There have been few bands that have generated such extremes as the New York Dolls. They have spiralled between the most exhilarating of heights, and, as drug addiction, alcoholism and death have all had their effect, the darkest of lows.

Formed in late 1971 in New York’s Lower East Side the five-piece all-male New York Dolls attracted notoriety almost from the very start because of its’ members’ habit of wearing make-up, high heels and female clothing. Their music, unlike anything else heard before, was almost equally controversial and merged together in an aggressive-sounding package the influences of the blues ; 60s girls’ groups such as the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes ,and the garage rock and psychedelia of MC5, the Stooges and the Seeds. Singer David Johansen’s lyrics meanwhile were seamy accounts of life in the New York streets and underground.

Even before they recorded their first album, the New York Dolls were linked with tragedy when their drummer Billy Murcia died in November 1972 in London on the group’s first visit to the UK from an overdose of drink and drugs. Initially a cult band, they had little impact in their original lifetime. Their 1973 first album, ‘New York Dolls’, which was produced by Todd Rundgren, reached no.116 in the Billboard charts, while their second, 1974’s ‘Too Much Too Soon’, which was produced by former Shangri-Las producer, George “Shadow” Morton, fared even less well, only reaching no. 167. Neither album charted in the UK. By the time of their break-up while on a disastrous tour of Florida in 1975, the New York Dolls had been dropped by their label, Mercury , and their guitarist, Johnny Thunders, and Murcia’s replacement, Jerry Nolan, were both heroin addicts, while bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane was a chronic alcoholic.

It was only after their demise that the New York Dolls, like the Velvet Underground a few years before them, started through word of mouth to become more dominant. They were to prove an initial influence on the fledgling New York punk/CBGB’s scene and bands such as Blondie, the Ramones and Television. From there they would go on to have an impact and influence on UK punk acts as the Sex Pistols (whose manager Malcolm McLaren also briefly managed the New York Dolls), the Clash and the Damned, and also glam rock-influenced heavy metal bands such as Kiss, Motley Crue, Hanoi Rocks and Guns ‘n Roses.

Johnny Thunders died in a heroin-related incident in New Orleans in April 1991. His death was followed less than nine months later in January 1992 by that Jerry Nolan, who, his body worn out by years of hard living, suffered a stroke, while being treated in hospital for pneumonia and meningitis.

In July 2004 the three surviving members of the New York Dolls, Johansen, guitarist Sylvian Sylvian and Kane, triumphantly reunited to play the Meltdown Festival in London at the invitation of long-term fan Morrissey, who was its curator that year. Further tragedy was, however, just a step away. Three weeks later Arthur Kane checked himself into a Los Angeles hospital, believing that he had caught flu in London and complaining of fatigue. He was diagnosed as having leukemia and died less than two hours later.

Johansen and Sylvian elected to carry on. They have toured regularly since, and in 2006 released a third studio album, ‘One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This’ ( Roadrunner Records), with the participation of new members, Steve Conte (guitar), Sami Yaffi (bass) and Brian Delaney (drums). Well received by fans and critics alike, its combination of punk, psychedelia and blues both remains true to and yet also successfully makes contemporary the New York Dolls’ original sound. The group’s fourth album, ‘Cause I Sez So’(Acto Records), is similarly powerful and, recorded in Hawaii with Todd Rundgren back as producer, includes a calypso reggae reworking of ‘Trash’, one of the tracks from the first album.

In conversation with Pennyblackmusic, to promote the new album, Sylvian Sylvian is a mesh of contradictions. He occasionally doesn’t always answer or maybe hear the questions, yet at the same time comes across as bluntly and scrupulously honest. He is matter-of-fact philosophical about his fallen band mates, but also wistfully sad, and, for all the New York Dolls’ sometimes brashness, is surprisingly poetic and lyrical in his speech and stance. The overall impression he leaves is of a man delighted to have his band, after years of turbulence and in the shadows, back under new appreciation out on the road playing both old and new songs, and determined to live up to and to enjoy every second of it.

