Hidden away down a back alley in a cozy studio, Sylvain Sylvain is recording an album of Johnny Thunders songs. I hung around the chaos and got a rambling interview with the former Doll that's still puttin' it out.
The new album is due for release in the fall of 2001 and they have recorded the bedtracks for 16 songs. Vocals and other instruments will be recorded in New York and Atlanta later in the summer. It's produced by Shaun Pilot and Sylvain Sylvain and the bedtracks were recorded at Chemical Sound Studio. So far, the musicians are:
I arrived at the studio and, during a break in the recording, got some time with Sylvain in the back room. Here's how it went:
Chris R: So fill me in. What's been happening with you?
Sylvain Sylvain: It's been 4 months, I've been out there on the road with different bands. That was just the last time I did that. It started with the Street Walking Cheetahs in about 1998. It's a way that I can get out there and work. I mean it choose me, I didn't choose it. I used to have that Malcolm Mclaren mentality where it's like "Why go out there and work unless you have something to promote". So I've been waiting a bunch of years before making the Sleep Baby Doll album. And of course the classic thing happened where the record company comes up to you about 2 days before the tour starts and the record is not going to come out in time. So the record is not going to be out promoting the tour. And I was so fucking pissed. I make it to my first show in like Minneapolis and there was a whole crowd lined right around the corner. I got this most beautiful love thing going with the audience. Everyone had a gas and we had a great rock 'n' roll show and I kicked myself in the pants and I said "What the hell was I waiting for". I think I've come to the level where it doesn't necessary mean that I have to make a record to get out there and work. They just want to see that kid from the Dolls that they remember singing Trash.
CR: Well it was a long time before putting out Sleep Baby Doll.
Yeah, but I always worked where I lived. If I lived in L.A., I worked there. (In the 90s when I moved out there.) When I lived in New York, I always played in New York. Every now and then I'd muscle up and throw a tour together. Y'know, to get out there and work. I never had the guts to call up an agent and say 'Put a tour together for me, I'm going out'. I was always "If I don't have a record, there's not reason to go out. No one's going to come."
CR: So why didn't you put out a record before Sweet Baby Doll?
To make a long story short - I've been knocking on doors and they haven't been exactly calling me back. And maybe for all the right reasons. It gave me many many years to build to build a big, what I call, threads in a curtain. Man, all the songs that I wrote, I've got a huge curtain where each thread is a song. So I had a lot of tunes and I still do. But the opportunities never really came my way for anything. I was dying to make records. I love performance and live is really incredible and there's not really all that many people out there doing rock n roll shows anymore. In the middle of my set I do a "Femme Fatale". I really bring that NYC vibe that I grew up with and it's just a part of me no matter where I go it's just there anyway. People in the audience, I can see, get tears in their eyes when I do that song. I didn't even write that one but it's part of the reason that I wrote "Trash". But, a lot of times people think that "they" were calling me and I was getting all these offers to make albums. But - it's not true. The only calls I really got, and it was thrown to me, stupid money. Stupid, stupid money.
CR: Let me guess. Japan?
SS: No. It was offers to work together again with David and Arthur, whatever that would be, as The New York Dolls. Of course that would never happen.
CR: Well there's always these rumors that you're going to get together.
SS: Not only rumors. Every year there's offers. Real real offers. I don't like to tell them to Arthur anymore because sometimes it upsets him. He gets really excited and then there's a let down. Really the only thing that's standing in our way is David. He's the only one that hasn't said yes yet.
CR: He's got his own career now with a successful acting thing and he's doing really well.
SS: I don't blame anyone for anything but I can describe it as - The New York Dolls is a business whether we like it or not. And it's like a business during the Los Angeles riots, which I had to live through. People are fucking breaking down the door. Taking anything they want. Making this and that. And they don't have to pay anybody, they don't have to do anything. And we're being raped, robbed and murdered. Wether we like it or not, that's still happening. We're throwing it away. I don't' care who's successful. I had my own signed to big record companies. Even when Johnny wished he could have been signed to an American major company he couldn't get it. Poor Johnny never had a deal in the States.
CR: Yeah, he never did.
SS: They wouldn't touch him over here.
CR: Why do you think that was? I've heard all sorts of stories that he'd go into interviews really wasted and they would be turned off.
SS: That really takes you into many many conversations about the business. To make a long story short - it's a business. It's still a business whether you like it or not. Either you're just going to give it away like we are right now as The Dolls. Cause we have a store but there's no lock at the door. We got goods inside; we got t-shirts. We got records, live albums. We got Morrissey singing "Trash". We got Gun's & Roses playing this & that. The list goes on & on.
CR: So you guys don't own the rights to the first 2 records?
SS: It's not that we don't own but we come from a position of non communications. Nobody is the leader. Our lead singer thinks that whatever happens, it's all just chump change. Cause he's been successful in other things maybe. I talked to David and David said to me "Well OK check it out, test the waters". And I said "David the minute I tell them I can offer the New York Dolls, the shit is going to hit the fire." An English promoter I know made his phone calls and all of a sudden we had a $100,000 tour for 6 or 7 festivals during a summer of '91 or '92. And then of course David never came back on. He didn't want to do it.
[Clem Burke (drummer for Blondie) comes back for beer.]
Sylvain (to Clem): Chris runs the JT Cyber Lounge. Have you ever seen that site? It's fucking great. It's incredible.
CB: No I haven't logged on to that site.
SS: It's like the Smithsonian. You can spend a few days in there.
CB: Do you have my review from the New York Post, gig at the Ritz, from about 1990?
CR: I don't have that one. I can look it up.
CB: It's a good review. Ira Robbins. I think it was around 1990. It was the only time I played with Johnny at a gig.
CR: What it was it like?
