Share This



“Sometimes all you gotta do is let time answer all the questions.”

By: Sarah L. Myers

Before the New York Dolls started playing, Dee Dee Ramone would ride the train from Queens to Manhattan, all dressed up and nowhere to go. With a residency at the Mercer Arts Center putting them in the center of New York’s exploding downtown scene, the New York Dolls ushered in a completely new form of rock n’ roll. In would be over in a few short years, and the bands they inspired got the credit for creating what is now called punk rock. As original guitarist Sylvain Sylvain says, “There wouldn’t be a Ramones if there wasn’t a New York Dolls!”

The New York Dolls released their debut album in the summer of 1973, changing the musical landscape with their brash fusion of blues, girl-group soul, and heavy Stooges guitars. But the Dolls’ flame burned out just as quickly as the scene they helped create. The band broke up in 1975 after releasing their second album, appropriately titled “Too Much Too Soon”.

Known as one of the most cursed bands in rock n’ roll, they suffered their first tragedy in 1972 when original drummer Billy Murcia died of an accidental overdose during their first trip to London. Guitarist Johnny Thunders succumbed to his crippling heroin addiction in 1991, followed shortly by drummer Jerry Nolan, who suffered a fatal stroke while being treated for bacterial meningitis.

It would be nearly 30 years before the remaining Dolls - singer David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and bassist Arthur Kane - would share the same stage. Lifetime Dolls fan Morrissey approached the band to reunite for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London. What was supposed to be a one-time gig turned into a full fledged reunion. In yet another cruel twist of fate, Arthur Kane died of leukemia just weeks after the reunion he’d waited for since 1975.

Though Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Billy Murcia and Arthur Kane have all passed on, the heart of the New York Dolls is still beating. Their 2006 release, “One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This” is adored by fans and critics alike, and bassist Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks), drummer Brian Delaney and guitarist Steve Conte seamlessly complete the lineup. I caught up with Sylvain Sylvain just a few days after his birthday, which appropriately falls on Valentine’s Day. How fitting for the original Lipstick Killer.


Thirsty: Congratulations on the success of this newest album, One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This. It’s doing really well and it seems like you guys are having a great time with it.

Sylvain Sylvain: With the “One Day it Will Please Us” album? Yes, yes. We actually have a brand new, a live album, that’s gonna be released in about a month or so. The Fillmore album, which we’re actually selling right now on the road, cause we know we have some. But it’s a really nice piece of music if I can say. Actually recorded in the same place you saw the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash. Irving Plaza, now they changed the name to the Fillmore, because I think they joined up with them or something. But, yeah, we just started the tour about a week ago. We’re gonna be touring all through the US and a few places in Canada for four weeks actually. And this is really, you know cause we always played, and we played here and we would do tours for a week on the West Coast and the Midwest for ten days or whatever, and we’ve been with other tours like Little Steven’s Underground Garage Tour, which we did in 2006. But we really, really, really never really toured like a whole tour of the US. So it’s great. It’s been going really good. And the enthusiasm is dynamite, what can I tell ya…(In Chicago) we’re playing at the Double Door, which is nice. Me, I played a lot in Chicago at this place called the Beat Kitchen, you know, in my solo shows over the years and they tell me it’s kind of that same kind of set up. I don’t know, I haven’t been there. It’s nice because sometimes those bigger kind of joints, I don’t know, they just ring ‘em in, like you have your ten minutes and then the next night they have somebody else. I don’t know, it just doesn’t make for magic, you know, I like when a show turns into something not just a performance and an ordinary evening or whatever, you know?

I wanted to ask you a little about the reunion, and that first rehearsal with David. In the film “New York Doll,” you look so comfortable in rehearsal and it seemed pretty effortless. Is that kind of how it went?

You know, it is and it isn’t. You know, you have to do the best with what you got, you know, as always, in every situation.

Between me and Arthur, since I did live in LA for a few years in the 1990s, we always wanted and had in our hearts for the New York Dolls to get back together. So me and Arthur, we went have done this like twenty years ago. I mean, in a way I always thought, even when the Dolls broke up in 1975 that I never really left the band. The band just left me. I mean, that was my own personal thing. You know, especially because I came up with the name New York Dolls.

