When interviewing musicians, a sure-fire way to get a good opener for your story is to ask them a question that has absolutely no bearing on the subject’s latest album, their upcoming world tour, or their recent Grammy win.
Screw that. You ask the most pointless question imaginable, like, say, if you were a member of the Little Rascals, who would you be?
In the case of Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist for the gender-bending punk rock act the New York Dolls, the answer would be Alfalfa.
“He was always trying to sing and to put on shows. He was the one who was kind of misunderstood in a way. And he was a hustler. I like that,” says Sylvain, who along with vocalist David Johansen, is one of only two original Dolls in the current line-up. “He would survive no matter where you put him.”
He adds, “And David, of course, is Butch.”
You mean, Butch, the big-lipped, wide-mouthed, brushy-haired, and obnoxious antagonist of the Our Gang flicks? Yep, that sounds like Johansen, who as Buster Poindexter scored a massive pop hit in the ’80s with the campy Caribbean ditty, “Hot, Hot, Hot.”
But truth be told, this reporter didn’t bring up the subject of the Little Rascals on his own. Nope. That was Sylvain’s doing. Describing how the Dolls originally came to be, Sylvain says, “We had sort of the Little Rascals approach to show business.” Read on.
The Dolls originally formed in 1971 — years before the punk launching pad CBGB opened — and the line-up changed between then and the release of their self-titled debut album. But the core of the band was there. Sylvain, Johansen, and the late, great punk singer/guitarist Johnny Thunders. “We were bored shitless listening to all of this opera rock, what it was in our time. The songs were like 20 minutes long. They lost their pizazz, their sex appeal. We wanted to scream and shout about what was important to us, like why we weren’t getting girlfriends or how to get more girlfriends,” Sylvain says laughing.
And when it came time to take the stage for the first time, the Dolls did what Alfalfa, Spanky, and the gang did whenever they put on one of their backyard productions — they cobbled together sets and costumes from whatever was around. “Where are we going to get the curtain? My mom’s got a bedsheet we can use. What about the make-up? My girlfriend’s got tons in her bag,” Sylvain says. “We said, hey, if it lasts two weeks, we’ll be happy.”
Thankfully, the Dolls lasted a bit longer than two weeks, but not by much. In 1975, Johansen and Sylvain, the core members of the Dolls, called it quits. Thunders had previously left and later formed The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell, who went on to record his own punk classic, Blank Generation. In between then and now, Johansen and Sylvain partnered on numerous projects, and Johansen scored with “Hot, Hot, Hot” and nabbed several acting rolls.
“We’ve sort of had the artist’s life. Even if we did take jobs when we weren’t working in music, it was sort of so we could skip out the next day without getting fired,” Sylvain says. “Basically it took us so long to get back together because we’re one of those rare bands that once we did break up we all had solo careers that were basically pretty successful. It’s not that we weren’t successful anymore and that’s why we got back together.”
But in 2004, the Dolls reformed. Unlike some acts, they didn’t do it for the filthy lucre alone; they did it because a fan begged them. It just so happens that fan was Morrissey.
Yes, Morrissey. The celibate, gloomy crooner and ex-Smiths singer.
“Morrissey invited us to his Meltdown Festival in 2004,” Sylvan says. “He was basically the president of our fan club in the U.K. — and he was self-appointed. I guess that’s a beautiful thing. That’s love.”
Of course, Sylvain had his suspicions that their appearance at Morrissey’s fest meant a new chapter had begun for the Dolls. “I knew that deep down once we got up there, the audience and ourselves were not going to let this go.”
Ever humble, Sylvain says that the reformation of the Dolls has less to do with him and Johansen and more to do with the most important thing in rock — the fans (Morrissey included). “It’s really the responsibility of our fans, generation after generation that keeps picking up on us,” he says.
The Dolls are currently on tour in support of their second album since reforming, ‘Cause I Sez So. This one has a special place in the history of the Dolls — like their debut, it was produced by Todd Rundgren. “Actually working with Todd, it was a beautiful thing. It was a sort of a complete circle,” Sylvain says. “We almost said to each other, we’ll meet in about another 30 years to make another record.”
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