To Syl With Love: A New York Doll Remembered

Columns My Back Pages Reviews

The New York Dolls are finally on the ballot of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Better late than never but with the passing over the years of drummer Jerry Nolan, guitarist Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane and most recently guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, only singer David Johansen is still alive to see the recognition that took almost forty years.

Sylvain, the youthful melodist and thrash guitarist who put the boyish glam in the Dolls seedy and scintillating rock, passed away in January after a long bout with cancer. He helped to make it possible for Kiss, instigated the punk movement and paved the way for new wave. It was Sylvain who made kids like the Clash’s Mick Jones wild-eyed when they experienced the visual impact of the New York Dolls. “They were like superheroes to me,” said Blondie drummer Clem Burke.  Later as a middle-aged elder statesman, Sylvain and Johansen got the call from Morrissey to re-unite and open for him like they were royalty at the Royal Albert Hall.

Sylvain, the emigre from Egypt who in the words of photographer Bob Gruen was “so nice they had to name him twice,” would have been 70 this Valentine’s Day. Instead friends gathered for a virtual video tribute on Rolling Live that celebrated his life and larger than life personality.

It was Sylvain who got inspiration for the band’s name living across the street from a toy repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital. The band emanated on the island’s lower East Side whereas Johansen once told me if you stood for a few minutes on St. Marks Place, you’d see every form of life walking by you. Lenny Kaye, the longtime musical director for Patti Smith and rock critic, credits Sylvain and the start of the Dolls as “the band that made you want to form a band.”

Debbie Harry, who would front Blondie a short time after, remembers coming upon the fledgling band before a performance at the Mercer Center. She saw the Dolls digging through what she thought was a pile of garbage pulling out boas and tutus that they then wore “Now that was trash,” she said to coin an art imitates life phrase that made for one of the Dolls’ most famous songs.

The Dolls covered the gamut of blues, soul and pop classics from Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking” to Archie Bell’s “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown” and the Cadets’ “Stranded In the Jungle.”  In a hilarious take-off of the Dolls cover of  Bo Diddley’s “Pills,” Tish and Snookie launched into a video romp (backed by Blue Oyster Cult’s Al and Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway of Alice Cooper) that exaggerated and was imbued with all of the Dolls’ campiness.

For Jayne County, the transgender rock singer who once went by the name of the Detroit suburb Wayne County, Sylvain lit up the room. In her trademark bright red lips, she recounted how he giggled like a schoolgirl whenever he heard the song “If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me Baby, Fuck Off.” In grainy archival footage, County growled while Sylvain riffed away.

For many of his years, the guitarist played a comic foil to Johansen in his post-Dolls solo band. When I first saw them onstage at the famed Bottom Line club in New York’s Greenwich Village, Johansen came out howling to “Cool Metro,” one of his many co-writes with Sylvain. Much of the night was spent with Johansen leaning to his left and engaging in comic banter with Sylvain between songs. The soft spoken Sylvain played the band’s role of court jester, a little loony and a whole lot of fun. That would continue years later when the Dolls reunited and gave us an even longer second run following their coronation by Morrissey.

“On the road with David and Syl, it was like Abbott and Costello,” remembered Sammi Yaffa who spent a decade in a revamped 21st century version of the band led by Johansen and Sylvain. That version  and with a long list of characters including Steve Conte, Frank Infante and Brian Delaney. Guitarist Conte was an alumni of the Dolls academy who shared how the Ronettes’ “Walking In The Rain” inspired the Dolls to write “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks,” playing the tracks back to back.

The night was a tribute to many of the effervescent catchy pop melodies penned by Johansen and Sylvain. Johansen’s step daughter Leah Hennessey and Ruby McAllister led “Talk To Me Baby,” one of the night’s highlights, rooted in Johansen and Sylvain’s New York Brill Building influences. Diane Gentile, one of the show’s directors, led “I’m So Sorry,” another stand-out along with the Lemon Twigs’ take of “I Can’t Forget Tomorrow.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Harris’ scorching version of “Chatterbox” and Chuck Prophet’s other worldly retro rockabilly take on Johansen and Sylvain’s “Teenage News.” 

Like any memorial, there were stories to be told. Nashville singer Bebe Buell recounted seeing the Dolls at Max’s Kansas City, the Mercer Performing arts Center and the Waldorf Astoria as culturally defining moments. The then girlfriend of New York Dolls producer Todd Rundgren, Buell sang Sylvain’s favorite song, the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” after a story recounting how she and Sylvain were the last in line when Johnny Thunders’ casket was put in the ground. She recalled how she and Syl threw a guitar shaped flower arrangement on Johnny Thunders’ casket as it was being lowered into the ground.

As Aaron Lee Tasjan played the piano melody of “Frenchette,” one of Johansen and Sylvain’s greatest songs, the slide guitar wails of Drivin N Cryin’s Laur Joamets permeated the narrative of longing and despondency sung by Kevin Kenny.  It instantly took me back to the sweaty summer night when Johnsen and Sylvain held court in the Bottom Line in New York’s Greenwich Village. I could hear in my mind the full band and Johansen’s extended spoken interlude where he celebrated the great year of 1978. “I got some Blondie, I got some Television, I got some Patti Smith records. I got some Bruce Springsteen,” he exuded like we were in the golden age that it was, increasingly building the song into a dramatic crescendo (“Let’s just dance!” he declared over and over) and one of the greatest live performances I ever saw.

On this Valentine’s night, there were no crowds to rouse, just the strange pandemic feeling of remoteness in the socially distanced webcast. The solitude of the night was best summed up by Michael Des Barres who strummed an acoustic guitar to His own “You’re My Pain Killer” and whose raspy, weathered voice struck an emotionally fitting tone to mark all the years that had passed. Des Barres saved a wide grin at the end to send out to his departed friend.

By the time the program had to end, it was David Johansen’s moment to remember his longtime collaborator. He stood alone and reminisced, knowing Syl longer than anyone save for his family. “Man did we have a lot of laughs.” On the video screen guitarist and onetime Doll Earl Slick appeared along with his son drummer Lee Madeloni. They seemed like they were in another dimension, almost floating in Sylvain’s next astro-incarnation (to quote Kaye). Johansen summoned all of his emotions and drew a deep breath to mask his sadness. A montage of images curated by Johansen’s wife Mara Hennessey passed by. Then came his unmistakable deep baritone untarnished by time as he launched into “Plenty of Music.” This was a performance for the ages and Johansen made it count.

“Watched my tail lights fading,” Keith Richards once sang. “There ain’t a dry eye in the house.” 

That’s what it felt like on Valentine’s Day in the year 2021 and that feeling lingered all week.


Leave a Reply!