Certain Songs #1325: New York Dolls – “Personality Crisis”

Album: New York Dolls
Year: 1973

I’m not really sure what it means that there were only a handful of bands in the early 1970s willing to take on the Rolling Stones in the ragged-but-rough roots rock category. The Faces, of course. Aerosmith, maybe. And, of course, the New York Dolls, whose debut album was a critical link between the Stones and the punk rock that followed.

Like all of the aforementioned bands, the Dolls were built upon the tension between the flashy lead singer who wanted everybody to love them and the crack guitarist who provided licks, riffs and occasional vocals, to boot.

This is all an oversimplification, of course, but what isn’t is that when New York Dolls came out in 1973, it rocked harder than the Faces, was looser than Aerosmith, and felt as decadent as the Stones. As lead guitarist Johnny Thunders slashed and scraped like a house on fire, “Personality Crisis” just exploded out of the speakers, as Todd Rundgren’s production allowed them to run wild without ever completely falling apart.

All about that
Personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got
(That’s why they talk about personality)

And that was the key. With Sylvian Sylvian’s piano and Thunder’s guitar battling against David Johansen’s vocals, you always had a choice with “Personality Crisis”: either concentrate hard to figure out what was going on, or sit back and let it wash all over you. Lord knows that Joe Strummer & Mick Jones were paying attention, because if you chose the former, it would surprise you with its hidden sophistication, and if you chose the latter, you could just randomly scream “Personality crisis!” whenever Johansen screamed it.

That was always my choice, as well as waiting for my favorite part.

That personality everything starts to blend
Personality when your mind starts to blend
Personality impression of a friend
Of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend
Personality wonderin’ how celebrities ever met
(Look and find out on television)

That “of a friend, of a friend, of a friend of a friend” absolutely slays me ever single time, and always feels like it comes out of absolutely nowhere. It’s also a microcosm of the entire song. Every moment of “Personality Crisis” adds something new and surprising: a piano lick, guitar lead, backing vocal, even the song coming to a dead halt for no fucking discernible reason.

It’s kind of a mess, but it’s a glorious irresistible mess, and a great way to kick off their debut album.

“Personality Crisis”

“Personality Crisis” performed live in Germany, 1973

“Personality Crisis” live on the Midnite Special, 1973

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