INTERVIEW WITH SYLVAIN SYLVAIN
INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTO BY BOB GRUEN
Trash, don’t pick it up, Don’t take my life away… That says a lot, with a lil’… It’s just a feeling…that seemed to affect a lot of people, some very aware, others clueless, but to know where it came from and the fact that it’s now being done again, from the originals. Some made it, some not so lucky… Rock n’ Roll owes, cuz maybe we wouldn’t have been so lucky, without these cats. I give you the New York Dolls.
“WE WERE THE FIRST ONES. THERE WAS NO ENGLISH MOVEMENT. THERE WAS NO NEW YORK MOVEMENT. IT WAS THE END OF THE ’60S. WE WERE THERE BEFORE ALL THOSE BANDS THAT HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH SUCCESS EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT GETTING A BAND TOGETHER. WHEN THEY SAW US, THEY COINED THE PHRASE “PUNK MUSIC.”
How are you doing, Steve?
Super good. How are you?
I’m okay. Where are you?
I’m in Hollywood. I’m calling you from Hollywood High.
We just want to get the basics and the meat of the Dolls with Sylvain.
There you go.
Okay. How did you ever get started?
It was one of those things. We were just school kids getting together and saying, ‘Let’s put a band together. Let’s see if it lasts more than two weeks.’ That’s all it was supposed to be. We thought it would only last a couple of weeks.
Everyone came from the neighborhood of basic rock n’ roll?
Yeah. We all brought something different to the band, which was cool. Arthur [Kane] came with his 13th Floor Elevator records with him. David [Johansen] would have his ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson albums at that time. Johnny [Thunders] was the kid in the candy store. His first thing was to learn the bass guitar. He thought that would be a little easier to learn to play because it only had four strings.
Everybody brought something different to the table. Nowadays, I guess you’d call us club kids, but back then there were no clubs.
It was more rock n’ roll.
Yeah. We’d dress up, because we wanted to do something to rebel against what was going on with the big stadium/amphitheater stage rock shows. That wasn’t rock n’ roll. That was a case of rock being confused by roll. That’s what we were fighting against. You know those half hour guitar solos where the drummer takes a 30-minute break?
We’d leave our seats and go to the back of the theatre and pick up girls. The girls felt the same way about it. They were like, ‘Oh, boy. The guy is going to play another 20 minutes by himself? Whatever.’ That was the state of rock n’ roll. There was no rock n’ roll. That’s one reason that I think it was easy for the public to pick up on us. There was really nothing happening. There was nothing going on in the stripped down version. It was all big productions, and the guys had even bigger egos. There really was a void when we came in.
You started a revolution.
We were the first ones. There was no English movement. There was no New York movement. It was the end of the ’60s. We were there before all those bands that had something to do with success even thought about getting a band together. When they saw us, they coined the phrase ‘punk music’. They didn’t coin that phrase when they saw Iggy Pop or MC5.
Were you influenced by MC5?
MC5 were an influence on us, but not as much as Eddie Cochran and the Ronettes. They weren’t a bigger influence than some of the girl bands, either. The girl bands had us by the balls, so to speak.
[Laughs.] No pun intended. I guess. Who came up with the ‘We’re-going to dress up in drag, but we’re tough like NY street kids’ look?
We never had this big round table meeting where we said, ‘Yeah. We’re going to go in drag.’ That’s a myth that never happened. That’s just how we were. We still dress like that. We brought everything to the table, that table being the New York Dolls. We never really said, ‘Hey, let’s do this or let’s do that.’ The only time that we ever wore real dresses, in drag, was when we played Club 82.
You had a natural sense of fashion.
That’s the way we were. Billy Murcia and I were both designers. We started the company Truth and Soul together. We were really into fashion. We had our first shop in Woodstock. In 1971, at a tradeshow in New York City, I introduced Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren to the boys. At that time, Vivienne and Malcolm had their shop in London, and their company was called Let It Rock.
They had a lot of Teddy Boy gear, right?
