Glam Digger: The New York Dolls’ Arthur Kane

When Greg Whiteley was in film school in Los Angeles several years back, he began attending the Mormon church on Santa Monica Boulevard. There, he met a mild-mannered church-library worker in his early 50s named Arthur Kane.

“One of the first things out of his mouth was an explanation of where he’d come from,” says Whiteley. “It was important to him to say, ‘Listen, I’m a former member of the New York Dolls, and if you don’t know who the New York Dolls are, I’ve got to explain.’”

Nearly five years after their first meeting, Whiteley unveiled New York Doll, a documentary on Kane’s extraordinary journey from Killer Kane (teen bassist for the glam-punk legends) to his quiet life as a library clerk at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Center in Los Angeles. After the Dolls split in 1975, Kane failed to resurrect his music career and battled drugs and alcohol. A drunken fall from a third-story apartment window in the late ‘80s left him with lingering physical ailments and a Social Security disability pension. When we first see Kane in the film, which starts in 2004, he’s wearing a short-sleeved white dress shirt, tie and black slacks and waiting to take the bus to work. As Kane puts it, he was “demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.

During an early visit to Kane’s apartment, Whiteley was shown a poster of the gender-bending Dolls. In the photo, Kane is resplendent in a leotard, feather boa and thigh-high platform boots. Then Kane played him songs from the band’s two albums. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” says Whiteley, “but when I first heard it, I thought, ‘This is terrible music.’”

In subsequent years, Whiteley‘s spiritual discussions with Kane often turned toward tales of the Dolls. “His story was so fascinating that I thought we should turn his life into a movie,” says Whiteley.

The film was kickstarted in early 2004 when Morrissey, curator of the Meltdown Festival and life-long Dolls fan, asked the surviving members—Kane, singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain—to reunite for the London extravaganza.

“[Arthur] would talk about this undying hope he had of getting the band back together,” says Whiteley. “I thought that was ridiculous, because half of them are dead. So when he said the band was getting back together, I was half thinking that he was mixed up.”

Whiteley got an impressive array of rockers— Morrissey, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones—to discuss the Dolls and their influence. The camera also follows Kane to London for the band’s much-heralded return. Envious of Johansen’s post-Dolls success as lounge lizard Buster Poindexter, Kane had held a grudge against the singer. The film captures Kane’s anxieties about reuniting with Johansen, including footage of their first practice sessions together.

Twenty-two days after the Meltdown gig, Kane checked into a Los Angeles hospital with flu-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with advanced leukemia and died several hours later. He was 55.

“You can’t take Arthur’s story and go, ‘Here is a morality play for you,’” says Whiteley. “My highest aspiration would be that the film hits people in the same way that it hit me, where it sneaks up on you. At first, you find Arthur quirky, even a little weird. Then he wins you over. The story becomes too good to be true, and yet it is true.”

—John Elsasser