Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, a founding member of the seminal punk band New York Dolls, died last week after a battle with cancer, his wife announced. The Egyptian-born rocker was 69.
Sylvain was diagnosed with cancer two-and-a-half years ago and died Wednesday, according to a Facebook post from spouse, Wendy Mizrahi. He was one of the five original members when the Dolls launched in 1971, joined by singer David Johansen, fellow guitarist Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane and drummer Billy Murcia.
The quintet quickly became one of the most prominent and influential bands in the city’s nascent punk movement before imploding in 1976.
“My best friend for so many years,” wrote Johansen on Instagram. “I can still remember the first time I saw him bop into the rehearsal space/bicycle shop with his carpetbag and guitar straight from the plane after having been deported from Amsterdam. I instantly loved him. I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning.”
The self-titled debut album by the Dolls, with the band in drag on its cover, included the classic “Personality Crisis” and the pop-rock track “Trash.” Rolling Stone magazine cited the LP as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Though the band never managed a hit and disappeared after five tumultuous years, the influence of the Dolls was undeniable. Bands such as Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, The Smiths and Kiss were among the groups reflecting the sound and style of the Lower East Side quintet.
Sylvain and Johansen reformed the band in 2004, subsequently releasing three new albums and touring. Johansen now remains the sole surviving member of the legendary group.
Sylvain was born Sylvain Mizrahi to a Syrian Jewish family in Cairo in 1951. His family left during the Suez Crisis, which triggered a renewed wave of antisemitism across the Middle East after Israel attempted to help British and French forces take over the Suez Canal in 1956.
“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 the Dolls’ first appearance in Israel in 2008. “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.
Many of his relatives who fled Egypt in the 1950s made their way their way to Israel.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a rabbi. I was bar-mitzvahed. I grew up Jewish, although the first thing my mother told me when we left Egypt was ‘Don’t tell anybody you’re Jewish,’” he told the Post.
“His role in the band was as linchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision,” wrote musician and rock historian Lenny Kaye, a guitarist in Patti Smith’s band.
“Though he tried valiantly to keep the band going, in the end the Dolls’ moral fable overwhelmed them, not before seeding an influence that would engender many rock generations yet to come.” (New York Daily News/TNS)
David Brinn and JTA contributed to this report.