New York Dolls

RIP Sylvain Sylvain: "Belligerent, hostile and deafeningly loud” (well his guitar playing anyway!)

In 1973 a local news report on the "social phenomenon" of "New York street bands" centered around the nightclub Max's Kansas City--where Debbie Harry could very well be your waitress and William Burroughs passed out at the bar--zeroed in on an exotic group of young men called the New York Dolls. In somber tones the newscaster described their music as "rough not polished" with "lyrics [that] are shouted, not sung" and live shows that are "always belligerent, hostile and deafeningly loud." Now there's a sales pitch!

And while the New York Dolls' guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (he also played piano/keyboard) was by all accounts neither particularly belligerent or hostile or loud in person--just the opposite, in fact, he was credited with holding the highly-volatile group together both personally and musically during their initial five-year run from 1971 to 1976--his guitar playing sure as hell was all three of those things. What's more Sylvain has been credited for coming up with the band's name and their (for the times) highly provocative look and for being their musical anchor with his slashing, rock solid and memorable guitar lines.

Rather than trying to tell Sylvain's story here or making a case for his significance, I'll simply point out that Sylvain and his guitar playing are very likely buried deep in your DNA. In other words if you're someone who listens to and/or creates what is referred to "indie" or "alternative" music, the New York Dolls were one of the central bands/central strands in the musical DNA of so-called proto-punk music (alongside the Stooges and MC5 and Death) leading directly to punk rock, obviously, and then to post-punk and alternative and indie rock. 

Here's a few good obits that were published today if you wanna know more about the man, the Dolls, and Sylvain Sylvain's post-Dolls career.

A British perspective from The Guardian (without the New York Dolls there'd been no Sex Pistols): 
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/jan/15/sylvain-sylvain-the-new-york-dolls

And here's what some obscure old hippie rag has to say about Sylvain Sylvain:
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/sylvain-sylvain-new-york-dolls-dead-1114962

Versus a more punk rock perspective from Alternative Press:
https://www.altpress.com/news/sylvain-sylvain-obituary-the-new-york-dolls

Last but definitely not least, Sylvain's memoir published in 2018:
https://omnibuspress.com/products/theres-no-bones-in-ice-cream-sylvain-sylvains-autobiography

Now for some sounds and visuals cuz that's what matters. Exhibit A: If th song "Frankenstein" with its glorious twin guitar assault by Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders, taken from the Dolls' 1973 eponymous debut LP, doesn't send chills up your spine then maybe you should pay a visit to your local cardiologist and have her check to see if you still have a pulse:

This is probably the New York Dolls' best known song, though there's a case to be made for "Personality Crisis," in which David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) kicks things off by quoting the Shangri-Las' "Give Him A Great Big Kiss":

And this is probably the best known filmed performance by the Dolls--appearing live on the German pop music show Musikladen, with two more songs taken from New York Dolls (1973):

Footage of the Dolls performing live in 1974 following the release of their oft-overlooked sophomore LP Too Much Too Soon. Rock entrepreneur and announcer Don Kirshner poses the $64,000 question: Are the Dolls "outrageous and bizarre" or "incredibly talented"? But Don, why they can't be both!

Excellent instrumental B-side from a band called Criminals, one of Sylvain's post-Dolls projects, 1978's "The Cops Are Coming" is a rocked-out rewrite of the iconic "Peter Gunn Theme."



Slyvain Sylvain's first solo album in 1979 contained this very cool track which could easily be passed off as an overlooked gem from the Goffin & King catalogue ("King" as in Carole King).

Nice live set here from Sylvain Sylvain & the Teardrops, again from German TV, a musical project whose one one and only album came out in 1981. Note the retro-rockabilly vibe and note that this was the same year of the Stray Cats' debut album. Sylvain was often on the cutting edge but often not getting due credit. Bonus content: you get to see Sylvain talking a bit about the Dolls during the wonderfully awkward interview segment.

And finally here's a song off One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This (2006), the first of several well-received New York Dolls' reunion albums co-written by surviving members Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen. 

When it comes to the rest of the Dolls: Johnny Thunders passed away in 1991; drummer Billy Murcia died in 1972 on tour in the UK before the first album was even recorded, and subsequent drummer Jerry Nolan died in 1992; bassist Arthur Kane held out until the next decade and played the first Dolls reunion show in London in 2004 but died shortly thereafter before the Dolls had started work on their mid-aughts album. This excellent article from Classic Rock magazine traces the band's path of self-destruction and their salvation of rock 'n' roll. Today, only Buster Poindexter survives to carry the torch. (Jason Lee)