"You gotta understand, people didn't want to work with us. They all thought they were going to catch something. ...Things were different in those days. People were a lot less evolved." (David Johansen, former New York Dolls singer, summarizing industry reactions to the band, Esquire, "Why Aren't The New York Dolls In The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame?", 7/13)
"We were in wild places. So we had to be more wild than the kids in the audience, which was good because we were really crazy. . . The whole dance floor was covered with these amazing maniacs. We were their band." (David Johansen, on those "who got it," obituary for Arthur "Killer" Kane, Daily Telegraph, 7/16/04)
"I was also delighted that someone who looked as good as Jerry Nolan could actually play THAT WELL, because drummers weren’t generally thought to be either good-looking or interesting." (Morrissey, Louder Than War interview with Nina Antonia, 1/12/15)
With quotes like these, who needs a press agent? For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of combing the Web for such comments is the all-or-nothing aura that surrounds them, one that pervaded the Dolls' all-too-brief existence, and...in practical terms...also hung over the ex-members' various second musical acts. Jerry Nolan, who followed Johnny Thunders' careening guitar style into the Heartbreakers, was no exception.
Nobody, it seemed, could simply shrug their shoulders, and dismiss the band's outrageous rationale for existence with a wink, and a shrug: "Ah, the Dolls are in town? Meh, I can take them or leave them. No problem, either way." For all the ink spilled about freewheeling, decadent '70s, it's equally easy to forget how much of a stodgily conservative streak dogged that most combustive of the creative arts: rock 'n' roll.
It's the reason why then-Columbia record mogul Clive Davis warned Lisa Robinson not to take the Dolls uptown, if she wanted to keep working in the music business, as Steven Blush documents in his book, New York Rock: From Rise Of The Velvet Underground To The Fall of CBGB. And, not all of those reactions can simply be chalked up to good old-fashioned homophobia, as photographer Bob Gruen presciently told the author: "To say the Dolls, guys who wore makeup, were your friends was like saying you knew a criminal."
However, those implosive qualities also found darker outlets, and not only in substance abuse, like so many writers (myself included) have documented -- and, as Curt Weiss discovered, in researching his biography of Jerry, where we begin the final installment of our conversation.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): I remember the Lester Bangs article, because it addressed an issue [racism in the punk scene] that few people seemed willing to talk about. How much of a problem were these issues [in the scene] and how did they affect what you wrote about Jerry?
CURT WEISS (CW): Well, yeah. Racism is America’s original sin, and white people really don’t like to talk about racism. It kept coming up. I think there were seven people that went on the record. If it was just one person, I would have just said, “It’s just one stupid thing, what the hell?”
There were more off the record, and since the book came out, people have come back to me: “Yeah, he used to say these kind of things.” I have to be careful, because it sounds like I’m “whitesplaining,” trying to make excuses, and I’m not.
I’m trying to put it into context, and understand it. 'Cause, at the same time, his dearest friend was Buddy Bowser, I mean, till the day he died…
CR: Right. Who was black.
CW: Right. And he was dear, dear friends with Barry Jones. To this day, Barry says, “I love Jerry” – but at the same time, credits him for keeping him out of the Sid Vicious band, and a piece of that was, because he was black.
Barry Jones talks about interviews they did, when he was backing Johnny, in late ’86, or early ’87. They’d get to some town, and Johnny says, “Hey, I got a,” he uses the N-word, “...in my band.” Barry says, “I just wanted to kill him at that time.” A piece of this was being provocative, I think. Just like Keith Moon wearing a Nazi outfit. Keith Moon wasn’t a Nazi.
CW: It was just about, “What can I do to upset my parents, upset the status quo?” With Johnny and Jerry, it was, what would really upset hippies, and the previous generation. It was also like a street gang thing: “They’re not in my gang, they’re in another gang.”
CR: Right. And therefore, the line is drawn, and they can’t cross it.
CW: I think so. There’s a Lenny Bruce piece of it: “I’m going to throw this at you, and challenge you to rethink things.” I don’t think they intellectualized it that much.
CW: But this is who he [Jerry] was, and who a lot of people were. Lester, in the article, talks about how he would say the N-word – and it wasn't until Ivan Julian said to him, “You know, that does burn when you say that.”
