Sylvain Sylvain: Punk pioneer and the beating heart of New York Dolls

The affable guitarist’s band influenced everyone from Kiss to the Ramones to Morrissey

James McNair
Thursday 28 January 2021 14:59
Performing at a Melbourne show with the Dolls in 2007
Performing at a Melbourne show with the Dolls in 2007

When New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain died of cancer this month aged 69, Slash, Alice in Chains’ William DuVall, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore were all quick to pay tribute. Affable, effervescent and long-regarded as the Dolls’ beating heart, “Syl” was essential to their primal, beautifully botched amalgam of proto-glam and Fifties-influenced rock’n’roll.

Irreverent punk pioneers, the band influenced everyone from Kiss to the Ramones to Morrissey. The latter even enjoyed a pre-Smiths stint as president of the New York Dolls’ UK fan club.

The band’s record sales never kept pace with their acclaim, so no fortune was amassed. But even in April 2019, announcing a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for his cancer treatment, Sylvain told fans “I love life!”

“He really thought he was going to beat it,” New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, now the band’s only surviving member, told Rolling Stone. “But apparently [the cancer] had been more intense and in more places than I really knew about.”

Born Sylvain Mizrahi in 1951, Sylvain and his Syrian-Jewish family fled Cairo, Egypt, after the fallout from the 1956 Suez Crisis, his banker father fearing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime. They moved to Paris, then Buffalo in the state of New York, and finally to Queens, New York City.

A dyslexic teenager whose small frame made him a target for bullying, Sylvain learnt tailoring and founded Truth & Soul Sweaters with his friend Billy Murcia. It was the New York Doll Hospital, a toy repair shop opposite their boutique on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue, that inspired the New York Dolls moniker in 1971. Sylvain and drummer Murcia, previously bandmates in Pox, joined singer David Johansen, guitarist Johnny Thunders and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane in the band’s definitive line-up.

Sylvain’s rag trade experience and friendship with designer Betsey Johnson steered the Dolls’ gaudy, cross-dressing look. “We’d walk into clothing stores and all this weird s*** would be shouting ‘Me! Me! Me!’,” the guitarist enthused in his broad New York accent when I interviewed him in 2009; Johansen agreed the band were “the sore thumbs” of the community.

Early gigs at Brooklyn Heights gay sauna Man’s Country and at raucous loft parties, whose guests included a young Debbie Harry, were not atypical, while “Trash” and “Personality Crisis”, brash songs from their self-titled 1973 debut, dripped an edgy sleaze that Guns N’ Roses, for one, would later ape.

Sadly, tragedy visited the Dolls crushingly early, but in later years Sylvain and Johansen were understandably dismissive of the “curse” theory propounded by others. Drugs explained a lot. Murcia died of an overdose on a 1972 British tour aged just 21, and cocaine and methadone were implicated in Thunders’ death aged 38 in 1991 (he had left the Dolls in 1975; they split in 1976).

After working on separate projects, Sylvain, Johansen and Arthur Kane eventually put together a new Dolls line-up at the behest of Morrissey, who, as curator of the 2004 Meltdown festival, booked them to play.  

Sylvain (right) with the New York Dolls in 1972

Kane died of leukaemia less than a month after their performance, but bolstered by the new outpouring of love for their band, Sylvain and Johansen made three more Dolls albums, including 2009’s Cause I Sez So, which reunited them with Todd Rundgren, producer of their 1973 debut.

The band split again in 2011, and Sylvain subsequently moved to Atlanta and then Nashville. Live performance sustained him, and in a line-up billed as “The Dolls”, he played two dates in Tokyo in February 2018.

“When you take to the stage, you have to promise to detonate,” the guitarist recalled in his 2018 memoir There’s No Bones in Ice Cream. “To fly as high as you can and explode like a sky full of fireworks.”

It was a credo which won Sylvain countless admirers, and which he adhered to as long as he could.

Sylvain Sylvain, punk rock guitarist, born 14 February 1951, died 13 January 2021