CB: It was great. It was his band that he had at the end with Alison and everybody.
CR: The Oddballs?
CB: Yeah but the drummer, Chris Musto, was in England and I just stepped in to play for him. That was a good band he had at the end.
CR: Yeah. So can you tell me any stories.
CB: Sure. I can tell you a million stories about Johnny. Well are you interviewing Syl here?
CR: Yeah. And I'm recording it so you better be careful about what you say.
CB: Well Johnny was just a sweet guy, really.
CR: You're not saying that just because I'm recording this are you? (laughs)
CB: No no. It's true. Laying on the steps at the club 82 when I used to see the Dolls when I was late teens. I used to go to Club 82 to see them. They were my big heroes. Hmmm Johnny - We booked 3 days of rehearsals he showed up the first day. He was in charge. Telling everybody what to do here and there. We had 2 more days booked but I never saw him again until midnight the night of the show. It was a good show and he said it was one of the best shows he ever did in New York. This show at The Ritz. Like I said, there was a big review in the Post.
CR: I'll have to look up the review.
CB: I remember he had a sticker on his guitar at the time: "I have cottage cheese for brains", or something like that. (laughs)
SS: Hey, good name for an album! The next Johnny album "I have cottage cheese for brains"!
CB: All these guys, they were really nice to me. Even when I was a kid. I think Johnny and I are the same age but he seemed older cause he was up there doing it. Maybe he was a year older than me. But these guys were really young when they were doing it. We all looked up to them as the people that were doing it. You know the whole story about that.
CR: Well yeah, I saw the Dolls twice when they played here in Toronto, '73 & '74.
CR: One show was at the Victory Burlesque Parlor.
SS: You actually saw that show?! Oh my God.
CR: I think that was the second show.
SS: That was when Rush opened up for The Dolls. That was so fucking amazing. Hey, I passed by there (The Victory Burlesque) today. I know where that is, Spadina and up from Queen Street sort of. You can still see a bit of the facade for a theatre, the Marquee kind of thing. That place was a strip joint during the day time and then we played there.
CR: It had a runway down the center of the theatre for the strippers.
SS: Do you remember if somebody fell off the balcony that night?
CR: That's not something I remember but that was a long time ago. Do you remember anything about Rush from that show?
SS: Not at all (laughs).
CB: We used to do we weird shows like that with Blondie. It seemed totally incongruous bills.
SS: Can you imagine this - Lynyrd Skynyrd once opened for the Dolls. It must have been 1973 in Springfield Missouri. They came up to us after and said [in southern accent] "Y'all boogie like Hell!" and stuff like that. We had some incredible lineups that they teamed us up with. Of course the most famous was when all these promoters got together and said "Let's do a glitter rock tour". The lineup was Aerosmith, Kiss, as special guest stars and The Dolls. Sometimes it would be The Dolls and Mott The Hoople doing a glitter rock tour thing.
CB: We did a good show with Blondie in 1978. It was our big homecoming show. It was Johnny Thunders, Mitch Ryder and Blondie. We used to do Jet Boy at the end of the show. The wildest thing was that this was right when Sid Vicious got out of jail the first time, before he went back in for hitting Patti Smith's brother with a bottle. This was when he got busted for Nancy Spungen. He came out and it was all our parents were there at the side of the stage with Sid with all his shots. But it was good shit because we were all back in New York. It was in the papers every day: "Punk rock murderer" and we go to do our show and there he is "Hello Sid, how you doing, how you feeling man". He was there with Johnny and it was just all connected wild night. It was a big thing. It was our big show. That was a good night. Johnny had his saddle bags that he always used to carry.
SS: We were talking the other night and thinking that things have changed but they are still all connected. It's a small world that we all live in. Like this project right here, the way it happened. It's like a miracle. I did a tour, the last leg of that 4 month thing, and it was with Shaun Pilot. He called me and asked if I wanted to do something up here in Toronto and I said yeah! We did Toronto and Montreal and we did great in Montreal. We had 500 kids come in and see us.
CB: Your stuff only gets better as time goes on. I was reading a thing in Rolling Stone today and there was this band called Dream, on Puff Daddy's label, and they were all wearing New York Dolls shirts. And the comment in the paper was that Johnny Thunders is looking down from heaven and smiling. Y'know, all these teenie bopper girls are wearing New York Dolls shirts.
SS: Every town has one of those boutiques, like here on Queen street, where they sell these baby doll glam rock t-shirts. New York Dolls, with all the glitter on them, and I always see Blondie and Roxy Music or David Bowie.
CB: I was thinking that what happened in the 1970's had much more impact on modern culture then what happened in the 1960's. As far as I can tell, the way they act, the way they look. They're not walking around with long hair, they're wearing black leather or glam thing and the music is punk. It's not about what happened in the 1960's, it's really about what happened in the 1970's. From glam to punk, had the most profound affect on the start of the 21st century. I don't see hippies running around.
SS: In Georgia, where I live now, I was in the supermarket and who do I hear? It was The Velvet Underground and Blondie. That's like a such a shock to me.
CB: Iggy's now selling Mitsubishi and running shoes.
SS: And The Velvet Underground never got much airplay. They never had a hit record.
CB: The thing they said about The Velvet Underground, and I think it's applicable to The Dolls too, is that everybody who bought their record went out and started a band.
[Shaun calls them back to the booth.]
SS: OK, I think they want to run through London Boys. He says it's fast but I kind of dug it the way it is.
CB: You said you wanted it fast and you're the executive producer.
SS: Well I got what I wanted. Now it's too fast. Can you imagine that they are telling me to slow down? Isn't that great! As time goes on, they usually try to pep you up. Y'know they give you coffee and stuff to get you faster. They want me to slow down. (laughs) So I still got something. I still got my speed.