The New York Dolls came to town on Saturday night. I didn’t get a chance to go, but it cause me to reflect on one of the huge missed opportunities of my life.
It was the summer of 1990. I had just finished an essentially wasted year at the University of Utah and decided to return to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California to resume work on my theatre degree. I had gotten a job as the guy in charge of the safety deposit boxes at Wells Fargo Bank in Westwood. The safety deposit boxes were in the basement, and nobody ever came down to visit.
I was mind-numbingly bored.
Once, I stuck a letter opener up my nose and decided to leave it there until somebody came down and noticed me. The thing stayed in my left nostril for a good 45 minutes.
It was at this time that I was attending church in the Westwood Ward, teaching a Sunday School class. I was also assigned as a home teacher to scraggly blonde middle-aged hippie by the name of Arthur Kane.
For those of you unfamiliar with LDS protocol, we do more in church than give blogging instructions to same-sex marriage opponents. We also have a program called Home Teaching, where members of a congregation visit other members once a month to deliver a short gospel message and, more importantly, to assess the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of their fellow Latter-day Saints. This usually involves a visit of a half an hour or so, usually right at the end of the month. It’s been famously said that no congregation has 100% home teaching success, because nobody wants to visit or be visited on Halloween or New Year’s Eve.
I’m kind of a lousy home teacher in the best of circumstances, but this Arthur Kane guy was kind of scary. He was unemployed and lived in public housing on Sunset Boulevard, in a tiny, smelly apartment that he never seemed to leave. I feared for my safety every time I went there, and I felt uncomfortable every time I tried to leave. “Well, it’s been a half hour, so I don’t want to keep you away from the – um, all the, uh, stuff you’re doing…” I essentially read the little message that came out in the Ensign magazine every month, and he listened politely, and then I scurried out of there as fast as I could.
It was on the fourth such visit where Arthur made it plain that he enjoyed my little visits about as much as I did. “Look, you’re a nice enough kid,” he told me, “but this is kind of a waste of time. You really don’t understand where I’m coming from.”
That’s when I found out he was a New York Doll.
The New York Dolls were – and still are, sort of – a rock band born in the early seventies that attracted a lot of attention in music circles. They were on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream when they completely collapsed. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were all huge factors in that happening, but to hear Arthur tell it, it was all David Johansen’s fault.
David Johansen was the group’s lead singer, and after the Dolls broke up, he went on to fame and fortune as a film actor as well as a singer, using the alter ego Buster Poindexter. Arthur, in contrast, collapsed into depression, obscurity, and poverty, all the while seething with resentment. Everything that had gone wrong in his life since 1975 was because of David Johansen.
I wish I could say I formed a deep and lasting bond with this guy, and that our story had something of a happy ending. But that never really happened. I stayed as home teacher for a year or two before attending a different ward and leaving him behind.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized what my apathy had cost me.
In 2005, Arthur was the subject of a documentary called New York Doll, which chronicled his life as a rock star, his subsequent collapse, and his conversion to Mormonism. It did so with the backdrop of a one-off New York Dolls reunion at Royal Albert Hall in London, which required Arthur and David Johansen to not only be in the same room at the same time, but to make music together, too.
The movie is a revelation, juxtaposing Arthur’s day-to-day mundanity as a volunteer at the Los Angeles Family History Library with the exotic world of rock-and-roll from which he came. You realize just how much this guy had to overcome, and you rejoice as he gets one last moment in the spotlight. And then your heart breaks at the end when… well, see the movie. It’s worth your time.
Your life will be enriched if you’re willing to pay more attention to Arthur Kane than I did.