Q&A with ex-NY Doll, Sylvain Sylvain

KIERAN GRANT

, Last Updated: 12:00 AM ET

In a band celebrated for its excess, decadence, and plain bad luck -- and that's just the stuff on record -- Sylvain Sylvain may have been the closest thing to a stabilizing force.

As co-guitarist for The New York Dolls, his driving chords and chiming melodies were laid down like a ramp for self-destructive guitarist Johnny Thunders and ambitious singer David Johansen.

Thirty years later, Sylvain is here to tell the tale, having outlived three of his Dolls bandmates: Thunders, original drummer Billy Murcia, and his replacement Jerry Nolan.

During a conversation Wednesday to promote a new album, "Sleep Baby Doll", and a tour that brings him to Toronto's B-Side club tomorrow, the veteran glam-punker reflected warmly and candidly on his days with and without The New York Dolls.

JAM!: "Sleep Baby Doll" is a solid disc. Was it a concern for you that your new album would live up to your legacy as a New York Doll?

Sylvain: No, not really. I just make records. The public has to read it and put it where they feel it should be. I went for years and years being effected by whatever, from the public to record companies. That didn't help me make records. With this one, I did it with whatever I had in hand, and I had to do it really fast - first or second take, and that was it. The musicians who played on this record didn't get paid, and it really was a labour of love. It was me asking my friends: "Come on in, I need your input." I had some incredible musicians, like Frank Infante from Blondie, Derwood Andrews from Generation X, and some of my friends from The Fuzztones.

I rounded them up in Los Angeles, even though they're from New York. L.A. is kind of like a graveyard of musicians, everyone goes there and has these big dreams. Who knows what happens in this dirty crazy business; they wind up being out of gigs. There's a supermarket on the Sunset Strip called Ralph's. It's basically dubbed rock 'n' roll Ralph's. I could go into Ralph's and probably put together a few bands (laughs).

Poor guys. Not that I wasn't one of them. At this point in my life, and this was one of the reasons I started to come back out on the road, is that I can find all these great musicians. I use local bands no matter where I go. I just came from Spain, and I picked up a Spanish band there. It went so good that people would come backstage after gigs and start talking to my boys in English, thinking that I brought them from the States or something. These poor guys would tell me, 'Oh, I was talking to this really pretty chick' - chicas, as they call 'em - 'and when she found out I only spoke Spanish she walked away!' (laughs).

At my age, I want a show about rock 'n' roll. I think it's almost a forgotten thing. There's not a lot of guys getting out there playing cool three-chord songs with a little sexiness in there and some hot licks or some chancey lyrics.

I do my whole big history, what I call my 300 years of rock 'n' roll that I've been in. I give 'em some of the things I did in the Dolls - I'll do "Pills", "Jet Boy", "Trash" ...

JAM!: You wrote "Trash", right?

Sylvain: Yeah, I wrote "Frankenstein", too. There's a lot of stuff in the Dolls where I was overshadowed by Johansen and Johnny.

JAM!: History has anointed you the stable member of the Dolls.

Sylvain: (laughs)

JAM!: And Johansen must've been, too. You guys have survived what many consider to be a doomed band. Do you feel strange about that? (Note: Murcia died of in a drug-related accident in 1972, age 21. Thunders died of a heroin overdose in 1991, at a strikingly young 38, and Nolan died of a stroke a year later at 45. Bassist Arthur Kane, Sylvain, and Johansen are still alive.)

Sylvain: I think the thing that really saved me was ... my wife, who was my drummer in The Teardrops for my second album, we had my son Odell, who was born in 1981. Well, by 1984 or '85 my marriage had broken up and I was a single parent. I just couldn't come home stinkin' drunk anymore. All my (record) deals that I ever got came from being stinkin' at 4 a.m. in some New York club, with some guy offering me whatever. That's how I got up to that point.

JAM!: The Dolls were kids when they signed to Mercury in 1972, right?

Sylvain: Oh, we were so naive, we would've done anything. We were so into the whole Andy Warhol, Chelsea Hotel thing. I do a bit on stage now where I ask the kids what their favourite bands were growing up, and I tell them that my favourite band was The Velvet Underground and I play "Femme Fatale". I still try to bring that New York thing that I grew up with, and that was part of my band.

JAM!: Do you think that what The Velvets meant to bands in the '70s, The Dolls meant for bands in the late '70s and '80s? The Sex Pistols, and the entire L.A. glam-metal scene of the '80s was rooted in what the Dolls did.