At first it started like, it was an easy pill...I mean, through the years we’ve been offered lots of reunions, you know. But this one was special for David and Morrissey kind of convinced him, and David was like always reluctant to do this again until the moment he got up onstage at Meltdown. Then when he heard those songs and the cheer of the cord and everything, then everything changed. But it was a little awkward if I could use that word, simple word. And then, you know, little by little it all came together again and it was just, you know. We had some rough times cause David has his own idea of professionalism in rock n’ roll, which I don’t really agree to. We don’t see eye to eye on that. I like it sloppy and sometimes if you start the song wrong you could do like the Jimmy Durante, like, “stop the music!” And it’s all part of the show, you know, that should be it. That’s the groovy stuff about the New York Dolls so he had this piano player that he was playing with for years and years and years. His name’s Brian Koonan. Who is fantastic, incredible, incredible musician. But he was so far away from the New York Dolls, I mean he came in with the books and he had it all written down in charts and stuff like that. Me and Arthur like looked at this guy and this was the first day and David didn’t even show up that day. So here’s this guy Brian Koonan telling me how I should play the song that I wrote? So to say the least that was very fucking awkward. But little by little, he’s gone now and it’s his own choice, because he always felt so out of it I feel. He never felt like he could fit in. And poor David thought he couldn’t make music without this guy. So we had to do stuff with him for whatever. And David dressed him like Charlie Chaplin, which actually I was once at a Halloween - the great grand ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria, the New York Dolls in 1973 I think it was. The place was like, I mean the cops came and everything. I mean, the Waldorf-Astoria, this was never heard, you know. And kids were breaking glasses and whatever. I forget what we called it but it was at the Waldorf-Astoria. And then we had a contest for the best costume and like Rex Reed is part of the judges, and Liza Manelli was there. Oh, it was an incredible, incredible evening. But anyways, to make a long story short, I’m getting off the highway here - I was Charlie Chaplin for that. And I don’t know why, but David picked on poor Brian Koonin! And he would come straight from the cleaners with the clothes on the back of his shoulder, you know. An then he’d come to the show with his khaki shorts. I mean, the guy’s great! And he is what he is and that’s what makes him comfortable. But as the band would be running around they thought he was like our road manager or whatever he was. But in other words, it wasn’t quite as smooth as it looked, is what I’m trying to say.

Sometimes all you gotta do is let time, you know, answer all the questions. Sometimes you want questions to be answered right here, right now and not later, but time has its own way of telling you what’s right and what’s wrong.

In that case, the reunion happened at the right time for you guys. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked if it happened earlier.

You know what, it’s just the way...You just gotta roll with those punches, you know, and let life take its course. You can’t predict anything. You just hope for the best and you work with what you’ve got.

I have that DVD of the Meltdown Festival in London and it seemed like after the show you all were so happy with the reunion and the performance. You’re all backstage teasing each other and the camaraderie is there.

Well, yes, and it really is true, and that’s the way it was in the beginning. Because we really do like each other’s company. And we’re quite smart in our own ways, you know, intellectually. And the sense of humor is sassy and sometimes kind of like Mae West sort of sense of humor, a little sexy and stuff, you know.

And yeah, we are family. We’ve always been, and just like brothers sometimes or sisters or whatever family members, they fight and they feud and don’t speak to each other for who knows how long, but pull through. They’re still a family in a way that never leaves ya.

I love your chemistry with David onstage. Did you guys ever lose that?

