Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Last Time I Talked To Joey Ramone

Our friend Dan Hill from England joined the
Teenage Kicks staff for this escapade. Here he is doing his
best Lisa Robinson impression with Joey Ramone!    
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Originally printed in Teenage Kicks #3, Spring 1999

Interview by Dan and Devorah
Story by Devorah Ostrov

"We're riding out tonight
To case the promised land
Oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road..."

"Surreal" was how Joey Ramone described the sixth annual roast-and-jam benefit concert for Thunder Road, the Bay Area-based treatment center for drug addicted teens.

Participants in this year's event included SF Mayor Willie Brown (the roastee), actor Don Johnson (the roaster), Boz Scaggs, Al "Year of the Cat" Stewart, and John Wesley Harding - along with Joey and his cohort Daniel Rey (ex-Shrapnel guitarist; co-writer of such Ramones' faves as "Poison Heart," "Pet Sematary," and "I Wanna Live;" producer for the Ramones, the Misfits, White Zombie, Green Apple Quickstep, D Generation, and a bunch of other stuff he can't remember). If you factor in the aged and wealthy audience, you'll begin to get an idea of what Joey meant.

In fact, the night was filled with weird moments: Dan and I sitting outside Bimbo's 365 Club watching the limos jockey for space; Joey (wearing a t-shirt reading Keep Music Evil) shaking hands with Mayor Brown, both looking pleased as punch; Dan having his picture taken with the Mayor on one side and Joey on the other; Joey and Daniel Rey (backed by the Bimbo's house band - which included ex-Movies bassist Robin Sylvester and Tubes/ Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick) tearing through the Louis Armstrong classic "Wonderful World," as well as "I Wanna be Sedated," and a cover of the Stooges' "1969" while the aforementioned aged and wealthy audience looked on in stunned terror; and finding myself discussing the Groovie Ghoulies with John Wesley Harding. And then I overheard the following introduction being made: "Joey Ramone ... Boz Scaggs."

Just before Joey sat down with us, an enthusiastic onlooker in a tie-dyed t-shirt exclaimed, "I am SO happy! It was beautiful! And the Sheriff is beside himself right now! Joey Ramone!" The Sheriff he was referring to was, of course, Michael Hennessey - the Sheriff of San Francisco and apparently a big Ramones fan!

Teenage Kicks: How did you get involved with Thunder Road?

Joey: I found out about it about nine months ago. I got asked by Matthew (King) Kaufman. And I said, Yeah, I'd do it. It's for a good cause.

Here's Dan again! This time he's flanked
by Joey Ramone and SF Mayor Willie Brown.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Teenage Kicks: Have you ever played to a more bizarre audience?

Joey: The Ramones did some kind of computer thing... Bill Gates was there. But those guys are all fans, ya know. Actually, the range is pretty broad.

Teenage Kicks: You should've seen the people's faces!

Joey: I did! It was kinda funny earlier, we were doing our soundcheck and these people were sitting at the tables - and the whole room cleared out! But the kids stayed. That kind of brought it home, meeting the kids. It's about them.

Teenage Kicks: The only other rockers the program mentions are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I guess they donated some money...

Joey: It's nice. Most people only think of themselves, so it's kinda nice when somebody's doing something. Why not? Ya know what I mean?

Teenage Kicks: How would you describe this evening in one word?

Joey: Surreal!

Teenage Kicks: Are you still doing your DJ gigs?

Joey: Yeah, I've been doing some DJing. People give me their shows... I take over their radio stations. I call them "radio coups." I've done a few. I did DC, and Boston, and Asbury Park, New Jersey. I was hoping to get a show of my own. I got promised by this guy in LA, but the station changed. They got a new program director and he didn't feel the same way. They went Top 40, or something.

Teenage Kicks: Do you play whatever you want?

Joey: Yeah! Or I wouldn't fucking do it! I like to turn kids on to music that they should be exposed to. They might have heard the names, but not the music - like the Stooges and the MC5. And then I play new bands that I like - like D Generation and the Independents.

Teenage Kicks: One of the songs you and Daniel Rey did tonight was "1969," which you covered on the Iggy Pop tribute album (We Will Fall, 1997 Revolver Records).

Here's Miami Vice star Don Johnson and Joey Ramone.
But where is Dan?
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Joey: Yeah. I recorded that with Daniel on guitar, and Jerry (Only) and Dr. Chud from the Misfits on bass and drums. We did a benefit in LA on Thursday - me and Daniel with 22 Jacks backing us up. D Gen played... Everybody that was on the album, for the most part. For me, it's kind of a passion play. You do it because you're a fan.

Teenage Kicks: And the proceeds from the album go to AIDS research?

Joey: Yeah. It was fun because it was a reason to do a Stooges song and it was for a good cause.

Teenage Kicks: What else do you have coming up?

Joey: Me and Daniel co-produced the Independents, and we're working on a new record for Ronnie Spector. I wrote some of the songs. There's a song called "Bye Bye Baby" that's done as a duet. And she's doing Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," and "Don't Worry Baby." Brian Wilson wrote it for her, but Phil (Spector) wouldn't let her record it because he didn't write it. That would have been the follow-up to "Be My Baby." And Dee Dee's got a new album out; I wrote a song with him.

Teenage Kicks: Are you still on good terms with the other Ramones? I heard you and Marky getting into it on Howard Stern's show...

Joey: Marc's got a problem, ya know. And... that's about it.

Teenage Kicks: What about Johnny?

Joey: We... communicate.

Teenage Kicks: Any chance of a Joey Ramone solo record?

Joey: Yeah... I've got stuff I'm working on. But the last thing I wanna do is go back on the road. I need some time to stand back from it. I'm doing the projects that I like. After 23 years of touring, I'm taking a break and doing what I wanna do. 💕

Friday, 8 September 2017

Sylvain Sylvain: A Journey From The Suez Canal Crisis To The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls pose in front of the Gem Spa
for the back-cover photo of their debut LP.
Photo: Toshi 
By Devorah Ostrov

"Even though our music wasn't that tight at the beginning, we knew we moved. And we knew that we had the essence of rock and roll. So we thought we were the most substantial band ever formed." David Johansen, talking to Rock Scene magazine, December 1973

"...the Dolls more than did their bit for the state and development of rock 'n' roll. They went out on a limb, and paid dearly for their daring. But without them, there never would have been a new wave." Trouser Press magazine, November 1979

In September 1993, Triple X Records released the live New York Dolls' CD, Paris Le Trash. Recorded some twenty years previously at the Radio Luxembourg studios, it captured one of the Dolls' more legendary performances, and it seemed like the perfect reason to call Sylvain Sylvain for a quick chat.

Me & Syl outside a Dolls show at
the Manchester Academy - 2011.
We ended up talking for more than five hours over the course of several days. Most of our conversation centered around Syl's childhood in Cairo and Paris and the early days of the Dolls, an oft-neglected part of the band's history which I found fascinating. 

But the article was never published because three hours into the transcription, I gave up. The story I wanted to tell ended in 1972 with the death of the group's original drummer Billy Murcia, but it was still too big to fit into the confines of a fanzine. And the few questions I'd asked about their prime recording and touring years were too random to build into anything cohesive.

Finally (!) now I've dispensed with space limitations and my imagined editorial need for a substantial account of the group's complete history - here's the story of Sylvain Sylvain's journey from the Suez Canal Crisis to the New York Dolls. Funnily enough, we never actually talked about Paris Le Trash, although the CD's cover photograph provided our starting point.

* * *

Directing my attention to the barely visible hotel sign immortalized on the front and back covers of Paris Le Trash, Sylvain told me excitedly: "That's the Hotel Holland! That's where I grew up. All five of us (the family included Syl's older brother Leon and younger sister Brigitte) on top of the Mediterranean fish market. The whole house smelled of fish. My poor mom, she went nuts!"

So, our interview began with Syl's childhood memories as a refugee escaping a harsh political regime in Egypt and followed the path that eventually led to the formation of one of the most influential rock 'n' roll bands of the 20th century.

L-R: Arthur Kane, Johnny Thunders, David Johansen,
Jerry Nolan and Sylvain Sylvain
Sylvain Mizrahi (he vehemently denies reports that his real first name is Ronald) was born on Valentine's Day 1951 in Cairo, Egypt. Syl's parents were of Jewish descent. His father worked as a banker, and at that point the family was financially well off.