Sylvain: It wasn't just The Velvets for us. There was also the early '60s girl groups, like The Shangri-Las, and someone like Eddie Cochran. That's how I wrote "Trash". It was a mixture of all the girl-groups and Eddie Cochran riffs I could rip off and throw into a song together.

When I was growing up and shit, one of my favourite groups was the early Who. They had those "ooohs" that reminded me of girl-groups, but it was guys doing it. Then there was The MC5 and Iggy and us, and suddenly we were facing this era of big stadium-rock bands where you need a magnifying glass at concerts to see these guys who looked a half-an-inch tall. There was no more of that thing where you could touch the band or see the sweat on their faces.

JAM!: Could the Dolls ever have become a stadium band?

Sylvain: We were your best club band, because we were really club kids. The first ones. We went into our girlfriends' pocketbooks and put on make-up to copy Mick Jagger in the movie "Performance". And chicks dug guys in make-up when I was young! That's why we even did it.

JAM!: Does rock belong in clubs?

Sylvain: If I was a businessman I'd say no, because I'd like to make the money of big arenas. But it misses a lot in the big joints. When everything is right there in front of you and there's the smoke in the air -- I don't know what it is, the rock 'n' roll stink or something, but it's very important. And to learn your songs, you have to do it with someone a few feet away. That audience will tell you if it works. You could be in the studio for half a year and not get it.

JAM!: You have an interesting background. You came from Egypt to the States when you were a kid? (Sylvain, real name Sil Mizrahi, is of Sephardic Jewish heritage.)

JAM!: Yeah, I was born in Cairo. We were basically exiled because of the Suez Crisis, in 1958.

JAM!: So 12 years later you're in a band that is on the cutting-edge of American rock 'n' roll decadence. What did your family think about that?

Sylvain: (Laughs) First of all, I'm from a long line of tailors and coutures. That's how I started, too. Billy Murcia and I had our own line of sweaters called Truth And Soul. That's basically how we started, with that little company. We started getting successful and doing boutique shows. As a matter of fact, that's how I met Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. We were doing a boutique show in 1970 at the Hotel McAlpin. There was this English gentleman there with his woman, and they had (the store) Let It Rock, and they were doing all the Teddy Boy stuff. At the end of the show, I introduced Johansen and Johnny to Vivienne and Malcolm. And we bought some of their samples, because that's what you did at those things.

JAM!: You were designing the Dolls' clothes.

Sylvain: I made some of the pants, some of those stretch lames patterned from those '50s-style Marilyn Monroe styles. I took them apart, made 'em a little longer, and that was it.

JAM!: You said you came from a long line of tailors.

Sylvain: My last name is Mizrahi.

JAM!: Are you any relation to (fashion designer) Isaac Mizrahi?

Sylvain: I would think my uncles would know his mom. She's in the business. There's not that many Mizrahis. We may be distant cousins.

When I first got into music, me and Billy always had these bands since we started going to school together. We were very young. We had our amps in his mother's basement, and that's where we learned how to play. Johnny Thunders was another guy in school who was a bass player. He had a lot of girlfriends. We thought, if we play with this guy, maybe we could grab some of his chicks or something (laughs). Billy's family were also immigrants, from Colombia. We got along, maybe for survival reasons, in New York.

JAM!: What did your parents think about the bands?

Sylvain: They always thought music should never be more important than your work, your bread and butter.

JAM!: Here you were mixing the two to such a high degree.

Sylvain: I couldn't think of the Dolls looking any other way than how they did. I couldn't think of them becoming as popular as we still are without that look. That first album cover was because of me. Mercury had taken us to an antique shop, and we were supposed to (pose) without our makeup, like we were dolls among the antiques. We looked like we do on the back of the cover. It was okay, but it had nothing compared to what the Dolls really were. I called up all my friends in the rag business and said, "Hey, I got $900 and I need a dynamite shot." These friends suggested (photographer) Toshi, who was doing Vogue covers. He got the crew and this guy named Shin for the hair and another guy for the makeup [credited on the record as Dave O'Grady]. That couch we were sitting on, we found that on the street and brought it up (laughs). We put the white fabric on it -- I remember tacking it on. It was really a trashed couch, with a white satin cover.

JAM!: That seems appropriate, poetic even.

Sylvain: (Laughs) It was. When that came out in 1973, we were really asking for it. I thank God for that now, since we only made two albums. If we'd made many, I might feel shy about that cover now. But since we only made two albums and we became who we became, my God, maybe that's why we have longevity.

