An Interview with Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls
When I found out I had the chance to interview a member of the New York Dolls, I knew immediately that J from Heartonastick was the perfect perfect person to do it, and it ends up he was. J and Sylvain Sylvain talk about everything from Max’s Kansas City to the Morrissey-driven reunion, the new album to Pete Doherty…..
NEW YORK DOLLS @ SOUTH STREET SEAPORT, NYC | AUG 18, 2006
* photos of David Johansen & Sylvain Sylvain by Wellington Lee
No, they’re not going to go quietly. Isn’t that the last thing you’d want from them?
When the New York Dolls came together in 1971 they were just a bunch of city kids – Drummer Billy Murcia and guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain were from Queens, bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane from the Bronx, singer David Johansen from Staten Island – who wanted nothing more than to be in a rock and roll band.
People didn’t think they looked and sounded like anything else out there, but the Dolls didn’t really think there was any other way to look or sound. In a musical era of processed, plastic professionalism, these guys played loud and sloppy, banging themselves against bluesy ‘50s-style rock and ‘60s-era girl group sounds so hard something was bound to break.
What broke was everything. Including the Dolls. But by the time the group had fallen apart in 1975, people knew you didn’t have to love music from a distance, anymore.
Most of the original Dolls are no longer with us. Murcia died on the group’s first UK tour, drowned in a bathtub during a bizarre booze-and-barbiturate party. His replacement, Brooklyn-born Jerry Nolan, suffered a fatal stroke in 1992, not even a year after a cancer-and-drug-addled Thunders passed on. Kane lived to see the band’s triumphant 2004 reunion at Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London… but died of Leukemia shortly afterwards.
Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen are very much alive, and they want nothing more than to be in a rock and roll band.
I got to talk to Sylvain, and though we spoke longer than we were supposed to, it certainly wasn’t long enough. The New York Dolls have so much history – and are responsible for so much more – that I could barely scratch the surface. For those who want more, I’ll link to a few books and DVDs at the bottom. Further suggestions are always welcome; please leave them in the comments.
Above all, of course, you should own the records. It doesn’t make sense without the music. The group’s first, self-titled CD is necessary, and available; their second, Too Much Too Soon, a tougher find. And, hey: It’s 2006, and there’s a new Dolls CD, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Whoulda thunk.
Thanks to BV and the folks at Roadrunner Records for this opportunity, and to Sylvain Sylvain for his time and good humor.
J: New York is losing CBGB’s and Continental in the next month, but The Dolls came up before those clubs were even around. You kind of had to invent places to play…
“Syl: Yes, well, we always had to look for venues really, because when we came around there was none, except maybe Max’s Kansas City.
J: And that was a Warhol hangout then, right?
Syl: Yeah, exactly, that was famous for the back room, the downstairs back room where it was the late-60s musical scene, Warholish, all the old superstars, self-made superstars. Which we fit in pretty well because we were self-made stars ourselves. But yes, we had to look for places, and in fact that’s how we ran into the Mercer Arts Centre.
J: I wanted to get an idea what those places were like…
Syl: Well there were really – it was just… The reason why the Dolls got together was because of the boredom with the norm of the day, which was like the… the stadium rock era. The twenty minute drum solos. Songs were a big operetta and they were sort of boring, they lost their sex appeal. We came out of that era where, Madison Square Garden, that’s where everyone went to shows. That, and rebelling to that, deciding to ‘Hey, man’ – like the Little Rascals – ‘Let’s put on our own show.’ It’s a hell of a lot better than this crap, y’know? We found out there was a lot of other people that felt like that. That was your start of clubs and stuff. We kind of kicked it off, trying to find any place, any venue to go out and perform in.
J: The Mercer Arts Centre was a theatrical venue…
Syl: Well, it was really part of the Broadway Central Hotel, the entrance was on Broadway, they had this grand ballroom that got converted. They split it up into four or five theaters, if you will, plus a bar, and a video(?) workshop – these were all brand new back then. They had the central location, this place called the Blue Room, where everyone gathered after shows, or before shows. We got started in the back room, which was called the Oscar Wilde Room, and were in there every Tuesday night. We started with our show and then found everyone else [there] – drag queens and theater groups that were in town from wherever, since they heard their calling and came to New York, your typical artist or writer or poet that lived in the East Village. We became their band.
