The New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain on putting the roll back in rock 'n' roll, boredom, and imagining a world without The Dolls
The New York Dolls are the foreplay to rock 'n' roll's horizontal bop. This is a band that has achieved legendary status in spite of never really having a specific mission, in spite of its excess and chaos, in spite of itself.
While on the prowl for degenerate kicks, the Dolls inadvertently kicked off several crucial movements in rock 'n' roll. If there had been no New York Dolls, there would be no punk, there would be no glam. And as seminal as bands like The Ramones may seem --- or Blondie or The Talking Heads --- they simply would not have happened without the New York Dolls.
It was 1971 in New York City and the band came out blasting blues-heavy rock 'n' roll in the spirit of its pre-Presley pioneers. You know the ones; brothers who were going to undermine white America with the big beat, rape our daughters, and ruin our youth. Singer David Johansen roared like Howlin' Wolf when he wasn't honkin' on the harp. Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders' twin guitars were pure Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry hijacked and goosed with a lot more threat, sex, and shake appeal. Johnny B. Goode? Shit, Johnny B. Bad. And The New York Dolls' rhythms were pure jungle, baby.
The band upped the ante further by decking out in drag. And despite the lipstick, powder, and paint, they still swung ominously with a street-tough switchblade swagger.
But the band seemed pre-destined to crash; doomed by drugs and drama and music biz monkeyshines --- everything around it except the music. The title of The Dolls' second album in 1974 sums up the band's fate, more or less: Too Much Too Soon.
Original drummer Billy Murcia suffocated in 1972 when friends tried to revive him from an apparent overdose. By 1975 the rest of the band was either strung out or drunk and it was curtains for the New York Dolls.
Most pursued solo endeavors but a cloud still hung over some of them. Guitarist Johnny Thunders was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a New Orleans hotel in 1991 and drummer Jerry Nolan died of meningitis in 1992.
Morissey brought the three remaining Dolls --- Johansen, Sylvain, and Arthur "Killer" Kane --- back together when he convinced them to play for his Meltdown festival at London's Royal Festival Hall in 2004. Fans went ape. Sadly, Kane died less than a month later.
But the New York Dolls were back. Sylvain and Johansen fleshed out the band, recorded a brand new record, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, and hit the highway.
Fresh off a European tour, The Dolls are back on the road stateside with Little Steven's Underground Garage Rolling Rock And Roll Show.
I called Sylvain at his hotel before a gig in Portland, Oregon. A woman with an incredibly sexy, sultry, voice purred a smokey "hello" into the phone before putting the tres-cool legend on the line. It was a thrill to speak with him. Here's what was said...
City: What got this whole new chapter started?
Sylvain Sylvain: Well, Morrissey is the one to really thank. He convinced David. He really didn't have to convince me and Arthur Kane 'cause we woulda done it at the drop of a hat.
Why? Was Johansen skeptical?
Yeah, it wasn't so much skeptical, it was just... I think he thought it was just a long time ago and should remain to be that way. I think there were a lot of people like that. But once we did get started the phone just didn't stop ringin'.
So the Meltdown convinced you?
Yeah, not only us but the whole industry basically, too...the re-awakening of The New York Dolls if you will.
Is it kind of bittersweet without the original guys?
Of course. We lost Arthur right after Meltdown. He waited his whole life to get up there and shake his butt again to those old tunes, you know? Thanks again to Morrissey for giving him that privilege.
And how bout you? You had things going but you were up for a reunion, right?
Yeah, 'cause you can do everything so far as I'm concerned. You can do a little bit of everything and it doesn't take that much outta your life.
How about the people that didn't think this was a good idea?
Yeah, but they said the same thing when we lost Billy Murcia. They said we should quit right there. Can you imagine if we listened to them then?
Also people may not be aware but you and Johansen toured Japan as The Dolls without any of the other guys in 1975.
We did, but it was a whole different thing. Then it was more 'cause we had the gigs coming and we were needing gigs so we grabbed that. But now what it is, is an evolution of the original band --- and why we even started this whole damn thing to begin with.
Why did you start this whole damn thing to begin with?