That really just derives from performance and performance and performance. I swear to God we never really write anything down, I mean, we never sat at the round table and had the conversation, ‘ok, you do this, I do that, whatever.’ If I could say to this to anybody, if I could even give advice, but the only thing that I can really say is don’t practice too much! And learn your craft. It’s called the performing arts for damn fucking good reason. There’s no schools. You just have to learn it from just right there in front of the kids, you know. It’s something that it’ gets better and better. And you get more and more comfortable with it and that’s the whole deal. It’s not to take to it too seriously. Never take it that seriously cause basically, you know, the audience is ferocious. It’s like a gladiator circus where they want blood! You could be very stupid and give it to them. But the best thing is to perform and perform and perform again. And again and again. My philosophy (about music and show business) comes from a famous Warner Brothers cartoon of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Where they’re like vaudeville performers and Bugs Bunny he gets up onstage and basically does nothing. He scratches the back of his head, and the kids go nuts for him! They scream and everything. And Daffy Duck comes out and sings a whole opera, Maria Calla, all over it, from A to Z. And they start yawning and they’re going off to the bathroom and no one seems to be paying and attention. And now Bugs Bunny comes back on and scratches his toosh, and again he gets a standing ovation. It’s like, ‘Wow! Man, did you see that? How he scratched his toosh? It was beautiful!’ So ok now Daffy Duck says, ‘ok, this is it. I’m gonna give them a show they’ll never forget.’ And he gets up there and brings like gallons of gasoline and he drinks, pours them down his mouth. Then he takes a whole case of dynamite, swallows that. Then TNT, every explosive known to man! He lights a match, and the audience goes, ‘ooh!’ Then he takes that lit match and he swallows it. Then kaboom! He blows up and this beautiful fireball and it’s gorgeous and finally the audience goes nuts, they give him a standing ovation. He finally gets it. The next scene is now he’s up in the clouds with the angels and stuff like that. He hears the roar of the audience down below, and he says, ‘yeah, it’s a great act but you can only do it once!’ And that’s true about show business. That’s the whole deal. It’s like, you know, you gotta do it over and over again to perform. It’s not ujust the one deal. If you advertise that you’re gonna kill yourself tonight I’m sure you’ll have a sold out show. But as great as that show is, you could only do it once so what good is it, really? That’s what I say about, people take matters too damn serious. It’s supposed to be fun and everything.

I mean, the Dolls came together in the very, very beginning because what was going on the music business was nothing! It was the era of stadium rock. It was the era of when the songs were epics and they were operas. They had nothing to do with like three chord progressions and the blues and they had lost their sex appeal. It was downright boring, so hence the birth of the New York Dolls! And the one great thing about it, we were the only band, we were the first band and the only band to really try something different that wasn’t corporate rock n’ roll. Well, it wasn’t rock n’ roll. It was corporate rock which is a very big fucking difference!

That leads into my next question! There are a few bands that are credited in helping to create punk rock. What really set the Dolls aside from the rest of that group? What made the New York Dolls so special?

First of all there was no such thing as punk rock. We were the only ones, like I said. It was us who broke that myth that was in front of everybody that was you had to be as big as Led Zepplin and the Beatles to ever even dream about getting a record contract. I mean, the record contracts and the record companies, the music houses, they wanted to have nothing to do with what they didn’t control totally. Then after us there was… we even had to find places to play! There was no places to play! Don’t forget CBGB came in 1975 or whatever it was. We broke up in 1975.

You know, we were around from 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973. 1972 was when Billy Murcia died, the poor sweetheart, and then 1973 was when we finally got a record contract. And then after us we broke that wall down and then there was the Talking Heads and Blondie and The Ramones and Patti Smith, and on and on and on! Television and countless bands in New York City, you know. And then, across the pond in England, we were actually on television! So now you have the Morrisseys sitting down between their parents like watching us! On the BBC. And that was great! Because it was unlike what they were used to, like the Foghats and whatever the hell they were listening to. And the Joe Strummers were, you know, checking us out. And then we gave their birth, whatever happened over there. Now I hate the term punk. I hate any term. I hate No Wave, I hate New Wave! I hate all of those terms. Because really what it comes down to is it’s really rock n’ roll! But the names are given from the industry in a way. The name punk came out of PUNK Magazine. John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil and all those guys. So the industry just took that. ‘Ok, let’s call it PUNK!’ But it’s just really another term for them to sell it to you. Now they can put it in windows and they can put it in stores. And the New York Dolls were so much more than just music. They’re known for their music and stuff like that but it was much more than just music! It was a way to…you could experience your life through us. Maybe you wouldn’t have to go through the crap we did. Cause we did get our ass kicked. I mean, not literally. But we did, through the industry. They told us, forget it! You suck! You can write! You can’t sing! You can’t tune! You shouldn’t even be on stage! And we just said oh yeah? What about all of these people who love us? Every time we performed it got bigger and bigger and bigger. We found places to play. First it was the Diplomat Hotel ballroom, then we found this place downtown called the Mercer Arts Center and started performing there and got a residency and became like every Tuesday night at the Oscar Wilde Room, became like wow! What a fucking happening to be in, you know, and to be part of. And it was everybody! It was like the artists, the drag queens, the rock n’ rollers, in some cases it was even the Hell’s Angels! And they’re all together. People don’t think like that now but that’s what the New York Dolls attracted and got this whole thing going. There’s one thing I was always really proud of that I read not too long ago, where Bono from U2, he cites as one of his influences The Ramones. Well, there wouldn’t be a Ramones if there wasn’t a New York Dolls!

