David Johansen's alter-ego returns for a residency at New York's famed Café Carlyle

By Alex Heigl
February 13, 2015 04:00 PM
Michael Wilhoite

There aren’t many second acts in life like David Johansen’s.

After leaving the pioneering protopunk band The New York Dolls, he turned out a number of solo albums (the first of which features the indelible “Heart of Gold”) before reinventing himself as lounge singer Buster Poindexter and scoring the massive hit “Hot Hot Hot,” which you – if you’re an American between the ages of 9 and 89 – have almost certainly danced to at some point in your life without knowing it was sung by a man who used to play Max’s Kansas City in drag.

Johansen – who has also acted, in projects as disparate as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Scrooge and The Adventures of Pete & Pete – has also played country blues and jazz with various groups. He re-formed the Dolls in 2004 and has been touring on and off with the band and by himself since then.

Recently, Johansen has resurrected Poindexter for residencies at the Café Carlyle, the revered New York hotel where Woody Allen still plays a weekly set of traditional New Orleans jazz. “I had been on the road with the Dolls,” he tells PEOPLE. “We were gonna do one show and then we wound up playing for eight years and went around the world like three times. And we came back to New York and I thought, ‘Oh, I like it here,’ so I just decided to do an act that only plays New York, that can only play New York.'” He says that he has no plans to enter the studio officially, but says one of the sets at the Carlyle may be recorded.

Johansen still lives in Staten Island, New York, – I asked him about the S.I. tiki bar where he takes Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations, but he demurs, claiming that the producers picked the location and took him – though he doesn’t endorse the notion that S.I. might become the new hip borough as rising rents put pressure on the rest of the city. “Staten Island’s a lot like Hawaii,” he notes dryly. “Beautiful beaches. And you probably don’t know this, but a lot of the country’s think tanks are located on Staten Island,” he adds, a sarcastic aside I completely fail to pick up on.

Returning to Poindexter is nice, Johansen says, because his alter-ego “can sing any song I want.” The setlist from the show I attended reflects that: He and his backing band careen through a selection of songs that includes everything from calypso (Harry Belafonte’s “Monkey”) to country (George Jones’s “The King Is Gone”) to English music hall (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady”) and blues & R&B (“Rocket 88,” “Don’t Mess with Cupid”) and his own material (“Heart of Gold”). “I dig stuff,” he says simply of his musical tastes. “I define myself largely through what I dig, and I don’t pay much attention to anything that doesn’t turn me on.”

Through the set, Johansen-as-Poindexter tells seemingly improvised stories and jokes (“My doctor said I should have just one drink a day. This one is from May 15, 2612”) and works the Carlyle’s small room with lived-in charm. He does perform a rendition of “Hot Hot Hot,” despite having once told NPR that the song is “the bane of my existence. “Sometimes when you get saddled with a hit, then you always have to sing it whether you want to or not,” he told me of the song. “You go through phases with a song But one time I went to my nephew’s wedding and the band played it and they made me get up and sing it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this thing is like an albatross around my neck.”

Asked what his dream collaboration would be out of today’s crop of artists, and he mentions Buffalo, New York indie rockers Mercury Rev. Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I then ask him what a good Valentine’s Day song to drop on a romantic playlist would be, and he answers, almost immediately, “I would play Billy Ward & The Dominoes, ‘Do Something for Me.'”

Point is, David Johansen, whether he’s playing as Poindexter or DJ’ing as himself, cares deeply about music. Almost 50 years into a life spent playing it, his love and knowledge for it hasn’t waned at all. Through the jokes, through a voice that wears all of those years without yielding an inch to them, through it all, you can still hear his heart of gold.