Exactly. It was all Teddy Boy gear. It was really all about Malcolm’s love and Vivienne Westwood’s designs. They were all borrowed from Jerry Lee Lewis album covers. You can see all their clothes right there.
They were influenced by Gene Vincent, leather, and all of that stuff.
Yeah. So we were at this tradeshow in ’71. This was when tradeshows were held in hotels, not in a convention center. The shows were usually three days long, like Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On the last day, on Sundays, the companies would all trade samples and clothes. I told Johnny and David, ‘Come on Sunday, and I’ll introduce you to my friends from Let it Rock.’ That’s when I introduced them. That’s when Malcolm and Vivienne fell in love with the New York Dolls.
How was it going from being a neighborhood band to, all of a sudden, the ball got rolling? How did that happen?
It was England that really picked up on us first. There was a guy named Roy Hollingsworth. He was a writer for the ‘Melody Maker’ in London. He flew over to see us play. He picked up on us when we were playing the Mercer Arts Center. We were just beginning to make some noise. He picked up on us, and then he brought Lee Childers down. Lee Childers took pictures of us at our loft. Then they put us in the centerfold of the ‘Melody Maker’. It was a big two-page photo. That made us, at least in England anyway, fuckin’ superstars in a second. They loved us. They loved the way we sounded. They loved the way we dressed. They loved the way we felt about what rock n’ roll should be. They loved what we were talking about and what we were singing about. That was one of the wonderful things about David. He graced all our songs with the coolest lyrics. Like, ‘I’ve gotta ask you one question. Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?’ He’s encouraging you to have sex with a monster.
I like music to be music, but to me, you have to have a little intellect in the music. Otherwise you’re only saying, ‘Yeah. I wanna fuck you all night long and party all day.’ That’s nothing. That’s infant entertainment. People that think that bands like that were influenced by us or maybe even copied us got it wrong, too. All they see is the make-up and some guy blowing steam out of his mouth or whatever it is. When it comes down to it, there’s really nothing there. The guitar player is not saying anything, because he’s too busy doing every Van Halen riff he ever learned. It doesn’t go anywhere. But then you get comparisons because the guys wore make-up just like we did. I hate being compared, especially when they were followers.
Do you feel pressured by that at all?
Some guy asked me, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed for all those ’80s long hair bands that were influenced by the Dolls?’ I said, ‘I’m not ashamed, but they should be.’
I’m not into the ’80s thing at all. I thought that Aerosmith and Kiss took from the Dolls as well.
That’s who I’m talking about; especially the ones that wear makeup to look like cats. If I were 6 years old, I’d probably go out and buy it, or have my mom go buy it for me.
After that, where do you take it? Where is it? Where’s the substance of it all? What does it have to do with the fabric of the history of music. Not much, I don’t think. The guys ran to the bank. In the case of Aerosmith, it’s a little bit different, because they are really a rock band still struggling to make a blues record.
I agree. That’s easy to see if you understand anything about the blues.
Well, you know, they might understand it, but they’ve been so far away from it, that I don’t think they can ever come back to it. If they did, it’s not going to sell, due to the public going, ‘Oh, my God. What are they doing? What is that song?’ The public is ferocious. You can advertise that you’re going to kill yourself on stage that night and you’d have a sold out show. It’s a great act, but you can only do it once.
It’s a hard act to follow. It’s kind of like Daffy Duck, really.
[Laughs] Exactly. That’s where I learned that. Great show, but you can only do it once.
I was a little kid when you guys were doing your thing, so I didn’t get the honor or good fortune to be able to catch your show. My question is, you said that everyone came with their own certain thing, but it all seemed to have some correlation of a, ‘fuck you’ attitude. It seemed like you were saying, ‘We’re going to do our thing whether you like it or not. Kiss our ass.’ Which correlates with the whole punk rock thing a little bit, but you guys seemed to truly breathe this.
Yeah. It was all natural. It was all for real. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s become punks. Let’s make believe that we’re mean, and that we can wear a dress.’ That wasn’t it. It was a natural thing. It was a youth rebellion on our part. We were rebels with a cause. Look at what was going around us. We made our stand against the Vietnam War with our song ‘Vietnamese Baby’. It wasn’t all fun and games. ‘Frankenstein’ is a dark song. It might dare you to have sex with a monster, but really it calls for social change. ‘Something must have happened over Manhattan. Who could have spawned all the children this time?’
