Monday, 17 April 2017

Syl Sylvain Talks About The Teardrops (And The Dolls And The Criminals)

Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops released in 1981 (RCA)
Originally published in do-Wop #2, 1981

By Devorah Ostrov
Vicki Berndt took the fabulous photo of Sylvain!

"In America today it's like... well, like beating your head against the wall," says Syl Sylvain from beneath the covers in his Los Angeles hotel room. "They just want a lot of hype. They want to see the Plasmatics or something."

Syl arrived in Los Angeles on tour to promote his new band, the Teardrops and his new album, Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops. Although so far all the shows (New Orleans and Texas) have gone well, Syl hasn't been pleased with the advance publicity - or lack thereof - for the tour and the album.

"They (his label, RCA Records) don't seem to realize... Even though we're a brand new act, we don't need a hype-type advertisement. But you still gotta tell people that we're around! That's why we came here. If it were up to them, we wouldn't have even come out here."

Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops RCA promo photo
L-R: Danny Reid, Syl Sylvain, Rosie Rex
He continues, "They see us as an East Coast-regional sort of band. We just want to entertain period. We're not trying to entertain kids just in New York, or anything like that. We want to go anywhere that they want us."

Even RCA's refusal to support a Teardrops' tour couldn't stop Syl from doing it anyway.

"You know how we got out here?" he asks. (We'd heard something about driving across the desert in a Chevy Chevette.) "After RCA passed on the tour, we got a couple of vehicles and decided to make the trip. Somebody STOLE the car like three or four days before we started out! But this fan of ours had moved out to New York. She doesn't drive her car, so she lent it to us. That's how we made the trip - in her little Chevy Chevette!"

It should be added that a few days later, while in San Francisco, the Chevy Chevette wound up in the middle of a Teardrops vs. Cholos war outside the hotel and came out of it with a smashed front windshield. Syl seems to have the worst luck with cars!

Syl was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt on February 14, 1953. He grew up in Paris. "I always had a hard time," he giggles. "People were making fun of my clothes even when I first got over here. I had brown shoes and brown shoes were like, Whoa! And now I have green shoes and green shoes are Whoa! Back in the Dolls, I used to wear roller skates and 'suiciders' (platform shoes so big you could supposedly jump off them and commit suicide), and that was Whoa! too."

Sylvain Sylvain circa 1981                                           Photo: Vicki Berndt
Speaking of the New York Dolls, here's a bit of history: Syl was going to school in Queens, NY with his best friend Billy Murcia (the Dolls' original drummer - he died while the group were doing some shows in England, before the first album was even recorded) and Johnny Genzale (Thunders), when he decided to form a band.

"The name Dolls is mine," he states, despite some stories giving Johnny the credit. At first Syl actually tried to kick Johnny out of the group as he was "a bit of a hard-on." But Johnny came back, proved his worthiness, and wasn't sacked after all. David Johansen was introduced to the band by the same friend who later introduced Syl to Rosie Rex (who became the Teardrops' drummer), and the New York Dolls were born!

New York Dolls promo photo
L-R: Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan, David Johansen,
Syl Sylvain and Johnny Thunders
Syl wasn't only responsible for the Dolls' name, he was also largely responsible for their appearance. Before the Dolls, Syl had been a bit of a fashion designer. In fact, he made the first pair of lamé jeans! And he designed the silver lamé jumpsuit which he wears on the back cover of the Dolls' debut album. He describes it as "the wet look before the wet look came in."

When I asked Syl to tell me the sleaziest story he could about the Dolls, he hesitated and explained that everything they did came naturally. But he didn't have any problem when it came to the sleaziest person involved with the Dolls - Malcolm McLaren!

"Malcolm used to say he was our manager," says Syl. "Well, that's the sleaziest story I've ever heard! Anybody that could've gotten us red pants could've been our manager!"

The red pants he's referring to are the "Red Patent Leather Commie Party" era red pants. Since the Dolls were never politically inclined, it's interesting as to how Malcolm, the Dolls, and the red pants became involved in that infamous performance.

"It wasn't as much of a political thing as people think," states Syl. "Like I said, it started with one pair of red pants. Then everybody said, 'I want red pants!' And then... 'Let's get the red shoes.' Then, when it was all red, Malcolm's great idea was, 'Let's hang up the red flag now.' David thought that was a great idea and basically they were the only ones who liked it."

Ad for Syl's first solo album
Sylvain Sylvain released in 1979 (RCA)
Syl continues, "David wasn't my spokesman, but people would look at that show and think, 'Well... Johnny and David are the leaders of the band.' They said that today in the LA Times - that I was a sidekick in the Dolls! And that now I have such a good band, that I'm still a sidekick!"

Shortly after the Dolls broke up, Malcolm approached Syl about becoming the lead singer of a group he had just formed called the Sex Pistols (imagine that for a moment).

"He kept telling me about these kids (Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock) who hung out at his store, and how he could get them to do anything he wanted. It just sounded to me like another Dolls, and I didn't want to be part of another thing like that. I didn't want to be a politician. I wanted to do something musical."

After turning down Malcolm's offer, Syl went to Japan and continued to work with David in the David Johansen Group. He also formed his own band called the Criminals.

Unfortunately, although the Criminals were one of the best bands playing New York at the time, they were doomed because people were overly concerned about what was punk and what wasn't; what was cool to like and what wasn't.

Criminals 45 "The Kids Are Back" b/w
"The Cops Are Coming"
"To the kids, we had a jazzy sound," explains Syl. "But back then ('77/'78) they just wanted like, Television or Patti Smith - a real punky, anarchy sort of group. Then, uptown, the business people said, 'The Criminals? Forget it! That's punk and we want disco.'"

After the Criminals broke up, Syl released a great self-titled solo album, then almost a year later he formed the Teardrops with Rosie Rex and Danny Reid.

"Our show is all history," comments Syl. "We even do a couple of Dolls' and Criminals' numbers. It depends. If people call out stuff and they know things, we'll do it for them."

Of course, Syl has his own definition of the Teardrops' bopping sound: "We call it Puerto Rican- reggae. You know, the record company didn't like that. They said, 'We won't be able to sell that.' And I said, 'With the advertising you put out last year, I need something that's going to self-advertise!"

What was the advertising like last year?

"It wasn't! That's why I was trying to get it this year. The name Teardrops is such a great name and you know, like with all great things - you make it up, you put it together, they take it, and they take things out, and then they put it out. That is life as it is right now."

Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops 
L-R: Rosie Rex, Syl Sylvain, Danny Reid
The Teardrops' album is, needless to say, terrific! As Syl puts it: "It's dancing, romancing music!" He adds, "That first album is very influenced by my years in the Dolls and what happened afterwards. This album is very influenced by what's going on with me now! The music is growing a little more. But basically, it's still me!"

* You can read my extensive interview with Sylvain covering his life up to the early days of the New York Dolls here:

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