The sad news came down last night that New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain died after a long battle with cancer. “l remember the first time I saw him bop into the rehearsal space/bicycle shop with his carpetbag and guitar straight from the plane after having been deported from Amsterdam,” New York Dolls frontman David Johansen wrote on Instagram after the news broke. “I instantly loved him. I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning.”
Sylvain’s death is the latest in a long list of tragedies the band has endured over the last five decades, going back all the way back to 1972 when original drummer Billy Murcia died of asphyxiation during a European tour prior to the recording of their first album. He was replaced by Jerry Nolan, but the band — which also included guitarist Johnny Thunders and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane — never grew their audience beyond a devoted cult despite recording what is inarguably one of the great debut LPs in rock history.
The split in 1976 after recording just one more album, 1974’s prophetically-titled Too Much Too Soon. Thunders died of a drug overdose in April 1991 and Nolan died of a stroke in January 1992. Dolls super fan Morrissey willed a reunion concert by the surviving members into existence when he curated London’s Meltdown in June 2004. Just weeks after the triumphant show, Kane died suddenly from leukemia. (Check out the amazing documentary New York Doll to see a chronicle of his final months.)
Sylvain and Johansen kept the Dolls on the road in the aftermath of the tragedy, and they released their comeback LP Cause I Sez So in 2009 and the followup, Dancing Backwards in High Heels, in 2011. Like their Seventies work, the two albums fared better with rock critics than the general public, but they gave them enough momentum to stay on the road.
In the summer of 2011, they went out supporting Mötley Crüe and Poison, two groups that likely wouldn’t exist without the influence of the Dolls. They played Chicago’s Double Door during an off day from the amphitheater tour on July 27th, 2011. Here’s video of them playing their 1973 classic “Looking For a Kiss” that night. As you can see, they remained a stellar live act all the way to the end.
In October 2011, they opened up for Alice Cooper at a series of Halloween Night of Fear concerts across the U.K. The two acts started at roughly the same time and had a very similar aesthetic and sound, but Cooper was infinitely more successful at finding a mass audience and holding onto it. He was, of course, the headlining act.
Without any sort of formal announcement, the New York Dolls quietly split up after the tour. And now that Sylvain is dead, any sort of reunion is impossible. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally take them in one day, David Johansen will be at the podium alone.
An induction would have meant the world to Sylvain, but at least he got to re-experience the thrill of being a New York Doll in the latter years of his life. Most of his bandmates weren’t so lucky.