LH: Starting at the beginning, with your clothing company, Truth and Soul… How did that come about?
SS: That actually happened when I was like 16, 17. Me and the first drummer of The New York Dolls, Billy Murcia, we started making clothes, knit wear and all that. We started the company called Truth and Soul. We had a shop, actually, in Woodstock a year before the festival in 1968. Yeah, we were only 16, and we were already in business. And that’s how it got it got started. You know, we were musicians at the same time. Learning how to play the blues, and going to see all the bands in Greenwich Village, and wherever they played in New York.
But yeah, the clothes came first, before the music, which was nice actually because it gave me the opportunity to travel to England and Europe almost every summer. I’d buy Marshall amps and bring them back. And Jaguar cars. Yeah, me and Billy brought back a Jaguar. A 1959 Jaguar that looked like the English police cars, and it had right hand drive and everything. We used to drive it in New York with its English plates and everything. We’d get stopped all the time, and they’d look at us with our make-up on and they’d say, “Get back in your car! I never wanna see you here again!”
LH: Wow, what a time and a place for that! You know, I always thought that The New York Dolls built their look around your fashion from Truth and Soul.
SS: Well, I always say, it really wasn’t just music. The New York Dolls, everyone thinks it was just a musical band. Yes, of course. But it wasn’t just music. I think the proof in that is in all the influence that came after, and everybody else that borrowed it, or was inspired really. I think it was all love.
LH: Oh, I do too. It had occurred to me that the gender fluidity and fashion coming out of that time and place, I wondered how much of an impact the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, and The Factory had on your clothing lines and the Dolls’ look.
SS: Definitely. You know, you have to remember that a lot of people think that The New York Dolls had something to do with CBGB’s In fact we never even played there… CBCG’s opened their doors when The New York Dolls broke up in 1975. So, the place to play back then… You had to invent places. You had to find places, and you had to basically take them over.
One of the big places, one of the only places was Max’s Kansas City, which was an Andy Warhol hangout. All his Superstars would hang out in the backroom, and The Velvet Underground was the main band. And Mickey Ruskin was the owner. He was kinda open armed to us. You know, he needed to pay his rent. Because he did sell it, and he did close his doors after a while. Then they reopened it. Hence, the reason why he hired The New York Dolls. We were just starting to come up. The thing was, we were getting so much press, we would sell out. It was a very small performance space. Maybe 100 people. That was it, you sold it out.
But it was upstairs at Max’s, and I saw performers there that were just incredible, like Howlin’ Wolf. He introduced the blues there to the, I would say, the uptown crowd, if that was such a thing for Max’s Kansas City. But anyway, we would perform there, and you know, the Lou Reeds of the time really didn’t welcome us with open arms. Because we were actually doing good business. We were kinda taking over the place, and we weren’t gay. We only looked like we were gay. But then again, if you looked at David Johansen’s pictures back then, you would swear he was! You know, he’s not admitting anything, so don’t hold it on me!
I have to tell you, one of my girlfriends was Elda Gentile, and she used to work for Andy at The Factory. Some of the people, man, who that used to come to her apartment on the Lower East Side… People like Holly Woodlawn. She was a regular. Just going back to what you were saying about what influenced us at the time. I just loved her! It was incredible. Holly had this friend of hers, I think his name was Douglas. But they would dress in drag, they would take hours getting ready just to walk down to the supermarket.
But one night, I remember, we were sleeping, it was like three in the morning, and Holly, we could hear them… It was one of those railroad flats where all the rooms followed each other. So when you came into the apartment, you’re in the kitchen, you know? So, they were in the kitchen, and I kept hearing this gallant voice, with an accent, and it turned out to be Nureyev, the ballet dancer. It was incredible!
LH: Amazing, the people you meet!
SS: So, yeah, that was what my influences were. This was what was going on around me.
LH: Yeah, I know that that’s the reason I moved to Austin. To be around artists and musicians and poets. It shaped who you are, who you become. And The New York Dolls definitely shaped what rock and roll, punk rock, new wave, was to become for the duration. How does that feel to have such a broad impact on roughly three generations of music? To look back and say, “Yeah, I did that.”
SS: Yeah, well you know, it’s got its good and it’s got its bad. And the good, I’ll be honest with you, it’s beautiful. Because it’s love. The influence is all love. The only bad is that, you know, I’m famous, but I didn’t make any money. So when it comes to paying the rent, I’ve gotten in trouble. So, that’s the reason I do everything. I don’t just do music, I do clothing, and I do art, I do whatever I have to do to live and see the next day. And feel good about it.
But when you’re in it, back then, I didn’t know what was going on. I mean, I knew that something was happening. Here I am sitting next to Truman Capote at the Mercer Art Center. And that was another place we found. The Mercer Art Center was just an art center, but they had performances there. They had like five or six big different rooms to perform in, and a big bar in the middle. We started playing there. I remember the first night, I think we got $15 to play. Fifteen bucks! Everyone got like a dollar or two to take home. But then, that opened the doors for us. They liked us and they said, “Oh, we’re going to have a residency here for you guys. You’re going to play The Oscar Wilde Room every Tuesday night.” And the first week, we had like 50 people. People started coming around, started writing about it. All of the sudden we’re in The New York Post.
