By Christopher Arnott
10:30 AM EDT, March 27, 2013
Glen Matlock and Sylvain Sylvain
8 p.m. March 31 at Café Nine, 250 State Street, New Haven. (203) 789-8281, cafenine.com $18, $15 in advance.
The world would not have been the same without them.
Sylvain Sylvain played guitar for the New York Dolls, co-writing songs such as "Trash," helping define the group's attitude and fashion sense, and even naming them ("I used to work at a blue jean shop in New York, across the street from a doll hospital").
Glen Matlock was the original bassist in the Sex Pistols, having joined before the band had even enlisted Johnny Rotten as the lead singer.
Matlock and Sylvain are playing together March 31 at Café Nine, each doing a solo acoustic set then pairing up for some covers. As they're doing that, you can gaze at these icons and wonder what it might have been like if the two had been bandmates in the mid-1970s.
For a brief spit-shining moment, that had been the plan. The Dolls had broken up, the Pistols had not yet formed, the groups had a manager in common — the infamous Malcolm McLaren — and so there were discussions. According to Sylvain, "the first time I ever talked to Glen was when the Sex Pistols were going to be my band. I liked the Sex Pistols a lot. I liked the whole shock thing of it all. But I then I decided I didn't want to be in another group." Matlock remembers it this way: "There was talk about it. The Sex Pistols were at one point thinking of having another guitarist. But we had no money, and they had no money, and that was the end of it."
There's a lot of history to cover in talks with these two men, and a lot of myths and legends to correct. Sylvain is very careful about how he discusses the Dolls' legacy. An offhand remark about Malcom McLaren "dressing up the band" (in red-leather Communist-themed outfits) gets this terse response: "He never dressed us up. Not at all. We had our own style. I was a designer before I was in the music business. I was with a clothing company called Truth and Soul, and I met Malcolm McLaren at a trade show. I invited them to check out the Dolls. We met again in 1975, outside the Chelsea Hotel. I told him the band was about to break up, and he said he wanted to help."
He considers the New York Dolls' much-hyped but ultimately unsuccessful reunion attempt of a few years ago to be fraught with bad decisions. He feels lead singer David Johansen (with whom Sylvain has worked with regularly over the years, on a number of different projects beyond the Dolls) took the band in a direction that "should have been called the David Johansen Band. We got signed to deliver the New York Dolls and we didn't do it. We kind of had three disastrous records in the second wave of the New York Dolls, and nobody's asked us to make another one. The last disastrous thing we did was be on a tour with Mötley Crüe. Their audiences didn't want to see us, and our audiences — as small as they are — didn't want to see them."
Sylvain has fonder memories of the Dolls in the old days, including the many times they played in Connecticut. "The Connecticut kids always appreciated us. They got us." Sylvain recalls the Dolls opening for Sly & the Family Stone at "a big arena in Stamford" in 1974. After the band broke up, Sylvain played numerous times with various acts at Toad's Place.
Matlock can't remember being in New Haven before this tour, but says "I've heard it has very nice architecture." He was originally scheduled to play Café Nine with a different punk rock legend: Tommy Erdelyi, the founding drummer and producer of the Ramones. But when Tommy Ramone had health issues, Sylvain was enlisted. Matlock still plays Sex Pistols songs (he was part of the band's '90s reunion tours) but also songs he wrote for his band the Rich Kids immediately after leaving the Pistols in 1977. He remembers that parting as being amicable, "until Malcolm McLaren started saying things in public which he never said to my face," including the famous slur (contained in a telegram sent to the New Musical Express) that "Glen Matlock was thrown out of the Sex Pistols, so I'm told, because he went on too long about Paul McCartney." When the New Romantic movement "caused a rift" in the Rich Kids and broke up that band, Matlock allied himself with Iggy Pop, co-writing songs for Pop's underrated 1980 album Soldier.
Matlock has dozens of songs from his long solo career that he could also play March 31 at Café Nine. "I'm not the best singer in the world, not the best guitarist either, but I get by. I have some good songs, and we can all have a laugh."
Both Sylvain and Matlock show respect for the guy who replaced Matlock on bass in the Sex Pistols. "Sid Vicious is still the biggest star in… if you want to call it punk, OK, but I call it Rock & Roll," Sylvain says. "If you've heard of nothing else about the music, you've still heard about Sid Vicious." He does feel "somewhat responsible" for one of the great rock tragedies of all time however. It was the Dolls who "brought Nancy Spungen to New York from Philadelphia." Spungen became Vicious' girlfriend, and he was accused of stabbing her to death in 1978, dying himself of a heroin overdose in 1979 while out on bail. For his part, Matlock understands why Vicious was ideal as a Sex Pistol (despite being unable to play his instrument), and even was in a band with Sid himself, the shortlived Vicious White Kids in 1978.
There'll be some nostalgia in the Café Nine set on Sunday — Matlock wants to cover the New York Dolls' "Showdown," and Sylvain says there will be Velvet Underground and Ramones covers as well — but Sylvain and Matlock have active careers and aren't resting on laurels. Sylvain has a new streaming radio show on called "Rock & Roll Hours" and is writing a book about his time with the New York Dolls when not playing out "with anyone who wants to hire me." Matlock's memoirs, I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, came out in 1990 but was recently republished and is available from his website. In 2010 he joined the reunited line-up of one of his favorite bands when he was growing up, the Faces, taking the place of the late Ronnie Lane.
"We're just trying this out," Sylvain says of this low-key solo acoustic tour. "If it's good, then next time around, we'll go electric, and maybe get Tommy Ramone to play drums."
"I enjoy doing this," says Matlock. "There is no more immediate form of communication."
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