Syl fondly remembers riding around Cairo in his uncle Ralph's big Buick - "That was a lot of fun!" But another early memory is intertwined with politically painful details: "In the very early 1950s our maid would take us to see the parades. That was before (Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser took over. When King Farouk was around, the law of the land was that you couldn't own a red car. He was the only guy with a red car! So, when you saw a red car you knew it was the King. They threw his butt out; they threw us all out after the Suez Canal Crisis."

Surprisingly, even back then American pop culture was readily available for consumption in Egypt, and little Sylvain keenly absorbed it all. "My whole thing was very American," he states. "The movies, Coca Cola, Marilyn Monroe, roller skates, Bazooka bubble gum... and all the crazes, like hula hoop."

1974 Circus magazine feature in which
David explains: "It's a new kind of music
and for the masses it's gonna take a
while until it sinks in."
He drops his voice conspiratorially. "I'll tell you the truth. I was really involved in the hula hoop craze, we used to have contests! And I loved the cowboy scene! I remember I used to get a bottle of Coca Cola and hammer a little nail hole into the top, and I'd drink it from my father's shot glass - so I looked like a cowboy drinking whisky in a saloon!"

On October 29, 1956, Israel and its allies invaded Egypt in an attempt to wrest control over the Suez Canal and oust President Nasser. The "Suez Canal Crisis" only lasted for seven days before political pressure from the US and Soviet Union forced the invaders to withdraw but all shipping on the canal ceased, and political and religious tensions in the area remained high.

"Things got really bad," says Syl. "Being a Jew at that time was really, really bad. During the crisis, all my relatives had to gather together and live in one apartment. Then the government nationalized everything we had so we were forced to leave. You know, it wasn't like they threw you out but you didn't have anything anymore. And when you went down the street, they would yell out 'Yahudi! Yahudi!' - which is 'Jew' in Arabic."

These days, he looks back on that time with a philosophical viewpoint. "It's always been like that... religion, you know, it'll go on forever." And he recalls how his father made light of the situation: "At Passover when he told the story of how the Jews were exiled from Egypt like 5,000 years ago, my father's joke was - 'And we were schmucks enough to go back, and get thrown out again!' But that's the truth."

Sylvain was only seven-years-old when his family emigrated to France. "France was the first country that took us," he explains. "And we became almost like French citizens."

An Endless Valentine's Day All Night Party
with the New York Dolls and all their friends
at the Mercer Arts Center.
The Hotel Holland, where the family lived, was in the Parisian artist enclave of Montmartre, just around the corner from the Follies Bergere. Of more importance to Syl, it was also around the corner from a shop that sold televisions.

"We didn't have a TV, so every day after school me and my friends and the kids on the street would go down there and watch the one in the window. Most of the time it was Rin Tin Tin dubbed in French - Les Aventures De Rin Tin Tin."

Syl also remembers that "there were a lot of Moroccans, Algerians... a real mix. In the late-Fifties/early-Sixties, Montmartre was like the Greenwich Village of Paris. My big thing was, I saw lovers kissing all over the place! I couldn't believe it. It was just like in the movies! Because in Egypt you can't do that, it's not allowed. And I remember the girls with their raincoats - those dark blue, very thin raincoats and the guys had the ones without the belts."

This was also about the time when Syl first heard American rock 'n' roll. "One of my uncles was crazy about black American musicians," he says. He had a lot of Ray Charles records. I think that was the first time... And you also had the French copying the Americans, like Johnny Hallyday (the 'French Elvis') and there was this band called Les Chaussettes Noires (the Black Socks). Those guys were the hippest, they were like the Ventures of France! They were doing all this Elvis kind of stuff and they did it really well, too! Between that and my uncle's record collection I got a hankering for rock 'n' roll!"

One of a series of fabulous adverts using 
Dolls-era photos to promote Syl's solo 
shows at the Hotel Vegas.
In 1961, Syl's family received their Visas to come to America. But they couldn't just move anywhere in the US. There were designated cities where the American Jewish Committee would help new immigrants to settle.

"It was funny because there were only a few places that we could pick from," notes Syl. "They gave us a list and I remember my relatives talking about it. It had Cleveland and Boston... and Buffalo, New York. My relatives thought - NEW YORK! So that's what they chose."

"And we came here by boat," he adds. "The SS United States - it was the fastest ship afloat at the time. I remember it was a foggy kinda day, a rainy day when we arrived in New York. Me and my brother were up on the deck looking at the Statue of Liberty, just like the immigrants that came in the 1930s. I was probably one of the last to see it like that, because after that everybody just came by air."

The house in Buffalo came furnished and included a piano. "I would go to the piano after school," says Syl. "That's when I discovered that I had talent. I would follow along with my uncle's records."

But the family wasn't prepared for winter in upstate New York (the year they arrived, the temperature in Buffalo plummeted to a record -20 degrees). "My poor mother never even left the house," says Syl. "She'd never seen so much snow in her life!"

Early publicity photo with the original New York Dolls lineup.
L-R: Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders, David Johansen,
Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane
And even though John F. Kennedy had become the 35th President of the United States that January, prejudice and segregation remained rife in Buffalo. "We lived right across the street from this all-black school," recalls Syl. "But I had to travel to an all-white school. There was all this crap going on, a lot of hatred."

The ten-year-old who was fluent in Arabic and French, also remembers the reception he received at his new school: "Unfortunately, it wasn't like 'Hey!' all open arms. The first thing they said to me was 'Do you speak English?' I said, 'No.' And they said, 'Fuck you!' That was one of the first things I learned how to say!"


Syl poses cutely with my old fanzine Rave-Up. (NYC 1984)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
At the time, Syl was too young to comprehend the complex socio-economic and political factors underlying his less-than-enthusiastic welcome. And he didn't understand why his mother cautioned him: "Don't ever tell anybody that you're a Jew!"

Instead, he blamed his problems on his dorky footwear. "It took us a long time to get the clothes," Syl laments. "We were stuck with what we'd brought with us. Our shoes were brown, everything was brown. And when we came here, everything was black. We just thought, maybe they don't like us because we're Jewish and we walk around in these weird brown shoes."

The family's stay in Buffalo was short-lived. In 1962, they moved to West 6th Street and Avenue O in Brooklyn. "It was what they called an SY neighborhood," says Syl. "Which stands for Syrian Jews. They were all from our neck of the woods!"

By that point, he brags, "I could speak English better than you!" And his wardrobe had bucked up as well. "I remember, we'd take our new pants and put them on inside out and sew them while they were on, so they'd be real tight! Then take them off and put them back on to see if they fit. Sew them up and sew them up... until they were so tight, I swear!"

Sylvain endorses Ibanez in this advert.
Sylvain was now perfectly positioned for the pop music explosion of the early-Sixties. His fondness for the girl-groups of the era is well-documented and its influence is easily discernible both in the music he wrote for the Dolls and in his solo material.

"When we moved to Brooklyn the Sixties girl-groups were really happening," he says, "and I loved that! We had to go to this annex because our junior high school was really crowded, but right across the street was this bowling alley and we'd all hang out there. They had a pretty cool jukebox."

What was on it?

"It had everything from 'The Strip' to 'Leader of the Pack' - all the big hits! And the Ronettes... Oh god, I used to have this Italian girlfriend named Mary. She was crazy in love with the Ronettes! Every five minutes there was another dime going in the jukebox! And then, of course, you had the Beatles coming in..."

Sylvain was just a few days shy of turning thirteen when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. "God, that whole revolution!" he exclaims. "It was a great era! I mean, for music there was nothing like it. I'm very proud... I see kids influenced by what I did, the things that I helped to do and that's really nice. But there's nothing like that era. That particular era. The impact that the Beatles had... Jesus Christ! They changed everything!"

The boys pose with their wardrobe in 
this early promo photo by Leee Black
Childers. Drummer Billy Murcia is at
the top of the picture.
And it was the Beatles that decided Syl's career path. "Once I saw the Beatles that was it," he states. "I cried my ass off, but I finally got this big acoustic Spanish guitar. That was my first guitar! I swear, I must have cried for six months to get that fucker. My mom finally said, 'He's gonna die if he cries anymore. Let him have it.'"