JAM!: When you made (the second album) "Too Much Too Soon", did you know how prophetic that title was going to be?

Sylvain: I was so disappointed in "Too Much Too Soon". Our first producer, Todd Rundgren, was attempting to capture the New York Dolls and did a damn good job for that time. We were heading in the right direction. On the second album, basically Johansen and one of our managers, Marty Thau, decided it would be a great idea to get this guy Shadow Martin. He was a god in rock 'n' roll, no matter what we say. He put together The Shangri-Las and wrote "Leader Of The Pack" -- one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs ever, I feel.

Only problem was, Shadow had not made a record since the '60s, until 1974. That was another 300 years of musical history. So many things had happened since the girl-groups: the psychedelic age, Woodstock, we could go on and on (laughs). I don't think he had a shadow of an idea. When he came in the picture, he brought in the black chicks to sing on "Stranded In The Jungle". They were beautiful, don't get me wrong. They were gorgeous to look at -- I would have loved to end up in bed with one of them -- but it was not the New York Dolls anymore.

He did the same thing with my piano. I'd put down some sloppy piano, like I'd done on the first album with things like "Personality Crisis" -- sort of what I called Jerry Lee Lewis on acid. Shadow brought in a concert pianist, and the guy played great, but it wasn't the Dolls anymore.

I wrote the title song, "Too Much Too Soon", and it wasn't even on the album. It came out on a Johnny Thunders record 10 years later.

The way I describe it -- and I love Buster Poindexter (Johansen's popular '80s solo guise) -- but it was really the first Buster Poindexter record, as far as I was concerned.

JAM!: "Stranded In The Jungle" and "Showdown" were great songs.

Sylvain: You see now, though, those were both covers. I agree with you. But it's not a wise idea for a new band to put so many covers on their second album. The rest was leftovers from the first record. We shoulda gone with Todd Rundgren and done newer material.

JAM!: When you were working with McLaren later (in 1974-75), did you have a hand in the whole Soviet stage look he developed for you?

Sylvain: (Laughs) No I didn't. Malcolm was a true, great friend who helped us at a time that was really black for us. But he never had any signatures or paper with us. He couldn't say, besides love-wise, that he was our manager. We were doing our comeback, and he was there trying to clean us up and taking care of us. I was one of his best friends out of the whole band, because I knew him the longest from the clothes thing.

(The communist thing) started with one pair of red shoes. "Man, I'm going to get a pair of red shoes." "Oh yeah, so am I." So Nolan's like"I think I'll get some red pants then." "Okay, I'll get some, too." "Well, f--- you, I'll get a whole red suit!" (laughs)

Vivienne got us outfitted. Malcolm McLaren and Johansen never had much to say to each other, but they locked eyes and said, "Well, now that everything is red, what about the red flag?!" (laughs). Malcolm, of course, always has a political agenda to everything he does.

JAM!: Did the commie stuff piss people off?

Sylvain: Of course! Sweetheart, they didn't even accept us on that first album cover. Don't forget, the Vietnam War was still being fought. Here we were: We tried to be stoned-out, drag queen, transvestite freaks, or whatever. That didn't work. That's what they were telling us: "You try to do this, that didn't work, you try to do that, that didn't work. Now you're gonna be f---in' communists, you homosexual bastids?!" It was considered kamikaze. And it was. Typical New York Dolls, driving that freight train right into the wall.

JAM!: A hammer-and-sickle on a shirt is less effective now than having the New York Dolls on a shirt. You know that pop group The Corrs from Ireland? I was flipping through a magazine and I saw a picture of them ...

Sylvain: Oh yeah, the girls? And they wear the New York Dolls T-shirts. I saw that picture all over Spain.

JAM!: I don't suppose they're Dolls fans. But their stylists probably suggested the shirt. You go into thrift shops now, and they're mass-producing Iggy and Dolls shirts. How do you feel about that?

Sylvain: I love that! I go in and there's a glitter-rock section in every groovy little store. I started to do all-ages shows again, because I felt I was cutting off, like, half my audience. There's these kids in Atlanta, where I live now, and they're all, like, 15 with their own bands. There's this one girl, Alex, and she's got all these New York Dolls shirts cut into dresses and mini-skirts. They're so creative. I just love it.

JAM!: I think I got into the Dolls as a kid because I was into The Smiths. Morrissey was a big fan.

