The New York Dolls, the proto-glam punk band of the early '70s, is a curious phenomenon in rock 'n' roll annals. The quintet existed for four short years, releasing only three albums. The group crumbled during an ill-fated period of management by punk impresario Malcolm McLaren (who's often cited as using the Dolls as a template for the Sex Pistols). They were here for a blazing, sex-drugs-and-glitter moment, and then they were gone. But the Dolls' brief moment had a resounding impact on rock 'n' roll's future comparable to the most influential bands of the 20th century, and the Dolls continue to inform the music, fashion and outrageousness of rock 'n' roll.
"It was like a horse race," says Sylvain Sylvain, former Dolls rhythm guitarist, who's kicking off his new tour in New Orleans, backed by local band The Orange Eye. "We were running so fast, we were No. 1 and all the other bands were behind us. The Ramones weren't formed yet, there was no Blondie, the MC5 was already broken up. There was only (the Stooges') Iggy Pop. And even Iggy Pop was nothing like the New York Dolls."
The Dolls burst on the scene with a power that helped kick-start the entire punk revolution -- a combination of the teenage energy of '50s rock, the tragedy-tinged romance of girl groups like the Shangri-La's, and the orgiastic bliss of the late '60s. Fronted by singer David Johansen, they brought back the three-chord, three-minute song -- in makeup and platform shoes -- and brought a simmering scene waiting to happen to a rolling boil. "We were running so fast we broke a leg and fell down," he adds. "And now, of course, you don't even hear about the New York Dolls."
Sylvain saw the band through from embryo to corpse. He met original drummer Billy Murcia in junior high and guitarist Johnny Thunders -- who died of a methadone overdose in the French Quarter in 1991 -- in high school. Their eponymous debut album in 1973 was produced by, of all people, Todd Rundgren and enjoyed critical (but not commercial) success. After the well-liked follow-up, Too Much Too Soon, and a series of lineup changes, the band broke up permanently in 1977.
Sylvain now carries the torch; his last album (1998's Sleep Baby Doll, re-released last year as Paper, Pencil and Glue), recorded with Blondie's Frankie Infante and local guitarist Olivier de la Celle, is a heartfelt Dolls eulogy, and earlier this year, he recorded a Johnny Thunders tribute album with Infante and Clem Burke. Some of his contemporaries, like Mink DeVille founder Willy DeVille, who lived in the New Orleans area for most of the '80s and early '90s, don't suffer nostalgia gladly. "Necrophiliacs I have no patience for," DeVille says by phone. "It's a little f--king late. You tell Sylvain I have nothing against nobody, but it's a little late. If he wants to put out his record to promote the death of Johnny Thunders, and the misery and the tragedy and the Rimbaud-ism, then you know, I have better things to do."
Though the album contains songs written in the Dolls style, as well as a new recording of the Dolls song "Trash," Sylvain and the band (including locals Larry Glover on drums, Eric Corriveaux on bass and de la Celle) believe that the tour will have a unique sound. "Knowing Larry, Eric and myself, it'll be very electric," says de la Celle, who played frequently with Sylvain in Los Angeles in the early '90s. "I told them to think late '70s New York scene, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be faster, edgier, straight to the point."
And the point is rock 'n' roll. "We created such a beautiful thing called the New York Dolls," says Sylvain. "We didn't even know, we didn't realize it, people think we drew it all up and knew exactly what we were doing, like oh yeah, we're gonna be drag queens and be sloppy and take a lot of drugs and get laid every minute and get high... . No, we never sat down at the roundtable and decided to do that. That happened naturally. It was our lives."
Sylvain is the kind of rock star who never got jaded enough to forget how cool it is to be a rock star. He never whined loftily about being mobbed at the grocery store or the tragic pressure of fame. The Dolls knew -- and he still knows -- the delicious urgency with which kids dream and cream over the idea of being a rock star, and the joy of seeing a rock show. "I get out there, I bring the whole Max's Kansas City vibe onstage," he says. "I ask the kids to make believe this is the Chelsea Hotel, here we are in the lobby, look, there's Andy Warhol and this one and that one. It's a show, it's a rock 'n' roll show, it's not just a tribute to the past."
He pauses. "Tell the kids to come to the show, get dressed up, wear your coolest, wildest outfit. Tell them they won't be unsatisfied."
- 'People think we drew it all up and knew exactly what we were doing, like oh yeah, we're gonna be drag queens and be sloppy and take a lot of drugs and get laid every minute and get high.' -- Sylvain Sylvain on the New York Dolls