A fortunate kick in the pants

The New York Dolls' Jewish guitarist Sylvain Sylvain credits Morrissey for getting the band back onstage.

New York Dolls 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
New York Dolls 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
The last time Sylvain Sylvain was in the Middle East, he was being expelled from his Egyptian home because he was a Jew. Previously Sylvain Mizrahi, the 59-year-old guitarist for the legendary New York Dolls was born in Cairo to a prominent Jewish family. "My daddy had a great job at the National Bank of Egypt. But in the mid-'50s, they fired him, then they confiscated all our belongings and kicked us out," Sylvain told The Jerusalem Post during a conversation ahead of a Dolls' show last week in Italy. "They took everything from us, we had to start all over again. First we moved to France. We went from a lavish penthouse in Cairo to a one-room hotel in Paris for my parents, my brother and sister and me." Within three years, the family had immigrated to the US, initially to Buffalo, and then to their final destination of Queens, New York. For the young Egyptian immigrant, music was a way to fit in and to avoid getting beaten up on a regular basis. "Growing up, we had to fight. Every ethnic group in the US tried to kill us. I became friends with the Dolls' first drummer Billy Murcia because he was an immigrant, too, from Colombia, and we lived in the same neighborhood in Queens and kinds hung together for mutual survival," said Sylvain, who adopted his first name as his last name because he thought it would look good on marquees. "In the end, I made my survival through sound. After all that moving around, the best blessing I had was to learn music in the States. And it's all really the blues. If you strip away the lipstick and high heels and the spectacle, the Dolls were really blues." For the young Sylvain, the American Dream included the opportunity to prance on stages around the world in lipstick and high heels as one of the Dolls' two guitarists, along with Johnny Thunders. Although they self-destructed quickly after releasing only two albums in the early 1970s, The New York Dolls created an intoxicating mix of gritty, blues-based rock and roll, girl-group pop, Mick Jagger-style androgyny from pouty lead singer David Johansen, roaring anarchy, and glam and glitter that influenced a whole generation of musicians in New York and London. Those followers went on a few years later to coopt their music and fashion and call it punk rock. "If anything, the Dolls tore down that invisible wall in front of everybody," said Sylvain. "In 1971, you had to be The Beatles or The Stones to get a record deal. That's the reason we weren't taken seriously. But we were so damn real. We were a speeding racehorse going so fast we stumbled and fell. And that enabled everyone else who was way behind us to run for the bank. Joe Strummer told me he saw us on TV in England. We turned on a whole generation there. In the US, there wasn't really anything to rebel against. Kids all had stereos and cars. In England, nobody had a job, they were all on the dole, rebels looking for a cause." THE DOLLS didn't play by the rules of the mid-'70s rock world, dominated by tuneful singer-songwriters and corporate arena rockers. The danger, excitement and uncertainty that Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison had brought to rock and roll had largely been smothered with an entertainment gloss that had shoehorned rock into another entertainment form based on unit sales. According to Sylvain, The Dolls were out to have fun, provoke, inspire and shock - and despite their outlandish costumes and persona, to make some great music. "When I was a kid in Queens, one of my favorite songs was "Poppa's Got a Brand New Bag" by James Brown. I would play that thing so damn loud, as loud as the stereo would go, and I'd take my clothes off and run around and dance naked. My mother would come home and say 'what are you doing?' and give me a smack. "But I always thought that's what rock and roll should do, to let you release yourself. That's still the most important part," he said. Following the Dolls' dissolution in 1977, Sylvain spent the next 25 years continuing to play with Johansen on solo projects, and record and tour with a slew of CBGB veterans. He became known as a good-time raconteur and savvy music historian, but still the specter of the Dolls hung over his head. While Johansen had moved on to a successful career as R&B crooner Buster Poindexter and various film roles, Sylvain and the rest of the band - Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan, were unable to shake the band's legacy. With Nolan and Thunders both dead by the early '90s, and Kane out of the music business, it seemed unlikely that the Dolls would ever perform again. Enter Morrissey, the former Smiths vocalist and one-time president of the British New York Dolls fan club. In 2004, he invited Sylvain, Johansen and Kane to perform as the Dolls at the Meltdown Festival, a music and cultural festival that he was curating. "David was always the sticking point, and Morrissey was the main instrument in convincing David [Johansen] to get back together. Morrissey's always been a big fan of the Dolls. We were fortunate to have him as president of our UK fanclub, a self-appointed position. It was a position of love," said Sylvain. "It was an easy pill for David to swallow, getting together for a show or two. With me and Arthur, we would have probably been up for it the day after we broke up," he said. According to Sylvain, what happened at those shows was "magic." "We were all so excited. I wrote to a lot of my friends and called them up and the bottom line was 'hey, the world needs to know about the New York Dolls.'" HOWEVER, ONLY a few weeks after the Meltdown show, Kane was abruptly diagnosed with leukemia and died hours later at the age of 55. New York Doll, a superb and touching documentary on the Dolls' reunion focusing on Kane, was released a year later. Sylvain and Johansen remained committed to keeping the Dolls going, and after a replacement was found, the recharged band recorded a new album in 2006, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. "This isn't just nostalgia," said Sylvain. "We made an album that moved the legacy forward, at least on all the cuts that I did. It really had a live kind of feel, which is the way I always make records. And it had that twin guitar sound - one coming out of each side - that classic Dolls sound, just like it was Todd Rundgren-produced in 1973," he added, referring to the band's eponymous debut. Despite the accolades pouring in and the Dolls finally getting their due recognition as rock and roll innovators, Sylvain said he considered the band to be far from a failure in its first incarnation. "I don't really believe that thought that we weren't successful. The true test of an artist is to inspire others, to turn on. In that case, we were number one," he said. Tuesday night, Sylvain and the Dolls will get a chance to thank Morrissey for his kick in the pants when they perform as his opening act at the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv. Although Sylvain wouldn't discuss the chances that the Moz would perform with the Dolls, it wouldn't be out of the question, considering Morrissey knows the band's catalog by heart. Fans preferring to hear the band in a more intimate setting can catch them on Wednesday night at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. For Sylvain, who lands in Tel Aviv on Monday, his first visit to Israel is sure to be one filled with memories. Many of his relatives who fled Egypt in the 1950s made their way here, and he hasn't seen them since. But he's not sure he can make the emotional investment in renewing ties. "I'm just not sure, it's kind of heavy to revisit," he said, adding that he's a proud Jew. "My grandfather on my mother's side was a rabbi. I was bar-mitzved. I grew up Jewish, although the first thing my mother told me when we left Egypt was 'don't tell anybody you're Jewish.'" But he takes a step back when asked if his visit here is part of a pilgrimage back to his roots. "I wish I could answer that, it's kind of bittersweet. I'm just going to go by the moment."