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For Sylvain Sylvain, the Jewish heart of the New York Dolls

For a rock and roll-obsessed teenager in the early-to-mid-1980s, picking up the first two New York Dolls albums was like stumbling across a pair of travel brochures from an enchanting destination that no longer existed.

Whenever I visited my dad in New York City I could still traverse the same filthy lower Manhattan sidewalks that had birthed such Dolls classics as “Trash” and “Looking for a Kiss,” and I could still hitch a ride on the IRT or the BMT or whatever line it was that inspired the soulful screech of “Subway Train.” But the wiseass warmth and confetti-spraying exuberance that saturated 1973’s “New York Dolls” and 1974’s “Too Much Too Soon” seemed in desperately short supply in NYC circa 1984 (to say nothing of its depressing absence from Reagan’s America in general). Gem Spa, the East Village newsstand and former Beat mecca that the band posed in front of on the back of their first album, was still in business. But those five guys dressed like street hookers standing in front of it, the ones responsible for the righteous, raucous noise on the record? They were nowhere to be found.

That back cover photo was as much of a mindblower to me as the album’s gritty, boisterous and hilarious songs. I couldn’t believe anyone had ever had the guts to strut through the mean streets of New York looking like the Dolls did, at least not in broad daylight. Whenever I went anywhere by myself in Manhattan as a teen, I would try to remain as inconspicuous as possible to avoid getting messed with. But these guys? There was no fear at all in that back-cover pose. Their whole attitude was, “Yeah, we like to wear stack heels, skin-tight trousers, women’s blouses tied at the waist, and cropped souvenir t-shirts draped fetchingly off one shoulder. So whaddaya gonna do about it?”

The guy on the far right of the photo was the one who really caught my eye. He looked about my size, maybe even smaller, and he had the same sort of dark corkscrew curls that I was forever struggling to tame with a wide array of hair products. But he was also dressed entirely in silver lurex with maroon suede platform boots, holding a copy of the teenybopper bible 16 magazine in one hand and gesticulating pugnaciously at the camera with the other. His face wore a bored-yet-confident expression of “Hey, you want some of this?” And his pants looked like they’d been stuffed with Italian sausage links, perhaps purchased in a two-pounds-for-a-dollar deal at a local butcher and then subsequently split with the bandmate in red leather who was sporting a similarly improbable bulge. This little guy in silver, I soon learned, was none other than Sylvain Sylvain.

Like the Velvet Underground, the MC5 and the Stooges before them, the New York Dolls were one of those bands whose lasting influence far outpaced their actual record sales. Emerging at a time when being a hip and commercially viable white male on the American music scene basically meant wearing denim, a mustache and an acoustic guitar, the Dolls’ slashing chords and sexually ambiguous posturing freaked out the majority of those who experienced their music upon its initial release, and not generally in a good way.

The Dolls were derided at the time as everything from Rolling Stones clones to talentless degenerates, but the listeners who got them really got them; voted “Worst New Group of 1973” by the readers of CREEM magazine, they were also named “Best New Group of 1973” in the same poll. Though they never made it higher than #116 on the Billboard 200, and they collapsed in a heap of addictions, egos and poor managerial decisions within three years of their debut album’s release, they left an indelible bruise: The Ramones, KISS, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Guns N’ Roses and The Smiths (it’s true — young Morrissey was absolutely obsessed with them) are just a few of the bands that were deeply inspired and/or influenced by the Dolls.

Even on their best days, the original New York Dolls were a hot mess, and attention was largely (and understandably) focused on the swaggering bravado of bass-mouthed frontman David Johansen and the staggering shitshow of a lead guitarist Johnny Thunders, the most legendary heroin user in rock and roll outside of Keith Richards. Often lost in the mayhem were the many contributions of Sylvain, the soulful heart of the band; not only did he co-write some of the band’s greatest songs (“Trash,” “Frankenstein,” “Puss ‘n’ Boots”), but his roaring rhythm guitar kept the music cooking even when Thunders would venture off on one of his wild string-bending excursions. (It wasn’t until I saw vintage live footage of the Dolls that I realized I’d copped off most of Syl’s guitar riffs and licks off their first two albums, rather than Johnny’s.) And it was Sylvain’s irrepressible drive and radiant rock and roll spirit that kept the band going through a number of traumas, including the accidental overdose death of his best friend, original Dolls drummer Billy Murcia.

That deep-seated resolve had been part of Sylvain’s personality since well before he ever picked up a guitar. Born Sylvain Mizrahi to a Jewish family in Cairo, Egypt, in 1951, he emigrated with them to Paris in the late 50s — where he caught the rock and roll bug at a screening of Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” — and then to New York City in the early years of the following decade. Despite the many challenges imposed by his outsider status (he would later joke that the first English words he ever learned were “Fuck you!”), young Sylvain simply forged ahead and carved out a new life for himself in his new country, pursuing both music and fashion with the help of neighborhood buddy Murcia, himself an immigrant from Colombia. Coming from a family of tailors, Sylvain learned how to cut shirts before he learned how to play guitar; and when The Pox, his first band with Murcia, failed to pan out, the pair formed their own counterculture clothing company, Truth & Soul.

