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Rock/Pop

Valley of the doll parts

Two glam-punk guitar heroes shimmy it up, doin’ a thing called Batusi

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Published 7/14/2010

This rock 'n' roll thing isn't easy, and it certainly ain't glamorous. Take Sylvain Sylvain and Cheetah Chrome. Both have had their time with two bands, the New York Dolls and the Dead Boys, respectively, and both have made their mark, to varying degrees, on rock 'n' roll and punk rock. They've both seen band members fucked up on drugs and booze in differing quantities and, in five cases between the two of them, they've seen colleagues die.

Also, neither guy has ever been the focal point in their respective bands. The New York Dolls were always about the cheeky and witty David Johansen balancing precariously with the rag-tag junkie chic of guitarist Johnny Thunders. Though the Dolls called it quits in red leather, under Malcolm McLaren's hammer and sickle, before Thunders really became a pathetic caricature of himself, back in the day, people couldn't stop gazing at the dynamic Johansen-Thunders duo, and Sylvain, whose sense of style couldn't be underestimated, was unduly pushed to the margins as little more than a Marc Bolan-haired sideman with killer bangles and guitars. Still, he recorded two of the finest rock 'n' roll albums ever with the Dolls, before the band expired. (Sylvain's two solo, power-pop-abilly RCA albums are something too.) The Dolls reunited in the new millennium and recorded two more highly touted albums.

Cheetah Chrome, meanwhile, played with future Pere Ubu man David Thomas in Cleveland's Rocket from the Tombs and, later, in the Dead Boys with the charming and fashionably nihilistic singer Stiv Bators, two guys who'd steal the spotlight from any instrumentalist. The Dead Boys, of course, owed much to the Dolls, even if Bators and boys took the Dolls' street-trash shtick to a darker, more Iggy-Alice place. The Dead Boys made fun, admirable noise, but the Dolls absolutely changed rock 'n' roll, though, of course, neither band captured the kids in America.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the Dolls still work like they mean it. The Dead Boys are long gone (Bators died in 1990), though Chrome is working again with Rocket from the Tombs. Both Sylvain and Chrome are workaholics, and neither appreciates downtime much, so they've cobbled together a side band called Batusis. 

It turns out that the idea of working together was long overdue because the two gents (who are, by the way, two of the humblest, most decent guys in rock) had hung out together in New York City for years. They had met in Cleveland.

Sylvain remembers meeting the then-Dead Boys guitarist in the mid-'70s. "It was post the New York Dolls breakup. Cheetah and Stiv were running around in Cleveland. Me and David were playing there. They were really interested in the Dolls, and claimed that we were an inspiration."

So how'd this whole Batusis thing coalesce? 

"Smog Veil Records had Cheetah on the label, and they wondered if we wanted to make a record together," Sylvain says. "I jumped on the opportunity. Our guitar playing had come such a long way, and I thought it'd be great to have two guitar players instead of lead singers in the band for a change. It worked out great. We jammed until we got into the studio last November. We were there for four days. We were supposed to come up with three songs and we gave them four. We had a great rhythm section: Thommy Price and Enzo Penizzotto. They are the rhythm section from Joan Jett's Blackhearts."

Sylvain says that band moniker rises from a combo of Batman and the Watusi dance. "On the last day in the studio we were reviewing the music that we'd made in Nashville, and then I started to dance to one of the tracks, 'Blues Theme,'" recalls the Doll. "Cheetah said to me, 'What the hell is this?' I said, 'I don't know what it's called but it's the dance that Batman does.' He looked it up on his laptop and said, 'Sylvain, it's called the Batusi'. I said, 'There you go, that's the name for us'. That's how that all happened. Usually, that's the way things happen, naturally, in rock 'n' roll, particularly with me. I've always had a Little Rascals approach to show business."

To define Batusi's sound, Chrome calls it, "loud, fun and explosive." Sylvain gives more detail: 

"It's classic, instrumental rock 'n' roll. If the Ventures was a current band that invented itself yesterday, they'd sound like us. There's a dark side to it, and there're bright, shiny sides too. There's a sense of humor that I hope everyone gets. There's a political agenda, and there's definitely a sexual side too. It's something that me and Cheetah learned by performing live for all these years and decades past."

Batusi does sound like classic sleaze punk blended with the garage surf bands of the '60s and '70s; a cross between Venice Beach and Rockaway Beach. Dick Dale jamming with, well, the New York Dolls.

So the music's together, but how do the glam-punk guitar heroes get along? 

Chrome says Sylvain is "as easy as it comes to work with. We both have a 'so-fucking-what' attitude. It's not sloppy, but it's rock 'n' roll, and you can't take it too seriously."

Meanwhile, Syl says Chrome is just peachy. "I knew him years and years ago when he was a little bit incoherent because he was always so smashed-up. He's very intelligent and he's a real sweetheart. He has a nice family now. He moved to Nashville and I live in Atlanta, so all roads lead north for us Yankees."

Because of the duo's rich pedigrees, they've seen enough dashed dreams to exercise low expectations for what is essentially a fun side project. They're prepared to work their asses off, though — neither likes to sit at home, waiting for the occasional Dolls and Dead Boys royalty checks. Shit, the boys just want to have fun. 

Sylvain says, "With all things music, it's about trying to create your own thing. The audience decides if they're entertained, whether they like it, whether it does something for them, so I will keep this band going as long as they want it."

Expect Batusis to play songs from their combined pasts, each handling about half the lead vocals, plus tunes from their new self-titled EP. And they can't forget about the Motor City. 

"Detroit, I love," Sylvain says. "I was just there the other day with the Dolls. It's always been such a rock 'n' roll town for me. We used to play the Michigan Palace, which I think is now a parking lot. The industry was ignoring us, and yet we'd sell out at the Michigan Palace. It's a rock 'n' roll place. Over the years, I've always loved to come back. I like the music that the Detroit people come up with. The White Stripes is probably my favorite, but I really like the Trash Brats. Detroit was probably the second town to come up with music that we liked after New York."

"I love Detroit," Chrome adds. "I have a lot of friends there. I even recorded a live album, Live In Detroit (DUI), in Hamtramck, so I can't wait to get back." 

Sunday, July 18, at Small's, 10339 Conant St., Hamtramck; 313-873-1117. 

Top 5 life-changing albums

Sylvain Sylvain 
1. Rolling Stones Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) 
2. Eddie Cochran On the Air 
3. The Shangri-Las 20 Greatest Hits 
4. Chick Webb & his Orchestra With Ella Fitzgerald The Best Of 
5. Eddie Harris The Electrifying Eddie Harris

Cheetah Chrome 
1. Meet the Beatles
2. (Tie) Rolling Stones Big Hits: High Tide and Green Grass and Get Yer Ya-Yas Out 
3. Alice Cooper Love it to Death
4. MC5 High Time
5. (Tie) The Stooges Funhouse and Raw Power

Brett Callwood is a rock critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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