Arthur Kane and his best friend, George Fedorcik formed a band at high school in New York. Fedorcik adopted the alias Rick Rivets and he and Kane approached a young hip-looking guy they kept bumping into and asked if he wanted to be in a band. The guy was called Johnny Genzale, and he was to become Johnny Thunders courtesy of a 20-cent DC comic book.
Rehearsals began with drummer Billy Murcia and Mick Jagger-like singer David Johansen, and The New York Dolls made their debut on Christmas Eve, 1971.
When Rivets began missing rehearsals he was replaced by the guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (real name Ronald Mizrahi), who had previously played with Murcia in a trio called The Box.
From the beginning, The Dolls were determined to be outrageous and wild, adopting platform boots, jumpsuits, hot pants and leather long before the general populace caught up.
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 scene-makers like Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, John Cale 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 travelled 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 on 6 November 1972 of the drummer, Billy Murcia.
Murcia suffocated on black coffee poured down his throat by a girlfriend attempting to keep him awake after a drink and drugs binge (and not, as widely believed, from a drug overdose). The official verdict ruled that death was from drowning in a domestic bath while under the influence of alcohol and methaqualone.
The band had been on the verge of signing to a British label but returned to New York – though they resumed gigging in December 1972 with Jerry Nolan as the drummer.
The following March, they finally signed a two-album deal with Mercury Records and began recording their eponymous debut, with Todd Rundgren producing. The band were often at loggerheads with Rundgren, who nevertheless managed to capture the sass and swagger of Trash, Personality Crisis, Looking For A Kiss and Frankenstein.
Released in July 1973, New York Dolls was a proto-punk revelation, a way cool schlock of visceral rock & roll which combined the more essential moments of The MC5, The Pretty Things and The Shangri-La’s.
The Rolling Stones were another obvious reference point, with Johansen a dead-ringer for Mick Jagger both in vocal style and mascara’d looks – Inevitably, Johnny Thunders was the glam-punk Keith Richards.
The Dolls’ trashy transvestite attire also borrowed heavily from The Stones circa 1966, although being American, they had taken it to almost cartoonish proportions.
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 him, although Kane toured with the band anyway to stay away from trouble. In November, they visited Britain again and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, attracting the disapproval of presenter “Whispering” Bob Harris – who dismissed them on air as “mock rock” – but lighting the slow-burning fuse of punk.
Dolls’ songs like Personality Crisis, Trash and Jet Boy were seminal squalls of guitar abuse, making up in attitude what they lacked in musical ability, but meanwhile – back in America – the Dolls album had only sold 110,000 copies.
Mercury agreed to pay The Shangri-La’s producer George ‘Shadow’ Morton $10,000 to produce the follow-up LP, 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.
Photographer and film-maker Bob Gruen devised a black & 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-long 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 a time when, more than ever, the Dolls needed direction, their manager, Marty Thau, quit.
At the end of 1974, British entrepreneur 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, their bassist was in rehab. He returned for a disastrous trip to Florida that effectively did for The Dolls.
Thunders was the first to leave, departing in 1975 to form The Heartbreakers, while Johansen and Sylvain subsequently sacked Kane before finally calling it a day the following Christmas.
Thunders and Nolan joined forces in The Heartbreakers, and Kane stayed in Florida, drafting Blackie Goozeman (who later adopted the pseudonym ‘Lawless’ as frontman with the heavy metal shock rockers W.A.S.P) to form Killer Kane. When that group broke up in 1977, Kane teamed up with Rick Rivets in The Corpse Grinders, who wore chalky makeup 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 his knees. He was later mugged and beaten up badly with a baseball bat during the LA riots and spent several months in hospital.
Diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia and debilitated from drug use, Johnny Thunders died alone under suspicious circumstances in a New Orleans hotel room on 23 April 1991. He was 38.
Jerry Nolan succumbed to a fatal stroke on 14 January 1992 while undergoing treatment in a New York hospital for bacterial meningitis and pneumonia. He was only 45.
Kane developed leukaemia and died in Los Angeles on 13 July 2004, just hours after being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital with what he thought was the flu. He was 55.
Sylvain Sylvain passed away on 13 January 2021 after a 2½ year battle with cancer. He was 69.
Arthur “Killer” Kane