The death of New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain after a long battle with cancer means that frontman David Johansen is now the last surviving member of the pioneering proto-punk band. He’s spent the past 24 hours since the news broke reflecting on his five-decade relationship Sylvain and reading fan tributes to him on social media. “It’s too bad this outpouring of love didn’t happen while he was alive,” Johansen says. “People should say, ‘I’m going to die next week, so please tell me how you feel right now.’”
The singer phoned Rolling Stone to share his own outpouring of love to Sylvain, and to look back on his lifetime of memories with the guitar great.
Tell me your first memory of ever seeing Sylvain.
I remember it pretty vividly. We were getting the band going and we just had rehearsal a couple of times. The guy who was playing guitar didn’t show up. All of a sudden, Syl came in the room with a carpetbag and guitar. He had just gotten off the plane after being, I think, deported from Amsterdam. [Laughs] He looked great, but then he started playing and I thought, “Oh my God. We gotta have this guy. He’s great.”
Little did I know, he and some of the other guys in the band had been in cahoots before he was in Europe. They were talking about making a band. He knew [drummer] Billy [Murcia] and [guitarist] John [Johnny Thunders]. I don’t know if he knew Arthur [Kane] or not. But I didn’t know that. I just knew “this guy is fantastic,” and he was.
What role did he play in the creation of the New York Dolls look?
I don’t know. I’ve read some stuff about him being very instrumental in that. I guess he was. I know we were all very what we considered “fashionable” at the time. But he was friends with [fashion designer] Betsey Johnson and he hooked up the shoot for the first album cover. I don’t think he dressed us since I can tell by looking at the picture that they were all clothes that we had.
But he came from a long line of tailors. He was very into clothes and was a habitual shopper when we were on the road.
He was born in Egypt and lived in France for a bit. How do you think that shaped him?
His family moved to New York. The organization that sponsored them said, “You can live in any of these places.” The only place in New York was Buffalo. [Laughs] They had relatives in Brooklyn. I think his father said, “Buffalo? That’s New York. That’s near Brooklyn.” They went to Buffalo. He said his mother cried the whole time they were there. I don’t know how long they were there, but they finally moved to New York.
When I first met him, we were all New York guys. He was a fascinating guy, but I didn’t know too much about his past. When we started going to Europe, I could see that he was very self-assured.
When you think about the Mercer Arts Center days, what are the images of Sylvain that stand out in your head?
He was just such a great kid at that time. He was such a passionate performer. He was very positive all the time. He was very important for that band and their success. You know what I mean by “success.” Not so much the charts and all that bullshit. It was what we were creating. He was integral to that.
Can you elaborate on that?
If it hadn’t been for him, the band would have sounded crappy. He knew what he was doing and he could play the guitar. He came up with really great rhythms. He was very accomplished. He was a natural player. He loved playing.
The sound he got when he played with Johnny was such a key part of the Dolls sound.
Absolutely. Syl just fit in there. He knew what to do, especially in the beginning. I’m thinking about the early days. We have a long history. We wrote songs together then, but when we got back together, we wrote a ton of songs.
New York was just unimaginably different back then.
The city wasn’t really set up for bands like it is now. There weren’t a lot of places to rehearse or to play. We used to have to convince people, impresarios or whatever you want to call them, that we could bring in a crowd. They really weren’t set up for music, so to speak. It’s the same thing when we used to go on the road. We used to have to chop down trees and build a stage and put up posters around town. [Laughs]
The band faced a ton of setbacks in the early days. Billy died and the albums didn’t sell. Yet it seemed like Syl always believed in the band’s potential.
Absolutely. He never lost his faith. I don’t think any of us, speaking for myself, really had any expectations for world dominance. We were just doing what we were doing and you could take it or leave it, essentially. John was very ambitious in those days. He was the one that would say, “We have to rehearse! We have to rehearse!” I’d be like, “Can’t we rehearse onstage? What’s the difference?” [Laughs]
I loved Syl. We used to room together when we were on the road. There were days when we had to double up with two guys per room and the fifth guy would have to share a room with the road manager. It would be me and Syl in a room and when we first went to Europe and would go to a restaurant, he knew all the waiters and they would treat him like a prince. It was that kind of a thing.
The band eventually just got down to you and him near the end of the original run.