The Mizrahis moved again while Syl was still in junior high, following his Uncle Ralph who had recently arrived from France and settled in Queens.

"I always looked up to my Uncle Ralph," confides Syl. "He was a really great guy. When he came to America, he bought himself a brand-new Chevy. This beautiful white Chevy. I said to my father, 'Why don't you buy yourself a car?' My father didn't believe in credit, and he was always scared because they'd nationalized his money in Egypt and he thought it could happen again."

Syl was enrolled at Van Wyck Junior High, and he began working at a Jamaica Avenue novelty shop owned by one of his uncles. "Jamaica Avenue was the 14th Street of Queens," he explains. "They sold all kinds of junk from Japanese guitars to toasters to cameras."

And it wasn't long before Syl's friend Billy joined him in the shop. Billy Murcia was another recent immigrant to the US. His family, which included his older brother Alphonso and sister Heidi, had fled the Columbian capital of Bogotá and settled into a rambling old house in Queens. Billy's mother, Mercedes, rented out the spare rooms to other new immigrants.

Mercury Records promo photo.
L-R: Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan, David Johansen, 
Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders
Syl and Billy met at Van Wyck, where the Murcia brothers were working their way up the school's social ladder in a unique way. Syl recalls: "It was really funny. Billy and his older brother would pick on the toughest or the coolest... the kids that stood out. They went up to them one at a time. Alphonso would come up and say 'Hey, yo! My brother wants to fight you.' One day, he came up to me and said, 'My brother wants to kick your ass.' And I said, 'Oh, yeah?'"

The scuffle didn't amount to much and the two boys became inseparable friends; the pair even looked slightly similar. In an interview with Trouser Press magazine in 1979, Planets' guitarist and former Dolls' roadie Binky Philips noted: "Syl and Billy, they were very much alike with the corkscrew hair, with scarves and badges and crap sort of dripping off them."

Advertisement for Truth and Soul
offering a range of 22 hip
sweater styles.
By 1965 Syl and Billy were attending Newtown High School, along with fellow pupil John Genzale who Syl remembers as "this handsome Italian kid, who was always really well-dressed."

In high school, Syl and Johnny had a nodding acquaintance. "We always liked each other," he says. "It was like 'Hey man, whatcha doin'?' But we came from far away. We saw each other at school but we didn't live in the same neighborhood."

It was also about then that Sylvain more or less moved into the Murcia's basement and he and Billy took some tentative steps towards becoming musicians. "Billy got some drums and I got my first electric guitar, and we stared to rehearse with one little amp. We started learning 'Wipe Out.' That was the first song we learned."

Establishing a timeframe sparks another memory: "This is getting on now, this is the mid-Sixties. I'll tell you when it was because me and Billy used to ride our bicycles out to the '64/'65 World's Fair. This is funny... I was talking to Arthur (Kane) recently. He used to work at the World's Fair in the Belgium Village making waffles! It's all connected, you know!"

By 1967 Syl and Billy had teamed up with local legend Mike Turby to form a three-piece band called the Pox.

The New York Dolls invite you Beyond the
Valley. Flier for a show at the Diplomat Hotel.
Also appearing were Shaker, featuring future
Dolls' drummer Jerry Nolan.
"The Pox came together in Billy's basement," confirms Syl. "Mike Turby was a big star in Queens because he was from this band called the Orphans. So, wow! When we landed him, we really learned about the blues and everything else. He broke us in with Cream and all that kind of stuff."

Syl describes the Pox as "a real rock 'n' roll band. We were influenced by all the later '60s stuff, from Jimi to the Yardbirds. We were kind of like Blue Cheer, if you will."

According to Syl: "That summer was when we really got into the blues, B.B. King and that kind of stuff. And the English bands doing the blues, like the Yardbirds and John Mayall. I loved John Mayall! I remember seeing him at the Café au Go Go and he had Mick Taylor on guitar. I remember seeing bands when they were just beginning, like Blood Sweat and Tears. We'd go down to Greenwich Village, to the Café Wah and the Gaslight and the (Night) Owl, the Underground, the Cock and Bull... I could go on and on, there were so many of them! And we'd see bands like the Blues Magoos and the Music Machine and the Lovin' Spoonful. It was the greatest time! We'd absorb it all; participate in whatever we could."

The highlight of Pox's career was opening for the Group Image in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Diplomat, and in 1968 they signed a management deal with Harry Lookofsky (father of the Left Banke's Michael Brown). "Our parents had to sign the contract because we were too young," says Syl. The Pox recorded a song called "Epitaph" for Lookofsky, but "it never really came out." In 1969 the group broke-up and Turby left for San Francisco.

The Dolls storm L.A. on the cover of
Rock Scene, March 1974.
According to Syl, after the break-up he and Billy "still played with this guy and that guy, we didn't stop playing." But following a stint at Quintanos School for Young Professionals (where they again crossed paths with Johnny), Sylvain and Billy started their own clothing business, making colourful trend-setting sweaters under the moniker Truth and Soul.

One Truth and Soul advert boasted a range of 22 "hip sweater styles in tweeds, stripes, ribs or suedes." Another featured the snarky comment: "Most Americans wouldn't be caught dead in our clothes. We wouldn't be caught dead in theirs."

"Our sweater company was really popular!" states Syl. "We were making sweaters by hand, with a hand loom. Women's Wear Daily featured us, and we were selling to all the hippie shops in New York like Paraphernalia and Betsey Bunky Nini (which later became Betsey Johnson)."

Truth and Soul even had a small shop of its own in Woodstock, New York, and the boys sold their psychedelic sweaters at the festival from a stall located somewhere "between two trees." Following the festival, the young entrepreneurs sold their brand to Nausbaum Knitting Mills and went to Europe. "It was a good time for us," says Syl. "Me and Billy were really successful."

While Billy took his share of the profits and flew to Amsterdam, Syl spent the remainder of 1969 and most of 1970 in London where he bought Marshall amps, shopped for the latest British fashions on Portobello Road, and saw Tyrannosaurs Rex at the Roundhouse.

Following these 1973 gigs, Melody Maker reported:
"...the Rainbow restaurant up above Biba's
might not be staging rock shows too soon after
the appearances by the NY Dolls. It seems the
residents in Kensington didn't approve of the noise."
The earliest inklings of what would become the New York Dolls began when Syl and Billy returned home to Queens in late 1970. "That's when Johnny started coming out to Billy's mom's basement to jam with us," recalls Syl.

Johnny Genzale called himself Johnny Volume before changing his name to Johnny Thunders (after a comic book hero). His previous experience included a high school group called Johnny and the Jaywalkers, and when he began jamming with Syl and Billy, the iconic guitar slinger played bass.

"Yeah! It's true!" laughs Syl. "When Johnny came out to Billy's mom's place, he had a bass."

Syl showed Johnny a few things on the guitar and he recalls: "Johnny used to come down to the basement to learn how to play the guitar. He used to say that I taught him everything he knew, which was a great compliment. And I'd say, 'Come back for more lessons!' We'd kind of trade ideas and stuff, and we'd go down to the basement to really blow it out. We would sleep there and the next day we'd wake up and jam. That's how we learned, by playing the blues all night long."

According to some accounts, at this point they were already using the name Dolls. If not, it was certainly something Sylvain was thinking about.

Celebrate New Year's Eve 1973 with the New York Dolls
and their friends at the Mercer Arts Center.
During a brief tenure in retail, when he worked at the hip clothing emporium The Different Drummer on Lexington Avenue (where he sold jeans to Janis Joplin and Brigitte Bardot), Syl had noticed a sign on the building across the street - New York Doll Hospital (literally a hospital that fixed broken dolls).

"Me and Billy used to see that sign all the time and I just thought it sounded good. I went for a sound. I didn't even know about the movie. I didn't know that Dolls was slang for pills. I just thought Dolls was a great sounding name. And it always stuck with me - DOLLS. And I remember I said that to the guys. But I never put the New York on it. I have to be honest, that was David's idea." (The credit for adding the NY prefix has also been attributed to both Johnny and Arthur on different occasions.)

Peter Max designed poster for
The Different Drummer.
But before their band got out of the basement, Syl went back to London for the summer. "It was so cheap back then," he says. "I took my girlfriend. That was the summer I met Keven Ayers."

