“Look Away” (1996) by Iggy Pop

This rare ballad from Iggy Pop, from his 1996 album “Naughty Little Doggie,” is a profoundly sad song about Johnny Thunders, doomed lead guitarist for the New York Dolls and his own band The Heartbreakers, and their mutual girlfriend, the infamous 1970s groupie Sable Starr.  The lyrics are matter-of-fact, but melancholy and sad. It’s laced with the kind of regret only a long-term survivor of bad habits can describe.  Iggy is not taking blame for what befell Thunders and Starr, but importantly, doesn’t deny his complicity in some of the sad things that occurred in all of their lives. It’s just the bad s–t that happens when three people suffering from addiction interact with each other on occasion.  Still, I find this song incredibly moving.

“Now Thunder and me did not part friends
What we did once I wouldn’t do again
So he stayed with the pure dream and followed the moon
‘Til the drugs in his body made his mind a cartoon

Look away Look away

So a few years later Thunder died broke
Sable had a baby back at her folks
Me I went straight and serious too
There wasn’t much else that I could do

Look away Look away

So now that I’m straight I’m settled too
I eat and I sleep and I work like you
I got lots of feelings but I hold them down
That’s a way I cope with this s–tty town

Look away Look away”

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“Death Mansion” – The Great Dismal Swamis

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If you grew up in Southeastern Virginia or Northeastern North Carolina, the name of this band is hopefully bringing a smile to your face, as it’s a clever take on the Great Dismal Swamp. Want your smile to grow bigger? Take a listen to their song “Death Mansion.” This is nasty, snotty garage punk at its finest. It reminds me a lot of the New York Dolls’ “Chatterbox” only faster and more aggressive.

“Pills / Trash” – New York Dolls (from the the German TV show “Musikladen” 1973)

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Two killer tracks from the New York Dolls’ self-titled debut album (my all-time favorite #1 album … no s–t!) done live for a German music TV show in 1973. A really killer live performance.

Even though there’s only two members that are still living, the recently revived Dolls opened for a mutual Motley Crue and Poison tour last year in the States. I’m very sorry I didn’t see the Max Factor trio with brio last summer.

“Frenchette” (live) – David Johansen

One of the most underrated singer-songwriters of the late 1970s is David Johansen, former lead singer of the New York Dolls.  Here’s my favorite Johansen solo track, this time in a stelllar live version from the promotion-only “The David Johansen Group Live” album recorded at New York City’s Bottom Line club in 1978.  Whether with the Dolls, solo, or in his Buster Poindexter alter-ego persona (sadly, where Johansen found his biggest commercial success), the man knows how to put on a show.

“Pills” – Bo Diddley

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I first heard this song when the New York Dolls did a very different hard rock/punk cover on their 1973 self-titled debut album.  It’s clear from the Bo Diddley version that the “pills” he’s referring to is a sexual metaphor for the “rock and roll nurse” that went to his head.  The Dolls’ version, on the other hand, may actually have no metaphor attached.  Given that band’s legendary chemical intake, they could have just been talking about “the pills.”  In any case, both versions are great and I’m giving a shout out to the original Bo Diddley version which probably doesn’t get as much play these days.

“Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson” by Kevin Avery

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Kevin Avery’s biography / anthology of rock writer Paul Nelson, called “Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson”.  Most people have no idea who Nelson was, but he was an integral part of rock history between the 1960s and 1980s.  He knew Bob Dylan when he was still Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota and introduced Dylan/Zimmerman to a lot of rare folk recordings that wound up being Dylan staples.  He was also one of the few folk critics at the time who supported Dylan’s move to rock in the mid-1960s.  He worked for Mercury Records in the early 1970s, and Nelson was not only Rod Stewart’s favorite Mercury employee (Stewart was Mercury’s biggest star at that time), but Nelson also signed the New York Dolls.  As a critic for Rolling Stone, he also championed Bruce Springsteen, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones early in their careers.   He also wrote about and became friends with Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Clint Eastwood.   In the early 1980s, he drifted away from his career as a writer/editor and had difficulty meeting deadlines or completing articles.  He worked at a video store during the last years of his life and then gradually lost touch with reality.  He died penniless and alone, a sad end to a brilliant career.

“Everything is an Afterthought” is a loving tribute to a writer who deserved bigger and better success than his demons would allow.   It’s clear from the testimonials and interviews given for this book how loved Nelson was by his colleagues and friends (i.e. Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jonathan Lethem).  Special thanks to Avery, as well as Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books for having the vision and passion to bring us this story.

“Pills” – New York Dolls

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From their killer 1973 debut album, the New York Dolls re-imagine Bo Diddley’s classic about a rock and roll nurse who’s a little too generous with the medication. While I believe Bo’s original is using “medication” as a metaphor for the “garden of Earthly delights,” I’m not so sure the Dolls aren’t taking the lyrics … well … a little more literally.