Sylvain Sylvain has died. As the guitarist and co-founder of the New York Dolls, Sylvain charted an unpredictable course between the forces of hard rock, glam, and the earliest dregs of what would one day be punk at the dawn of the ’70s New York club scene, marrying fashion, cynicism, and a frequently determined lack of interest in musicianship into a bold new iteration of modern music. Reviving the group to surprise acclaim in the early 2000s with his old colleague David Johansen (also known, around other genres, by his stage name, Buster Poindexter), Sylvain took his place as an elder statesman in the world of modern rock, acknowledged—regardless of whatever specific genre you might hope to pin him into—as one of the pioneers of underground music in the 1970s. Per Pitchfork, he died yesterday, after a year-long battle with cancer. Sylvain was 69.
Born Sylvain Mizrahi, in Egypt in the early 1950s, Sylvain got his start in the music business from an angle that reflected many of the Dolls’ obsessions: A clothing company he created with co-founder Billy Murcia. (His mother apparently insisted he learn the trade, after being told he wanted to go into music.) The two would later perform together in Actress, and then, a few months later, Sylvain would slot into the opening lineup for the just-founded New York Dolls. Fashions would change, notoriety would come and go, and members would depart—more often than not in tragic fashion, as with Murcia’s death after an overdose in 1972—but Sylvain stuck with the band throughout its original incarnation, playing guitar and piano on cult hit albums like their 1973 self-titled release, and 1974's Too Much Too Soon.
Clad in spandex—with the band’s first-ever gold lame pants cut by Sylvain himself—and often aggressively amusical, Sylvain and the Dolls charted a path that dipped in and out of the worlds of hard rock, glam, and proto-punk, landing at an intersection of influences (and influencees) that ranged from the Rolling Stones, to Lou Reed et. al, to David Bowie and beyond. Admittedly driven by attitude and energy more than any great devotion to technical skill, Sylvain and his bandmates reportedly annoyed producer Todd Rundgren during the production of New York Dolls—which didn’t stop the album from becoming a cult success. (If not a commercial one; the New York Dolls never ended up being the kind of rock legends that made its members rich.)
Weighed down by a variety of addictions, personality conflicts, and flagging popularity, the New York Dolls broke up in 1976, sending its members spiraling out into the wider music ecosystem. But Sylvain, the self-styled diplomat, managed to keep in touch with almost all of them, from future Heartbreakers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, to former frontman Johansen, to bass player Arthur Kane. Meanwhile, he continued to play, bouncing from working with his band The Criminals, to solo work, to a stint spent working as a New York cab driver. Here he is in an interview with Brooklyn Vegan in 2006, talking about that period of his life:
Oh yeah, I did everything. I actually even did surveillance, once. I was hired by this insurance company. I didn’t know anything about criminology or anything. I was supposed to stand on some corner and take pictures of such and such people because they were cheating on their wives or whatever. It was like crazy. I did everything. I even went back into the clothing business that I dropped out of years and years ago. I started a cap company, making hats.
In 2004, Dolls fan Morrissey arranged a reunion of the band’s (scant) surviving members, bringing Sylvain, Johansen, and Kane together for a reunion. Kane would die, of cancer, shortly after, but Sylvain and Johansen stuck it out, releaseing three well-received albums over the next decade: 2006's One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, 2009's Cause I Sez So, and 2011's Dancing Backwards In High Heels. And while the band’s second stab at life eventually flamed out—less destructively, this time—Sylvain continued to relentlessly play, at least until 2019, when he announced his cancer diagnosis.
Sylvain Sylvain came up in the music world at a time when there was no blueprint for punk rock rebellion—which is why he had to help invent it. (In that same Brooklyn Vegan interview, he refers, more than once, to the band’s early efforts as a Little Rascals-esque “Let’s put on a show!” production.) Infesting the few available venues in New York in the early 1970s, he, the New York Dolls, and their various contemporaries threw themselves at the music, the fashion, the lifestyle they aspired to, becoming rock gods through sheer force of will more than any sort of platonic ideal of musical supremacy. And through it all, Sylvain kept playing, even as he suffered through years of financial droughts, efforts at playing peacemaker between the band’s various powerful emotional tides, and the sheer dragging force of time. Here he is, in one more excerpt from that 2006 interview, talking about the release of One Day It Will Please Us:
And who the hell makes Rock and Roll records, anyway? My kind of Rock and Roll was funny, it was sexy, it was daring, it was political, yes, when it needed to be. Call me stupid, but I still think one day Rock and Roll will save the world.