Sylvain could have had a successful career in the fashion world, but the lure of rock and roll was just too strong. He and Murcia formed a new band in 1970, which went through various lineup permutations — Thunders originally joined as the group’s bassist, but Sylvain convinced him to switch to guitar and gave him numerous lessons to bolster his confidence — before officially emerging as The New York Dolls in late 1971. The name, like so much else about the band, was Sylvain’s doing; he’d worked for a time across the street from the New York Doll Hospital in midtown Manhattan, and suggested to Murcia that they should call themselves the New York Dolls.

With their flamboyant fashion sense (certainly influenced by Sylvain, though each member brought their own personal flair to the table) and in-your-face musical attack, the band quickly became the toast of downtown Manhattan, with their gigs at Greenwich Village’s Mercer Arts Center serving as a magnet for seemingly every beautiful freak in the tri-state area. But the Dolls’ outrageous brand of rock and roll — which took in everything from warped 50s doo-wop and the Shangri-Las’ street-corner soap operas to late-night horror movies, post-Woodstock drug culture, big city alienation and nuclear war, and stirred it up like a Gem Spa egg cream — would always be too lurid and simply too “Noo Yawk” for the masses. And by the time the Bowery punk scene they’d help spawn finally started to catch fire, the Dolls were already personas non grata in the music business, having failed to sell anywhere near enough records to justify their toxic habits or dysfunctional behavior.

Following the Dolls’ ugly demise, both Johansen and Thunders went on to enjoy high-profile (if not always highly-profitable) careers. But Sylvain, who worked with Johansen on the latter’s wonderful self-titled 1978 solo debut before heading off on his own, could never seem to gain the same sort of career traction. He made some great records, whether under his own name (like his self-titled 1979 solo LP) or with bands like the Criminals, the Teardrops and the Batusis; but for whatever reason, he never managed to achieve much more than a cult following.

Undeterred, he did everything from driving a cab to working surveillance for an insurance company to selling self-designed hats, in order to keep the lights on while continuing to pursue his muse. “When I didn’t have record deals, I would still be the animal that I am,” he explained in a 2006 interview with Brooklyn Vegan. “I would still have to write songs. I considered that each time I wrote a song, it was another thread in my curtain. I accumulated a pretty big damn curtain.”

Sylvain finally got to unfurl some of that curtain on the three “reunion” albums the Dolls — him and Johansen being the only surviving members of the band’s classic lineup — recorded between 2006 and 2011. He also got the chance to show a younger generation of Dolls fans just how important he’d been to the band, both in sound and in spirit. I saw the reformed Dolls when they played at LA’s Spaceland in the spring of 2006, and stood awestruck at the foot of the stage while observing how Sylvain’s fat and funky chords deftly interlocked with Steve Conte’s perfectly imperfect Thunders licks—it was like a master class in classic punk rock guitar.

When it came time to introduce the band, Johansen announced that Sylvain was currently on hiatus from the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Where he has excelled in the role of Puck!” It was typical Johansen jive-talk, but there was also some truth behind the joke; for all the Dolls’ rep as a group of street-hardened hustlers, Sylvain’s onstage persona was more playful and mischievous than tough and confrontational, bringing an appealing air of absurdity to the entire operation.

Three years later, when I had the chance to interview Sylvain and Johansen together, I learned that he was the same way offstage. While Johansen (who’d achieved far greater success as his alter-ego Buster Poindexter) seemed to view the Dolls’ legacy as something of a burden, Sylvain was both unashamedly proud of it and genuinely touched that people still appreciated what they’d done — but was also quite willing to derail things with a quick joke whenever the conversation got too heavy. Between his almost-beatific sweetness and his unending stream of humorous shtick, I came away with the overriding impression of a leather-clad Curly Howard crossed with a flower child.

That was as close as I ever got to personally knowing Sylvain Sylvain, who passed away on Jan. 13 from cancer at the far-too-young age of 69. But every testimonial I’ve seen on social media from people who played with him and befriended him has painted a similar picture: that of a fun-loving, big-hearted mensch who never lost his love for rock and roll or his sheer delight in making people happy with his music, and who never succumbed to the bitterness that could understandably result from blazing a trail that others had subsequently trod for much greater profit.

In the introduction to his 2018 memoir, “There’s No Bones in Ice Cream, Sylvain Sylvain’s Story of the New York Dolls,” he wrote, “When I compare our fate and fame with those of so many of the groups who once outsold us, one famous saying keeps coming back to mind, a phrase that you used to see a lot on the streets of Paris, daubed on walls, or spray-painted on placards: à vaincre sans peril, on triomphe sans gloire — To triumph without peril is to triumph without glory.”

The Dolls did indeed triumph, and they couldn’t have done it without that combative little silver-clad Egyptian Jewish kid on the back of their first album. Only, knowing what I know now, I’m guessing he probably fell apart giggling the moment after the pic was snapped. Rest in peace, Syl; you made great music, you made a difference, and you made a lot of people smile in the process — myself included.

Dan Epstein is, among many other things, the contributing music critic of the Forward.

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