Nuthin’ like broke-ness to get you digging through the personal library: not a bad thing, really, when it means rediscovering books and discs that have been lying unacknowledged for way too long. Recently I’ve been playing and replaying a disc from 1984 that didn’t get much attention when it was released, Sweet Revenge (Passport Records). Per VH-1, it was Revenge‘s failure to find an audience that pushed the former New York Dolls frontman to adopt the Buster Poindexter persona which he parleyed into a performing gig on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-eighties. Wouldn’t be the first or last time that I’ve fallen in love with music that hardly no one else knows about, so let’s take a closer look at this ‘un, okay?
Revenge was the last new studio album to appear under Johansen’s name until he resurfaced in 2000 playing the traditional blues belter with a band called the Harry Smiths. Many rock fans have an ambivalent attitude toward Dave the Solo Artiste: as frontman for punk/glam pioneers New York Dolls, he was part of a music-making moment so seminal that there’s probably no way he could have matched it going off on his own. Even his 1978 solo debut, which featured songs that had been part of his old band’s repertoire, don’t measure up to the divine blooz-rock noise of the Dolls. The two Dolls albums are touchstones of punk; the early Johansen discs are “merely” great hard rock records.
By the time Johansen released Revenge for indy label Jem Records, he’d moved even further from the joyous cacophony that had made him infamous. Produced by keyboardist and future film composer Joe Delia, whose piano and synth fingerings are all over this disc, the release has more of a New Wave feel than any of Johansen’s earlier releases: some tracks (“Big Trouble,” “Too Many Midnights”) have the same pop pomp feel of the best Blondie dance-rock, while two cuts apparently done for avante-disco impresarios (Davitt Sigerson & Michael Zilkha (whose Ze Records was home to Kid Creole & the Coconuts and James Chance) show our man engaging in early rap. Some fans called it heresy and sell-out (when Rhino Records put together a career-spanning “Best Of” set, no tracks from this disc were included), but Revenge was only a hint of where David Jo would go once he doffed Buster Poindexter’s tux: from retro swing to r-&-b novelty numbers to salsa to the overplayed novelty tune “Hot Hot Hot.”
Still, in retrospect, the release can be seen as a bridge ‘tween the proto-Eric Burden moves of his first solos and the cocktail swilling ne’er-do-well who’d host his short-lived “Happy Hour” on VH-1. You can really hear Johansen enjoying himself as a dance-clubber: his sense of fun as a vocalist isn’t always captured on his studio albums, but it comes across clearly on Revenge. Lyrically, the album moves from still-topical topicality (“Have You Heard the News”) to self-mockery to heartfelt romantic hokum. In “Big Trouble,” he even makes Buster the hero of a Frankie and Johnny yarn, while in “I Ain’t Workin’ Anymore,” he happily imagines being rich enough to loaf the rest of life away. (Best line on the album: “Let’s go down to Norway and live like Vikings there/We’ll be like Hagar and Helga; we won’t have a care!”) In “King of Babylon,” he rappingly describes himself as a “benevolent despot,” while in the sweet reflective ballad “In My Own Time,” he describes himself watching beautiful people on a city sidewalk. They’re the types of song stories you can imagine the saloon singer Buster assaying, if he weren’t so busy rummaging through the discography of old r-&-b belters like Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown.
Johansen still Does the Rock, of course: most notably on the campily histrionic finale “N.Y. Doll.” Backed by full-throated songstresses like Patti Scialfa and Soozie Kirscher/Tyrell, with guitarist David Nelson tossing in familiar-yet-still-compelling guitar riffs, you can almost hear Johansen bidding fare-thee-well to the band and sound of his youth – one more reason, I suspect, that so many Dolls fans stayed away from this disc. (And, to be fair, “Doll” is arguably the weakest track on the album.) I would’ve loved it if he’d gone on to explore the decade’s dance-rock sounds more thoroughly, but it was not to be. Three years later, though, our man (with Delia leading the Banshees of Blue) would release his first Buster Poindexter album, leaving the barely known Revenge to linger on the shelves of a few hard-core obsessives. The disc deserves better, but then pop music is filled with such injustices. Me, I’m just glad I recalled I owned this CD . . .