Here Comes the Night

[Blue Sky FZ 36589]

From his beginnings with the New York Dolls in the early seventies through his erratic solo career, David Johansen has been a critics’ favorite. Because of this, reviewers of his last record, In Style, and the current Here Comes the Night have performed verbal backbends in efforts to express disappointment with the records while affirming their faith in and commitment to the man and his values.

Johansen does represent values, and traditional ones at that. The Dolls’ campy glittermania and their two flawed but wonderful albums, New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon, stood as testaments that the urban battleground could be survived with wit and flair, with person and personality not only intact but triumphant. Johansen’s first solo album, David Johansen, his most successful work, was a sterling lesson premised on the belief that if loss (a divorce; the breakup of the Dolls as a result of commercial failure) was the price of insisting on genuineness, then loss, too, must be survived with grace and conviction. And for all its problems, In Style taught us that sense of self can carry us through failure, that, to paraphrase Camus, there is no fate that cannot be overcome by style.

Johansen has always been a thorough American populist, finding sustenance and salvation not in philosophy but in pop songs. His ethics and emotional· honesty were learned from Motown. In “Frenchette,” the anthem of authenticity on David Johansen, Johansen searches for an image of earnestness in love and gravitates naturally to his hero from the Four Tops, Levi Stubbs, “singin’ ‘bout his Bernadette.” To summon up their lost emotional intimacy, he tells his former lover in “Frenchette” to “Remember how we marveled, darlin’, we were marvelous/We were marvelin’ at the Marvelettes.” His voice always sang his heart’s song; his forte was the direct, vulnerable expression of unadorned emotion: “When I used to see you/I used to feel like such a man;” “I can’t get the kind of love that I want, or that I need.”

If you haven’t guessed it already, what you’ve been reading has been my expression of commitment to Johansen and his values. All I can really say about Here Comes the Night is that if it were all you knew of David Johansen, you’d have no idea what I’ve been talking about. With only one exception worth mentioning (the Motown-styled “You Fool You”), the eleven tracks on Here Comes the Night are eminently forgettable. Instead of being content to consolidate his small but devoted following and convince others worthy of the call to respond to his considerable talent and appeal, Johansen has made a desperate bid for mass popularity with this new record, seeking out the lowest common musical and lyrical denominators. But the masses will not come.

Where he was once a genius at encrusting clichés with jewels (hear “I’m a Lover” on David Johansen) now he’s satisfied merely to state clichés, look the other way, and hope they’ll go over. Johansen’s voice was never an especially supple instrument, but, in part because of this, it was particularly and simultaneously well-suited to campy cleverness and sincere expression. On Here Comes the Night, the cleverness is entirely absent, and vocal bludgeoning substitutes for sincerity. The tricky Latin and reggae rhythms of “Marquessa de Sade,” “Party Tonight,” and “Rollin’ job” frustrate Johansen’s vocal powers completely. Arena-rock arrangements and soulless playing by Johansen’s back-up band (especially journeyman Blondie Chaplin) render the rest of the album almost uniformly sterile. The best that can be said for the band is that they’ve found their very limited match in Johansen’s new material.

I recently heard (appropriately enough on one of those awful rock-gossip shows on mainstream FM) that Johansen will be touring as Pat Benatar’s opening act this summer. I’m still enough of a fan to hope he kicks her pretty ass off every stage in every city they play in. But if that’s the success all these brilliant years and heart-stirring failures have led to, the very notion of success as determined by the music industry must be re-examined.

- Anthony DeCurtis