Calling Sylvain Sylvain the sanest member of the New York Dolls is akin to describing someone as the least screwed-up soul in the asylum. But in rock ’n’ roll’s most outrageous group of drug-consuming, cross-dressing heterosexual street thugs, Sylvain was usually the one who called for a lucid answer or a responsible action. Maybe that’s why, nearly 25 years after the group’s breakup, he’s also one of the few band members who’s still alive and rocking.
“I’ve never stopped making music,” Sylvain says, speaking by phone from his home in Decatur, Ga., where he has lived with his wife and teenage son since 1995. “No matter what’s going on, I’ve always kept writing and recording, even if it was just for myself and my friends.”
Sylvain recently released (Sweet) Baby Doll, his third U.S. solo album and his first since leaving RCA Records in 1981. It’s a fascinating, fun collection of songs that serves partly as a tribute to his past and partly as a testimony to the enduring qualities of swaggering, soulful rock ’n’ roll.
Indeed, the album boils down the elements of the music Sylvain has always made, focusing on stripped-down guitar riffs spiced with soulful harmonies and R&B rhythms. There’s a ragged romanticism that runs throughout, though the energy is less manic and more mature than in his early work. In the end, the album helps make clear what Sylvain contributed to the Dolls: his ability to revitalize classic rock and R&B by injecting the music with personality and passion.
Like Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Iggy Pop of the Stooges, or Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground, Sylvain is among the few legendary late ’60s/early ’70s rockers who can still create interesting, entertaining music. “Baby, I’ve never varied too far from what I’ve always done,” he says. “I just make rock ’n’ roll the way I know how to make it.”
Sylvain named (Sweet) Baby Doll after a tribute he wrote to the three deceased Dolls: drummer Billy Murcia, who drowned in a bathtub in London in 1971 after passing out from a combination of alcohol and barbiturates; guitarist Johnny Thunders, who died of a heroin overdose in New Orleans in 1991; and drummer Jerry Nolan (who replaced Murcia), who died of a stroke in New York in 1992.
The poignant lyrics of “(Sweet) Baby Doll” also serve as the closing words to a recently published biography of the group, Too Much Too Soon, written by Nina Antonia. “It tells the whole story, from makeup to breakup,” Sylvain attests. “It’s beautiful.”
If anyone would know, it’s Sylvain. The group grew out of his lifelong friendship with Murcia; the two attended Newton High School in Queens, N.Y., along with Thunders and bassist Arthur Kane. After recruiting vocalist David Johansen, who grew up on Staten Island, the band was complete. They named themselves after a toy repair shop called The New York Doll Hospital, located across the street from a clothing store where Sylvain and Murcia worked.
Although the band cited the Rolling Stones and T. Rex as their influences, the Dolls put a decidedly American spin on the British rock ’n’ roll that inspired them. Injecting a strong dose of wild-ass R&B and doo-wop harmonies into the jungle beat of Bo Diddley and the ragged-but-right guitar riffs of Chuck Berry, the Dolls exploded on the American underground in 1972 with their classic first album.
Because of their outrageous stage attirea colorful thrift-store eruption of platform heels, made up faces, and women’s fetishwearthe Dolls have often been classified as a glam-rock band. They’ve also been tagged as one of pioneers of punk rock: Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren worked with the Dolls in their last year and often cited them as his biggest influence.
Truth is, the Dolls simply played classic rock ’n’ roll with an emphasis on its raunchiest, rowdiest, most debauched aspects. They didn’t favor heavy-metal chords, long solos, psychedelic flourishes, or acoustic passages; they simply romped through old-time rock and R&B with the breakneck abandon of a runaway subway train.
The Dolls were one of the supernova groups of American rock: Like the Velvets, MC5, and Stooges, their influence on rock culture proved to be much bigger than any commercial success they ever enjoyed during their brief run. “We were from the street, and we never really got away from there,” Sylvain says. “That’s OK too. It was a pure thingthere wasn’t any calculation to it. We thought rock ’n’ roll was supposed to be loud and wild and outrageous, and we wanted to be the loudest, wildest, and most outrageous of ’em all.”
Ever since their demise, the Dolls have held their honored place in the rock pantheon. But the publication of Too Much Too Soon, along with 1996’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, has helped to refocus some attention on the band.
(Sweet) Baby Doll further lends credibility to the group’s greatnessand to Sylvain’s. After listening to the new record, then looking back at his work with the Dolls, it’s clear that Sylvain contributed to the group as much as David Johansen and Johnny Thunders did. Not only did the former clothes salesman and budding fashion designer help forge the group’s image, but his sense of classic pop songwritingwhen combined with Thunder’s raucous riffs and Johansen’s androgynous theatricsadded greatly to the group’s unique blend. His presence can be heard in the songs he cowrote with Johansen, including such classics as “Trash,” “Puss ’n’ Boots,” and “Frankenstein,” as well as the tunes that fueled Johansen’s early solo albums.
“I was overshadowed by Johnny and David because I was a little more soft-spoken and easygoing about things,” he says. “I loved the stage and spotlight too, but maybe I wasn’t quite as desperate for attention as they were. And that’s cool. I know what I did, and I’m proud of it.”
As for his debut appearance in Nashville this Thursday, Sylvain promises to combine new material with songs from his past. He’ll bring his current trio with him, and he expects to be joined by former Dead Boy (and current Nashville resident) Cheetah Chrome as well as by members of the opening band, Nashville’s L.A.M.F. “Anyone who dresses up gets in freeespecially drag queens,” he says. “We’re gonna have a party, baby.”
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