Sunday, January 14, 2007

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

Film: New York Doll (2005)
Directed by Greg Whiteley

Back in the 1980s I had a musician friend in LA. An accomplished bassist who had been a footnote to legend – he had worked with members of the Byrds and David Bowie - he almost died of heroin addiction before finding temporary redemption in Christianity.

High on horse and marijuana, he once phoned me at
3AM from a callbox on Wilshire Boulevard, proclaiming God had spoken to him from a tree somewhere in Hollywood.

I couldn’t help being reminded of my friend while viewing New York Doll, Greg Whiteley’s moving and bittersweet documentary detailing the trials and tribulations of New York Dolls bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane.

After the band imploded in 1974, Kane saw his dreams evaporate with a series of no hope bands before succumbing to drug addiction then finally - almost predictably - finding religious solace in Mormonism.

As glam-punk pioneers, The New York Dolls influenced some of the most successful rock acts of the last thirty years, from Iggy Pop, KISS and Motley Crue to The Pretenders, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Morrissey.

Indulging in an edgy lifestyle few could dream of or keep up with, the Dolls pioneered elegantly wasted chic and had the songs to back it up. Personality Crisis, Who Are the Mystery Girls?, Looking for a Kiss, Subway Train, Jet Boy, are all lyrically intelligent, fucked up classics.

After only four years the original Dolls, including Arthur Kane himself, burned out like a raw, high energy comet. Later, Poison and Motley Crue stole The Dolls’ shtick and made millions.

Having survived heroin and discovering parochial salvation in Jesus, Killer Kane comes across as an addled teddy bear with a heart of gold, apparently content in his new life as a librarian.

But it’s clear that the averagely-talented Kane is forever haunted by the ghosts of his past (“There was so much pain in his eyes," remarks a friend), and especially by Dolls’ lead singer and main man David Johansen.

Having attained the celebrity status Kane himself coveted, Johansen exists as a reminder that his own projects have failed, that the brief success he had achieved with The New York Dolls was to be the high water mark of his life.

It strikes me as a tad ironic that Morrissey, the man who wrote “We hate it when our friends become successful”, acts as a catalyst for the Dolls’ comeback when eventually they reunite - Arthur included - at his Meltdown Festival.

The reunion show is a professional success, even if on the personal side it’s never entirely convincing. There's hugs and kisses all round, but too much water has passed under the bridge and the pain and acrimony below the surface prevent the amicable reconciliation from becoming completely believable.

Whiteley can't bring himself to say it, he's far too emotionally involved with his subject, but at its heart this is a story about winners and losers.

Arthur Kane is dignified though engagingly naïve as he returns to the rock‘n‘roll circus, and Whiteley’s film illustrates the almost unbearable poignancy of lost dreams.

What also becomes clear, observing the fans and celebrities who attend the New York Dolls’ reunion, is how much of our own aspiration we invest in our heroes. Morrissey is seen here as a starstruck fan, touchingly overcome by emotion as he pays tribute to his glam idols.

In the end, Arthur fleetingly recaptures his glory days for one last hurrah, but as his fellow Doll Johnny Thunders observed, You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, and the film’s denouement invokes a heartbreaking sense of pathos.

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