Arthur 'Killer' Kane

Bassist with the New York Dolls
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The Independent Online

As unlikely as it might have seemed in their heyday when they were tagged "the worst group in America", the Seventies proto-punk band the New York Dolls have influenced acts as diverse as Kiss, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Guns'n'Roses, the Manic Street Preachers and Morrissey.

Arthur "Killer" Kane, bassist and songwriter: born New York 3 February 1951; married; died Los Angeles 13 July 2004.

As unlikely as it might have seemed in their heyday when they were tagged "the worst group in America", the Seventies proto-punk band the New York Dolls have influenced acts as diverse as Kiss, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Guns'n'Roses, the Manic Street Preachers and Morrissey.

Not content with running their British fan club in his teens, the former singer with the Smiths convinced the surviving members of the seminal Dolls - the front man David Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane - to reunite and perform at the Meltdown he curated on the South Bank in London last month.

Kane greatly enjoyed being back on stage with his former cohorts for those shows. The six-foot-two bassist had lost the tousled long blond hair and much of the original glam transvestite looks but he still wore a frilly white shirt and impossibly tight black leather trousers and boots.

Born in the Bronx in 1951, Arthur Kane was a straight-A student and a quiet loner who found solace in rock'n'roll after the death of his mother. Teased for wearing bell-bottom trousers before they were fashionable, he became the tall cool kid who played rhythm guitar in a band he formed with his best friend George Fedorcik while still in high school.

In 1969, Kane began a course in hotel management but dropped out the following year and indulged in drinking, acid-taking and glue-sniffing. While hanging around Central Park on a Sunday, the young Arthur noticed Johnny Genzale - a.k.a. the future New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders - and his girlfriend. "Johnny had all that hair and he was wearing a green velvet suit," Kane told the New York Dolls biographer Nina Antonia:

I saw him a couple more times in these outfits you just couldn't find, 'cos I tried, I went to thrift shops and rooted everything out. Then I discovered that Johnny was buying his clothes in women's shops and his mom and sister would tailor them for him, so he was wearing these customised suits all the time. Very impressive.

An anglophile with a fondness for the dishevelled rock-star look of the Rolling Stone Keith Richards, Kane took advantage of the strong dollar and travelled to Amsterdam with his friend Fedorcik. The pair unsuccessfully tried to form a group in Holland and survived by selling hashish until they were deported to the United States when their visas ran out.

Back in New York, Kane worked for a telephone company and Fedorcik took up the Rick Rivets alias. When they saw Thunders on Bleecker Street, they asked him if he wanted to get a band together. Once rehearsals began with the drummer Billy Murcia, Kane and Thunnders swapped instruments. "I knew that if I played bass with what he was playing on guitar, we would have something," said Kane:

We had the first platform shoes and boots in New York because Billy's sister was in London and she knew where to get them. Also, I had seen the Alice Cooper group when they were all wearing silver jump suits and I knew we had to look wilder than that. We were the wildest people in New York and I thought we'd get an immediate following if we called ourselves the New York Dolls. And also, it sounded like something from a 1930s Broadway show.

With the addition of the Mick Jagger-like singer David Johansen, the Dolls made their début on Christmas Eve 1971 and, when Rivets began missing rehearsals, he was replaced by the guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (né Ronald Mizrahi) who had played with Murcia in a trio called the Box. The cult favourites the Velvet Underground had thrown in the towel and the New York Dolls intended to become the new hip band in the Big Apple but, for now, they were appearing in Brooklyn gay bath houses. "We weren't sure how to dress so the first night, we went feminine. I wore hot pants," recalled Kane:

They didn't appreciate the femme look so the next night we came back in leather and chains and got more interest. Everyone came out of their little cubicles to watch us.

In June 1972, the flamboyant Dolls went down a storm at the Mercer Arts Center near Broadway and began a Tuesday-night 17-week residency at the venue's Oscar Wilde Room which attracted scenemakers like Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol and Roy Hollingworth, the New York correspondent of the British music weekly Melody Maker.

To capitalise on their resulting high profile in the UK, the Dolls came over to London to support Rod Stewart and the Faces at Wembley Pool (now the Arena). They divided the crowd but went on to play further British concerts with Argent and Roxy Music until the accidental death in November of the drummer Billy Murcia (the official verdict read from drowning in a domestic bath while under the influence of alcohol and methaqualone).

