More Than a Few Words With the Incomparable Sylvain Sylvain
If rock and roll is about separating the wheat from the chaff, about seeing talent shimmer in a city of endless mundane moments, and about surviving the ups and downs of the limelight and our limited time on Earth, then Sylvain Sylvain is practically heroic. Despite his career of sex-fueled bastard rock jetting into the public consciousness since his early-1970s days in the unparalleled New York Dolls, Sylvain is still entirely vital, plugged-in and upbeat today. As a man of raucous laughs, not derision and regret, he remains a guiding light.
Sure, Johnny Thunders might have been the Dolls' pinup bad boy who quickly cemented his reportoire of pre-punk gestures – electric chops, a ballsy strut and sizzling finger-on-the-frets acrobatics. But Sylvain Sylvain was the tunesmith and anchor behind long-favored steady-rockin’ tunes like “Frankenstein” and “Puss ‘N’ Boots.” He was an artful-dodger kid who could create eye-grabbing clothes just as much as a sultry power chord. The two compatriots were twin engines of a ribald cultural epoch compressed into two albums that set forth templates for punk and glam-metal. As the Dolls got dolled up, gender-bending became pronounced as a seminal rock and roll legacy.
Sylvain’s stripped-down solo career has been a return to basics: a love of melody, AM-radio singalongs, and a nod to short, sharp, unfussy hit parades of the 1950s, like his hip-shaking roots rollick “Teenage News” and “14th Street Beat,” as well as the charmed “Ain’t Got No Home.” Whereas Thunders aimed for bleak ruminations, Sylvain launched tunes that embraced a musical life of ardor and jukebox kicks. “I’m So Sorry” could have been a Tommy James tune, and “I Can’t Forget Tomorrow” evokes more bubblegum pop than the Knack. Thunders felt dire and destructive. Sylvain felt buzzing and restless, and still does.
The Press' David Ensminger reached him at home before his late-summer tour that swings into Fitzgerald's Saturday night.
L-R: Sylvain Sylvain performs with Batusis at Mango's in 2010; Sylvain takes a selfie
Photo by David Ensminger (left)/Courtesy of Sylvain Sylvain
Houston Press: Your parents moved from Egypt and eventually made their way to New York City in the 1950s. Did that sense of dislocation, immigration and resettlement shape your youthful perspective?
Sylvain Sylvain: Oh God, yes. First of all...they didn’t leave the Middle East. They were thrown out. Everything my daddy had was nationalized. But then again, it was in the middle of the whole Zionist thing, so being a Jew in Egypt in the middle of the 1950s was not the smartest thing I guess, although we had been there for centuries and centuries, but anyway it definitely did. I still use that tabla thing, the Arabic [makes the sound of thrusting rhythms] thing, that’s still in my rock and roll. And when we moved to France, all the kids in Paris...well, my brother took me to see King Creole [starring] Elvis Presley in the movie houses over there. The only way I can describe it to you is like going to see that scary one over here [Rocky Horror Picture Show] when everyone comes in and sings along all dressed up. It was just like that. All the guys had the haircut, the pompadour haircuts like Elvis, and they all brought guitars and bongos, and the girls were dancing in the aisles.
I said, “Oh my God.” I loved it. There were all kinds of rock and roll stars that were on the radio at the time in Paris when I was growing up. It introduced me to rock and roll, and I didn’t know it was American rock and roll. I thought it was French, like Johnny Hallyday singing [Sylvain sings first in French, then in English], “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” Eddie Cochran was amazing, like huge in France, but Johnny was bigger than Eddie Cochran. I got introduced to all that stuff. It was amazing. So when I got to the States, I was already all into it.
When we were in France, my father got a letter. We were brought to the states by an American Jewish community. We could only live where they wanted us to move to. And they sent a letter to my father in Paris, and they said, OK, you can go to, like wherever, Baltimore, Detroit...like five places. One of them said, Buffalo, New York. We already had some relatives that had moved to Brooklyn. My father didn’t know any better, so he said, how far can that be, Brooklyn to Buffalo? So, that was his choice. So, they shuffled us up to Buffalo.
