New York Dolls Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain 1951 – 2021
Groundbreaking guitarist Sylvain Sylvain died Wednesday at 69. The news was confirmed by Sylvain’s wife, Wendy Mizrahi, in a Facebook post that included a note from fellow New York City music scene fixture Lenny Kaye.
Sylvain succumbed to cancer after a battle of nearly three years. “Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease,” wrote Wendy. “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.”
Born Sylvain Mizrahi on Valentine’s Day 1951 in Cairo, Egypt, Sylvain and his family settled in New York City later in the decade. New York Dolls formed in 1971 with Sylvain Sylvain replacing original guitarist Rick Rivets a few months later. The lineup for the bulk of 1972 as the band honed their chops at Mercer Art Center consisted of Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders of guitar, drummer Billy Murcia, bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane and vocalist David Johansen. Murcia died in November of 1972 due to asphyxiation after passing out from an accidental overdose.
Jerry Nolan replaced Murcia and New York Dolls headed into the studio with producer Todd Rundgren to record their self-titled debut studio album. The proto-punk band released New York Dolls in 1973 and followed with Too Much Too Soon in 1974. While the two LPs weren’t commercially successful, they stood the test of time and became beloved by music fans who appreciated how ahead of their time New York Dolls were.
New York Dolls toured through the end of 1976 at which point personal issues led to the band’s breakup. The guitarist continued his working relationship with Johansen in the years that followed by contributing to the vocalist’s solo records and live shows. Sylvain put out his own self-titled studio album in 1979 and played regularly in NYC until moving to Los Angeles towards the start of the 1990s. A second solo album, Sleep Baby Doll, arrived in 1993 before the surviving members of New York Dolls reunited in 2004.
The second Dolls era lasted seven years, a run that featured numerous lineup changes and the release of three albums. In 2011, New York Dolls were finished again. Sylvain Sylvain performed and recorded with various projects over the course of 2010s.
“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,” David Johansen wrote. “I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning. au revoir Syl mon vieux copain.”
Read a tribute to Syl by Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group:
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.