Sylvain Sylvain, founding guitarist of reunited proto-punk legends New York Dolls, isn't the sort to play We told you so! with his band's vindicated legacy. In fact, he's far from bitter when assessing the brutal welcome mainstream rock gave the Dolls in 1971 and the almost universal acclaim that eventually followed. But he's not pulling any punches about it, either.
“We broke down that wall that was in front of everybody and we got our asses kicked for it, man,” Sylvain tells CityBeat from his Denver hotel room during a recent tour stop. “We never made money from it. We made fame, but no cash.”
Sylvain—who, along with frontman David Johansen, is one of only two surviving members of the original lineup—is happy to give a detailed, enthusiastic recap for those unfamiliar with just how important and influential the brief but storied first-life of the Dolls turned out to be.
“The most underrated thing about the New York Dolls is the biggest thing we ever did,” Sylvain says. “And that was: We were the only band out there.
“When we first got together, in 1971, there was Foghat,” he intones, with a pregnant pause. “There was Deep Purple. Of course, there was still The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but the record companies wouldn't sign anyone else unless they thought you could sell like those bands. It was the age of stadium rock. And the songs had lost their pizzazz, if you get my meaning. They were 20, 30 minutes long. They were epics. They were operas. They had no reason.”
But the Dolls' raison d'être was an underground, back-to-basics rock movement that would find its stride just as the hard-living Dolls were burning out. It would be years before the cross-dressing, high-heeled Johansen would be paid homage by a myriad of Sunset Strip hair metal bands, but in 1975, the Dolls' simple rhythms and edgy lyrics would codify into bands like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Sylvain has heard it a million times, but he ain't gonna argue with it now: The New York Dolls, arguably more than any other band, gave birth to the musical style that came to be known as “punk.” Never mind that the original run of the Dolls lasted barely four years and yielded only two full-length studio records.
“When we came out,” Sylvain recalls, “they all told us, ‘Man, you can't sing, you can't tune, you can't write. You can't do anything. Don't even worry about it.' But we didn't listen to 'em.”
The Dolls and their audience eventually found each other, but finding venues to play was more difficult. “There was nowhere to play,” Sylvain says, recalling that the band would rent hotel ballrooms in order to host “galas” that drew all sorts.
“We found out we weren't the only ones who were bored out of our fucking skulls,” Sylvain says. “There were the artists, the poets, the drag queens, all the leftovers who didn't fit in or missed out and were going to form the next generation that was going to be…. We became their darlings.”
These days, of course, the Dolls are everyone's darlings—in no small part thanks to a rejuvenated lineup (including bassist Sami Yaffa, formerly of Hanoi Rocks, guitarist Steve Conte and drummer Brian Delaney), sensational live shows and a triumphant, new full-length studio album, 2006's One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This.
Mixing together Yardbirds blooze, cow-punk charm and a penchant for narcissistic balladry, the new tunes are an amazing balance of tradition and innovation. And the overall lyrical darkness of the record is fitting for those who remember the Dolls as the launching pad for the short and drug-addled brilliance of their original guitarist, the late Johnny Thunders.
Despite lying dormant for nearly 20 years, Sylvain claims a relevant New York Dolls resurrection was always only a plugged-in and overdriven amplifier away. The band received many offers over the years, but it didn't happen until Morrissey convinced the Dolls to reunite for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London.
“Thank God, what a beautiful thing Morrissey talking [Johansen] into playing turned out to be,” Sylvain says. “Any time before that, I'm sure [late Dolls bassist] Arthur Kane and I would have done it at the drop of a hat. And if David still had anything against it up until then, he forgot all about it two seconds after getting up on that stage and hearing that crowd roar.”
So, how does Sylvain plan to keep such a legendary, unlikely resurrection resonant and relevant into a new millennium?
“The blues is everything, as far as I'm concerned, for finding your way,” he says. “The blues will teach you to jam, and if you learn how to jam, it's never boring. You can take people to the danger zone and know—or find out—how to take 'em back home safe.” New York Dolls perform at 8 p.m. Monday, March 10, with Grand Ole Party and We Are the Fury at Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140.