Saturday, January 16, 2021

From the archives: On the phone with Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls

[Sylvain, left, and David Johansen in 2006]

Ed note: Sylvain Sylvain died this week of cancer at age 69. This EVG post first appeared on March 8, 2013.

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. 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]

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