Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Classy Dolls at the Mercer

The Mercer Arts Center is a complex of small theaters near New York University, at 240 Mercer St. in Greenwich Village. The physical plant, loft space done up in elegant black-white-and-primaries, has the look of one of those modern, state-subsidized culture arrangements. But in fact Mercer is an even more extreme example of institutionalized avant-gardism; it is privately owned and expected to make a profit. So, when several of the small theaters began to fail, music director Michael Tschudin, who has connections in both experimental and commercial music, was instructed to bring in some rock and roll.

The result is two new music rooms. The Blue Room, essentially a bar for the intermission and post theater crowd, is acoustic, usually featuring jazz. When I was there a week ago, a rather unfunny jug band from Albany was playing, but I judged it a more pleasant spot to sit with a beer than anything on Bleecker Street. In the larger Oscar Wilde Room, which charges $1.50, were the Fabulous Motels, a Mothers-type band composed of theater students from Providence, R.I. In the end, they didn't get me off, but the price seemed reasonable enough.

On Tuesday night I returned for the New York Dolls, the first genuine underground band to emerge in this city in years. The Dolls paid their dues and won their fans at the Mercer. Their music is referred to as glitter-rock, apparently an indirect way of saying they wear makeup and wedgies, and they have become so trendy that I was prepared for an empty hype. The crush in the 300-audience, 250-capacity theater didn't improve my receptivity. But they were great.

Glitter-rock doesn't convey their quality very well. It's more like scuzz-rock. Mascara or no mascara, the Dolls look scuzzy, like characters out of "Trash," and they are a great hard-rock band. Unlike the Planets, who opened the show, they understand that the excitement of hard rock is more than a frantic beat. They write good tunes and arrange them so that each stands out. It's rare indeed when you can see a loud band for the first time and remember their songs, but I can recommend "Personality Crisis," "Rock and Roll Nurse," "Overkill" and "Looking for a Kiss" without even referring to my notes. Singer David Johansen projects a desperate, bombed-out unisex power that can be compared to Mick Jagger only because the other comparisons are even less apt. Guitarist Johnny Thunders adds his high voice to Johansen's low one on crucial phrases, providing just the touch of variety that is the difference between compulsive excitement and monotony in this music. And over and above Johansen's presence, the Dolls come across as a band, five musicians doing one thing.

Despite the enthusiastic fan and critical reception at the Mercer--not to mention their obvious talent--the Dolls are having trouble landing a recording contract. That's mostly because record executives don't like hard rock much more now than they did 15 years ago, but considering how hard it is for other hard rock bands--Mott the Hoople for instance--to win a following, maybe it says something about the viability of ventures like Mercer Arts Center, too. If you stick to Greenwich Village, there is probably, although not certainly, a market for institutionalized avant-gardism. How much relevance it has to the rest of our mass culture remains to be seen.

N'day, Dec. 21, 1972