Sylvain Sylvain

Finds his Subway Rhythm
Finds his Subway Rhythm

Subway Rhythm is an apt name for Sylvain Sylvain’s music publishing company.

The former New York Doll’s train of thought makes all the stops, a tendency he often acknowledges in mid sentence, “I’m trying to hit you with everything, a little bit. Sometimes, I kind of float around, but it’s only a natural thing.”

Sylvain shows a knack for snappy observation, whether his thoughts turn to New York’s “yo-yo” electronics shops (“…the price went up and down with every customer”), designing clothes with late drummer Billy Murcia (“We were makin’ $5,000 a line, and that was four times a year”), or trading with his fellow Doll, the late guitarist Johnny Thunders, “When I wanted something, man, he got me, and I wanted something, I really got him.”

Sylvain’s enduring fame lies in the saber-sharp guitar styles he pioneered as one-fifth of the Dolls, who ranked among rock’s ultimate street gangs from 1972 to 1975, casting a cut ‘n thrust blueprint for the likes of Aerosmith, Blondie, The Clash, Guns ‘N Roses, Kiss, and the Sex Pistols.

If style paid royalties, Thunders’ towering mop of rooster hair and vocalist David Johansen’s rubbery pout would have won tickets to Easy Street. But the Dolls spent much of their brief shelf lives teetering from stardom to extinction.

Often derided as a cross-dressing circus act, their albums, New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974), only ignited a rabid cult of their East Coast and Midwest constituencies – leaving Aerosmith and Kiss to enter the same sports arenas Sylvain and company had once imagined themselves occupying by divine right.

Where Johansen won success and legitimacy as lounge singer Buster Poindexter, Kane and Sylvain have only seen a smidgen of profits generated by 25 years of compact discs, compilations, and imports of dubious legitimacy – receiving no royalties until after Thunders’ mysterious 1991 death in New Orleans.

Even by rock’s traditionally scattershot accounting standards, the Dolls’ business aspects remain a murky, tangled affair, the major legacy of a management contract. Sylvain likens the mess to a popular store, with nobody minding the cash register.

“Everybody else took notes, and [other bands] took it to the bank, but we fell and broke our legs because we were running so damn fast,” he intones. “We were actually inventing it all, not even knowing what the hell we were doing.”

This proves far from the case on Sleep Baby Doll (Fishhead Records, 1997), Sylvain’s first new recording in a decade. Screaming rockers like “Paper, Pencil & Glue,” “Hungry Girls,” and a quicksilver remake of the Dolls’ “Trash” naturally grab center stage, but Sylvain also showcases his introspective side on a classically-tinged “Frenchette,” from Johansen’s first solo album, and Thunders’ final song, “Your Society Makes Me Sad.”

The latter song provides a perfect vehicle for Sylvain’s exploitation of ringing open tunings, or what he calls “the [Girl From] Ipanema’ chords” he uses to accent lyrics (“Do I feel guilty about an imperfect life, you ask/Now’s the time to take what is mine“) that showcase a more reflective side not often credited to Thunders. Knowing his partner as he did, Sylvain does not find that quality surprising.

“He never had a ****in’ American [record] deal, but he had anthems – and he was the best writer.”

For Dolls fans, the album’s most heartfelt moment is “Sleep Baby Doll,” in which Sylvain salutes the fallen Thunders (“Play guitar/you did fine now“), Murcia (“You were the personality, and the crisis“), and the drummer who succeeded him, Jerry Nolan (“…the little heart of Gene Krupa”).

The fluttering guitar sounds come courtesy of that ’80s oddity, the Emulator, which musicians had to use before digital sampling became chic.

“I just did four different chords, on four different notes. I was basically adding in those four chords every time I needed them,” said Sylvain.

Sleep Baby Doll stands above Sylvain’s ’80s RCA work, which he attributes to fewer inhibitions.

“I don’t worry about, ‘Okay, go home, come back with our formula intact, and we’ll be satisfied with that,’ because what you come up with is a crap song.”
Like his music, Sylvain’s life story has followed its own unique trajectory. Born Ronald Mizrahi to a tailoring family in Cairo, Egypt, he caught the rock and roll bug as a preadolescent growing up in Paris.