PB : The New York Dolls have been often seen as being a band who have had really good things or really awful things happen to them with very little else in between. Is that the band's interpretation of itself as well ?

SS : It's true, but, you know what, it's not like we planned anything. You don't plan for the worst of course and you always hope for the best (Laughs). It's life though. It's like the poor chap who goes to work and gets run over crossing the street or whatever. Sometimes terrible things happen to people. If I had the chance though to do it all over again and if I had the choice to change things, I wouldn't do so because what we have had is unique.

PB : You wouldn't have changed all the bad things ?

SS : I guess things happen because they have to, but I would definitely not like to put into that equation heroin again. You never know whether you are going to make it with it or not and usually you don't and if you do it is never the same. That is the only thing I would maybe take out. I would keep all the romances and fun times we had and the unintentional shock that we gave the world.

PB : You say unintentional shock. Did you not set out to be controversial ?

SS : No, not really. We were just a bunch of kids coming out of the suburbs in New York. We were maybe only a couple of subway stops away from central Manhattan, but it can take like a lifetime of travel to get there. Our spot was on the Lower East Side and from there we became the darlings of the whole city.

We found out that it wasn't only us that was bored with what was going on, but that there was pockets of people, not only in New York, but as, we discovered later on, all over the world that were also bored. It was that boredom that they also had which was the reason why we put the band together. We got together in a very Little Rascals-ish way. It was like, "Hey man. Let's put on a show" and "Where are we going to get make-up to wear on stage ?" "Oh, my girlfriend has got a nice bag full of make-up" . There was no place to play and we, therefore, had to find places to play. It seemed that every other group at that time was a potential stadium rock and their songs were like operas compared to our three minute works of magic (Laughs). Our lyrics were important to us, came out of conversation that was important to us and we hoped to maybe challenge the people that were listening to us and get them to see life in another way.

It all developed naturally though. It wasn't like we planned any of it. None of us had gone to college or art school, but we were artists in our own way. Our basic playground was the city and it also became our school. We learned and absorbed a lot from what we saw around us. There were other people too into make-up, for example, and, while we really never, never did it in drag, we did play that side of things up. As with everything in the New York Dolls, we were just finding out about our own life and sexuality and what life meant to us. Nothing was ever really planned though. We were just experimenting, and I guess that was why some of us didn't make it.

PB : Did you ever try to get back together before you finally did so at the Meltdown Festival ?

SS : I wanted to do that all through the 80s when Johnny was still alive, and me and Arthur actually tried a few times, but there were others at that point that didn't want to work together.

PB : You released two of the best known cult albums of all time with 'The New York Dolls' and 'Too Much Too Soon'. As you and David are the only two remaining members of the original New York Dolls, do you think there is a legacy to maintain ?

SS : Yeah, of course. I think there is, but then again you can't shut out new opportunities either, such as with the new guys. We have incorporated them into our songwriting . It is not though like they are replacements. They are just new members and we get them to deliver and help out and to try and make good and they do. On the last album Sami Yaffa and Steve Conte contributed. On this latest one they contributed again.

I wish as I am sure a lot of people wish that Johnny and Jerry could still be around, and Billy Murcia and Arthur Kane as well, but unfortunately we don't have them. They are here though with us in spirit. I don't think this would have been possible for us if they weren't.

PB : A lot of comeback albums don't match up to the standard of the originals, but the two new albums have earned both great fan and critical approval. Do you work hard and reject a lot of the material to maintain the standard of those first two albums ?

SS : Well, you know what, we really don't. I swear to God. I wish we had had more time to work on the very latest one, because we were rushed to get it in there. We wrote it in just over a month. We got together in New York in December for maybe four or five nights and then we went out to Todd Rundgren's studio out in Hawaii and we were there for a month. For the first week we were still writing our songs and trying to put the arrangements together. Everything took birth in the studio for the most part. We really didn't do too much planning and what worked we kept. We had about twenty ideas, let's say twenty songs and what came out came out. Those were the best. What didn't was not ready or just didn't feel right.

