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New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain dead at 69

Sylvain Sylvain of New York Dolls performs on stage at the Rainbow Room at the fashion store Biba in Kensington, London on 26th November 1973
Sylvain Sylvain onstage at the Biba fashion store in Kensington, London on 26th November 1973 (Image credit: Peter Noble / Getty Images)

New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain has died at the age of 69. 

The news was confirmed by former Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, who wrote, "Sylvain Sylvain, the heart and soul of the New York Dolls, bearer of the Teenage News, passed into his next astral incarnation on Wednesday, January 13, 2021.

"Syl loved rock and roll. His onstage joy, his radiant smile as he chopped at his guitar, revealed the sense of wonder he must have felt at the age of 10, emigrating from his native Cairo with his family in 1961, the ship pulling into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

"It was he who looked across Lexington Ave. and saw the sign for the New York Doll hospital. Syl and a high school friend, Billy Murcia, were in the rag trade then, the aptly named Truth and Soul, handknit sweaters with a side of rockattitude. Hooking up with another classmate, John Genzale, and then, as bands will, Arthur Kane, and David Johansen, and Jerry Nolan, they became a quasar in the rock firmament; embodying trash, glam, garage-to-punk, the ambisexual affirmation of music played louder.

"His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision. Though he tried valiantly to keep the band going, in the end the Dolls’ moral fable overwhelmed them, not before seeding an influence that would engender many rock generations yet to come.

"The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to. From the time I first saw their poster appear on the wall of Village Oldies in 1972, advertising a residency at the Mercer Hotel up the street, throughout their meteoric ascent and shooting star flame-out, the New York Dolls were the heated core of this music we hail, the band that makes you want to form a band.

"Syl never stopped. In his solo lifeline, he was welcomed all over the world, from England to Japan, but most of all the rock dens of New York City, which is where I caught up with him a couple of years ago at the Bowery Electric. Still Syl. His corkscrew curls, tireless bounce, exulting in living his dream, asking the crowd to sing along, and so we will. His twin names, mirrored, becomes us.

"Thank you Sylvain x 2, for your heart, belief, and the way you whacked that E chord. Sleep Baby Doll".

Sylvain was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, in 1951. When he was young his family fled to New York where, as a teenager, he formed The Pox with future New York Dolls bandmate Billy Murcia. The pair also featured in Actress, where they were joined by Johnny Thunders and Arthur Kane, and they morphed into the New York Dolls as singer David Johansen joined the band.  

Sylvain played with the Dolls until they broke up in 1975, playing on the band's self-titled debut in 1973 and on Too Much Too Soon the following year.

After the band's dissolution Sylvain worked on a number of projects, releasing two albums under his own name, one with Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops, and two with With Sylvain Sylvain and The Criminal$. 

In 2004 the surviving members of the Dolls (Sylvain, Johansen and Kane) reformed to perform at the Morrissey-curated Meltdown festival in London. Kane died just weeks after the show, but two years later came a third Dolls album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. This was followed in 2009 by Cause I Sez So and Dancing Backward in High Heels in 2011. 

In April 2019 Sylvain set up a crowd-funding campaign to raise money to pay his medical bills, revealing he'd been battling cancer. 

"I have not been able to work since last year," he wrote, "and have more surgery scheduled. I love life! As hard as life has been to me these past two years, I want to live and I know with your love and support I’ll have the best chance that I could ever have."

In 2014 Sylvain told Classic Rock, "A musician’s life is a lot better with money than without, but the true job of an artist is to inspire and turn people on. That’s the job of an entertainer. So in those terms, you can forget everyone else. We’re Number One. We were the first band out of the fucking gate in New York City, before there was anybody else.

"Getting signed was a huge wall to break down, because before the New York Dolls you had to be fucking Foghat or Led Zeppelin. And we were so fucking bored with that generation. Whole shows were built around stadium rock, and the song itself had lost its pizazz, its sex appeal. So it was a case of: if they can’t deliver it, then we’ll have to do it ourselves. 

"I’m so proud that we did what we did, against all odds. They used to say we couldn’t sing or write a tune and had no excuse to be on stage. But it was the audience who kept us going."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor of Classic Rock Magazine. Lapsed Kiwi, Eater, Pluviophile, Kitten Jesus. Spends much of free time visiting vile dictatorships. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.