I got my first turntable from Sears in Buffalo. And my first record, which was my brother-in-law’s actually, was the “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters. We kept on playing it because we could only afford one record! [laughs]. We kept on playing that, and the great thing about that house...was it had an upright piano. I remember my uncle showing me, because he was a musician, he used to play the accordion, and he introduced me to the keyboards. So, I started playing by ear. When I was big enough, they started taking me to music school.
L-R: Sylvain Sylvain performs with Batusis at Mango's in 2010; Sylvain takes a selfie
Photo by David Ensminger (left)/Courtesy of Sylvain Sylvain
You’ve talked about the New York Dolls being a self-made band a la the Little Rascals — you guys made your own clothes, set up gigs at the Mercer Arts Center. To some degree, was that hustle and Do-It-Yourself attitude just as important as the music?
Well, we had no choice because there was no club. There was nothing. This was the era of…well, even with the bands we loved in the 1970s, like The Who, were now playing stuff I didn’t like too well; it is called basically opera-rock, like Tommy and stuff like that. And they were all doing it. They had lost three chord progressions, the blues of the song, the sexiness of the lyrics, whatever. It was instrumental. The Dolls were born from boredom, like “What’s going on?” Nothing.
I always had a Little Rascal kind of attitude. Like, “Hey man, you bored? Let’s start a show!” And that’s what we did. “Where are we going to get the make-up?” Well, “Your girlfriend’s got a lot of makeup in her bag.” Well, good. [Laughs] We were like club kids, but there was no club. So, we had to steal from other people and other places, like Max’s Kansas City. A lot of people, I don’t want to get off the highway, but a lot of people consider New York Dolls as CBGB, or CGBG as New York Dolls, but that was in 2005 or 2006. Not the original one [Dolls]. It opened up its doors in 1975, but the New York Dolls started in 1970-71, so the place back then was Max’s Kansas City...and we really owned that place. Mickey Ruskin’s biggest clientele was the Andy Warhol’s superstars and the Velvet Underground. It was the band. They saw us as trying to make fun of them, but they were really gay [laughs]. We were sorta gay [laughs].
Gender-bending, ambiguity, and drag is very commonplace these days, but for you guys not so much. Do you think you were gender-bending or was it just fashion?
Nah, nah, nah. The pants I started making...basically I saw Rod Stewart wearing. Gold lame. I think I am going to make a couple. I am going to put cowboy britches on the side. Make them out of black lame instead of gold. We all borrowed. It was basically Capri pants from the 1950s, like Marilyn Monroe except her zipper was in the back and my zipper was in the front.
In terms of your solo career, you seemed to be more successful in Europe. Was that because the Dolls were more successful in Europe, or because they were more tuned into what you were doing?
I wouldn’t put it that way, really. England was really the first place to pick up on the Dolls, but also it wasn’t England, it was just London. And it wasn’t most of the States. It was just the big cities that picked up on it. But you had like artists mixed in with, you know, a little bit of being discovered, and of course, if you are like that, you are going to end up in the East Village, or in your city the kind of caliber of place where it is inexpensive to live, where you can be yourself while walking around in the 1970s with makeup and certain clothes.
I remember walking to Mercer Arts Center and getting harassed every block. Sometimes it got really, really crazy, and you had to split and run. But that’s the way it was, and I think although we weren’t gay, I was mistaken for being gay when I went to high school because I had bellbottoms and wore Beatle boots. Eventually, they threw me out of school because of that. They chucked my education because of that, you know. I think the one thing is, you have to stand up for the ones that are struggling, and it we did that, and we made their lives any simpler later on, I’m proud as hell. I’m proud as hell. I would do the same thing over again.
Another shot of Batusis at Mango's, and the poster for Saturday's show at Fitz
Left photo by David Ensminger
The Dolls were a mélange of so much stuff — the blues, jazz, cabaret, and 1960s rock and roll – but your solo career is different. Did you want to get back to that Eddie Cochran kind of rock and roll?
It’s all my influences put together, of course. You do that in whatever situation you are in, whether it was in the Dolls or when I perform in a group kind of situation. You introduce or you play the things you love and you stick with it. It’s the same with any project I go into, especially when I go into the studio. I let the song record itself, basically. I let it produce itself. If you are there, with time, with the tune, she’s gonna call the shots. Listen, I want to hear a piano that sounds like a drum, or whatever [laughs]. Now, I am calling Ringo Starr [laughs].