During Syl's absence the New York Dolls formed without him. Most write-ups agree that bassist Arthur Kane and his best friend guitarist George Fedorick (aka Rick Rivets) - both recently returned from a hash-funded visit to Amsterdam (one by choice, the other by force) - recruited Johnny for their band (which may or may not have been officially called Actress). In turn, Johnny brought in Billy.

As everyone involved hung out at a local bar called Nobody's, attended the same shows at the Fillmore, and spent weekend afternoons at the fountain in Central Park, they were all at least vaguely familiar with each other. "That's how you met everybody," says Syl. "It was a clique."

However, reports vary of how David Johansen became involved. A sometime actor with the Ridiculous Theater who'd made a bit of a name for himself with Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs, David hung out with the arty Warhol crowd at Max's Kansas City.

Some stories claim that Arthur and Billy initially made David's acquaintance while Syl was away, but that's not the way he remembers it. "One of the guys who rented a room from Billy's mom, Rodrigo Sullivan, had moved to East 6th Street in Manhattan. Well guess who lived in his building? David! Rodrigo said to me, 'Hey, you gotta meet this guy. He plays harmonica and he looks like Mick Jagger!' I remember me, Johnny and Billy going to meet David. We got together and jammed a few times, and when I came back they were all playing together."

Sylvain: "We attracted a lot of girls."
Photo from the August 1974 issue
of Creem magazine.
Pretending that he didn't mind, Syl says: "We all still hung around together anyway. And I was working, I was doing more sweater stuff and boutique shows. So I was kind of busy. And I knew it was my band anyway, I was a part of it. Not that I was pressing it..."

While he might not have pressed his rightful place in the group, he wasn't above dropping a subtle hint about the band's name. "I said, 'You guys are gonna have to figure out another name because Dolls is my name.' Billy knew that."

On Christmas Eve 1971, the embryonic New York Dolls (minus Syl) made their debut at the Endicott, a scary welfare hotel across the street from the bicycle rental shop the band rehearsed in.

"They were having a city sponsored Christmas party," David told Circus magazine a couple of years later. "They needed a group and so we carted our stuff over and plugged in. We had no idea about balance or anything. We just played really loud."

"That wasn't a show at all," counters Syl. "It was nothing! People know about it because we told them it was our first gig, otherwise no one would have known. The only people who were there were the welfare people, and we're talking about heavy junkies. This was a welfare hotel in the '70s!"

Whether or not it counted as a show, the Endicott was Rick Rivets first and last appearance with the Dolls. Shortly afterwards, Rick was out and Syl was in. "It might have been two or three months that they played together, if that long. I think Rick was drinking too much, stuff like that. He was just a screw-up kind of guy. They came up to me one day and said, 'Hey, you wanna do it?' And I said, 'Sure.' And that's how it all started."

Flier for a "Benefit Boogie" in aid
of activist Dana Beal.
(From the Archives)
Although the flier advertising a "Benefit Boogie" (in aid of activist Dana Beal) doesn't list the Dolls amongst the performers, according to the website From the Archives, this February 4, 1972 show marked the group's first performance at the Hotel Diplomat.

The website also supplies a quote from an unknown newspaper's review: "The Dana Beal benefit at the Hotel Diplomat was beautiful people getting together and having a good time and helping to free a brother at the same time... Anyway, Teenage Lust played some great rock and roll while the lead singer of the Dolls just blew everyone out."

Usually described as a "seedy residential hotel" off Times Square, in 1980 a fire eliminated the use of the Diplomat's ballroom as a venue, but Syl isn't particularly nostalgic about the place: "We got started there, but the Diplomat was only a small phase in our career. It was one of the poorest fucking hotels you could ever imagine and it smelled like shit!"

While they would play a few more gigs at the Diplomat during 1972, the group soon found a niche in Greenwich Village at the Mercer Arts Centre.

Made up of a honeycomb of freshly renovated performance rooms surrounding a central bar area, the Mercer Arts Center was situated at the back of the once grand Broadway Central Hotel. But by the time the Dolls started playing there, the 100-year-old building had fallen on hard times and was being used as a welfare hotel to house the poorest of the city's poor. Plagued by years of neglect and numerous structural code violations the Broadway Central collapsed in 1973, killing several residents and taking the Mercer with it. (You can read a brilliant history of the Broadway Central here and find a collection of newspaper accounts of the hotel's collapse here).


Sylvain Sylvain  
Outtake from the photo session for the first LP cover.
Photo: Toshi 
According to a flier reproduced on From the Archives, the Dolls played their first gig at the Mercer on May 5, 1972 (although another source puts the date in early June). They played in the room called "the Kitchen" and were at the bottom of a bill that featured the Magic Tramps and Satan.

Rock writer Alan Betrock recalled the show for Phonograph Record magazine: "The headliner was Satan the Eternal-Fire-Eater, and the place was the Mercer Arts Center. The room was the Kitchen, approximately 13' x 60' in size. You walked in and took a metal folding chair off the wall, setting it down where you wanted. About 30 people were in attendance when the first group came on, and the quartet launched into their opening number: 'Don't know where I'm going, Don't know where I've been...'! Straight out teenage rock 'n roll. Then a fifth member, a Jaggeresque lead singer came out, and led the band thru a set of classy originals and rejuvenated classics. By the finale, the small room was packed full, and the sweaty bodies danced, shook and cheered for this unknown group, The New York Dolls. Later on, Satan took the stage, but that's another story."

Creem magazine readers famously voted
the New York Dolls the best new group
of 1973 and the worst new group of 1973.
"At the end of the night we got paid like $1.25 each," adds Syl.

But if you didn't feel like going to the Diplomat or the Mercer, you could also enjoy a late-night set at the band's house!

In early '72 Johnny, Syl and Billy moved into a large loft above a Chinese noodle factory at 119 Chrystie Street (fun fact: Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker lives a few doors away at 187 Chrystie Street), and round about the first of each month the band would throw "rent parties" in the space.

"Those were the best shows actually," declares Syl. "We'd charge like two bucks at the door. I don't wanna mention any names, but whoever made it later on was at those parties. It was the happening thing! If you wanted to be happening, you'd be there!"

* * *

Robert Christgau once wrote: "There has never been a band - not even the Velvets - who have conveyed the oppressive close excitement that Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way the Dolls do. The careening screech of their music comes right out of the Cooper Union stop on the Lexington IRT."

In an era dominated by earnest singer/songwriters, laid-back country ditties, and inoffensive soul crooners, the Dolls hit you over the head like a ton of bricks. The band's name is constantly invoked alongside the MC5 and Stooges as part of the holy trinity that begat punk rock. But the Dolls' own musical inspiration can be traced back (at least in part) to the early R&B sound of the Rolling Stones and the pure pop melodies of the early-Sixties. And that, along with an infusion of irrepressible lyrical humor and over-the-top showbiz swagger, is what made their songs so special.

The Dolls on the cover of Phonograph Record.
The five-page spread was headlined:
New York's Beasty, Brutal Music Explosion
with essays by Greg Shaw, Alan Betrock,
Ron Ross and Lester Bangs.
"The music the Dolls make...almost makes you believe in rock and roll again," proclaimed Rock Scene (which stuck so many pictures of the band in each issue, I often suspected they owned stock in the magazine).

Meanwhile, serious musicians sneered and said the Dolls were "extremely unpolished" and "musically unsophisticated." To which David once wryly observed: "It doesn't bother us when people say we can't play. When we met, we actually couldn't."

But it was the Dolls' sense of style that really freaked people out.

The term "Drag Rock" was seemingly invented to describe the band to a nervous middle-America, while journalists had a field day thinking up scandalous phrases like "transsexual junkies" and "downed out high school toughs posing as bisexual psychopaths." One ventured so far as to call them: "A hard rock... 100% homosexual group in black tights."

The Dolls would never wear black tights! But they did wear a colorfully eclectic mix-and-match wardrobe of see-through polka dot blouses, red leather cowboy chaps, and lots of lamé sourced from their girlfriends' closets and acquired from European shopping sprees, antique shops, and thrift stores. And David really loved his high-heeled pumps - "I would be a sex murderer if I didn't wear these pumps," he solemnly told Rock Scene readers.

And then there was the makeup. Although it was perfectly acceptable at the time to see male rock superstars like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart smear on a bit of blue eyeshadow and lip gloss, the Dolls tended to wear a wee bit more Max Factor than was considered 'normal' for manly men.

