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If I Did It All Again I'd Keep The Heroin: Sylvain Sylvain Interviewed
Michael Hann , August 7th, 2018 07:20

The New York Dolls' guitarist on why history shouldn't be tampered with, the legacy of his old band, and how David Johansen was putting on act rather than living the life

At 67 years old, Sylvain Sylvain seems both aged and youthful. He walks with a stick now, but he still dresses – unmistakably – like someone who has spent his life in rock & roll. He laughs easily, a long wheeze that finally gains voice, as if in amazement at what he's been able to get away with. And for a while, at least, he got away with a lot.

In 1971, Sylvain helped found the New York Dolls, and for three years or so they lived a life and made music that helped lay the groundwork for punk. Then, for a further three years or so, they sputtered out, amid addiction and rows. They never became the kind of stars who sell out arenas and have hit singles, but they became stars of a different kind: avatars of difference, a group who showed that being a rock & roll musician could be about living a life of perfect individuality.

Now Sylvain has a really pretty good autobiography out – There's No Bones In Ice Cream: Sylvain Sylvain's Story Of The New York Dolls – telling the story not just of the Dolls, but what came before: the Mizrahi family fleeing Nasser's Egypt in the 1950s, first for Paris, then for the US; his childhood obsession with rock & roll; the career as a fashion designer he gave up to play guitar with the Dolls.

This is the rare rock memoir that's as interesting for what happens before the band as for what happens in the band.

Sylvain Sylvain: It's life. It's a true story. It has everything to do with who I became. Watching your parents, especially my mother, cry every day when we moved to Buffalo. We didn't even know where the hell Buffalo was. The Jewish organisation in the States that sponsored us to come over said there were five places we could go to in the States – because you couldn't just go to New York, where we wanted to go to – and the last one said Buffalo, New York. We had relatives in Brooklyn, so my dad said, "How far can Buffalo be from Brooklyn? It's New York!" He never bothered to look at the map. It was a 12-hour bus ride.

Looking back, do you think the upheavals of your childhood are what gave you the sense of fearlessness you needed to be in the Dolls?

SS: What happens to you in life, being an immigrant, it's rough, but you never really think about it. You're just going through the motions. Later on, when you get older, you might say, "Well, I was glad I had that; I was glad I didn't have this." Not that we ever thought they were going to throw us out [of Egypt] and nationalise everything we had. But that's what did happen, and we went from living in the penthouse in Cairo to a single hotel room in Paris.

Your father having to become a tailor led to you learning how to make clothes, which proved to be a great life skill for you. Not that you learning to sew is compensation for having to leave your home...

SS: My father, after the Suez crisis in 1956, he was denied work. He used to work for the National Bank of Egypt, and there was rumours that during world war two he was too friendly with the English. So [the Nasser government] had it in for him, and they threw him out of the bank after he'd worked there for 25 years and denied him work. All we had was our savings, so my family had to teach themselves how to do stuff. In the penthouse, my father and my uncle converted the living room into a sweatshop. They made the dining table into the cutting table, my mother had an old Singer machine with a crank – I was the crank. Daddy would cut, Mommy would sew, I'd be the crank. Sometimes she'd have me put buttons on. I was only six years old, but she taught me good. It was the best thing for me because I also had difficulties learning: I had dyslexia that was never diagnosed. The teachers thought I was stupid, and it got even worse in the States. So that really came in handy. And then when the Dolls started, me and [drummer] Billy Murcia were already in the clothing business and that was that: "Hey Sylvain, can you make me a pair of pants?"

Almost all rock & roll stories are the same. Bandmates meet, fall in love with each other and their abilities, can think of no better life, then they get jealous of each other, start on the drink and drugs, and egos tear them apart. The Dolls' story is no different. Why is the story always the same?

SS: I don't know. We're all different. But the similarities do scare me, too. It's sad that it happens to so many musicians. I guess cos also they're young. They're vulnerable to this kind of stuff. A group is made up of people who start out there in some basement. They're bored of what life is, and then all of a sudden, someone says, "Let's have a show!" "What are we going to do for a stage curtain?" "I'll use my mother's bedsheet." "What are we going to do for makeup?" "I'll get that from my girlfriend's bag." I think it comes down to performance. Performance is what all these musicians are about; they have blinkers on. And they can't see the people that are separating them.

