Everything can change in a New York… Doll?

Movies Features New York Dolls
Share Tweet Submit Pin

(Above: Arthur “Killer” Kane is embraced by New York Dolls leader David Johansen. Photo by Seth Lewis Gordon.)

Donning gender-bending lipstick, high heels and spandex (years before Kiss or Tommy Lee) and singing shout-out-loud lyrics (long before Johnny Rotten met Sid Vicious), the New York Dolls were certainly a sight to behold in 1972. Their in-your-face live performances earned them a cult following, and their 1973 debut garnered critical kudos. But commercial success remained elusive, and only one more studio recording would follow before the Dolls disbanded in 1977.

Compounding the frustration of unfulfilled promise was the success of those artists who followed. The musical and sartorial trailblazers were soon cited as the primary influence on many of rock’s most influential acts: The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, The Clash, The Ramones, Kiss, Billy Idol and others. So the band that practically invented punk and glam rock watched from the sidelines as its progeny marched toward mass acceptance and ?nancial success.

New York Doll, a documentary from first-time director Greg Whiteley, examines the aftermath through the life of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. When we meet modern-day Kane, he looks a far cry from his hedonistic days of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. As opposed to the wild-haired blond giant who donned leopard-skin leggings and stilettos, we find a mild-mannered, gangly tax-accountant lookalike, whose lovely locks have been replaced with a wispy combover and his crazed Jersey-hooker outfit with a thin white shirt and awkwardly askew tie. And he’s on a city bus.

But as Kane’s new life is revealed, the pain of seeing this hero passing for a vacuum-cleaner salesman becomes more fascinating and endearing than painful and embarrassing. When the Dolls bassist finally hit rock bottom, he abandoned his drug- and alcohol-fueled lifestyle for a calm, steady job in the Family History Center of his new spiritual home, the Mormon Church. Describing his conversion to the LDS faith as “an LSD trip from the Lord,” Kane seems happy in his new life.

Still, a deep melancholy pervades as he reminisces about his days in the band that helped birth punk and glam metal. His only real wish is to reunite and bask in the glory only lavished on the band after its dissolution. But a reunion doesn’t seem in the cards. Record labels and concert promoters aren’t calling, and singer David Johansen (who in the ’80s temporarily became Buster Poindexter) has little interest in the concept. To top it off, Kane’s bass now sits in a pawnshop. He pays $175 a month to make sure they don’t sell it, although he could pay $262 to buy it back.

Finally, a fellow Mormon does the math and lends Kane the money to buy back his bass. And self-proclaimed Dolls fan numero-uno, Morrissey, calls. Curating the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London, the former Smiths frontman wants the group that was the “answer to everything” (whose fanclub he once presided over) to headline.

With his newly rescued bass in tow, Kane journeys to London to reunite with the remaining surviving New York Dolls (Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain). He’s followed closely by his assigned Mormon home-teacher, director Whiteley.

From Whiteley to his bishop, Kane’s church members were supportive of his decision to return to the Dolls. But Whiteley wasn’t confident it would end well. “All along the way I was skeptical,” he says. “Are people really going to enjoy them? Is the band going to play well? Is this really what Arthur wants? Is he really built to go back and do this? Is it going to be disappointing for him?”

But the Dolls’ return performance is a rousing success. “In every way, it was this full-blown, joyous, great thing for [Kane],” Whiteley says. After rough-sounding rehearsals and a three-hour soundcheck, the band hit its groove and played a stellar set to an enraptured audience. “I may be a dreamer,” Kane says after the performance, “but the dream has come true.”

To the bassist, this dream was more expectation than wish. “I think it was a bigger mystery to him as to why his whole life was not like that,” Whiteley says. “Because at 17, that’s what it was like, and then suddenly it’s gone. Then back at 55, ‘Oh, OK. Here it is again, that’s right. I am a superstar.’ I think that 30-year hiatus was the mystery to him!”

Kane’s actual worries were more basic. “It’s funny, because here’s this middle-aged man who thinks he still has groupies,” Whiteley remembers with a smile. “And he was concerned about it enough—one of the reasons why he let us film him was because he thought we should come along to help him against the throngs of groupies who will want to sleep with him when we’re there. And I just thought, ‘That’s hilarious.’ But we got there, and they were there!”

Seeing this gentle giant—this “miracle of God’s creation” as Johansen introduces Kane—get what he’s been praying for reduced the filmmaker to tears. “He is adored,” says Whiteley. “And it is one of the great privileges of my life that I got to see that. I think it was a miracle; I think it was an answer to his prayer. I’m so grateful I got see something that good happen to somebody that good.”

Whiteley’s affection for Kane extends to the other band members as well, although he wasn’t very familiar with them prior to meeting Kane. “I was too young,” he explains. “The Clash, The Ramones, that was more my age. And so you knew of the Dolls. It’s one of those bands that they’re really cool to drop their name, but I think many people who drop their name are not super familiar with them either.”

With a new appreciation for their music and story, Whiteley hopes for a feature film about The New York Dolls. “I think the Dolls story still needs to be told—that’s a great movie,” the director explains. “Arthur is a friend of mine and I found him interesting. [But] I’m convinced somebody someday is going to make that. Frankly I’m hoping I’m lucky enough to get to do it. It’s a great band; it’s a great story. And it’s full of the greatest characters in rock ’n’ roll.”