Friday, May 26, 2006
New York Doll
For some reason Brad Warner just dumped all the postings off his blog and his web site, but just before he did, he turned his readers on to New York Doll, a partial biography / rock and roll documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, the bass player for the New York Dolls, the best rock and roll band ever. I had put the movie on my Netflix list, but I couldn't wait and watched it on my On Demand tonight. If you remember when rock and roll was music, when its stars were artists, you must watch this movie. But more than that, this brilliant film is the story of life.
I turned fifteen in 1972, and that was the year I discovered music, or rock and roll, which is a different discovery altogether. I think I'd started reading Rolling Stone, and from there I went from whatever I was listening to on AM radio in Manchester, TN, to the artist-oriented music that defined the changes that were occurring in my life at that point. I think the first two Serious Rock albums I bought were John Lennon's Imagine and Bob Dylan's New Morning. From there I went on into reading Circus magazine and a bunch of crap, but it led me to new bands that were rising from the ashes of rock -- bands like David Bowie, Queen, and the band that changed everything, the New York Dolls.
I remember feeling I was a little too young, a bit too late for everything in the early '70's. Woodstock had occurred when I was 11. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died that year or the next and the Beatles broke up. The War in Vietnam was winding down, and about the time I started high school, the draft was abolished. Rock had gone to Hell (to be rescued for while, and then go there permanently to live). Those were the days of wimp rock on the radio; the alternatives were Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake and Palmer... it was a bad time. It was gonna be a while before 1977, when Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and the Clash gave rock its best year ever and its final one.
So when my classmates were all listening to the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull... I got lucky. The first and best rock concert I ever attended was David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars on the Ziggy Stardust tour, at the War Memorial Auditorium in 1972 or early 1973. I think my mother drove me up to Nashville from Manchester, 65 miles away. If memory serves, I took a friend with me, Michael Bell, who turned out to be my first pot connection.
Anyway, riding on the coattails of Bowie and Marc Bolan's T. Rex were a lot of glam rock wannabees. One of those bands, indistinguishable from the others in Circus, was the New York Dolls. My initial impression of the band was just that they were Out There. They all dressed in drag. Whereas Bowie looked like a space age androgyne (a concept I wouldn't understand til years later), the Dolls just looked like transvestites. I was shocked and intrigued. One of the best blind guesses I've ever made was going out and buying the Dolls single "Who Are the Mystery Girls?" on a 45 single. I was hooked, and I wore out the grooves.
I think at that point I already had the Stones' Exile on Main Street, their best album ever. My initial impression of the Dolls was that they were the Stones, but rawer, wilder, and better. Somehow in that high school time I picked up the Dolls' two albums, and I loved them more and more with each listen. This was about the time I picked up Lou Reed's Transformer and everything changed.
Well, I thought everyone was getting hip to these new bands, but they weren't. I started college in 1975, and just after that, punk hit. Of course, I'd been listening to punk for years, but it didn't have a name yet. In New York Doll, Mick Jones of the Clash acknowledges his debt to the Dolls. In 1977, Johnny Rotten said rock was dead, that the Pistols were the end of it, and he was right. Everything after was derivative. These days I listen to jazz and classical, waiting for listenable pop music to reappear, but the odds of it happening in my lifetime...
Anyway, New York Doll is a great movie because it's about the New York Dolls, but it's a greater movie because it's about me, about my life in the way every great work of art is. The Dolls only released two albums, I think in '72 and '73, though I understand from the movie that they staggered on until about '76 before they finally disbanded. In 1979, I dragged my fiancee, with whose family I was visiting in New Jersey at the time, into The City for two nights. I'd been lusting after the music listings in whatever NYC free press I'd picked up at the time. No one else I knew was into the bands I was, but I didn't care. Out of that whole stay, I think I only managed to get to two nights of music. I saw the Plasmatic at CBGB, and I saw Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (with Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, separately) at Max's Kansas City. Those Heartbreakers concerts were later released as a classic album. I remember Johnny Thunders, drunk and full of heroin, 2 1/2 hours late, smashing his drink glass by throwing it straight up at the eight-foot ceiling, and Ty Styxx coming over the drum kit at him. My life was never the same after.
Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan died of heroin long after leaving the band. David Johnanssen went on to become Buster Poindexter. Arthur Kane wound up broke in LA, dreaming about his glory days.
Apparently, he was a drunk and went through AA, but the turning point, or new point of stability, in his life, seemed to come when he entered the Mormon Church. Apparently, he sent off for a free copy of the book of Mormon, which came delivered with a couple of hot blondes. Soon after, his prayer resulted in a conversion. My impression from the movie is that at least 20 years of his life consisted of riding the bus from his home to his job at the Mormon Tabernacle in LA, where he maintained records. He always dreamed of a Dolls reunion. Then, in 2004, Morrissey made it happen at a British festival. The movie depicts the reunion of Kane, Syl Sylvain, and Johannsen (who had become an adversary in Kane's mind by way of his relative success) and their successful performance. I won't tell you the ending, because it almost made me cry, no shit. Rent it.
But as I said, the movie was great art because it called my own life into play. When the Dolls were at their peak, I was in high school. I graduated in 1975, and then graduated first in my class in liberal arts at the University of Tennesse in 1979. In 1983, I graduated with a JD from Stanford Law School. I was pretty impressed with myself, but I thought I was better than my environment.
All that came to an end for me in 1993. These days I can't even find a decent job. But I remember who I am, and what I've done. And thanks to Arthur Kane, I know tonight that I'm still me -- that I'm as good as I ever was.
There are other points to be gotten from this film. How with the Mormon Church, Arthur Kane found his sangha, something I haven't been able to do in Nashville. But I'll leave those for now, because the story of Arthur's life has taught me for the moment that I'm OK, and that my life is worthwhile, and that I don't need to be valued, validated or limited by the others by whom I'm surrounded. And that's what great art does.