Sylvain Sylvain is best known as one of the original members of the New York Dolls. With a long solo career under his belt, and after the reformation of the New York Dolls, he is gigging relentlessly – most recently on an acoustic tour with former Sex Pistol Geln Matlock. We caught up with Sylvain as he lines some dates up on this side of the Atlantic to hear about his latest venture…. and to get back to his roots and the music that inspired him to pick up a guitar in the first place. Interview by Richard Cubesville.
RC: When was the last time you were over here?
SS: I think 2011 – we had three shows playing with Alice Cooper.. We played three gigs and I think one was up in Manchester… but you know, I can’t be sure.
RC: I know it – it becomes a bit of a blur.
SS: I’m coming over and I’m bringing my power trio I’ve got together – both my bandmates are English – first of all Gary Powell is going to be joining me which I’m really happy about because I haven’t played with him since 2004, and I think that he should have been the New York Dolls drummer. And I’ve got Jerome Alexandre who’s going to be playing the bass – he’s been doing some gigs with Pete Doherty. And we’re going to have a blast. I’m going to be doing songs from the original New York Dolls – Personality Crisis, Pills, Showdown and Trash. And I do other songs like by the Velvet Underground and Johnny Thunders, and it’s going to be cool man, I really can’t wait to get there. Who knows what’s going to happen when I do? I’m bringing in special guest stars, depending on who’s in town that evening and who comes to see Sylvain. That’s how I do my special guest spots.
RC: I must say I’m quietly disappointed that you’re only performing as a trio because I was greatly impressed with your solo work which dragged in influences from everywhere – bits of honky tonk or a healthy helping of rock n roll and do-wop.
SS: Well, we still can. The way I see it is that recording is one thing and performing is another. When you go in the studio, depending on what budget you have and how much good stuff you’ve been smoking… and sometimes I like to give the song what it calls for, whatever that is. That’s the way to go with recording, because you’re trying to make magic. You’re not trying to be better than magic, because it won’t go and it won’t be remembered at all. But with performance, it’s between me and the audience, because the audience are going to take you where you’re going to go. For me I like a 1-2 punch and keeping it happy and sexy and stuff. Give me a good drummer – I could do the whole show with just the drummer. It’s going to be a little bit striptease, but it’s going to be a fucking good show.
RC: Something I wanted to ask you – I’ve got this theory that our musical makeup is dictated by something I call Big Brother’s Record Collection. You know when you’re about 14 or 15 and there’s an older sibling or friend and you look at their record collection and go: “Wow, that’s cool!” And you carry that throughout your life – it’s always just a little bit before you appeared and made your mark. What were the influences you carried with you?
SS: Oh, the girl groups. My first big one with the girl groups was Be My Baby by the Ronnettes. Phil Spector put out that shit at the peak of girl groups if you want to put it that way. That and the mixing of Eddie Cochraine is rock n roll – the way he would write his songs on the guitar with three chords was sexy. It wasn’t like an opera, it wasn’t like a science where you’ve got to write this great piece. I’ve always kept his songs with me in the bars we used to play, you know, C’mon Everybody, and it came out in the last show the New York Dolls were properly together in 1975 with Malcolm MacLaren – my good friend from the clothing business who I had brought back to help us out after we had been abandoned by our manager. Actually me and him, we went down to New Orleans in 1975. We broke up in Florida so I took him to New Orleans. I don’t know if the shops are still there, but there was a street called Magazine Street and it was full of vinyl records and these went back to the 1940s. I found Easy Rider Blues by Meade Lux Lewis and it was on a 78.
RC: On Shellac?
SS: Yeah, and it weighed about a couple of pounds. The B-side Malcolm noticed right away was Huey “Piano” Smith with Don’t You Just Know it. These were the days when record companies would put two artists on a record – the better-known would go on the A-side. These were the songs, the blues. I think that’s what made the New York Dolls different from a lot of other bands – we had the blues in us. At least I hope we did. It was based on three chord progression and solos that were improvised and somewhat of a melody like on the solo for Jet Boy, which I never got credited for. You have something of a map, but you’re fucking flying – you achieve levitation if you can when you’re playing together and jamming and making a band. If everyone sings too and the audience sings – my show by the way is a singalong with people getting drunk and going nuts.