The Dolls had been on the verge of signing to a British label but went back to New York - though they resumed gigging in December 1972 with Jerry Nolan as drummer. The following March, they finally signed a two-album deal with Mercury Records and began recording their eponymous début, with Todd Rundgren producing.

The group were often at loggerheads with the producer, who nevertheless managed to capture the sass and swagger of "Trash", "Personality Crisis", "Looking for a Kiss" and "Frankenstein". The least prolific member of the Dolls, Kane contributed most to "Private World".

"It's about being able to get away," he recalled,

whether you go for a ride or take drugs. We were Dolls 24 hours a day. When the fans located us, it became crazy. They knew where we lived and where we hung out. There were always people around us, we were never protected but it's something we did to ourselves. We were no longer teenagers just out having fun. We were in the business now. I started getting this railroaded feeling even before the album came out.

Released in July 1973, The New York Dolls proved a critical success but a hard sell despite a lengthy US tour. Arthur Kane made headlines when his jealous girlfriend Connie Gripp attacked him with a knife before a trip to Los Angeles. Peter Jordan, a roadie, deputised for the bassist, who toured with the Dolls anyway to stay away from trouble. In November, they visited Britain again and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, attracting the disapproval of the presenter Bob Harris but lighting the slow-burning fuse of punk.

Kane flooded his hotel room at Blake's and was arrested for switching price tags on a jacket in the Biba store where the group played two gigs witnessed by Paul McCartney and Malcolm McLaren, who was so excited by "the worst striptease rock act you can imagine" that he followed the group to Paris.

Back in the US, the Dolls album had only sold 110,000 copies but Mercury agreed to pay the Shangri-Las producer George "Shadow" Morton $10,000 to record the follow-up, Too Much Too Soon, in 1974, which included the single "Who are the Mystery Girls?" and a cover of the Cadets' "Stranded in the Jungle". The photographer and film-maker Bob Gruen devised a black-and-white newsreel featuring the Dolls as a gangster gang called the Lipstick Killers and the group burst through the screen to play their legendary St Valentine Day's Massacre concert at the Academy of Music in New York on 15 February.

Three months later, the American rock magazine Creem voted them both the best and worst group of the year but a three-month tour sent Thunders and Nolan into a heroin- dependency spiral from which neither ever truly recovered.

Kane was drinking heavily and stayed in New York while the group soldiered on for the last few dates. At the end of 1974, Malcolm McLaren took over their management and dressed them as red-flag-waving Communists, the ultimate threat to the American way of life but, by then, the bassist was in rehab. He returned for an ill-fated trip to Florida that did for the Dolls.

Johansen and Sylvain both went solo, Thunders and Nolan joined forces in the Heartbreakers and Kane stayed in Florida, drafting Blackie Goozeman (who later took up the pseudonym Lawless as frontman with the heavy metal shock rockers WASP) to form Killer Kane. "I didn't want to go back to New York after the failure of the Dolls," reflected Kane:

It's funny how things change, you can be on top of the world and, 30 seconds later, you're the next big thing and you get swept under. I went to LA for about a year with Killer Kane.

When that group broke up in 1977, Kane teamed up with Rick Rivets in the Corpse Grinders, who wore chalky make-up years before Rob Zombie and recorded one album for the label Fan Club French.

In 1989, Arthur Kane fell from a window and smashed both knees. He was later mugged and beaten up badly during the LA riots and spent several months in hospital. Johnny Thunders died of a drug overdose in 1991, while Jerry Nolan succombed to a fatal stroke in 1992. Arthur Kane toyed with the idea of putting together a supergroup with members of Guns'n'Roses and Hanoi Rocks but had misgivings. "How far would it go?" he asked. "I'm not a teenager any more. Are we going to put all the make-up on and stuff?" Kane (who sometimes wore a tutu in the Seventies) became a Mormon and believed that God was on the side of the Dolls.

On stage, the singer David Johansen might have teased Kane by introducing him as "my spiritual adviser" but, in interviews, he stressed the huge contribution the bassist made to the group:

A lot of the Dolls' sound I attribute to Arthur's bass playing. It made us sound really strange, and different from other rock bands. He couldn't breathe and play at the same time, so he would take a really deep breath, play a lot of notes and then take another deep breath and start playing again.

The photographer Bob Gruen added that Kane, who had leukaemia, died "with a smile on his face".

Pierre Perrone