‘The Personality Crisis’ is a good psychological song.
Exactly. That was the thing about our tunes. What your teachers were telling you, what your parents were telling you, what your girlfriend or boyfriend were telling you, those are all influences. Being at a young age, you’re very absorbent, like a sponge. Our music and our looks and what we were singing about really talked to kids. They still talk to them. I call them kids, but I mean kids of all ages.
I understand. You guys also had a professional show quality. You were entertainers as well as a band.
Well, we became that. At first, we were faced with the shock. Then we had to turn that around and kind of poke fun at ourselves. We were really a funny bunch of guys, when it came down to it. We weren’t only sexy as hell, but we were funny, too.
Sexy as hell, with attitude.
We were sexy as hell, and the reason why was because we were pissed off at a lot of things. There was a lot of crap going down with the Richard Nixon deal, and what was going on politically. Look at what was going on with music. Music had gone from where it was in the ’50s, being cool rock n’ roll, to when Pat Boone came up with his brand of rock n’ roll. In other words, the industry had to clean it up.
Let’s sell the clean white boys.
I’m thinking Foghat and Deep Purple. There were hundreds of them on both sides of the Atlantic. It was clean. The guy never grabbed his balls, never talked about them, or even thought about anyone else’s balls. So, the New York Dolls opened up a brand new door. Some people might think that we sat down and said, ‘Hey, there’s nothing going on, so kids, we’re about to give you something.’ That didn’t happen. It came about naturally.
Not to use a hippie term, but it was organic.
When we first came out, a lot of the critics called us the ‘last group of the ’60s.’ They were saying what you were saying, that we had this kind of hippy, organic, live-and-let-live thing going on. We still do. We have this brand new song about beautiful music and superfluous music. David laid down some incredible lyrics on that one. ‘Leave something behind, for the boys and girls that are after you.’ In other words, ‘Think Green.’ It calls for social change. It’s where we never left. The Dolls broke up, but they never left the stage.
Who were your musical influences from the time you were a kid up until now?
Well, I dig anything that’s good. I don’t care what ethnicity it comes from or whatever the groove is. Anything that’s really good, I can dig. In my youth, since I wasn’t born in the States and I came from Europe and the Middle East, I was into all kinds of music.
Do you come from Cairo?
Yeah, I was born in Egypt. I was a Jewish boy, born in Egypt, but I grew up in Paris, France. There were a lot of the American influences being knocked off by the French back then, like Johnny Hallyday, and ‘Les Chaussettes Noires’ which means ‘black sock’ in French. They were a really cool band. They would be singing ‘C’est ma partie et je pleurerai si je veux’, which was ‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.’ You know that song?
That’s what I was listening to. My uncle Victor had all these Ray Charles records. Uncle Victor’s a pretty cool guy. He was also in the clothing business. He was mad about Ray Charles. Ray was really, really rock n’ roll. All that piano stuff, would just strip me naked. When we came to the States, in 1962, the hot thing was the girl groups. I really went nuts for that. When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came on the Ed Sullivan show and the British Invasion took over, I was one of the big victims. I went to all of my friends and told them how great the Beatles were. My father was working at Macy’s at the time, and I cried for six months, until he bought me my first guitar.
What kind of guitar did you get?
It was a Spanish starter guitar. It was only $17. It was no big deal. It had a ribbon for a guitar strap. That’s how I learned. A lot of my relatives had the yo-yo shops, you know, the electronics shops here in New York. A lot of Jewish, Middle Easterners, who had immigrated to the States, had opened these shops. The most famous one is ‘Crazy Eddies’. The reason they called it a yo-yo shop, was because the price went up and down with every customer. If you looked like you had money, the toaster was $24. If you didn’t look like you had money, that toaster was $12 and that was the end of that. They would put up signs all across the windows that said, ‘Last Day of Business, Closing Down Soon.’ And it was the first day of business. It always looked good. If you were closing down, everyone would want to come in to get the bargains.
