New York Doll
Several bands have
legitimate claims to being the fathers of punk rock. Iggy and the
Stooges, the Seeds and the Standells all opened the door somewhat.
The Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols kicked it open. However, in
between those groups was a band that set most of the rules that would
follow, The New York Dolls.
The Dolls were six funny
looking guys who took the Stones' dirty rock, mixed it with glam and roughed
it up to create a whole new sound. Their strangely androgynous dress
and looks, mixed with a crunching, shrieking sound and a ear for hard rock
hooks made them one of the most influential bands of the early seventies.
However, the band never quite caught on overall -- after two slow-selling
albums they were dumped by their label and the band fractured.
However, this story is not
really about the New York Dolls. In fact, the Dolls' history is
quickly related in Cliff Notes form in the beginning of the film.
Later, in the scenes leading up to the reunion concert, some of the bigger
stories of the band are filled in -- original drummer Billy Murcia's death
of drug-related suffocation as the band embarked on their first British show, the
appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test which helped to spark the
nascent punk scene in England (a full three years before the Ramones made it
there), lead singer David Johansen's gaining minor celebrity by morphing into his Latin lounge persona Buster Poindexter
and becoming a character actor,
Johnny Thunders eventual heroin overdose followed quickly by Jerry
Nolan's fatal stroke. But even with this info, huge chunks of the
band's history and most of their music is not at all discussed.
No, this story may encompass
the Dolls, but it is the life story of their bassist, Arthur "Killer" Kane.
Kane's nickname apparently was from an amalgam of sources -- his bass
playing was called "killer" in an early review and this reminded him of an
old Buck Rogers villain called Killer Kane. But more than that,
it probably stemmed from the inherent irony of the handle for the man.
There are few people in the world of rock who seem as even-tempered,
well-meaning and just slightly addled as Kane does.
It is interesting that this
movie would be about Kane, rather than the Dolls members who had more
obviously interesting and dramatic lives. David Johansen, Sylvain
Sylvain and particularly Johnny Thunders would all make for riveting case
studies on rock and roll excess. However, New York Doll is not
your typical Behind the Music-type of expose. It doesn't dwell
on the drugs and alcohol, the suicide attempts, the violence, the allure of
fame, the pawn shops and the lack of money; although all of those subjects
are certainly touched upon.
This is perhaps because
director Greg B. Whiteley came into Kane's life on the other side.
When he met Kane, he was a nice, quiet, soft-spoken volunteer librarian and
converted Mormon. As Kane tells the story, he was at rock bottom --
he'd broken up with his wife and tried to jump out of his third-story
apartment window -- when he decided on a whim to call in for a pamphlet he saw in an ad
for the church.
In the years leading to this
epiphany, Kane had been lost. He still clung to illusions of rock
stardom even though he didn't have two pennies to rub together. When
the Dolls fractured, Johansen and Sylvain continued to limp along with the
name briefly before going solo. Thunders and Nolan formed the
Heartbreakers, gaining a certain amount of notoriety, as much for Thunders'
drug excesses as for the music. Only Kane was set totally free, and
after starting several bands with no success, Kane had to pawn his basses
and give up on music. He envied the marginal success that Johansen,
Sylvain and even Thunders achieved after leaving the Dolls behind.
Kane's immersion into the
religion gave him a sense of peace and a sense of community. It
allowed him to break the stranglehold of alcoholism. It made his life
more humble, more intellectual and more satisfying. But it never quite
took away his lust for stardom.
As with many converts,
sometimes Kane's devotion to his religion seems a little oppressive to the
casual viewer (and sometimes, it seems, to bandmate David Johansen).
This is not helped by the fact that quite a few of his Mormon counselors and
co-workers and clergymen also talk about his spiritual awakening and
more generally about religion, which is not normally what you're looking for
when you go to a rock and roll movie. However, this was the path that
Kane took, and if you want to see the real Kane then you will have to follow
him down it. As Johansen says late in the film,
“People who’ve really been in the war, but then
come out the other end as, for lack of a better word, spiritual beings –
that’s the greatest kind of person in the world.”
Kane's return to the
spotlight happened almost by accident. British rock star Morrissey,
who was a huge Dolls fan as a child, decided to invite the Dolls to reunite
for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London. To everyone's surprise,
Johansen agreed to do the show and the three surviving members (as well as
Johansen guitarist Steve Conte and Libertines drummer Gary Powell) had to
learn to play together all over again. Even though Kane had not played
in nearly twenty years, he saw it as a return to his rock dreams. He
also saw it as a way to mend fences with the two surviving Dolls, to regain
friendships that had long ago tarnished.
Even more touching than the
triumphant reunion show (of which one song is shown) is a simple section leading up to it. After
getting a chance to fly to London for the show, we see a giddy Kane reacting
with sheer joy and amazement at the hotel room he is staying in. The
room, which is nice enough, but certainly no huge mega-suite, fascinates the
bassist, who giddily points out all the amenities that it offers -- the
computer port, the THREE phones, including one in the bathroom. Kane
wistfully points out that the dwelling is much nicer than his apartment, and
he's not wrong.
However, unlike so many
musicians who would misuse or take for granted the trappings of a hotel,
Kane's life has moved on so that he is truly awestruck even by the slightest
luxuries. He dreamily says that he could forget the show, he would be
happy to just sit in this room for the rest of his life and watch the Thames
out of the window. You can tell, completely and surely as the sun
rising in the morning and setting in the evening, that he is totally sincere
about it. Before the concert, the band
goes to an award banquet, and as Johansen's girlfriend points out, while
most of the others in the room seem to think it is a chore to endure, Kane
is enchanted. Thirty years on from all the excess, Arthur Kane has
grown to appreciate and savor the little things.
This also brings about a
question that is rife with drama. Will Kane be able to go back again?
Once he has tasted of this world once more, will he be content to go back to
being a volunteer librarian, taking the bus to work and living in his
squalid little apartment? Life intervenes and everything changes, but you have to be thankful to see a humble
man who finally comes close to regaining his wildest dreams.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted:
October 12, 2005.