published: 27 /
Lisa Torem in her 'Raging Pages' book column finds former New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain in his autobiography ‘There’s No Bones in Ice Cream’ using humour and hip historical context to relay his unique story.
One of only two surviving members of the New York Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain, author of ‘There’s No Bones in Ice Cream’ quips about the band’s legacy and the groups that followed suit: “They’d see us and think 'Well, if these shmucks can do it, anyone can.'” That wry statement, alone, speaks volumes about the former glam rock statesman whose frankness and humility underscore the memoir, ‘There’s No Bones in Ice Cream.’
One of Sylvain’s first music-related jobs at fourteen-years-old was stacking records at a “yo-yo” shop and “bringing back all the vinyl I could carry” from distributors. He met Billy Murcia in Queens by way of the drummer’s brother who urged the two musicians to fight; they saw themselves more as kindred souls than adversaries. Soon, with Sylvain’s Audition guitar and souped-up amp and Billy’s snare, they’d play instrumentals like ‘Wipe Out’ in the garage.
Sylvain would soon develop a liking for Dylan, the Stones, John Mayall and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In 1965, in almost a rite of passage, he began smoking pot and branching out in terms of fashion to his parents’ horror. When he brought home a “Tom Jones” shirt, for instance, they forced their son to return it.
But this inter-generational battle would be a fight to the finish. “…Clothes were so important, and I didn’t care what people thought. Not even my parents,” Sylvain asserts. The reader can already predict that by the time the nine-inch heels and outlandish makeup come into play, these guys will care even less about their parents’ furrowed brows.
As author, Sylvain does a great job setting the stage for how he and his band mates go from being mere rebellious teens to ambitious musicians. The cultural references throughout give the book a terrific sense of urban place.
At one point, Sylvain surveys the gem of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park: “It might be Janis Ian walking down McDougal Street in her cape, clutching her guitar on her way to Café Bizarre…”
Here is how Sylvain describes newly acquired bass player, Johnny Genzale Jr. AKA Johnny Thunder: “You could put Elvis Presley, Steve Jobs and Phil Spector all together, and their ego still wouldn’t come close.” Sylvain, however, maintains a soft spot for the teen and elaborates on how the boy’s father let him down at a key point in his young life.
Ironically, even one of their guitar god’s got short shrift, as the future Dolls were easily distracted by counter-culture eye candy: “Jimi’s first album, 'Are You Experienced?', was released in the US in 1967, and much as we loved the music, it was the clothes the three of them were wearing on the cover that really knocked us out.” At that time, they called themselves The Pox, although the spirit of the Dolls would be marinating.
Sylvain would go on to make and sell clothing while honing his musical craft. And his eyes were always wide-open, scouring neighborhoods for cool boutiques and imaginative button shops. One day with Billy and Johnny, he spotted a brand new place, the New York Doll Hospital. The rest is history.
Later on, Sylvain references famous venues such as Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. En route we see relationships with other band members flourish and fail. We also witness the power dynamic of the press and the industry and the pressure young musicians were under, despite the thrill of the stage.
To say that the Dolls dared to be different is, of course, an understatement. But the takeaway in Sylvain’s memoir is how well the band’s outrageous legacy has endured, despite their share of pitfalls.