Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells? We put New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain to the test

YES! You read it right. It's the return of NME's legendary, long-running feature Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells, in which we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. We continue this brand new run with New York Doll, Sylvain Sylvain.

1. Which 2017 film features the New York Dolls song ‘Lonely Planet Boy’?

“(Laughs) I don’t know ‘cos they don’t pay me for these things so I don’t keep track!”

WRONG. It was England Is Mine, a Morrissey biopic that doesn’t use any of his music

“Oh I see! So it’s a lot easier to get a New York Dolls song ‘cos you probably don’t have to pay for it? (Laughs) I’ve never seen that. But I love Morrissey. He gave us that great moment when we all got back together for his Meltdown festival in 2004. He didn’t have to convince me and Arthur Kane but he convinced David Johansen, which was key. David and Arthur hadn’t talked for 29 years, from when we broke up in 1975. It was shocking and unexpected that poor Arthur passed away a week or so after that performance. It was his lifelong dream to jump onstage with us again and that gig gave him his final peace and welcomed him into heaven as far as I’m concerned. I know certain people think certain different things about Morrissey lately but putting all that aside, it was a beautiful thing that he did.”

 

2. What was the name of the gay sauna the New York Dolls once played and received a standing ovation at?

“Man’s Country”.

CORRECT.

“It was in Brooklyn Heights. That was the time when Manhattan had the Continental Baths where Bette Midler had started. But that was our first paying gig and we got $400 for it. They didn’t care what we played – it was a lot of fun. The décor was like the western TV series Rawhide, with saddles on the walls – David took one of them down and was riding it to guys standing next to Roman columns wearing only white bath towels. It was an easy crowd. (Laughs) If you just scratched your butt, you got a standing ovation.”

3. Which early New York Dolls gig venue did Debbie Harry claim she had “so much sex” in?

“Oh, that was in our musical loft at 119 Chrystie Street, between Grant and Bloom Street.”

CORRECT. It was at the apartment guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Billy Murcia
shared.

“Those parties were unique and spontaneous. We were kids bored by how mundane gigs felt, and this was pre-Aids. It was on the first level of an old warehouse and we went out to military stores and bought army tents – everybody had a tent for a room. And I remember meeting Deborah in one of those tents! I won’t go any further.”

After the New York Dolls split, you and then-manager Malcolm McLaren asked her to form a band with you….

“We’re still good friends and see each other at least twice a year and talk about a million things. I saw her at [photographer] Bob Gruen’s birthday party and told her I was writing a book and that’s when she said ‘Oh Syl, I had so much sex in that loft!’.”

4. Which part of your anatomy once appealed to John Lennon and Yoko Ono?

“Oh, that was from my waist down. I don’t think I was wearing anything. It was for Up Your Legs Forever.”

CORRECT. Your legs.

Up Your Legs Forever was the title of the short film they did. Yoko Ono sings in it, I think. It’s actually a great song – it’s unlike other Yoko Ono songs. Not that the other ones are bad or unpleasant to listen to (Laughs) – I’m going to leave it at that. Anyway, me and Billy were sitting in Central Park in 1970 and some guy came up to us and said: ‘Hey, you wanna be in a movie?’. We go to this building and lo and behold, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were there. All you had to do was have them shoot from your toes to your waist – and the finished product was just as many legs as they shot. Boys, girls, some with pants on, some off. I got paid $1 to make it legal and John gave me a Screw magazine.”

5. Which frontman claims his Las Vegas band started wearing make-up because of you?

“I didn’t know there were any bands that came out of Las Vegas but I’m gonna try…The Killers?”

CORRECT. It was Brandon Flowers.

“Wow! It really pays to take those gigs in Vegas – I had this DJ gig there and woke up and The Killers were going to open this new arena. That was a shot in the dark.”

Do you like their music?

“I’m not that familiar with it, but I have a son who loves them. When the New York Dolls played with them, I got their autographs for him. Most of the time now I listen to classical music or old jazz. I keep writing new music. If it’s a good tune, I dream that I’ll find the right band for it. Like The Killers maybe! (Laughs).”

