New York Doll Review
Depending on your age, and how much of a muso you are, you may or may not have heard of the New York Dolls. I hadn’t, and while I’m not giving away my age, I grew up with one sister in love with Marc Bolan and David Bowie, and another who was a member of the Bromley Contingent. So how the Dolls managed to fly so spectacularly under my radar I know not. Ignorance is no defence…
However, not knowing who they are – or were – should be no barrier to your enjoyment of New York Doll, a documentary which tracks down the Dolls’ erstwhile bass player. Arthur Kane is a mild-mannered 55-year-old whose daily round consists of the bus trip to the Family History Centre Library at the Los Angeles branch of the Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons, to cut a long story short). Arthur is a bit frayed around the edges, but he’s always neatly attired in shirt and tie, and the librarians have nothing bad to say about him – he’s helpful and thoughtful and considerate. So no-one could be more surprised than they were when Arthur revealed that he would soon be travelling to London, at the invitation of Morrisey, to take part in 2004’s Meltdown Festival, at a reunion of the New York Dolls.
For Arthur, in a previous life, was ‘Killer Kane’, bass player with the legendary glam-rock pioneers, credited with influencing everyone from Blondie to the Smiths.
We see how the Dolls’ rapid success is followed just as quickly by failure. The Dolls’ star burned so very brightly and went out in a flurry of drug and alcohol abuse; the band split in 1975 and though some of the former members found success of sorts, some called the band cursed: drummer Billy Murcia died of accidental suffocation (after passing out from drugs and alcohol, groupies put him in a cold bath and forced coffee down his throat); Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, who left to form the Heartbreakers, died of, respectively, a heroin overdose in 1991 and a stroke bought on by meningitis in 1992. Arthur survived, fading into obscurity, battling with drink, watching his former bandmates crash and burn, regretting the quarrels that meant that he hadn’t spoken to the surviving Dolls for almost thirty years.
Arthur’s LA existence is pretty tragic. He lives on the minimum wage, and seems to have no expectations at all. In interviews with his minister, and colleagues at the Family Centre, they explain that Arthur never manages to save any money – his guitars are pawned, and he has to get them out of hock before he travels to London. Later we see Arthur, so excited to be staying at the Marriot Hotel on the south bank – his room is a standard double, in a fairly standard chain hotel, but he’s thrilled – it’s much nicer than his apartment. Arthur is very sweet, kind of melancholy, but thrilled to be given this chance to make up with his friends.
David Johansen, lead singer of the New York Dolls, is the classic picture of an aging rocker. You imagine that he can still fit into his leather trousers from 1975, but instead of a healthy young body he’s all sinew and really looks like he needs a good meal. He’s also quite waspish and a bit mean to poor Arthur, teasing him about his religious beliefs, bringing a tension to their scenes together that is lacking from the time Arthur spends with Sylvain Sylvain, the band’s guitarist. But Meltdown is wonderful for Arthur – he’s made up.
Less interesting is the talking heads section where celebrities queue up to get on camera to extol the virtues of the Dolls – I scribbled something rude about Bob Geldof on my notes – but by the time you get to London you’re on Arthur’s side and really hoping that it all works out for him. The history of the Dolls is interesting, but Arthur’s is the human face and its his story that lifts this above another rock and roll documentary and makes it a very human tale of lost hopes and forgotten dreams.
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