The New York Dolls might not have written the book on rock ’n’ roll, but for five short years in the early 1970s they were one of the wildest bands keeping it in print. Decked to the nines in platform heels, lipstick and fetish gear, the Dolls repatriated the bluesy sounds that so inspired British bands like T. Rex and the Rolling Stones and tricked them out in a manner befitting their outré attire, like a cab-load of Times Square drag queens. R&B, doo-wop, street corner soul—a New York Dolls album is an American rock fake book. It’s all there, bulging through Johnny Thunders’ dirty riffs and scalding sprays of crap guitar.
The punk- and glam-pioneer status we confer on them today is one thing, but in their time the Dolls were simply pillaging Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley to make American rock as fun and debauched as it could be. Between the showboating theatrics of vocalist David Johansen and the whole junkie mythos surrounding guitarist Thunders, the contributions of one Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi) are often overlooked.
And a great rock ’n’ roll songwriter he is. You can hear his grasp of classic pop in many of the raucous Dolls tunes he co-wrote with the chameleon Johansen, better known nowadays in his schticky lounge lizard reincarnation as Buster Poindexter. But dig up a copy of the Muster Records import Bowery Butterflies: ’78 Vintage NYC Rock & Roll Gems and hear the man in full, playing gem after gem after gem.
I reach Sylvain at his Phoenix hotel room, and it’s not long before we’re talking about his former bandmate Johansen, whose subsequent career could in some ways be interpreted as a disavowal of the Dolls days. The relationship between Sylvain and Johansen has been strained since the band’s 1975 breakup, but Sylvain says he’s come to terms with it. Indeed, the two are among the few Dolls members left. Billy Murcia, drummer and longtime friend, drowned in a London bathtub in 1971 after ingesting a lethal combination of alcohol and barbiturates. His replacement, Jerry Nolan, died of a stroke in 1992. And Johnny Thunders succumbed most famously of all to a heroin overdose in New Orleans in 1991.
“In some ways, David Johansen is no longer around either,” Sylvain says. “It’s his choice, and that’s OK with me. Don’t forget, he graced every song on every record the New York Dolls did. But I always kept that part of the music alive in me. We wrote 20 songs, and now they’ve made 20 albums out of them. David’s career has taken him into all these different characters, and sometimes I think he’s always in character. To be good with a character, you’ve got to live it, just like a good actor would, and I think that’s where the problem is. If readers ever ask the question of why the Dolls have never gotten back together, you can tell them that the only thing standing in the way is David Johansen. Because we always get offers. With crazy amounts of money.”
Sylvain’s own post-Dolls career never hit the wine cooler ad highs reached by Johansen’s Buster Poindexter character, but Sylvain isn’t bummed about that either. He’s released several acclaimed solo albums for MCA, most recently (Sweet) Baby Doll— the title of which is a tribute to the departed Dolls Murcia, Nolan and Thunders. He even moved from New York to suburban Atlanta, where he now lives with his wife and teenage son.
“I never really made any money,” Sylvain says philosophically. “I’m 49 years old and I’ve never bought a piece of property. The New York Dolls didn’t get paid until 1991, after Johnny died, when one of the managers called up and said, ‘Oh, by the way, you got a couple of dollars.’ But the other night I played in Oklahoma City, and I’ve never really played there before, and this girl gave me such a hug at the very end and told me how much she loved me and loved the music and how happy she was to see me and thank you, thank you, thank you. And that’s really where I get paid. That’s worth a million bucks.”