Too Much Too Soon - Nina Antonia (Omnibus Books)
It’s that time of year again, when that fat prick comes scrambling down the chimney armed with a sawn-off and robs you off all your money so’s he can spend it on whores and drugs.
How fair is the world? That’s what I was going to spend it on.
This being the I-94 Barr site, where rock is from Detroit, synths are for Germans and the volume is at 11, you will all have friends who love rock’n’roll. So the bookstores around the world are ready for you this Krimbo, usually armed with tomes the size of one of Mose’s tablets on That Notorious Stone or That Bland Beatle or worse, Someone Who Was Someone Maybe Once (and Just Can’t Get Over It) Volume 3.
And we all know that, good intentions aside, rock fans, while not thick, do not tend to read much. A mighty doorstop telling the weary tale of Sozzie Sockburn had better have big letters, or be the size of a couple of packs of Gitanes for their fans to read it, otherwise the tome is a default pressie in the same way that appalling ties, socks, hankies, aftershave and soap-on-a-roap do for those ‘difficult to buy’ gentlemen (funny how no-one asks these ‘difficult’ gentlemen what to buy, isn’t it? In 1980, two months early, I asked for a copy of the Velvet’s second LP - and got it. Best present that year, and I still have it somehow).
This season, I urge you to drift straight to Book Depository and purchase “Too Much Too Soon”. It’s pretty cheap, and will do for quite a few of your rock’n’roll chums because it’s unthreateningly slim, bloody funny, well-written and brilliantly researched and rushes forward like a subway train… Thing is, most rock lovers are dead lazy and won’t have bought this themselves. But they’ll love it. The whole antidisestablishmentarianism thing via dressing up, make-up, drugs and drinking and fucking and getting wasted and going where they shouldn’t … that, and the Dolls’ still kick like a corral of drunken mules.
The broad range of bands influenced by the New York Dolls are so vast it makes you gasp. Alright, I-94 Bar’s Bob Short, or Penny Ikinger or Tex Napalm … I’m sure they’d all acknowledge the Dolls. But back then, Aerosmith … imagine what the Dolls might have become. Kiss realised they weren’t pretty enough to dress like the Dolls, so they made themselves up as monsters. Kiss and Aerosmith took note of the Dolls’ creativity and originality, grabbed the bits they could use, and were far more professional. So, Aerosmith and Kiss, MEGAFM have heard of them, but not the New York Dolls, whose art was their life was their art (rather like juggling plastic bags of napalm) (sorry, not plastic bags of Tex Napalm).
The New York Dolls were innocent punks before punks were punk and before Raw Power and before the VU gave up the ghost. Nina Antonia is a wonderful writer, and she since "Too Much Too Soon" is filled with wit, energy and sex I’d say she enjoyed writing this immensely.
Yes, sex. The Dolls were about sex and hedonism and indulgence and Nina not only gets it, her fondness for them (she calls them ‘boys’ on the first page proper, and you can tell she doesn’t mean it in a mummy-ish way, but in the way that teenybopper girls call boys ‘boys’) allows her to tell their story without flinching, because they’re boys.
Of course, you could simply get “Too Much Too Soon” to gawp at how horrible and unreasonable Iggy Pop was (we’re talking the Stooges period). Nina’s first-hand research fills in numerous holes which other bios haven’t - she gets the girlfriends to talk, for example, revealing them as significantly more than a squealing bystander.
Or you could read about how catty and spiteful Lou Reed was to the Dolls. Stars flit in and out like birds through open windows; The Who, Todd Rundgren, Andy Warhol and his crowd, Bowie (quivering like a child before a beast). Ramones fans and readers of Legs McNeil’s "Please Kill Me" will enjoy reading about Arthur Kane’s troubles with his girlfriend, Connie Gripp, later Dee Dee Ramone’s girlfriend. Lucky chaps, by the sound of it…
Thunders made many mistakes in his life, but the critical one as far as I’m concerned was to beat his girlfriend; The Hitmen had the right idea, their song “Don’t Hit Girls” should be better known.
