- Ask guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (second from left) the cause of the New York Dolls' demise, and you'll get a straight answer: "It was heroin."
But considering that the Dolls basically kick-started punk rock back in 1973 and never got paid for such groundbreaking, the band's current reunion seems long overdue.
"Every year, something would happen, some call or brainstormed idea about getting the Dolls back together," recalls founding guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. "And it got ridiculous, because these weren't exactly cheap offers. I never made much money in the biz, so I always welcomed anything that meant, Hey, I can pay the rent!
"We started that race," Sylvain adds of the Dolls' influence on punk rock. "But we fell down, broke our legs, and everyone behind us ran for the bank."
Those who cashed in were primarily the umpteen hair-metal bands of the late '80s, whose drag-queen garb and junkie pose seemed to be the Dolls' only mainstream legacy for a while. "I dug what those bands were looking like, I dug that they had nice girls coming to their shows, and I dug that they loved my old band," Sylvain says. "But they never got the idea of the music, because the music was never dangerous. I don't go for trends, because you've got to be original for longevity."
The Dolls had originality to spare, despite persistent putdowns. The press of their era usually denounced the band as a cartoon version of the Rolling Stones. And most custodians of culture continue to label the Sex Pistols punk's big bang. But the fact is that Malcolm McClaren, who eventually became manager of the Sex Pistols, asked Sylvain to join the new band he was forming in the mid-'70s -- which would eventually become the Pistols -- after managing the Dolls in their waning days of 1975.
"He was our friend and a self-proclaimed manager, but we never had any contract with him," Sylvain recalls of McClaren. "We were friends before the Dolls, because we were in the rag business in 1970. I was designing clothes, and he had that shop in London. The Sex Pistols were supposed to be my band. They have this in your Rock Hall of Fame, the famous letter Malcolm sent me -- 'Don't stay with Johansen, Sylvain. This is your band!' He put in one of those quarter photo-booth strips, with pictures of all the future Pistols. 'This one we're thinking of calling Johnny Rotten.' I gave Malcolm my custom white Les Paul guitar, the one Steve Jones would use with the Pistols. Malcolm was supposed to send me a plane ticket in trade to go join the band, and I'm still waiting. We recently did an interview on Steve's radio show in L.A., and I said, 'Hey, where's my guitar?'"
Sylvain's lack of bitterness is refreshing, buoyed by the confident knowledge that he's made his mark. He barely mentions the quick and sad demise of the Dolls. "It was heroin," he states flatly.
Sylvain maneuvered his '60s-pop affinities into a late-'70s power-pop solo career, but encountered the usual major-label shenanigans that afflicted the Dolls. "I was the only artist who had signed to RCA records without a manager, and they made a stink about that," Sylvain says. "My theory is, managers come and go, but I'm going to be with Sylvain Sylvain for the rest of my life. They actually asked me for a third album, but I said no. Like, what did you do with the first two? I've gone independent since I left RCA."
In the early '90s, Sylvain met a "little Georgia peach," moved to Atlanta, and began playing out more. "It was tough," he remembers. "Seventy-five-dollar guarantees. They were good rock-and-roll shows, but no one was doing that then."
Now he's back in the Big Apple, subletting his apartment in preparation for the Dolls' 10-date tour. He's finally getting to bask in the respect that the Dolls have slowly but surely attained. There's been an explosion of garage-rock bands over the last 10 years -- the Supersuckers, Rocket From the Crypt, New Bomb Turks, the Hellacopters, Cobra Verde, Dirtbombs, Strokes, Hives, Jet, and on and on -- bands who dig the slashing, motorized mash of '60s girl groups, the Stones' swagger, and a subversive androgynous attitude that keeps the Dolls' catalog relevant.
"I always thought, sooner or later, the Dolls would get together again," Sylvain says. "The first thing that really got us together was Morrissey's Meltdown Festival in London last June. We thought, 'We'll do this, and that'll be it.' But we got such a great reaction, so we decided to stick it out. But then Arthur died, right after the Meltdown."
Original bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane passed away from leukemia last July. "He's on the CD and DVD of that show. Arthur would have wanted us to keep going, so we did," says Sylvain.
The lineup for the band's tour consists of Sylvain and Johansen, guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sam Yaffa from the great '80s glam band Hanoi Rocks, keyboardist Brian Coonen, and drummer Brian Delany. They've even got a few new songs, and there's talk of recording another album. It was Johansen who mainly pieced the band together, even though Sylvain says the singer was the most reluctant to reform.
"I know one thing: The minute we got onstage, he couldn't believe the feeling -- like he could've kicked himself in the tush for not doing it earlier," Sylvain says. "Sure, he's got a big ego, but he should have one, because he's dynamite. The egos are what got you to write those songs in the first place. We're having a stone gas! And we're still asking those questions from our old songs -- like, do you still think you can make it with a Frankenstein? I know I still can -- I'm playing with Johansen, ain't I?"