A little over 10 years ago, a rock & roll miracle happened at London’s Royal Festival Hall: The surviving members of the New York Dolls put aside their vast differences to reunite for their first concert in three decades. To fans of the protopunk icons, the announcement of the show came as an absolute shock. Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders and the group’s drummer Jerry Nolan both passed away in the early 1990s, frontman David Johansen had been pretty clear for years that he had absolutely no interest in any sort of reunion and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane had fallen almost completely off the grid, living in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles and working for the Mormon church at the Family History Library.
The delicate task of putting together the shattered pierces of the New York Dolls fell to Morrissey, curator of the 2004 Meltdown festival and perhaps the most diehard New York Dolls fan on the planet. As a teenager living in Manchester, England, he became the founding member of a New York Dolls fan club and fanatically followed their every move long after the original group imploded in 1975. “The world wasn’t ready for them,” he said in 2004. “It seems to take the pop world 30 years to really understand a group or an artist. Often it takes death within a group and then people say, ‘Ah, yes. We do like those people now that they’re not here.'”
When Morrissey first began plotting his lineup for the 2004 Meltdown festival, his number one goal was to organize a New York Dolls reunion. “I expected David [Johansen] to laugh at me and put the phone down,” he said. “But he was very agreeable and it seemed like now was the right time. He said, ‘Yes, they are great songs.’ I said, ‘Yes, and that’s the reason why you should sing them. That’s the reason why people still want to hear them.'”
Filmmaker Greg Whiteley’s brilliant 2005 documentary New York Doll tells the tale of the reunion from Arthur Kane’s perspective. He’s seen getting his old bass out of a pawn shop, rehearsing with the band in New York, making peace with David Johansen and Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and playing a triumphant two-night stand at Festival Hall.
The group was rounded out for the shows by Libertines drummer Gary Powell, guitarist Steve Conte and keyboardist Brian Koonin. They paid tribute to the late Johnny Thunders by playing his 1978 classic “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Here’s video of that performance, featuring vocals by both Sylvain and Johansen.
Tragically, Kane died of leukemia just 22 days after the shows. He had no idea he was sick. The group carried on and even released three new studio between 2006 and 2011. They toured pretty heavily in those years, but haven’t played a single gig since 2011 and it’s beginning to look like they either quietly broke up again or on an indefinite hiatus. Even if that’s the case, they still had one of the greatest and most unlikely second acts in rock history.