, previously known to
the world as Buster Poindexter, debuted his band, David Johansen and
the Harry Smiths (named after the late folklorist, ethnomusicologist,
archivist and film maker who assembled "The Anthology of American
Folk Music" for Folkways Records). The Bottom Line performance
garnered a rave review in the New York Times, and Johansen and his
band mates figured they would continue on their blues kick. After
all, blues and folk music was the music he grew up with in his native
Johansen and the Harry Smiths have two albums out on a small New York
City-based jazz and folk music record label, Chesky Records. "David
Johansen and the Harry Smiths," their self-titled debut, was released
three years ago, and "Shaker," their follow-up, was released
At the seventh annual Black Potatoe Festival this weekend in Clinton,
Johansen will perform not with his usual backing band, the Harry Smiths,
but with Levon Helm’s Barnburners, a group that includes Pat O’Shea
on guitar. They will be doing a repertoire of classic blues tunes
by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and other bluesman that both Helm and
Johansen have admired and respected for many years. Other performers
at the three-day festival will include Jorma Kaukonen and Blue Country,
Gregg Cagno, Linda Sharar, Kathy Phillips, the Matt Angus Thing, Buckwheat
Zydeco, Billy Hector, the Holy Goats, Gordie McLean and Walt Bibinger,
and a mix of national touring and local and regional artists.
"With the Howlin’ Wolf Tribute Band, we never rehearsed anything,"
Johansen reveals during a phone conversation from his partner’s studio
in Rockland County, New York.
So how to explain Johansen’s ability to sing and emote so well on
soulful interpretations of classic Howlin’ Wolf songs, like "Sitting
On Top of the World," "Howlin’ for My Darlin’" and "Smokestack
"When I was a kid, I had a whole Howlin’ Wolf repertoire,"
he explains, "and I used to sing his music in bands. I was a Howlin’
Wolf fanatic, I went and saw him at Hunter College once and then another
time at Max’s Kansas City, when he was about three feet away from
me," he explains.
"Anyway, two summers ago, we put on a show in Central Park, for
SummerStage, and I just picked the possible songs we would do and
then just made sure I remembered them all," he explains, "hey,
they’re professionals, these people, Levon Helm and [guitarist] Jimmy
Vivino, they don’t have to rehearse much, everybody knows how to play."
"With the Harry Smiths, we played one show for the 25th anniversary
of the Bottom Line, and Alan Pepper, the owner, always asks me every
five years to do something," he explains, "and I had just
come off this Latin music kick [as Buster Poindexter] and I was listening
to a lot of old folk blues and country Appalachian stuff. So he asked
me to do the show, and I said, `I know what kind of music I’d like
to do,’ because that’s what I was listening to when he called."
"We rehearsed for that show in my apartment for like three days,
just acoustic, and then we did the show, got a great review in the
Times, and figured we’d keep doing it," he adds.
But the story gets deeper. Somehow Bob Dylan got hold of the board
mix tape from the show, and he was so enthused, he wanted to put it
out on his own boutique label. "He took it to Sony and they told
him, `You’re nuts, man.’ It was great to have someone like Bob Dylan
Johansen says he still does performances in a Latin-rock vein with
his band, Buster Poindexter and the Banshees of Blue, but it’s mostly
for private parties.
He is enthused about the Harry Smiths because they’re still evolving.
"We have a good sound, we have a good bassist now, and we all
know the same language now, so we feel like we can take that language
and use it for our own devices," he explains.
Frankly, he adds, "I don’t know what the hell blues is anymore,
everything is blues to me," he says, "you do folk music, put
drums on it, and it becomes blues."
Johansen, 53, grew up on the eastern shore of Staten Island, not far
from the Verrazano Narrows bridge. "My father was a singer, classical
and light opera stuff, and he sang all that stuff before the war.
After the war, he became an insurance salesman, and he sang with community
groups and at parties," he explains. Johansen’s mother was a housewife
"until the last kid made five and then she became a librarian."
Johansen recalls his father had pretty eclectic tastes
in music and "his records were just laying around, so anybody
that wanted to play them could play them. We had the Harry Smith Archives
Records, the anthology of American Folk Music, around." Johansen
realized he might be able to make a living as a musician at his first
high school "battle of the bands."
"At the end of the first song, I don’t know what we played, probably
`Boogaloo Down Broadway’ and I just kept my eyes closed for the whole
first song. When it was over, I opened my eyes and everyone was cheering,"
he recalls. "I’ve been pretty relaxed about it ever since."
Johansen, who also plays rhythm guitar and harmonica at his performances,
is one of a handful of performers still on the scene who has been
able to transcend musical genres. He led the New York Dolls, a punk-rock
band, in the early and mid-1970s and then forged a significant solo
career for himself, recording for CBS/Sony Music in the early 1980s,
having mainstream rock ‘n’ roll hits with albums like "Here Comes
The Night" and "Live It Up." In 1987, he recorded in a
Latin vein as Buster Poindexter.
How does he explain his chameleon-like career as a singer and bandleader?
"There’s just so much great music on this planet," he says,
"you can never adequately explore all the forms. I never get tired
of music, because it’s my groove."
From his earliest days performing in the late 1960s Johansen has always
had a side career as an actor. In recent years, Johansen was featured
in four or five episodes of the HBO program, "Oz," about prison
life at an upstate New York correctional facility.
"When I was in the show they were filming it down at the Chelsea
market," he explains, "the guy who made the show, Tom Fontana,
he calls and says, `You want to be in the show?’ So I started watching
it and I couldn’t believe it," he says, referring to the raw,
realistic depiction of rapes and murders that are part of prison life.
"I would wait ’til my wife went to sleep and I would be watching
it at like two o’clock in the morning." Johansen explains his
character didn’t get killed, but rather had a heart attack when two
other prisoners were about to attack him.
"Acting for me, is like if somebody asks me to do something, I’ll
often do it, but I don’t go out and audition or anything," he
says. "I do my music and I like to paint."
In May, Johansen had his first art show at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery
in SoHo, a folk art gallery. He works with homemade acrylic paints
and renders paintings of animals and people mostly, he says. "The
show in May was iconographic, so it was pictures of saints, but also
pictures of chicks in bars — it was called `Saints and Sinners’,"
With the Harry Smiths and with Helm’s band, the Barnburners, "we
often will improvise beyond the song list, but we like to know what
we’re playing next.
"You need some kind of road map. I would like to be able to go
out there more free, less structured, but I just ain’t there yet,"
he says. Johansen, who’s been singing for more than three decades,
is a master showman who knows how to put together a carefully crafted
set. "I’ve got to have a little organization with my group, because
then I start thinking too much, and if I start thinking too much,
I’m dangerous," he adds.
— Richard J. Skelly
seventh annual Black Potatoe Music Festival, Red Mill Museum Grounds,
56 Main Street, Clinton, 908-735-6429. $27 in advance, $30 at gate
per day. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 11, 12 and 13. Friday
6-11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11, Sunday noon to 7:30. Www.blackpotatoe.com
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