“My older brother took me to see Elvis in the movie houses – King Creole – and all the kids would bring their bongos and guitars, and sing along with those songs. That was so damn cool. That was my first take of guitar.”

Sylvain’s family emigrated once more, in the early ’60s – this time to the New York City borough of Queens, where he encountered a Colombian immigrant who shared his penchant for eye-catching clothes, chords, and catch phrases – Billy Murcia.

“His older brother, Alfonso, came up to me, ‘Hey, man, my brother wants to kick your ass at three o’clock!,'” laughs Sylvain. “You had to show up, or you were in worse shape. When I showed up, I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know you!’ We became friends.”

Sylvain started on a $13 Spanish guitar acquired from Macy’s department store. “The biggest way I learned to play guitar was with the Ventures,” he said. “They used to make those albums, Learn How To Play Guitar With The Ventures I, II and III – I’m sure I had Volume I, which taught you ‘Pipeline.’ That was a song I taught Johnny, which he made a career out of!”

The duo’s first rock and roll venture was The Pox, “…a three-piece American version of Cream, if you will, influenced by the Stooges and the MC5. We used to play [the Stooges’] ‘No Fun’, and **** like that.”

The Pox even impressed the father of Left Banke keyboardist Mike Brown (of “Just Walk Away, Renee” fame), who wooed them with promises of studio time and a one-single deal in ’68.

When nothing happened, Murcia and Sylvain routed their energies into producing psychedelic sweaters for Truth & Soul, their own counterculture clothing company. In time, the pair finally sold their designs and split the proceeds on trips to Holland and Britain.

By now, school had merely become a dull irritation to be elbowed aside. Having been jettisoned from New Town High School, in Queens, Murcia and Sylvain flocked to Quintano’s – an elite school two blocks from Central Park, which groomed its students for performing arts careers. “It was sort of like a school for young professionals. A lot of cool people came out,” recalls Sylvain, including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

There they met another New Town refugee, John Genzale, whose affectation of British Invasion foppery and obsessive devotion to guitar made him worthy of the “band thing” Murcia and Sylvain were contemplating.

“That Pox thing was falling apart [but we had] this basement in Queens, in Billy’s mom’s house, and [Genzale] started coming down. At first, he was the bass player. He didn’t wanna go onto guitar ’cause it was a little bit too heavy for him,” said Sylvain.

Genzale found his calling after handing over the bass to the Murcias’ latest tenant, Arthur Kane – a tall, blond, aspiring guitarist. An early turning point occurred when Sylvain ran down “Frankenstein” (“Who could have spawned all these children, all this time/Could they ever, would they ever, expect such a Frankenstein?“) for his new guitar partner.

“The first time I played those chords for Johnny, he’s going, ‘Forget it, too many ****in’ chords!’ He didn’t wanna leave that third chord, y’know?” laughs Sylvain. “But then you venture out, and he took [his style] to that weird monster guitar thing he put in there, and it became beautiful.”

Kane brought along his equally tall blond guitarist friend, George Frederick, who called himself Rick Rivets. Without missing a beat, Genzale became Volume, then Thunders (which he pirated from a comic book character or a Kinks song of the same title, depending on whose memory prevails).

Thunders soon cast himself as lead vocalist, and began trying his earliest tunes, as captured on Dawn Of The Dolls (1998), a limited-edition CD taken from Rivets’ own oft-bootlegged October 10, 1971, rehearsal tape. The disc reveals a spirited-yet-sloppy crew capable of dishing out a winning effort, such as “That’s Poison,” later revamped as the Dolls’ “Subway Train,” or “I Am Confronted,” which popped up in Thunders’ solo sets as “So Alone.”

“I taught Johnny how to play those little power chords instead of playing the whole barre chord,” said Sylvain. “When he was bending strings, he would bend ’em a little too much here and there, so one was a little bit out, which gave him his distinct sound. So he always had that, [combined] with those power chords.”

Sylvain does not appear on the disc, but returned from one of his European trips to find one of his suggested band names locked into place, which had graced a toy repair shop near Bloomingdale’s.

