#198 – Funky But Chic by David Johansen
– Loud, brash, chaotic, unpredictable and gritty. And I’m not just talking about this song, but also the images it brings back of New York City at night during the late 1970’s. Funky But Chic is more than a rock song. It’s a soundtrack.
I might have forgotten to mention that to David Johansen… uh, Buster Poindexter while hanging out during the 1980’s. But more about that later…
When Funky But Chic was released in the spring of 1978, I was closing out my first year living in Manhattan. Moving from a small town in Ohio without knowing anyone in the city could be called a ballsy move. Looking back, I guess it was. But after college I wanted to avoid the boredom of a normal life and headed east looking for excitement.
By this time I had scored a job at a company that ran concessions for Broadway theaters. I had started out at the candy counter, but within a couple months I was a manager. This was actually a very cool job. I would check on the bars at various theaters each night to make sure everything was running smoothly and then grab an empty seat to watch the show. I could see every popular (and not so popular) Broadway show countless times. I usually finished close to midnight and for anyone that knows New York City and is even slightly involved in the entertainment industry, that’s the prime time to hit the nightlife.
Weekends were always too crowded at the popular (and no one wanted to hit the not so popular) hangouts. As New York Yankee star Yogi Berra once said: “Nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.” So on Fridays and Saturdays we usually gravitated to our local neighborhood Cheers style bar where everybody knows your name.
But Sunday nights were different. I worked afternoon matinees, so the evenings were free to explore. One of the clubs was the legendary Max’s Kansas City, located on Park Avenue South and only a few blocks from where I lived in Gramercy Park.
Since Sunday was considered an “off night” at Max’s after a weekend packed with rockers and punks, we never found it over crowded. We could find a seat at the bar, have a few beers and carry on a conversation without shouting. One night my closest rocker pal Tim, who is still rockin’, pointed to a guy sitting a couple stools away and said it was Ace Frehley from KISS without his makeup.
I mention this because right up there with Funky But Chic as late 70’s Manhattan soundtrack songs would be New York Groove from Frehley’s solo LP the same year. Both were high frequency selections on jukeboxes at whatever local hangouts we were exploring. And BTW, we didn’t bother Ace at Max’s because that’s not what you do in New York. We left him alone to get his own New York Groove on.
Though I never thought it was as cool as Max’s, I also hit the equally legendary Studio 54 twice during this time – as an invited guest. That means we didn’t have to deal with the velvet rope and doorman to get in.
Another hot spot was the Mudd Club down in Tribeca, mentioned in the song Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads. Somehow we met someone who could sneak us in the back entrance and also avoid the long lines outside. My biggest memory has most of the crowd trying to look like Keith Richards. Since I’d already had a year to ditch the Midwest look (whatever that was) for a more chic NYC style… Okay, I honestly wouldn’t describe it that way because I never looked like Keef. But we all still looked cooler in the late 70’s than what happened fashion-wise in the 80’s.
Let’s just say I didn’t exactly fit in with the wannabe Keefs, but didn’t feel out of place either.
Once the excitement of being new to New York had worn off and any urge to fit in with the wannabe’s had completely disappeared (wasn’t difficult) we found the local bars in our neighborhood to be a lot more friendly and fun. And just like the TV show mentioned above, eventually everybody knew your name.
And that’s where I eventually met David Johansen. Or was it Buster Poindexter… Either way I knew his name, but that was still more than a few years removed from 1978.
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Career-wise I went from Broadway shows to music clubs, bars & restaurants and eventually comedy clubs. My jobs included everything from managing and bartending, to performing music and telling jokes. As a fan of the nightlife it worked for me since I usually started after the sun went down. And again, if you know anything about New York, you know it’s a different city at night than it is during the day.
It’s very funky, but – depending where you are – also very chic.
This classic David Johansen song woke me up with a reminder of nighttime Manhattan on May 15th. I’ve never owned a copy due to my 1978 NYC budget where (high) apartment rent, food and hanging out took precedence, and I also can’t remember the last time I’d heard it. So funk this one up into the subliminal neighborhood of Dream Songs.
