Arthur “Killer” Kane – New York Doll
This film has only just arrived on this side of the ocean for a limited run of screenings at arthouse cinemas and film festivals after touring the States over the past year or so. Dolls fans here have been waiting on this DVD and minor cinema release ever since the documentary was first rumoured to be in production back in 2004. The copy I have is from the USA. I couldn't believe it was on sale on DVD over in the states already so I ordered it back in January and it finally turned up on my doorstep last week (April).
“New York Doll” is a sympathetic telling of the story of a gentle giant of a man demoted in the mid 70s from an outrageous Frankenstein created rock star to Joe smoke on the bus who had a long held wish that came true 30 years later. This story is a lesson in how to go from a cult kind of stardom to obscurity in one fell swoop. His dream was to see his band the New York Dolls reunited and to play live with them once again. The really sad part of the tale is the man Arthur “Killer” Kane died of an illness he didn't know he had only a few short weeks after his moment back in the spotlight.
I was privileged to have been at the last gig Arthur ever played with the Dolls on 18/06/04 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with my then 10-year-old son, it was a brilliant night. At least Arthur took up his bass duties in the netherworld with Johnny, Jerry and Billy on a real high.
Since the Dolls reformation a number of DVD's have been put on the market. We had the Royal Festival hall footage released as "the return of the NYD/Pre crash condition" and the recent "All Dolled Up" vintage Bob Gruen home video footage which was great to see cleaned up and looking good with new interview extra's, though the actual vital performance material has been about in collectors circles via bootleg videos and DVDs for years.
Since the demise of the Dolls, Arthur’s life seemed to have been one disaster after another, full of turmoil and pain documented here by long-time friends like ex-Doll Rick Rivitts (who looks oddly like Micky Rourke these days - or is it just bad plastic surgery?), until he found God in the shape of the Mormon church. As a church member he found the stability and direction in his life which he was lacking for many years. They gave him a job in the family history museum - but more importantly, he had people around him who cared about him, wanted to help and would listen to his endless stories of once being in a famous band - which he retold time and time again to anyone who was willing to listen. Arthur couldn't even scrape together the $226 to get his guitar out of the pawn-shop when the reunion was confirmed, so his church friends gave him the money. He lived hand to mouth for so long that when he came to London for the gigs in 2004 he was so impressed with his hotel room as it was much nicer than his apartment, he wished he could stay there for good.
Friends say he was hurt, bordering on a deep resentment, that burned inside of him for many years - brought on by the varying degrees of success and critical acclaim Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had enjoyed with the Heartbreakers and David Johansen had as his alter ego Buster Poindexter, while his projects like the Corpsegrinders and the Idols went nowhere. This lead to his dependence on alcohol and accusations of wife beating which came to a head when he jumped from a third floor window in attempt to kill himself - only managing to shatter his kneecap and elbow in the process. His estranged wife, Barbara, states she lived the opposite of the typical rock star wife’s fairytale lifestyle: they had no money, cars or houses - only Arthur’s memories and a mountain of frustration and anxiety over what might have been.
After reassurances from Morrissey that the gigs were going to happen Arthur was delighted, but as rehearsal time came around, though never doubting his own ability, Arthur was worried that the new guitarist, Steve Conti, may not be able to fill Johnny Thunders shoes onstage - which we all know now was unfounded. Steve may not have the sometimes shambollic but riveting stage presence - or the unpredictability of JT - but he's a great guitarist and fits in perfectly - as do Brian Konin who is much more important in the Dolls set up now than I realised or gave him credit for. Brian Delaney is a solid drummer, while Sylvain Sylvain is the lynch pin that holds it all together.
During the second day of rehearsals for the London gigs Arthur and David met up for the first time in years - there was definitely tension in the air. DJ ignores AK for a few minutes as he sets out his lyrics folder and sings along with a tune the band are already playing as AK sits quietly and looks on nervously from a corner before the ice is finally broken. They hug, make up and smile, as a look of relief comes over AK's face. Fast forward a couple of weeks to the UK and a 5-star meal at a music biz awards luncheon (where Morrissey was collecting another trophy), & the Dolls are received by the audience as if they are conquering heroes. These are probably some of the very people who ignored them originally. Later that evening, prayers are being said backstage at the Royal Festival Hall and a wish for a blessing to be bestowed upon the Dolls from God is requested by Arthur in his Joseph Smith long coat and frilly shirt look - which was the alternative to the hotel concierge's coat which he had asked for earlier that day and got.
The gigs were a triumphant success, as we know, and there’s backstage meet and greet footage - included where Arthur stands totally bewildered, unable to take in the massive turnaround in his life, as young pups and older rockers line up to shake his hand and have a quick word. The likes of Mick Jones, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, Tony James, Don Letts and Dolls/Thunders biographer, Nina Antonia, are also featured heaping deserved praise on the Dolls performance.
Back to normality in LA afterwards, Arthur is once again virtually anonymous and back on the bus to work, happier than he has been for a very long time, but it’s a real comedown after the highs of London. Feeling very tired and putting it down to jet lag, concerned work colleagues urge Arthur to visit the hospital emergency room where he dies a few hours later. He was suffering from Leukaemia and didn't know it. Arthur Kane died July 13 2004 aged 55, the curse of the Dolls continues.
This film is a real heartfelt tribute to Arthur Kane who was a unique figure in rock music, a giant Frankenstein’s monster of a man in a tutu and hooker make up, surrounded by the finest bunch of cut-throat-tranny-looking-heterosexuals this side of some weird circus freak-show, yet he was so shy and quietly spoken. Unable to breath and play bass at the same time, according to DJ, this was the reason he was statuesque onstage and also why the fans loved him.
The New York Dolls were idolised by many, a fact that escaped the band entirely throughout their short career, and the reformation should have taken place many years earlier while JT and JN were still alive, but its way too late now to worry about that now. This is the finest documentary yet to feature the Dolls, and in my opinion, it’s essential viewing. Jeez, I even started to like Morrissey by the end of the DVD! It’s a very sad tale, rounded of perfectly by Johansen and Konin's understated acoustic performance of hymn 30, "Come Come Ye Saints", featured at the end of the excellent DVD extras (which include a great directors interview). I'm glad the film was made while Arthur was still around, and able to see his dream become a reality. Life with the Dolls were his fondest memories and it was often hard for him to put them away.
A brilliant film.
Joe Donnelly – tMx 24 – 04/06