“The New York Doll Hospital,” he said. “I said to Billy, ‘Man, that would be a great name for a band, the New York Dolls.'”

After that, everything happened fast. Unsure of the Dolls’ future, Rivets quit in January of ’72, and Johansen became last to join. In June, they began a 17-week sold-out residency at the Mercer Arts Center, and signed a management deal.

A potentially career-making trip plummeted to disaster on November 7, when Murcia drowned in a bathtub while under the influence of alcohol and downers, an event that moved figures like David Bowie to send condolences. Others in the reigning rock aristocracy had been less moved, such as Rolling Stones lead guitarist Mick Taylor, who pronounced the Dolls “…the worst high school band I ever saw.”

Then and now, the band’s celebrated inability to show up on time, let alone stay in tune, yielded reams of bemused press – problems that stemmed from more prosaic limitations, Sylvain recalls.

“Don’t forget, in those days, you really didn’t have tuners – Johansen busted out the A harp, and bam, that’s how we did it.”

The band returned to gigging in December ’72, powered by drummer Jerry Nolan, whose self-assured simplicity did much to lift their collective spirits. After considerable dithering, Mercury Records, whose biggest acts were The Faces and Bachman Turner Overdrive, signed the Dolls in March of ’73.

The deal primarily came when A&R man/rock critic Paul Nelson pressed the issue, despite repeated warnings such persistence might cost him a job. When asked why the Dolls faced such hardcore commercial resistance, Sylvain said, “Even the cool guys weren’t cool anymore.”

To Sylvain and cohorts, big-time ’70s rock had been declawed by a clock-punching order.

“You knew when everything would happen – when the drummer took the drum solo – then you could to the bathroom, talk to your girlfriend. Whatever the story was, ya’ know? It was all so predictable, so boring. And we came out like ****ing gangbusters.”

The sonic floodgates burst open on New York Dolls. While some fans found Todd Rundgren’s production nitpicky and inhibiting, it’s hard to imagine a better showcase for Sylvain’s and Thunders’ celebrated lurch. Their interplay, along with Nolan’s rollicking, powers such lustily self-referential rockers as “Personality Crisis” (“…flashin’ on a friend of a friend of a friend“), “Jet Boy,” “Bad Girl,” and “Frankenstein.”

“Trash” shudders and shivers with the band’s signature impatience (“Please don’t ask me if I love you/I don’t know if I do“), while Johansen and Sylvain “ooh” and “aah” in the best ’60s girl group tradition, Thunders pummels the melody into submission.

He wreaks similar havoc on “Vietnamese Baby,” the lone stab at political commentary, and “Subway Train,” with stop-and-start tempos aptly fitted to the lyrics’ tetchy indecisiveness (“I can’t understand/Why my life’s been cursed, poisoned, condemned“).

The first album cover is all-out sensory assault – black lamé stretch pants, blazing lipstick streaks, and mile-high platform shoes – came from seeing “…the big British bands coming over, all ****in’ wearin’ makeup, and they had all these beautiful chicks,” said Sylvain. “So we bartered [makeup] from our girlfriends to get even more girls, y’know what I mean? It wasn’t like the way I describe Kiss doing their makeup – they were like truck drivers who decided to do something for Halloween.”

Mercury’s two-album deal promised a $25,000 advance, a $200 weekly salary per Doll, and an allowance for new equipment. Sylvain recalls starting with Gibson Les Paul Juniors, which he traded for Thunders’ Les Paul Custom black beauty. Both are visible on the cover of Too Much Too Soon.

“The thing that really worked in the Gibsons were those Les Paul pickups – they were killers,” said Sylvain. “[Thunders] had an $800 budget, so he bought the black beauty, and we traded. That little Junior kicked ass compared to the black beauty. It was good, but wasn’t quite as razor-sounding. It didn’t blend in as one sound.”

The Dolls also had an affinity for odd instruments, like the white Vox Teardrop on Too Much Too Soon‘s inner sleeve.

“Arthur Kane picked it up in a pawnshop in Leeds,” said Sylvain. “He bought it for 20! Of course, Johnny saw that and said, ‘Oh, man, I’ll ****in’ trade you anything you want!’ I think Arthur got half of two joints out of Johnny’s closet.”

