Sylvain Sylvain, cofounder and rhythm guitarist of legendary early 1970s proto-punk quintet the New York Dolls, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer, according to a social media post by his wife and multiple media reports. He was 69.
While often lambasted in their era — either as Rolling Stones knock-offs or for their shocking-at-the-time androgynous look — the Dolls were one of the single greatest influences on punk rock, on both sides of the Atlantic. Their vast influence can be heard in fellow New Yorkers the Ramones, who followed them by just a couple of years, as well as the Sex Pistols and the entire punk movement. While undercut by drug addiction, infighting and general unruly behavior, the Dolls cast a long shadow in the classic lineup’s four years of existence.
Their influence is vast and incalculable; rock and roll from 1975 on would not be what it is and has been without them.
While singer David Johansen was a classic Jaggeresque frontman and Johnny Thunders oozed degenerate charisma and played snarling lead guitar, Sylvain was the group’s foundation, bringing textured riffs and rhythmic power that underpinned the songs’ melodies and meshed with the bass and drums. The twang of his Gretsch guitar countered Thunders’ blistering, distorted leads and gave the group a melodic bedrock.
With Sylvain’s death, Johansen is the only surviving member of that classic lineup.
“As most of you know, Sylvain battled cancer for the past two and 1/2 years,” his wife, Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi, wrote. “Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease. While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain. Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”
Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist and a veteran music writer, wrote in a tribute accompanying the announcement of Sylvain’s death: “His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision. Though he tried valiantly to keep the band going, in the end the Dolls’ moral fable overwhelmed them, not before seeding an influence that would engender many rock generations yet to come.”
Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt on Valentine’s Day, 1951, he also lived in France before moving to New York with his family. He became friends with original Dolls drummer Billy Murcia in junior high school and played in bands with him as a teenager. The pair worked for a time in a clothing store across the street from a doll-repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital, which led to their future group’s name; Sylvain also designed clothes under the name Truth and Soul. The two split up for a time before reuniting in the group Actress with Thunders (real name: John Genzale) and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. With the addition of Johansen, that group morphed into the New York Dolls.
Intentionally provocative and taking their wardrobe from cheap women’s clothing stores on New York’s Lower East Side — with expertise from Sylvain and Murcia’s background in fashion — the Dolls made a splash from their 1971 formation on. “The reason why the Dolls got together was because of the boredom with the norm of the day, which was like the stadium-rock era,” Sylvain told Brooklyn Vegan in 2006. “The 20-minute drum solos, songs that were a big operetta. They were sort of boring, they lost their sex appeal.”
Invited to open for Rod Stewart at a British concert in 1972, the group suffered its first major setback when Murcia died in a drug-related accident during the trip. Shattered but determined, the group enlisted ace drummer Jerry Nolan — both future Ramones drummer Marc Bell and future Kiss drummer Peter Criss had also auditioned — and were signed to Mercury Records by A&R executive and veteran music writer Paul Nelson.
The cover of the group’s self-titled album featured them in full drag, but the music inside was full-tilt rock and roll, showing an equal influence of hard-riffing predecessors like the MC5 and the early ‘60s Phil Spector/ girl-group pop that the members grew up on — along with no shortage of New York attitude and accents. With songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Trash” and “Looking for a Kiss” and razor-sharp production by Todd Rundgren — with whom the group battled, although they later acknowledged he did a great job — the album sounds fresh to this day, although the polarized opinions it produced at the time are evidenced by the fact that the group was famously voted both the Best New Group and the Worst New Group in a Creem magazine readers’ poll.
Not surprisingly, the American hinterland was not ready for this kind of group, and they teetered through the bookings they were able to obtain to support the album. Their sophomore effort, 1974’s farsightedly titled “Too Much Too Soon,” was produced by girl-group veteran Shadow Morton and lacked the punch and focus of the debut, although it did include several classic songs like “Babylon,” “Human Being” and their blazing take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’.”
Dispirited and arguing, the group joined forced with future Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, who — in a foreshadowing of the outrage he would stoke a couple of years later — dressed them in red leather and gave them a communist theme. (Songs from this era are documented in the live “Red Patent Leather” album.) Dropped by their record label, the band soldiered on through an unsuccessful tour before Thunders and Nolan, both heavy heroin abusers, left to form the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty’s band). That group became part of the by-then burgeoning scene around New York’s CBGB — a scene that owed much of its existence to the Dolls — before moving to London and being treated as heroes, before substance abuse dragged them down. (Thunders died after years of heroin addiction in 1991; Nolan passed away the following year.)
Johansen and Sylvain carried on for another year with a shifting cast of bandmembers before calling it a day in 1976. “I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I had failed with the New York Dolls,” McLaren said in the classic punk history, “Please Kill Me.”
Yet their influence had already taken root, and not only in punk rock. It could certainly be argued that Aerosmith was a more mainstream version of the Dolls, and that Kiss probably would not have had the same image without them. And in the late 1970s, a British teenager named Steven Morrissey — later lead singer of the Smiths, who sounded nothing like the Dolls but copped some of their attitude — formed a New York Dolls fan club.
Following the band’s breakup, Sylvain formed a band called the Criminals, released a pair of solo albums — his self-titled, ‘50s-flavored debut and a more power-pop follow-up with a group called the Teardrops — as well as 1998’s “Sleep Baby Doll.” He also worked for a time as a New York cab driver, and relaunched Truth and Soul as a fashion brand a few years ago.
Sylvain and Johansen reunited the Dolls with Kane in 2004, although Kane died unexpectedly not long after the reunion. The group carried on and released three albums, “One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This,” “Cause I Sez So” and “Dancing Backward in High Heels” before folding again. Sylvain carried on performing with a band called the Batusis and played at South by Southwest in 2016.
“Somebody was asking me the other day, ‘If David and yourself died, would you want the new guys to keep it going?,’” Sylvain said of the band’s new lineup in 2006. “And I said yes. ‘Cause the New York Dolls is no longer just my band or something I created. It’s now the people’s band, if you will. It’s their baby. After we lost Arthur, I was e-mailing friends and got one back from Morrissey. He said, Yes, you should go on and keep it going, because not only would Arthur would want you to tell the world about the New York Dolls, but you need to tell the world about the New York Dolls.’ That’s the way I see it now, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”