Everyone likes a bargain.
The yo-yo shops all sold Japanese guitars and little amplifiers, so that’s how I got my first guitar. My first guitar was called the Audition. That’s when I started to learn the blues from every black cat I could find in junior high school. If someone had a father that was a musician, I would hang out and learn from them. The best thing was that when I learned how to play, I learned from the streets, instead of the Julliard music school, which really doesn’t teach you blues, by the way. When it comes down to it, with the New York Dolls, when you take off the lipstick and frilly little nylon tights, what you’ve really got under all that is the blues.
Who are some of your favorite blues artists?
I go for the blues, but also I go for Eddie Cochran, which was a mixture of rock n’ roll, blues, rhythm and blues, and Gene Vincent. Like I was telling you, in Paris, they were huge. Did you ever hear of The Shadows?
The Shadows were probably the number one band. They never got Elvis there, but Elvis was probably number two, not number one. You had the real cool music that made it here, but never made it big anywhere else, like in Eddie Cochran’s case.
Eddie Cochran lived in Bell Gardens, CA, which is kind of close to where I grew up.
That cat was a studio guitarist, then it was like, ‘This kid’s got more than just riffs.’
What I liked about it him was that he could write them and he could play them. He was a damn good guitar player. He was like a Brian Setzer, but he was better, because he didn’t copy it like Setzer did.
He was the original cat.
Exactly. And he looked great doing it. He was sexy as hell.
He had sick looking clothes.
He had a wild wardrobe. I have this one Eddie Cochran album called ‘On The Air’. It was recorded live, in England. It’s unbelievable.
I know that record.
There was another one that I used to have through my high school days. It was a re-release on United Artists. It was called, ‘Legendary Masters: Eddie Cochran.’ It was a two-LP set. It really introduced kids to Eddie again in the early ’70s. It was a cool thing. I used to take it to school, just to show kids, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at. This is what I’m tripping on.’ The coolest thing was that the guy who wrote the liner notes was Lenny Kaye.
Lenny was Patti Smith’s guitar player.
Exactly. He’s a good friend of mine. When he first came around and he was excited about the Dolls, he was writing about us a little bit, in the early days. I said to Billy, ‘That’s the guy that wrote the liner notes on the Eddie Cochran album. Fuck the Dolls. Let’s talk to him about that.’ My song ‘Trash’ is completely influenced by Eddie Cochran.
I have to tell you, that’s one of the best songs ever.
That’s Eddie Cochran, with everything else thrown in. I don’t think I would have had that song if it weren’t for Eddie Cochran.
Did you write ‘Trash’ by yourself?
The way I work, especially with David, is I do the riffs, then the hook line. Then I won’t know where to go from there. He’s so great at finishing the line and making a true story unfold, especially with that sick voice of his. It’s been smoothed out over the years with the thousands of cigarettes that bastard smoked. It’s got that feel, like, ‘Hey kids, gather round, because David is about to tell us a story.’
David’s a good storyteller.
He is. In Arabic, we call them hakawati. They’re storytellers. They used to run around from village to village telling stories. They were backed by a guy playing the tablas. In a way, David and I write like that. He’s the hakawati and I’m the tabla player.
[Laughs.] You guys have stage presence. Was it like that from the beginning?
I think so. We came off like gangbusters because that’s our way of performance, which also took on a natural form. You want to be natural at those things. You can’t be like, ‘I’m going to play like Pete Townshend.’ That guy influences a lot of kids but they’re not going to go any place because he did it already. It has to be a natural thing, otherwise it comes off very plastic and it doesn’t work. We always attacked the stage. My big thing was that you don’t just walk on stage or open the curtain and there you are. When the amps are on, and you’re being announced, you run onto that stage.
You can’t wait to be on stage.
Yeah. It’s for the kids, too. Even if it’s only two people that can’t wait to see you, and they came from Bora Bora or wherever, you have to do it for them. You have to do it for the underdog. You have to do it for the ones that don’t even know yet and are like, ‘Wow. Listen to that.’
