On my continuing effort to learn a little more about the New York rock that I play in my new band (we are named Babylon, after the Dolls song, after all) I have gone from the Walter Lure Heartbreakers’ book to Sylvain Sylvain’s memoir, written in 2018, likewise co-written by Dave Thompson.
Sylvain comes across as cool, clear headed, and much less of a drug casualty than most of the others in the band (David Johanson had other issues). Sylvain remembers everything pretty well and isn’t afraid to burst bubbles in Internet-spread “factoids,” like the legend that the Dolls were supposed to open for Lou Reed on a British tour. The Dolls are listed on the posters of that era. Lou, being from NY and not at all impressed with the Dolls, would have none of it, and despite what you read on the Internet, the Dolls never opened for or played with Lou Reed.
His early story is quite fascinating. Born in Cairo, he was an Egyptian Jew whose father worked in an international bank and spoke five languages. They were well to do until the Suez crisis in 1956 that brought the end of British rule and ascendance of Nassir as the new Egyptian leader. Nassir removed all foreigners and Jews from important posts, and the family emigrated to France, where his dad became a tailor. They resettled in Buffalo, NY, a winter climate where his mother was miserable; eventually, they made their way to Brooklyn and Queens.
Sylvain’s musical story is pretty standard, learning to play and going to shows. One thing tailor’s son Sylvain really had going for him was his fashion sense. He started a clothing line, Truth and Soul, which was very successful and from which he made some real money, enough to go to Britain in the early 1970’s and buy and ship back a Marshall amplifier and a used Jaguar. He sold clothes at Woodstock and through his clothing connections, met Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who became his longtime friends.
Sylvain tells a great high school story about being challenged to fight some kid after school, by the kid’s older brother. Resigned to his fate, Sylvain showed up for the afternoon fight: the little brother turned out to be future Doll Billy Murcia. They were already pals so they went through the motions of a fight on the playground and no one was wiser. These two met the older Arthur Kane, and fashion plate Johnny Genzale (nee Thunders) who was wishy washy about joining the band. Once David Johansen was found, the New York Dolls really started to get it together.
Sylvain is not starry eyed, the part where the band is together and playing is a short part of the book, because, as he says, they were only together a few years and really didn’t play that many gigs. He realizes the band couldn’t really play, as Ronnie Van Zant said when the Dolls opened for Skynyrd, “y’all don’t know how to play but y’all boogie like hell.” The Dolls do well in New York and California, and are huge in Britain, but they just didn’t click with mainstream America. Sylvain realizes their amazing look just pissed people off. They were too ahead of their time.
He understands the impact The Dolls had on Kiss and Aerosmith, which was plenty. He gives a good insight into the down and out New York of the 1970’s, post Velvets and pre CBGB’s, when there wasn’t a lot really going on. Unlike the Heartbreakers book, Sylvain does not obsess over the drugs. Arthur was a terrible alcoholic, and Jerry Nolan and Johnny were famous junkies. Sylvain relays the story as a visit from Iggy Pop to a hotel in LA, where Iggy got Johnny into smack; there was no turning back. Surprisingly, Malcolm McLaren turns out to be a great friend and real fan of the Dolls, even wanting Sylvain to join this new group in England called the Sex Pistols. Imagine what that might have been like!
This is a well written and informative book. Sylvain was there and he remembers. If you are at all interested in this period of pre-punk rock, it is an essential read!