Sylvain Sylvain was the secret weapon of the New York Dolls, the diplomat and cheerleader who held the band together and an underrated musician and songwriter. With his death last week, the world of rock ‘n’ roll lost a true Mensch. James Marshall pays tribute to Syl for PKM.
By James Marshall
Sylvain Sylvain (b. Donald Mizrahi, Feb. 14, 1951) has died of cancer.
Syl has been described as the heart and soul of the New York Dolls, and as a guy who loved rock’n’roll, and both insights are right on target. But he was more than that. Much more. He was the Dolls’ secret weapon, one of rock’n’roll’s most underrated utility men. Syl was always there when they needed a lick, a harmony, a tune, a wisecrack. In a band full of big personalities he held his own, there could never have been a New York Dolls without Syl.
He was born in Cairo, Egypt, his mother a Syrian Jew from Mosul, his father a Sephardic Jew with Turkish roots. The Mizrahis went from upper middle class (dad being a banker in Cairo, although he became a tailor in the new world) to impoverished refugees when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser began persecuting Jews in the wake of the Suez Crisis. The Mizrahis fled first to Paris, then New York, arriving by ship, and Syl passed through Ellis Island in time-honored refugee form.
The Mizrahis moved first to Buffalo, then Brooklyn, finally settling in Queens where Syl first encountered future Dolls Billy Murcia and Johnny Thunders. Syl and Billy soon formed a band called the Pox, then drifted into the rag trade, designing and making clothes for their own Truth and Soul line. Eventually both found their way back to music, joining Johnny, Arthur Kane and David Johansen in a band Syl renamed The New York Dolls.
The story of the New York Dolls has been told so many times that it’s entered into both rock’n’roll lore and urban legend, i.e. a lot of bullshit. Their short career has generated a minor publishing business in itself, but if you want the real story from the inside, Syl’s autobiography There’s No Bones In Ice Cream (2018), is the best account there is, an invaluable document on the subject, as well as a fast moving account of a very special place and time, and some very special people.
Sylvain was a very underrated musician, for sure (he was Johnny Thunders’ first guitar teacher) and he wrote or co-wrote some of the Dolls’ best-loved tunes—”Trash,” “Puss’n’Boots,” and “Teenage News” among them. His guitar and piano parts were simple but perfect, with never an unnecessary note. And he had an unparalleled eye for style. In their very final days, the Dolls washed up in Florida where as a teenager I got to hang out and observe. My favorite memory is going to an Army Navy Surplus store with Syl where he bought fatigues for himself and the band after coming to the realization that they could be killed in Florida for wearing what they wore on the streets of NYC. Back then you could get killed just for having long hair. Syl went to work on the fatigues with a pair of scissors and a needle and thread, and by the next day, when the band visited Disney World, their fatigues looked like they were tailored by Yves St. Laurent. Syl gave the Dolls their musical and often visual flair.
After implosion of the original Dolls (just days after visiting Disney World, actually), Syl and David Johansen kept a version of the band (referred to in New York as the Dollettes) that played rent-money gigs (including one in Japan) through 1976, then joined David Johansen’s band, touring and playing on his first two solo albums. Syl formed his own band, the Criminals, released an indie 45- “The Kids Are Back” (Sing Sing) and began a solo career. He was signed to RCA and cut two fantastic and highly-underrated albums— Sylvain Sylvain (1979) and Sylvain Sylvain & the Teardrops (1981); neither sold any better than the Dolls’ albums had, and he was soon back to scuffling.
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw Syl, now a single dad, driving a cab, making guitar straps and clothes, playing gigs (sometimes tours) with all the ex-Dolls. Whatever it took to get by. He cut another solo album in 1997 for the L.A.-based Fishhead label that featured two beautiful, poignant ballads—”Sleep Baby Doll” and “Another Heart Needs Mending”, the former an elegy for Johnny Thunders.
Sylvain reunited with David Johansen and Arthur Kane for a Dolls’ reunion in 2004, keeping the name and band alive (although Arthur died a month after the first show), cutting three LPs and touring extensively before permanently retiring the Dolls’ moniker for good in 2011. In 2012, he cut his last great record—“Leaving New York”. Sylvain resettled first in Atlanta, before finding his final home in Nashville. The last stop on the F train.
No, there could have never been a New York Dolls without Sylvain Sylvain; they would have murdered each other. He was the diplomat, the cheerleader, the “hey, gang, let’s put on a show” kid of the bunch. But beyond that, Syl was a genuinely nice guy, a decent human, always quick with a smile and a wisecrack. What we New Yorkers call a true Mensch. In a world full of douche bags and ego queens, Syl was a gentleman and a prince.
Sleep baby Doll, the hard part is over.
Sylvain Sylvain is survived by his son, Odell; wife, Wanda; and sister, Brigitte.
Sylvain singing Clarence Henry’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” & Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”
NY Dolls’ “Red Patent Leather” “People’s Collective” Columbia, SC, 1975:
Jet Boy – Old Grey Whistle Test:
Sylvain Sylvain: “Sleep Baby Doll”
NY Dolls – “Teenage News”
Sylvain Sylvain & the Criminals –
Sylvain Sylvain & the Teardrops – “Formidable” 1981