Did you ever feel like you were an underdog? Like you were a fighting a no-win battle?
Well, that came at the very end. We had so much in us that we sort of imploded. I blame all that on one thing, and that’s heroin and the needles.
That’s the kiss of death.
Needles and heroin. That was it. You could think that you had it together, but it really had you by the balls. You don’t have it. It has you. By that stage of our career, it was 1974. Our first album came out in ’73. I think the reason that Billy died was because everyone wanted to party with us. They were like, ‘Sure you can stay at our house.’ All they really wanted was to bug you all night long to do a bunch of drugs. They wanted to party with you because they’d heard how wild you were and they knew how boring their lives were. That’s where we got into trouble. The New York Dolls were very influential to others, like the ones that were hanging around us. Then some of us became so crazy about them, and they might have been stars at one point or another, that what they did became what we did. That was a stupid move. We should have just been ourselves. Such is life.
When you were on, you were really on.
We were moving. I describe it like were in a horse race and we were number one. We were so ahead of the fucking pack. When we fell and broke our legs because of all the crap we were carrying, everyone else ran to the finish line, which I consider the bank.
So Billy Murcia dies. You guys were all buddies, right?
Yeah, especially him and me. Me and him were both immigrants. He came from Columbia and my family came from Egypt. When we teamed up in NY, we started our first business ventures together. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to go to school or anything else. We had no choice. We had to bring home the bacon. We were the first generations of our families to come from the Old Country to work. We were brought here for that. It was a necessity.
How did you meet up in New York?
We first met in high school. Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders and I all went to the same high school. Arthur went to school in Long Island and David went to school in Staten Island. When we first got together, that was the nucleus of what the band was going to be. It all started in New Town High School in Queens.
How did you meet Arthur?
This was when Billy’s mom had this big house in Jamaica, Queens. She would rent out rooms to people. There was this bar called Nobody’s on Bleeker Street, that we made that our place. That’s where we met Arthur, and his friend George [Frederick]. Arthur came up to Billy and told him that his father was throwing him out of the house. Billy said, ‘Go talk to my mom. She rents rooms.’ The next week, Arthur and George had a room in the first floor. Of course, we had the basement with all our equipment and drums and half-ass PA system. That’s how our first jams started to come about as a team. We all had bands before that. In 1968, we had a band called The Pox. Remember Mike Brown?
He was the singer of the Left Banke. His father, Harry Lookofsky, had a studio in the Brill building. He signed Billy and Mike Turby and me to our first record contract. I was only 15. My father had to sign for me.
[Laughs] What happened next?
We started getting thrown out of the schools in Queens, so we started going to this private school called Quintano’s. Q’s is where we met all these people.
When did you start going to London?
When we started Truth and Soul, we would go to Europe every summer. We’d work all winter, save our money and go there and buy all kinds of stuff. We’d come back with English Jags and Marshall Amplifiers and stuff like that. No one had seen Marshall amps around here. At the time, all we had was Fender. I mean, you saw a Marshall amp when you saw Jimi Hendrix, but that was it. I remember going to a music store in London called Rose Morris. It was like the Manny’s of London. It was right next to Piccadilly Circus. I remember I bought a whole Marshall stack. Each of the three cabinets was only $200. I threw them in one of those black English cabs, took it Pan Am Cargo and shipped it to the States. That’s how I got my first Marshall amps. Johnny would see Billy and I driving around New York in the English Jags that we’d had shipped over here.
You guy were buying Jaguar cars?
Yeah. We bought used Jaguars for $300 in England. It was only another $100 to ship them over, back then.
Jaguars were very James Bond.
Exactly. We had the little Jag that looks like a police car with the suicide doors. We used to drive it in the East Village. We’d get busted all the time. They would stop us, and sometimes we’d have drag queens with us. They’d say, ‘Everybody out of the car.’ So everyone would get out of the car. They took one look at us, and then they’d say, ‘Okay. Everybody back in the car. We never want to see you here again!’ We were transporting drag queens from one club to another.