When he felt truly exotic, Thunders sported a Dan Armstrong plexiglas guitar, while Kane sometimes sported a “…Danelectro longhorn bass with round mirrors,” Sylvain recalls.

Sylvain switched to a ’54 Gretsch White Falcon after a brief flirtation with Flying Vs. “We really dug the shape, but I couldn’t stand the sound. They were so wimpy; a little Junior could kick its butt!”

Amp configurations revolved around Marshall stacks, with 15-watt Showmans for bottom. “We were using that [with] the Gretsch; it was pretty cool with Johnny’s Junior, and that was our setup,” said Sylvain. He still uses Marshalls, with Hi-Watts for extra bottom, while disdaining effects or pedals for live work.

While most critics showered praises on the first album, Mercury expressed its impatience with the resulting sales (110,000 copies). For Too Much Too Soon, whose title came from actress Diana Barrymore’s memoir, the controls went to former Shangri-Las producer George “Shadow” Morton, with mixed results.

Where the first album had acquitted itself through sheer ballsiness, Too Much Too Soon‘s preponderance of covers – “Bad Detective,” “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” “Stranded In The Jungle,” and an intoxicating “(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown,” – suggested a band running on empty, as did the inclusion of “Human Being,” a live staple left off the first album.

When not fighting such intrusive production touches as gratuitous female backing vocals, the Dolls were still explosive on “Babylon,” along with Thunders’ “Chatterbox,” and his only collaboration with Johansen, “Puss ‘N’ Boots.”

For Sylvain, the most bitter irony came in seeing his dreamy, hypnotic composition provide the album title, yet languish unrecorded in the outtakes bin. Morton pleaded lack of time, but Sylvain sensed a power imbalance teetering out of control.

“It wasn’t always quite fair,” he declares. “To say the least, I was definitely overshadowed by Johnny and David, as far as stardom was concerned, to the managers’ eyes only. And of course, it got to the boys’ heads, too. The cancer started really early; that’s why we broke up after only two albums.”

The constant bickering – Thunders and Nolan in one corner, Kane in the middle, Johansen and Sylvain on the other side – and creeping chemicalization were only part of the dilemma. The management team broke up in autumn ’74. Suddenly, the advances and limos were gone, replaced by welfare checks and public transportation.

Mercury followed suit soon afterwards, withdrawing what little support they had provided. The label was still willing to consider a third album if the Dolls would make demos. But the band’s attempts were yielding no usable results.

A more pressing challenge came from emerging new bands, such as Blondie, the Ramones, and Talking Heads, who’d fliched sartorial inspiration from the Dolls’ fiery glam attack, yet owed little or nothing to it, musically.

The Dolls made one last-ditch effort to rebound, with an unlikely ally: Malcolm McLaren, from whom they’d bought some ’50s-style Teddy Boy clothes while touring Europe in November ’73.

McLaren met the down and out Dolls on a business trip. Shocked to find them in such desperate straits, he extended his Manhattan stay, checked Kane into detox, and made plans for them to recapture America by decking them out in red leather, neo-Communist togs, flanked by a hammer and sickle backdrop. The Dolls premiered their new look on February 28, 1975, at New York’s Hippodrome. But most fans, having finally acclimated to the outrageous thunder of old, did not understand the look or a set list that deep-sixed old favorites.

From there, the Dolls limped to Florida, where Nolan and Thunders – dubious of the new regime and sick of sweltering 100-degree weather, opted to start over again in New York.

The final straw came when Johansen gave his colleagues one last verbal lashing, claiming anyone was replaceable. While Sylvain had never endorsed Nolan’s and Thunders’ narcotics intake, their walkout elicited an odd sort of sympathy.

After seeing off Nolan and Thunders, the remaining Dolls had little to do but play three final gigs with a local drummer and guitarist (Blackie Goozeman, who founded the heavy metal band Wasp), and go their separate ways.

There was little question about the enormity of the band’s failure. But McLaren had a plan for his former protegé, which he outlined “…in one of these European, hairline-thin paper letters, and it says on the back, ‘Mrs. Mizrahi, give this to your son, a friend from England, urgent!'” said Sylvain. “She called me up, gave me the damn letter: ‘Oh, man, don’t work with David. I don’t like him, I don’t trust him. Come over here, Sylvain, this is your band!'”

