A Celebration Of The Musical Life Of Sylvain Sylvain
14 February 2021
The sad and untimely death on 13 January 2021 of Sylvain Sylvain, the very heart and soul of the legendary New York Dolls, has been well documented since that time. As someone who knew and played with Sylvain, Jerome Alexandre has already contributed his own Eulogy to Sylvain for Louder Than War. Jerome so accurately painted a picture of Sylvain in terms of his tremendous talent, musicianship, infectious enthusiasm, great spirit and sense of fun. Sylvain was a kind, warm person who just loved life, something I can attest to when I was lucky enough to meet him, albeit it all too briefly, on his final tour with Alison Gordy to the UK in 2018.
Given Sylvain Mizrahi was born on Valentine’s Day, this virtual tribute concert, lead by fellow Doll David Johansen, was both a celebration of his musical life on what would have been Sylvain’s 70th birthday and also a reminder of the huge inspiration he has given to so many over the years. The show featured a mix of stories, performances and videos from an array of Sylvain’s peers and admirers, including many who have known him personally or played with him throughout his career.
Lenny Kaye started off proceedings with a spoken eulogy, noting how Sylvain lived his dream and giving thanks for his heart, belief and the way he whacked that E-chord. This was followed by a classic video of the New York Dolls playing Stranded In The Jungle on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV show in 1974.
The Lemon Twigs from Long Island did a fine performance of I Can’t Forget Tomorrow from Sylvain’s 1981 Teardrops album with a real 60s vibe. Leah Hennessey and Ruby McCollister, together with the house band at the Bowery Electric, followed with a live rendition of Talk To Me Baby, a song taken from the Dolls 2011 album Dancing Backwards In High Heels. The Bowery House band comprised Derek Cruz, James Cruz, Randy Schrager, Rob Clores and Dave Immergluck.
Steve and Lily Hirsh performed a touching acoustic version of Deeper And Deeper taken from Sylvain’s classic eponymous solo album from 1979. The significance of this lies in the fact they are from the family who owned and ran the New York Doll Hospital from which Sylvain got the inspiration for the band’s name. Further spoken tributes followed from Philippe Marcade (The Senders) and Debbie Harry, who first got into the Dolls in their early days playing at the Mercer Arts Center, before being invited up to their infamous loft.
Michael Monroe and Sami Yaffa delivered a fantastic acoustic version of Trash before we heard an emotional Jayne County reminiscing about Sylvain playing on some of her songs, and seeing old footage of Jayne and The She Wolves performing Fuck Off at CBGBs, with Sylvain’s classic guitar sound clearly in evidence.
Then we got a great version of Pills performed by Tish & Snooky (The Sic F*cks) augmented with a high profile band comprising Dennis Dunaway (Alice Cooper), and Albert and Joe Brouchard (Blue Oyster Cult). A former roadie with the Dolls, Ames Flames, delivered his own heartfelt spoken tribute as did Michael Des Barres with his self-penned Your My Pain Killer. Gary Powell then recalled his absolute delight at being invited to become a part of the Dolls reunion in 2004 and the positive influence Sylvain had on so many lives through his intelligence and friendship.
We returned to the Bowery where Jesse Malin along with the house band played a sublime version of Leaving New York, a single written and released by Sylvain in 2012. Moving over to what looked like Sami Yaffa’s house, he recalled Sylvain as a force of nature and enjoyed his best playing years in his time with the reformed Dolls. Sami also delivered a fine acoustic version of Medicine Man, a song taken from the Teardrops album.
Sam Harris then led us through a fiery version of Chatterbox with the house band at the Bowery, followed by a video of Oli De La Celle with Ellicit covering Emily, a single by Sylvain dating back to 1979. Speedie John Calucci from Little Steven’s Underground Garage then shared his own personal tribute leading into footage of Sylvain performing 14th Street Beat. This same song was then covered by Rich Jones on solo electric guitar followed by another spoken tribute from Clem Burke.
Thurston Moore read from Sylvain’s excellent autobiography There’s No Bones In Ice Cream leading onto Ivan Julian singing his self-penned Song For Syl and relaying his own personal memories of Sylvain’s sardonic wit. Returning to the Bowery house band, Diane Gentile then did an excellent version of I’m So Sorry, also dating back to 1979.
Chuck Prophet and Stephanie Finch then performed a great stripped-down version of Teenage News, another classic song the original Dolls played in their latter days before Sylvain really made it his own during his solo years. Nitebob, the former sound man for the Dolls, delivered his own spoken tribute to Sylvain before Steve Conte recalled his own personal joy at first meeting and playing with Sylvain at the Dolls reunion in 2004. Steve then performed a great version of Take A Good Look At My Good Looks, a song he wrote with Sylvain and David Johansen, leading into a cover of Walking In the Rain by The Ronettes which inspired it.
Spoken tributes by Brian Delaney and Howie Pyro then led onto a lovely stripped-down performance of Frenchette by Kevin Kenny, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Laur Joamets. This was another classic song written by Sylvain and performed in latter day original Dolls gigs as well as appearing on David Johansen’s debut solo album. I was lucky enough to see David Johansen performing this on his 1978 solo UK tour, with Sylvain as an integral part of this great band.
Tom Clark, who played with Sylvain, performed an excellent acoustic Without You, again dating back to 1979, before Bob Gruen then shared his own memories of the first meeting with Sylvain and the Dolls in 1972 and a montage of some great pictures from his immense archives.
Bebe Buell must know Sylvain and the Dolls as much as anyone else alive today, seeing them from their very early days. Indeed Bebe was the girlfriend of Todd Rundgren at the time he was producing the Dolls debut album and spent much of that time in the studio with them….oh how I wish! Alongside her band The Scent, Bebe did a great job in covering Nico’s vocals in Femme Fatale which Bebe said was Sylvain’s favourite song.
Glen Matlock then came live and direct from Paddington, London to perform an excellent acoustic Teenage News. Glen recalled first seeing the Dolls supporting the Faces at Wembley Pool in 1973 with a vivid memory of Sylvain moving around the stage on roller skates. Henry Rollins then spoke about his own memories of Sylvain who he described as a “really sweet guy”.
A tribute concert such as this, in whatever form it took, could only be closed by one man, that being David Johansen as the only surviving New York Doll. David certainly did this in style by singing Plenty Of Music, written with Sylvain and taken from the Dolls 2006 album, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David was backed by Earl Slick and Lee Madeloni.
This whole event proved to be a significant and overwhelming outpouring of love, admiration and respect for Sylvain as a guitarist, a band member, a personal mentor and inspiration, a true gentleman and above all a wonderful human being. Sylvain would have loved it, as I am sure his wife Wanda did. As has been documented by so many since his recent death, Sylvain will be missed greatly by so many, but his fine legacy will live on for generations to come.
Screenshots credit to Rolling Live.
All words and main pic of Sylvain by Ian Corbridge. You can find more of his writing at his author profile.