Of course, in the same way that people enjoy a car race looking for a pile-up, Nina has to mention the seemingly endless conveyor belt of sex and drugs, which she does, but it’s not salacious. All that stuff happened in context with who and what the band were, so that’s the way it’s explained. So we feel empathy for the Dolls, as well as a sort of awed horror, and an excited glee on top of that because we’re familiar with their music, and the sickest thrill in reading about how utterly unaware they were of why the mainstream industry were freaking out so badly.
I can’t say when I last enjoyed a rock’n’roll story so much. Part of it is the way Nina’s carefully-dug, patched-together information reads so well and so easily. Part of it is her wry, deadpan style. On how Sylvain named the Dolls from the New York Doll’s Hospital; "A million of the city’s brokenhearted children had tramped up the scuffed stairs carrying their damaged dolls into this toy ER…"
If that’s not prophecy, or self-prediction, of a sort I don’t know what is. But what makes "Too Much Too Soon" is is brilliant, creative yet precise writing, of a sort which doesn’t falter throughout. "he fact that the current edition is a revised edition makes that all the more impressive. When she describes "the Manhattan night time playground’ as it then was, shivers go down your back; "…a supporting cast of thousands who shunned daylight hours - the superflys and their hard-eyed whores, slum kids, hustlers, junkies, chickenhawks, runaways, winos, street punks and criminals fluttered like moths around the X-rated fairy lights."
Look, writing any sort of non-fiction story about real people is a nightmare. You need to find the right people; and by that I mean not just the happily deluded former toast of the live circuit. Then you have to hope to God they say the right things, and that you have the right questions. Then you have to organise this huge, messy, informational collage from its assortment of sources (tapes, transcripts, published interviews, newspapers, press releases, backs of envelopes and drink coasters) into a smooth, easy to read story. It can be a fucking nightmare, and "Too Much Too Soon" is clearly a labour of love (similar in a way to Stephen Patrick Morrissey’s first publication, a Dolls’ ‘zine).
The publishing deals the New York Dolls signed were legal, but completely morally wrong. Aside from the Sex Pistols, they were one of the most socially significant bands of the era to sign one of these shitful deals. Which brings us to Nina Antonia’s much broader historical impact; her chronicling and understanding of Malcolm McLaren and his time with the Dolls, and then later the Sex Pistols, gives us a much clearer, greater picture - more so, I’d argue, than Jon Savage’s. Apart from the eerie air of synchronicity going on for years before the Pistols “broke”, Malcolm’s strangely generous yet stingy personality is demonstrated as well as band politics.
Even the dirty shameful vibe of the times is evoked, which also demonstrates just how extraordinary the Dolls were with their finery, girl/boy chaos and hedonistic strife. Hell, I’d love to see a decent essay on whether the Dolls acted as an accelerator to Glam, for example.
But that’s participants from the Dolls’ time. Hell, bands play like the Dolls today, and guitarists like Johnny Thunders, without ever having heard them, just other bands copying other bands copying other bands.
If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to that first Dolls’ record, I suggest you slip it out of its sleeve, make sure your stylus is dirty and you don’t destatic the vinyl. This is, after all, a band who "enjoyed kicking new amplifiers to make them distort". Thump it down and play it loud.
Nina Antonia passes the rock’n’roll writer test; she makes you want to pick up this band’s music and listen to it and dance to it and fuck to it and so on and on. But … she does this within the first two pages of ‘Too Much Too Soon’, and if, as I say, you know a bunch of rock’n’roll lovers who deserve a present this year, skip the doorstop on assorted annoying old bastards and get your friends, children or grandchildren a book about the sound of youth. A modern Grimm’s cautionary tale, ’Too Much Too Soon’ is slimmer, fuller, reads better than most novels and you’d have to be made of stone not to have a blast reading it.
And your local record shop will do well out of it, too.