What a surprise that David Johansen, who, in the ’70s, was the lipstick-smeared, platform-sole-wearing front man for the New York Dolls, enjoys Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Chopin, and Puccini.
“But everybody likes Puccini — I don’t have highbrow tastes,” says Johansen in a phone inteview from his home in Staten Island. That New York accent he used in the film “Scrooged” wasn’t made up, by the way. You can tell when he says, “I also really love Gustav Mahler,” (pronounced Mah-luh.)
The chameleon-like singer, actor, radio host and, as Buster Poindexter, self-invented lounge lizard, will bring his cigarette-cured voice to the Record Collector in Bordentown on Friday, June 4. Accompanied by Brian Koonin on guitar, it will be an acoustic evening, drawing from various eras of Johansen’s career, which now spans four decades.
It should be interesting to hear how his material translates acoustically, for example the Doll’s proto-punk “Looking for a Kiss.” To Johansen, they’re all just songs, though, and that’s what he loves the most: singing songs. “I like to sing as much as I can because it’s a way for me to express myself — to exorcise my demons,” he growls. “We’ll dig into the catalogue with songs I did as a solo artist, some Dolls songs that we didn’t get to play onstage because they were on the slower side, plus some of the Harry Smiths stuff.”
Johansen is referring to recordings he did a few years ago accompanied by the quartet the Harry Smiths, inspired by the 1997 reissue of the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a massive compilation of country and blues recordings from the 1920s and Harry Smith.
Mixed in with the country-blues, Johansen and the Harry Smiths performed their versions of folk-blues, songs by such legends as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Johansen continues to sing blues and explore American roots music, and has recently been performing with Hubert Sumlin, legendary blues guitarist best-known for playing in Howlin’ Wolf’s band.
“We just played at B.B. King’s (B.B. King Blues Club and Grill in New York),” Johansen says.
The Harry Smiths period is just one example of Johansen’s curiosity about music of all genres. Speaking of classical music, in 2007, Johansen was commissioned by the arts council of Staten Island to create an original piece, and he produced “Mara Dreams the Moon Gate of Uncommon Beauty,” a romantic-sounding, semi-classical work, inspired by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
“You can write classical music until the cows come home but it doesn’t get heard,” he says. “When someone commissions a piece, though, then you know it’s going to get played by an orchestra.”
Johansen really is a musicologist (Buster Poindexter claimed that he was one as well), and he gets to share his encyclopedic knowledge regularly with radio audiences through his long-standing show, “David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun,” which currently airs Sundays at noon and Tuesdays at midnight on Sirius FM.
“It’s popular on a far distant planet in the Sirius FM universe,” Johansen says. “People who have eclectic taste dig my show, you know, the glitterati and the cognoscenti. I play every kind of thing you can imagine: blues and rock, opera and jazz, singers from other countries, which I especially enjoy. It really opens you up to a world of music.”
Johansen’s penchant for music goes back to his childhood, where he was somewhere in the middle of older and younger siblings, all with varying tastes and large collections of vinyl. His father had been a singer in his younger years, before he settled into a career as an insurance salesman. Johansen’s mother was a librarian.
Born in 1950 in Staten Island and influenced by Mick Jagger and Rob Tyner of the MC5, Johansen grew up to play in numerous New York-area bands, founding the New York Dolls in 1971. They might be called the co-grandaddies of punk (along with Iggy Pop) but the group fell apart in 1975, just as the New York punk scene was gathering steam. Johansen launched a solo career a few years later, putting out several critically acclaimed but financially disappointing recordings.
In 1984 he reinvented himself as Buster Poindexter, a tuxedo-wearing, piano bar habitue, backed up by the Uptown Horns, a group of New York-based musicians’ musicians who have recorded and performed with everyone who’s anyone, and were sometimes the house band on “Saturday Night Live.” Performing a mix of novelty songs, jazz, calypso, and lounge music, Poindexter and the band had a hit in 1988 with “Hot Hot Hot.”
A natural actor, Johansen found himself in various film and television roles, appearing, as mentioned, in “Scrooged,” as well as “Let It Ride,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” and briefly on the HBO series “Oz.”
A much different incarnation of the New York Dolls has been touring for about five years, and, in fact, Johansen will just be getting back from a Dolls’ gig in London in time for the show at the Record Collector.
Interestingly, the Record Collector didn’t approach Johansen. Quite the opposite. The singer heard that the intimate Bordentown venue was a great place for him to try out his acoustic show and contacted promoter Randy “Now” Ellis. It’s not the first time the veteran DJ and promoter has had famous performers reach out to him.
A lifelong resident of Bordentown, Ellis has been booking and promoting “living room concerts” at the Record Collector (co-owned by John and Sue Chrambanis) for about two years now. Things started out humbly but really picked up steam when Ellis brought Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles, to the venue in the fall of 2008.
“I cold E-mailed him and mentioned that I had run a club for 20 years,” Ellis says. “He was intrigued by the idea of playing in a record store.”
Then came punk-pub rocker Graham Parker, former Monkee Peter Tork, and singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
“Now that the musicians are older, they’re not doing the long tours, and they’re looking for places to play on weekends,” Ellis says. Many of these artists remember Ellis from the years he was the booking agent for the former City Gardens venue in Trenton.
The Ramones played there 25 times. Nirvana performed at City Gardens just before they got huge. Ellis also booked Soundgarden, the Replacements, the Dead Kennedys, Joe Jackson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Joan Jett, and a Flock of Seagulls. Then there was the infamous REM concert in October, 1982.
“Everyone claims to have been at that REM concert but there was hardly anybody there,” Ellis says.
The list goes on and on, however, and even includes comedian Henny Youngman, composer Philip Glass, ‘60s icon Timothy Leary, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.
Ellis, 53, says he has been promoting and booking bands since his days at Bordentown Regional High School. A fourth generation Bordentonian, Ellis comes from a musical family, with a grandfather who was notable in vaudeville, touring with and managing the Little Trixie Review.
He is married to Mary Mindas, a veteran music teacher and autism specialist in the Monmouth Regional School district. A talented vocalist, Mindas was accepted into the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for this summer’s season at Tanglewood.
Ellis likes to say, back in City Gardens’ heyday, he booked everyone except U2 and the Cure. “I was even thinking about booking Madonna but that never happened,” he says. “Although some people will swear they saw Madonna at City Gardens.”
David Johansen, the Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, June 5, 8 p.m. All-ages acoustic concert. $25 in advance; $30 day of show. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.