I bought my first New York Dolls LP (Too Much, Too Soon — there are only two) in 1978 for half a buck in a thrift store. I knew nothing about the Dolls, but I was just into punk, and I saw this album cover of a group of guys looking completely outrageous — it had to be some punk band I’d never heard of — why not buy it?Too Much Too Soon quickly became, and remains, one of my all-time favorite LPs. And it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Dolls influenced pretty much everything I was listening to. Not only did the Dolls influence punk and new wave, they influenced every brand of hard rock and heavy metal, and especially the hair bands, that came after. Yet, chances are, you never heard of them. The average rock fan has never heard of the New York Dolls.
Tonight I finished watching a DVD called New York Doll. It is an unusually good documentary about a rock and roll band. More than the history of a band, it is the history of a person — Arthur “Killer” Kane, the Dolls’ bass player. Unlike the other members of the Dolls (David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter), Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, Kane had no musical career after the Dolls broke up. He drifted into alcoholism and obscurity, embittered by the success of his former band mates and all the posers who got rich borrowing from the Dolls’ style. The Dolls didn’t make a dime off their music, and you can’t trademark style.
Kane eventually wound up in Los Angeles taking bit parts in movies and barely getting by. His wife makes a comment in the film about marrying a rock star but never getting to enjoy any of the trappings. Eventually, Kane hits bottom, beating up his wife and jumping out of a third floor window. While recovering from his injuries, he requests a copy of the Book of Mormon, and two missionaries arrive at his front door. Kane converts and takes a job in the family research library and the Los Angeles temple.
As a now devout man, Arthur has one and only one pray he wants God to answer — he wants the New York Dolls to get back together. Kane, as becomes clear from watching the bonus material, had two religions in life — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the New York Dolls. His apartment was a shrine to the Dolls. He never stopped believing, and then one day, the call comes. The Dolls are going to reunite for one show in London.
This gentle, kind, humble and sweet man makes an oddly perfect vehicle for recounting the history and reunion of one of rock’s most important and outrageously bacchanalian bands. The story arc is compelling from beginning to end (spoiler alert), as sad as the ending is. A mere twenty-two days after that reunion in London, after Kane has returned to his white shirt and blue tie and his job with the old ladies in the library, he is diagnosed with leukemia. Two hours later, he is dead.
Central to the film is Kane’s faith, but rather than be a distraction, it is one of the films strengths. In these cynical days, it is so easy to make fun of a religion like Mormonisms, but New York Doll never goes there. Instead, Kane’s faith is allowed to speak for itself. There is nothing about this film that will make you feel like a couple of missionaries are camping out on your door jam, yet you’ll get a good sense of what Mormonism meant to Kane. You can draw your own conclusions about it.
Interestingly, Johansen takes Kane’s beliefs in stride, with a wry humor and endearing acceptance (these two men hadn’t spoken in 30 years). Johansen contributes a couple of acoustic hymns to the sound track and at the end of the reunion concert refers to Kane as one of God’s miracles. It all makes for a very human story.
Obviously, I’m recommending you buy or rent the move, even if you’re not a Dolls fan.