So you see it lingers through other things. And what is an artist supposed to do? What’s the true artists’ job? To inspire! To turn on, you know? In that case, we were number one and we still are number one.

In between the time the Dolls broke up in 1975 and this reunion, you had continued to record and write songs with David, right?

Well, I was always writing. I had a record contract when I was 16 that my father had to sign! Do you remember the Left Bank? They had the song, “Don’t Walk Away, Renee?” Anyway, they were called the Left Bank and we used to go to school together at this school in New York called Quintano’s. And the guy’s father heard that I had a band, me and Billy Murcia, we were called The Pox. Sometimes we would advertise, ‘Go catch the Pox!’ So, yeah, Harry Lakowski was Mike Brown from the Left Bank’s father and he signed us to my first record contract. And then of course me and Billy we staretd our own clothing, we had our own shop in Woodstock, the township of Woodstock. This was in 1968.

You’re credited with giving the Dolls their fashion sense, right?

Well, yeah, in a way! I mean, not credited but we all had style, let me tell ya.

Johnny Thunders had more style than, whew, in the whole entire city of New York City, how’s that? But everybody brought something. That’s the beautiful thing about the Dolls. In fact, one of the reasons we did break up in 1975 that we didn’t get back together again for all this time was because we were all very successful in our own solo careers. Everybody was making records. The only guy that wasn’t that fortunate is really Arthur Kane, the poor guy. And Jerry, too, but Jerry went with Johnny and became the Heartbreakers and that was great. They did it, they did all those tours in the UK and whatever, you know. It’s not because we lost our popularity is why we got back together! But that was one of the reasons, I swear. We were five individuals and all had numerous talents and not allies just in music. But that’s the great thing about the Dolls, again, is to bring everything together in a way, that’s what formed the Dolls. That’s what I was trying to say about that Koonin guy. He didn’t fit in. He wasn’t it. There was nothing that he had New York Dolls about him. So maybe you should be onstage and play or whatever, but please. This guys not a New York Doll, is he? We always had that raw, rock n’ roll edge. We’re a blues based band, really. When you strip down the New York Dolls and their lipstick and all that and their, as I like to say in French, rouge à lèvre, which means lipstick, and their high heels or whatever, borrowed from their girlfriends. You got the blues under there! We’re a blues based band! At least I hope I know something about music! It’s the blues!

Brian Delaney and Sami Yaffa are still playing with you guys?

Yeah! Sami and I actually brought in the band. After we lost Arthur, David went ahead, I was in Atlanta where I live, in Georgia, and David tried out seven different bass players. And I told him about Sami and how he was such a New York Doll. And I had met Sami about ten years prior of whatever. New York musicians, we kind of crossed each other or whatever in clubs, and when that happened with Arthur, poor Arthur, I told David and tried out all these guys. He called me one day in Atlanta, he said, ‘hey, you know, there’s this Dutch guy and he’s really good, Sylvain! He’s really, really good. You won’t have to show him the song.” And I kind if think, you know what, you shouldn’t be all that great. Cause if you are that great, maybe you should be on Broadway or something. Music, the great thing about music is that the audience should grow with you, with that music. Like the great thing with the Rolling Stones, and with me, and with Johnny Thunders is we grew up with that music. I mean, the first albums were great but they got better and better. You can kind of grow up with them in a way. I hope it’s the same way with the Dolls.

I do hear that about the Dolls and I always read about this last record that a lot of fans like it more than even the first album!

It is a great piece. We didn’t work on it all that much, too. It’s sort of something that just came and what worked worked and what wasn’t working we just sort of stood there. I’m very proud of it. I am very proud if it. I hope we make another one to be honest. I hope it doesn’t take 30 years though!




Become a Thirsty Friend:

Share This

Search Thirsty for:

© Stay Thirsty Media, Inc. 2006 - 2008
All Rights Reserved

Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Terms of Sale | Contact | Site Map