The letter also mentions a bunch of kids who “…hang around in my wife’s shop,” as Sylvain remembers McLaren’s letter describing them, turned out to be the Sex Pistols.

“We were talkin’ how we were gonna do it, and I said, ‘Okay, take my guitar and my Fender Rhodes keyboard, send back my plane ticket, and I’ll hop over,'” said Sylvain. He pauses; “I’m still waiting for that plane ticket!”

Sylvain’s Les Paul ended up with Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, and McLaren’s letter is now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sylvain continued to work with Johansen, who kept the Dolls name for European and Japanese tours and weekend U.S. gigs into ’77 (the lineup included bassist Peter Jordan, who filled in when Kane was unable to play). The tour led to an Ibanez sponsorship.

After the post-Thunders Dolls (derisively nicknamed The Dollettes) dissolved, Johansen became a solo artist. Sylvain toured with him until ’78, and wrote songs for his first four solo albums, including “Frenchette” (on David Johansen, 1977).

Between those commitments, Sylvain formed The Criminals, a lighter, more pop- oriented ensemble. But it fell apart after he was injured in a 1979 car accident. Fishhead has reissued those demos on its Teenage News CD, which opens with the band’s only single, “The Kids Are Back,” and “The Cops Are Coming,” a “Peter Gunn” styled instrumental rumble. The latter remains Sylvain’s opener, for practical reasons.

“The amp and guitar have to be in unison,” he declares. “They’ve gotta be swinging together, ’cause, basically, I don’t even do soundchecks. I don’t have the time, baby, and I swear to God, I just pop in there, and my opening song is my soundcheck!”

Sylvain no longer had his White Falcon (“Eastern Airlines wouldn’t let me check it, and they busted the neck on it”), so he switched to a custom Fender Telecaster for his Criminals days, and two RCA albums, Sylvain Sylvain (1979), and Syl Sylvain And The Teardrops (1981).

“I loved that guitar. It wasn’t that old, but man, I beat the hell out of it,” said Sylvain. “It went through all my punk ****.”

RCA’s confidence was another story. The ’80s were tough sledding for the likes of Sylvain and other first-generation punks like the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, or the Nolan/Thunders post-Dolls combo, the Heartbreakers. As the music business grew sleeker and more corporate, major labels became cooler to giving them chances. And when they did, as in Sylvain’s case, they demanded up-front guarantees of marketability.

“I was really molded by the industry at that point,” he sighs. “You gave ’em a demo of 20 songs, they picked whatever fit their formula, and hired your producer.”

Slow sales led RCA to drop Sylvain in ’84, and he found himself driving a cab in New York City while raising his son as a single parent. Then, Thunders called from Paris, asking when the two might play together again.

The resulting bootlegs, such as Live In Sweden, a double-LP that reportedly sold 10,000 copies, captured some hot shows and inspired twin-guitar interplay, though the alliance had its dicey moments.

“[Thunders] was kinda sleepin’ at that time, ’cause he knew I was better than him. That’s why he had to become the lead guitar player.”

Sylvain left New York in the late ’80s and hooked up with Nolan once more in ’89 to form the Ugly Americans, which only lasted for a few shows in New York and Connecticut. Nolan died of a stroke in ’92 following severe pneumonia and meningitis. He was buried next to Thunders in Flushing, New York.

Sylvain moved to Los Angeles, keeping active with live gigs and production jobs. Tiring of the lifestyle there, he moved to Atlanta, where he has lived since ’95.

Today, he makes his point with a number of different guitars. After losing his beloved Gretsch, he never imagined seeing another, “…because they were so pricey,” he laughs. “And I found the Gretsch with the Cadillac Green – a one-pickup Anniversary.” He also bought a new single-cut Danelectro. “It’s all black and has that lipstick pickup. I changed the tuning pegs and that baby rocks. That pickup makes the smokiest slide guitar. And it’s the only reissue that’s better than the original.”

He also swears by a modified Rickenbacker 425.
“Originally, it had a pickup in the middle, and I put it toward the [bridge]. I really like that guitar. You can only [play] it on the first four frets, but they sound really cool.”

