A New York Doll of a Day

“New York City doesn’t get any better than this, does it?” said New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain towards the end of his group’s headlining set at the Village Voice Siren Festival Saturday night. It was intended as a purely rhetorical question, for if you’re a certain type of person – the type who loves the sleaze and trash of New York City as celebrated by this most influential of its bands – then you would have been hard put to disagree. The infamous Coney Island, replete with its freak shows, boardwalk, amusement rides and massive beach, on a sunny but not oppressively hot summer Saturday; a free music festival across two stages featuring groups of a caliber people are mostly willing to pay for; a Cyclones baseball game taking place at the new stadium a few hundred yards away; one of the last places in New York City where drinking beer in public is not only permitted but actively endorsed; and the New York Dolls as headlining act at sunset… truly, what’s not to love?

Coney Island at sunset on a perfect summer Saturday.

I hit up the Siren Festival on a whim and a prayer. Having driven my mother down to Newark Airport mid-Saturday afternoon to conclude her two-week visit, I checked my watch, considered heading back 135 miles for my dinner, posited driving to Prospect Park to grab an early seat for the Hal Wilner Doc Pomus Tribute at Celebrate Brooklyn, and then thought, Sod it: if the rumors are true, and Coney Island as we all know and love it is headed for yet another rapacious developer’s wrecking ball this winter, then what better way to see it out than at the Sixth Annual Village Voice-sponsored Siren Festival? The 20-mile drive from Newark, took almost as long as the drive home would have done, and I had to park a mile away from the action, and I just missed Matt and Kim as I did all the earlier performers like We Are Scientists and Dr. Dog and the Noisettes and the Detroit Cobras, and when I got there and saw the hour-long lines at the Nathan’s stand and found myself stuck 100 yards away from the stage where M.I.A. was performing, I remembered how, after my last experience at Siren, I vowed ‘never again.’ Within moments of arriving, I ran into iJamming! Pubber Chris Benton, who enquired about our new home in the Catskills. “Imagine a scene diametrically opposite to this one,” I said, taking in the crowds, the concrete, the rickety amusement rides, the noise, the trash and did I mention the crowds? “It could not be more different if it tried.”

The Coney Island Boardwalk

But if you like crowds – and you shouldn’t live in NYC if you don’t, and I personally enjoy them in the right environment – then Coney Island is truly one of the greatest places in the world, the very personification of New York City’s infamous multi-cultural energy crammed into a couple of square miles of borderline chaos. Brits may want to think of Brighton or Southend or Blackpool at their mid-summer peak, and then multiply every aspect of those places several times over (minus the violence, which seems forbidden at Coney Island as if by collective unstated agreement). Then imagine it being transplanted to New York F***ing City. Then recognize that they’re still not close to imagining it. And then they’ll be close.

Shoot the Freak: Only in New York, folks.

Saturday afternoon and evening I took in all in with the gentle contentment of a relatively passive observer who’s done all the tourist stuff before. There wasn’t time to join the lines for a ride; I didn’t want to risk a beer on a hot day with a long drive ahead of me; I hadn’t bought my bathing clothes; I wasn’t especially hungry. Instead, I watched kids hoola-hooping to improvised percussion on the boardwalk, I listened to Mexican guitarists busk on the beach, I saw more tattoo’d couples canoodling than is legal in most countries, I laughed at the ‘Shoot the Freak’ attraction even though it looked like a classic New York con, I soaked in the joyous screams of the adults on the Cyclone and the parents calling after their wayward kids, I saw enough sunburn to last a lifetime, and I wondered how a city as great as New York could ever condone redeveloping something that so clearly still draws people in by the tens of thousands and sends them home happy.

The Coney Island beach

Oh, and I caught some music. It’s hard to offer an opinion on M.I.A.’s set based on lack of visibility and the poor sound that’s a necessary evil of the long and narrow Stillwell Avenue; clearly, she drew a massive crowd and it was refreshing that it included a black audience that was probably on the ‘Island’ mainly for the beach. Over at the less hectic 10th Street Stage, I then got to watch most of Voxtrot, who have come on leaps and bounds since last year at South By South West, and whose popularity with the indie kids seems to be rising accordingly. Their energy is infectious and I would love to love them more, but as I was still making note of their penultimate song’s wise chorus, “I need to lose my idols to find my voice,” they broke into ‘The Start of Something,’ possibly the wimpiest imitation of The Smiths since Raymonde broke up. However, the indie kids in front of me broke into collective spams of Moz-like butt-shaking upon this finale, which proves something about fooling many people most of the time, especially those still too young to have ever seen the Smiths for themselves.

Voxtrot get all excited at Siren

There’s a nice segue here about Morrissey instigating the New York Dolls reformation, but I’m not convinced the Voxtrot fans would understand it. The Dolls’ audience was primarily punk, about one part original 1970s breed to one-part 1990s East Village “anarchists” to one final part Brooklyn tattoo’d hipsters. It was also manageable: be it the long sunny day, the reputation of crowded Sirens past or the overfamiliarity of the Dolls themselves, but the crowd dwindled to a comfortable size, and I slid along the side of the Avenue to a great vantage point from the curb, where for the next hour and a half, David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and their reconstituted New York Dolls line-up, including able second guitarist Steve Conte, delivered a take-no-prisoners set that started with ‘Lookin’ For A Kiss’ but then relied heavily on last year’s “comeback” album One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. It’s a surprisingly strong record of which songs like ‘Plenty Of Music,’ ‘We’re All In Love’ and, especially, ‘Dance Like A Monkey’ may not resonate as effectively alongside ‘Pills,’ ‘Jet Boy’ or the unforgettable ‘Trash’ from their eponymous 1973 debut, but which hold up better than almost any of the so-called streetwise rock’n’roll punks who frequently imitate but never emulate the Dolls’ once-pioneering sound. And though a verse-and-chorus of ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ was dedicated to dead guitarist Johnny Thunders, this gig was not a tribute to junkies; rather, it was a celebration of personal survival, collective rejuvenation and communal camaraderie. Sylvain was right: New York City doesn’t get much better than this. Message to the developers at Thor Equities: Coney Island ain’t broke. Please don’t try and fix it.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but this 30-second video truly captures the real feeling of seeing the New York Dolls in the heart of Coney Island. Enjoy.

Also at iJamming!
The New York Dolls at Little Steven’s International Underground Garage Festival
The Mermaid Parade at Coney Island
Siren Festival at Coney Island 2003
Siren Festival at Coney Island 2004
Las Vegas comes to Coney Island?

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January 2022