The Carlyle is one of those New York hotels. Scene of blue-blooded charity dinners through the ages and red-blooded Kennedy trysts (according to legend anyway, but what else do we have really?) the hotel is an elegant and cozy pre-Depression pile on the Upper East Side where the shrimp cocktail costs as much as the monthly rail pass from Babylon and the receiving rooms look like sets out of old Bowery Boys flicks - the kind of fancy joint Slip Mahoney and his pals were always getting tossed out of in some madcap pursuit of a society dame.
It's all central casting in gilt and polished wood. Just off the lobby along 76th Street, there are little lamps on the tables of Cafe Carlyle, a club where FDR is still the President, and the swells in publishing and banking and advertising leave their drivers to circle between Fifth and Madison while they carefully remove hand-crafted cigarettes from hand-crafted silver cases. Yes darling, Myrna Loy just brushed by you on her way to the powder room. William Powell waits impatiently.
The Carlyle is an island, a stitch in New York time. When Buster Poindexter lit up the room on a recent Thursday night during a rave-reviewed week-long run with his swinging (but as yet unnamed) band, I thought for a moment of all the rooms long closed that David Johansen has inhabited in four decades of New York troubador residency. The Mercer Arts Center, Max's Kansas City, Tramps, CBGB, the Ritz, Peppermint Lounge, the Palladium, Danceteria, Cat Club, the Bottom Line, even poor old Ferris Booth Hall up on Morningside Heights, where Johansen's swinging Buster persona owned New York very early in its first run. All gone. But the Carlyle, where you half expect Bing Crosby to slide into the corner booth for the late show, soldiers on in a kind of holy timelessness that lights candles at that New York shrine of the night on the town.
And so does David Johansen, the original bridge and tunnel kid from Staten Island, and a naturally generous performer. During the short-lived but long-eulogized punk era in this town, the accepted pose was swagger and sneer, at least when the lights came on. But Johansen's poses were fun and approachable; he never played the starlet manque despite obvious fanzine comparisons to Mick Jagger (next to Johnny Thunders' waifish Keef from Queens). Johansen played it for fun, for the big night out, for the movement of the music. The glam was great, but the audience was always in on the gag. After a pumping version of Build Me Up Buttercup at the Ritz in 1981 (I think Blondie Chaplin was in that band but I may be wrong), he climbed onto one of the stage front monitors and cracked the big Cheshire grin that turns his eyes into slits of delight. "Mah people!" he crowed. "Mah people!"
The American songbook has always been a big deal to Johansen, from the Dolls days of Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson covers, to all the Motown tunes blasted out by the David Johansen Band, to the under-appreciated (but in my view, terrific) Harry Smiths material, which plumbed early blues and folk music. Buster moved him into standards, novelty numbers, Latin songs, country, and caberet. At the Carlyle, New York's My Home sent dishes clattering and waiters ducking for cover (Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr. would have dug it) and the 1905 music hall number, Nobody was a perfect blend of wry humor and pre-jazz pathos. "Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter, shaped like Elvis," he crooned at the start of the George Jones classic, The King Is Gone. And that started another story that linked Nashville to Vaudeville to Tin Pan Alley to Chicago, via the Bowery and Mercer Street and St. George.
The Artist and I have taken in four shows during the new Buster 2.0 incarnation, and at the end of the latest night on the town we spent a few minutes with Johansen and his wife Mara Hennessey (who is a shining social media presence) in the Carlyle lounge, talking a little local politics and dropping names. Bridge and tunnel kids meeting the original, and chirping happily. Johansen has a reputation in New York cultural circles as a mensch, and he and Hennessey are increasingly involved in progressive causes. "We need more good Democrats," he said.
We were there with two of the well-known Tween brothers - Doug (and his wife Suzanne) and Brian (and his wife Michelle) - a couple of fellow '70s wastrels suited up for the proper Carlyle code. In two of the other shows in this Buster run, there have been former bandmates and bridge and tunnel kids in attendance: lawyers, firefighters, tech whizzes and financial honchos now but still tied by some thread of DNA to those old dance halls and clubs.
The thing about the Buster Poindexter act now is that Johansen doesn't just take you back to the day, he's teleporting everyone back across a full century - with a few jokes tossed in like croutons - and covering songs that tell stories of absurdity, madness, and showbiz strivers. On one level, it's all played for fun, with an approachable goofiness that breaks down the barrier between performer and audience. But I also think the songs are carefully chosen, and that the set has an existential punchline that you don't get till the ride home on the train: it's a hard world to get a break in, there's a bunch of lunatics out there, so let's sing a few songs.
In that way, David Johansen may be the quintessential New York performer of his generation. Why? Because it's an absurd town and always has been. The snap of the fingers, the rasp of the harmonica, the tap of the foot and the band swings into it. It's music that connects my immigrant family past with my punk adolescence and through to our present cultural malaise - music for this city of glass curtain walls and the bigger black and white town of newsreels and archival photographs. And it's the music of a survivor as well - which, unless you're loaded, you have to be in New York to stick around.
Note: The Bridge and Tunnel Kid series has been on hiatus but yeah, it's back. [Thanks to Suzanne and some Broken Bow inspiration.] We may explore some other bits of personal New York history soon. In the meantime, the full series can be found here. Buster Poindexter has a terrific Facebook page, which can be found here.