Proto-punk legends get dolled up for tour

By Ethan Stanislawski

[img id=”80313″ align=”alignleft”] The New York Dolls are one of the few bands to become mainstream rock legends despite an extremely limited time span and a relatively small, cult-like appeal. In spite of their classic eponymous debut and their underappreciated follow-up Too Much Too Soon, the Dolls are more famous for the shockwaves they sent through the music world by matching bastardized Stones-esque blues and shocking subject matter with songs that, as guitarist Sylvain Sylvain put it, were about “trash and having sex with Frankenstein.” They were also the original drag band. Bassist Sami Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, another drag band that brought Dolls-like abandon to hair metal, is currently playing bass with the Dolls’ latest lineup. I spoke with Sylvain, recently in preparation for hitting the road once again with his reunited Dolls, with only himself and singer David Johanson remaining from the original incarnation.

With the band reunited for nearly four years, and a comeback album to boot, I wondered what more the Dolls could be hoping to accomplish with their upcoming tour. “I live for touring, man,” said Sylvain. “As a musician, all you can hope for is to play at your next gig.” While noting that musicians “had to be able to make a living doing music,” Syl felt the wild, unpredictable nature of the live show was what the Dolls were all about.

Recalling the band’s earliest days, Sylvain spoke to an artistic, freewheelin’ characteristic of New York City that simply no longer exists: “I started out in an apartment in the East Village where we went to a junkyard and got all our furniture for $100, and we could have gotten a kitchen for a couple hundred as well….We just wanted to play music, and we were the only act around, and of course people like Debbie Harry and [Television’s] Tom Verlaine were some of the few people that saw us…We ended up performing at Max’s Kansas City—this was before CBGB, and they were the only real place to play. We also sold out the place each show we did. It was weird, because even with the Velvet Underground connection, the Warhol group was very different than the group we were bringing in, but because we sold out it didn’t matter.”

Speaking of days past, the band is notable for its many casualties. Most recent was the passing of bassist Arthur Kane just months after the Dolls were reunited. Kane, who died in his sleep with an undiagnosed case of leukemia, was the subject of the recent, well received documentary New York Doll. “After the Dolls, the rest of us all kept performing,” Sylvain reflected solemnly, “but for Arthur, this was it. He had waited all his life to do this again, and a lot of credit should go to Morrissey for doing the hard work of pulling us all together to do this. I’m glad Arthur finally got to see this happen again.” Sylvain didn’t even consider that such a tragedy could derail the Dolls reunion tour. “The New York Dolls are all about going on through the unpredictable,” he said.

In the original incarnation of the Dolls, Sylvain was primarily the rhythm guitarist and was always overshadowed by lead guitarist Johnny Thunders. With punk legends Verlaine and Richard Hell, Thunders went on to form the seminal New York punk band the Heartbreakers, which, compared to Tom Petty’s sad-sack Super Bowl show, was the superior version of the Heartbreakers. Thunders died after repeated problems with drug addiction in 1991. While he is one of only two members remaining from the band’s original incarnation, Sylvain feels he hasn’t been in the spotlight any more than usual. “When you’re going against [current Dolls guitarist] Steve Conte, who’s absolutely insane on stage, it’s hard to match up.”

Sylvain noted that he played Dolls standards while touring even in the years the band was inactive, and you’d think after nearly 40 years in the industry, he would have been soured a bit. But he maintains the same enthusiasm fans would have expected from him in 1971. “Rock ’n’ roll will always be there, and there will always be kids wanting to learn it and rip it up. That’s why I tell everyone who wants to start to learn the blues, you can build up almost anything from that.” He also falls distinctly on the side of the young in the ongoing struggle with the RIAA. “It’s the same thing when I was a kid and the cassette tape came out. Back then, the industry was concerned that kids would record their songs off the radio and not buy the records. This is what everyone did when they heard a song they couldn’t simply exist without, and the kids won this case. Now all the kids want to download the music for free, and the industry’s not going to stop them. It all has to change sooner or later.”

The New York Dolls will be performing at the Double Door on February 23.