SPOTLIGHT: Aaron Lee Tasjan on Sylvain Sylvain Pointing the Way
Photo by Curtis Wayne Millard
EDITOR’S NOTE: Aaron Lee Tasjan is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for February 2021. Read our feature story about him and his new album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, and watch his video for the song “Not That Bad” made just for ND readers. In the essay below, he offers a fond memory of his friend Sylvain Sylvain, who died last month from cancer at the age of 69.
To me, he always looked like rock and roll perfection in his cuffed jeans, suede boots, and a big floppy hat that he made himself. Sylvain Sylvain had the magic: charisma, originality, and style. I got to play alongside him in the New York Dolls and as a member of some of his various solo projects. He taught me about guitar playing, songwriting, and not buttoning up your shirt too high, but the deep connection I formed with him also came at a moment where I desperately needed a reason to keep going.
It was 2008 and my band before I played with the Dolls, Semi Precious Weapons, had been steadily rising in the New York City music scene for a few years. We had even secured a record deal with indie label Razor & Tie. I was feeling the pressure of having further complicated the situation by falling in love with a band member, and our on- again-off-again romance eventually made my position in the band untenable. Almost as soon as I left SPW, they seemed to explode on a meteoric rise to certain fame as they joined Lady Gaga on her Monster Ball tour, signed a new major label record deal, and played to huge audiences at major festivals like Lollapalooza. I, on the other hand, was playing the cover bar circuit in NYC while fielding calls and messages from concerned friends and SPW super fans wondering if I was doing OK in the face of walking away from this band that seemed destined to have it all.
One gray afternoon the phone rings and it’s the Dolls’ current guitarist, Steve Conte. Steve too wondered how I was faring, having left my former band, but was also curious to know if I still wore my “wild clothes” and did I still have some “interesting hair going on?” He was asking because he needed a sub for his gig in The New York Dolls. I told Steve I’d do it, learned 35 songs, had a 45-minute-long rehearsal then got on a plane and flew to South America to tour with the Dolls. We played the football stadium in Lima, Peru, to 35,000 people. In many ways, a dream come true, but I felt incredibly sad and out of place. By that point in time, I had been through the wringer as a sideman vocalist and musician, played on beats for hip-hop producer Buckwild, played in the Essentially Ellington National Jazz Competition at Lincoln Center, accepted then deferred a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, got a record deal with and then walked away from Semi Precious Weapons, and was 24 years old. I was young and so terrified to fail. I had little experience with failure. In my mind, I was well on my way there and the stint with the Dolls was my last chance to enjoy the feeling of being a part of something special in music. Every night we went on stage I’d say to myself, “Enjoy this while you can. This might be it.”
When the Dolls tour ended with two canceled shows and an unexpected early return home for the band, it seemed the writing was on the wall for me. I got back to New York and to the cover bar scene. I had to sing from eight at night until three in the morning. One club owner would stop me from taking breaks because the room was so full and he didn’t want to lose his drinking crowd. Sometimes I got lucky and got some short road gigs playing guitar for local songwriters, but mostly I got more and more broke. I had to get a job in the stockroom of a store downtown. I no longer had time to write any songs. There was even a time when a band I did some gigs with couldn’t pay me and I had to give up my apartment because of it. I slept on the floor of my rehearsal space or in my van. I stayed on the couches of my friends Curtis Wayne Millard, Shayni Rae, and Lydia Lunch and ate $2 slices of pizza to get by.
In the midst of all this, I got a text from Syl that said he’s going to do a New Year’s Eve show at Bowery Electric and would I play guitar? The other members of the band are Thommy Price of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Kenny Aaronson of The Yardbirds. I walked almost 4 miles from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the Williamsburg Bridge with all my gear to get to the show and then walked home after. The show was pure magic. I’ll never forget, whenever it was my turn to solo on a song, Sylvain would point to me and then up to the sky as if to say, “We’re on my stage but this your moment. Take it to the stars and shine your brightest. I want you to be you.”
The next week, Syl declared us a band. We got together and rehearsed new songs at SIR and booked recording sessions and started tracking. I was on cloud nine to be working with these legends and became so inspired that I started writing my own music again.
About three months after recording with Syl, Thommy, and Kenny, I was playing a solo show of my own songs at 11th Street Bar. Halfway through the second set I looked up and there’s Syl and he’s beaming. He points to me and then up to the sky just like when we’re on stage together in his band. We finished playing and I ran over to thank him for unexpectedly showing up to this cramped little bar on a Tuesday night. Before I could get out anything he pointed up at the mic I’d just been singing on moments ago and said “That’s right where you’re supposed to be, Starboy.”
This felt significant as he had always called me “Jackson” up until then. It also felt significant because I thought to Syl, I was just his guitar player of the moment. That’s what I’d always been to everyone. But Sylvain saw me for who I was. He wanted me to be me.
The great guitarist Lenny Kaye describes Syl’s role in the Dolls as “keeping the revolving satellites of his bandmates in precision.” Sylvain Sylvain was a lynchpin in my life, too. He helped me to stay in orbit when I felt I was destined to crash. His songs and albums, both solo and with the Dolls, have become North Stars in my music collection. His infectious joy for rock and roll remains a deep well of inspiration that I draw on if I ever feel down. I can always close my eyes and see him point to me.