One band started out as a bunch of friends playing small neighbourhood bars in New York City, and despite a lack of commercial success, went on to influence a generation of new rock bands. They pre-punked The Clash and Sex Pistols, pre-glammed Gary Glitter and lit the spark for the bastard sons of both genres with copycat acts such as Poison and Motley Crue who wore their NYD heart on their sleeves. The other band involved in this interview is a bunch of friends playing small neighbourhood bars in Melbourne and as to how they’ll fare in the success and influence stakes, we’ll just have to wait and see. When Australian Musician found out The famous New York Dolls were coming to town, St.Kilda band The Mercy Kills seemed like the perfect band to grill the American rock legends. The Mercy Kills’ Mark Entwistle, Jennifer Costello, Nathalie Gelle and Joshua Black were more than a little bit up for the challenge when we got them together pre-show with The Dolls, and more specifically the band’s legendary guitarist Sylvain Sylvain at their Boroughs Festival Melbourne gig. Pics by Kane Hibberd
Sylvain: Wait, I’m going to ask you question first … why are you doing this?
TMK: Because it’s an honour.
S: So your band is from here? You’re The Mercy Kills?
TMK: Yeah. Dirty rock n’ roll.
S: Do you do “Stranded in the Jungle’?
TMK: We wish!
S: My band doesn’t want to do that anymore. I got a grumpy lead singer between you and me but don’t tell anyone that.
TMK: Not a word! So your band has been a big influence on us. We were wondering about some of your influences?
S: When I first started my favourite artist was Eddie Cochran. Eddie could write ’em, sing ’em, play them and he looked damn sexy doing it too. “Summertime Blues’ is probably his most famous song. I loved the way he fucked around with his guitars. He’d take a Gretsch hollow body and throw Gibson pickups in there. You know, hot rod guitars and I stole that thing for years. The White Falcon I played back in The Dolls, and even today, you’ll see me with this gold Gretsch that I have, you kind of make things your own. So him … probably my biggest but then of course, the girl groups like The Ronettes. The Shangri-La’s, we actually did their songs but The Ronettes are more of a favourite. They were produced by Phil Spector. He gave us incredible music. He’s a schmuck now but back then, he was incredible. I think they got him in San Quentin now in California, so now he’s with Charlie Manson. Manson was trying to be like a rock star. He was sending music to Brian Wilson and people like that.
TMK: Didn’t he put out a record?
S: He did.
S: No, it’s not that cool. It’s part of history though, we know that happened. So now both of them are together in the jail. Maybe they’ll make another album (laughs). Can you imagine? This would be not so cool.
TMK: Perversely interesting though! The Dolls came out of a scene. What about the scenes in LA and New York now, do you see anything interesting happening at grass roots level?
S: Back then … we were the only ones. There wasn’t anything. We sot of gave birth to that whole movement with the clothing and the bars that opened up in our neighbourhood. I was very unhappy with the groups that I grew up with like The Who. At that time, the songs were operas and the term was coined ‘stadium rock’ and it was boring as shit! It lost its pizzaz. It wasn’t sexy. Where was the three minute magic, the chords. That song length disappeared. Things were like twenty minutes long and the drummer and the guitar player would take solos for twenty minutes. So I’d go to the bathroom instead and try to pick up chicks! So that whole thing gave birth to The New York Dolls. I used to work in this clothing store on Lexington Avenue and across the street from the store where I worked was this toy repair shop…
At this point The Dolls were due to be on stage for their Boroughs Festival gig so we had to stop the interview in order to quickly grab some photographs while we had the whole band together for five minutes. Shots done, the band hit the loading dock stage at Globe Headquarters in the inner city industrial area of Port Melbourne and put in an incredible set to a mix of die-hard fans and curious others. Sylvain had promised to catch up with The Mercy Kills at some point to finish his story and was true to his word. Fortuitously, James Young co-proprietor of Melbourne’s hippest rock n roll venue Cherry Bar, had scored the get of the year by acquiring the New York Dolls to play his bar three nights later. AM mag seized the opportunity and took The Mercy Kills along to witness the historic gig and then catch up again with Sylvain afterwards. This time, The Dolls had just come off stage from one of the most memorable gigs Melbourne has seen. The band was firing and there was no doubt that the crowd this time consisted of real-deal Dolls fans. There was a lot of rock n’ roll love in the room. As you’d expect after a killer gig, Sylvain was pumped and the interview dynamic was much more animated than the last.
S: Now, where were we? I know … Lexington Avenue! I remember exactly where we left off. So, across the street where I used to work selling blue jeans and stuff like that, was this toy repair shop on Lexington Avenue. The name of the toy repair shop was The New York Dolls Hospital. I was looking at that and it was staying in my head. I was working with Billy Murcia and Johnny would come over and try to buy pants. We were walking to the subway station one day and I said, look at that. Wouldn’t that be a great name for a band? They said, what … The New York Dolls Hospital? I said, no, no, just The New York Dolls and that’s how it started. If I can fast forward … I have that sign now. I’ve been telling that story for years and it’s in a couple of books and the guy who ran the shop, his daughter was a fan and got in touch with Bob Gruen of all people. He rang and said, Syl, they want to give you the sign. Now I have it in my basement and not only the neon sign, but the awning too. It’s gorgeous.
TMK: We’re interested about the dynamic of playing on stage with the 2011 Dolls with Bowie’s guitar player (Earl Slick) and Dylan’s bass player (Kenny Aaronson) compared to back in the day when you played with your mates that you grew up with.