J: You guys played two shows every Tuesday night, and had a seventeen-week* residency, there? (*from The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon, Nina Antonia, p.35)
Syl: We didn’t – no, I think that’s a little bit exaggerated. We had Tuesday nights, and I don’t know exactly how long – because the whole place, the whole Broadway Central Hotel collapsed… They were renovating something, and they had a few beams that were down and the subway came unusually fast underneath Broadway and collapsed the whole fucking building. The whole place came down. There was residents there, and they were found holding each other together and stuff. Horrible. That was the end of that joint. I think that was around ’73.
J: And Max’s turned into a Burger King.
Syl: Max’s had a pretty uptight [building] owner that would get a lot of complaints through its heyday, and… they sort of lost their lease. It closed down under the first [club] ownership, under Mickey Ruskin and when he died, it basically closed. Tommy Dean opened it up later on. And then when they lost their lease, the owners just took it over and didn’t want to have anything to do with music in that joint. Which is why I think there was a Burger King there.
J: The New York Dolls – is there anything left of their New York?
Syl: New York is always changing. If it didn’t change, we wouldn’t be in New York. We wouldn’t have a New York. I don’t welcome – sometimes some changes are, y’know, yeah, we lose great “rock cathedrals,” if that’s what they call them today. Back then it was every goddamn pisshole we could find to play in.
J: Johnny Thunders was 19, you were in your early 20s when you got scooped up and were signing contracts.
Syl: Yes, exactly – although we waited a while. We had made a lot of noise before we were the Next Band to Be Signed by everybody. We started to appear on the scene in ‘71 and it wasn’t until ’73 by the time – and that’s a long two years, in the music business – we actually made a record. But that’s really what happened.
J: As far as the rights and money were concerned, didn’t you guys get the short end of the stick?
Syl: We were always – unfortunately there’s something about the New York Dolls, we don’t quite sell records right away. To the industry, [the records] don’t make it. But that’s because they see success in the first few months after a record comes out. If they don’t ship out x amount of units, as they like to say, then it’s not a hit. But in my case, I might never have received a gold record, a million dollar record or whatever. But my record’s been selling, and in the bins – all over the world, if I could add that – for 35 years. It’s never came out of print. So I don’t know what other bands can really say that.
J: That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Syl: I think somebody owes me a gold record, they just never gave it to me yet.
J: And the money…
Syl: They didn’t give me the money, either. But I’ve got a lot of [musical] influence I can deposit in the bank.
J: You had a successful clothing business before you were even in the band.
Syl: Yeahyeahyeah, Truth & Soul sweaters. Me and Billy Murcia, our first drummer. We started off, because we were both immigrants. My family came from the Middle East, Cairo, Egypt. Jewish immigrants thrown out of the Middle East in the 50s and immigrated to New York. And [the Murcias] immigrated from Colombia. I come from a long family line of coutures – before they called them “designers” and stuff. My last name is Mizrahi…
J: Your cousin’s Isaac Mizrahi… [Note: Never trust the Wikipedia.]
Syl: No, that’s not true! They always say that, just because we have the same last name. I always say we’re related by trade and family name. When I first told my parents I wanted to become a musician, my mother basically said, “Come over here,” smacked me in the face, and said, “You’re going to learn how to cut shirts.”
J: So the band’s fashion sense…
Syl: The fashion sense is what I kind of brought around, I’d started to make the first stretch lamé pants that we had, copies of Marilyn Monroe gold lamé capris from the 50s, but I put the zippers and runs in the back and… Me, Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia and myself went to the same high school in [Elmhurst] Queens, Newtown High School… and we kind of all teamed up over there. In the New York Dolls everybody kind of brought whatever you had to the stage. Because really it’s stupid not to. Johnny had a great fashion sense. David, too. And Arthur, he wore that terrific tutu. Everybody brought something from either thrift shops or your mom’s closet or whatever the hell you thought… because at first [the band was] only supposed to last a couple weeks. So we brought everything we fucking knew and did it. I swear to God it is like the Little Rascals.