At first it was all these kids, friends of ours, hanging around. And then all of the sudden, they started forming bands. And that became Blondie, and the early bands, The Ramones. There were a lot of them that didn’t make it. But then there was Patti Smith, of course, she was there. We were supposed to get signed, and we never did. It took us years to finally get signed. It finally happened, but it did open up the doors for other bands who thought, “I could never do this.” Because they never signed anybody back then, unless they could sell records like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. End of story. They don’t wanna hear about nothing.
So, that was that hurdle. But once that happened, everybody had a band, got signed. Some of them didn’t even have anything to do with rock and roll. Like KISS. And maybe that is rock and roll, but what I mean when I say rock and roll, I mean the blues base somewhere in there. It’s three chord progressions, it’s sexy, it’s not an opera, folks.
LH: Someone once told me that the more you know about rock and roll, the less you rock. I always thought if it didn’t have that African base beat that grabs you in your gut and makes you want to dance, that it wasn’t quite right.
SS: Well, did you know where the term “Rock and Roll” derived from? It’s a black term from the old Harlem jazz days, the turn of the century (the 20th century), and rock and roll meant to have sex. You know, she’d come up to you and say, “Hey, baby, do you wanna rock and roll?” The meaning kind of changed, but I think that if you don’t have that sexiness in there when you’re trying to make music you lose what makes it great.
LH: I think that if 75%, 80% of your crowd is all males and aggression, and you don’t have a woman in there shaking her ass somewhere, it’s not fun for me.
SS: Oh, God yeah! When I was a kid, and the Beatles started coming around, I mean, I loved them. The only other people that loved them were all girls in school. This was when I was in like fourth grade or something. So, they started saying, “Oh, Sylvain’s a faggot. He’s a fag.” They couldn’t figure out Sylvain, and called me Steve for the first five years. They couldn’t say Sylvain, it’s a French name. “Sylvain? No, your name is Steve, motherfucker!” So, Steve was a faggot, because he likes The Beatles. And then, forget it! When The Rolling Stones came out, I hated The Beatles, and I loved The Rolling Stones. That made things even worse for me.
LH: And this is what I meant when I said that the crossdressing had little to do with anyone’s sexuality, and more to do with just saying, “Fuck it” and doing what you want anyway. It’s creating a lifestyle. I mean how many androgynist bands came out of the 80’s after you guys?
SS: Oh, yeah! Johnny Thunders got all the hair bands together! If it wasn’t for his haircut, forget it! We wouldn’t have the whole hair thing. At least that’s what they claim.
But, in fact, it has to be everything. You’re silly, in fact, you’re stupid not to bring everything to the stage. Whatever stage that is. You gotta bring all your talents, everything that you ever learned, everything that you ever loved, and talk about the shit that makes you upset, pisses you off. Why not?
I’m really proud, you know, we never really had a round table, a meeting and said, “Yeah, we’re gonna be this androgynist, or whatever. This was a time, don’t forget, Alice Cooper was a huge star. Mark Bolan, really Mark Bolan, that whole glam thing. Yeah, when people think glam, they think Gary Glitter, which to me, Gary Glitter…. That was the ugliest glam I’ve ever seen. And it’s a turn off. Please! It wasn’t natural to him.
Anything that’s done naturally…. You know, it’s like this whole punk rock thing became just another style after a while. So, it’s the weekend and a guy goes to his closet to get whatever punk clothes he bought at Trash and Vaudeville, or whatever store he went to. And then he goes to the show and pogos, or whatever it is that they’re supposed to do. He goes home, takes it off, then the next day, he goes to a rockabilly show, and then he becomes, you know, like country. You gotta live this thing. It’s got to be part of your life. If not, then it is only a style, fashion. I mean, I can understand if you grow out of it, okay, that’s cool. But it should be for real.
But, you know, one band that really kicks ass on that front, that’s The Cramps. Ah, God, I love The Cramps! Thank God for The Cramps. Poison Ivy! I’m in love with her. What’s that song, Bikini Girls with Machine Guns? I love that! This was one of the early, early bands that were influenced, and had a chance with The New York Dolls getting signed. A perfect example would be them.
And it goes on and on. So, the Ramones were influenced by The Dolls, and I read somewhere that Bono, from U2, was influenced by The Ramones, so that links back to us, whether he likes it or not.
LH: Yeah! Like it or not, Bono! But, with The Dolls, The Cramps, there is only so much you can do with a three chord progression, and you have to bring some theater to it. The Ramones had their look. Lux Interior in his high heels, Jesus! He does way more in high heels than I ever could.
One last thing, you have no idea how much I love the Facebook Page Rampage of Songs! I love it! I can sit around with nothing to do and get the best set of music.
SS: Really? Well, thank you so much! I haven’t had much chance to do it lately. But Curtis Weiss, a great drummer, too, by the way… yeah, I was able to get in there last week and do a little something for Johnny’s birthday, but I’ll get back to it. Thank you so much for mentioning that. I really needed that.
LH: And Curtis doing the Teenage News along with it is just hilarious to me.
SS: Yeah, I sat down with him, and we came up with that. I told him that I wanted to do something like Saturday Night Live does with the Weekend Update, except with posting songs. And he said, “Ah! I got it, Sylvain!” And he’s a great writer, by the way. He’s writing a book on Jerry (Nolan), which is not out yet, but it’s gonna be really good.
LH: Well, it’s been great talking to you. I grew up with parents who were huge New York Doll’s fans. My dad wanted me to tell you that he wore out the first album learning to play guitar.
SS: Oh, well, give them both a big kiss for me. A GREAT BIG KISS!
By Layla Hannah