Buster Poindexter and His Spanish Rocketship: Lost in Space at the Bottom Line by Otto Luck

April 1998

David Johansen’s string of performances in the guise of shmaltz-meister Buster Poindexter has probably lasted longer than even Johansen could have imagined, becoming one of the longest running extended jokes in the music business today. Unfortunately, at this point – like some of his rambling jokes – it seems to be going nowhere fast. Let’s just say the Spanish Rocketship had a bit of problem leaving the launching pad last Saturday night at the Bottom Line, April 18, 1998.

Buster arrived onstage around 8:15. His entourage is still as big as ever. I estimated one band member per every four members of the audience. It’s a middle-aged crowd that comes to see Poindexter – somewhere between the Geritol Club and the Marilyn Manson Generation. Buster was looking trim and spiffy in a black Nehru-style suit. He’s no longer gumming his hair up into an exotic pompadour. In fact, he looked more like David Johansen than he has in years.

The Spanish Rocketship soon began their voyage, delivering their salsa and merengue schlock – sandwiched between Buster’s Borsch-belt stand-up comic routine – to a rather unruly crowd. There were quite a few hecklers in attendance, along with an otherwise tepid audience. Why someone would pay $20 to shout at the man, I’ll never know. Perhaps it’s all a part of the act these days – the Rocky Horror Spanish Rocketship Show, if you will.

By Buster’s third number it became obvious that it was going to be tough-going to make it through the evening – for both Buster and me. Poindexter looked noticeably tired, rubbing this face often and pumping his vocal chords with a handy tincture that he kept within arms reach. Meanwhile, I noticed that my wife, Pumpkin Luck, had fallen fast asleep in her French Fries.

I should say, however, the evening did have its moments. The Spanish Rocketship are a tight ensemble of talented musicians, anchored by the punchy rhythm section of Tony Machine on drums and Andy Gonzales on bass, who, by the way, bares a striking resemblance to The Addam’s Family’s Uncle Fester. The Uptown Horns were also in fine form. Arno Hecht traded his tenor sax for a clarinet at one point in the evening and played a solo that, alone, made it worth the trudge down to the Bottom Line.

And some of Buster’s material did work, especially the jokes that didn’t make you wait 20 minutes for a punch line. Buster told us that the other evening he “slept like a baby… I cried and wet my bed.” In addition, he mentioned that he recently had the honors of crooning the “Star Spangled Banana” for a Mets game at Shea Stadium. “I could have started a war,” he said, “with the patriotic fervor that was rippling through the joint.” He does have one hell of a set of pipes.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the Buster Poindexter shtick is wearing a bit thin, these days. I’m not saying that Johansen should slap on some lipstick and re-launch the New York Dolls, but the way he seems to have distanced himself so severely from his past affiliation with rock & roll is a bit unnerving. In fact, he has covered his tracks so effectively that one might think he had been a member of Milli Vanilli rather than the legendary Dolls. Go figure...

Along these lines, it was interesting that one of the Rocketship’s more successful numbers for the evening was the delivery of “Mean Spirited Sal” from their namesake CD. Poindexter introduced it as a boog-a-loo (God forbid he should utter the four-letter word “rock”) and from the first few moments of the 12-bar-blues rave, it was evident that things were about to perk up. The cadavers in the audience suddenly sprung to life. The guy in back of me stopped yelling, “Play the old stuff,” for a few moments and started dancing, while my wife, Pumpkin Luck, finally lifted her head from her French Fries.

David Johansen in
the NY Dolls circa 1974
photo © Dennis Recla

Buster and company closed the evening with the obligatory “Hot, Hot, Hot,” his biggest hit to date. Half the band formed a rumba line for the song and marched through the crowd. There was something inherently sad about seeing Poindexter at the head of the line, parading through the audience and smiling at his customers like a suit salesman. I mean, the man is history. In my mind, he’s accomplished incredible feats, included in which, managing to stay alive, unlike Dolls-mates Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia and Jerry Nolan. All that just to Bossa Nova his tiny fanny through a crowd of tired office workers on a Saturday night. I guess what they say is true – there are fates worse than death.

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