Sylvain Sylvain, New York Dolls guitarist who paved way for punk , dies aged 69

Billy Idol among those to pay tribute to ‘all-time great’ who had cancer for over two years

Sylvain Sylvain (right) and Sami Yaffa of The New York Dolls in London in 2006. Photograph: Jane Mingay/PA

Sylvain Sylvain (right) and Sami Yaffa of The New York Dolls in London in 2006. Photograph: Jane Mingay/PA

 

Sylvain Sylvain, the guitarist who blended punk aggression with glam rock peacocking as part of the band New York Dolls, has died of cancer aged 69.

The news was announced on his Facebook page, with a statement saying that he had the disease for two and a half years. “While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain,” it adds. “Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”

The New York Dolls in 1973 (from left): drummer Jerry Nolan, singer David Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist Johnny Thunders, and bassist Arthur Kane. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images
The New York Dolls in 1973 (from left): drummer Jerry Nolan, singer David Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist Johnny Thunders, and bassist Arthur Kane. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Sylvain was born in Cairo in 1951, emigrating with his family to France and then New York state. After moving to New York City, he ran a clothing company and formed the group Actress, who – after adding frontman David Johansen – became the New York Dolls in 1971.

Although they only released two albums in the 1970s, neither of which were crossover successes, the New York Dolls had a huge influence on the city’s music. By linking the nihilist cool of the Velvet Underground to the androgynous showmanship of the glam rock set and a pop sensibility with cult hits like Personality Crisis, they presaged the punk that would flourish later that decade.

Sylvain described his style in a 2018 interview: “You took your life in your hands just getting to the gig … One time I had this knitted pink women’s suit. It was nice. I turned the skirt into gaucho pants. I wore them with my boots. I put on the makeup. I’m going to make my $15. I’ll never forget all the catcalls.”

Amid chaotic gigs and hedonistic behaviour, the New York Dolls’ lineup shifted, with Sylvain and Johansen the only two constants until the band’s eventual breakup in 1977.

Sylvain started a new band, the Criminals, with ex-New York Dolls member Tony Machine and later fitfully released solo albums during the 1980s and 1990s. He later formed the band the Batusis and also toured with Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols for the “Sex Doll” tour in 2013.

The New York Dolls (Sylvain Sylvain on left) in 2006. Photograph: Jane Mingay/PA Wire
The New York Dolls (Sylvain Sylvain on left) in 2006. Photograph: Jane Mingay/PA Wire

In 2004, three of the original New York Dolls members including Sylvain reformed at the request of Morrissey, who was curating that year’s Meltdown music festival in London. They ended up releasing three further albums, and undertook the 2011 Glam-a-Geddon tour alongside Mötley Crüe and Poison. Sylvain published a memoir, There’s No Bones in Ice Cream, in 2018.

The musician and writer Lenny Kaye paid lengthy tribute alongside the announcement of Sylvain’s death, saying: “His role in the band was as linchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision … The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to.”

Other tributes came from Billy Idol and from Waterboys songwriter Mike Scott, who called him an “all-time great rock and roller”. – Guardian

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