A punk rock coffee table book sounds like an oxymoron; one of the most dangerous, confrontational, aggressive genres of music being something to look over with tea from your friends at church? If Bob Gruen’s New York Dolls Photographs is on any coffee tables, some would say, it should be next to tea laced with PCP or with syringes and broken, bloodied guitar strings in place of crumpets and toast.
Counterintuitively, however, this makes sense. Unlike most classic punk, proto-punk, rock ‘n’ roll-what have you bands, the New York Dolls go beyond just music. They have a look: a highly imitated and misinterpreted drag show that would later be adopted by countless bands, great and terrible. They have a scene: the band was the bridge between the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s 1960s racy art scenesters and the mohawked crowd of the 1970s’ CBGBs.
Perhaps most importantly, they have a spirit, an ethos that is at least partly a perception of their lack of an ethos. All the Dolls did was play trashy, bastardized versions of songs people had been playing 20 years earlier (or longer, if you count the blues like this band would). But that lack of elitism was the key, that belief that if you’re an outcast, individualistic weirdo, you can still play rock ‘n’ roll as well as (or better than) Clapton or Zeppelin. The overwhelming sense of rock as freedom, as the ultimate democratic institution, is the hardest thing to convey about the band in a book of photographs.
For his part, Gruen, who had a particularly close relationship with the band, does his best to convey that spirit, and probably does as good a job as anyone can do. But if a picture is worth 1000 words, it seems somewhat weird that Gruen can only really convey that spirit in choice quotes by the likes of Richard Hell, Morrissey, Tommy Ramone, and Debbie Harry. The images are certainly stunning, and the band’s natural photogenic qualities are striking. But the images in New York Dolls Photographs have a hard time portraying the band as something more than a group of simple musicians who just wanted to get dolled up, and could still show off their manliness while dressed in women’s clothing.
It seems like such a strange contradiction. Images are more powerful and universally relatable than words, but to truly convey the intellectual impact of the New York Dolls, words are much more powerful. Through Gruen’s beautiful photography we can fully grasp the Dolls’ image and perception, it’s place in history, it’s sense of community, and its more lighthearted, almost silly qualities.
But to fully get why the New York Dolls are one of the most important bands in all of rock and roll, you need words — words from authoritative sources at that — to come close to conveying that meaning. This is not a new problem; even Aristotle and Plato consider the contradictions between knowledge, passion and their expression in media. In terms of how early 1970s proto-punk is seen in 20th-century, post-postmodernist eyes, however, we get a result that is maddeningly incomplete at no fault of its own.
Of course, missing in both images of the bands and discussions of their legacy is the backbone of the New York Dolls: their music. If images convey the presentation, and articles like this can covey the so-called importance, it’s up to the music, both on the eponymous first album and its often overlooked follow-up Too Much Too Soon, to convey the primal energy, spirit, and passion (pathos, if you will). That’s another side of the Dolls that can’t be conveyed in a book of photos; pictures of live shows are no substitute for the sublime opening of “Personality Crisis,” the legendary drum beat of “Trash,” or the fury of David Johansen’s singing and Johnny Thunders’ shredding in “Babylon.” You won’t get it from this review either. But the fact that the New York Dolls are outstanding in whatever medium you choose is no small feat. That kind of impact is something that very few artists, let alone drugged-out rock bands, can ever hope to accomplish.
One more note that doesn’t follow any other point: if Heath Ledger’s Joker was influenced by Johnny Rotten, and Rotten and the Sex Pistols took their image and spirit from the New York Dolls, it follows by the transitive property of rock that the Dolls were the original Why So Serious band. It’s impossible to look at Gruen’s photos of the band dressed as gangsters named the Lipstick Killers and not think of Ledger’s joker.