Sylvain Sylvain, co-founder and guitarist of profoundly influential proto-punks New York Dolls, died Wednesday in Nashville at age 69. His wife Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi confirmed his death from cancer to Rolling Stone.
Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, in 1951, he emigrated to France with his family and then to the U.S. in 1961, settling in Queens, New York. His middle school and high school classmate Billy Murcia was also his partner in a clothing business and bandmate in a succession of rock bands. In 1971, the configuration of Murcia on drums, Arthur “Killer” Kane on bass, Mizrahi and Johnny Thunders on guitars and singer David Johansen took on the appellation New York Dolls. Mizrahi came up with the name: He and Murcia worked in a clothing store, and a nearby toy repair shop, the New York Doll Hospital, caught his eye.
The group’s sneering, fire-breathing take on old-school rock ’n’ roll — some Little Richard, a bit Chuck Berry, a lot of The Rolling Stones — coupled with their outlandish androgynous stage presence, helped them quickly develop a following. The Dolls’ two albums from this initial run, 1973’s New York Dolls and 1974’s Too Much Too Soon, didn’t lead to commercial success, and they dissolved within a few years. But cathartic, anthemic blasts like “Personality Crisis” and “Trash” had a huge impact on the way future punks would absorb and interpret this classic material.
After the Dolls broke up, Mizrahi remained involved with music, making his own records and producing Johansen’s early solo efforts. After 1981’s Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops, Mizrahi didn’t release new music until 1998’s appropriately raucous (Sleep) Baby Doll. The album’s title track was a tribute to friends and bandmates who’d died, including Thunders, Murcia and Jerry Nelson.
In 2004, the Dolls reunited to play a festival curated by major fan Morrisey. They had a good enough time with the project to stay together for a lengthy and productive stretch. Before disbanding again in 2011, they recorded three more albums, including 2006’s One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, that showcased a vital energy. “I hate the word ‘comeback,’ ” Mizrahi told Scene contributor Jason Bennett at the time. “This is not a comeback or a reunion. This is an evolution of the New York Dolls, an evolution of rock ’n’ roll in the 21st century.”
Among the standout players who passed through this new incarnation of the Dolls was Aaron Lee Tasjan. “Thank you for teaching me,” Tasjan wrote on Facebook following the news of Mizrahi’s death. “You were kind and funny and so cool. Infinitely cool and generous.”
Around the time of the Dolls’ second dissolution, Mizrahi began playing in a group called Batusis (pictured above) with former Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who’d made his home in Nashville. Though the band eventually went dormant, Mizrahi eventually settled in Music City circa 2015. “There’s more music here for me,” he told Austin Chronicle’s Tim Stegall. Here, he could be seen on occasion performing with his group Syl Sylvain and the Sylvains, or with the hard-rock-loving tribute-group-slash-community-endeavor Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency.
Among other projects, Mizrahi wrote an oral history of the Dolls called There’s No Bones in Ice Cream, published in 2018. In 2019, he made his cancer diagnosis public and launched a crowdfunding campaign. He continued to work, however. In August, he posted a haunting instrumental piece called “Tears for Baby,” slated for an as-yet-unreleased project called Street.
“While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain,” writes Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi in a note posted Thursday to Mizrahi’s Facebook page. “Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”
The post also includes a letter from journalist, author and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye.
“The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to,” Kaye writes. “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.”