Before becoming the New York Dolls’ frontman, David Johansen worked at a variety of downtown establishments—including a St. Mark’s clothing store that provided costumes for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Max’s Kansas City.
Several future stars and cult artists also passed through Max’s Kansas City. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman worked as busboys, and country singer Emmylou Harris was a waitress in the late 1960s. Jayne County recalled another waitress who “was always stoned and regularly dropped cheeseburgers in people’s laps. Her name was Debbie Harry.” She had sung backup vocals in a short-lived hippie band named Wind in the Willows, then quit the group and worked as a waitress at Max’s. “I had fun and I certainly had friends there,” she said, “but I wasn’t part of the Warhol crowd. I wasn’t part of any single crowd. I was pretty much the fly on the wall, so to speak.” The back room crowd was always trying to one‑up each other and gain Warhol’s attention—like Andrea Whips, who might jump on the table and announce, “It’s SHOWTIME,” then insert a wine bottle in her vagina. “Max’s back room was everything you’d think it would be,” said Play-House of the Ridiculous actor Michael Arian, “with art on the walls and people freaking out and jumping up on the tables, throwing chickpeas everywhere, wagging their feet at people, and fucking on the floor in the back. It was a great place.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Pam Tent lived in downtown New York in the late 1960s before moving to San Francisco and joining the Cockettes. She was squatting in a rundown building on East Third Street that was populated by a biker gang, the Aliens, who rode their motorcycles up and down the stairs. “It was pretty wild,” she said. “It was a very scary scene, very dubious, so we didn’t stay there long.” Tent didn’t have a steady job, so she panhandled in the streets while singing “Pennies from Heaven” and catching coins that people threw at her. She had been a natural performer since she was a child, when her mother made curtains and set up bleachers in their backyard for a “circus” that she produced every summer. While she was still living downtown, Tent met future New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. He was working after high school in a clothing store in the St. Mark’s Place area that had all sorts of garish clothes strewn throughout—fantastical outfits with boas, rhinestones, and other glitter-camp materials. “It turns out that he was making costumes for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company,” Johansen said of the store’s owner. “So I started going around to where they would rehearse and getting involved in that, playing guitar or doing the sound and lights. Sometimes I would be a spear-carrier or something.” He appeared in a few Ludlam productions, such as Whores of Babylon, where he appeared as a lion, nude with teased hair. “David was walking down the street and we got into a conversation,” Tent said of the first time they crossed paths. “There was never stranger danger. Everybody just was brothers and sisters. David and I used to sit around St. Mark’s Place, which was a place for all the hippies.” The two became quite close, and he introduced her to Max’s Kansas City, where he had worked.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Mercer Arts Center’s aesthetic was wide open enough to make room for glam groups, avant-garde composers, and even funk bands like Dance—which regularly played with the New York Dolls. “What was popular at that time was a kind of non-rhythmic pop music,” said Dance frontman Marion Cowings, one of the handful of African Americans in that scene. “A lot of audiences back then weren’t conditioned to dancing, but the Mercer’s crowd was great.” The band’s guitarist, Nestor Zarragoitia, grew up in Greenwich Village and in the early 1970s was living in SoHo in the same building with Cowings and Dolls frontman David Johansen. “SoHo used to be a garment district,” Cowings recalled. “All of a sudden the factories started folding and moving out, and the artists came in and fixed them up and became a community.” Only a few galleries like OK Harris dotted the area, along with the occasional bodega, martial arts studio, and what was left of the industrial sector. “The workers would come out of the factories,” Zarragoitia said, “so you’d see them sitting outside eating their lunch.” Cowings was friends with Johansen, which led to Dance playing at Mercer’s with the New York Dolls. “We opened up for them a lot,” Zarragoitia said, “and the last gig we did at the Mercer Arts Center with the Dolls was that night before the collapse.”
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Dolls first threw rent parties at their downtown loft on 119 Chrystie Street before hitting the DIY concert circuit. With Jackie Curtis as the opening act, they played their first proper show in early 1972 in the Hotel Diplomat. The group also had a short residency at a gay bathhouse, the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler regularly performed with Barry Manilow (who sometimes blended in with the patrons by wearing nothing but a white towel). Underground rock, Off-Off-Broadway, and the cabaret scenes converged in the early 1970s, cross-pollinating each other. Midler, for example, had appeared at La MaMa in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets before she leveraged her act at the Continental Baths into pop stardom. Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB, noted that the Dolls’ glittery, feminine clothes stood in sharp contrast to their masculine swagger. “That’s what was interesting,” Bayley said, “because these real guy-guys were wearing off-the-shoulder blouses and being very confident in their heterosexuality.” The Dolls had several ties to the fashion world; guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, for instance, was a designer who had a successful clothing company called Truth and Soul. “There were lots of people who wore colorful clothes or scarves or what have you,” said Agosto Machado. “It wasn’t unusual to see a more masculine man with a pink scarf, or have a few of their nails painted different colors.” Lisa Jane Persky added, “Growing up in the Village, everybody already dressed like the New York Dolls. And everybody was dressing like that in theater.”
Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman found out about the Dolls when the British music weekly Melody Maker raved about them. “Lance and I thought, ‘God, they’re just playing right down the street,’ and so we went and saw them, and then we went every single time they played.” They would sometimes bring along Lance’s mom, Pat Loud, who was game for anything. “I have pictures of Pat Loud in the audience at Mercer’s,” Hoffman recalled. “I was on the dance floor right in front of the stage and I had my Brownie Instamatic, and she got in the picture in front of the New York Dolls.” Their new friend Paul Zone had first seen the Dolls at the Hotel Diplomat, where the crowd numbered about a hundred and everyone dressed in their own original styles. “It just seemed so different from anything that we’d ever seen before,” Zone recalled. “We just knew right then and there that there was a place that we could feel like we can express ourself without feeling like an outcast.” The New York Dolls became downtown stars after they began performing every Tuesday night in the Mercer’s two-hundred-seat Oscar Wilde Room, which was perfect for the group because of its theatrical lighting. “Just walking into the Mercer that first time and seeing them onstage and everyone in the audience,” Zone said, “you were just like, ‘This is it.’ ” Richard Hell was also drawn to the Dolls’ simple songs and sloppy performances, which he found riveting. “Their gigs were unlike any I’d ever experienced,” Hell recalled. “They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band.” The Dolls attracted future members of Television, the Ramones, Blondie, and other early punk bands to the Mercer Arts Center.
The Mercer Arts Center was the brainchild of air-conditioning magnate Seymour Kaback, a theater lover who turned an old downtown building into a large maze-like arts complex with several theaters and concert rooms. In addition to two three-hundred-seat theaters and two two-hundred-seat theaters, Mercer’s had an art-house cinema, jazz lounge, bar, restaurant, two boutiques, and the Kitchen—an experimental film and performance venue housed in the hotel’s old kitchen. All the rooms in Mercer’s emptied into a central gathering space that had an all-white design, which some people called the Clockwork Orange Room. “Whatever you were going to see,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “you would run into other people who were going to see something else. That’s what made it more interesting. So maybe you were going to see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I was going to see Wayne County or the New York Dolls. We would be sitting in the same room before or after the show, but we might not have been in that room otherwise.” On some nights, David Bowie could be seen slouched in a bright red plastic chair next to a massive antique mirror, absorbing the atmosphere. Eric Emerson invited the Dolls to open for the Magic Tramps at Mercer’s, and they sent a jolt through the downtown scene by reminding folks that enthusiasm trumped technical proficiency. For drummer Jerry Nolan—who started out playing in Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth before joining the New York Dolls—David Johansen and company returned rock ’n’ roll back to basics.
Cockette Pam Tent and Dee Dee Ramone were already an item when he joined the band, which provided the Ramones with a connection to the various downtown arts scenes. He got his cosmetology license and was working for the Pierre Michel Salon, but as Tent recalled, “Dee Dee wanted to be this nasty rocker around downtown. He and I had a lot of fun. Oh, my god, did we have fun. He was like a little boy and he would giggle at things. He would read comic books, but he used to drive me crazy. I came home from work once, and he let Johnny Thunders babysit my four-year-old son. He took him out on the town—Johnny Thunders, of all hare-brained people!” After the Cockettes’ disastrous New York debut in 1971, Tent resettled in the city because she was already friends with David Johansen, who had just started out with the New York Dolls. “David was a good friend and he was around,” Cockette Lendon Sadler said. “Pam had an East Coast connection to lots of people.” She performed in The Palm Casino Revue at the Bouwerie Lane Theater with people from the Cockettes, Ridiculous, and Warhol crowds, and also was a member of Savage Voodoo Nuns. That drag group also included Fayette Hauser, John Flowers, and Tomata du Plenty—all from the Cockettes—as well as Arturo Vega, who later became the Ramones’ longtime lighting designer and also created their iconic eagle logo. Tent was staying with Hauser and Flowers in a loft at 6 East Second Street, right around the corner from CBGB, and Vega lived below them. “We introduced Dee Dee to Arturo,” she said, “and after I left New York it became the Ramones hangout, that whole place.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore