It is just before noon on a cold New York morning and Sylvain Sylvain is talking about his early days as the founding guitarist of the New York Dolls. It has been years since he has lived in New York, but he’s still got the Queens deadpan of a Bowery Boy. “It was so magical,” he sighs. “We were just kids.”
A lot of people have been talking about the magic of the Dolls lately. The band is in the middle of one of the most hoped-for and least expected comebacks in rock and roll. Tough, cross-dressing New York City street kids, the Dolls exploded out of the decadent downtown art scene of the early 1970s with a ferocious two-guitar attack that drew from 60s girl groups, Chicago blues, and the grinding assault of Detroit’s Stooges and MC5. There had never been a band like the Dolls before: They looked like transvestite hookers and they sounded like a trashier Rolling Stones. But like all great rock and roll bands, their songs were amazing and you could dance to them. In the post-Altamont wasteland of prog rock keyboard solos, the Dolls’ were the loudest and wildest band around. And then they were gone, crumbling under the weight of drugs, death, and in the band’s own words, too much too soon.
Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?
Formed in the basement of original drummer Billy Murcia’s house in Queens, the Dolls started when Sylvain and Murcia convinced a young John Anthony Genzale—soon to become Johnny Thunders—to join the band. “We wanted Johnny in there because he had all the hot girlfriends in school,” Sylvain laughs. “We thought, ‘hey, if we throw this guy in the band, we might be able to get some hot girlfriends ourselves.'” When a lanky, quiet kid named Arthur Kane was kicked out by his abusive, alcoholic father, he rented a room from Murcia’s mother, and quickly became the bass player. “Me and Arthur showed Johnny how to play.” Through a mutual friend, the band met singer David Johansen. “Our friend said, hey this guy plays harmonica and he’s really cool and you need a singer. So Billy and Arthur went to check out David at his apartment. They said he was cool, so me and Johnny went. And that’s how we first got together.”
Almost immediately, the Dolls whipped up a jaw-dropping look and sound that would soon inspire everyone from the Clash and the Sex Pistols to the Ramones and Television. “We loved T. Rex and the MC5, of course, and we were listening to the Iggy Pop records. One of the first things we ever learned in Billy’s basement was ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges. And David introduced us to Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf,” he continues, and then stops himself.
“But you can’t talk about the New York Dolls without talking about the guitars. The guitars, the look, it all goes together. We never sat down and said, ‘you do this and you do that.’ We were all naturals at it. I had a double cutaway Les Paul Junior, like the kind that Johnny made famous, but not TV yellow. Mine was cherry and it is what started us off on that sound. That’s when we discovered the power of an automatic. That’s what I used to call them, automatics. You got one pickup, one tone, one volume. No frills, no nothing. And we married that with power chords, because it was too hard for us to play a whole barre chord and they sounded so much nastier cranked through the amps. And that’s what they consider the beginning of punk.”
The Dolls soon began playing the small clubs of downtown Manhattan. They were mid-week regulars at bars like Kenny’s Castaways and the Warhol haunt Max’s Kansas City when they landed a now-famous Tuesday night residency at the Mercer Arts Center. The Dolls became a lightning rod for the lost, longing misfits who came downtown to reinvent themselves. “We created this walk-it-like-you-talk-it art scene, where you are the art. And there were a lot of downtrodden people, the throwaways of our society. But those people are actually the most intelligent, the most creative, and the most rebellious. They didn’t have their own music. But, boy, when they found us it took off. We became the walking, talking art show.”
The band’s big break came when two reporters from Melody Maker, the trend-setting English music paper, caught a Dolls’ show and were stunned by the energy, the look, the sound, and the scene the band had galvanized. “They gave us a big centerfold in Melody Maker and we were just kids playing downtown, doing Tuesday nights at the Mercer Arts Center,” Sylvain laughs. Without a record contract, the band flew to London and opened for the Faces in front of 13,000 people at Wembley Stadium. A bidding war ensued between record labels, with the band being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign. It was a meteoric rise to the top and the band couldn’t believe their good fortune. But it was not to last. “We went over to England and we were being invited to these lord’s mansions! I met Liberace and Sal Mineo at this lord’s party in London,” Sylvain remembers, with traces of disbelief still in his voice. “That was just two or three nights before Billy died.”