Mercury Records advert for the Dolls'
self-titled debut album.
Syl acknowledges that the Dolls' early audiences included "the Warhol crowd and all the crazies from our crowd - the rock 'n' rollers, the wannabe Rod Stewarts, and all the drag queens from David's crowd. A lot of his friends were in theatre groups and a lot of them were drag queens. They all mingled with the artists that were hanging around at the Mercer."

But he insists that the Dolls' image wasn't inspired by drag culture: "It was just who we were. Everybody claims that they told us to do it - that's a bunch of shit! We did it because we wanted to do it! That's how we would be dressed when you saw us on the street. And we would always put makeup on before we went out at night. If we were going to Nobody's, everybody there was putting on a little bit of makeup. It was just part of our lives."

Apparently, the only ones not confused by the Dolls' image were the girls. "We attracted a lot of girls!" exclaims Syl. "We loved girls and the girls loved it! It was great!"

"What we were doing wasn't feminine," he continues. "Well, I guess you could call it feminine. But it was sexy. Definitely sexy. And sometimes we pulled it off pretty good! I think we just got more outrageous the longer we stood in front of the mirror and the more time we had, you know."

Q: Was there a glam rock scene in New York when the Dolls were starting out?

Flier for the New York Dolls SF debut
at the Matrix with support from the
Tubes & Naomi Ruth Eisenberg.
Syl: No. We were the ones who made it happen. Especially with our pictures being in the newspapers, and all that.

Q: Were you were copying the English glam look?

Syl: This was before the glam look. We were copying performers that were popular, that were already doing it. Don't forget we had to compete with people like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart to keep our girlfriends!

Q: But the Dolls took it to more of an extent than those other performers!

Syl: Our extent wasn't really that extensive, not until the first album cover. What we really looked like was the photo in front of the candy store (the Gem Spa photo, on the back of the first album). When you saw us on the street, that's what we looked like.

Q:
Did David usually walk around in high-heeled pumps?

Syl: Yeah, yeah. That's how we dressed every day. We dressed like that to go to the supermarket - but without the makeup.

Q: So, your look wasn't really that outrageous for the crowd you were hanging around with?

Syl: No, not really. I mean, we never wore dresses. Never.

Q: Except at the 82 Club.

Syl: Once (laughs).

Look who I bumped into!
Sylvain Sylvain and Richard Hell hanging out in NYC 1984.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
On June 13, 1972, the Dolls began a weekly residency in the Mercer's Oscar Wilde Room which would stretch into October - by which time they'd moved into the larger O'Casey Theatre. But it's the Oscar Wilde Room with which the band will forever be associated.

Although it doesn't mention the floor-to-ceiling mirrors which adorned the walls, according to the Mercer's informational brochure: "The Oscar Wilde Room is a cabaret theatre seating 200. It has a thrust stage that can be arranged in shapes to suit the particular production. It also has its own separate dressing rooms and public bathrooms as well as a private exit onto Broadway."

Another in the series of wonderful adverts
using Dolls-era photos for Syl's solo
shows at the Hotel Vegas.
"The Oscar Wilde room became our room every Tuesday," states Syl. "It was amazing how people just picked up on it! The people that came down week after week, we kind of gave them nicknames. There was one guy, he was Clothes Pins. Then we had the Amazon Women, and the Vampire Rats..."

And he recalls the songs that would have made up the Dolls' setlist at that point: "It would probably be something like 'Subway Train' and it would've had 'Frankenstein' and 'Bad Girl' and 'Looking For a Kiss' and 'Personality Crisis' and 'Lonely Planet Boy'... something slow, you know. And we'd do a blues cover like 'Pills.' And of course, we'd always have an instrumental. I taught them the 'Courageous Cat Theme' and we'd open the set with that."

In other words, the band was already performing most of the songs that made up their iconic debut album, as well as some that would pop up on the second LP.

According to Syl, the Johansen/Thunders-penned anthem "Endless Party" was also part of these early setlists. Recorded at Planet Studios in 1973 along with a batch of other demos, the song was never officially released until it showed up on the Seven Day Weekend CD some eighteen years later. He says: "You know, in the loft we'd play the shit out of 'Endless Party.' When we played it live, it would be like six minutes long. If we were a little bit drunk, it could be ten or twelve minutes!" But whenever they talked about recording the song - "We'd always say, 'Nah, forget about it.'"

It was also at this juncture that the band met music biz veteran Marty Thau, who became their manager. Thau's career began at Billboard magazine and included a stint as National Promotion Manager for Neal Bogart's Cameo Records. In 1967, Thau and Bogart formed Buddah Records which scored huge bubblegum hits with the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Ohio Express. Thau had recently resigned from his latest job as head of A&R at Paramount when he chanced upon the Dolls.

Max's Kansas City advert for the Dolls' residency.
In an interview with Kris Needs for ZigZag magazine, Thau recalled: "... at a celebration one night with my wife - dinner somewhere, walking around on a nice, warm spring night, we passed by the Mercer Arts Centre. There was this little sign advertising the New York Dolls, two bucks in the Oscar Wilde room. I said 'sounds interesting, let's go.'"

Syl picks up the story: "I remember after the show he said, 'I don't know if I've just seen the best show in my whole life or the worst show in my whole life. But you know what? I wanna sign you guys!' He got our number and he called up the loft and he came to see us."

"I concluded they were the greatest, but very young, very inexperienced and primitive," Thau continued. "These were qualities I liked... I watched and listened to the Dolls and I heard these arrangements - I didn't hear wasted lines or excesses, I just thought it was great and to the point and somewhere in that group one or all of them have a very fine understanding of pop-rock music." 

Thau brought in Steve Leber and Marty Krebs to round out the Dolls' management team and put the group into Blue Rock studios to record some demos. (The band would later regret signing contracts with Leber-Krebs without first looking up phrases like "in perpetuity." The animosity was still evident during this interview, with Syl calling it "the worst mistake we ever made in our lives.")

The nine-song Blue Rock demo tape (first released in 1981 as a ROIR cassette under the title Lipstick Killers) was a pretty good indication of the group at this stage of their career. It included most of the songs they were playing live as well as covers of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talking" and Otis Redding's "Don't Mess With Cupid."

In a Record Collector magazine retrospective, Kirk Lake notes: "On these sessions, the Dolls display much of the arrogance and excitement that would later become an integral part of their appeal, but the songs had not been developed to their full potential. Many of the tracks are almost pedestrian in their delivery compared to what would come later."

By July the Dolls were playing their first shows upstairs at Max's Kansas City. The Village Voice advert reproduced on From the Archives shows the band played there on July 24th and 25th. (The website also points out that the 25th was a Tuesday, suggesting they skipped their Mercer residency that week.)  

Creem editor Dave Marsh once wrote an exposé of the new Manhattan music scene under one of my all-time favorite headlines:

Dredged from the subterranean scuzz-holes of Gotham, we now
confront you with a whole new generation of sleazodelic ratpacks. 

In the article, Marsh noted: "The several scenes which make up the New York rock circuit are interwoven. The most important finds its focus, as important scenes often do, at Max's Kansas City, the legendary dive that served as a hangout for Andy Warhol's bunch, the late '60s rock scene and more decadence than even its management cares to recall."

The New York Dolls & the Stooges
This poster was for the 1973 Memphis
show where David Johansen was arrested
for inciting a riot. Kudos to Denim
Delinquent's Jim Parrett for copying
it from an eBay posting!
In 1972 Max's was still the bastion for what was left of the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground crowd. According to Syl, its patrons were "arty and sophisticated and older - like in their 30s or more. It was an adult, arty crowd."

He emphasizes: "When we started playing at Max's, no kids were going there."

The Dolls and their younger, louder, trashier contingent ruffled some cultivated feathers, and often infuriated Max's owner Mickey Ruskin who 86'd Syl and Billy for bad behaviour. "He let us play," laughs Syl, "but we were still 86'd!"

But the culture-clash was only superficial. "The art crowd did really like us personally," says Syl. "They'd been coming down to see us at the Mercer Arts Center anyway."

All during that summer the Dolls were "kind of hot" (as Syl puts it) on the Manhattan music scene. In Phonograph Record, Alan Betrock reported: "By June or July of '72, the Dolls were the 'in' group to see. On various nights, just about every behind-the scenes tastemaker in the business was down at the Mercer. Others, more visible, like John Cale, Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, Bette Midler, David Bowie, and Lou Reed, all made appearances."

