Glam-Rock Royalty on Race Street
As a co-founder of glam-rock pioneers the New York Dolls in the 1970s, Sylvain Sylvain helped make too-small girls’ clothing an acceptable part of male rockers’ wardrobes. The corkscrew-coiffed moppet played the natural foil to fellow guitarist Johnny Thunders’ haystack-haired bad boy, and their music –– equal parts early Rolling Stones R&B raunch and Shangri-Las diamond-in-the-dirt pop shimmer –– brought fun, danger, and a street-savvy sense of style back to rock, paving the way for punk. While Johnny might be more notorious, Syl was the glue that held ’em together.
From 2004 to 2011, Sylvain and frontman David Johansen, a.k.a. Buster Poindexter –– the only Dolls left standing after the deaths of Thunders, drummer Jerry Nolan, and bassist Arthur Kane –– took a nice three-album victory lap. In the last few years, Sylvain has also co-led The Batusis with punk survivor Cheetah Chrome; released the internet-only single “Leaving New York”; and toured with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock. While Sylvain is not related to designer Isaac Mizrahi (rumors to the contrary), he also keeps a finger in the rag trade –– a vocation that precedes his involvement in music –– under the rubric Truth and Soul Caps.
Fort Worth Weekly: Why Fort Worth, and why Born Late?
Syl Sylvain: It’s a nice place to perform, and I love to perform! It’s also to promote the show I’m playing later that evening in Dallas [at Three Links]. I’m playing with a band from Austin. They call themselves The Sylvains, so how could I not play with them?
FWW: What can fans look forward to hearing at the show?
SS: I’ll be playing a full array from my 300 years of rock ’n’ roll history. A lot of songs from the Dolls –– “Pills,” “Personality Crisis,” “Jet Boy,” “Trash.” “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” –– that was the Shangri-Las, but Johnny Thunders made a whole career out of it!
FWW: Do you have any new music coming?
SS: Yes, I’m about one-third of the way finished with a new album, in search of a record company. A video for one song is up on YouTube, “Leaving New York.” It’s got a Dolls feel to it, with Cheetah Chrome playing guitar.
FWW: What was it like playing with slightly younger kindred spirits like Cheetah and Glen?
SS: It always feels good. I’ve had amazing luck with musicians, not so much with making money.
FWW: Are you still in touch with David, and can we anticipate any future Dolls action?
SS: Sure, it’s still going on, maybe next year. As much as I love those three [reunion] albums, the audience never really accepted them, and I don’t think they could stand comparison to the first two Dolls albums. It would have been more honest to call them David Johansen albums, but that’s not how we got signed.
FWW: History has definitely been kind to the Dolls. What do you think is your band’s most enduring legacy?
SS: It was a combination of things: The things we thought about, the way we looked, the things we put on, the things we didn’t put on were all part of it. At the time when I was growing up, you had bands like The Who with three-chord progressions. But by the ’70s, they were doing operas, which turned me off. I like real opera, but when I’m at CBGB’s, I want to let my hair down –– not that I have hair anymore –– and take my pants off! We had a Little Rascals mentality: five guys playing in Mom’s basement. When we started, there were no clubs, so we had to find places to play. It took us three years to get signed. And when it stopped being fun, we quit.
Sylvain Sylvain: New York Doll goes solo
Acoustic set with Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock moves to Small’s.
Sylvain Sylvain might be best known for playing guitar with the New York Dolls, but he was last around these parts three years ago when he played Small’s with Batusis (alongside the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome).Now he returns to play an acoustic set with another punk veteran — the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock. It was a good opportunity for us to catch up with Sylvain.
What’s going on with the Dolls, and also Batusis?
Yeah, everything is actually still going on. I’m just doing this now. I did it last year with Glen, and the kids kind of gave us the name — they dubbed it the Sex Doll tour. It’s more solo than the other things I do. I get to celebrate the tunes that I love from the New York Dolls. I tell them some cool stories, and it’s really like a sing-along. I want everybody to know that these are solo shows. They’re two separate shows. But we do get to jam together at the very end on a T-Rex song and stuff.
When did you meet Glen?
Don’t forget that Sylvain was supposed to be in the Sex Pistols. I remember Malcolm McLaren called me up and he had all the guys on the phone, and he was asking me to come over there. I remember very clearly talking with Glen. Actually, he was the only one I talked with who was a little more coherent.
What are you playing on this tour?
I’m gonna play my favorite tunes from the New York Dolls, like “Trash” and “Frankenstein,” which is hardly ever performed. I do Johnny Thunders’ “Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” and I sort of celebrate my whole career. I even throw a Velvet Underground song in there, which I’ve been doing for decades. My solo show is basically what became the New York Dolls show when we re-formed. When we do a segue from “Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” into “Lonely Planet Boy,” that was what I came up with performing live since the ’80s. I love the New York Dolls, so I was always celebrating that. Others may have started to celebrate that once they rejoined and the reunion came about, but I was always doing it.
Do you have any special memories of playing Detroit?
Batusis was the last time I played in Detroit. I’ve played Detroit for the longest time. When the New York Dolls first came about in 1973, Detroit would not play us on the radio, but Windsor, Canada, would. We had to travel and go on the radio over there.
What’s next, after this tour?
I’m back in the studio to finish my album, The Monkey Never Dies. The “Leaving New York” song is one of the singles off that album. I’m putting together my memoirs into a book about my whole life. I’m staying as creative as possible. I pick up an instrument every day and twiddle my thumbs around it.
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