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David Johansen Has 'Mixed Feelings' About New York Dolls Rock Hall Nom as He Preps Sylvain Sylvain Tribute

David Johansen
Noam Galai/WireImage

David Johansen performs during the 34th Annual John Lennon Tribute Benefit Concert at Symphony Space on Dec. 5, 2014 in New York City.

A band whose impact far outpaced their commercial performance, New York Dolls never rose past No. 116 on the Billboard 200 (with their self-titled debut in 1973), but there's a slew of artists from the '70s and beyond whose No. 1s would be unthinkable without the pioneering look, sound and attitude of these glammed-up NYC proto-punks.

On one hand, you can see why the Dolls aren't yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; but on the other grimy-fingered, nail-polish-slathered paw, it's wild to think that a band who embodied rock 'n' roll chaos for an entire generation of budding musicians isn't in the Rock Hall yet. That may change in 2021, with the New York Dolls on the ballot for just the second time ever after more than 20 years of eligibility.

After the death of Sylvain Sylvain on Jan. 13 at age 69 due to cancer, David Johansen is the sole surviving member of the band that is nominated for Rock Hall induction (nominated members are David Johansen, Arthur Kane, Billy Murcia, Jerry Nolan, Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders). "I have mixed feelings," Johansen muses in a laid-back, gravelly tone to Billboard of the nomination. Taking a break from preparations for this Sunday's livestream tribute to Sylvain -- tickets are now available for the event, which includes Debbie Harry, Henry Rollins, Earl Slick, Mara Hennessey, Leah Hennessey, Thurston Moore, Glen Matlock and more -- Johansen shared his candid opinion on the Rock Hall, updated us on the progress of the Martin Scorsese project he's involved in, and explained why he's often thinking about "having a nice cup of coffee" when he's cooped up in a studio.

Congrats on the Rock Hall nomination. When you heard about it, what was your immediate reaction?

I have mixed feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t know. It's funny because as I was sleeping this morning, I was getting so many texts and messages. People in my coterie seemed excited about it.

Is it at least validating?

To me the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame appears to be a racket. [Laughs] I don't know what to think about it, I guess it'll sink in eventually.

If you get in, would you show up? Perform?

I'm like, "Well, what's the deal? We're nominated, but we're not inducted? We're not indictable?" I'm not even gonna think about that. I think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as some homeless guy who comes in with a raincoat and a bottle of Sneaky Pete in his pocket. These guys have shaken him upside down till all the coins came out of his pocket over the years, and now they're gonna give him an award? "Why don't you sing that old song you sang?" "OK, sir."

This Valentine's Day you have the tribute to Sylvain Sylvain. How is that going?

Mara [Hennessey, Johansen's wife] is working on it, putting together a slideshow of pictures she took, and then we're gonna have Earl Slick in it, he's someplace else, we'll -- what's the word? -- phone him in. He'll be onscreen. Jesse Malin and Diane Gentile were in charge of rounding up the troops. It should be good. Leah [Hennessey, Johansen's stepdaughter] is gonna sing a song that Syl and I wrote. She has a new side out called "8 Men," it's really good. She's gonna do a number with one of the people she works with on Zhe Zhe, the web series, Ruby McCollister is gonna be on it. I'm looking forward to seeing that. I'm waiting with tremendous anticipation to enjoy it. I'm gonna sing a song that Syl and I wrote when the Dolls reunited. It was the first song that we wrote together in that period. [Laughs] I hope there's few, if any, cringe-worthy moments.

I saw one of those reunion shows at Bowery Ballroom in 2011. It was incredible.

[Laughs] It was kind of a mess, but it was fun. We did enjoy ourselves; it was a nice hometown crowd. We hadn't been together for many years at that point, Syl and I, we took a break for 27 years or something, and then we got back together to do just one show in London, at the Meltdown festival that Morrissey was curating. So we got together to do one show and then it snowballed into many years of touring and I have so many just great memories of Syl and his personality, and of course his playing -- it goes without saying he's such a great player. I have so many fond memories of his personality, we had so many laughs.

Showtime announced Martin Scorsese was working on a film with you. Is that still happening?

Oh yeah, very much. He shot a performance that I did and then I did a bunch of interviews, and there's a lot of archival material. I don't know if his gang has decided what the format is gonna be. I know the Fran Lebowitz thing is episodic on Netflix. I don't know if this is gonna be like that or like a long show. I don’t know what the deal will be as far as it's presented, but he does a really good job. He's great. I don't have too much trepidation about it. And Mara is one of the producers, so she's keeping an eye on it.

I assume the interviews delved into the Dolls' early days. Do you like revisiting and talking about those times?

I can't even remember how the interviews went. I did them with Leah because it was a pandemic. They gave her a professional camera, she was on the earn-as-you-learn plan, and she would set up the camera and ask me questions. I was very open, because I was talking to her. And I have a tendency to disregard the camera anyway. I'm sure I talked about everything because she did about five of them, but I can't remember the details.

Marty used to come to Mercer Art Center, for god's sake, he was a big fan over all those years of the sh-- that I do: He's come to see the shows at the Bottom Line that I did, the Harry Smith shows, he comes to the Buster [Poindexter] shows, he likes the music I make a lot. I have a radio show on Sirius and I play a very eclectic group of songs that span everything from rock 'n' roll and jazz and opera and anything you can think of really; it's mostly just songs that I like. He actually archives those shows and I've been doing it for like, I don’t know, 20 years or something. I guess he likes my taste in music as well.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Announces 2021 Nominees | Billboard News

Are you working on new music right now?

Oh yeah, I'm always doing that. I'm doing it leisurely. I fool around with stuff as the time goes by and then when I'm gonna make a record I go into an intense finishing-songs-up thing and get 'em ready to record.

Are you itching to get back out and perform when quarantine is over?

Yeah, but I'm in total acceptance of this situation. I don't see any future in thinking about it and worrying about it, because whatever is gonna happen is gonna happen. I don't want to occupy my mind with that. But I was talking to Earl [Slick] as we were putting this thing together we're doing on Sunday, and he was talking about playing, and I kinda got the fever for the length of that conversation. Then I started thinking, "well, it's really no point in starting to wonder when this is this gonna end." For me that's the sensible approach.

We did a song prior to the election called "Sinking Ship," it was a calypso thing, so we have stuff we do at home, Mara and me put that video together. It's interesting because I work with Brian Coonan since I don’t even know how many years, he's always been my bandleader; he's a brilliant, genius musician and we get along swimmingly. He has a studio up in his house which is up in Rockland County. He started making this track and I would sing it from my house and it came out so good I thought, "in the future, I don’t have to be schlepping to some darkened studio." Lots of times I can be in the studio thinking, "oh man I wish I was someplace else." It’s not when I'm actually doing something in the studio, it's the time in between. It makes me a little antsy, I guess. Sometimes I'll go to a studio and it has windows and I'm thinking, "Ohhhh, this is a good studio because you can at least look out the window." A lot of them are caves. You go in, shut the world out, and I'm a bring-the-world-in kind of person. It can be with the people you love or the people you love to work with and it still has its moments of being, "I wish I was, I don’t know, someplace having a nice cup of coffee with somebody."