Posted July 31, 2006

SYLVAIN SYLVAIN talks to
PATRICK EMERY

The biography of rock’n’roll is full of tragic stories of success, excess and death.  Inevitably the premature demise of an artist leads to an exaggeration of the artist’s legacy.  With the New York Dolls, however, there’s no exaggeration.  Formed in the early 1970s when rock’n’roll was torn between becoming a vehicle for social change, or another plank in the mainstream entertainment industry’s quest for even more gratuitous profits, the New York Dolls’ marriage of androgynous sexuality and ruggedly masculine riffs turned rock’n’roll cool on its head. 

By 1975 the band was no more, a casualty of personality clashes and the band members’ excessive lifestyles.  Guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan pursued their junkie existence in the Heartbreakers before joining the great rock’n’roll supergroup in the sky in 1991 and 1992 respectively.  Bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane struggled with alcohol addiction and years of anonymity, while vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain continued to release music with varying levels of commercial and popular success.  Yet in the Dolls’ wake came everything from the glam rock revolution, to Kiss to the big hair bands of the 1980s. 

SYL AND DAVID - NEW YORK DOLLS
Syl and David - Joe Gaffney photo

In 2004 the surviving Dolls – Johansen, Sylvain and Kane – were invited by Morrisey to play at the Meltdown Festival in London.  It was a triumphant return over two nights, and set the scene for a return for the New York Dolls’ return to the studio.  Yet the excitement of hearing of a Dolls reunion is tempered by the nagging question – how can two surviving members (Arthur Kane died in 2004, shortly after the Meltdown Festival) get back together and brand themselves as the original band?  Sylvain Sylvain’s explanation is simple – the New York Dolls was historically, and remains today, an attitude, not a discrete personnel.  If the attitude’s there, the music will follow.  And judging by the result, the recently released One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, he’s got a point.

On the phone from New York City, Sylvain has the brash, confident attitude that defines a New York native.  Sylvain’s time in the Dolls can be traced back to his friendship with original drummer Billy Murcia.  In addition to forming the short-lived The Pox in New York City (which went as far as some demos and local gigs), Sylvain and Murcia set up a clothing company – Sylvain notes that his interest and understanding in the textile trade was important in defining the Dolls’ on-stage style.  Subsequently Sylvain and Murcia were joined by David Johanssen on vocals, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane on bass and the definitive junkie rock’n’roller, Johnny Thunders on lead guitar.  The band released two studio albums and imploded under the weight of the band’s excessive lifestyle. 

French post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrilliard – in one of his more lucid moments – once mused that New York was a place where the mad have been set free.  New York City is a place that’s notorious for celebrating artistic decadence.  Yet Sylvain disagrees that only New York City could have produced a band like the New York Dolls – five street-wise punks who combined a love of 50s rock’n’roll riffs with a penchant for make-up, high heels and outrageous behaviour.  To Sylvain the Dolls is about an attitude and a desire to challenge the prevailing norms of the day.  “There’s New York Dolls all over the world,” he says.  “It’s all about frustration, about kicking down the first door.  It’s frustration with music industry-created talent.”

Sylvain is equivocal about any confrontational aspect of the Dolls’ visual aesthetic. “It definitely was for some people, but not for us.  That was the people we were.  And everybody in the band brought something different to it.  Sometimes it takes a while for the public to catch on.”  What makes the image even more noticeable is that it sat in direct contrast to the bruising rock’n’roll sound churned out by the band.  “I guess that’s what you, or the audience, can perceive,” Sylvain comments.  “Everyday there’s something else that people discover about the Dolls.  We were influenced by the girl groups of the '60s, Eddie Cochrane, a whole bunch of stuff.”

In 1972 the Dolls toured England, at that time in the early stages of the glam rock revolution.  The Dolls made an immediate impression. “They loved us in England”, Sylvain recalls.  “England was the first place outside of New York City to pick up on the New York Dolls.”  Yet the event that led to the cancellation of the tour – drummer Billy Murcia’s death after a night of typical rock’n’roll excess –was symbolic of the tragic undercurrent that would come to illustrate the New York Dolls’ legend. 

Murcia was replaced by Jerry Nolan, and the Dolls continued on until 1975 when the band fell apart while on tour in Florida.  By that time the Dolls were being managed by punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren, who’d tried to reinvent the Dolls with the aid of Soviet political iconography – something that fell flat with American audiences. When I attempt to ask about McLaren’s brief tenure as manager of the Dolls, Sylvain is quick to correct my assumption that it was McLaren who encouraged the ill-fated red patent leather look.  “That came from David and me, ” Sylvain says.  It’s difficult to discern Sylvain’s attitude to McLaren (though there’s certainly none of the bile occasionally generated by John Lydon), although it’s clear that in the Dolls’ minds at least, McLaren came on board with the Dolls, and McLaren’s artistic influence was secondary to the band’s own artistic intentions.

