Sylvain Sylvain: New York Dolls guitarist dies aged 69

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe guitarist also contributed songwriting and piano to the band's explosive debut album

Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist with trailblazing 1970s rock band New York Dolls, has died at the age of 69.

One of the group's founding members, his visceral riffs bridged the divide between punk and glam, and helped kick-start the punk and new wave movements.

"As most of you know, Sylvain battled cancer for the past two and 1/2 years," his wife, Wanda O'Kelley Mizrahi, wrote in a statement on his Facebook page.

"Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away."

She added: "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."

Sylvain's death leaves only one surviving member of the New York Dolls' original line-up from their 1973 debut album, frontman David Johansen. The singer posted his own tribute on Instagram.

"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," he wrote.

"I'm gonna miss you old pal. I'll keep the home fires burning."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe New York Dolls bridged the gap between glam rock and punk

Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, on Valentine's Day 1951, the musician lived in France as a child before moving to New York with his family.

After playing in several bands as a teenager, he co-founded the New York Dolls in 1971, taking the name from a doll repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital (Sylvain had worked across the street before becoming a musician).

Like the punk movement they helped inspire, the band wanted to shake up the self-indulgent state of 70s rock.

"The reason why the Dolls got together was because of the boredom with the norm of the day, which was like the stadium-rock era," Sylvain told Brooklyn Vegan in 2006. "The 20-minute drum solos, songs that were a big operetta. They were sort of boring, they'd lost their sex appeal."

The Dolls cut through with urgent, punchy songs about sex, drugs, alienation and dysfunction.

The band's provocative and vulgar live shows gained them a huge following in New York, but many record labels were reluctant to sign them. That situation not helped by their androgynous look - shocking at the time - with their wardrobe sourced from cheap women's clothing stores on New York's Lower East Side.

'Attitude and reverb'

Late in 1972, tragedy struck when, during a tour of England, Dolls drummer Billy Murcia died in a drug-related accident. He was replaced by Jerry Nolan, after which the Dolls finally secured a contract with Mercury Records.

Their debut album, simply called New York Dolls, stalled at number 113 in the US chart but is now regarded as a classic, full of sleazy, raucous anthems like Personality Crisis and Trash.

Rolling Stone magazine recently named it one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, writing: "Glammed-out punkers the New York Dolls snatched riffs from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and fattened them with loads of attitude and reverb.

"It's hard to imagine the Ramones or the Replacements or a thousand other trash-junky bands without them."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSylvain worked in fashion before becoming a musician

However, the band's lack of commercial success saw them dropped after two albums and, despite hiring Sex Pistols guru Malcolm McLaren as a manager, eventually fell apart.

Outside the Dolls, Sylvain toured and recorded with several bands and led various solo projects as his former band's reputation grew.

Artists from the Sex Pistols to Guns N' Roses cited them as an influence, and Morrissey was famously president of their UK fan club before forming The Smiths. In 2004, the singer reunited his idols for a show at London's Meltdown Festival, adding an unexpected second act to their career.

Over the subsequent decade, Sylvain and Johansen, the only remaining members, released three well-received albums.

In 2019, Sylvain announced his cancer diagnosis, and a GoFundMe was set up to pay his medical bills, raising $79,500 (£58,000).

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe band are cited as an influence by hundreds of musicians

Guitarist Lenny Kaye, best known for playing with Patti Smith, paid tribute to Sylvain's "heart, belief, and the way you whacked that E chord".

Kaye wrote on Facebook: "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.

"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."

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