Who's up for a rock show? Sylvain, Johansen, Kane: The New York Dolls reunite, 2004.
In a couple of weeks my village arena will be playing host to one of Canada's stadium-filling rock acts from the 1970s. In contrast to the stadiums of old, the local venue has a capacity difference of several thousand, and I doubt this quartet of men who are all 10-plus years my senior are going to get a capacity crowd. I could be wrong, though: everyone I've talked to is thrilled to host them.
I've puzzled over this spectacle with a local musician friend. On some level we just don't understand why 50 year old men who lived the highest of the high life 30 years ago would keep picking up their instruments and play to an ever diminishing audience. On the other hand, the band and the audience are doing each other a favour. It's a courtship of sorts, where both parties remind each other of their vitality.
The equation seems wildly out of hand when it comes to the Rolling Stones, but at least that's a band that looks like they're having fun (except for Charlie Watts, of course). I'm not sure I could say as much for The (remaining) Who. If this latest album is any indication, the fun's been over for a while. Townshend's fills and embellishments are still fluid, and somewhere in the music there's a theme of sorts. Don't ask me to identify it, because I haven't yet been able to sit through the entire disc. Bono says when Townshend and Daltry take the stage, it's like they've “got an iron bar in their back pocket” — and he's being adulatory. I don't understand. You've already made your mark in rock & roll history, the bills are all paid, and you're not having any fun — what's the motivation for dragging your ass on stage?
For that matter, what's the audience's motivation for showing up to watch? Near the end of the documentary New York Doll, just after the three surviving members of The New York Dolls wrap up their first on-stage reunion in 30 years, Bob Geldof sheepishly admits that when he offered his kids tickets to the show, they turned him down without a second thought, even though they were die-hard fans. “They're listening to the records, and looking at the old posters.”
I'm not surprised. That's my typical response whenever I hear of some geezer band hitting the road for yet another reunion tour. But I put down the money for this documentary because (A) I didn't know the first thing about the Dolls, except that (B) it's been 30 years and they still have an undeniable influence on every single act that's followed. As it is, the documentary gives us precious little footage of the concert in question, and it's just as well. The fans (including Geldof) give glowing reports at concert's end, but concert footage could never capture what has made this a great moment. On the other hand, the story backstage and among the fans is entirely different matter. Thanks to the gentle discretion and observant eye of director Greg Whiteley, this documentary explores and captures the magic of this reunion.
It could be that, as Bob Seger once sang, rock & roll never forgets; more likely, it just has an extremely selective memory. This is clearly the case for Dolls' bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. The camera follows this strange-looking man and records his recollections and impressions as he adjusts his necktie on a white shirt with sleeves an inch too short for his arms. He boards the bus that takes him to his job at the Latter Day Saints' Family History Center. “I've been demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus," says Kane. "I'm spoiled from the past. It's hard to put those memories ... it's hard to put them away. They're my fondest memories." It quickly becomes clear that Kane's capacity for processing his environment is markedly different from most people's.
Is it arrested, dwarfed in adolescence by the rock and roll lifestyle? The case could be made. Certainly Kane partook prodigiously of the poisoned cornucopia of 70s excess, and he frankly admits he maintained a drunken state for several decades. Somewhere in the haze Kane developed a paranoid theory that his former bandmate David Johansen (whom I only ever knew as Buster Poindexter) was stealing money, fame and glory that should have been his. Even after Kane converts to Mormonism and has been sober for 15 years, this mental impediment is the largest roadblock to a band reunion.
Whiteley keeps the camera and boom mic at a respectful distance as the reunion takes place, staying out of the way while paying attention to telling details. When Johansen finally appears for rehearsals, there are not-so-subtle signs of Kane's anxiety. The two make a point of hugging, but the tension only begins to melt from Kane's face when Johansen starts singing into the mic.
Johansen: “We kind of picked up where we left off. And that's good, that's the way it should be.”
Whiteley: “Well, my impression is that you left off in a trailer court in Florida, screaming at each other. So I'd say you kind of picked up in a better place.”
Johansen: (laughs) “Yeah. I guess so.”
The subtle potential of these scenes suggests a third reason for geezer band reunions: redemption. The concert is clearly a success in the eyes of the fans and Kane. The blue-haired folks back home at the library congratulate him on his triumph. He tells them the real triumph was these three survivors becoming friends again. And I believe him.
This film moved me in ways I did not anticipate. The last thirty years have produced such a marked distance from the lurid, sneering menace the Dolls once embodied. When the band's biographer Nina Antonia recollects how she first heard the news of drummer Billy Murcia's death (the first of three Dolls to die young), she has to take a moment to compose herself. That moment is a revelation: either the kids watching these guys were not expecting the casualties to mount the way they did, or the adult now fully understands what a tragedy it was for this musician — this kid — to die like that. That, right there, is the rock & roll compact of naivete between performer and audience.
That Kane made it to 55 and managed this reunion, that the reunion turned out as sweetly as it did, that a New York Dolls reunion could ever be called “sweet” — none of these are small miracles. What a strange, sad, life-affirming trip this film is.