We made a go at it, the two of us. We did a lot of great things in that period after the original band dissolved. In those days, we didn’t have anyone looking after our career or whatever. In an ideal world, there would have been someone there that everyone trusted to a degree, someone that said, “Why don’t you guys take six months off?”
But we were so hand-to-mouth in those days. We were always thinking, “If we don’t make this gig, we don’t make the rent.”
The band is so beloved now, it’s easy to forget you were really struggling back then.
Life is a struggle. If it wasn’t, it would probably be very boring.
You kept working with Syl after the breakup.
We played together for years after the band broke up. When I got a record deal with Steve Paul, he was in the band for the first two albums I made. It was several years, longer than the Dolls were together. Look, I loved the guy. We used to write great songs together. The stuff that would come out of his musical creativity, I used to just love it.
Did it surprise him that the band reunited in 2004? I’m sure it even surprised you even though you made it happen.
When we first decided we were going to do that, I was a little reluctant. Then I thought, “We’re going to go to England and stay in a nice hotel in London. It’ll be a nice break.” I was doing a lot of singing in that time with Hubert Sumlin and I was doing the Harry Smith stuff. I thought it would be nice to have a little refresher thing. It figured it would be great to see Syl and Arthur.
We were just going to do one show. It was sold out, so they made another show. Then we started getting a lot of offers to go on these European festival shows. It was late spring when we did that show. I was like, “If we’re up and running, let’s go do this and see what happens.” Then we just kept doing it for I don’t know how long.
I think it was seven years.
Yeah. In the very beginning, Arthur died totally unexpectedly. He thought he had the flu and it turned out he had leukemia. That was kind of devastating. I loved him as well. Every one of the Dolls was so different and so interesting. Anyway, we persevered and got [bassist] Sami [Yaffa] in the band and just kept going.
How did your friendship deepen with Syl in this time period?
When you’re with somebody for such a long time, you go through your different kinds of phases. We were laughing so much and had a lot of fun. We both really dug getting onstage and putting it out there. I was just looking at photos of us on those tours. We were always laughing.
I love those new records. They must have been fun to make.
It was great. After we were playing for a while, we just thought, “We have a repertoire, but it’s ancient. Let’s refresh it.” We would come up with songs that really worked.
Why did it end in 2011?
It just kind of…we were exhausted. We’d been on the road for about eight years. It wasn’t ever a point of, “This is it forever.” We just kind of cooled it for a while and it just kind of lasted.
Did you talk to him much in the past decade?
Yeah. We spoke from time to time.
How was he doing? I knew the last three years were rough with his cancer battle.
He really thought he was going to beat it. He was a tough little bastard. I thought he was going to come through it as well. But apparently it had been more intense and in more parts of his body than I really knew about.
Getting the news must have been devastating.
I can’t say it was a shock, but it…I don’t know how to explain it, but physically there was a heavy weight on my chest. I’m still kind of processing it. I’m sure I will be for the rest of my life, be processing it.
How do you feel being the last one now?
That I’m next.
Don’t say that. That’s pretty dark.
[Laughs] That’s okay. I am pretty dark. You know? I haven’t even thought about that so much. It’s too much to think about.
I’ve seen people call the Dolls the “unluckiest band in rock history.”
Morrissey says that. That Morrissey is like…I don’t want to say… [Laughs]
He can be pretty dark too.
But also, he knows how to spin a yarn as well as the best of them.
He does have a point. There’s been a lot of tragedy.
Yeah, there sure has. It’s like those old doo-wop bands.
When you think about Syl right now, what images pop into your mind? What are the happy thoughts?
It just makes me smile because we did so many things and had such fun together. That’s what I feel. That’s mostly about me. As far as him and whatever situation he was in in the last couple of years, he was busy fighting what he had. I really am hard-pressed to find anything other than the joy we shared and created together.
It’s such a bummer you aren’t in the Hall of Fame yet. He would have loved that.
He would have wanted that, yes. My feelings about that were kind of different than him, but I felt I had a responsibility if it ever occurred that I’d have to back him up on that.
If you get in now, it’ll just be you at the podium.
I hope not. Maybe I can send a representative. I can send one of the Harlots of 42nd Street to give the acceptance speech.
The band now is obviously done forever, right? You’d never do it on your own?
I don’t have any intention of doing that, no. It would be crazy.