NEW YORK DOLLS
THE NEW YORK DOLLS‘ rise from the ashes may have been one of rock ‘n’ roll’s least likely reunions, but the band’s prodigious return to form – consolidated in 2006 with a new album – has proved an unexpected hit. In the wake of a storming performance on the Jonathan Ross show, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain gives Hugh Gulland a Doll’s eye view.
WHAP!!!! "I just slapped Jo Jo’s butt!!!" Sylvain chortles, bandmate David Johansen’s monkey ass proving too tempting a target as the vocalist shimmies past our table mid-interview. As the two surviving members of the original Dolls – bassist Arthur Kane dying within weeks of their comeback at Meltdown in 2004 – David and Syl continue to carry the torch for the band that gave 1970s punk its whole raison d’etre, finally delivering the first new Dolls material in 30 years with the album ‘One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This’. An impromptu butt-slap seems symbolic of the pair’s tarty rapport, but it hasnít always been this way; when the band originally split, communication wasn’t so easy.
Syl: "That’s why we broke up in 1975. We had a terrible miscommunication problem! And we were just beginning to get accepted. And we said screw this! A lot of people think that we threw away a million dollars, I dunno about that, but for Arthur Kane, he really had it the toughest out of us all."
"The reason why I think we took so long to get back together was we were all successful individually. With us we all had individual groups – I had the Criminals, I had my RCA career in the early eighties, I kept on playing, I kept on producing, I was very much involved. I wrote songs with Johansen, I wrote songs with John (Thunders), I would work with everybody and I had a band with Jerry Nolan, The Ugly Americans."
Nevertheless, the loss of the Dolls was a bitter blow, an unresolved hurt for the bandís former members for many years:
"Of course I always dreamed. For me, when the New York Dolls broke up, it sort of left me, but I never really left the New York Dolls. I mean, in all my career, you can trace it down, I was always a New York Doll. Live shows, albums – rock ‘n’ roll to me is something that should drive you nuts, when you hear that cool song, it should drive you mad, you gotta take off all your clothes and run down the High Street naked! When your mother comes home, she says ‘WHAT???’"
It’s this untainted love for rock ‘n’ roll that’s kept Syl afloat through the intervening years – the man positively buzzes with enthusiasm for his craft – and probably accounts for the freshness of the new material.
"Jack (Douglas, producer), he gave me the biggest, nicest compliment, which was that I still have ‘one foot in the Brill Building’. The famous building on Broadway and 49th Street. That was the music building at the time of Shadow Morton, Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, and they call it Tin Pan Alley. When he said that to me, I was like, oh man, David, he’s got the gig!"
There’s a couple of newies that sound like spiritual descendents of older songs, for instance ‘Dance Like a Monkey’ sounds like a response to ‘Stranded in the Jungle’, and also a sly dig at creationism?
"I came up with that one, what I was trying to say was, (whispers) I really wanted to hear David – he might not wanna hear this, but Iíll tell you! I wanted to hear him do that ‘Dance like a monkey, child!’ ’cause he’s basically a monkey himself, it’s been said! But then we had this conversation together, I’d speak to David and he knew all about it, in the States – it’s a real bad thing, it’s separating us, which is, there’s a God, and basically the bible, which is replacing science. In the South, in Alabama and places, all you need is your parents’ signature not to take science and then you go to bible class!
With the rekindled interest of the past couple of years, the Dolls are as close as they’ve ever been to the mainstream; one of the more interesting documents has been the DVD of Bob Gruen’s 1970s footage, ‘All Dolled Up’, which shows the notoriously hard-living Dolls in a surprisingly innocent light.
"You see Johnny Thunders without heroin. That was before he was turned onto that, you know, to the needle – oh my god, that’s really what killed our band, more than alcohol, ’cause I think alcohol we would have sort of survived. Maybe being bitter bastards."
Do you think people fail to appreciate the Dolls weren’t always these guys living this dark, debauched existence?
"The handing down of stories through the years – some guy tapped me on the shoulder once, he said ‘I saw pictures of the Dolls having sex together on the internet!’ I said ‘Please! What website???’. It starts with a kiss, and it’s that pillow/telephone talk kind of hand-down. ‘Wow, they were kissing’, ‘they were feeling each other up’, ‘man, they had no clothes on and they were kissing’, ‘they were actually penetrating each others’ butts!’"
"Of course we’d like to play it up. You know what? As a performer, you bring everything that you ever know – if you got a nice tush, you fucking bring that up there! Why not? You’re gonna need everything when they boo your ass off the stage, you gotta turn that boo into a fucking standing ovation and after a while, you get that way! The point Iím trying to make is, you gotta turn them on, even if they hate your fucking guts, that’s what’s gonna make you a great performer."
"You can’t just let Pro-Tools or your producer do it for you – when you go on stage, and your tape falls apart and you stand there like a fucking idiot, because you don’t know anything about performance. You gotta learn your craft! The best way to learn your craft is: Perform, perform, perform, perform!"
‘One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This’ is out now on Roadrunner records.