Do great bands need a couple of people with colossal egos?

SS: In the Dolls there were five lead guys. Actually six, when you consider Billy Murcia [who died in November 1972, before the Dolls had even recorded their first album]. I think that might have helped Johansen think "I could do this on my own. I've got all these fans who are coming to see me." It's narcissistic blindness, where you convince yourself of your powers.

I've spoken to quite a lot of musicians about the Dolls, and those who saw you often tell similar stories: of raiding their mother's wardrobe and make-up box and trying to sneak out of the house without their dad seeing them, then travelling into the city – be it New York or London – to see you, feeling terrified they were going to get beaten up on the train. Was it terrifying to be a Doll, too?

SS: You took your life in your hands just getting to the gig. I was living in the Lower East Side with my girlfriend, Elda Gentile on 1st Avenue and 11th Street. Going from there to the Mercer Arts Center on Broadway you had to go through the East Village, and because you didn't have cab money so you had to walk. One time I had this knitted pink women's suit. It was nice. I turned the skirt into gaucho pants. I wore them with my boots. I put on the make up. I'm going to make my $15. I'll never forget all the catcalls. Back then, the Lower East Side was a bit mafioso, very Italian, with some Ukrainians, a lot of Polish. But the Italian ones, I dunno why, but they were the ones who wanted to do the tough stuff with you. When I finally got there I was so relieved.

You couldn't even just be a Doll for the hour on stage?

SS: No! That's the whole deal. This is real.

So "When you're a Doll you're a Doll all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day"?

SS: Exactly! Sometimes today I feel like with Johansen it was more of an act, though you wouldn't believe it. Today, forget it. He won't even admit he even did it all. It can't be an act. If it is an act, you might make it, but later on somebody finds out and that's the end of that act. With David, poor guy, there's a struggle there. I could see sometimes he was so reluctant to go onstage, and you had to pump him up. I used to hear his girlfriend telling him: "David, they're all here to see you."

Did the reunion in 2004 for Morrissey's Meltdown help lay any of those old ghosts to rest?

SS: Me and [Dolls bassist ] Arthur Kane had people calling us even when Johnny Thunders [guitarist, who died in 1991] was alive offering stupid money for us to reform. And of course we needed money: we have families, we have to live, we never really got paid for the original New York Dolls stuff. Sometimes, a lot of times unfortunately, money makes the decision. But when we first got back together, it was great, it was incredible. Everybody was in love with it. But we could have done that years and years before, even when Johnny and Jerry Nolan [drummer, who died in 1992] were alive. But Johansen was very successful and I think his ego means he wants to be appreciated for all his other stuff. He doesn't see the New York Dolls as anything that convinced anybody else out there. Johnny had a huge ego himself. They were both responsible for our break up. But at least Johnny had a heart in the whole thing, and he kept on trying. Later on, after 2010, Johansen wasn't putting on make-up to go onstage anymore. We were just working to pay the bills and it wasn't fun. He turned it into work, which I couldn't understand: this was a beautiful thing. I said to him: "There are a lot of kids out there who heard about the early Dolls and the craziness. You gotta give em their dollar's worth." He was all grumpy. But that's what it is. From the first record that I made with Harry Lookowsky, he told me: "When that kid comes in and puts down his dollar, you've got to give him that dollar's worth, because he's doing it for love." That's so true.

Are you and David friends now?

SS: Yes and no. I enjoy people who are down to earth and not egoistic. I'd rather talk to a cab driver who's going to tell me some real stuff than someone who's going to tell me fantasies, or it's just them, them, them, them. Fuck that.

You were the first band to be real rock stars without actually becoming successful, weren't you?

SS: I like that. You are so right about that. So fucking right. It took us forever to get a record deal, to get into the business. But our songs were hits. The kids knew 'Personality Crisis', they knew 'Trash', they knew all those songs way before we even released them. They made us superstars. And once we started to really make noise, you'd have all these people coming down. I remember at the Mercer Arts Center one night, in the bar, I was sitting next to Truman Capote and Elton John., and I was going, "Holy shit, how do they know me?" It was incredible.

Could you have been properly big, or were you too weird?

