Dolls House

Sylvain Sylvain pays tribute to three fallen former bandmates on his new album

Sadly, the Sunset-strip scene of the '80s took the New York Dolls' name and dragged it through a thick, shit-infested mud bath, the kind through which few other pop trailblazers should ever have to suffer. I mean, the Velvets were never misinterpreted in such a way that had some thumb-head like Glenn Frey saying, "Oh, man, if weren't for the Velvet Underground, the Eagles would have sounded just like Yes!" Nah.

Sure, maybe the Stooges and MC5 did influence a few trillion third-rate three-chorders, but not in such a way that was directly credited with shifting records in the millions. That is, not in the way the Dolls are given credit. Not if you have ever paid attention to how Brett Michaels, Nikki Sixx, Blackie Lawless or any of them blabbed on about the Dolls as influences. With those guys, it was all just verbal jizz; thinly veiled oedipal excuses to wear something frilly from Mom's closet.

We could yak on all day about this, too. And we could yak on about how some of the Dolls' antecedents like The Beatles, Stones and The Yardbirds came from other cool shit like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly and all that. But, simply put, cool rock 'n' roll stopped providing the seed for cooler rock 'n' roll long ago, way before Nirvana. Traditionally, the real snippets of rock 'n' roll salvation were coughed up out of necessity by social rogues, guys that had no other options. And once it became admissible for any well-adjusted, ordinary suburban Joe to make records, rock 'n' roll collapsed under the weight of its own mediocrity, unable to redeem itself.

The New York Dolls--formed in early 1972 by budding clothing designers Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia--were the culmination of all things slutty, Manhattan and desperate. Their sound had a harmonic instability, a tension and chaos like a train about to derail, held together by unlikely-but-hummable hooks. Besides guitarist Syl, the Dolls had the Jagger-ready theatrics of David Johansen, the unmistakably drony and tortured blues of Johnny Thunders' guitar, and the behind-the-beat bump of bassist Arthur Kane. By '73, drummer Murcia had died in a bathtub in England and was replaced by Jerry Nolan before the band even had a record deal.

That year the Dolls were the toast of New York and anybody in possession of taste (or lack thereof). "At Max's Kansas City, those people did not exactly open up their arms to the New York Dolls 'cause we were threatening, we were the new generation," recalls Sylvain Sylvain over the phone from the home he shares with his wife in Atlanta.

"We were selling out seats, they needed our money to make their clubs stay open, and they didn't appreciate that. They thought they could just do that on their own with the Velvet Undergrounds, the Muddy Waters and introducing these old blues bands.

"Then, after we started playing, everybody who was in the whole Warhol crowd was hangin' around, and they all fuckin' started a band. Cherry Vanilla, Jayne County, Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps."

As much a reaction to the hippies as a show of blatant, hammy show biz, the Dolls regularly wore makeup, pumps and women's garb. Their healthy sense of the absurd gave them just the right edge of irony to support songs about Vietnamese babies, subway trains and loneliness. In short, they made two of the finest rock 'n' roll records ever recorded (New York Dolls and the aptly coined In Too Much Too Soon).

The shocked kids of America were not ready or willing for any Dolls from New York. The band was just too New York. In 1975, a pre-Pistols Malcolm McLaren (a friend of Syl's from his designing days) appointed himself manager of the band. He altered the group's image by putting them in red patent leather with a hammer and sickle backdrop. Out with glam, in with communism. Shortly thereafter, the whole thing sputtered out in Florida.

Meanwhile, McLaren wanted Syl to move to England to join up with some kids he was going to call the Sex Pistols.

"When the Dolls broke up, Malcolm went back home to England and said he was our manager. After all that, I think the only two words that David and Malcolm ever had in common together was, 'Hey, why don't we put the red flag up?" Sylvain says with a laugh. "And that's what they did. Cyrinda Foxe and David sewed the whole thing up together.

"Richard Hell and Television and all of them were opening up for us. That's when Malcolm fell in love with Richard. I mean not sexually or anything. But maybe Malcolm wished, he may have had a bit of a pee-pee problem with poor Richard, but I don't know.

"The rock 'n' roll museum in Cleveland has the letter Malcolm McLaren had sent to my mother claiming that the Sex Pistols was his band. When my mother died, I found the letter. On the back it said, 'Mrs. Myzrahi, please give this to your son--a friend from England, it's urgent,' and all this kind of shit. The letter went on for seven pages saying things like 'I don't like David Johansen. I don't trust him. Don't go to Japan with him. Come here, this is your band.

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