Sylvain: (Reminiscing) Oh God. I met him in L.A. in about '94. He invited me down to a show. He sings "Trash" at performances. He may have stopped now. But I saw the set list with "Trash" on it, so I took it and got him to sign it. I asked him how he started liking the Dolls. He said he saw us on the BBC while he was sitting there with his mom. He used to walk to school holding the first album --just the cover, no record inside -- just to show people where he was at. As a matter of fact, when I played in L.A. last year he came to see me. The paper was funny: Morrissey this, Morrissey that, but not a word about Sylvain's show. They probably thought I was doing HIS song "Trash"! (laughs).

JAM!: Do you think "Trash" is the best song the Dolls ever did?

Sylvain: I think it's the second most important. I think "Personality Crisis" will always be THE song. "Human Being" and "Jet Boy" ... I should have been partly credited for those. But I did get "Puss 'N' Boots" in there. I don't know how. (laughs)

JAM!: "Puss 'N' Boots" was basically Motley Crue 10 years before the fact.

Sylvain: You think so? (laughs). Thing is, there was supposed to be a third album. It was recorded live, at probably our very last show in New York. It was released five or six years after the fact [Note: "Red Patent Leather", recorded in 1975, came out as a rarity in Europe in 1984]. The reason was that the songs were so damn important. Don't go for the quality, just check out the songs and think about if they were produced in the studio. It would've been our record.

JAM!: Even with three members gone now, do you ever think about a reunion?

Sylvain: We always get offers. We did even when Johnny and Jerry were alive.

JAM!: How come it was never done?

Sylvain: It's ironic in a way, but when the Dolls broke-up, we were all successful individually. Some were very successful. Maybe some were not, but they still had work, where maybe other bands don't get it. The question really should be: "Why don't we just do it for the damn music?" I always thought we should. David Johansen, the most successful out of the Dolls, never really thought of it as his best option for a career move. People can hardly consider that Buster Poindexter could've been the lead singer of the New York Dolls. What a transformation.

JAM!: Would he do it now?

Sylvain: That's really a question for him to answer. I've said yes many, many times. Every year or so, we get offered stupid money and great projects: world tours, albums, documentaries, books. I wonder, based on what we did, what else could we have done? If you combined the songs Johnny gave us, and even the songs I gave Johansen -- people might not know that I wrote "Funky But Chic", "Frenchette", "Cool Metro", a lot of his solo stuff -- we could've thrown that in together and been a lot bigger than we were individually.

JAM!: You mentioned being a single dad. Your son would be 19 now?

Sylvain: He's 19 now.

JAM!: Do you have any sort of musical relationship with him?

Sylvain: Not really. He saw his dad struggle so much, I think it turned off show business (laughs). He's finished his first year of college, and he really likes computers. All he liked growing up was hip-hop and stuff. He likes the Kid Rock kinda stuff. Lately I've been hearing sound out of his room, like The Clash and stuff. I'm thinking, "Maybe there's hope here." (laughs)

JAM!: I remember seeing an old re-run of "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" with you on it.

Sylvain: Those were some great performances. You'd never know it, but that wasn't really our audience they showed. We were there with bands like Rufus, or something else ...

JAM!: Black Oak Arkansas?

Sylvain: I think that was it! My God, yeah. We were having a hard time up there. The audience wasn't going for it, and Johansen had been boozing it up a little too early that day. Y'know, they ask you to do things over and over on TV, you're like, "Oh, please."

When I see it now, we look pretty damn good but, f---, it wasn't as easy as it looked. The audience was starting to boo us. You took away our girls and our groovy scene, we didn't know what to do.

One of the biggest blunders we ever had was when our manager, Steve Leber, set up a showcase at the Mercer Arts Centre and invited every known record company. The plan was that the next day, we'd have a deal. Well, we sucked that night. We were playing in front of record executives -- not fun people. They didn't exactly get crazy. We didn't know what to do. Everybody passed on us. The reason we signed with Mercury was that they didn't show up that night.

(At this point, I ask Sylvain if he has a holiday season memory he could contribute to a running feature in The Toronto Sun.)

Sylvain: Can I make one up? My fantasy would be that I could put my arm around Johnny Thunders, in my dreams somehow. And The Dolls could be together as we once were, without all the junk and shit that destroyed us. That's what I wrote my song "Sleep Baby Doll" about. It was an accident - trying to put the kid to sleep, and there it was. It helped me make peace with it all. It's a hell of a lot cheaper to write a song than to see a shrink. It's a hell of a lot more fun, too.

I always tell people - there's a time for everything. When you demand answers immediately and you can't get them, that's what f---s you up.


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