From Cairo to Queens! How ‘modest’ Sylvain helped to change rock music in the seventies

THE modesty in Sylvain Sylvain’s voice is evident as we discuss how his band, New York Dolls, have inspired some of the top rock bands.

Guns ‘N’ Roses — who covered the Dolls’ Human Being — and Kiss were heavily influenced by Sylvain, Billy Murcia, Johnny Thunders and co.

In fact, original Kiss drummer Peter Criss, who grew up with Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan, told Rolling Stone magazine in 2014 that the idea for their trademark make-up came from the Dolls.

“I guess we were groundbreaking, but I didn’t realise that at the time,” Sylvain told me from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

“You know, the sound we helped create just exploded by the late 1970s — those two-note chords, which was dubbed the ‘power chord’.

“It took over, what with The Ramones and Patti Smith, who was probably the most talented musician out of the whole lot back then, and most definitely out of New York.”

Curiously, they have even been championed by Mancunian singer Morrissey, with the former The Smiths’ frontman running the Dolls’ UK fan club and, in 2004, encouraging Sylvain to reform the band.

Going back 30 years, there were more bands stepping into the limelight ahead of the Dolls, something which guitarist Sylvain and his band mates despaired of, if only a little.

As he writes in his autobiography, There’s No Bones in Ice Cream — Sylvain Sylvain’s Story of the New York Dolls (to be published by Omnibus Press on July 19): “It didn’t matter that we were younger than a lot of these other, newer, outfits.

“We were the old, old men of the scene, and it was impossible not to despair a little. That beautiful thing with which we started out had gone forever.

“The blueprint we wrote with blood and glitter had been dumbed down, blanked out and spray-painted with everyday dullness.

“Even the audience that we believed we had created in our own image was gone. No longer a part of the show, now they were just spectators.

“But the New York Dolls were not dead yet. Not while I had something to say about it. We were the Dolls. We would always be the Dolls.”

The band is still central to Sylvain’s life.

“It is probably the reason I am still working at nearly 70,” Sylvain laughed.

“We signed some dirty deals at the time, but I am not bitter about it as I love performing and I’m really good at it, which I should be by now, I guess.”

He started work on his autobiography three years ago, in collaboration with writer Dave Thompson.

And, to mark its launch in the UK, Sylvain is heading to these shores later this month, where he will read extracts from the book and perform some of his iconic songs.

The eight-date tour will take in Hebden Bridge, Blackburn, Manchester, London, Brighton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Forfar.

Sylvain said: “Being in the Dolls was not like going home and hanging up a character in the closest.

“It is something I live with every day — it is in my soul and is the only way I can eat and sleep.

“Nobody had really told our story before.

“I would sometimes speak to fans and they knew more than I did, although some of the things weren’t true — they had just read it somewhere.

“I got a great writer in Dave Thompson, who really understood me and got my drift. Once I got into it, I remembered even more.

“We would talk every day for three hours, but sometimes I had to take a break from it because it was becoming too deep. I guess it was like therapy.”

Forming a band and becoming famous was a distant dream when Sylvain was growing up in Egypt.

Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo on Valentine’s Day, 1951, to Marcelle and David Mizrahi, his family — like so many other Egyptian Jews — began to experience serious problems when Gamal Abdel Nasser, a lieutenant-colonel in the army, masterminded the overthrow of the monarch, King Farouk, in 1956.

Jews began to flee, including Sylvain’s family, who left in 1959.

They went to Paris — French was the family’s first language — where Sylvain, his parents and siblings, Leon and Brigitte, lived in a hotel room for three years.

Sylvain, whose maternal family were Syrian and whose father’s family came from Izmir, Turkey, recalled: “We lived in a penthouse in Cairo and ended up living in one room, the five of us, in Paris.

“My dad worked in a bank, but it was nationalised, so he was thrown out.

“Him and my uncle Victor set up a tailoring business in our penthouse. They taught themselves how to cut shirts, sew buttons and everything else.

“My mom had the job of sewing the stuff together so, at the age of four or five, I was what they called a ‘cranker’, and helped her sew.

“I actually had difficulties with dyslexia, but it wasn’t known back then. I took to being a cranker like a duck to water, so I ended up wanting to become a designer!”

But it was once Sylvain and his family were settled in the New York City borough of Queens that music came to the fore.

His father had bought him an oud when he was four.

“I fell in love with that whole Arabic beat,” Sylvain recalled. “Then, when we moved to America, I fell in love with girl groups like The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes.”

Not that life was initially easy when the Mizrahis moved to New York.

“The first English words I learned were ‘f*** you’,” he continued. “Kids would come up to me and asked if I spoke English and when I said no, they would say, ‘f*** you’ to me.”

At school, however, he found a kindred spirit in fellow immigrant Billy Murcia, who arrived in America from Colombia.

They played in a band called the Pox, practising in Murcia’s parents’ garage in nearby Jackson Heights.

But, after the band’s frontman quit, the duo started a clothing business called Truth and Soul, while Sylvain also worked at a men’s boutique — which was across the street from a doll repair shop called New York Doll Hospital.

“We became best buddies and we went into business together,” Sylvain said. “We stuck together — that’s how it was.”

In 1970, the twosome formed a band again, recruiting Johnny Thunders and calling themselves New York Dolls.

After a period of metamorphosis, the original line-up, which featured Sylvain, Murcia, Thunders, lead singer David Johansen and bass guitarist Arthur Kane, began to attract a cult following.

