Vale New York Dolls Legendary Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – So Loved He Was Named Twice

Vale New York Dolls Legendary Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – So Loved He Was Named Twice

new york dolls
New York Dolls (L-R) guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, Johnny Thunders (1952 - 1991), Arthur Kane (1949 - 2004), Jerry Nolan (1946 - 1992) & David Johansen. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.

ILOYS pays tribute to Sylvain Sylvain, the New York rocker whose style and outrageousness created a line of influence that ran through Aerosmith and Kiss, Blondie and the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, Radio Birdman, Nick Cave and the Hoodoo Gurus, Billy Idol and Joan Jett, Mötley Cre and Guns N’ Roses and beyond. 

It was the saddest of news, but the instant outpouring of tributes and grief around the world spoke volumes. The passing of New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain on Wednesday January 13, at the age of 69, was not unexpected - it was known he had cancer - but It was still heartbreaking. Especially considering the band that Syl founded, named and spent his life championing - a band whose influence on the rock world remains as great as almost anyone’s - were still denied, unbelievably, any ultimate recondition by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Grammy Awards; but if the rock establishment had steadfastly refused to do the right thing, last week the people spoke. The man born Sylvain Mizrahi, a Syrian Jew in Egypt, was given perhaps the only vindication that really matters – recognition and love by his peers and his audience.

The New York Dolls, that band that Syl formed in 1971 , were as controversial as it gets in their day, and it’s perhaps that controversy that continues to hinder industry approval. After all, this is band that the likes of the Eagles and even Mick Jagger went out of their way to deride back in the day, and a band that was called “mock rock” by the host of esteemed UK rock show the Old Grey Whistle Test. Of course, the Dolls never achieved great commercial success either, but early on, they were the hottest ticket around – so hot that Rod Stewart flew them to London to appear with the Faces before they even had a record deal! That aside, the Dolls had enormous success in terms of influence. While their influence on glam and punk was arguably equal to that of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground - probably more so in regards to certain key players like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Blondie (and not forgetting Japan, whose David Sylvian took his surname in honour of Syl); their influence went beyond that into the realms of hard rock. In the ‘70s, Aerosmith and Kiss both took inspiration from the Dolls (Peter Criss even auditioned for them early on), and beyond. One look at the cover of their self-titled first album from 1973 is more than enough to show where a generation of hair metal acts got their look.

Syl arrived in the US with his family just in time to soak up the new rock’n’roll and pop sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those sounds would remain with him. Syl formed and named the New York Dolls in ‘71 with original drummer Billy Murcia, after the pair had an earlier band together called the Pox. In between, Sly and Billy were in the rag trade - they had their own fashion label called Truth and Soul in New York - and thus they became responsible for the Dolls’ outrageous and androgynous look. Marc Bolan was clearly an influence on that look – Syl obviously took a liking to Marc’s corkscrew curls.

With the introduction of guitarist Johnny Thunders, bass player Arthur Kane, and soon, gravel-voiced front man David Johansen, the Dolls were an instant sensation in their sensational city, appealing to street kids, music fans, artists and high society alike. Soon, they were the most talked about group in rock. 

While their first album, produced by Todd Rundgren, failed to deliver on their perceived commercial promise, it did score the band both the “Best New Artist” and “Worst New Artist” popular award from the readers of Circus magazine, and was significant news. The likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed took notice. The album showed off their song-writing chops – Johansen was one of rock’s great lyricists and the band combined their deep love of ‘60s pop, R&B, raunchy blues and avant garde rock Into a set of classic songs that are still routinely covered today. The band’s signature sound, highlighted by Thunders’ slip-sliding jet engine leads and Johansen’s gruff baritone, which was made all the more hilarious by the fact that he had been known to wear a skirt on stage, seemed to pull in different directions at once and epitomised the decadence of the times.

But the decadence wasn’t just something they keenly observed, and as various addictions took hold on certain band members, their second album fared worse than the first. Produced by Shadow Morton, best known for his work with ‘60s girl group the Shangri-Las, 1974’s Too Much Too Soon was prophetically titled but nonetheless, as good, if not better than the first. A stint under fledgling British Svengali/manager, Malcolm Maclaren left them reeling, and in 1975, Syl and David found themselves last men standing. As Aerosmith and Kiss started playing stadiums, a new line-up of the Dolls went back to small clubs. Syl knocked back an offer from McLaren to come to London and joining a new band he was putting together – the Sex Pistols -  and in ‘76, as the new breed of bands they’d inspired were coming out of CBGB’s and stealing their thunder, the Dolls called it quits. Their great new set of songs ultimately became the basis for two new bands, the David Johansen Group, and Syl’s band the Criminals.

While both Johansen and Syl scored major deals and made great records, their music showed a polish and joie de vivre that was at odds with the nihilism of the time and the fuck you attitude of the Punk bands they’d inspired. Johansen went onto some success with his lounge lizard alter-ego Buster Poindexter, and the New York Dolls continued to influence successive generations of bands including the likes of Hanoi Rocks, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Replacements and the Libertines. After a stint in punk primetime with his post-Dolls band the Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunders continued as punk’s guitar hero until his death in ’91.

Over the lean years that followed the Dolls, Syl remained a faithful lieutenant to both Johansen and Thunders, and kept gigging and making the occasional record. He also spent time driving a taxi. If there was some vindication to be had by seeing Dolls fans like Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Glam/New Romantics like Dead or Alive and Duran Duran all over MTV, I suspect it was galling to see the likes of Mötley Cre and Poison top the charts with a look and sound reminiscent of a watered down Dolls with an emphasis on the sleaze, which is not what the Dolls were about. The inclusion of a cover of the Dolls’ “Human Being” on Guns N’ Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident? no doubt made up somewhat for that though. Then, in 2004, at uber-fan Morrissey’s request, the band reformed. While Thunders and Nolan had gone to their graves and Kane would tragically follow just months after their first gig back in London, Syl and David with some new pals stuck it out for a few years, numerous international tours (including a couple down under) and three fine new albums. 

Syl’s death follows the publication a couple of years ago of his acclaimed autobiography There’s No Bones In Ice Cream and the more recent announcement of a forthcoming Martin Scorsese co-directed David Johansen documentary. David is now the last living Doll, and while he and Johnny Thunders were the decidedly alpha characters in the band, it was Syl who not only started it and styled it, but the man who remained most dedicated to it. Sylvain Sylvain was the New York Dolls’ heart and soul. By all reports he was the nicest guy in show biz as well, always there for fans and younger bands, and always ready to light up a room with his irrepressible smile and good humour. Long may he be loved. 



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