Friday, March 8, 2013

On the phone with Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls

[Sylvain, left, and David Johansen in 2006]

Last week, I spoke with Sylvain Sylvain, the guitarist of the legendary New York Dolls, and one of the two remaining original band members. I called him to talk about the program he's hosting at noon today on East Village Radio titled "Rock and Roll Hours." 

He talked to me for about 45 minutes from his home in Atlanta, sharing some favorite East Village memories starting when he moved to the neighborhood from Queens in 1967. 

Sylvain, 62, has a lot of stories, from waiting for coffee at Veselka to being the protopunk band who helped pave the way for others on the NYC scene in the 1970s. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, including parts that appear on the East Village Radio website. It was more of a conversation than an interview, so it doesn't really follow a Q-and-A format...

First apartment
"It was ... 1967. It was on East Fifth Street between Avenue C and D. It was $57 a month in rent. For the whole damn place! The apartment had a refrigerator. It worked and everything — the light was on. But it didn’t have a door. [Laughs] It was groovy for about a month or two — during the summer. Then I got the hell out of there real quick. Anywhere past Avenue A you were taking your life in your hands. There was a lot of heroin. It was actually cheaper than pot. It was pretty fucking wild."

Gem Spa, which served as the setting for the back cover of the New York Dolls' first album
"It was a corner place in the late 1960s. It wasn’t much of a joint at all. But we felt like the place epitomized the whole East Village scene — this is where we were living. You could stop there and pick up your smokes and get an egg cream and the newspaper or a magazine. I know Johnny [Thunders] used to really love those egg creams. They got hipper as years went on, where they would sell Melody Maker. It became more of a place once the Dolls took pictures in front of it.

"There was the Slow Russians. What do they call that place? Veselka? We called it ‘The Slow Russians.’ You’d ask for a cup of coffee at like 2 o’clock in the morning. By the time they served you the coffee it would be like 6 o’clock in the morning! [Laughs] They were real slow! But they had all those soups and it was pretty cheap. They were open all night too."

Peace Eye Bookstore
"Ed Sanders from the Fugs — one of my favorites — had a bookstore right across the street from Tompkins Square Park [at 147 Avenue A]. I worked there for a couple of months until he discovered that I couldn’t really read because I’ve always had dyslexia, and then he fired me right there."

"It was cheap. You could live on the Avenues. It was a lot safer. The drugs were softer there. There was marijuana — no heroin. If you wanted to live there, it was like $150 to $300 for a month's rent.

"Every summer, me and [David] Johansen, we used to say, 'OK, I haven't seen that person ... that person just came in. She just came in.' We could count them off. They heard their calling from wherever they came from — the Midwest, the West Coast, upstate New York — even from Queens, like me. These people had a calling to come to the city, and the East Village was the only place that they could afford to live. They would go to art school or become musicians. The only band who I remember before us were the Magic Tramps, which was Eric Emerson. He passed away, the poor guy, on heroin too.

"Queens was a few stops away from Manhattan, but it was a lifetime of travel to get to Manhattan.

"Manhattan was the only free place. As bad as it was in Alphabet City, you were free at least. You could wear what you wanted. Some times you took your life in your hands just walking. It was really dangerous. But at least you were free — that was the bottom line."

Shopping and dressing
"[Dolls bassist] Arthur Kane was on First Avenue. He lived right above a bar [now d.b.a.]. It took us like five hours to get dressed. Arthur was wearing this chick’s zebra waistcoat. It was a print, of course. It wasn’t a real zebra. But it took us hours and hours to get dressed — all this just to go shopping at the supermarket.

"When we get to the supermarket — it was below Houston. It was called the Big Apple. We were in the queue there to pay for whatever food we didn’t stuff into our pockets. This mafiosa guy says 'the things you see when you ain’t got a rifle.'

"I would go shopping from Madison Avenue to thrift shops. And you just made it up on your own.

"We'd get everything from the little kids' motorcycle jackets to beat-up blue jeans. It depended where the fuck you got it. We were the most creative — we were like what they call club kids, but when there were no clubs."

"Everyone had a telephone. Of course, we never paid for it. You’d pick a name. My name was Ricky Corvette. I'm pretty sure I still owe Ma Bell a lot of money. Back then, you’d call up and say I just moved into this new place. 'OK, what's your name? Ricky Corvette. OK, Ricky we'll be there next week to put in your phone.' I'm talking about 1970."

Johnny's closet
Johnny Thunders had an apartment on Avenue A. His closet was like — everything would be pressed and dry cleaned. He had a real unique way of dressing and picking this and this and that and putting it all together.

When we were picking names for the band, he called me, well, he called Ricky Corvette, and run names by me. 'What do you think of Johnny Thunder?' I'd was like Yeah, that's pretty cool Johnny. The phone would ring five minutes later. What about Johnny Thunders?

