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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

Staten Island.

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

last year.

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

Lightnin’" ?

"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’,"

he explains.

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

Levon Helm and the Barnburners featuring David Johansen,

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.

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