The most touching moment in director Greg Whiteley’s documentary, New York Doll (now on DVD), also contains its truest statement. Just before taking the stage with his old friends — well, the two living ones, anyway — for the first time in 30 years, bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, the film’s subject, leads the group in a backstage prayer. “If there is any band that wishes to thank you for this great blessing,” he says, eyes closed and voice tightening, “it’s the New York Dolls.” About to perform for a worshipful crowd at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2004, they should be thanking the Lord. After all, this was a band that, for the previous three decades, appeared to be the victim of some divine curse: falling apart prematurely after a pair of great albums; influencing a generation with their trashy, primal proto-punk but not seeing a single dime for it; having to watch as every mook in the ’80s with a can of Aquanet got rich ripping off their transgender image. Not to mention, at the time of their reunion, three dead members.
So for the remaining Dolls to be granted another shot at glory — let alone to still be alive — is truly an example of God’s delayed mercy. But when Kane refers to a “great blessing,” he’s not necessarily talking about the band: He’s talking about himself. His post-Dolls existence has been the oddest and, aside from Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, who both succumbed to drug addiction in the early ’90s (original drummer Billy Murcia, whom Nolan replaced, died in 1972), the most tragic. Following the group’s dissolution in 1975, Kane jumped back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, trying vainly to put another act together. He eventually settled in L.A., where he sank into alcoholism, poverty and intense jealousy over the relative success of his ex-bandmates. After seeing singer David Johansen on television, Kane attempted suicide by leaping out the window of his third-floor apartment, succeeding only in shattering his kneecap. Having bottomed out, he responded to an ad in TV Guide for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and, in 1989, converted to Mormonism.
Whiteley, a fellow Mormon, traces Kane’s unlikely path with heart and compassion, but he doesn’t ignore the obvious comedy of a gangly former rock star going from wearing high-heels and fishnets to a white shirt and tie and working in the church’s Family History Center. The fun is watching the soft-spoken Kane, who doesn’t own a car and can barely afford to buy his guitar back from a pawn shop, reconcile his new life with the one he knew as a teenager.
The concert itself, at the Morrissey-curated Meltdown Festival, can’t match the gutter-glam chaos of the band’s heyday, of course, but that’s not the point: the point is the joy of witnessing a once-broken man coming to terms with his past. Less than a month after returning from England, Kane died of leukemia, two hours after being diagnosed, at age 55. As they say, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, but at least He gave Kane something Murcia, Nolan and Thunders never achieved: closure. New York Doll isn’t just another rock doc; it’s a genuine human story.