One of my all-time closest friends from college who went by the Midwestern rock star name of Smiley viewed the New York Dolls as only about a half step behind The Rolling Stones in legend status. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but would hang around his room in our frat listening to their only two albums from around 1973.
We also watched them on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert late night TV show (I’ve always done the best things at night) and couldn’t help noticing lead singer David Johansen had a resemblance to Mick Jagger.
And with their dolled-up, drag queen wardrobe and makeup, they were pin-ups for both the glam and punk rock scenes. I immediately liked them more than the flannel shirt-wearing, acoustic guitar-playing troubadours that were still trendy on our campus, but always bored me to no end.
Now let’s fast forward about a decade…
In the mid 1980’s I had scored a job managing and bartending at our local Cheers style hangout on the corner of 20th Street and Third Avenue in Gramercy Park. It was called The Honey Tree and yeah, I was a wannabe Sam Malone. I had also learned enough about the New York Dolls to recognize David Johansen when he walked through the door.
Within a couple weeks of regular visits, he was part of our local hangout crowd.
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We all contributed a lot of laughs, loud conversations, insults, stupidity, and the general chaos and craziness that accompanies late nights in NYC. I don’t remember talking about The Dolls except one night when he spotted one of the former drummers, Tony Machine, walking along the other side of Third Avenue with a hero sandwich. David opened the door and yelled something to him (he had no problem being heard over the traffic), but that’s the end of the memory.
And just to add a “note of interest” – Tony Machine played percussion on Funky But Chic. Wondering if he brought sandwiches for the entire band…
David also had another talent for making sure we didn’t shut down the fun just because of the 4 am legal closing time. When I’d give “last call” David would shove ten or twenty bucks in the jukebox and start punching in songs. Since it only cost a quarter per, everyone knew we’d be there for awhile. Making a managerial decision, I’d shut off the outside lights, lock the door and pull the curtains closed over the front windows and keep the party going.
But what really made this experience cool was witnessing the creation of his alter-ego, Buster Poindexter. And if you don’t know Buster, then you’ve never been Hot Hot Hot.
Another club we used to frequent was Tramps on East 15th Street (it moved to SoHo in 1988). Monday nights were the favorite with non-weekend crowds and jam sessions by great musicians. The house band was called The Bullies with a rotating door of players. One night we were watching another closest friend and NYC acting coach Ted Bardy playing piano with the band, until he took a break and Ian Hunter sat down at the keys. I also met Steve Holley, drummer for the final version of Paul McCartney & Wings, who recognized me more than 25 years later when I was signing books at the Beatles fest, Abbey Road on the River in Louisville, Kentucky.
He told me he never forgot a face and proved it that day. Amazing…
David started inviting us to Tramps on Mondays to watch him try out his Buster Poindexter character. He’d sit on a barstool wearing a tuxedo, (what looked like) black women’s stockings as socks, slicked back hair and a cocktail in his hand. It started out small, maybe with just a backup piano and guitar player at first, but he gradually added more players. Instead of rock, he’d croon standards and calypso style songs.
After a few months of watching him morph into the very cool music personality alter ego, we were invited to a happening New Year’s Eve party at Tramps. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing it was to ring in the year 1987. It was a full-out and packed Buster Poindexter celebration and for a night that usually doesn’t live up to everyone’s high expectations, this NY’s Eve was a blast. I distinctly remember Buster… uh, David asking for a swig of my beer as a cure for his dry throat before running back on stage for an encore.
Not long after we all seemed to gravitate onto our next career moves and neighborhoods. I ended up running the most popular comedy club in New York City and Buster… uh, David was back on the radio and television with Hot Hot Hot. Believe me when I say it all turned out to be much more than a boring normal life.
It was a long way from when I was a wannabe be New Yorker in the late 1970’s. And even though a calypso beat can still bring back memories of late nights in Manhattan, Funky But Chic was the soundtrack for when it all started.
Here’s a 1993 clip of David singing Funky But Chic on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Loud, brash, chaotic, unpredictable and gritty – just as it should be.
To purchase David Johansen’s self-titled and first solo CD with Funky But Chic check out Amazon.com.
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