The rock and roll survivor tells The American about still creating music forty years after The New York Dolls – and being carded when he wants to buy beer
The myth says The New York Dolls flamed white-hot for a short time then burned up... they're probably all dead by now... Well no. Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist, songwriter and chief image-instigator for the notorious Dolls is still very much alive, and touring Britain in July.
The Dolls' unique blend of 60s girl-group songs, scuzzy rock and roll, and trash fashion had an effect out of proportion to their record sales, ticket sales and longevity. Does he still see their influence around today? "Oh yeah. It was only two albums," says Sylvain, "and we were around from '71 to '75, but if you look at the people we influenced back then, they started bands like Blondie and all the others from New York. The New York Dolls were like gods in England, because we were on the BBC! Bono says U2 were influenced by The Ramones. Well, there wouldn't have been a Ramones if there if there wasn't a New York Dolls," he laughs.
"The public and the business give us names because they have to package it. They can call me anything they want, as long as they call me. I really think it's rock and roll. It's not raaawk, and it's not just roll. And I hope it's based on the blues. It's not a rock and roll song if it doesn't have any blues in it. And you gotta have fun. I believe in reincarnation, but just in case it doesn't happen I'm gonna have a damn good time here while I'm around this Earth."
For a quintessential New Yorker, it might surprise people that Sylvain is a first-generation American. "My family are Jews by faith, our family name is Mizrahi, and we lived in Egypt. French was my first language – in the Middle East you either spoke English or French. My dad worked for the British government during World War II. Finally, the Egyptians threw us out in the 50s, after the Suez Canal incident.
"We lived in Paris from 1958 until 1961. There was a movie theater in Montmartre that had King Creole, the Elvis Presley movie. All the kids would bring along their bongos and acoustic guitars and we'd sing along with Elvis. I went 'wow – I wanna do this!" France and England were huge on Eddie Cochran too. If The New York Dolls are an influence to The Ramones and Blondie, Eddie Cochran was the influence to Sylvain Sylvain. I rip him off every second I can!"
When he was ten, the family moved to the States, to Buffalo, New York, then Brooklyn. "The Beatles came over – I was so in love with them. Then on the Ed Sullivan Show, 'the ugliest band' – The Rolling Stones. The British Invasion was a major thing. Before that I loved – I still love – the girl groups, the Ronettes, The Supremes, and especially The Shangri-Las. We just lost Shadow Morton, who produced The New York Dolls' second album, Too Much Too Soon, he produced and wrote for The Shangri-Las [among many others – ed].
"I went to Quintano's School for Young Professionals in New York, and met Mike Brown, who was in The Left Banke [Walk Away Renée]. He knew I was in a band with the original Dolls drummer, Billy Murcia, and he introduced me to his father, Harry Lakowski, who worked in the Brill Building. We auditioned in his room and I sang Michelle, by The Beatles, and he signed us right there. I was too young, so my father had to sign for me – I still have the contract. So me and Billy Murcia were in the studio before we started to put together The New York Dolls."
"On my British tour I'll be doing some electric shows in the larger venues, and some acoustic shows. They go well because I can talk to the audience, tell my stories. Somebody wrote me, 'Thank you for letting us put our arms around your stories'... You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory is a tune that [former Doll] Johnny Thunders wrote, and I do it in my show. I do some Dolls tunes, and Femme Fatale by The Velvet underground – I bring a slice of New York from that time. On the electric dates I've got a great band, guitar, Gary Powell from The Libertines on drums, and the other one is a surprise, I can't tell you, heh heh heh"
Finally, what's the best thing about being Sylvain Sylvain? "The best thing? I'm 62 years old now and I still get carded when I buy beer. On Wednesdays they give a senior citizen discount and when I checked out I asked for my discount. The lady didn't believe I was over 55 and I had to show her my driver's license. Now every time I go in she says, 'This guy's got the gene in him – they should bottle it!"
UK dates: July 5th Bristol, The Fleece; 6th Harlow, The Square; 13th Belfast, Empire Music Hall; 19th Leeds, The Cockpit; 20th Blackburn, King George's Hall; 25th London, 100 Club. The American will be at The Fleece in Bristol and we'll report on the gig for you. For 70s rock fans, The Fleece is also featuring Martin Turners Wishbone Ash show on October 4th.