Monday, April 30, 2007

“Maimed Happiness” / The New York Dolls

If, like me, you missed the New York Dolls the first time around, this 2006 reincarnation -- at least with the two surviving members, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen – may seem like a big case of “So what?” Rockpile reuniting -- that would excite me; a Kinks reunion would have me over the moon. But I don’t think the world was holding its breath waiting for One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. (From that wry title, I suspect Syl and David know this perfectly well.) The eyeliner and platform boots that were so groundbreaking in the early 1970s have lost their shock value; all the punk bands they inspired took that jam-kicking energy long ago and made it business as usual.

Still, any David Johansen is better than no David Johansen. I enjoyed his solo act in the late 70s, I got a kick out of his performances as the pompadored lounge-lizard Buster Poindexter, and his Mansion of Fun show on Sirius is the best reason for subscribing to satellite radio. David Johansen’s not a great singer or a great songwriter, but I dig his dark, campy sense of fun. And what these songs do have is that off-kilter sensibility that made the New York Dolls special back in the day.

“Maimed Happiness” is a wonderful oxymoron of a song (how long have I been waiting to use that word in a rock review?) about midlife resignation. I suppose you could see life this way at age 22, but this sort of philosophy doesn't usually ripen without years of disillusionments. “It’s a maimed happiness,” Johansen announces in that gravelly voice, adding wearily, “I keep trying to acquiesce . . . Life takes a lot of finesse.” He’s not fighting it, just trying to wriggle through safely. Behind him, the song ambles along like an early 60s pop ballad -- four chords, a touch of electric piano atop the drums and strumming guitars. A sax wanders in sighing here and there, strings (or the synth equivalent thereof) underlying the bridge, but nothing too passionate. “Don’t know if there’s that much to be said / For this world or the time that we spend,” Johansen croons in the bridge; but, he points out, “I’d die, then I’d want to live / This wasted life over again.” Sure, things are crappy, but what are our options?

The sense of mortality running through this, you just wouldn't get that from a typical twenty-something. “Yeah I been to the doctor,” Johansen sings, with a shrug. I can just see him, electrodes taped to his chest, coughing on the doctor's command. “He said there ain’t much he could do / You got the human condition / Boy I feel sorry for you.” I love the submerged chuckle in his voice there. Might as well get used to it, he's saying. It's true, some people are naturally inclined to see the dark side of things: “There’s a sorrowful joy / I’ve known since I was a boy / Joyful sorrow I guess / It’s a maimed happiness.” The glass is half-empty AND half-full at this moment, and I feel as if finding that poise is a victory in itself. The happiness will always be maimed – but there will always be happiness. I'll take that.

After thirty-some years -- after seeing their old bandmates self-destruct, drop out, and die -- the Dolls are rock survivors. They've come back to us with a little hard-won wisdom, and that in itself makes the whole reunion thing worth it.

Maimed Happiness sample

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