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

Your only competition may’ve been Bomp! Records.

We spawned Greg Shaw’s Bomp! There’s always good bands if you keep eyes open. Bands still complain, which never changed. Record labels complained about the ghetto box with the cassette player, radio, and speakers. On Friday, I’d tape the Top 40 so I wouldn’t have to buy it. Today, it’s downloading. Industry never wants to embrace change, and we were all about change. You have to have a vision and not wish you were born thirty years ago. There were no clubs. We had to invent places or steal them from Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. They didn’t have open arms at the time. We wore makeup but weren’t gay. We’d sell out Max’s Kansas City’s performance space twelve times in six nights-which was amazing. We’d get 86’ed downstairs for smoking a joint, then go play upstairs.

You did have a profound fashion influence.

Johnny Thunders was wearing motorcycle jackets and ripped-up jeans way before the Ramones.

Thunder’s Heartbreakers never got the exposure they deserved.

I taught Johnny to play guitar in ’69. We all went to Newtown High together and were getting thrown out because the mainstream thought we were gay wearing bellbottoms. So we went to Manhattan’s Quinones school for young professionals-models and musicians. My first band was the Pox, as in ‘catch the Pox at Greenwich Village.’ Johnny wanted to do bass because it only had four strings. Then he learned lead guitar and I moved to rhythm. We’d hang out at Nobody’s on Bleecker Street. Jimmy Page and Rod Stewart were there grabbing our girls. We met Arthur Kane. He had a bad time with his father in Long Island. He moved in with drummer Billy Murcia’s mom who rented out rooms in Queens. He had a great record collection. We started jamming. The nucleus was Billy, Johnny, Kane, and myself. Another renter was a Colombian immigrant like the Murcia’s. He got a job, moved to Manhattan, and told us about a cool guy on 6th Street who played harmonica and sang. That’s how we got Johansen.

We broke up in ’75, but were individually successful, unlike other bands who didn’t have that luxury. I got signed by RCA. But no one’s gonna sign a super junkie. The only thing I’d take away from the Dolls was heroin. There’s such a thing as an instant junkie. We were so popular everyone wanted to hob-knob. We were naïve and open to drugs. Show biz is nasty. I had to stop seeing Johnny onstage. He was young, clean, and fun before that.

We’re on tour with the Black Joe Lewis from Austin. They mix Motown and blues like Muddy Waters with Wilson Pickett horns. I dig everything that’s good but too much of the same thing gets me down. They’re a breath of fresh air in a sea of mediocrity.

New York Dolls play the Trocadero in Philadelphia on June 18, Starland Ballroom on June 20 and Music Hall Of Williamsburg on June 22. For more info, visit