RC: I was trying to think of two bands who had influenced the UK punk scene and there was yourselves and Doctor Feelgood – two R&B bands who really shook things up.
SS: Doctor Feelgood were one of my favourite bands to go and see. Malcolm actually introduced me to Wilko Johnson. I think they were starting to come out when we broke up in 1975. But what an incredible guitar player. I do a song in their fashion, which is Cell Block Number 9. Now that song, you don’t need anything more than a guitar, bass and drums.
RC: They were like a machine – guitar, bass and drums going at it like clockwork.
SS: Yeah, when you get a thing like that you can’t fucking beat it man. And that’s live. I’ve never really had the opportunity to bring in an orchestra – well, RCA did on my first album, which was a sad session, as Johnny Thunders would have called it. And anyway, made my song sound Egyptian which was where I was born and was trying to get the fuck away from.
RC: For me what the New York Dolls did was to take rock n roll, do-wop and blues influences and subvert them. It wasn’t these clean-cut kids – it was whatever the other side was. For me that was very influential and opened up possibilities for people.
SS: Well that was never a conscious thing. If the New York Dolls had sat at a round table and had a meeting, we might still be together today. We were just flying by the seat of our pants and we were basically Ground Zero for that revolution in sound if you want to call it that. It was more than just music – it became a liftstyle and places to hang out and places to go and shop for how you want to look.
RC: You came to music through fashion really…
SS: That was it – me and the original New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia used to have a shop in the Woodstock township, a year before the festival by the way in 1968. It became Truth and Soul and came back to the city. Between that time we were doing the fieldwork as musicians and learning how to play the blues.
One of the best shows I’ve seen in my life, and it was solely by mistake, was in 1967 during the summer in New York in Central Park. They would have concerts, and the beers in New York would sponsor them – like schaefer and Valentine. The shows would only be a dollar and they would have two acts a night – jazz, rock, soul, country, everything. One night I paid my dollar and I went to see the Young Rascals – they had the big hit of the summer, I forget what the song was. We went early to catch the opening band, who weren’t listed on the ticket.
So this guy comes on with an English accent and he’s going: “Get it on for the first time in the United States, ladies and gentlemen Jimi Hendrix and the Experience.” First of all they each have one stack of Marshall amps – we had never seen Marshall amps before. I went to see the Who a couple of weeks before and they used to use customs and Sunn amps – they were pretty big, but they weren’t like a full stack of Marshalls. And they come out and the way they dress is really cool in these flowered shirts and red trousers and all this shit you know. And then of course they fucking start and they play and they play and they play. And the whole audience we were going fucking nuts.
We were all standing on our seats and going fucking bezerk. And by the way, they were playing songs that were common to us. Like Hey Joe was a staple – if you wanted to get a gig down in Greenwich Village you had to play Hey Joe and Wild Thing – they were Top 40 hits. Later we knew who Jimi Hendrix was but we were going fucking nuts. He got a standing ovation and he broke the guitar… and then they go and the Young Rascals come on. And we had changed about 300 years you know.
RC: Not an act you want to follow…
SS: We had changed so much. And they were so boring. They looked shocked themselves you know. And their guitar player, Gene Cornish, he’s got a Fender amplifier. Now he’s trying to get feedback – when you get feedback from a Fender it’s a whistler it’s a whole different ball game. And then he’s hitting his guitar neck on his amplifier. That was it man. We stood up and we started booing him. We walked out, honest to god man. It was the greatest show – a life-changing moment.
RC: So the Young Rascals went from flavour of the month with the summer hit, to last year’s thing in about half an hour or so.
SS: Exactly, and that’s the way it should be. I love those moments in life and I think I caused a few of them with the New York Dolls. And on that note, do you think that’s a good place to leave this interview or what?
RC: I think it’s a good place and leaves some hope for the future; that whatever we believe in will be upturned by someone at some point in the future.
SS: Well there you go. There you go my friend.