"I remember David Bowie coming to New York," says Syl. "The first thing he wanted to see was the Dolls! And by then, even the bands that were watching us rehearse were beginning to copy us - like KISS."

Programe for the Wembley Festival
of Music, October 1972. The Dolls
played on Sunday, sandwiched between
the Pink Fairies and the Faces.
According to the timeline on From the Archives, former rock critic turned Mercury Records A&R man Paul Nelson first saw the New York Dolls at the Mercer in early August. He would spend the next several months trying to convince his bosses to sign the band. Although Dave Marsh was probably exaggerating a bit when he wrote: "Nelson only had to watch the Dolls 80 unsigned times to do it."

The timeline also helpfully pinpoints the August 22nd Mercer Arts Center show attended by British rock journalist Roy Hollingworth.

As the New York-based correspondent for Melody Maker, Hollingworth wrote an enthusiastic two-page feature on the band (with photos by Leee Black Childers) that was undoubtedly responsible for turning the Dolls into bona fide hometown stars - as well as introducing them to a UK audience. "We were sensations after that!" exclaims Sylvain.

However, reports that the Faces personally invited the Dolls to open for them at the Wembley Festival of Music - a huge two-day affair which took place in late October at London's Wembley Pool stadium - are not true (although it's a great story). "If they'd known that we were gonna play, I don't think they would've had us there," mutters Syl just loudly enough for my tape recorder to pick up.

In reality, and probably due in large part to the Melody Maker article, Escape Studios in Kent offered to record some demos for the band and a handful of British gigs were arranged, including the Wembley show. Tragically, 21-year-old Billy Murcia died during the tour.

Too Much Too Soon - inside sleeve pic.
Photo from a Netherlands TV pop show appearance. 
The band recorded four songs at Escape Studios in October 1972 - all but one ("Subway Train" a re-worked version of an older Dolls' tune called "That's Poison") - had been demoed previously at Blue Rock Studios, but these versions of "Personality Crisis," "Looking for a Kiss," and "Bad Girl" are somewhat tighter and more confident. (All four tracks were first released in 1978 as two 45s on the German Bellaphon label.)

In his interview with Kris Needs, Marty Thau stated that the intention of the trip "was to make a European deal and, if we could get it, a world-wide deal that was suitable." But the highlight was really the Wembley Pool Festival of Music, which took place over the weekend of the 28th and 29th October. Slade headlined the Saturday show, while the Sunday lineup sandwiched the Dolls between the Pink Fairies and the Faces.

Advert for Roxy Music/Dolls
show at the Manchester Hardrock.
The Dolls cancelled due to Billy
Murcia's death two days earlier.
(From the Archives website)
It should have been the Dolls big break, but in a massive stadium with an unreceptive audience of 8,000 Faces' fans, the group's flamboyant look, unruly sound, and brash New York attitude was unappreciated by all but a select few.

"It was scary," admits Sylvain. "We had never played in front of more than 200 or 300 people at the Mercer Arts Center." He also remembers the crowd "sat back and listened" to the Dolls' set.

They didn't go wild?

Syl: "No... Oh, no... They did not go wild. We didn't get booed off, but they didn't go wild, either."

On the sladestory.blogspot page a fan simply identified as "Johnny" recalls: "The Dolls ... arrived on the stage in feather boas, high heels and lots & lots of make-up. They were amazing - or at least I thought so. My friends thought they were awful and actually left the auditorium during their set. I sat there and soaked it all in, not really knowing what was going on (the birth of punk?) but enjoying it greatly."

Adam Ant (who was 17 and probably called Stuart by his friends) told thequietus.com: "I was there to see the Faces, and when the Dolls came on you've never seen a room empty so fast. Everybody just headed for the bar. David Johansen had a top hat on and Arthur Kane had some pink patent thigh-length boots and was being propped up at the back. They did a 15-minute version of 'Frankenstein,' and that was good enough for me. I hadn't seen anything like it before. I gather Steve Jones was there as well - a few people were there who would go on to form groups."

(From these two reports, it seems the Dolls were dividing audiences long before Creem readers voted them the Best New Group and the Worst New Group of 1973.)

Flier for the Leicester University
show with Kevin Ayers -
October 28, 1972.
There were lots of high points during the UK tour. "Did I tell you about the party where I met Sal Mineo and Liberace?" Syl asks enthusiastically. "It was so cool! This Sir-whatever-his-name-was sent a Rolls Royce to pick David up, but we all piled in and there was no room for David. He had to take a cab to the party! And once you got there, it was incredible!"

But sadly, there were more low points.

A scheduled support gig in Liverpool with Lou Reed didn't go to plan. "When we got there, he wouldn't let us play," recalls Syl. "He said, 'If those Dolls go on stage I won't play.'"

Reed offered no explanation to the group, although everyone would like to think he was afraid of being upstaged. "We were really disappointed because he was a New York guy," says Syl. "He really broke our hearts. Billy, man, he was so heartbroken."

On November 4th, the Dolls opened for Status Quo at the Imperial College London, where Mick Jagger was in attendance. Rolling Stone Records was one of several labels, including Track and Virgin, which were thinking about signing the band. According to Syl: "We were really nervous and didn't play so good. You know, the Dolls would sound good one night and terrible another night. Anyway... he passed."

The Dolls' UK tour started to wind down after the Status Quo gig. All that remained was a support slot with Roxy Music at the Manchester Hardrock on the 9th and a show at Sheffield University on the 10th. "We just had to do a few more things and we were gonna go home," confirms Syl.

Syl: "We never wore dresses." 
Except at this show - the 82 Club
on April 17, 1974.
According to Sylvain, Billy had been hanging around with "a couple of really sleazy girls" (one of whom has since been identified as Marilyn Woolhead) during the tour. He was also taking Mandies (methaqualone) and drinking heavily. During one show, Billy had vomited all over his drum kit and David had publicly vented his frustration with him. "I know Billy deserved a good shake," says Syl, "but it was more than that. Sometimes David gets in these moods... boy, you don't know. I never really appreciated that from him."

Sylvain recalls one of the last conversations he had with his friend: "I saw Billy one morning in the lobby and he said, 'Sylvain I almost died last night.' I said, 'Whadda you mean?' He goes in his shirt pocket and he shows me all these halves of Mandies. He said, 'I only took half of them.' But they're really strong those fucking things, especially if you take them every day. They react with the ones that you took yesterday. And sure enough..."

Billy died during the evening of Tuesday, November 7th. The official cause of death was listed as "drowning in a domestic bath while under the influence of alcohol and methaqualone."

Apparently, he'd been hanging out in a Kensington flat with Marilyn and some of her friends. At some point during the night, they found Billy lying unconscious on the bed, so they put him into an icy bath and poured coffee down his throat. When the amateur attempts to revive him failed, an ambulance was finally called - but it was too late. None of the other Dolls were there, so what information there is comes from court testimony and speculation.

A year later, Syl recalled the incident in Circus magazine: "It was really a shock... I knew Billy for a long time and it really was a shock. He passed out at a party and some people tried to force feed him coffee to revive him. I think he drowned."

"I don't think they murdered him," states Syl during this interview. "I think they got nervous and they tried to revive him and when they couldn't... then they called the ambulance. It was an accident more than anything, you know."

Sylvain eating pizza like a true New Yorker - 
standing up with it folded like a taco.
(NYC 2004)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
The rest of the tour was cancelled and the band returned home. "Billy was always like a free spirit," says Syl. "I never expected that was going to happen."

Using the adage that "death in the rock 'n' roll business usually comes in three," the Village Voice combined Billy's obituary with Allman Brothers' bassist Berry Oakley who died in a motorcycle accident on November 11th, and Miss Christine from the GTOs who overdosed on November 5th.

In Phonograph Record, music journalist Ron Ross remembered Billy as a "crazy loveable pop boy" and said: "Billy had been wild with excitement about his Dolls' first English tour. No record contract, no money, just a communal wardrobe of transvestite forties flash ... and a band that got New Yorkers off their asses and on the floor."

