Interview with Syl Sylvain of New York Dolls: ‘Cause I Sez So’

Predating punk by a few years, the New York Dolls’ blues-y glamour rock bridged the gap between the Rolling Stones early ’60s primitivism and the Sex Pistols late-’70s ruff ‘n’ tumble amateurism. Lascivious androgynous singer, David Johansen, blurted out defiant lyrics with snot-nosed adolescent authority, creating a tremendous furor his frenzied combo magnanimously embellished. Wearing tight skinny-legged trousers and sporting a devilishly smirked grin, the charismatic Johansen was the perfect greased-up bubble-lipped swivel-hipped Mick Jagger clone posing as a diabolical warlock onstage.

Surviving the drug-addled ’70s, Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain proved resilient coming back touring and recording a few albums nearly thirty years after forming the Dolls. Amazingly, even in his late fifties, Johansen continues to lustily sneer through new tunes like a spoiled brat. In fact, the best thing about the Dolls is they’ve never changed. Fully confident in their musical ability, aging mannequins Johansen and Sylvain never had it easy and suffered a few deaths along the path to stardom.

Dressed in drag on their eponymous ’73 debut (produced by obliging studio wiz Todd Rundgren), the high-heeled makeup-caked lipstick-reddened quintet identified with the transvestite social misfit dirtying-up raging manifesto, “Personality Crisis.” Masterful guitarist, Johnny Thunders, a traumatic junkie-to-death, had the seeds planted for his best-known solo tune, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” on the poignantly balladic acoustical Johansen original, “Lonely Planet Boy.” And the deliriously infectious novelty, “Trash,” evoked the Dolls mashed-up Bowery seediness in typical dungy fashion.

Then came another dazzling proto-punk artifact, ’74s delightfully nostalgic Too Much Too Soon. Produced by seasoned Shangri-La’s impresario, Shadow Morton, co-composers Johansen-Thunders increased the flashy glimmer-pop pandemonium and gave a few popular ’50s-’60s numbers a shrewdly schizoid spin. Bamboozled Stones-derived kicker, “Puss ‘n Boots,” reveled in cheesy bubblegum-styled buffoonery. And ranted rallying cry “Who Are The Mystery Girls?” tingles nerve endings before Archie Bell & the Drells soulful “There’s Gonna Be A Showdown” readies for battle.

Following an extended layoff that found Johansen making big screen appearances, drafting worthy solo projects, and receiving peculiar aboveground fame under pseudonym Buster Poindexter (whose Uptown Horns-assisted calypso, “Hot Hot Hot,” became an overdone wedding, banquet, and karaoke staple), the remaining New York Dolls re-formed in ’04. During the interim, Syl Sylvain kept busy releasing a self-titled ’79 solo breakthrough and its fine ’81 follow-up, Syl Sylvain & the Teardrop. But Thunders (whose post-Dolls punk group, the Heartbreakers, received major plaudits) and drummer Jerry Nolan would soon die, the former under strange narcotic circumstances and the latter from a pneumonia-induced stroke. To add insult to injury, original depression-bound bassist, Arthur Kane, then succumbed to leukemia after the Dolls first reunion concert.

But whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger and the Johansen-Sylvain-led New York Dolls (rounded out by Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa, guitarist Steve Conte, and drummer Brian Delaney) came back strong with ’06s ambitiously fulfilling (and teasingly titled) One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. Its plushy pink-on-black cover art, uproarious femme fatale attitude, and sexually skewed fixations nicely duped their stylishly sinister ’70s sleaze. Busily beat-driven bustle, “We’re All In Love,” found Johansen insistently yelping ‘Jump around the stage like a teenage girl‘ and confronting 9-to-5ers with the taunting “They go to work/We go to play.” A “Lust For Life”-nipped groove propels acrobatic hoedown, “Dance Like A Monkey.” And that same mischievous pagan ‘monkey,’ Johansen himself, reappears ‘in a dress’ on the odious rogue rampage, “Fishnets & Cigarettes.” Plaintive contemplation “I Ain’t Got Nothin'” counters shuffling Farfisa ditty “Rainbow Store.”