Murcia had been hanging out with some rich English kids, mixing powerful barbiturates and alcohol. When he passed out, the kids put him into a cold bath, poured coffee down his throat, and left him. He drowned. He was 21. “It’s not so much because we were such junkies, like they make out,” Sylvain says. “Like we were such this or such that. It was just a party situation. I know people want to believe what they want to believe. But I’m sorry, it wasn’t because we were all shooting heroin and brushing our teeth with LSD.”
Still, Murcia’s death marked the Dolls with dark, sinister associations. The band returned to New York and pressed on, replacing Murcia with powerhouse drummer Jerry Nolan. With Nolan’s thudding backbeat, the Dolls sounded better than ever. Soon record companies that had been scared off by the Dolls’ look and rumors of drug addiction came calling again. The band signed with Mercury Records, recorded their self-titled first album, and hit the road, inspiring countless audience members to start bands. The songs kept getting better, sharper, more focused and Sylvain and Thunders had honed their sound into a full sonic hurricane. Thunders had developed a vicious, primitive lead style on the TV yellow Les Paul Juniors and Specials he became famous for.
“Since Johnny was the ‘lead’ guitar player,” Sylvain says, “our management gave him an $800 budget to get a new guitar and they only gave me $300. So Johnny went out and bought a Black Beauty Les Paul Custom and I went out and bought that TV yellow Special that Johnny’s playing on the cover of Too Much Too Soon. Specials were a lot cheaper back then, compared to a Custom. Johnny came in to practice and I had that baby blasting, doing ‘Trash’ or ‘Personality Crisis’ and Johnny said, ‘Sylvain! I’ll trade you right now!'” He laughs. “And that’s how I wound up playing the Custom and Johnny started playing Juniors and Specials.”
It is here that the story becomes more familiar. A great band records an incredible debut and releases it to lackluster sales but critical acclaim. A relentless touring schedule starts to take a toll and the band collapses under the weight of their addictions and infighting. “Arthur was a total alcoholic, the poor thing,” Sylvain says. “And David probably was too. We were all dabbling in all kinds of drugs and Johnny and Jerry were strung out on heroin.”
Enter Malcolm McClaren. The ultra-English clothing store manager and all-around schemer was a strange match for the Dolls, but he was close friends with Sylvain and took over as the band’s unofficial manager. With disastrous results. What McClaren failed to do with the Dolls in terms of rock and roll agitation, he later pulled off beyond anybody’s expectations as manager of the Sex Pistols. “One pair of red shoes led to another, and one pair of red pants led to another,” Sylvain says. Soon, McClaren had the band clad in matching red patent leather, playing in front of a giant red Communist flag. “Did you ever see that Beatles cover where they’re covered in blood and you wonder, what the hell were they thinking?” Sylvain asks. “That was ours. We kamikazed our own career.” Too Much Too Soon, a strong second album produced by Shadow Morton, failed to sell. The band ended while on tour, miserable, holed up in a Tampa, Florida trailer park owned by Jerry Nolan’s mother. Unable to score heroin, Thunders and Nolan quit the band to return to New York City to buy drugs.
Thunders and Nolan went home and formed the Heartbreakers, an incredible band that is unfortunately known as much for their drug use as they are for their songs. Thunders became a cult guitar hero, a Keith Richards taken to even more terrible extremes. Posing with syringes as often as his TV yellow double cutaway Les Paul Junior, Thunders struggled through years of painful addiction and died of an overdose alone in New Orleans in 1991. Jerry Nolan, his musical partner in crime for the rest of their lives, died a few months later.