J: Did you guys feel you were stuck in dresses longer than you wanted to be?
Syl: Not so much dresses, we never really did the dress thing. We took everything that influenced us that we dug and, instead of art being hung up in a gallery, but we wore it. We were walking, talking art shows. Not so much on purpose to shock. That was just one of the fragments that happened with our spraying the public with our radiation, if you will.
J: It was just who you were.
Syl: Exactly. The way I saw it, it was like a skyscraper soup, a big mélange of everything that we saw from the ‘60s, the ‘50s, the blues era, from the jazz era, from the cabaret era, from the war-in-Vietnam era… from the boredom and stuff we had from looking at shows. The music industry became more like an industry. It wasn’t no more like a bunch of kids in a garage or in a basement, fucking bored to hell and deciding, “Hey man, how the hell are we gonna get fucking chicks?” Y’know? “Let’s put on a show.” And how the hell are we going to tell them that we’re sick and tired of what’s going on?
J: There’s a thirty-year gap between the Dolls’ break-up and reunion. You guys played together in various projects here and there… but where were you for that stretch?
Syl: I was still in the music business, I was still knocking on doors, I was still making my own [music] even if I didn’t have record deals – which I did, I had a couple of RCA albums in the early 80s.
J: The Criminals, the…
Syl: Right, I had the Criminals in the late 70s… and the Teardrops, which featured Rosie Rex, my first – we were married and had a child together who’s still with me, and we did a couple RCA (records) which were much more successful overseas than here. But I still toured in the States. And when I didn’t have record deals, I would still be the animal that I am. I would still have to write songs. I considered that each time I wrote a song, it was another thread in my curtain. I accumulated a pretty damn big curtain. When it came down to making this new album I was quite hungry.
J: You did a stint as a cab driver, in there…
Syl: Oh yeah, I did everything. I actually even did surveillance, once. I was hired by this insurance company. I didn’t know anything about criminology or anything. I was supposed to stand on some corner and take pictures of such and such people because they were cheating on their wives or whatever. It was like crazy. I did everything. I even went back into the clothing business that I dropped out of years and years ago. I started a cap company, making hats.
J: You’re still doing that, no?
Syl: And I still do that, yes. I went into a leather moment there in the ‘90s, but the caps that I wear on stage now… It’s no longer Truth & Soul, but it’s still Truth & Soul in a way. I use my last name, Sylvain Sylvain Mizrahi, when I do clothing.
J: When Morrissey called for the Meltdown Festival in 2004… Where were you, how did you hear about that?
Syl: Actually I live in Georgia, because I married a Georgia Peach – a real sweet Georgia Peach if I might add – and I’ve been there with my son since the Olympics in Atlanta in ’96. I’ve met Morrissey because he comes to see my shows when I go on the road, he came to see me a few times in California…
J: You guys had had other offers to reunite from other people…
Syl: Yeah, well, I put out this record called Sweet Baby Doll in the mid-‘90s with this band that I had, and kind of ran into… Arthur again and I would jam with him on stage and stuff. Me and David had some communications through our writing the songs. On his first album, I wrote “Funky but Chic” [among others]… We had quite a career ourselves, me and David, just in songwriting.
J: You guys worked on each others’ [post-Dolls] albums.
Syl: Exactly. We did that all through our careers, actually… Myself, I had a pretty diplomatic thing there with all the guys. I worked with all of them. I went on the road with Johnny Thunders and we wrote songs in the ‘80s.
J: So you were the diplomat who…
Syl: I always had a deep friendship with all of them.