Not that we really knew, but we thought --- what I see now and I'm so proud of now--- was that we tore down that wall. Before us you had to be The Beatles to get a record deal. And before us you had to play like Jeff Beck on the guitar to even have an excuse to get up there and be on the stage. And once we broke down that wall the first band outta New York was Patti Smith --- probably the most talented one. Then after that was The Talking Heads and Television and Blondie and way down the road was The Ramones. And that's only in New York City. I once read someplace the singer of U2, Bono, he marked as one of his influences The Ramones. Well there wouldn't have been a Ramones if there hadn't been a New York Dolls.
What did you think you were doing? Was it a movement? Revolution?
We thought, This is gonna last two weeks. We were just walking, talking art shows. Instead of being hung up in the museum, for us you walked it, you talked it, you dressed it, you sang it. This is something that was not made up from the industry. I always have fears, when the industry takes over it's sorta like a government taking over a little scene and making it their own or destroying it actually in the midst of it all.
How soon before you realized your importance, your relevance?
Oh sweetheart, it was the minute they put us in the centerfold in Melody Maker in late '71 or early '72, and then we were super-instant stars in England. And that was it. We knew we were important then. We found out it wasn't just the EastVillage that was bored. We found out that there were pockets of boredom everywhere in the world.
So what's motivating The New York Dolls to write and play and remain important today?
Well actually it's boredom again, being the animals that we are. You know what sound checks like? "Hey, snare drum" --- BAM! BAM! BAM! We said, "Fuck this, man, lets jam on some blues."
Because if you take away the rouge a levres --- as they say in French, or lipstick in English ---from The New York Dolls you've got the blues under there. "That's pretty cool, let's whip that song out tonight and show it to the crowd and see what they think." And they went kinda seamlessly between [songs like] "Trash," and "Personality Crisis," and then we'd do a new song like "We're All In Love" and the kids'll be singing it just like it's one of those old songs. Like I said, it's the blues. The blues can be interpreted in so many different ways. Every day there's an adventure in it. You consider even the girl groups of the '60s --- that was still the blues. And you can do it forever.
On this new record Johansen goes from primal lyrics to thinking man's lyrics. The Dolls have to be the only band to rock so primitive, screaming like monkeys, and yet slip in words like "acquiesce," "superfluous."
Our songs are not just...we like a lot of intellect in our music and in our words. And I can't just sit there and say, "Hey, I want to party and dance with you all night long," you know? To us that doesn't go anyplace. I think you gotta really mean something. What we do is a performing art.
Do you think you're finally getting the appreciation you deserve?
Not really. Were doing it right now and we're not really making that much money so it's really for the love. But sooner or later it's got to turn into some kind of a where-I-can-afford-to-pay-the-rent kind of a deal.
How about The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame?
What about it?
The Dolls ever gonna get nominated?
I dunno. You gotta ask them sweetheart.
You've had some pretty impressive impresarios and icons behind you --- Andy Warhol, Malcolm McLaren, and now Little Steven.
I just thank God that there are still people like that. Thank God for all the Morrisseys, the Little Stevens... everyone that's putting the life --- the roll --- back in rock. Cause it's been just rock. And it was just rock when The Dolls first started in 1971 and it was not roll. It was a long journey, a few subway stops away from rock n roll. But man it's a lifetime of travel to get there. It's better when it's done because of frustration, because of a desire to change and make better. You hear it and say, "That's a bunch of crap," and you go ahead and make your own.
What's frustrating you?
Who the fuck records rock n roll albums anymore? We can probably count them on our fingers. Like I said to David when we finished the album, I said, "Hey even if we made one mistake --- and the big question is if ---- it's a rock n roll album."
How does it feel to see all these bands fashioned after and inspired by The Dolls like you're your current openers The Chesterfield Kings?
It's a form of flattery, you know? To me that's how we got paid.
Who's coming to see The New York Dolls now?
We get everything. Every aspect, young, old, to those in their 30s and they know what it's all about. Some we spawned from the punk movement, some we spawned from the hair metal movement. Which, you know, those two camps hate each other. But here they are together now just dancing to "Dance Like A Monkey."
The drag approach doesn't care as much shock weight any more. The music pretty much speaks for itself now, doesn't it?
You know what? They called us drag queens or this or that. Man, the dolls had the biggest balls of anybody. That's the real goddamn truth.
The New York Dolls headline Little Steven's Underground Garage Rolling Rock And Roll Show with The Supersuckers, The Charms, The Chesterfield Kings, and The New York Vaults, Saturday November 18, at The Town Ballroom, 681 Main Street, Buffalo, 716-852-3900, at 8 p.m., $20, 21+