Skip to main content

New York Dolls guitarist and punk icon Sylvain Sylvain dies aged 69

Legendary proto-punk act New York Dolls performing live at The Old Vic Tunnels, London on the 30th March 2011.
(Image credit: Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images)

Sylvain Sylvain, New York Dolls guitarist and one of the architects of NYC punk, died aged 69 on Wednesday January 13 following a battle with cancer.

Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye broke the news on Sylvain’s Facebook page, where he wrote, “As most of you know, Sylvain battled cancer for the past two and 1/2 years. Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease.

“While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain. Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”

Sylvain’s guitar work and enigmatic stage presence with the New York Dolls pioneered what would become the US punk-rock scene, while the band’s androgynous aesthetic spearheaded glam-rock.

Born in Cairo in 1951, Sylvain emigrated with his family to France then New York state. While in New York City, he ran a clothing company with bandmate Billy Murcia – which would inspire the Dolls’ distinctive look – before founding the New York Dolls in 1971.

Although their two original albums – 1973’s New York Dolls and the following year’s Too Much Too Soon – weren’t hugely successful at the time, they went on to become two of the most influential underground records in rock, inspiring generations of bands who followed.

“Basically, what we wanted out of music was something simple, powerful and sexy, topped with a hook that would just drive you crazy,” Sylvain told Guitar World. “The Dolls’ music was mostly derived from ripping off the Rolling Stones and Eddie Cochran.”

Key to the Dolls’ lasting impact was Sylvain and co-guitarist Johnny Thunders’ use of powerchords, which thrust the two-note shape into the forefront of guitarists’ minds.

“We didn’t invent [the powerchord], but we perfected it and it became the punk sound,” Sylvain said. “Instead of holding all six strings, you’re holding only two, but when you hit it hard and you’ve got your amp up loud, that’s what gives you the power.

“I showed that to Johnny and, I swear to God, he took that to the fucking hilt, and that’s how we came up with every other song. Chatterbox and the beginning of Human Being were all powerchords. It gave Johnny a brand-new invention. Of course, Marc Bolan used it and so did James Williamson from the Stooges.”

The Dolls broke up in 1977, but would reunite for a string of albums in 2004, with the group’s final record, Dancing Backward in High Heels, released in 2011.

Sylvain also played in The Criminals and The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs, and released a number of solo albums, as well as records with solo-fronted outfits Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops, and Sylvain Sylvain and The Criminal$.

The guitarist’s cancer diagnosis was revealed in April 2019, and a number of fundraising efforts – including the sale of a guitar signed by Keith Richards and Slash – sought to offset the cost of his treatment.

His lasting influence is perhaps best put by Lenny Kaye in his eulogy posted to Sylvain’s Facebook page: “His role in the band was as lynchpin, keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision… The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to.

“Thank you Sylvain x 2, for your heart, belief, and the way you whacked that E chord. Sleep Baby Doll.”

Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Digital Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World, having spent nine storied years contributing to guitar journalism and a decade-and-a-half performing in bands of variable genre (and quality). He has written and edited for MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, and makes prog-ish instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.