(Sleep) Baby Doll: Remembering Sylvain Sylvain

The beloved New York Dolls guitarist lost his battle with cancer on January 13

Sylvain Sylvain (Art: Ron Hart)

The New York Dolls weren’t the only great band that emerged from the decade of the seventies, but they were right in the Top Ten of that list.

Their mix of hard-rocking protopunk, NYC sass and girl group dynamics was something the world wasn’t quite ready for in 1973, but the legacy endured over time.

The rhythm guitarist for that band was Sylvain Sylvain (alternately known as Syl Sylvain), who died of cancer at age 69, on Jan. 13.

The five individual personalities of the Dolls were so strong that you can’t really single out one member as the central character. However, there were two distinct runs of the band – the original lineup that disbanded in ’77, and the reunited 21st century edition. Both versions, in the end, wound up with two original members – lead singer David Johansen, and Sylvain.

Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt before moving to France with his parents and then New York, at the age of eleven he tuned in and turned on to WMCA, a local Top 40 station. This was the early sixties, when the Twist was the rage, and there were a ton of dance-craze, surf, doo-wop and girl group records saturating the airwaves. Young Syl absorbed all this like a sponge. In his book There’s No Bones In Ice Cream (his history of the New York Dolls), Sylvain related: “All the little ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that were so much of our signature sound, and songs like (the Shangri-Las’) ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’ and (the Chantays’) ‘Pipeline’…I played them all the time when I was a kid, and we played them even more later, when the Dolls were starting.” This alchemical formula of early sixties rock & roll + 1970s distorted guitars would later be the blueprint for the Ramones, but the Dolls definitely had it first.

 

VIDEO: Sylvain Sylvain “(Sleep) Baby Doll”

After the Dolls disbanded, Sylvain remained visible for years with several solo projects. While unmistakably filtered through the same punk aesthetic that he helped start, that old WMCA influence was detectable as well. I saw him, and interviewed him for a local magazine in 1998 when he played the Beat Kitchen in Chicago. His newest CD was (Sleep) Baby Doll; because of space considerations, we could barely use half of what he said, but the conversation was pretty lively and filled both sides of the tape. He even laughingly addressed the fact that both he and bandmate Johnny Thunders appeared to be “stuffed” in the groin area, on the back cover of the Dolls’ first album, blaming it on his Jewish heritage and Johnny’s Italian background. 

Aside from the Dolls reunion, Sylvain formed the Batusis with Cheetah Chrome (formerly of the Dead Boys), and kept playing until being sidetracked by cancer in the last couple of years. In an odd way, it was almost appropriate that he passed just a few days before Phil Spector, noted record producer whose Ronettes and Crystals sides were likely a huge influence on Sylvain.

While the Dolls replaced the huge orchestra with raunchy guitar, bass and drums, it wasn’t hard to hear the basis of their own sound, which originated with them alone.

 

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James Porter

James Porter writes about rock & soul history. He is also a DJ on Chicago's WLUW.

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