S: Well of course I wish my mates were still here, and if they were, they’d be right here tonight but unfortunately that can’t happen. Now, we are very lucky. Even before this line-up, we had a great other line-up that we made records with… Steve Conte and Sammy Yaffa, who used to be in Hanoi Rocks. We’re lucky in regard to the musicians, the love for what we inspired … very unlucky when it comes to the bank! I can’t wait to get home to all my friends at Wall Street (At time of interview, people were protesting in a Wall Street park, upset that the billions of dollars in bank bailouts doled out during the recession allowed banks to resume earning huge profits while average Americans got scant relief from high unemployment and job insecurity). I got my ass kicked with all of that Vietnam stuff. We had a song, ‘Vietnamese Babies’ while the Vietnam war was still going on. When we hung up the communist flag at the end there with Malcolm McLaren, the Vietnam war was still on.
TMK: Was that Malcolm’s idea?
S: No it was our collective stupidness. It was like, let me see, how else can we piss off people, not get paid for it and get ridiculed for being untalented? That’s what art is. You’ve got to mix it up and you gotta shake it up baby.
TMK: What about the gear you’re using now as compared to back in the day?
S: We were the first ones to marry the Les Paul Junior with a Marshall amplifier. The way i introduced that to Johnny, I said, a Junior is an automatic, you know, compared to a guitar that has lots of buttons. It’s got one pickup, two knobs. Two knobs and a nice set of pins .. there’s a song in there somewhere! (laughs). You grab that neck ..
TMK: Ring every last drop out of it!
S: Really! Especially when it gets wet! Oh, where are we going with this? See, this is why we didn’t finish the conversation last time!
TMK: Back to the gear though ..
S: First of all, you’ve got to be pragmatic and use whatever you got. If I had shit, I made great music out of shit! if you gotta do it, then you got to do it. It’s very simple. At the start I had the crappiest crap. I was lucky enough to move into a house that had a stand up piano and I figured out songs … Eddie Cochran type stuff, Little Richard. I’d go mum, come here, look (sings a Little richard riff). No I have to cook she’d say. So you have to use whatever you have because when you get to the good stuff, you’ll know what to do with it. I always say, don’t practice too much. That’s my opinion. I think it is better to go out and get booed. When you get booed, you learn how not to get booed and stand up and deliver a show. When it all comes down to it, it is not how good we are on our instruments or how good we are writing songs. We are really performers and this is the performing arts. I think you learn your craft on stage. You perfect it on stage. The audience tells you if you’re good or you suck. The most honest thing in this whole business is when someone puts down that dollar because everything else is bullshit.
TMK: What about tonight?
S: They were tits baby, they were tits! That means good, it was good shit.
TMK: So Melbourne fared OK?
S: When you play New York now, they are no longer from New York. So it’s nice to play a crowd from a place like this.
TMK: You lost a lot of good friends along the way…. Johnny Thunders … Jerry Nolan … Did one effect you more than the other? Was the first the hardest?
S: Nah, they’re all bad. When you lose a friend through any kind of substance. Heroin is so, so unforgiving. I’ve seen people try it once and get addicted that first time. Instant junkie! After a while, they all talk the same and act the same. Heroin convinces you that without it, you’re shit … which I hate. It’s like a bad marriage. I don’t know if you have had that experience but I have.
TMK: What about recording … do you record all together? Do you go down live or multi track?
S: It depends. This last record, we didn’t do that. All the other records we went live. You know, learn the songs, go into the studio and play them. This record, they actually took my demos that I made on my iPhone in hotel rooms and shit. They took that and it was the first track and then we built on it. Sometimes, we’d build two or three at a time. Sometimes acoustically or sometimes if we had amps around, separate a little, play together.
TMK: We are recording at the moment and we were interested to know how you guys do it.
S: You’ve got to find what works for you but you have to try everything. I produced this band in California in the early nineties called Motorcycle Boy, google them and check them out. The lead singer Francois is half French and half Mexican and a really cool cat. He wants to have that real crowded sound for the singing. He said, they’re giving me this really clean Neumann microphone and he didn’t what that. I said OK, give me a Fender Twin Reverb and a 57 Shure microphone. I plugged in the 57 through the Fender, then we put the Neumann in front of the Fender and we got that crowded voice sound. You should try it. it’s a really cool idea.
TMK: So what’s next?
S: For us? Well Sylvain is making new solo album. I’m not kiddin’ ya. Hey, I am the New York Dolls aint I? What am I Gefilte fish over here?
TMK: Well, you’ve got the sign!
S: Yeah I got the sign and came up with the name (laughs).
TMK: Thanks so much for your time Sylvain.
S: Hey, thanks, this was great idea.
guitars: Fender Telecaster 1972 Deluxe
pedals: ProcoTurbo RAT distortion
amp: 1978 Marshall JMP Mark II Super Lead 100 watt head
(with two patch inputs replaced with extra twin volumes to create extra
dirty head room)
speaker cabinet : Marshall Quad Box 1960 A Cab
bass: Thunderbird (named Roger)
pedals: Big Muff
amp: beat up Behringer cab & Ashton 300 watt head
guitars: Gibson Les Paul custom
pedals: Boss DS1 Distortion
amp: Marshall JCM 900
speaker cabinet : Orange Twin Cab
Pearl 5 piece drum kit
Double Kick pedal
1 x Crash 1 x Ride