The guys laid low for a few weeks and then held auditions for a new drummer. On December 19th, they returned to the Mercer Arts Center with Jerry Nolan - an army brat and clubland veteran whose band Shaker had once opened for the Dolls at the Diplomat. According to Marty Thau, "hundreds were turned away." And Trouser Press reported that "faithful fans waited in the street afterwards to tell Jerry that he had been okay, that he was accepted."

"I can't believe all that happened in '72," muses Syl. "It must have been a very long year."

* * *

Q: According to some accounts, Billy's death raised the Dolls' profile and turned the group into even bigger stars. Do you think that's true?

Village Voice ad for the Dolls first show with Jerry Nolan.
(From the Archives)
Syl: Yeah, it was incredible but it was also horrible. I guess those are the terms...

Q: I understand you guys held auditions for a new drummer. Why do that when you already knew Jerry?

Syl: We had to. I mean, there were just too many people. And I think we just wanted to try people out - although we were certain that Jerry was the guy.

Q: Do you remember any of the drummers who tried out?

Syl: The drummer from the Ramones tried out, what's his name... Marc Bell. He thought he really had it. But we thought he had bad teeth so that was the end of him. And we thought Jerry was a real square. But we thought, maybe we can just dress him up. You don't know! He was still wearing bellbottoms and stuff. We were going, "What the fuck is this?" I tell you, he was a square! I mean he never wore makeup until he actually joined the band. I can go as far as to say that.

You can buy the 
sensational sound of 
the New York Dolls
at Korvettes for $3.57
Q: What qualities did Jerry have that appealed to you guys?

Syl: He played good drums. 

Q: What was it like playing with Jerry? Was it different than with Billy?

Syl: It was really different. To me, it was like Woah! I'm not saying that it was better, but it was more professional. Jerry really professionalised our shows. It was tighter, that's for sure. It was slicker. I mean, the guy could really play and really keep it steady. And he was really inventive, too! But Billy had more... I don't know what it was. Billy was really a New York Doll. I mean, nowadays the whole world thinks of Jerry Nolan as a New York Doll.

Q: I've read several accounts about the difficulty the Dolls had getting signed to a major label. In Creem, Dave Marsh once noted that "every record company in the country turned the Dolls down twice." What were they saying?

Syl: That we were just too outrageous and "they don't know how to play" - it was more that than the makeup, let me tell you.

Q: What happened on the night that reps from all the major labels came to see the Dolls? You had Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun amongst others in the audience. Someone said it looked like a record industry convention!

Sylvain: "The communist stuff was really the worse
mistake we could ever do."
Red Patent Leather cover photo: Bob Gruen 
Syl: We were so big; our managers were getting calls from everybody. So, their big brainstorm was, "We'll get all the biggest guys in the business, sit 'em down in the big room at the Mercer Arts Center for one show and after that we'll get a deal." But of course, we all know that sometimes the Dolls sound great and sometimes they really stink. Well, this time... it was one of the first shows after we came back. If I'm not mistaken, it was our first show with Jerry. And it sucked. We really weren't very good. We were nervous, and too speedy, and we didn't know what Jerry was gonna do. And of course, you never invite two presidents to the same show because they hate each other - "That's my competition!" That's the worst mistake you can make. And the next day, everybody... all the major labels, one after another called up and passed on us. This was Atlantic and Columbia and RCA and Warner Bros. - all the big ones. Those were the companies you wanted to be with in those days.

Q: So, you finally signed with Mercury. I know Paul Nelson had been trying to get you signed to the label for months.

Syl: He was the guy we never wanted to go with. We didn't want to sign to Mercury, and they didn't even really want us. But they said, "Oh well, they're making a lot of noise - let's take 'em." And that's how we ended up on Mercury. After everybody had passed on us; after we'd been the darlings of everything.

My "Trash" DJ promo 45 - signed by Sylvain! 
Q: How did it feel to record your first album?

Syl: I loved it! I felt like, "Wow! We're really making an album!" This was a really important thing. I mean, we never really thought that anyone was gonna pick up on us and let us make records and stuff like that. It was just incredible to me. It was magic!

Q: I've always thought it was really sweet that you dedicated the album to Billy.

The Dolls on the cover of French music
magazine Best - with a color outtake from
the photo session for the first album.
Syl: Oh, we had to. It's Billy's album. I mean, Jerry played on it but those songs... I even put "Trash" together for Billy. It's funny, I told his sister Heidi, "You know, I wrote 'Trash' for Billy." She said, "What!? You wrote 'Trash' for Billy?" I said, "No... no... just the music." Because David wrote the lyrics.

Q: There's that rather wonderful spoken line in "Trash"... "How do you call your lover boy?" I'm sure someone else did that originally.

Syl: It was Mickey and Sylvia ("Love is Strange"). "Sylvia..." "Yes, Mickey..." "How do you call your lover boy?" I really don't know why they didn't sue us for that!

Q: How did Todd Rundgren become involved with the first Dolls' album? Was he a friend of the band?

Syl: We didn't know him personally. He was brought in from the management as one of the people to think about. We'd tried it out with this other guy... I forget who it was, it wasn't anybody big. And it was mainly to put down our demos. Which I think came out as Seven Day Weekend - those were our demos.

Q: Were you happy with the choice of Todd Rundgren as the producer for the first album?

Syl: I thought it was great. I thought Todd Rundgren was a wonderful choice!

Full-page advertisement for
 the Dolls first UK single & British tour dates -
including two shows at Biba!
Q: Really? A lot of people seem to think he ruined the mix.

Syl: Ach! They don't know what the hell they're talking about! I mean, with us - it was like get in there and do it and get out. So sometimes yeah, something might have gotten muffled here and there. But when those masters got transferred to CD... Wow! I can't believe the way they sound. They sound so great! Maybe they went back and remixed it, but I don't think so. I think they're the exact same mixes that Todd did.

Q: I've read that Leiber & Stoller, David Bowie, and Phil Spector were all under consideration for producing the first album.

Syl: Phil Spector? No, that's not true. He would've been so wrong. There was nobody else that could've done it. Todd was perfect because he was really a musician. I love the way he took my guitar and kind of made it clean, and he took Johnny's and made that dirty - sort of like a Keith Richards and Brian Jones kind of thing. I'm not trying to compare us to them, but he gave us a distinction. On the second album, there really isn't any of that. It's bland, and there's so many mistakes - especially on my parts. That guy (producer Shadow Morton) never really let me work on it.

Q: So, you weren't happy with Shadow Morton's production on Too Much Too Soon?

Syl:
I think it was a big mistake to get Shadow Morton. He was yesterday's big guy. He was a has-been. He didn't know how to make modern records. I mean, black girls are wonderful but I don't think we really needed them. Or trombones. I don't think the Dolls needed any of that.

An invitation to the Dolls Ball at the
Hotel Diplomat - August 25, 1972. 
(From the Archives)
Q: Why did you use him?

Syl: David Johansen loved him; he loved the Shangri-Las! As a matter of fact, we recorded that Shangri-Las' song for the first album with Todd. It came out years later.

Q: You're talking about "Give Him a Great Big Kiss"?

Syl: Yeah. I taught Johnny how to play that song and it kind of became his anthem, but the Dolls did it first.

Q: I know there were problems with getting your songs on the second LP...

Syl: I'd already written "Teenage News" and "The Kids are Back," and I was beginning to write "Girls" - none of those songs came out. As a matter of fact, my song "Too Much Too Soon" didn't even come out on that album. Johnny put it on one of his solo albums (Hurt Me released in 1983).

Q: Is that why you released the Red Patent Leather album?

Syl: The reason I even wanted to put out the third album was because I was trying to show people - "Look see, I was always writing songs." I mean, everybody was begging me to put it out anyway.

Q: You've been known to take issue with the Dolls' song writing credits...

Advert for an afternoon personal
appearance and show at the Moore
Theatre - Seattle, WA. March 14, 1974
(From the Archives)
Syl: It's not fair. We wrote all that stuff in the first two years, and we were all together. When you read the credits and it says Johnny wrote this song and David wrote that song... I mean, c'mon. There would never have been a song like "Jet Boy" if I wasn't there. There would never have been a song like "Human Being" if Arthur wasn't there. Little pieces came out of here and here and here... I don't feel like I wrote "Trash" all by myself. Or "Frankenstein" for that matter, I wrote that back when Billy was around. That's another thing, even Billy should get credit because he was there helping to write "Personality Crisis" and "Looking for a Kiss." Even the cover songs that we brought in...

