Andrew Mueller on the ghost of punk
In any arena, it is an occupational hazard of pioneering that one is likely to end up scalped and forgotten while the land you cleared is profitably farmed by more timid, more pragmatic souls. Rock'n'roll is especially brutal towards its genuine innovators, though, generally ignoring them in their prime, invariably ruthlessly exploiting their creative legacy when commercial wisdom catches up with them, and usually finally honouring them when they're too old, or mad, or dead, for it to do them any good. The foothills of rock's Olympus are liberally strewn with disregarded pathfinders, who have come to form a sort of alternate canon among those who've been touched by them: The Velvet Underground, Big Star, The Replacements, The Saints, The Go-Betweens... and The New York Dolls. The New York Dolls existed between 1971 and 1977, during which, in between establishing a formidable reputation for debauchery, they recorded just two albums, sold very few records, and made almost no money, but managed to substantially invent or inspire 1970s British punk, 1980s American hair metal and 1980s British indie rock.
A woefully incomplete list of bands who would have sounded and looked different, or perhaps never existed at all, had The New York Dolls never been, would include: The Smiths, Motley Crue, Kiss, The Sex Pistols, Poison, Skid Row, Van Halen, The Libertines, Generation X, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, The Clash. The romantic allure of The New York Dolls was enhanced, as is always the case, by their determined self-destructiveness. Bands who lose one member to mishap or misadventure are always lent a certain grim lustre. The New York Dolls, during and after their existence as a group, suffered an attrition rate comparable to that of the Light Brigade. Drummer Billy Murcia died of an overdose on a UK tour in 1972. Guitarist Johnny Thunders, later a semi-success as a solo artist leading The Heartbreakers, overdosed in 1991. Drummer Jerry Nolan, Murcia's replacement, succumbed to a stroke in 1992.
Arthur 'Killer' Kane was The New York Dolls' bass player. New York Doll is Greg Whiteley's sad, gentle documentary of what turned out to be the last few months of Kane's life. The film opens with Kane, in his own words, "demoted from rock star to schlub on the bus." Kane, at this point an unlikely convert to Mormonism, lives in Los Angeles, and works part-time in the library of a Latter-Day Saints' Family History Centre. "That was like Donny Osmond becoming a New York Doll," suggests bemused Blondie drummer Clem Burke, one of a distinguished cast of worshipful talking heads interviewed for the film, including Bob Geldof, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Mick Jones of The Clash, Tony James of Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Sami Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks and Morrissey who, before forming The Smiths, ran a New York Dolls fan club, and who plays a prominent part in the narrative of New York Doll.
Kane is a lonely, visibly damaged and bitter man. At his lowest ebb, provoked beyond the grip of reason by turning on his television one day in 1989 and seeing former New York Dolls singer David Johansen playing a bit part opposite Bill Murray in Scrooged, Kane attacked his wife and then pitched himself out of his third storey kitchen window. It took Kane, he recalls, a year to teach himself to walk again.
Morrissey, an articulate and thoughtful presence throughout New York Doll, finds himself with an opportunity to play fairy godfather in 2004, when he is offered the curatorship of the annual Meltdown festival in London. He asks the three surviving Dolls Kane, Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvian, if they'll reform for the occasion.
What follows is heartening and heartbreaking. Whiteley follows Kane's attempt to fill the stackheels of his youth, from his redemption of his bass from a pawn shop, to his touching delight at his posh hotel room in London, to his unabashed joy at being lionised at some awards ceremony, to the Dolls' hesitant rehearsals (the vacancies in the line-up created by the Reaper's scythe are filled by a couple of roped-in musicians including, appropriately, Libertines drummer Gary Powell) culminating in a rousing performance. There is talk of a semi-permanent reunion, perhaps a tour. Kane's long slog through the wilderness seems to have arrived at a clearing, and by this point no viewer would begrudge this tottering, bewildered figure the return of his self-worth.
Sadly, despite appearances, Kane had not yet been subject to his quota of fate's arbitrary cruelties. Just 22 days after his triumph at Meltdown, he checked himself into a Los Angeles hospital, believing himself to be suffering from severe flu. Kane was diagnosed with leukaemia and was dead within two hours, aged 55. New York Doll ends up being an eloquent study of the ego-crushing horror of the unreconciled post-fame life, and a tender send-off to a broken man who, right at the end, nearly, but not quite, disproved the central assertion of his former bandmate Thunders's most famous song: that you can't put your arms around a memory.