J: So why in 2004 could you guys all get together, or the three of you…
Syl: I think really the only person – and we were supposed to get together a few times… Well, everybody except David would get together. And Johnny was a sick boy, too. And there was a lot of times where – certain periods where… nobody picked up the phone… because we were actually successful individually, apart. Unlike other bands. Other bands, maybe their fortunes were not like that. But in our fortunes, we were equally successful – if not as successful – as we were in the Dolls. If we can get back to them telling us we never sold records, well, we were always working. Especially in David’s case. He had his movie career, his blues career [with the Harry Smiths] – fantastic, by the way. And Johnny Thunders was like the second hardest working man in show business, I like to call him. He worked every mad club in the world. Twice over, probably.
J: Some people hear The Heartbreakers, and only think about Tom Petty…
Syl: The Heartbreakers were so influential, it’s amazing. Every time I see Walter (Lure, the other Heartbreakers guitarist) I say , “Hey man, you should put back those Heartbreakers again.”
J: After the reunion, when was it apparent it wasn’t a one-shot deal?
Syl: Well, y’know what happened was, I think… It was a one-shot deal for David. It wasn’t so much a one-shot deal for me and Arthur. We thought, “This is the best thing ever.” We could still be doing our careers on the side, or whatever we want to do, because it doesn’t take all that much time… but you could still go out and get gigs at night with everything else and be doing this incredible thing. I think once [David] got up on stage, it took the first couple songs, the first night – we played two nights at Meltdown because the first sold out so fast – I think the magic that the New York Dolls always had not only hit the audience, but also – well, it definitely hit me too, but I think it really made sense to David. After Meltdown, after all the press, and the love, and the people that came down, it was a beautiful thing. And the phones, to be honest with you, haven’t stopped ringing since that moment. We just kept it going. What happened was, of course, after that we lost Arthur and it was like right back to zero again.
J: So without Billy and Johnny and Jerry – and now without Arthur – how do you decide it’s still the New York Dolls?
Syl: Well you know what, somebody else was asking me the other day, “If David and yourself died, would you want the new guys to keep it going?” And I said yes. ‘Cause the New York Dolls is no longer just my band or something I created. It’s now the people’s band, if you will. It’s their baby. After we lost Arthur, I was e-mailing friends and got one back from Morrissey. He said, “Yes, you should go on and keep it going, because not only would Arthur would want you to tell the world about the New York Dolls, but you need to tell the world about the New York Dolls.” That’s the way I see it now, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
J: So where did the rest of the cast come from? When people look up, they see you, and they see David, and say, “Who are these other guys?”
Syl: Well, at first David put them together. [Guitarist] Steve Conte and [drummer] Brian Delancey – Delaney is actually his real name, but we call him “Fancy Pants Delancey” – but they really – especially in Conte’s case because he had the hardest shoes to fill and he’s done such an incredible job. I can’t see this band without Steve Conte. What an incredible guitar player, first of all… but he’s added on. He’s got three songs on this new album.
J: David’s credited with all the lyrics, and you’re credited with the bulk of the music, but there are some…
Syl: “Punishing World,” “Gotta Get Away From Tommy,” and “Rainbow Store” – those are all Steve Conte songs. The one that kicks off the whole album is a Sammi Yaffa song. After we lost Arthur Kane, he was my addition. Sammi Yaffa used to be with Hanoi Rocks, and I can’t imagine another New York Doll as bass player, after having lost Arthur, than Sammi Yaffa.
J: The new songs started… ?
Syl: It started being bored during sound checks. We were sitting there going “Hey, this is so fucking boring.” Just like the old days.
J: Boredom’s your driving force.
Syl: Exactly. You just start kicking off a couple chords, and “David, man, pick up the harmonica,” and “What do you think of these lyrics?” Y’know a lot of times it says on the album that David did all the lyrics, but in actuality I did some of the hook lines. “Dance like a monkey,” that’s my line.
J: I love that. There’s something about the Dolls – you don’t expect them to be so smart. The title of your album’s from The Aeneid, you mention Jean Cocteau and Inherit the Wind… and then you tell us to dance like a monkey. It’s like the message is, “Be smart, but get stupid.”
