Rock 'n' roll redemption

Published January 22, 2005 12:01 am
Documentary traces former glam-rocker's conversion to LDS Church
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In 1989, Arthur "Killer" Kane, bassist for the legendary early '70s glam-rock band the New York Dolls, got drunk, attacked his wife and proceeded to fall out of the third-story window of his Los Angeles apartment.

He landed in the arms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, perhaps the unlikeliest convert ever, when he picked up a TV Guide in his hospital recovery room and saw an ad offering a free Book of Mormon.

"I prayed about it, hoping the Book of Mormon was true," Kane explains in "New York Doll," a documentary about his life debuting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

"I got an answer quickly," Kane adds, explaining that his conversion was "like an LSD trip from the Lord, like a drug trip without the drugs."

Few people are as qualified as Kane to make that comparison. The New York Dolls were the very definition of the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" stereotype during their brief existence, indulging in every decadent activity that presented itself in the grimy clubs and concert halls of New York City. The band's music and androgynous attire would inspire legions of loud, brash, sexually charged bands that followed, groups like KISS and Aerosmith, but after just three years and two albums, the Dolls broke up. As Kane says in the film, "because of our bad behavior and using drugs, we lost the New York Dolls."

A new beginning: The years between the New York Dolls' 1975 split and Kane's conversion to the LDS Church in 1989 went by in a haze of alcohol addiction, with Kane struggling to make a living through a series of unsuccessful bands and desperate attempts to start an acting career. Finding inspiration from his new religion, he stopped drinking and eventually landed a job working in the church's Family History Center on the grounds of the Los Angeles Temple.

Greg Whiteley, a Brigham Young University graduate and director of "New York Doll," met Kane in Los Angeles and was assigned by his local church leaders to visit the former rock star at his home. Whiteley had moved to southern California to attend graduate school and break into the film industry, and some members of the LDS congregation who knew Kane's background figured the two would hit it off.

"I'm a filmmaker and he's an ex-rock star, so I think we got relegated to the same part of the ward," Whiteley said in an interview, laughing. ''It was like, 'You're both strange.' ''

Most people in his local church and co-workers at the Family History Center did not know Kane's background, Whiteley said. They just knew him as the tall, quiet guy who often regaled visitors to the temple grounds with impromptu, harmonica-fueled, inspirational songs. But to the handful of friends Kane was close to, like Whiteley, the stories of his glory days with the New York Dolls seemed endless.

"I'm spoiled from the past, and it's hard to put them away, those memories," Kane tells Whiteley in the film. "Those are my fondest memories."

Kane credits the LDS Church, and particularly his job at the Family History Center, with saving his life, saying "working for Jesus made all the difference in the world." He'd been estranged from his family for years - he found about his father's death through the church's records - and was no longer in touch with his rock and roll peers. He found a new family in the church, Whiteley said, but Kane's immersion into the LDS faith was a little bumpy.

"He converted to the church, and I think like a lot of people who convert to the Mormon faith, he bit off more than he could chew," Whiteley said. "It hasn't quite occurred to them the whole change in lifestyle that is now going to occur. And so, for Arthur, there was a little bit of, 'Oh man, what have I gotten myself into.'

"I just think it's really hard to suddenly be lumped in with a group of people you have nothing in common with. And he didn't. And this is not to criticize the Mormon church, but it is what it is, and it's typically a group of people who have not been glam-rock stars."

Making a movie: For years, Whiteley thought Kane would make a good subject for a film, but last year he got the perfect hook when British rock star Morrissey convinced the three surviving New York Dolls to regroup for a series of concerts in England.

Whiteley followed Kane as he got his guitars out of a pawn shop with money donated by members of his LDS congregation, traveled to New York City to rehearse with fellow Dolls David Johansen - best known for his alter-ego "Buster Poindexter" - and Sylvain Sylvain, all the way to London where the band delivered a dazzling performance to a crowd that included several generations of musicians who had been inspired by the New York Dolls.

Whiteley managed to grab several members of the celebrity-studded crowd and get them to talk about Kane and the Dolls on camera for "New York Doll," including Mick Jones of The Clash, The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Bob Geldof and Iggy Pop. Many of them didn't know the turn Kane's path took into religion; Geldof joked that it was odd that an old rocker would "get into the Osmonds so late in life." Blondie's Clem Burke was equally surprised.

"It's very paradoxical when you think about this guy in fishnet stockings causing havoc all over the world becoming a Mormon," Burke said.

One of the most memorable and hilarious scenes in Whiteley's film is captured in the band's dressing room just before going on stage as Johansen questions Kane about the tenets of his religion, then jokes that Kane won't get a cut of the T-shirt sales profits since he would just give it away to the church. That scene is followed almost immediately with one of the film's most touching as Kane delivers an emotional pre-show prayer with his band.

Kane's joy at being on stage again, playing for thousands of adoring fans, is obvious in Whiteley's film, and he still seems thrilled as he returns home, back to being, as Kane puts it, "a shlep on the bus."

The movie is ultimately a story of redemption, through religion and rock 'n' roll.

"You can imagine, your life has been pretty much 20 some-odd years in a downward spiral and you're looking for something to stop the bleeding," Whiteley said. "He stumbled across this Book of Mormon and has a religious experience with it and as a result, he begins to make some changes in his life.

"He really believes the opportunity he gets [to reunite with the New York Dolls] is a blessing from God. He believes it was not an accident, not a coincidence. For him, it was, 'Hey, I put in my time and I'm being thrown a bone here. I'm being given a second chance at something I really messed up.' ''

Within weeks of returning from England, and with the band considering more performances, Kane was diagnosed with leukemia and died a short time later.

Rock 'n' roll and religion

"New York Doll" screens today at noon at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, Sunday at 10 a.m. at Park City's Holiday Village Cinema, Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. at Park City's Prospector Square Theatre, Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Park City's Holiday Village Cinema and Saturday, Jan. 29, at 3:45 p.m. at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas. For ticket availability, call 801-924-0882, visit http://www.sundance.org or the Sundance Film Festival box offices at Park City's Gateway Center, Salt Lake City's Trolley Square, Sundance Village in Provo Canyon or the Ogden Box Office at 2415 Washington Blvd.

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