New York Dolls Co-Founder Sylvain Sylvain Dies at 69

Sylvain Sylvain
Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images)
– Sylvain Sylvain
Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls at The Old Vic Tunnels in London March 30, 2011

Sylvain Sylvain, the legendary guitarist and co-founder of the New York Dolls, died January 13 after battling cancer, his wife Wanda Mizrahi announced via Facebook. He was 69.

The band led a music movement that bridged punk rock and glam in New York City in the early to mid-1970s, before either genre became fashionable. Fittingly, perhaps, the band broke up in 1977, as their music became more mainstream. They reunited over the years for albums, the last being  Cuz I Sez So in 2009. 

See Also: Cuz The New York Dolls Sez So

Predating punk and glam, yet embodying both, the Dolls were influences on both as well as the fashion surrounding them and bands to follow including the Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Damned. While never reaching commercial success, their influence is undeniable.

Over the years, the Dolls’ lineup included not only Sylvain and Johansen, but artists including the late Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane and Jerry Nolan.

Lenny Kaye, a contemporary and member of the Patti Smith Group, wrote a remembrance:

Sylvain Sylvain, the heart and soul of the New York Dolls, bearer of the Teenage News, passed into his next astral incarnation on Wednesday, January 13, 2021.

Syl loved rock and roll.   His onstage joy, his radiant smile as he chopped at his guitar, revealed the sense of wonder he must have felt at the age of 10, emigrating from his native Cairo with his family in 1961, the ship pulling into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

It was he who looked across Lexington Ave. and saw the sign for the New York Doll hospital.   Syl and a high school friend, Billy Murcia, were in the rag trade then, the aptly named Truth and Soul, handknit sweaters with a side of rockattitude.  Hooking up with another classmate, John Genzale, and then, as bands will, Arthur Kane, and David Johansen, and Jerry Nolan, they became a quasar in the rock firmament; embodying trash, glam, garage-to-punk, the ambisexual affirmation of music played louder.

His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision.  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.

The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to.  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.

Thank you Sylvain x 2, for your heart, belief, and the way you whacked that E chord.  Sleep Baby Doll.