Sylvain Sylvain, New York Dolls Guitarist, Dies at 69

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Sylvain Sylvain, the guitarist for the proto-punk band New York Dolls, died on Jan. 13 at the age of 69.

A message was posted to his personal Facebook page. “As most of you know, Sylvain battled cancer for the past two and 1/2 years,” it read. “Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease. While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain. Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”

The statement was followed by an appreciation by Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group. “Syl loved rock and roll,” he wrote. “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.”

“His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision,” Kaye continued. “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.”

Born Sylvain Mizrahi on Feb. 14, 1951, his family left Cairo and he recalled first getting turned on to rock n’ roll while living in Paris. “My older brother took me to see Elvis [Presley] in the movie houses — King Creole — and all the kids would bring their bongos and guitars, and sing along with those songs,” he told Vintage Guitar. “That was so damn cool. That was my first take of guitar.”

By the early ’60s, his family settled in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and he got his first guitar, a $13 Spanish acoustic, which he learned to play from Ventures records. He became friends with drummer Billy Murcia, and they formed a called the Pox. After it broke up, they created their own clothing company called Truth & Soul.

But music never left their minds, and they soon put together another band, recruiting guitarist-lead singer John Genzale, who would eventually be christened Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane and a third guitarist, George Fredericks, aka Rick Rivets. In the fall of 1971, Sylvain left the band to spend some time in London, and David Johansen stepped into the frontman’s position. By the time he returned, they had chosen a name suggested by Sylvain after seeing a shop called the New York Doll Hospital.

Rivets quit in early 1972, Sylvain rejoined and they began playing out in the nascent downtown New York scene, gaining a reputation for their live shows which lacked precision but made up for it in raw energy and excitement. Then, while touring England in November 1972, Murcia died of an accidental overdose at a party.

He was replaced by Jerry Nolan, and the quintet signed with Mercury, releasing their self-titled debut in July 1973. It was loved by critics, but also not of its time in the era of prog and extended solos. It reached No. 116 on the Billboard album chart and the 1974 follow-up, Too Much Too Soon, only peaked at No. 167. Their last two years saw some of its members dive deeper into drug abuse, with their last show being at Max’s Kansas City on Dec. 30, 1976.

Sylvain continued to record, both on Johansen’s records and as a frontman. In 2004, the two men, the only surviving members of the original group, put together a new version of the New York Dolls and released three albums between 2006 and 2011.

In 2019, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer, and that he had set up a GoFundMe page to pay for surgery and recovery. It fell $534 short of its $80,000 goal.

 

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