You gotta go with the tune because she is the one that should call the shots, not the producer, not the lead singer, not the guitar player, because he will just put a whole bunch of guitars at the top, and the lead singers want their voice way up and the band way down somewhere, and you can’t...well, what does she [the song] want to do? I think so few producers do that. Because none of them are what I call Brill Building [Broadway] trainees, like classic stuff. Guy comes in from the corner, hey, I got a tune, OK, sit down on the piano and let me hear it [laughs]. And then you start recording it. Like why make everything...well, [now] they EQ stuff. All of a sudden they lose it. Okay, now the drums don’t sound like drums anymore, and what happened to the guts of the tune? It’s been lost, and now they have to introduce a million things just to get it back to sounding like a drum again! It’s like please, forget it!
When I think about your songs “I Can’t Forget Tomorrow,” “The Kids Are Back” and “Teenage News,” those are really stripped down songs that few people were doing, except for the Ramones and Robert Gordon.
He’s kind of cheating on the hook, you know, like an Eddie Cochran song. It’s gotta have something in there too, and I don’t love to write like homework. I’m not into that, like, “go home and write a tune” kind of guy. You kind of have to live a little bit of life, then you have something and you have to write that tune. It’s been flowing in your head and the only way to manifest it is to write it.
You’ve said that rock and roll is funny, sexy, daring, and political. How do you envision the Dolls, or your own work, as being political?
Ah political, it’s between the grooves as the old folk singers used to say. Not too much political, but I did write the song “Tu es Formidable/ Formidable” … David helped me a little bit with some of the lyrics. It’s about a guy who got his girl in trouble, and she’s intent on getting rid of it, and he’s going, “c’mon please, its going to be good.” Like I know I don’t have any money but hang in there [“this is something we can share …”]. And who would bring, or sing anything about, abortion?
Or your newer song “Dance Like a Monkey,” in which you take on the Creationists?
Right, right. Actually, “Dance Like a Money,” I kind of did that like homework, I have to admit! So now I am going against myself [laughs]. It came about on the first New York Dolls album the second time around, the 2006 album. And when we were writing tunes for that, I was sort of musical director in a way, and I’m trying to shake the guys and say, “Make it the Dolls, and make it this.” You know, keep the Johnny Thunders in there somehow. [Singer David] Johansen was coming up with all these things he wrote with his piano player years before, and man, I was like, “I’m done.” One of those songs came out on the album. and I didn’t even perform on it, although it said I did. I couldn’t stand it, but anyways it was in such a different direction and it was not the New York Dolls whatsoever.
So, I’m like, OK, David is always associated with Mick Jagger; whether he likes it or not, it has always happened. Okay fine. All right, second, Mick Jagger is always associated with a monkey [laughs]...I came up with that riff [mimics the riff] and I came up with the line, “Dance like a monkey, dance like a monkey, child.” And then we recorded it. The only thing was, we recorded about 20 songs for that album, and it was left for the very end. David was never very crazy about it. “What I am going to do with this?”, he said to me. I was like, “You know that whole Creationist thing going on?”
I was living in Georgia at the time. I sent my son to public school, and one day he came home with a letter from the principal or something like that. It was a school letter, and it said, if you want, they can take your son out of science and give him, basically, not Bible school, but Creationism and all that kind of stuff. I said, “Oh my God.” I couldn’t believe it first of all. I said, “Ah man, this is not New York, is it?” I was shocked, so I had that conversation with David about the whole thing. He came back a few days later with these incredible lyrics. I said, I don’t know if that’s going to make it into the record because of words like “polymorphisise” you and all that kind of stuff! [laughs] It was like, I don’t know, but I was game for it.
He put it together, and I went in there first and sang it, the melody, where you should put it down and how it should be. He went back home, did his thing, so all of his syllables would be in time, and everything would fit and rhyme, and we came up with it, but it was the last tune we worked on. I think if we would have worked on that tune just maybe a little longer, and it wasn’t the last tune, I think it really would have broke through, but then again…
If past is prologue, what have your learned that you put towards your future still?
Just make sure there is no heroin around anybody, and that’s it. Everything else I’ll do again in the same way. Why not? It’s all good.
Sylvain Sylvain performs Saturday night at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, with special guests Killer Hearts, Modfag and Dead Roses. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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