High Times Greats: David Johansen

A 1981 interview with the proto-punk icon.
High Times Greats: David Johansen
David Johansen/ Instagram

As lead singer and mastermind of the New York Dolls, David Johansen was among some of the most influential musicians of the 1970s. Though the Dolls never had a Top 40 hit, what they did in the early ’70s in rock clubs around the country was eventually picked up and elaborated on and—voila—punk was born. After the breakup of the Dolls, Johansen began a solo career and has since released a number of successful albums, even reinventing himself as Buster Poindexter along the way. In honor of Johansen’s birthday on January 9, we’re republishing Liz Derringer’s interview from the September, 1981 issue of High Times.

High Times: Some people consider you a “culture hero.” What does that mean to you?

Johansen: I don’t know. As opposed to what? An athletic hero or something? I don’t know if I have much to do with culture. Do you mean as a chronologist of the culture or something? I don’t know if I could be objective about something like that. Anyway I don’t think of myself like that.

High Times: How do you consider yourself?

Johansen: That’s a big question. I consider myself a lot of ways. But not in heroic terms.

High Times: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

Johansen: I guess—since I was about fourteen or fifteen.

High Times: What did you think about being before that age?

Johansen: Different jobs, all the time. A different one every two days.

High Times: But you decided on being a rock ‘n’ roll star.

Johansen: Well, I consider myself a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not a rock ‘n’ roll star. I don’t really like that expression. It sounds pretentious. It sounds very L.A.

High Times: Well, everybody else thinks of you as a rock ‘n’ roll star.

Johansen: Well, there’s people I consider rock ‘n’ roll stars, but I wouldn’t want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.

High Times: What other reason are you doing this for?

Johansen: This is my life’s work. This is what I do for a living. I think anybody who considers himself a rock ‘n’ roll star is in a lot of trouble.

High Times: Some of the ex-Dolls admit that they were hooked on drugs. Why didn’t it happen to you? Not that it had to just because you were associated with them, but what did you do differently?

Johansen: Drugs are many things to many people. If drugs are your life, drugs are your life.

High Times: But they’re not yours.

Johansen: No, of course not.

High Times: Are there any drugs that you like?

Johansen: Well, I like a nice glass of warm milk before I go to bed. Drugs have their place in everybody’s life. You can use drugs for medicinal purposes, or you can just use drugs to sort of blot out reality as you perceive it or whatever. But reality is something that can be perceived on many levels. And if you just perceive it on drugs all the time, it becomes a less dimensional existence. Drugs are just one level. You shouldn’t just limit yourself to perceiving things on drugs all the time.

High Times: What’s your life like on the road? Do you go out after shows and pick up girls and do all of that?

Johansen: No. Sometimes we go out dancing. Sometimes we go out and eat Chinese food.

High Times: Do you like being on the road?

Johansen: I just accept the fact that I have to go on the road. It’s my job so I’m not going to be obsessed with hating it. I make the most of it. Performing is like the best time of the day when you’re on the road, because you do your show. But the other times can get a bit tedious.

High Times: What kind of feelings do you get when you get up onstage? Do you throw up or ever get sick?

Johansen: No, no. When I’m performing, I kind of go on a trip. Something just takes over. It becomes like an ideal version of yourself that’s operating. There’s not a lot of thought involved. You’re ruling the roost, so you try to make it as palatable as possible for all the population. You want everybody to enjoy themselves. You don’t want anybody to feel left out. You try to be a benevolent despot.

High Times: Do you ever wish the Dolls were still together?

Johansen: I loved the Dolls because that’s how I busted into show business. But I don’t have any regret about not being in the Dolls now. I do what I want to do. If I wanted to do something else, I would do it. I’m doing what I want to do.

High Times: What are the things that inspire you and influence you musically?

Johansen: I think about what I want to write about. I just come up with songs or somebody in my band comes up with songs that I like melodically. We go into a lot of music, and then different things stand out. The idea is to pursue. Once we’re going to pursue those ideas—the best melodies and the best beats we’ve got—whatever we feel that’s happening, then we pursue them. I try to remember what the things are I’m thinking about most. That’s usually what I write about. So that changes all the time, depending on what I’m thinking about. And also, a lot of other lyrics and stuff get written in the studio, so it depends on what’s happening when I’m in the studio, too. Sometimes I’ll write a song completely before I’m going to record it—three months before I’m even going to make a record. There’s all different ways to make a song.

High Times: Does it matter to you where you live or where you are or can you be transient and be happy?

Johansen: Obviously I can. I live probably more than half my life on the road, so I’m pretty transient.

High Times: But you always touch base back here in New York City.

Johansen: Yes. Well, I grew up here. This is where my friends are, where my family is and everything.

High Times: Do you dream of the time when the touring and everything will all end and you can lie back and relax and enjoy all the things you’ve done?

Johansen: No, I enjoy working. I enjoy trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. I think I wouldn’t mind getting to the time—not in such a near future—where I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do next. I mean, that’s a big part of my get up and go, just the thinking about it. Sometimes you know what you’re going to sing about, but you don’t know what you’re going to wear. Or sometimes there’s all these different combinations of things you don’t know about. The interesting thing to me about life—and I don’t want to be so pompous as to say I’m an artist—is to want to continue to be creative.

High Times: Do your friends mean a lot to you?

Johansen: Yes.

High Times: Do you think that’s one of the most important things in life—having friends?

Johansen: Yeah, next to food, it’s probably the most important thing. Food and wine and friends—they’re really important. But you know if you’ve got good friends, then you don’t really need such good food. But if you haven’t got any friends, then good food is really important. So you’ve got to weigh them. If you have good food and good friends at the same time, that’s the ultimate.

High Times: What do you think the music of the ’80s is going to be like?

Johansen: Swinging.

High Times: What kind?

Johansen: Hell, I don’t know. It’s just going to have a lot of drums and be really loud and raucous and make it easy to move your feet. Dance music. Dancing to me is like new wave or something. It’s abstract expression. It’s whatever you perceive it to be.

High Times: What situations make you uncomfortable?

Johansen: I don’t know. I don’t even feel uncomfortable in church.

High Times: What would you do more of if you had more time?

Johansen: I don’t know. I’m at the time of my life when I’m working, so I’m not thinking about what else I’d rather do.

High Times: Do you like being a public person?

Johansen: Sure. I think I’m a good public person. I don’t embarrass my fans.

High Times: Does it bother you that people like to know so much about you?

Johansen: No. I think it’s flattering that people want to know about me. It doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to tell them, but it’s flattering all the same.

High Times: Is there anything you don’t like being asked?

Johansen: Well, there’s a million things I don’t like being asked.

High Times: Like, “How’s your sex life?”

Johansen: That’s a personal thing. Sex lives, especially among gregarious people, can be like difficult to explain. People may think that they’re carnivores or heathens. Maybe in fact they are sensitive and warm people, but other people sometimes don’t understand that.

High Times: Yeah, I guess that’s a big part of life: drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.

Johansen: Your sexuality goes through changes constantly. It’s got to do with the chemistry of your body and things like that. The weather. Sometimes you can be very conservative sexually and sometimes you can be very outlandish sexually. So I don’t think anybody has a credo on life.

High Times: A credo?

Johansen: Like you may read a Hollywood expose: “My Wife Is a Sex Fiend.” You’re probably only really a sex fiend maybe four or five months out of the year, depending on your locale.

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