SS: I think we are superstars! We were and we still are! Selling out arenas, for me, is called success in the music business. We had success with the people. We had success with the artists. We had success with the downtrodden. We had success with the weird. That success lives forever because they're the ones that are creating everything. I would have liked commercial success, and I think it would definitely have worked sooner or later. Somebody would have said, "Hey, this is fucking good."

Did you ever meet Donald Trump in his playboy days, or was he not coming downtown?

SS: I met Ivana at the Ocean Club. [Long pause, then laughter] But I did not have sex with her!

Do you think the Dolls' legacy lies in the records or in how you enabled people to be who they wanted?

SS: I think it's all together. That's one thing about the Dolls. The Dolls were never just a musical band. They gave you a slice of life. Not that they maybe knew that when they were doing it, or had any inkling of what would have happened later on. But we definitely had all those things combined together; that's what gave us our longevity. We never had the roundtable meeting: Hey, you're gonna dress like that, we're going to sing those kinds of songs. Fuck that. We never had that. We always felt like we should always share everything, but that's what really started to separate the New York Dolls. First it was the girls: your girlfriend sleeps with the other guitar player, and the guitar player's girlfriend is sleeping with the drummer. And you don't go on stage very happy. That's why I have a law: no fucking in the band. When you see This Is Spinal Tap, there's a lot of New York Dolls in there.

When the Dolls began, you were misfits not just from straight society, but from the hip art crowd, and from the rest of rock & roll, weren't you?

SS: The reason we got together and started to play is that we used to go to see all our favourite bands, but they'd started doing operas. Like The Who. They were showing how technical they were. Technical is great, but it's boring. Anyone can learn technique. But you can't learn soul. You can improve on it, but you have to have it already. It can't be: press a button and learn soul. So misfits is perfect. But we became the darlings. We touched almost everything, from the artists to the guy at school in Queens. The only band that I thought that had nothing to do with the revolution, with what we did, though we broke down the walls for them, is Kiss. Kiss were reintroduced in 1978 as America's punk band. That's like going in to buy a Cadillac and coming home with a refrigerator.

I interviewed Kiss a few years back, and Gene Simmons told me that he and Paul Stanley went to see you. He said: "When they started playing we turned to each other and said: 'We'll kill em.' They could not play. Songs were alright, but they could not play guitars. Horrific."

SS: OK, I'll tell you another story. I went to see Kiss at the Palm Room of the Hotel Diplomat. Yeah, too much fire, too much stuff that's sensational and not enough soul. Not enough real shit. It was OK. By the way, their songs were completely infantile. And the make-up, unless you're six years old I can't see you finding this sexy. So I'm on the floor there, and there's a couple of ladies sitting in chairs next to me. But standing right there is the drummer, Peter Criss – and he starts talking to them. They're his mom and his aunt or something. And one of them, I guess it's his mom, starts going: "Why all the make-up? Why all the fire? I don't like it, Peter." And he goes: "Mom, it's just like the Dolls." That answers back to Mr Simmons. He can deny it all, he's another Trump, that schmuck.

How destructive was heroin to the Dolls?

SS: Terrible. Terrible. We all dabbled with it, but Johnny and Jerry became addicts. I wouldn't change anything. But if I had to do it all over again, I would keep the heroin. Because that's the way it is. You're not gonna change anything. You can force people to do things, but if they're not happy, and they're going to be addicted, they are going to be addicted.

What was the best moment of being a Doll, for you?

The greatest moment being a New York Doll was when we came to the UK after the record came out [in 1973], and we played Biba – Arthur was busted for switching price tags. saw a bicycle in Kensington High Street covered with our black and pink New York Dolls stickers. Everywhere. Even the spokes. Me and Jerry Nolan came out of Blakes Hotel, and walking down to the Kings Road we went past a shop and it was blasting out 'Trash'. Even Bob Harris – we didn't know what he said about us at the time, because The Old Grey Whistle Test was shown after we went home. And then we found out he'd called us "mock rock". It was beautiful, filthy rock. Joe Strummer said the best thing about the Dolls was they were on television. That whole trip here, that was the best.

There's No Bones In Ice Cream: Sylvain Sylvain's Story of the New York Dolls is published by Omnibus Press