Sylvain Sylvain, the punk icon and guitarist for New York Dolls whose riffs bridged the gap between punk and glam, died Wednesday. He was 69. The musician, who also contributed piano and songwriting to the groundbreaking band’s first two albums, had been battling cancer.
“As most of you know, Sylvain battled cancer for the past two and 1/2 years,” his wife, Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi, wrote in a statement on his Facebook page. “Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease. While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain. Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”
The group’s self-titled 1973 debut album remains a landmark in rock music, with Rolling Stone naming it to the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. “Glammed-out punkers the New York Dolls snatched riffs from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and fattened them with loads of attitude and reverb,” we wrote at the time. “Produced by Todd Rundgren, songs like ‘Personality Crisis’ and ‘Bad Girl’ drip with sleaze and style … It’s hard to imagine the Ramones or the Replacements or a thousand other trash-junky bands without them.”
The androgynous, proto-punk group channeled their love of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, MC5 and the Stooges into hard-driving rock songs with a pop sheen, wearing flamboyant outfits and makeup that would set the fashion template for a generation of kids from Manhattan and beyond.
Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, his family moved to France before settling in New York. He was a member of the band Actress featuring Arthur Kane, Johnny Thunders and Billy Murcia before co-founding New York Dolls — the group took their name from the toy repair shop New York Doll Hospital — in 1971. While he served as the group’s guitarist, their first two albums — New York Dolls and 1974’s Too Much Too Soon — featured Mizrahi on piano and songwriting contributions.
“It took us forever to get a record deal, to get into the business,” Mizrahi told The Quietus in 2018. “But our songs were hits. The kids knew ‘Personality Crisis’, they knew ‘Trash’, they knew all those songs way before we even released them. They made us superstars.”
“When they came into the studio with [‘Personality Crisis’], it was already an important song,” album engineer Jack Douglas told Sound on Sound in 2009. “It was Syl who decided to add the piano — even at that time he was a very decent player. It definitely gave the song more edge.” Rolling Stone placed “Personality Crisis” at 267 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
But it was their live show that earned the band its warranted shocking reputation. The group steadily built up a cult following through regular performances at New York clubs CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, pioneering a sleazy, androgynous look culled from makeshift outfits.
“In the Dolls, it was really a little bit like The Little Rascals,” Sylvain told Vogue in 2015. “‘Hey, man, we’re bored! What the fuck are we going to do?’
‘Well, let’s put on a show! What do you got?’ ‘My mother’s got these weird lamé pants.’ ‘My older brother left this old motorcycle jacket that’s been in the closet.’ ‘Where are you going to get the makeup?’ ‘My girlfriend’s bag! She shops at Biba in London every other day.’ Once we got started and once we got going, we became the darlings of it all.”
While the band’s lineup shifted through the years, Sylvain and vocalist David Johansen remained until its dissolution in 1977. “His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision,” Lenny Kaye wrote in a letter accompanying the announcement of Sylvain’s death. “Though he tried valiantly to keep the band going, in the end the Dolls’ moral fable overwhelmed them, not before seeding an influence that would engender many rock generations yet to come.”
“My best friend for so many years, I can still remember the first time I saw him bop into the rehearsal space/bicycle shop with his carpetbag and guitar straight from the plane after having been deported from Amsterdam, I instantly loved him,” Johansen wrote on Instagram. “I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning. au revoir Syl mon vieux copain.”
Following the band’s breakup, Sylvain worked on various solo projects, teamed with other artists and launched the Criminals with Bobby Blain, Michael Page and Tony Machine. His solo work included his 1979 self-titled debut, 1981’s Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops and 1998’s Sleep Baby Doll.
For years, the group had long gone through their share of creative differences. But Sylvain reunited with New York Dolls in 2004 at London’s Royal Festival Hall, spurred on by diehard fan Morrissey. “The world wasn’t ready for them,” Morrissey said in 2004. “It seems to take the pop world 30 years to really understand a group or an artist.” When Morrissey first began plotting his lineup for the Meltdown festival, his number one goal was to organize a New York Dolls reunion. The group would continue to tour in the mid-2000s before dissolving again.
Sylvain was a part of their final three albums: 2006’s One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, 2009’s Cause I Sez So and 2011’s Dancing Backward in High Heels. He was also a member of the Batusis, who released an EP in 2010, and in 2016 he performed at South by Southwest.
“The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to,” Kaye continued. “From the time I first saw their poster appear on the wall of Village Oldies in 1972, advertising a residency at the Mercer Hotel up the street, throughout their meteoric ascent and shooting star flame-out, the New York Dolls were the heated core of this music we hail, the band that makes you want to form a band.
“Syl never stopped. In his solo lifeline, he was welcomed all over the world, from England to Japan, but most of all the rock dens of New York City, which is where I caught up with him a couple of years ago at the Bowery Electric. Still Syl. His corkscrew curls, tireless bounce, exulting in living his dream, asking the crowd to sing along, and so we will. His twin names, mirrored, becomes us.”
“A group is made up of people who start out there in some basement,” Mizrahi told the Quietus in 2018. “They’re bored of what life is, and then all of a sudden, someone says, ‘Let’s have a show!’ ‘What are we going to do for a stage curtain?’ ‘I’ll use my mother’s bedsheet.’ ‘What are we going to do for makeup?’ ‘I’ll get that from my girlfriend’s bag.’ I think it comes down to performance. Performance is what all these musicians are about.” In 2018, Sylvain also released his memoir There’s No Bones in Ice Cream.
Mizrahi, who lived in Nashville, will be buried in New York, his wife Wanda tells Rolling Stone. “Thank you Sylvain x 2, for your heart, belief, and the way you whacked that E chord,” Kaye concluded. “Sleep Baby Doll.”