Editor’s note: Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, a founding member of seminal punk band New York Dolls, died Jan. 13 after a battle with cancer. Born in Egypt, the 69-year-old co-started the hugely influential group in 1971. Musician-producer-composer Jason Hill produced the Dolls’ most recent record, 2011’s Dancing Backward in High Heels, and toured with the band.
Sometimes, like all people, and especially musicians on the grueling road, the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain could wake up a little bent out of shape, often about something from 20 or 30 years ago, and his mood would sour. But to me he was mostly bubbles in the champagne. I am certain that when I wasn’t around he had complaints to say about me. But who doesn’t? We are humans, we have flaws and it’s the flaws that often bring out the most creativity. That’s what happens in friendships and relationships, especially when you work together on something.
Syl was sensitive, slightly crazy and loved being Sylvain Sylvain. But when he was bubbles, especially during the recording of Dancing Backward in High Heels, you could see the little kid in him; the mischievous 10-year-old. He was excited about getting into little adventures, turned on by a kernel of an idea that he had come up in his basement in Georgia, now being turned into a full-fledged song. Watching it come alive is always the exciting part and Syl had that love. That never went away. Watching the Frankenstein come alive is what guys like Syl and me have so much in common. It’s the common bond of musician lifers.
While smoking joints in the parking lot of the studio in Newcastle, I would be entertained by the stories of Syl and singer, songwriter, frontman and unmistakable voice David Johansen talking about the old days. Syl would typically have a white wine in hand and the two of them would tell me stories of such colorful characters with even more colorful names like New York Dolls member Tony Machine and Cheetah Chrome of Dead Boys.
Syl would roll his eyes when the topic of KISS would come up. I think it was Bob Dylan or perhaps Neil Young who said that it wasn’t the visionary that made the money and achieved the fame, but the second act copying the first. I think Syl always saw that in KISS and countless bands after that. The Dolls’ legacy of influence reached so far—from the Sex Pistols to Guns N’ Roses to my own Louis XIV and to Lady Gaga. But like most originators, the New York Dolls’ interests were far more divergent and sophisticated than those who would go on to follow in their footsteps.
I first met Syl and David backstage in 2005 or 2006 at a festival at a Maryland stadium or some similar East Coast “enormodome.” Louis XIV was just boiling up in the musical consciousness and the New York Dolls had just released their first record in 30 years. Six years later I got the call out of the blue to produce their upcoming album. It was to be written and recorded in a short one-month window in Newcastle. I immediately thought back to me as a teenager, wearing that iconic Dolls lipstick shirt to my first day of freshman year in high school. I jumped at the chance.
I had thought on the two previous comeback records that producers really bought into this idea that the Dolls should just be the Dolls and document it quickly and try to modernize it to some degree. I wanted to dig in deeper into these guys, try and pull out the glorious time that had happened between and put it into the songs. Creativity is always king and I wanted to explore that with them; to push them in directions that they weren’t so commonly pushed. In the end, it was magic.
On that first call, David casually closed with, “Oh, and Sammi [Yaffa] can’t make it. He’s touring with Michael Monroe. But you can play bass, right? And we are going to do a show in a couple of days in New York and then six shows in the U.K. before we get to Newcastle.” Playing bass onstage with the Dolls and on the record seemed too good to pass up. Never having played bass live, I said, “Absolutely.”
Anyone who knows me knows the idea of learning parts and riffs has never been my bag. I’m far too impatient and not one to paint the same picture twice. I like to create and I have to just fly, for better or for worse. I just wing it. That’s what I did, and Syl and David graciously allowed me to do it. David often introduced me as playing “lead bass” because of my penchant for trying to push things. One man’s noodling is another man’s entrance into the gates of heaven. But Syl and David were such good sports about it and such masters on stage. The chemistry between the two hadn’t diminished at all and to be with them onstage is one of the greatest honors of my life.
Six shows later we were then settling into the studio to track the record. No songs written, just a few sketches on Syl’s cassette tapes. The first day of recording, the catering consisted of white bread with sticks of butter already spread onto the slices. Syl and Mara Hennessey, David’s wonderful partner in crime for many years, jumped to attention and sorted out for some wonderful girls down the road to start delivering incredible homemade meals daily. The girls would later sing backup.
I spent the first two days stressing out because I couldn’t find the right drum sound for Brian Delaney. In my normal life I spend only minutes getting the drums just right, but this time it had to be special for the New York Dolls and it was the first piece of the puzzle that needed to be placed—the first building block.
You can have the same equipment from one musician to the next and it’s going to sound drastically different. It’s in the fingers and the mind and the heart of the player. So it’s often a matter of figuring out how to find the chemistry and mix it with the technology and creativity. I went back to the house we were all staying at after the first day panicked and even depressed. It just sounded wrong. The vision wasn’t there. I was failing. Syl took me aside, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’ll get it. Don’t worry about it. I don’t know you that well yet but I know you are really good. So don’t worry about it!” He sipped some bubbles and went into the kitchen to talk French with Mara. David pulled me aside and said the same.
By the next evening, we found it and things just started chugging from there. “Kids Like You” was the first song, built from a demo of Syl playing a Farfisa into a little 8-track. It had this authentic, unique but exciting ’70s reggae sound to it. I think it took Syl a few days to truly warm up to me in the studio. We battled over my decision to not let Marshall amps into the building, as I wanted to get him out of his comfort zone and, too often, Marshalls sustain so much that guitar players don’t get to really dig in, get intimate and make guitars sing. Syl proved it with such panache and nobody could dress up an A chord like him. Once Syl recognized that I wasn’t trying to push him out, but bring out the best in him, he started to become those bubbles in the champagne around me.
Tonight I will drink a glass of champagne and raise a toast to Sylvain Sylvain, thanking him for letting me play in his sandbox for a while. When I see bubbles, I’ll always think of Syl.