The Killer's Early Years
Arthur "Killer" Kane, so-called for his propensity at "murdering" his bass guitar with his wild thumping, was born February 3, 1949, in The Bronx, to Swedish-American parents Harold and Erna Kane. Harold was an abusive alcoholic and young Arthur kept close to his mother. Erna, a diehard Elvis fan, would often entertain Arthur with music to occupy his mind during one of Harold's drunken rages. Erna died of cancer when Arthur was only seventeen, and the loss devastated him. He immediately left home to escape life with Harold.
Arthur graduated from high school and enrolled in the Pratt Institute, one of NYC's premier liberal arts and design colleges. It was while at Pratt that Arthur expanded on his love for music, teaching himself to play guitar and trying unsuccessfully to form a band. As a Food Science major, Kane planned to go on to a career in New York's upper-crust restaurant business. A love of fine food remained part of his life long past his Pratt days.
The dream of making a living through music eventually superseded his restaurateur ambitions. At 21, Kane inherited some money from his aunt and decided to leave Pratt and travel through Sweden in the hopes of discovering his heritage and possibly forming a band. He drifted around and eventually landed in Amsterdam, where he lived until his money ran out. He had not yet found a band.
Kane Meets Thunders & Johannsen
In the early 70's, the music scene in NYC was exploding. Venues such as Electric Circus, CBGB and the Fillmore East were alive with sound. Kane became an enthusiastic member of this group, and had begun to notice another club-goer with a crazy look that Arthur admired. A chance daytime meeting in front of a pizza shop introduced Arthur to Johnny Thunders. The two soon discovered that they were both aspiring musicians and decided to get together to play. At the time, Kane was playing guitar, but upon hearing Thunders' amazing riffs, Kane immediately offered to switch to bass. Drummer Billy Murcia, a friend of Arthur's, was also brought in on the jam sessions, and the three started to develop a sound they all enjoyed.
David Johansen, a 20-year-old musician, was singing lead for Vagabond Missionary. After seeing one show, Kane and Murcia showed up at Johansen's apartment and told him he needed to quit his band and sing for theirs. David, initially taken aback by their admonishment, decided to check out a practice session at Thunders apartment the next day. He picked up the mic, opened his considerable mouth and everything fell into place.
A Doll Is Born
The New York Dolls officially formed in 1971. They played their first gig on Christmas Eve, 1971. With Sylvain Sylvain replacing Rick Rivets on rhythm guitar, the Dolls were complete. Their sound, influenced by rhythm and blues music, the Stones, MC5 and Marc Bolan, was raunchy and loud, yet catchy and melodic. But it was their look that really grabbed the public eye.
The Dolls were at the forefront of the glam-rock movement. Heavy makeup, platform shoes, earrings, spandex pants and crop tops were the norm. Their hair was big, but their sound was bigger. Before long, fans were lining up to see the Dolls in all their glammed-up glory. Their first big break was an invitation by Rod Stewart who saw the band play a small gig and asked them to open for a few of his shows in London. But tragedy would strike just as the band started to gain recognition.
Drummer Billy Murcia, fond of hard-drinking and drugs, overdosed and accidentally drowned while the Dolls were tearing up the London club scene. Disheartened and saddened at the loss of their friend, they returned to New York. But the fans would not be without their Dolls for long. They began auditioning drummers and briefly considered hiring Mark Bell; Mark would later play with the Ramones under the stage name "Marky Ramone". However, it was drummer Jerry Nolan who made the cut. Nolan's manic playing style was reminiscent of Murcia's, and his charisma was a natural fit with the rest of the Dolls.
Out of the Doll-House
The Dolls popularity was steadily on the rise. After releasing two albums, New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon, and non-stop touring between 1972 and 1975, the Dolls were sick of music, sick of the road, sick of each other. Heavy drug use and drinking had become the norm and the band members' health and sanity were on the line. Sick, tired and strung-out, the Dolls in-fighting became brutal and the band broke up after a violent argument in Florida in 1975.
