New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain: 1951 – 2021
“It’s all about having soul. You either have it or you don’t,” Sylvain Sylvain once told me.
We were discussing the basic ingredients that makes music great and the one-time New York Dolls rhythm guitarist was adamant that he had the answer.
“We weren’t the most technical musicians in The Dolls, but I think we had soul and that’s what made us different,“ he continued.
To call the New York Dolls different is something of an understatement. Formed in 1971, the five-piece of David Johansen (vocals), Johnny Thunders (guitar), Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane (bass), Billy Murcia (drums) and Sylvain slunk out of the Bronx, seemingly having raided their girlfriends’ wardrobes for their clothes and having rifled through their make-up bag for their rouge.
Bored of their heroes’ increasing indulgences, The Dolls’ mission was simple: to restore rock’n’roll to its rightful place as a flamboyant, dangerous cultural force. And, while David and Johnny would become the figureheads of the band, Sylvain Sylvain was its beating heart and chief strategist.
By the time he’d formed The Dolls, Sylvain had already led a remarkable life. Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo in 1951 to a Jewish family, he’d had to flee the country for political reasons when his father fell foul of President Nasser’s regime. A successful banker for 25 years, Sylvain’s father retrained as a tailor and ensured his son was involved in the family business, teaching him how to sew at a young age.
The family’s exile led them first to Paris and then to Buffalo, New York – a place where the six-year-old Sylvain learnt his survival instincts. Just as significantly, he fell in love with rock’n’roll.
An undiagnosed dyslexic, life in the rag trade beckoned before Sylvain decided to form a band with his friend Billy Murcia. It was then that the seeds of The Dolls were sown.
When The Dolls emerged in the early ’70s, their openly effeminate dress-sense and abrasive musical approach appeared confrontational, setting them at odds with their contemporaries and the musical establishment. At first, a record deal eluded them, allowing them the time to forge a reputation as an outlandish live band as they honed their songwriting. Equally significant was The Dolls’ penchant for excess and self-destruction.
By the time they released their self-titled debut album in July 1973, the band had already suffered their first casualty in Billy Murcia who died of asphyxiation following an accidental overdose during a brief UK tour in November 1972. For Sylvain, the loss was palpable but he was adamant that The Dolls had to carry on, and so they did by recruiting Jerry Nolan as their drummer.
Armed with a deal with Mercury Records, The Dolls entered New York’s Record Plant Studios and recorded their first album in just eight days with producer Todd Rundgren at the helm. The resultant 11 tracks echoed ’50s rock, but tracks like Personality Crisis, Jet Boy and Trash (the latter co-written by David and Sylvain) pointed the way forward to a new musical invective. Years later, Sylvain would describe the band’s debut as being nothing short of a manifesto.
“It started a whole scene. It wasn’t just even music, it was the door that was open that delivered the clothing, the lifestyle, the attitude,” he told me during one conversation.
Another visit to England in November 1973 saw the band play fashion emporium Biba and appear on the Old Grey Whistle Test TV show. The latter would be a catalytic moment for a generation of musicians watching at home.
The Dolls’ star burnt brightly for three years prior to the band’s implosion in a blizzard of heroin and bad decisions. They played their last show at legendary New York club Max’s Kansas City on December 30, 1976, with Blondie as their opening act.
If fellow East Coast acts like the Ramones and KISS were in thrall to The Dolls, their biggest impact was arguably on the British punk scene – their late-period manager Malcolm McClaren recruiting musicians to form a band in their image. That band would become the Sex Pistols, just one of the many acts who would acknowledge their debt to The Dolls. Later, of course, the likes of Sonic Youth, Guns N’ Roses and Poison Idea would follow in the Pistols’ footsteps and cover Dolls tunes.
Following the band’s split, Sylvain would embark on several other musical projects – working on David Johansen’s solo albums (for which he wrote a number of songs) and a record of his own, as well as playing with several other musicians. He would, however, always remain a Doll.
Fiercely proud of the band’s music and legacy, he was a key instigator in the New York Dolls’ reformation in 2004. He was equally disappointed to find that David – who’d subsequently enjoyed a parallel career using the pseudonym Buster Pointdexter and as an actor – was going through the motions.
Despite the fact that the re-constituted Dolls released three new studio albums, Sylvain remained angry with David when the latter refused to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut in 2013.
“It’s sad nobody’s doing anything about it. It would’ve helped if everyone had gotten into it, including our frontman, but nobody got into it,” he told me at the time.
Two years later Sylvain would leave his adopted hometown of New York for Nashville. He presaged his departure with a tune about that very subject – 2012’s Leaving New York, a track full of the man’s typically romantic spirit.
In late 2019 the guitarist confirmed that he was suffering from cancer and he succumbed to the disease on January 13, 2021. His passing was met with tributes from all quarters with musicians that included the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Slash and Thurston Moore.
My most abiding memory of Syl revolves around a radio interview we were conducting back in 2013. We were in a studio with glass walls and we were mid-chat when, through the window, we watched soul superstar Lionel Ritchie walk past. Sylvain fell silent and then looked up. “That’s one of the real guys right there,” he said in hushed tones, seemingly unaware of his own musical significance. It was a typical moment of humility from a man who, above all, was most definitely one of “the real guys”.
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