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