As these examples show, Sylvain considers one-pickup guitars crucial to a sturdy, clear sound, which he also applies to amplification.

“I don’t believe in makin’ people’s ears bleed, but I don’t like to sound like a little amp that’s super loud,” said Sylvain. “Then you sound like a big fuzzbox, which sucks, too, like these alternative guys. It’s really distorted, but low-volume. What for?”

The New York City of 2000 is a different place from the streets Sylvain and Thunders roamed more than 25 years ago as teenagers looking to fulfill a rock and roll dream. Most of their old haunts – the Diplomat Hotel, the Mercer Arts Center, and Max’s Kansas City – are memories, having been swallowed by demolition or gentrification.

Many of the Dolls’ most provocative gestures, such as their first album’s gender-bending cover photo, have become mainstream, while the sleaze of Too Soon‘s leadoff track, “Babylon,” is no longer ignored by a city whose quality-of-life ordinances cover everything from jaywalking to smoking. As the world-weary Buster Poindexter himself sighs on his new album, Buster’s Supersonic Rocket Ship; “They’ve turned this town into a mall, and I don’t know what to think.”

Yet, while Aerosmith and Kiss have weathered their fair share of ups and downs, they will never buy or borrow what the Dolls have – a mystique that remains preserved after only two albums.

“[Critics] might have made fun of us – ‘They couldn’t tune up, they couldn’t do this, they couldn’t do that’ – but we had the perfect ingredient,” said Sylvain. “Pick up those albums and you’ll hear something. It’s a little bit fresh. And we haven’t scratched the surface as far as our popularity is concerned.”

The ex-Dolls have always recognized that point – even Johansen, who long kept the most hands-off stance to his past. No matter what everyone did later, the music came full-circle.

To underline his point, Sylvain needs only recall the ’84 tour with Thunders.

“When I played with him, I said, ‘Johnny, I really like that new song’ – ’cause he had writer’s block at that point – and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. Which one?’ And I said, ‘That one, ‘Pipeline’!”


New York Dolls

New York Dolls, Mercury SRM-1-675, 1973

Too Much Too Soon, Mercury SRM-1-1001, 1974 (both albums were reissued on CD in ’87, catalog numbers 832 752-2 and 834 230-2, respectively)

The Very Best Of The New York Dolls, Mercury RJ-7234, 1977 (Japan-only double-LP reissue of above albums)

New York Dolls/Too Much Too Soon, Mercury 6641631, 1977 (UK-only reissue of two albums w/back-to-back sleeves)

Lipstick Killers, ROIR A-104, 1981 (U.S. cassette-only release of rough rehearsal sessions; since reissued on US CD in 1990, ROIR 88561-5027-2; also on French CD, 1990, Danceteria DANCD 038)

Red Patent Leather, Fan Club F, 1984 (Live at Little Hippodrome, New York City, NY, 2/5/75; since reissued on French CD in 1988, Fan Club FC 007)

Night Of The Living Dolls, Mercury 826094-2 M-1, 1985 (U.S.-only remastered album tracks compilation)

Sylvain Sylvain

The Kids Are Back/Cops Are Coming, Sing Sing Records, 1979
(Credited to The Criminals; both sides are featured on Teenage News demo compilation CD; Sylvain also contributed songs for David Johansen’s first four albums from 1977 to 1981)

Sylvain Sylvain, RCA(?), 1979

Sylvain Sylvain & The Teardrops, RCA(?), 1982

There’s A Little Bit Of Whore In Every Little, New Rock
(Notable bootleg w/Johnny Thunders, bassist Billy Rath, and Jerry Nolan; live in Sweden, 1984; Swedish-only double album; includes Dolls standards like “Personality Crisis,” offbeat Rolling Stones covers “Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” “The Spider And The Fly,” Sylvain originals (“14th Street Beat”), and unreleased tracks from Thunders (“Just Because I’m White”); good to excellent sound quality.)

… in Teenage News, Fishhead Records (no catalogue number listed), 1997

Sleep Baby Doll, Fishhead Records FCD 02142, 1997

This Article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’00 issue.