The rock survivor who leads Morrissey's favourite band
The New York Dolls helped give birth to punk, and then imploded, ravaged by drug abuse. Now, band founder Sylvain Sylvain has brought them back from the grave.
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The New York Dolls, 2009 version. Sylvain Sylvain (right) and David Johansen (holding cup) are the only members from the original 1970s line-up
The New York Dolls’ arrival in Britain this week signals another joyous chapter in arguably the most uplifting musical comeback story of the 21st century. For guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, turning a legacy as part of one of rock’s most influential, yet commercially unsuccessful, bands into a thriving career in his fifties is reason for celebration. He is doing what he loves.
“Being a Jewish boy from Brooklyn I joke about always being broke,” he laughs. “The true job of any creator is to create. It’s not about taking it to the bank. Our real payment is manifested through love over the years and people being influenced by our songs and lifestyle.”
There are few bands that have resonated throughout the years like the Dolls. Formed in New York in 1971, their music was raw, no frills, pop-influenced rock and roll, a sound that a few years later would be labelled punk. Their style was the apex of glam, cross-dressing and confrontational, imitated by metal bands throughout the ’80s.
Many dismissed them at the time. Venerable Old Grey Whistle Test host Bob Harris declared them “mock rock”. Two albums, now rightfully hailed as masterpieces, barely grazed the charts. But people who did get the Dolls understood that they were witnessing greatness. A teenage Morrissey was head of their UK fan club, and a Jewish fashion designer called Malcolm McLaren was so impressed he ended up managing the band, transferring the lessons he learned with them onto his next act, The Sex Pistols.
“We were all in the shmatte business,” explains Sylvain. “That was my original connection with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. I introduced them to the Dolls at a New York trade show. I was running Truth and Soul Sweaters with Billy Murcia, the first Dolls drummer, and at the end of the hallway was Let It Rock, Vivienne and Malcolm’s first go at manufacturing. We traded some stuff and invited them to see the Dolls. They fell in love right there. That’s the Jewish rag trade-punk rock connection!”
Sylvain is proud of his Jewish roots. Born in Cairo in 1951 — “my passport still says Sylvain Sylvain Mizrahi” — his family left Egypt when he was 10, stopping in Paris before being helped to emigrate to the US by Jewish community groups.
“My father had a choice of five cities we could move to,” he recalls. “One was Buffalo, New York. We had a few relatives in New York in Brooklyn, so he thought, how far can Buffalo be from Brooklyn? We came from the deserts of Egypt to the American snow belt. We froze our tushies off.”
By 1971 he had learned English, become an accomplished guitarist and formed The New York Dolls. By 1975 the band were in disarray, destroyed by a lifestyle dominated by drugs. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” admits Sylvain. “But the one thing you can’t screw around with is heroin. I never became a junkie. I had the hangover and that saved me. Unfortunately, it happened a lot to the members who are no longer around.”
Original drummer Murcia was killed in a drinking accident before the band’s ascent to fame. Guitarist Johnny Thunders and second drummer Jerry Nolan passed away in 1991 and 1992 respectively, their careers eroded by addiction. Half the band was gone, but they had not been forgotten. Their old super-fan Morrissey, entrusted with putting together the schedule for 2004’s Meltdown Festival on London’s South Bank, vowed to get the band back on stage together. Sylvain and bass player Arthur Kane (the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary New York Doll) were keen. Once Morrissey had persuaded singer David Johansen that he had nothing to lose, the reunion was on.
“We were always being approached by companies and offered stupid money to do it,” says Sylvain. “It was David that needed to be convinced. He thought, it would only be one or two shows and it could be done. But once we got on stage the magic happened.”
What was meant to be a one-off concert has now turned into a second career. Although Kane passed away shortly after the initial reunion the reformed Dolls have continued to cement their legacy with countless gigs and two new studio albums to their name. “The New York Dolls have been nothing but real,” laughs Sylvain. “Whether we were great, terrible, junkies or monkeys, we were at least real. We could have winded up like Kiss, controlled and contrived. We flew by the seat of our pants. I’d never do it any different."
The New York Dolls tour the UK until December 10 (www.nydolls.org). Their latest album, ‘Cause I Sez So’, is out now