“I introduced Malcolm McLaren and Vivien Westwood to the New York Dolls at a clothing trade show in 1971,” Sylvain says.  “On the third day of the show I called up Johnny Thunders and David Johanssen and introduced them to Malcolm and Vivienne, and they fell in love with the Dolls.  They followed us everywhere – when we went to Paris, they’d follow us there.”  Sylvain notes proudly that a seven-page letter written to him by McLaren, and which outlines McLaren’s vision of what became ultimately the filth and the fury of UK punk rock now resides in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

THE NEW NEW YORK DOLLS
Joe Scarpati photo

The Dolls were too confronting, too weird, too fucked up to generate commercial success n their prime, yet their idiosyncratic style led to a multitude of pale imitations.  I ask Sylvain whether he was ever frustrated that bands so obviously influenced by the Dolls – for example, Kiss and Motley Crue – became so successful commercially, while the Dolls were confined to the status of a cult band.  “Millions have been influenced by us.  But we’ve got nothing in common with those bands you mentioned”, Sylvain replies.  “The first one saw us with make-up on, when they weren’t going anywhere as a band.  We were real cuties at the time.  Our sexuality was really daring, and they [Kiss] took that element away.  The second band you mention, well their big moment in their careers was when they could get chicks to take their tops off show their tits.  There’s a lot more intellect in our songs, especially when you look at the stuff David was writing.”

In 2004 Sylvain, Johanssen and Arthur Kane reunited for the first time in 30 years to play the Meltdown Festival (which was curated that year by Morrissey, a devoted Dolls fan).  Despite the pressure to perform, Sylvain dismisses any suggestion he was nervous before the gig. “No, not at all.  I’m a performer and I do my trade.  You get un-nervous after playing so many shows.  When you play in cafes and stinking bars you get booed off if you’re no good.”

Like the 1972 tour, the band’s brief England tour of 2004 led to tragedy, with Arthur Kane succumbing to cancer a couple of weeks after returning.  The documentary of Kane’s return to the Dolls – New York Doll – demonstrates just how obsessed with reuniting with his fellow Dolls Kane was – and once that quest had been realised, Kane’s body could no longer hold on.  Sylvain’s admiration for Kane, and his sense of loss at Kane’s death, is obvious.  “I witnessed a miracle with poor Arthur”, Sylvain says.  “His body should have died before that reunion show.  He put his sickness on hold to get back with the Dolls.  It’s hard to explain how one person could be so in love with one thing.”

The reformed Dolls chose to ride the crest of the wave of excitement and record their first new album in over 30 years.  With the absence of so many original members – and Johnny Thunders’ songwriting talents – this was a high risk decision.  While it’s impossible to judge the album on the merits of the songs alone without locating it in the context of the Dolls’ back catalogue, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This is an album well worth a listen.  It’s a Dolls album, no doubt about that, yet there’s a sense that the Dolls (what’s left of them, at least) are looking back at their decadent days with a rueful eye.  Sylvain, however, rejects any notion the Dolls have lost any of the energy and enthusiasm that fueled them in the early 1970s.

“You’ve got to live life like it is.  I learned everything from the streets – you don’t learn everything from school.”  The Dolls are no ideologues, but there’s still an anti-establishment ideology implicit in the band’s style. “Everybody wants to be a star, and they pick on rock’n’roll as the vehicle to become a star.  The industry created that bullshit,” Sylvain says.

The ‘new’ members of the Dolls – Steve Conte (lead guitar), Sami Yaffa from Hanoi Rocks (bass), Brian Delaney (drums) and Brian Koonin (keyboards)– were put together originally by David Johanssen for the Meltdown Festival (Libertines drummer Gary Powell played with the band at the Meltdown gigs). “We have a great band now.  Right after Meltdown the phone didn’t stop ringing,” Sylvain says.  As for Yaffa, who replaced Arthur Kane, “he’s a New York Doll”, Sylvain says with conviction, adding quickly “there is such a thing as there being New York Dolls out there on the street.”

Rumours of a Dolls tour to Australia continue to rise and fall (such as the rumours associated with The Stooges’ tour Down Under).  Sylvain, however, is keen to bring the 21st century New York Dolls to our Antipodean shores as soon as commercial logistics will allow it. “We’ll go to any place that will have us to play.  We’ll play anywhere that appreciates our sense of rock’n’roll and we’ll put on the best show we can.”

The New York Dolls' "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This" is out now through Roadrunner Records.

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