RIP New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain
Sylvain Sylvain has died. As guitarist and co-founder of the New York Dolls, Sylvain set an unpredictable course between the forces of hard rock, glamor, and the earliest residue of what would one day be at the dawn of New York’s club scene in the 1970s punk. Combining fashion, cynicism and a frequently noted lack of interest in musicality in a bold new iteration of modern music. Sylvain revitalized the group to surprise recognition in the early 2000s with old colleague David Johansen (also known in other genres by his stage name Buster Poindexter), and took his place as the elderly statesman in the world of modern rock . Regardless of the genre you want him to be tied into – as one of the pioneers of underground music in the 1970s. Per Pitchfork he died yesterday after fighting cancer for a year. Sylvain was 69 years old.
Born in Egypt in the early 1950s, Sylvain Mizrahi began his music career from an angle that reflected many of the Dolls’ obsessions: a clothing company he co-founded with co-founder Billy Murcia. (His mother apparently insisted he learn the craft after he was told he wanted to make music.) The two later appeared together in the actress, and a few months later Sylvain joined the inaugural cast of the newly formed New York Dolls . Fashions would change, notoriety would come and go, and members would go – mostly tragically, like Murcia’s death after an overdose in 1972 – but Sylvain stayed with the band during his original incarnation, playing guitar and piano in cult hit albums such as their self-titled 1973 release and 1974 Too Much Too Soon.
Clad in spandex – with the band’s first golden, lame pants that Sylvain cut himself – and often aggressively amusing, Sylvain and the dolls have embarked on a path that plunged into the worlds of hard rock, glamor and proto-punk and landing at an intersection of influences (and influences) ranging from the Rolling Stones to Lou Reed et al. al, to David Bowie and beyond. Sylvain and his bandmates were admittedly more driven by poise and energy than by a great devotion to technical ability. They reportedly pestered producer Todd Rundgren during the production of New York Dolls – which didn’t stop the album from becoming a cult hit. (If not commercial; the New York Dolls were never the kind of rock legends who made their members rich.)
The story goes on
The New York Dolls, burdened by a myriad of addictions, personality conflicts, and declining popularity, disbanded in 1976, sending their members into the wider music ecosystem. But Sylvain, the self-proclaimed diplomat, managed to stay in touch with almost everyone, from future heartbreakers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan to former front man Johansen to bassist Arthur Kane. In the meantime, he continued to play, from working with his band The Criminals to solo work and a time as a New York taxi driver. Here he is in a 2006 interview with Brooklyn Vegan and talks about that time of his life:
Oh yes I did everything I even monitored once. I was hired by this insurance company. I didn’t know anything about criminology or anything. I should stand on a corner and take photos of such and such people because they cheated on their wives or whatever. It was like crazy. I did everything. I even went back to the clothing store that I quit years ago. I started a cap company that made hats.
In 2004, Dolls fan Morrissey arranged a reunion for the (scanty) surviving members of the band and brought Sylvain, Johansen and Kane together for a reunion. Kane would die of cancer shortly thereafter, but Sylvain and Johansen did it, releasing three well-received albums over the next decade: 2006 One Day It Will Us Us To Remember Even This, 2009 Cause I Sez So, and 2011 Dancing Backwards In High Heels. And while the band’s second stab in life finally erupted – less destructively this time – Sylvain continued to play relentlessly, at least until 2019 when he announced his cancer diagnosis.
Sylvain Sylvain appeared in the music world at a time when there was no blueprint for punk rock rebellion – which is why he had to help invent it. (In the same interview with Brooklyn Vegan, he references the band’s early efforts as a Little Rascals-esque “Let’s put on a show!” Production more than once.) It invaded the few available venues in New York in the early 1970s . He, the New York Dolls, and their various contemporaries threw themselves on the music, fashion, lifestyle they aspired to and became rock gods by sheer willpower, more than any kind of platonic ideal of musical supremacy. And throughout all of this, Sylvain continued to play, even as he suffered from years of financial drought, efforts to play peacemakers between the band’s various strong emotional tides, and the sheer dragging force of time. Here he speaks in another excerpt from the 2006 interview about the release of One Day It Will Please Us:
And who the hell is making rock and roll records anyway? My kind of rock and roll was fun, it was sexy, it was daring, it was political, yes if it had to be. Call me stupid, but I still think that rock and roll will one day save the world.