Like the city they were from, the band was a melting pot of ethnicities — Jewish, Sicilian, Irish and Norwegian.

“Our big break came thanks to Roy Hollingsworth, a journalist who covered New York for Melody Maker,” Sylvain said.

“He brought Leee Black Childers, the photographer, to take pictures of us and we ended up in the centrefold of Melody Maker. Overnight we became superstars across America.”

They were invited to open for the Faces, at the Empire Pool — now Wembley Arena — in 1972.

But, on a later tour of England, tragedy struck when 21-year-old Murcia died of a drugs overdose.

He was replaced by Jerry Nolan.

“It is horrible that a band becomes more famous because one of them passed away, but that was the way it was,” explained Sylvain, still emotional talking about his friend Murcia.

A year later, the Dolls released their debut, self-titled album, produced by Todd Rundgren — lauded by many as one of the best debut records in rock music and one of the greatest albums of all time.

“We exploded in England, too,” Sylvain recalled. “The kids were bored, man — they wanted to go back to what turned them on to begin with as in sexy and catchy songs which make you feel good.”

A month after the album was released, in August 1973, music impresario Malcolm McLaren, who was raised by his maternal Jewish family in London, and his wife, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, were in New York for the National Boutique Fair.

There, they met Sylvain and his band members and ended up designing the Dolls’ stage costumes.

The band toured all over Europe, but, despite their son’s success, Sylvain’s parents were not too enamoured of his career choice.

He explained: “They didn’t like it, at all, man. They had plans for me to become a sort of scholar, like a number of our relatives.

“Music is my first love, though. When we lived in Paris, we lived five blocks away from the Olympia Theatre, where Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf performed, all the top stars my mother loved.

“Olympia is like Carnegie Hall is to New Yorkers or the Royal Albert Hall is to Londoners.

“Mom never told anyone in the family that I was a musician until 1973, when we took a gig at the Olympia.

“Then, when I told her where we were playing, she called everybody, telling them, ‘Sylvain is so famous’ and ‘Sylvain, he is a musician’.

“It was funny after all that rejection.”

New York Dolls released a second album, the aptly-titled Too Much Too Soon in 1974, but, a year later, the Dolls, due to the usual tale of drugs and artistic differences, began to dissolve.

The end came when a patched-up band, without Kane, played their last show in December, 1976.

“David and I kept the name, at least, alive for another 18 months, but that was it,” Sylvain added.

“We only lasted, originally, around five years, but there are kids today of 16 and 18 who still see our music as new.

“We were stupid to let it go — I guess we didn’t know what the hell we had.

“The fame, or whatever you want to call it, and our managers were terrible, but we were a brotherhood.

“Once we started making the first album, I felt the thing lost its pizzazz — for me, anyway.”

Sylvain went on to form his own band, The Criminals, with former Doll Tony Machine, and released a number of albums, both with them and as a solo artist.

He moved to Los Angeles, then Atlanta, with wife Wanda and, in 2004, he and Johansen reformed the Dolls — without Thunders, who had died in 1991.

Further tragedy hit the band when Kane passed away in July, 2004.

The new incarnation of the band released three records — One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, Cause I Sez So and Dancing Backward in High Heels.

“When Johnny was alive, we got offers to get back together, but the only one who didn’t want to do it was Johansen, so it never happened,” said Sylvain, who has a son, Odell.

“It was actually Morrissey who convinced him to do it, back in 2004. Morrissey has shown us all the love in the world.”

The reformed Dolls went on to do a UK tour and played at various music festivals, too.

“I am sad it lasted only six or seven years,” Sylvain added. “If we had played our cards better, we really would have delivered.

“One thing you can be sure of in showbusiness is your audience. When you forget about them, you can just forget about it.”

Earlier this year, though, Sylvain teamed up with Steve Conte, Sami Yaffa and Robert Eriksson for two one-off dates in Tokyo as the Dolls.

As well as his solo work, he formed Sylvain Sylvain and the Sylvains three years ago.

“After all these years, I’m getting good at what I do,” he quipped.

He first played a show in Israel in 2009, but remembers it as a bittersweet experience.

Sylvain said: “It is not because I don’t love Israel, because I do.

“I always asked my father why didn’t we move to Israel, as it was right next door to Egypt and everyone else seemed to have gone there.

“He told me it was because religious wars last forever — and I agree with him.

“When I went to Israel, I felt like I was going into a place that has been in a state of war.

“I have always been a believer in God, as in if you do good, then you are doing God’s work in a way, but if you do bad, then you are doing the devil’s work.

“I am not a religious person, really. For me, it is more about being a good person.”

As for his upcoming UK tour, it is something he is really looking forward to.

“I’ll tell some stories about the Dolls, which will then segue into songs,” Sylvains said.

“I also do a cover of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale, but in a different way, as I tend to do everything in a different way!

“We have guest stars lined up, too, including Alison Gordy, who worked a lot with Johnny Thunders.”

As we come to the end of the interview, I again mention the Dolls’ impact on subsequent bands, especially Guns ‘N’ Roses and Kiss.

Sylvain retorted, again in a self-deprecating manner: “It was the sound we started with and I am sticking with it because that is all I know.

“I guess we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now had those bands not been influenced by the Dolls.”

* Follow Sylvain Sylvain on Twitter: @lesnewyorkdolls

© 2018 Jewish Telegraph