Q: The girl-group covers and blues covers weren't just David's influence...

Syl: No, it was all of us together.

Q: You mentioned "Frankenstein," which has been called "the monumental Dolls' song." How did it come about?

Syl: I'd written those chords back in the Pox, but nobody wanted to do that song because - "It has too many chords, Sylvain." It was like the Dee Dee Ramone syndrome. They never wanted to get off the first chord! Anyway... One day we played this street festival, we were playing with all these groups on top of this truck. And we all took THC. We would put it in a cigarette paper and roll it up and eat it. It would give you this marijuana high, but more trippy. I remember we did that at this festival, then we went to the loft and we finally started playing that song - and it was like, "Man, it's great! We gotta keep it." Like a bunch of stoned out hippies! "It sounds great, doesn't it?" "Yeah, Johnny... it sounds great." And of course, Johansen had those wonderful lyrics that he was dying to throw into a song. And that one... it just sat perfectly.

The New York Dolls opening for Mott the Hoople
Madison Square Garden/The Felt Forum - August 3, 1973.
Village Voice advertisement (From the Archives)
Q: Did you sometimes feel overshadowed by Johnny?

Syl: Johnny was always very aggressive. When he went on stage, it was his stage and he'd kick your ass for it. I should have fought back, and maybe I should have walked out of the band. Maybe I should have quit earlier than 1975. Maybe then people would have understood what my contribution was. I was reading this article, and it pissed me off. Basically, it said: "I don't understand what Sylvain was doing there." I mean, the name... the songs... "Trash" alone is an influential song. Just give me credit for that, please! This article was like: "Well, Johnny... and of course, Arthur... but Sylvain, what the hell was he doing there?" And it was always like that.

Q: The first album is so iconic and it's been credited with influencing just about everything that came after it. Do you know how many copies have been sold over the years? According to reports at the time, the figure was 110,000.

Another very cool advert using Dolls-era
photos for Syl's solo shows at the Hotel Vegas.
Syl: Really? They never paid me, so this is what I'm still trying to find out! I mean, I can't believe... If you consider all the different countries that it came out in, and all the different printings... Who's to say how many copies the Dolls sold? I can't tell. And that's what they're trying to keep away from me so they don't have to pay me! They keep telling me, "Nah... they didn't sell." And I keep saying, "Just show it to me. Just show us an account that they didn't sell." I'm pretty sure that it's done a lot better than they claim.

Q: 110,000 copies at the time seems pretty good.

Syl: God... Especially for an album that everybody put down, that never got radio play. In America, it was not an accepted thing. When we came out, they said "WHAT?" You couldn't say things like "I don't wanna shoot up in your room." And the Vietnam stuff - they didn't wanna hear it. And the lipstick... I mean today gays are still being bashed. So, what do you think it was like back then? And we weren't even gay! It was that first album cover. When they saw that first album cover, they went nuts! That was it. Just that alone. They said, "That's it. Forget it."

Q: Do you ever wish you'd avoided all the kerfuffle and used the photo on the back for the front cover?

Syl: No. Never. That front picture - that's the Dolls. That's really the Dolls! The back photo is wonderful, too. That's part of the Dolls. But that's not the Dolls. I mean, if you saw that picture first and the back would've been something else... That wouldn't have lived forever. That would've never shocked anyone. That would've never done anything.

The New York Dolls & KISS
at the I.M.A. Auditorium - Flint, MI
June 12, 1974.
A review in the Flint Journal noted:
"Each band tried to outdo the other in
extravagant costumes in a style
sometimes called glitter rock."
Q: You said that your extent wasn't really that extensive until the first album cover. Tell me about that infamous photo.

Syl: The first album cover was basically my fault. What happened was, Mercury had taken pictures of us inside this antique shop on Third Avenue in New York. We were supposed to be like "Dolls in a dollhouse." But it was stupid. It looked like shit. I remember when they were showing us the pictures, I made a big stink. I started calling up all the people I knew in the clothing business, all my friends. I said, "Listen, you gotta help me out." I knew these girls, Pinky and Diane, they were these two designers in New York at the time and they knew everybody! They set me up with (photographer) Toshi, and this other Japanese guy (Shin) who did our hair, and this sort of Jewish drag queen (Dave O'Grady) who did the makeup. These guys were getting like $3000 or $4000 for a Vogue cover. We went to Toshi's loft and they put some white satin on the couch. I remember that couch was like a piece of junk! And Shin was putting fake hair onto us and really bouffing us up...

Q: Wait, it isn't all your own hair?

Syl: Oh yeah, he put some hair in! We've all got some fake hair on that, definitely. And the makeup... The guy was from that theatre crowd, and he really went overboard. But I love it! We all loved it. Johnny was the only one who kind of regretted it later on. When he got into heroin, all his prejudices came out and he said some pretty nasty things about gays.

Q: I thought Arthur might have hated it.

Syl: Arthur loved it, and David was in heaven. I mean, c'mon, he really plays it. Jerry was more trying to make fun of it.

Mercury advert for the second album
Too Much Too Soon.

Q: Jerry's beautiful in this picture.

Syl: Yeah... but he's trying to go, "Oh, hello boys." I remember Marty coming down to Max's Kansas City to show us the print. He was saying, "Look how great it's gonna be!" I said, "I told you, man."

Q: What happened to the clothes that you're wearing on the cover?

Syl: I still have that sweater! The jacket that Johnny's wearing was mine, and the jacket that Jerry's wearing - that was mine. And our girlfriends were making those lamé pants!

Q: What are your thoughts about the band's involvement with Malcom McLaren and the Red Patent Leather era?

Syl: The communist stuff was really the worse mistake we could ever do. Political stuff is always kind of a mixed bag, no matter what music you throw into it.

Q: You spent some time hanging out with Malcom after the final Dolls' shows in Florida...

Syl: Me and Malcolm, we drove all through the South and New Orleans and we drove back to New York. I gave him that white Les Paul that he gave to the guy in the Sex Pistols (Steve Jones). Have you seen the Don Kirshner's Rock Concert footage? I play that white guitar. Look at the Sex Pistols - he's got the same white guitar with the girl on it. It's a decal, I put it on there. That's my guitar! 

Q: Speaking of the Sex Pistols, I know Malcom originally wanted to form the band around you. Do you ever regret not taking him up on the offer?
Pictures from a proof sheet.
Sylvain & my friend Michelle
ordering pizza. (NYC 1984)

Syl: When Malcolm wanted me to go to England and do the Sex Pistols thing, I didn't wanna do it - and maybe I missed my spot in the limelight. He wrote to my mother, it's like a seven-page letter. It says: "Mrs. Mizrahi give this letter to your son." This was in '75, after the Dolls broke up. "Tell him not to go to Japan!" And he tells me: "I don't trust David." He was always very jealous of David. And he sent all these photo booth pictures... "This is Johnny Rotten, he could be the lead singer. And this is the other guy, he could be the drummer. They hang around my store. You could influence them. You can do anything you want." I read the letter and I left it there. I went to Japan with David.

Q: Did it bother you when people assumed the Dolls were not only gay but also accused the band of being debauched and depraved? 

Syl: It was all shit. We were probably the most misunderstood and greatest rock 'n' roll band that America had ever produced. And obviously we must have done something right because it still means something today.

Q: Something I've always wondered... Why are you holding a 16 magazine in the Gem Spa photo?

Syl: I just wanted to be bubblegum! Anything to be tacky!

"The world was not ready for (the Dolls) at the time and probably never will be."
Michael Reed, in a letter to the editor, Trouser Press, February 1980.

* * *

Many thanks to Sylvain Sylvain for all the hours he spent answering my questions. ❤ And look for Syl's book on the history of the Dolls due in 2018!!!

Also, a big Thank You to my friend Loren Dobson who helped transcribe the interview tapes. It was an overwhelming task and the assistance was much appreciated!

* For a fabulous New York Dolls' chronology go to: www.fromthearchives.com/nyd
* For even more of the New York Dolls' story, check out Nina Antonia's book Too Much Too Soon, which covers the band's full history.
* If you're a Dolls' fan, Stranded in the Jungle, the soon-to-be published biography of Jerry Nolan written by Curt Weiss should also be on your reading list!