Want to know the coolest thing about being the Editor in Chief of Rocker Magazine? It’s the people you get to meet along the way.
Exhibit A: Marty Thau, founder of the seminal Red Star Label, record industry insider, and manager of notorious glam-punk pioneers The New York Dolls.
How pleased were we when Thau offered to share his first person account of his time as the manager of one of the most important bands in musical history? Words fail us of course. Thankfully, they didn’t fail him.
Rocker: You quit a job to become the manager of the Dolls. What were you doing previous to becoming their manager?
Marty: I was the Vice President of A&R at Paramount Records. I was there only for a short period of time, seven or nine months. There was a lot of politics at that company, and I didn’t think they were really interested in rock and roll. They were really the soundtrack releasing arm for their film company so I said, “The hell with it, I don’t need this, I quit,” not knowing exactly where I was going, but I’d just had it.
I was out on the town celebrating my resignation from my job with my wife, and I stumbled across the Mercer Arts Center, and I remembered that a friend of mine had mentioned that there was a group downtown called the New York Dolls who were the best unsigned group in town. That person was Danny Goldberg, who was only 19 at the time, in later years he went on to become the president of Warner Bros. records and the manager of Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt, and has had a very illustrious career, and he’s still going to this day.
Rocker: How did you know him then?
Marty: He worked at Paramount in publicity. He was the only one at Paramount that I really liked and enjoyed talking with. So he had mentioned that to me about the New York Dolls, and there we were, down in the Village, we’d had dinner, we were walking around, and I see this marquee at the Mercer Arts Center saying, “New York Dolls, three dollars, two shows.” The night was young yet, so my wife and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go in,” and we did, and there were 14 people in the audience. We didn’t know what to expect, had no idea who this group was, except this fellow, whose opinion I regarded, said they were the best unknown band in New York. So we got seats by the stage, and on came this band who were just outrageous-looking. Their design was unheard of. They were a combination of female accessories and looked like nothing that I had ever seen. Then they played, and at the end of the show, we were walking out and I said to my wife, “That’s either the best band I’ve ever seen, or the worst band I’ve ever seen.”
Rocker: Did more than 14 people turn up by the time they went on?
Marty: No, 14 people were in the audience. So we were at the door, ready to leave, and I said to my wife, “Let’s go back and talk to them,” so we did, and they were very interesting and humorous and seemingly intelligent, and I said, “Hey, why don’t we talk some more about your career?” So we met two weeks later at Max’s Kansas City in the back room to discuss their future and what they were up to, and in the course of that conversation, I thought to myself, “Gee, these guys really know exactly what they want to do. I’m really interested in this.”
At that same time, I had an opportunity to be funded for a label by Morris Levy the notorious godfather of the music business, [founder of Roulette Records label, and the Strawberries record store chain. Later convicted of extortion by a federal jury – ed.], he somehow contacted me. He was reputed to be the gangster of the music business. I don’t remember how it came about, but somehow Morris Levy wanted to back me on a label, and I discussed it one time with him, but I was very wary of actually doing any business with him because of his reputation. I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll sign these groups and do some singles with them.” But then when I got to meet the Dolls and saw how directed they were, I thought to myself, “I’m not going to do that deal with Morris Levy, I’m going to manage these boys.”
Shortly after, I met up with Steve Lieber and David Krebs, two booking agents who had left William Morris to form their own company. I had met them in the course of my stay at Paramount, and they said, “Hey, if you have something you want to do with us, contact us.” So I contacted them and thought, “Maybe this is a good idea, to work with them. They’re booking agents, this is a band that has to go out on tour and be seen.” So we ended up making a deal where they were my partners in the Dolls, and at that point, we started to see what we could do to get them together to get their mindset in the right place.
Rocker: You said the band seemed really focused when you met them – what did you think needed to change for them for them to get to the next step?
Marty: They were kind of wild. East Village wild boys. Their interest was to get laid, to get high, to have fun, to play rock and roll. I don’t know that they ever really saw the music business as a business as much as a party.
Rocker: Had you managed bands before?
Marty: When I first got into the music business, my cousin, Elaine, was working at Hill and Range music, and her boyfriend was young Tony Orlando. So when I first got into the business, I was working for Billboard magazine. When I got the job, as was their policy, they ran a picture of me and an announcement in the paper and she called me and we went out with Tony Orlando. We had dinner and hung out one night, and we hit it off, and that was during the time while I was at Billboard, he eventually came to me and said, “Hey, would you like to manage me?” He was only 19 at the time, but when he was 16, he had two big hits under his belt, “Halfway to Paradise” and “Bless You” that were written by Carole King and Barry Mann. So I resigned from Billboard and became his manager. That was my first managerial experience. I didn’t really know anything at that point, I was just going around and learning the business.
Rocker: What was special enough about the Dolls for you to decide to get back into management?
Marty: For one, nobody ever looked like them. Their rock and roll style was hot as could be, they really played a hot form of rock and roll. David is underrated in terms of his lyrics, he’s very descriptive in what he says, he’s a very important writer. I would say that he’s a poet, actually. He’s a serious writer. I couldn’t really describe exactly the form that he’s about, but he’s very important as a lyricist.