6. What fake name did you give to telephone companies to avoid paying your bills?

“My name was Ricky Corvette. But don’t tell them that, please! They’re still looking for that guy. I don’t know who he is, but I’ve heard he’s a cute little guy.”

CORRECT.

“Anyway, the name Ricky Corvette came from a burlesque dancer in New Orleans. This was pre-9/11. Now you’ve got to have three picture IDs ready for interrogation by the CIA just to get on the damn bus. But back then we did things like…I mean, Arthur Kane used to work for AT&T, wearing a little blue hardhat, and he had a handheld phone which you could plug in and hijack somebody else’s line. We used that quite a bit. He’d set it up for us, and we’d call our friends in England and stuff from New York.”

7. Who played you in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 TV series Vinyl?

“Okay well I don’t like to talk about that because I got completely taken away from it. I’m very sad to inform everybody but they totally forgot about Sylvain. I asked my partner Mr Johansen about it and he said they can do whatever they want because they’re protected by the first amendment. I went: ‘How come you got in there?’ And he replied: ‘I was a consultant’. (Laughs) Thank you! You couldn’t call me? I was really pissed off and never saw it and I tell everybody not to see it as well. And I’m glad it fell apart.”

WRONG. It was Jonathan Rosen.

“Look, they had me right down to the leopard platform boots that I had and the blue jumpsuit with the tiger on it that I got from David Bowie. But I never got nothing. They were using our material ‘Personality Crisis’ and ‘Stranded In The Jungle’ and I thought, well at least I’ll get something for the recording. What happens is Johansen then goes into the studio and re-records those songs so that excluded me from even the recording royalties. That was a low blow. They claimed they were going to show what the business was like – well, they did it to me right there. (Laughs) The whole story’s about how screwed up the business was back then – well it still is sweetheart!”

8. What bizarre fetish did you claim Iggy Pop personally taught Arthur Kane?

“(Laughs) A Plate Job. I know that somehow this sounds like it needs explanation, but I said: ‘I don’t even want to fucking know!’”

CORRECT. I Googled it today – so expect an invoice for the therapy.

“This is fun!”

9. The New York Dolls reunited at 2004’s Meltdown. Can you name two other bands on the line-up?

“Ay, ay, ay! I’m in trouble. I’m bad. I don’t know, really….”

WRONG. You could have had The Ordinary Boys…

“Wait, I just remembered Frank Sinatra was there okay, how’s that?”

Nancy Sinatra…

“NANCY! That’s who I meant. I’m sure Frank was there in spirit. You didn’t say they had to be alive, my friend.”

…Ari Up, Cockney Rejects, Gene, Jane Birkin, Loudon Wainwright III, Sparks…

“Now I remember. Quote me on this – I was going to say Nancy Sinatra and Sparks, ‘cos I love people who live in California and that’s the end of that.”

10. Who once said ‘We didn’t want to be the New York Dolls wearing costumes’?

“Television’s Tom Verlaine.”

CORRECT

“Oh boy! It was on a documentary and it completely fucking tore me apart. The guy never got it. When we were doing it, all of the New York Dolls really believed in that lifestyle. When you see David being David back then, that’s what he believed in – I don’t care what he says today. It wasn’t an identity we went home, took off and hung up in the closet. We slept, woke up and had sex in those clothes. We’d shop or pick up stuff from the trash on garbage days in New York and sew together clothes out of it. Everybody around us was just as creative. I knew a drag queen who made his entire outfits out of broken umbrellas left in bins the day after it rained. So it hurt me that Tom Verlaine was putting down that creativity – and he wouldn’t have even had a chance to make a record if it wasn’t for the New York Dolls kicking down those doors. Besides, he looked like Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back – his leather jacket and black glasses were just as much of a costume.”

The verdict:  7/10

“Maybe that tells me something – I should really read my own book!”

There’s No Bones In Ice Cream: Sylvain Sylvain’s Story of the New York Dolls is published by Omnibus Press