Monday, 17 April 2017

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

Originally published in do-Wop #2 (1981)
By Devorah Ostrov

Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops (RCA Records 1981)
"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 group, the Teardrops, and his new LP, Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops.

So far, all the shows (New Orleans and Texas) have gone smoothly, although Syl hasn't been pleased with the advance publicity — or more specifically the lack thereof — for the tour and the album.

"They [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."

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."

L-R: Danny Reid, Syl Sylvain, Rosie Rex
RCA publicity photo by Kate Simon
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. I tell him that I heard something about how they drove across the Mojave Desert in a borrowed 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 York Hotel and came out of it with a smashed front windshield. Syl has the worst luck with cars.

Syl was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, and spent several years of his childhood living in Paris before his family immigrated to the US. "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 I had '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
This seems like a good place to insert a condensed history of Syl's first (and some might say most notorious) group: The New York Dolls. Sylvain was going to school in Queens, with his best friend Billy Murcia (the Dolls' original drummer, he died before their first album was recorded) and Johnny Genzale (Thunders), when he decided to form a band.

"The name Dolls is mine," he states, despite some reports giving Johnny the credit. In the beginning, Syl actually tried to kick Johnny out of the group because he was "a bit of a hard-on." However, Johnny returned, proved his worthiness, and wasn't sacked after all. Lead singer David Johansen was introduced to the guys by the same friend who later introduced Syl to Rosie Rex (now the Teardrops' drummer) — and the New York Dolls were unleashed upon the world!

New York Dolls publicity photo
L-R: Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan, David Johansen,
Syl Sylvain and Johnny Thunders
Syl wasn't only responsible for the Dolls' moniker, he was also largely accountable for their look. Before the Dolls, Syl had been a fashion designer. In fact, he made the first pair of láme jeans! And he designed the silver lamΓ© jumpsuit that he wore on the back of the Dolls' debut LP. He describes it as "the wet look before the wet look came in."

When I begged Syl to divulge the sleaziest story he could about the Dolls, he hesitated and said that everything they did came naturally. But he didn't have any problem when it came to the sleaziest person involved with the Dolls — that would be Malcolm McLaren.

"Malcolm used to say he was our manager," remarks 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 pants he's referring to were part of the controversial Red Patent Leather — "better red than dead" — outfits the band once wore. Since the Dolls were never politically inclined, it's interesting how Malcolm, the Dolls, and the red pants became entangled in that infamous performance.

Advert for Syl's first solo album
Sylvain Sylvain released in 1979 (RCA)
"It wasn't as much of a political thing as people think," asserts 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."

"David wasn't my spokesman," Syl points out, "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!"

It's a little-known story, but shortly after the Dolls broke up, Malcolm approached Syl about becoming the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. "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 he turned down Malcolm's offer, Syl went to Japan and carried on working with David Johansen. He also put together his own band called the Criminals (featuring Tony Machine on drums). Sadly, although the Criminals were one of the finest groups playing in New York, their material was difficult to pigeonhole. And according to Syl, at a time when everyone was concerned about what was punk and what wasn’t, that doomed them.

Criminals 45 "The Kids Are Back" b/w
"The Cops Are Coming" (Sing Sing Records - 1978)
"To the kids, we had a jazzy sound," he explains. "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 issued a wonderfully poppy self-titled solo album, and in 1980 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 beat: "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!" he exclaims. "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 and you put it together. They take it, 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
Needless to say, Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops is a terrific LP! As Syl puts it: "It's dancing, romancing music."

"That first album is very influenced by my years in the Dolls," he observes, "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 spanning his life up to the early days of the New York Dolls here: