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Sylvain Sylvain – New York Dolls Guitarist and Co-Founder – Dead at 69

Sylvain Sylvain of New York Dolls performs on stage at KOKO on April 19, 2010 in London
(Image credit: Barney Britton/Redferns)

Sylvain Sylvain – guitarist and co-founder of the hugely influential New York Dolls – has died at the age of 69.

Lenny Kaye, longtime guitarist for Patti Smith, confirmed the news in a Facebook post, writing (opens in new tab) on Sylvain's Facebook page: “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.”

With his six-string partner-in-crime in the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders, Sylvain helped set the blueprint for punk-rock. Sylvain and Thunders' revved-up, glammed-up, powerchord 'n' attitude-filled take on classic rockabilly and the Rolling Stones' bluesy riffing – plus the band's androgynous look and outrageous stage antics – were hugely influential (opens in new tab) both to glam-rock and the burgeoning New York City punk scene of the mid-70s, despite the Dolls' lack of commercial success.

Born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt in 1951, Sylvain first moved (opens in new tab) to France with his family as a child, then to New York City. His band, Actress – which featured Thunders – soon evolved into the New York Dolls, with the addition of bassist Arthur Kane, drummer Billy Murcia, and lead vocalist David Johansen.

Sylvain contributed both guitar and piano to the band's seminal first two albums – 1973's New York Dolls and 1974's Too Much Too Soon. Though Thunders' and Kane's respective drug problems (Billy Murcia had died in 1972, and been replaced by Jerry Nolan) led to their respective departures from the band in 1975, Sylvain – with Johnansen – anchored the band until its first dissolution in 1977.  

Though Thunders died in 1991, and Nolan in 1992, Johansen, Sylvain, and Kane reunited – at the behest (opens in new tab) of longtime fan Morrissey – as the New York Dolls in 2004. Though Kane passed away from leukemia just weeks after their first reunion show that year, Sylvain and Johansen kept the reunited band together until 2011, releasing three albums in the process – 2006's One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, 2009's Cause I Sez So, and 2011's Dancing Backward in High Heels

On top of his work with the New York Dolls, Sylvain released a number of solo albums, and recorded and toured with Sylvain Sylvain and The Criminal$ and Syl Sylvain and the Teardrops.

In April 2019, Sylvain announced that he had been battling cancer for the past year, launching a GoFundMe (opens in new tab) to help with medical expenses. A guitar signed by Keith Richards, Slash, and many other prominent rockers, was also auctioned (opens in new tab) off to benefit Sylvain and offset his medical expenses. 

“My best friend for so many years,” Johansen wrote (opens in new tab) of Sylvain on Instagram. “I can still 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, I instantly loved him. 

"I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning. au revoir Syl mon vieux copain.”

Jackson Maxwell
Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.