Syl: Well, you see, the stupid parts is me. They’re the ones I threw in there, like in “Running Around,” and “Seventeen” and… “Beautiful Music?” That’s how I did (that line) when I first did my demo [“Plenty of Music”] for David. He turned it into “superfluous beauty.” Sometimes I come up with the real cool hook line, and he goes to town on the verses. In the case of “Dance Like a Monkey,” where I live now, there’s a big argument – it’s not so much an argument down in the South – all you need is your parent’s signature and you don’t have to take Science, you can go to Bible class. It’s an uptight scene where religion has taken over the educational system in the country, and I’m highly against that. It somewhat touches the evolution part of it…
J: But in a lighthearted way…
Syl: We love a lot of intellect in our music. But it’s also done in a type of way that it’s still music. It has to be – we’re still singing. It can’t be just all Webster’s Dictionary.
J: But there are a lot of laughs, too.
Syl: Oh, yeah. It’s gotta be humorous, man, it’s gotta be humorous.
J: Listening to today’s music, do you get the feeling people take it too seriously?
Syl: Oh God yeah. I told David, I said, “Shit, if we did anything wrong on this record it’s that we made a Rock and Roll record.” And who the hell makes Rock and Roll records, anyway? My kind of Rock and Roll was funny, it was sexy, it was daring, it was political, yes, when it needed to be. Call me stupid, but I still think one day Rock and Roll will save the world.
J: You name-checked the Scissor Sisters at your London concert, and I saw an interview where you compared Pete Doherty to Johnny Thunders in a couple ways. Who do you listen to nowadays and who do you like?
Syl: I really listen to a lot of old stuff, a lot of old jazz… I like Pete Doherty’s stuff because he’s really a real writer. I like real writers. The reason I compared him [to Thunders] was, really, the audience and the industry they want him to kill himself. I mean, they’re gonna kill this kid, and the minute he dies they’ve got someone else they’re interested in… It’s a Rock and Roll slaughterhouse. They’ve got the next guy waiting in the wings.
J: What does the new Dolls record have to offer rock and roll? Why should people buy a record from a group that’s been gone for 30 years?
Syl: Well, you asked the guy who made the record. To me, she’s my baby. I think it’s a dynamite record and there’s nothing to compare it to, out there. I don’t know… It’s been described – which I can’t believe happened, being held up to such royalty in music – it’s been described, “This is the record the Rolling Stones wish they made.” Which I can’t believe. I’m glad somebody else said that, not me. But if those words were even murmured, I’m just so damned proud of the comparison. [Note: I couldn’t find the review Syl’s talking about online, but the Dolls’ label has posted some reviews; for balance, here’s the link to Metacritic.] I think: It is definitely a rock and roll record. That term is so cheaply used today. Everybody says, “Oh, I’m going to rock and roll” and they’re so far from rocking and rolling. Maybe this’ll give them a hint of maybe what rock and roll was, and should still be.
[Note: Some portions of the above were abbreviated or rearranged.]
Book: A few sections of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk are devoted to the Dolls. It’s a fantastic read, and if you’ve got my copy I’d appreciate its return.
Book: Nina Antonia’s band bio The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon (not to be confused with the record) fawns a bit and indulges in some groanworthy prose. Still, it’s a good story, and there’s much more info here.
Book: Trash: The Complete New York Dolls. Haven’t read it. Anyone?
DVD: All Dolled Up. This is actually pretty remarkable stuff. A couple of people who hung with the band had an early b/w portable video camera and shot tons of footage. There are performances at Max’s and at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in L.A.; there are also long stretches that feel like a poorly-edited home movie. An old Channel 7 news clip featuring cub reporter Joel Siegel(!) is fantastic.
DVD: Live from Albert Hall, 2004 is just that. Concert footage from their reunion.
DVD: New York Doll. A heartbreaking little 2005 doc about Arthur Kane, following him from his modest post-Dolls lifestyle to the reunion. Extras include extended interviews with Morrissey.
The above phone interview was conducted by “Heart on a Stick” J on August 18, 2006 – the same day the Dolls played a free show at NYC’s South Street Seaport. More photos from that event can be found at J’s Flickr. Another part of this interview can be found in a previous post.