PB : On the early albums most of the songwriting credits went to David and Johnny Thunders, with you and David just getting the occasional songwriting credit together. On the two new albums you and David share most of the songwriting credits with the other members sharing occasional contributions with David or yourself. Do you and David write together in a different way to perhaps he and Johnny did ?

SS : Well you know,even then I didn't get credit back then for a lot of good stuff that I did. I was young and I didn't know better and I didn't fight for myself. In the case of 'Jet Boy',I came up with the solo on that. On 'Human Being', the B-line in that, the bridge, is mine and I also helped to write 'Mystery Girls' and it goes on and on and on. I have complained about that to David (Laughs) He knows where I am with that.
PB : You got Todd Rundgren back as the producer for the first time in 36 years for this album. What do you think he brought to the recording ?

SS : Todd is really smart. He knows how in his own soft way how to direct you. He is also a really good listener. Our demos were so stripped down and he had the imagination to hear them as fully finished pieces. He has a really smooth touch and one way in which he had that really smooth touch was through him I got to meet Liv Tyler, as she stopped over at his house and home studio (Laughs). That was for me his most important input.

PB : Why did you decide to rework 'Trash' from 'New York Dolls' on this album ?

SS : We didn't decide. All the songs on 'Cause I Sez So' just came about. 'Trash' has that breakdown where David goes, "And how do you call your loverboy ?" and so we did it live a few times and we went into what I call my Jewish New York reggae mould if I can even call it that (Laughs). It went well live and when we were in the studio we took a break and I started playing it again. All the guys including David came in from the kitchen and were like, "Man. That is fucking great. Let's do it. Let's just try it." We did it and it came out so cool with the background voices we used on it and it just stayed there. We really didn't have the chance to decide to do anything. We didn't have the time. We were flying by the seat of our pants and what worked worked organically and what didn't it was like, "Trash it. Kaput !" (Laughs)

PB : Both Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan lived a hard lifestyle which had a very negative impact on the band. Do you remember them fondly ?

SS : It is a sad but beautiful thing, but I have met both their children lately, Jerry's son Johnny Nolan, and Johnny's Swedish daughter, Jamie Genzale. I see in their eyes and their conversation their fathers and for me I think of all the good times when we were so young and yet naive. We were still virgins in a way, although maybe not sexually (Laughs), and I just think of those great times before heroin and that is how I like to remember them. It is a beautiful life and that is why that is the only thing I would take away from everything which has happened to the New York Dolls .

PB : How do you remember Arthur ? Do you remember him with such affection as well ?

SS : I produced Arthur's last record which went out onto a Johnny Thunders tribute record ('I Only Wrote This Song For You', 2002) and he did 'In Cold Blood' .We worked on it together and we had some really cool people on there, including Frank Infante from Blondie, and I brought my drummer, Brian Keats, in. We did it in a scary Halloween-ish way, and in the middle of it he stopped and he said ( In a creepy voice) "My name is Arthur "Killer" Kane. In Cold Blood." That is the way I remember Arthur. I want people to really listen to that if they can listen to that.

PB : Final question. You're going to be going on a world tour soon. When does that start ?

SS : Well, we have been on world tour since Meltdown. Since Morrissey asked us to do that, we have still been in demand. We go off for a couple of weeks and then go back home for a couple of weeks and then we go back off. We have played places I couldn't even imagine like in Beijing in China and Moscow. We love to come to the United Kingdom and we always have such a great audience there. Our last tour to promote our last album made us feel so good. It is all over the world like that. If there is anyone who is going to vote us in to be there tomorrow it is our audience, so we'll keep it that way. We'll let them tell us yes and no. We are coming to Europe I think in July. I am not quite certain. It is still up in the drawing board. We will be touring though.

PB : Thank you very much.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Max Lakner and Marty Temme. Thank you to Aaron Brown and Lisa Torem who contributed questions for this interview.

Related Links:

Commenting On: Interview with Sylvian Sylvian - New York Dolls

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

20315 Posted By: justine Discouture (LONDON)

fab and thank-you Morrisey for bringing the fantabulous NYD back into the spotlight where they belong.

First Previous Next Last