Sylvain Sylvain, 1951 – 2021: swashbuckling New York Dolls guitarist who kept the proto-punks in check

The flamboyant rock star, whose band influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols and The Smiths to Suede and the Manics, has died at the age of 69. RIP

There’s a common phrase that comes to mind when thinking about the role Sylvain Sylvain – born Sylvain Mizrahl, February 14th, 1951 – played within the iconoclastic New York Dolls. The phrase has something to do with herding cats.

Alongside singer David Johansen, Sylvain – who has died from cancer at the age of 69 – was the only constant in the New York Dolls during their ragged but glorious first run, a bridge from glam to punk that arched between 1971 and 1976. Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye said it best when he opined of the Egypt born guitarist and pianist: “His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision.”

And yet there’s more to that Lenny Kaye quote, plucked from an open letter written in memory of his friend and peer. Again, it gets to the heart of the matter. “Though [Sylvain] tried valiantly to keep the band going,” writes Kaye, “in the end the Dolls’ moral fable overwhelmed them, not before seeding an influence that would engender many rock generations yet to come.”

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Because here is the bottom line, daubed in lipstick, smeared across a mirror in the bathrooms of Max’s Kansas City, The Big Apple’s lost hub of Warholian cool. Without the New York Dolls, rock is boring and grey. And without Sylvain to steward the rabble of drunks and drug addicts that would influence so many that followed – The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, KISS, Guns ‘N Roses, Suede, The Manic Street Preachers, and, perhaps most infamously The Smiths – there wouldn’t have been a single note of the proto-punks’ music.

Every band needs a straight guy, as much as the word ‘straight’ seems hilariously ill suited to any description of the swashbuckling Sylvain. While original drummer Billy Murcia was dying of an overdose in a Kensington bathtub, bassist Arthur Kane was having his thumb hacked off by his girlfriend and drummer Jerry Nolan and guitarist Johnny Thunders were… well, what weren’t those cats doing? Sylvian was holding the group together. He was a beacon of unity in the stormiest of seas.

He was born in Cairo, and antisemitism saw Sylvain’s Jewish family flee north Africa – first to Paris, France, then to Queens, New York. Dyslexic and – like his Columbian born bandmate Murcia – an immigrant, Sylvain was on a path divergent to that of his peers. His and Murcia’s clothing store, Truth and Soul, shaped the androgynous style that frightened and thrilled fans and critics of the group they formed together in the early 1970s. The band’s name was plucked from the doll repair shop, the New York Doll Hospital over the road from the men’s boutique Sylvain later worked in.

“You took your life in your hands just getting to the gig…” Sylvain said in 2018. “One time I had this knitted pink women’s suit. It was nice. I turned the skirt into gaucho pants. I wore them with my boots. I put on the make-up. I’m going to make my $15. I’ll never forget all the catcalls.”

And the music? That stuff was wild. Taking its cues principally from the overt sonic thrust of The Rolling Stones, a patchwork ensemble of Brill Building (the legendary New York ’50s and ’60s hit factory) pop, David Bowie, the discography of Phil Spector, MC5 and The Stooges – only significantly more ramshackle and raw than the above – the band’s self-titled debut album is one of the greatest debut albums of all time. It was released in 1973 and produced by Todd Rundgren – nobody else would touch them. “[People] were petrified of the Dolls” said the legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen. “To say the Dolls were your friends was like saying you knew a criminal”. Spearheaded by one of the great pop singles in ‘Personality Crisis’, it’s a record that – even now – sizzles on the ears.

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This was not a view shared by the majority on release. An End Of Year poll in the legendary music tome Creem listed the band as both Best and Worst group of 1973, while, appearing on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in November, host Bob Harris – a man, it must be said, with music taste as glamourous as an ashtray – derided them as “mock rock”. One further album followed: the prophetically titled ‘In Too Much To Soon’ was released a year later, before the chaos broke the levee. The provocateur Malcolm McLaren watched on all the while, cribbing notes he’d later feed to The Sex Pistols.

Legend has it that McLaren wanted to hang his Sex Pistols project on Sylvain. If that’s true, he had a funny way of showing it, the guitarist once claimed: “Malcolm said, ‘Give me your Gibson guitar and I’ll take it back to England, sell it and send you a plane ticket so you can form a group with these guys who’ve been hanging around my wife’s clothing shop. So I gave him my guitar and my piano, and I’m still waiting for that ticket. That white Les Paul Custom that Steve Jones used his entire time with the Pistols? Yep, that was mine.”

Everyone who came in contact with the Dolls made a buck – except the Dolls themselves. And so in 2004, when Morrissey – self-appointed head of the UK New York Dolls Fanclub and a fixture of the 1970’s NME letters page, within which he would gush weekly about his love for the band – reunited Sylvain, Johansen and Kane for a concert as part of the Meltdown Festival he was curating in London. Thunders had passed in 1991, Nolan a year later. Few would begrudge the remaining members a second run. Despite the death of Kane from Leukaemia the same year, they then released three albums of some quality before disbanding in 2011 for a final time.

And so the iconic Sylvain Sylvain comes to rest, having given so much – punk, style, danger, excitement. Sylvain spent his career mostly herding cats, but perhaps it was he who was the coolest of them all.

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