Arthur tried to form many bands after the Dolls, but all ended in failure. Sick, broke and a severe alcoholic, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 80's. He fell into a deep depression after seeing David Johansen's over-the-top alter-ego Buster Poindexter churning out the hits, and attempted suicide by jumping out a third story window. He survived the jump but suffered minor brain damage and a speech impediment that he endured the rest of his life.
He was living in a run-down Hollywood apartment in 1992 when he suffered yet another blow. While walking home from a party at Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis's apartment, a violent homeless man accosted Kane and beat him nearly to death. He was found in a ditch near his apartment the next morning. His injuries were so severe that he required intensive physical and occupational therapy and had to re-learn how to walk and talk. However, a life-changing event a few years prior sustained him through his recovery.
The Saints Go Marching In
In 1989, during the hospital stay after his suicide attempt, Kane happened upon literature from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon church. He began attending services and volunteering in the Family History Library Center in LA , where he would later be employed full-time as a genealogist. His conversion, though a surprise to his friends and estranged wife Barbara Kane, brought a measure of peace to his life that he had never before known. He became fully sober for the first time in over 20 years and was ready to do the one thing that he had desired for a long time: to take part in a New York Dolls reunion show.
However, this was not as simple as it sounded. Kane had approached surviving members Johansen and Sylvain many times since their violent break up, with Sylvain cautiously optimistic about the chance and Johansen vehemently denying his wish to dredge up the past. Kane expressed his desires to close friend and filmmaker Greg Whitely, a fellow Mormon. Whitely and Kane discussed the plan to reunite with their congregation, which provided unanimous support. Kane's attempts seemed fruitless until a surprise phone call in early 2004.
Singer-songwriter Morrisey, best known as lead vocalist of 80's pop icons The Smiths, contacted Kane about possibly performing with the remaining Dolls at London's Meltdown Festival in June 2004. Kane was enthusiastic and asked Whitely to go with him to the pawn shop to pick up his bass guitar. Whitely asked Kane if he could video the pawn shop trip for posterity, and Kane gave him the green light to film the entire events leading up to, and immediately following, the reunion show. Whitely was ecstatic and a documentary, "New York Doll", was born.
All Doll-ed Up
Kane arrived in London on a rainy day, three days before the show. Met by Johansen and Sylvain he was rushed off to practice for their set. Kane, nervous and set to play for the first time in many years, wondered aloud at his ability to remember how to play the songs they had selected. But, like riding a bicycle, he performed admirably during rehearsals.
The day of the show found Kane overwhelmed with emotion at the prospect of performing as a Doll again. He was also determined to wear a ruffled shirt, though his band mates teased him about looking like a pirate. Kane took the stage with Syl and David, and the magic was back. The musicians, joined onstage by Steve Conte (in place of the late Johnny Thunders) on lead guitar and Gary Powell (drumming for the late Jerry Nolan), were in fine form. All who attended the two sold-out shows at the Royal Festival Hall in London came away highly impressed by the older but still dynamic Dolls.
Kane, in his element and high on life, flew back to LA to a grand reception of friends and fellow church members. Buoyed by the success of the show and Johansen's agreement to consider touring as a band again, Kane could not stop smiling. Whitely, thrilled for his friend's success in London, continued to film the aftermath of the reunion and Kane's excitement was contagious to all who loved him.
Days after returning from London, Kane worried that he was coming down with the flu. Concerned that his travel and the performances had taken their toll, he decided to rest at home for a few days. Still not better days later, Kane took himself to the emergency room at Cedars Sinai Hospital in LA on July 13, 2004. After a battery of blood tests, doctors diagnosed advanced-stage leukemia. Before the hospital could admit him as a patient, Kane passed away in a curtained cubicle in the ER. He was 55 years old.
A quiet service was held for friends and family, and filmmaker Whitely, still filming the documentary, had a sad surprise ending on his hands. After getting advice from the elders at the church, Whitely continued filming friends of Kane's, and their recollections of "a sweet, wonderful, talented man" (Barbara Kane) are the closing scene in the finished product.
Kane is gone, but thanks to Whitely's camera, fans can glimpse what the Killer described as the happiest days of his life. Johansen and Sylvain have refrained from reuniting as the Dolls after Kane's death; his platform shoes are apparently too big to fill.