Rocker: You signed on to manage them – were they going on the road at the time? It’s about a year from the time that you worked with them until they got a deal, right?
Marty: We started playing first in New York City, and they got hotter and hotter in New York, they were really the darlings of New York. Then we started talking to record companies to come down and see them, and there were all kinds of different views about them: they were too loud, they were too crazy,… Every record company came down, and all of them had a different opinion about what was right or wrong about the group, but nobody wanted to sign them, except for Paul Nelson, who had left Rolling Stone to became head of rock and roll at Mercury Records. He wanted to sign them but he was having a tough time trying to convince his company. It didn’t help when the Dolls auditioned for them, that they were drunk or unrehearsed. Anyway, we decided to take the band to London, because in London, they’re more sophisticated, and we thought they’ll see what this band is all about. So we went to London, and everything was fine, and they opened for Rod Stewart at Wembley Auditorium, which was a 13,000-seater, never having played before to more than 350 people.
Rocker: How did you negotiate that?
Marty: Steve Lieber. It was an important gig. Perhaps they were unprepared for it, but they pulled it off. Some of the reviews ripped them apart, but some said, “We have seen the future of rock and roll, and this is what it’s all about, it’s about the New York Dolls! These guys are the real thing! These guys put Suede and Sweet and other bands of this genre to shame!” In the audience was Kit Lambert and his partner, they were the managers of The Who, and they flipped out. They loved The Dolls and wanted to sign them to Track Records.
A meeting was set up to meet with Kit and his partner to discuss that, but it was at that meeting that I got a phone call that said, “Marty, come quickly, [Dolls drummer] Billy Murcia has died.” I said, “What?” So I immediately ran out, hopped in a taxi cab, shot over to the address I was given, and I was greeted there by the English police. It seemed that he had been given some drugs, and he had been drinking, and he passed out and they put him into a tub, and tried to feed him coffee. He choked on his own regurgitation and he died. Everybody at the party there that he attended ran out and left him. Someone called the police finally, the police came and I came, and I identified his body for Scotland Yard.
At that point it was a question of, “Well, I guess nobody’s going to sign this band, because nobody knows if this band is going to exist anymore”. It took a month for his body to be shipped back to New York, and Scotland Yard wanted us to come over there because they wanted to investigate the usage of these drugs, and I was sick – I had gotten mumps from my daughter before I left – and soI was in bed for about a month. I was getting phone calls from all around the world, looking for bits of information as to what happened, and I told Scotland Yard, “Forget about it, we’re not coming to England,” and that was the last I heard of them. So at that point, it was a question of what happens with the Dolls.
Rocker: Was there a time when the band thought, “Maybe we just won’t continue on?”
Marty: I hoped they’d continue, but I thought, “Oh my god, this is my rock and roll dream. This is the band I thought could really be a huge band!” So, I hoped they’d continue. About a month later, the word came down, “Yes, we will continue,” and they auditioned Jerry Nolan and he was in the band now, and they were going to move forward, and I said, “Great.”
I remember this day, December 19, 1973, they played at the Mercer Arts Center, and it was like a record industry convention. The place only held about 287 people, but 400-some odd people showed up. It was jam-packed, and people still didn’t want to sign the Dolls, but at that point they were afraid to ignore them. Paul Nelson kept working on his company to sign this band, and finally they gave in and we made a deal with Mercury Records, and Todd Rundgren was chosen to produce them, and he did a great job. That first record is considered a classic,
Rocker: Was the band excited about working with Todd Rundgren?
Marty: There were some mixed opinions about him. Jerry Nolan, for example, felt that his drum presentation was a little too light, too mild, but then again, drummers want to be up front and pound away. He deserves kudos for what he did on that record. He made a great record. There are pros and cons about how well he did, but I thought he did a very good record. But he was not the friendliest guy. He was a little bit cold and indifferent. I think he liked the group, but he didn’t know how to deal with their quirkiness.
Rocker: So it wasn’t like he came to the band and said, “I’m crazy about you guys.”
Marty: I was searching around, and most producers that I had chosen felt that they were a difficult ensemble. That was the reputation that they had, that they were crazy, that they were gay – which they weren’t – that they did drugs… Everybody in the business didn’t know what to make of them.
Rocker: Some of these things sound like they were true, while some weren’t. It seems there were a lot of people afraid of The Dolls, but they didn’t frighten you.
Marty: I wasn’t afraid of them. I thought that they were intelligent, humorous, great rock and roll players. I’d had a chance to meet up with them up front and ask some pointed questions when we met that time at Max’s, and then hanging around with them on different occasions and seeing them perform and what the reaction to them was. I had a pretty clear view of what they were all about.
Rocker: When you say ‘pointed questions,’ what do you mean?
Marty: I was digging to see how serious they were, and were they gay, because everybody was asking that question. I wanted to know. Not that it really mattered to me, but I discovered that they weren’t.
Rocker: If you found out they had been gay, would it have completely derailed their careers?
