Morrissey (yep, that Morrissey) places a telephone call to former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. The former Smiths lead singer is serving as curator for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London and asks Johansen to do something that Morrissey himself will not: put his band back together.
The original New York Dolls (or, at least, the first lineup to reach the recording studio) Johansen, guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane and drummer Jerry Nolan lasted all of two brief and shining albums: their 1973 self-titled debut and 1974's presciently tagged Too Much Too Soon. By 1975 the band had been dropped by its label and, predictably, experienced a somewhat bitter breakup.
Thunders and Nolan went one way (the former allegedly overdosed in New Orleans in 1991; the latter died of a stroke just months after). Kane went another (he converted to Mormonism and died of leukemia in 2004, a story sweetly told in the excellent documentary New York Doll). And Johansen and Sylvain went still another.
"To be honest with you," Sylvain says now from a Minneapolis tour stop, "[the reunion] was an easily swallowed pill because it was only the Meltdown Festival. You know, I can never thank Morrissey enough for putting us back together again."
Act One, Scene One
Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt in 1953 and no, he's not related to, nor has he ever met, fellow style maven Isaac Mizrahi the re-christened Sylvain Sylvain, one of just two surviving original Dolls, is an affable storyteller more than capable of detouring to boastful bombast.
"I'll compare the new Dolls to anybody," Syl says. "We probably have the best rock & roll band ever. And probably, right now, the best rock & roll band in the world."
Thank you, sir. May I have another?
"I don't give a shit if you say I'm not a star. I know I'm a fucking star, and I started like that when I was fourteen."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. For the record, we in no way, shape or form suggested that Sylvain wasn't a star. As a matter of fact, we're pretty big fans of both the Dolls and Syl himself. So how about something a little less confrontational?
"I guess something that I've only done one time in my life is go down the Cyclone at Coney Island," Syl says. "I only did it once and I threw up my ass off."
Ah, there we go. Syl as empathetic human being. Yes, music fans, a young Syl Sylvain, guitarist for one of the most dangerous bands in rock & roll history (or so Syl would have you believe), once rode a roller coaster and "threw up his ass off." And swore he'd never do it again.
But not long after, Sylvain embarked on an even longer, bumpier ride, joining a now-legendary Lower East Side band that would meld girl-group pop with glam rock, adopt androgyny and fashion a sound that might best be described as British-based blues lacquered with a couple coats of lip gloss.
And in their terse tenure, the New York Dolls, presagers of punk and heroes to hair metal, would influence a laundry list of future musicians. Bands from the Ramones to Kiss to Poison all owe the Dolls a heavy musical debt.
"You know," Sylvain says, "we feel like what rock & roll should do to you is, basically, when you hear it, it should drive you absolutely fucking crazy. Enough that you want to have to pull off all your clothes and run around the house naked. If it doesn't have that ingredient, we don't even touch it. You know, that's rock & roll to us."
OK, so we're back to some swollen swagger. But trust us when we tell you that somewhere underneath the Ali-size pomp and posing lies a man who may very well be the heart and soul of one of rock's most important bands. And that the two are not mutually exclusive.
"I feel like, you know, when the Dolls broke up in 1975, they basically left me, but I really never left the New York Dolls," Sylvain says.
He tells the story of being approached by R.E.M. singer and Dolls fan Michael Stipe (Stipe contributes vocals on the Dolls' song "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano" on their new album, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This) at a late-'90s Patti Smith concert in Atlanta.
"He told me that he had come and seen my show, me and David Johansen, when we worked together in 1978 in Missouri," Sylvain begins. "In Missouri of all places. How I handed him a bottle of Perrier water during my performance and so on and so forth, and how boring this must be, him telling me this, and 'You must have heard this a thousand times,' and how groovy we were that night and stuff.
"And I said, 'Well, Michael, you know, if I didn't get, every now and then, 'Hey man, I saw you back then and your music really spoke to me' and whatever, then I wouldn't have shit. Because, basically, I didn't really get paid for whatever I did in this business, you know, because you can't deposit influence."
Although Thunders and Nolan gained well-deserved post-Dolls notoriety with their band the Heartbreakers, financial comfort managed to elude all but Johansen, who found success with his musical alter ego Buster Poindexter ("Hot, Hot, Hot") and his acting (Officer Toody in the forgettable Car 54, Where Are You? and the more memorable "Ghost of Christmas Past" cabbie in Scrooged).
Sylvain, a single father, also found himself driving a taxi. But in real life.
"It was something that I just had to do," he says. "It's fucked up. Actually, it is the most dangerous job that you can ever have in New York City, but it's also a good benefit for me, being a musician. The guy couldn't fire me for not showing up the next day, so you worked whenever you wanted. You got ripped off whenever you wanted, too."
Act Two, Scene Two
Following its Meltdown reunion, the band played on. Sylvain and Johansen entered the studio with producer Jack Douglas and new members Steve Conte, Brian Delaney (see sidebar), Brian Koonin and Sami Yaffa, and came out with One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, the first New York Dolls album in over three decades.
And if Dolls followers are justifiably skeptical that a band with but two original members can still bring the rock after thirty years on the shelf, then, well, Syl Sylvain has an answer.
"They said the same thing when we lost Billy Murcia," Sylvain says, referring to the early death of the Dolls' first drummer. "They came up to me and they said, 'Hey, you guys should quit right now, and that should be the end of it.' Can you imagine if we quit and we didn't even bring in Jerry Nolan and [make] those albums?"
Rest assured that the reformed Dolls, both live and on disc, do indeed bring the rock. On a sultry August evening in New York City, the Dolls celebrated a homecoming of sorts at the city's South Street Seaport. Fans young, old and in-between stretched as far as the eye could see. And yet they moved. They moved to old Dolls songs and new ones. Lower Manhattan became a human traffic jam, a dancing mass packed tight in hopes of catching a glimpse of their returning heroes.
"A whole bunch of love," says Sylvain. "That's what we're getting. That's exactly what we're out here for. You know, we're not selling records, but what the hell? I think as long as we personally get high from the whole experience, that's what really matters. I mean, unfortunately sooner or later we are going to have to make some kind of financial success, or else that landlord is going to throw us out on our ass. But for now, you know, you can't put a dollar figure on what we are receiving, which is love."
8 p.m. Friday, December 1. Mississippi Nights, (914 North First Street). $20. 21+ only. 314-421-3853.