"I did have an apartment in New York until 2010. It was on 69th Street off Broadway. Up until a couple years ago we were doing OK so I could still have an apartment in New York. But then I couldn’t afford it. I first moved to LA, and lived there until 1995 and moved here to Atlanta. It was all because of money. Now Atlanta is getting almost as expensive as New York. Almost. I think Nicaragua, friend, is next."

Starting a band
"A lot of kids come up to me like 'Wow, you came up at a really great time!' Oh, fuck no! When the New York Dolls started in 1970, there was nobody. You couldn't get a contract. It took us years. It took until 1973 until we got signed.

"After we started it was five years until CBGB opened in 1975. The Dolls broke up in 1975. There were no places to play. You had to invent places to play. We were the ones who kind of gave birth to groups like Blondie and the Talking Heads." 


 [Photos via Sylvain Sylvain]


DrBOP said...

BRILLIANT Mistah Grieve.....funny how the circles work.....we were mostly gone fron the EV by 1970 because the rents had gone UP to $150 a month.....and wtf was it about these punk kids (actual phrase used) dressin' up like women and THEY DON'T KNOW HOW TO PLAY their instruments!!! (OF COURSE, rethought ALL that over next couple of years.)
Also right on about danger (and LOTS of skank), yet balanced with personal freedom/thrills ; but EVERYwhere else seemed square, foreign and MUCH more frightening.
And Sanders could ALWAYS be a bit of a dick (although GREAT bookstore).

esquared™ said...


Shawn said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this! Long live the Dolls!

Makeout said...

Real nice kinda Q & A EV and wait- you have a phone?

Gojira said...

The one band I always wanted to see but never got the chance to. Still pissed about that, all these years later. But thanks for this.

EV Grieve said...


$150? Outrageous!

Thanks! I borrowed a phone!

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview. But the comments about putting your life in your hands really drive home. I think people have really forgotten how dangerous it could be pre-Giuliani just walking around in this town. I remember as a teenager in the early 90s how it seemed almost every other block had someone hanging around just trying to start shit. One second of accidental eye contact and you could really be in a tricky position. I miss the freedom of the old days and the reckless, spontaneous nature of the city deeply. But I'm glad that I can walk down the streets without having to worry these days. Back then, there was such a feeling of relief sometimes when you finally made it home.

Anonymous said...

Favorite Dolls song is definitely their cover of Don't Mess with Cupid. And Trash. And Personality Crisis. Damn, that was a good band.

Anonymous said...

DrBOP said...

So listenin' to Sylvain over at EVR right now.....and it is PURELY RIGHTEOUS!!! Wish all radio was still like this.
And I can't hold back.....I GOTTA tell this story.
It's Christmas time 1971, and I'm stuck in Valley Forge Hospital having caught malaria my last week in 'Nam.....and the Army docs won't release me until 30 days of observation.....but I can get a few days leave for it's either back to boring old Cleveland or Christmas in NYC = NO choice....EV here we come!
Searchin' around for old runnin' buds.....get the word that the Endicott Hotel is throwin' a Christmas party Christmas eve.....gonna have a band.....and it turns out to be the Dolls.....needless to say, along with the Spirits of the Season (among "other" stimulants), it was a BLAST!.....
......HOWEVER, and I want to put this as nicely as I can.....the Dolls had the passion, the ENERGY, and, ooooh, those OUTFITS.....but they were slightly not the best instrumentalists 'ya ever heard.....but it WAS a party!
And this is just Part ONE of this story.....part two comin' right up......

DrBOP said... it's early July 1973.....I'm back in Cleveburg, and the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen is announced with the Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band. We grab four tickets, all VietNam we approach it as a military exercise......tents, food, rain gear, "other" essentials....comes the departure morning of the 26th.....I go to get envelope out of desk drawer with the NOWHERE to be found....and although they ARE my buddies, my life is in danger! :+)
Search for four hours = NOTHIN'.....dammitdammitdammittttt!
So, to make it up to them I know that there's this other outdoor concert happening that same weekend over at Massilon Stadium with Rainbow headlining (Ritchie Balackmore's group after Deep purple) with the undercard being Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Mott the Hoople and.......the New York Dolls.
And MAN had the Dolls gotten REAL good since I last saw them.....pretty well kicked ass.....and made both Mott and Rainbow have to kick it up a notch.It was SOOOOO much fun watching the Dolls SHOCK the troops into enjoying their particular brand of whhoopass!!!
Final mindblower = got home the next morning, had to go in desk drawer for something.....the Watkins Glen tickets fall out on the floor, having been stuck SOMEPLACE in the side of the drwaer!!!
NO BULLSHIT!......STILL can't explain it.
I'm just a prisoner of rock and roll.....what can I say?

Spike said...

Thanks Grieveage and also the good doctor.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this. The saddest thing to me though is that a member of one of the most influential rock & roll bands ever isn't able to afford to stay in NYC. Why am I going broke staying here?

Live @ Drew's said...

Syl will be playing, along with Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, in Ringwood, NJ on April 4th. Fifty minutes by car. for info.