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.

"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.

The opener ("Paper, Pencil & Glue") is giddy power pop and the polar title-track closer is a Syl nod to the deceased trio of ex-Dolls: Nolan, Thunders and Murcia.

"Hey, I did 'Trash' again on my record, not because I thought it shoulda been done again but 'cause I just fuckin' love the hell out of it," he says, heading off the inevitable flogging-a-dead-horse query. "I felt like 'Trash' is really a part of the story of (Sleep) Baby Doll). The story is really about the three guys [Nolan, Thunders, and Murcia] and letting us put them to rest.

"Every other verse on the lullaby song 'Sleep Baby Doll' is a story of each dead Doll. There is a Johnny line, a Jerry line and a Billy line. My version of 'Frenchette' is how I wrote it. Me and David wrote that on one of the New York mornings."

It is said that Syl's shows are the diametric opposite of the late Johnny Thunders'. Thunders projected a dime-bag, street-urchin sense of doom, a knocking-on-heaven's-door romanticism that could quickly slip into self-parody, sometimes right before your eyes. Inversely, Syl's shows are campy send-ups colored with heavy doses of rock 'n' roll spirit. And on this tour--played thus far to packed houses--Syl is supported by the ace stylings of the Street Walkin' Cheetahs.

"Thunders, of course, was the world's biggest dope fiend," Sylvain recalls. "You know, it's sad, but it was Iggy Pop who first introduced Johnny to the needle. I knew him when he was the most beautiful, fuckin' coolest, baby-Jane wearin', fuckin' star. When I used to work at a place called the Different Drummer, he and his girlfriend, Janus, would come in. Upstairs from there was a place called the New York Dolls hospital, and I remember once I came out with Billy for lunch, and I said, 'holy shit man, there's that kid from New Town high school.' He was looking so cool; he was wearin' makeup and all this. He was walking under the New York Dolls hospital sign, and I said to Billy, 'That'd be a great name for a band, the New York Dolls.

"The last time I saw him [Thunders] was two weeks before he went to Japan, which was two or three months before he died. He was at some club I was playin' in Manhattan. And he basically knew he was gonna go, and he was kinda saying goodbye to me. This is how I sensed it, 'cause he said to me there was two things he'd wished he had done in his life. He said he wished he'd pursued his baseball career, 'cause he was well-sought after as a young kid. And the second was as sweet as he was. He wished he'd written 'Trash.'"

Sylvain Sylvain is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 18, at Boston's in Tempe, with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs and the Sonic Thrills.

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