Marty: At that point, it probably would have. In those days, you couldn’t say ‘damn’ on TV. Those were in the early Seventies. The guys in the audience hated the Dolls, but the girls loved them.
Rocker: The guys didn’t want to be them?
Marty: No, the guys said, “Look at these guys, they’re a bunch of faggots, look at what they wear, look at their clothes.” The girls said, “My god, look how liberated these guys are, they can wear accessories but give it a different twist that doesn’t look like they’re trying to dress like drag queens.”
Rocker: So after the Todd Rundgren-produced record comes out, they hit the road again?
Marty: They were constantly on the road. We’d get them to Cleveland and they’d draw a crowd, and when we’d return to Cleveland, the crowd would be three times bigger. The record sales were OK, but Mercury expected it to go through the roof, to go gold the first time around, so we were up against that. They were very rigid people, and we tried to convince them that, “Hey, it takes some time. Let them just keep going back and hit the road and hit different cities, and the crowds will be bigger and bigger. It doesn’t just happen overnight.”
At that point, drugs and alcohol were creeping into the band, Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders were serious drug addicts at that point, they were shooting heroin. Arthur Kane was a notorious alcoholic, he’d get the DTs in the morning, and couldn’t be reliable. We went out to LA and Arthur couldn’t even play, because the night before we were scheduled to leave to go to Los Angeles, his girlfriend tried to cut off his thumb so that he wouldn’t leave New York. Fortunately, one of their roadies, Peter Jordan, was able to fill in. But, yeah, there was a lot of craziness involved with this band. We’d play in different locations, and people would be trying to hit them or grab them onstage or start fights with them. It was similar to what the Sex Pistols found.
It came time for the band to do a second album, and I was trying to get Leiber and Stoller to produce them, but somehow or other that didn’t materialize, and they recommended Shadow Morton. He’d produced the Shangri-Las. The Dolls were kind of fans of the Shangri-Las, so they chose him, and he made a good record, but there was a backlash. It was a very good record, but it didn’t break through and go gold, and Mercury was kind of feeling, “What is this? What do we have?” Had the Dolls taken care of their demons, and realized that the record business was not just a party, that it was a business, and they continued to write and make more records, I think they would have been a band that would have definitely played some of the biggest venues in the world and sold loads of records, but unfortunately, that didn’t come about.
At that point, I found that I couldn’t go any further with them. I couldn’t break them of these bad demons, and I said to them, “As long as you are going to behave like this, I’m not going to be your manager,” and it went in one ear and out the other. So I split, I left them and I was no longer their manager. I knew that Steve, my partner, couldn’t do it without me, he tried, and Malcolm McLaren came into the picture, he thought he could resurrect them, but he couldn’t.
Rocker: Do you remember your impressions of McLaren at the time?
Marty: I thought that he was an interesting guy. He was somewhat sophisticated, but he didn’t really know the record business, he was a clothing store person. He liked this band so much that he hoped he could manage them, and he knew they were left without a manager at that point, so he could move in. But Malcolm’s theory to shake things up with a large dose of anarchy, designed to fly in the face of the prim pomposity of New York City’s rock and roll critics’ boys club failed miserably. He was the Dolls’ manager for, like, 10 minutes. He said he was their manager, but he wasn’t their manager. They saw right through him and dumped him.
He had booked a tour down in Florida during the spring break, and when Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan couldn’t afford drugs down in Florida, they said, “The hell with it,” and split and went back to New York, and that was the end of the Dolls. David and Sylvain said, “If this is what we have to deal with, let’s forget about it.”
All these years later, The Dolls reformed because they were approached by Steven Morrissey, who became the curator of the Meltdown Festival in England, and he was the biggest fan of the Dolls ever. He thought, “Maybe I could convince them to play in a resurrected version at this festival,” and somehow they agreed.
Rocker: Have you seen the band play since they reformed?
Marty: No, I haven’t seen them. I’ve seen video clips, but I haven’t seen them. I was ill. I had had an operation in 2010 that almost killed me, so I couldn’t get out to get to see them. Maybe someday I will, who knows?
Rocker: When you think back on their legacy, do you think they got short-changed or have they gotten their due?
Marty: I think that their legacy is great, and not only that, but they’re playing all around the world at this point, and are making some decent-sized money. They’re drawing 30,000 people in South America, selling out in Japan, you name it, they are playing it, and they’ve returned, they’ve done good, sold-out business. They’re a promoter’s delight at this point.
Rocker: Do you wish that’s how they were when you had to deal with them? Were they a promoter’s delight then?
Marty: I wish! I thought that would be what would happen. I was actually right in my thought on where they could go. Even in their current reduced form they are proving that.
Rocker: How did working with the Dolls change your life? What did you learn?
Marty: It taught me what touring was all about, about the mindset of musicians, and I guess it made me, in parts, more cynical.
It was a great disappointment, is what it was. Not just to me, but to loads of people who were major fans of the band, who loved them. They took this band to their bosom. This was a special band. When the Dolls broke up, it was a great disappointment. The New York Times wrote an obituary. They were very important. An obituary about a rock band breaking up is very unusual.