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"He sent me these quarter booth photos and he says, 'This could be the singer, we are thinking of calling him Johnny Rotten. And he can't sing, but he can definitely sing better than David Johansen.' And he says, 'This guy [Steve Jones], I gave him your guitar [the white Les Paul with an image of a girl on the front].' That was my band, I was supposed to be in the Sex Pistols after the New York Dolls."
Thunders and Johansen (and, for a while, Sylvain with the Criminals) went in varying directions after the breakup. Johansen made a series of slick, ultra-chic pop records, while Thunders descended further into the mire of raw, heroin-fueled garage rock. Bassist Arthur Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan went through various local bands before disappearing almost entirely. Thunders expired in 1991 at the age of 38, and Nolan died a year later from meningitis.
"That's why I am still in rock 'n' roll," Sylvain says. "All the kids coming up and saying, 'the New York Dolls changed my life.'"
If the Dolls had actually sold half as many copies as the number of people claiming to have purchased them, Sylvain Sylvain wouldn't have waited until 1991 to receive his first Dolls royalty check--a paltry payment of $4,000. But hey, what rock 'n' roll colonist truly worth his weight in gold ever gets economic justice?
"That was the first money I had seen since 1975 when we broke up," Sylvain says. "Between that time [and 1991] I had not seen anything. None of the other guys, too. As a matter of fact, Jerry Nolan was really bitter, and he called me up and he said, 'Man, instead of $4,000, it should have been four mill.' Then not long after that, he died.
"I mean, the minute Johnny died, Jerry cried on my shoulder like a baby. We weren't playing together then, Jerry just didn't want to do it. He couldn't put in the year or two years that it would take to get a record deal and make an Ugly American record. He didn't have it in him. He was so bad. And Johnny too, his body was so eaten up by cancer."
Since the Dolls' breakup, the Cairo-born Syl has co-written some of David Johansen's finest solo moments. Syl then did two criminally underappreciated solo albums for RCA (1979's Sylvain Sylvain and 1981's Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops) and some singles (including the Criminals' near-perfect "The Kids Are Back"). The sound is charming, chipper and pop--anything but Dolls--combining elements of romantic American heartland and Spectorish girl-group songwriting. And he sings with engaging, heart-on-his-sleeve buoyancy.
"As much as I love David [Johansen] and everything else, he's great as a lyricist, and I could go on and on about how much I appreciate about him, but I never really liked the way he made records--or at least the way they came out. His productions were always that big, stadium-rock mentality, which I don't like to go with. Even my second solo album I got to produce myself, but really they produced it. My first album the label saw me as the next Bruce Springsteen, they took me to the same studio where he was.
"It was funny, I had Tony Bongiovi as my producer, and one day he brings in his little cousin, he says, 'Hey Sylvain, meet my cousin Jon, one day he's gonna be a big star.'"
Sylvain lost his RCA deal just before the breakup of his marriage. So he drove a cab in Manhattan to support his 3-year-old son before relocating to Los Angeles. It was a humbling experience, certainly, for a guy who helped change the course of rock 'n' roll.
"I was drivin' a New York City taxi, ya know, which Sylvain had to do there," he says, referring to himself in the third person, as he often does. "I did that for three fucking years. I had to take care of my life, and, most importantly, my son's life. I just couldn't get wild and come home really ripped up anymore. But, if anybody asks you, 'Where the hell has Sylvain been? Why has he not wanted to play?' You know that is a bunch of crap, 'cause when I lived in New York, I played the Continental Divide there every Tuesday for 300 years; when I lived in L.A. I did the same damn thing; when I lived in London, fuck, I played every damn joint over there. But I could never afford to get out and tour."
Sylvain's latest album, (Sleep) Baby Doll, his first in 15 years, plays like a Sylvain/Dolls grab bag of sugary nostalgia with enough hat tips to the Beach Boys, Phil Spector and the Pretty Things to be filed under retro pop. There are Bo Diddley beats, vibrato guitars and hand claps and contributions from, among others, Frank Infante (Blondie) and Derwood Andrews (Generation X). Worthy spins of Johansen/Sylvain co-writes (a sped-up and spirited "Trash," an even lovelier "Frenchette," plus the bluesy near-miss "It's on Fire") and the last Thunders song ever penned (an eerie nonconfessional/confessional called "Your Society Makes Me Sad") are included.