Johansen and Sylvain tried their best to keep the Dolls going off and on until 1979, when they finally disbanded. They continued to occasionally work together and Johansen went on to success as his alter-ego Buster Poindexter. Arthur Kane, struggling with terrible alcoholism, spent 30 years in obscurity in Los Angeles. In 1989 he got sober and converted to Mormonism, though he never gave up his dreams and prayers of reforming the Dolls.
“We were running on such high gear,” Sylvain says. “We were so inventive and ahead of the pack. Everyone else was behind us; everything came after the New York Dolls. We were running so fast, we fell down so hard, and everybody ran past us to their successes with our looks and our sound and everything we created with the New York Dolls.”
Looking for a Kiss
For 30 years, that was the end of the New York Dolls. And perhaps it would have stayed that way, if not for either Arthur Kane’s prayers, Morrissey, or both. After the Dolls broke up, Kane struggled terribly with alcoholism. Desperate, broke, and virtually forgotten, Kane hit rock bottom in Los Angeles, reaching out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The unlikely relationship with the Church gave Kane great solace and comfort. He converted to Mormonism in 1989 and got sober, eventually getting a job with the Church’s Family Library in L.A. But Kane remained transfixed by his early tastes of fame and success with the Dolls and a reunion was foremost in his prayers. It seemed impossible though; the band had received huge offers over the years to reunite, which Johansen had always refused. “David really needed to find the right moment in his life to come to the New York Dolls again,” Sylvain says.
The right moment came when Johansen received a phone call from Morrissey, former singer of the beloved English band the Smiths and at one time the teenage president of England’s New York Dolls fan club. As curator of the 2004 Meltdown festival in London and a lifelong fan of the Dolls, Morrissey personally asked Johansen to reform the Dolls for the show. Miraculously, Johansen said yes. With just weeks to prepare, the surviving members of the Dolls reunited in New York for rehearsals. Captured in New York Doll, a moving documentary about Kane from director Greg Whiteley, the reunion seems to shock everybody involved, except perhaps for Kane himself. Gentle, soft spoken, and self-effacing, Kane is filled with doubt, but wears the calm demeanor of a man whose prayers have been answered.
“In Arthur’s case,” Sylvain says, “it was incredibly magical. It was like witnessing a miracle. If you surround yourself with love, love is the only thing you are going to deliver.”
And deliver the Dolls did. Augmented with Gary Powell of the Libertines filling in for Jerry Nolan and Steve Conte for Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls turned in a history-making performance to a sold-out crowd. After the show, Kane accepted the adulation of fans and then returned to Los Angeles, once again taking the bus to his job at the church library. He told his pastor that what was most important was not that the Dolls had played such an incredible show, but that he had been reunited with his dear, estranged friends David and Sylvain.
“Deep down inside, something happened,” Sylvain says. “I think it cleared up a lot of demons, not only for Arthur, but for myself and David as well. It was amazing.”
The fans and promoters agreed. “The phone began to really ring,” Sylvain continues. “People wanted us here and wanted us there, the offers for the big festivals in England for 80,000 kids.” It seemed Arthur’s dreams had come true. And then, once again, tragedy struck the New York Dolls.
Twenty-two days after performing the Meltdown festival, Arthur complained to his coworkers at the library that he felt sick and needed to go to the emergency room. Rushed to the hospital, Arthur was diagnosed with leukemia. He died two hours later.
As they have always done, the Dolls are soldiering on. They are in many ways one of the toughest rock and roll bands of all time. Currently recording a new album with producer Jack Douglas, the Dolls are looking forward to a future together that nobody, least of all the band themselves, ever expected.
“It is all brand new,” Sylvain says. “It is like, ‘this is here, right here, not later baby,’ like the Ronettes’ song goes. But what I hope they remember about us is how the kids saw us and said, ‘Wow maybe we could do it. Maybe it will only last two weeks, but maybe we could be like the New York Dolls.’ I hope we’re never forgotten for the fact that we were so touchable.”
The New York Dolls performing “Jet Boy” on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1973.