And he had to [acknowledge], “OK, I can't say that anymore. I can't do that anymore. I can’t say that now.” I was trying to get people to understand what it was like then, what Jerry was like then.
CW: To flip it around, what if I had ignored it? What if I’d ignored that seven people went on record about an issue that is a big issue – racism’s a big issue. So, it stands. I know it upsets people.
Again, I can’t forgive or solve racism. I can just say, “This is where it was, so maybe we can move forward, and correct ourselves.” So that’s why it’s there. That’s what happened. We'll leave it at that.
“PEOPLE DO GO ON”
CW: So, the next million-dollar question: why didn’t Jerry get better? He was an addict, and he had enablers around him. But also, people [said], “Oh, you’re on methadone, so you’re not an addict,” and that’s not true. He may not have had the physical addiction, but he still had the psychological addictions. Because he would take methadone first thing in the morning, so he wouldn’t go into withdrawal, then, he’d spend the rest of the day trying to cop, because he still wanted to get high.
Whatever getting high did for him, he still needed to meet that need. And once he found out he was HIV positive, it all went out the window. I think he just thought that he was a ticking time bomb, and why bother?
CR: Yeah. Especially toward the end of his life, right?
CW: Oh, yeah. But you talk about the self-sabotage. I think he was emotionally wounded. Several girlfriends bring that up. You know, when the Dolls broke up, he was 29, and in rock 'n' roll terms, you're an old man. Then, when the Heartbreakers broke up, he was in his early thirties, and there was a part of him that was ashamed of becoming an addict.
CR: So, in that sense, he didn’t have a chance.
CW: No. He never had a chance. I think he was blinded by it [his addiction]: “Oh, man, I never get sick, 'cause I'm high...” The delusions they have, and they want to surround themselves with addicts who just feed those delusions, and enable those delusions.
CR: Hence, that infamous thing of the  Australian tour, where they want to get rid of [bassist] Glen [Matlock], the only drinker, and non-junkie, right?
CW: Yeah. “He doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit.” Barry’s realizing, years later...I mean, Barry's been clean and sober for 25 years. He said, “How absurd, how ridiculous, that we would think such a thing.”
CR: So, [Question] Number 10...
CW: Assuming he hadn’t died, could he have overcome his physical problems? I guess, if he had never gotten HIV positive, and gotten clean and sober. I mean, people do go on, and still tour. Jerry would have been 70 by now.
CR: Assuming he could have gotten a grip on his addiction, it’s possible he could be working today, I suppose, right?
CW: Yeah, or happily retired in New York, living with Phyllis. I mean, AIDS – not only did it decimate the gay community, but it got a lot of people like Jerry, too. So, yes, him and Johnny, that would have been interesting, to see them in their sixties. Wow. And maybe making a good record together.
CR: Yeah, I think so. So when all’s said and done, what is Jerry Nolan’s legacy? What did he accomplish, and what can folks learn from his life story?
CW: Well, his was a return to a simpler drumming style. I mentioned Paul Cook, and Tommy Ramone, and people like that, who set a new template, going forward: song-oriented drumming, swing, drive.
There was a ‘50s thing that he brought – he was more into a ‘50s [style], a Dion & The Belmonts kind of thing. So when you think about the rockabilly revival, it was a pre-Beatles music, and Jerry had a lot to do with bringing that focus to music.
Performances that I would pick out? There’s something about “Baby Talk,” even though a lot of it's stolen from that Yardbirds song. You’ve got the drive. You’ve got bits of Gene Krupa in there, which we didn’t mention. But it's a simple, punk, 2/4 on the snare thing. That's a really great performance. I always enjoy listening to that.
CR: Okay. What else?
CW: You know what’s great? Again, one that people usually don’t go to, the Red Patent Leather stuff, which I think is really underrated.
The song, “Red Patent Leather,” where there's three or four styles – if you analyze it, there's a complexity to it. But it flows so beautifully. It really is a level of drumming that few people can do. Again, he doesn’t get enough credit for that kind of stuff.
That's a record people should go back to. I mean, again, just like a lot of the Dolls and the Heartbreakers, it’s terribly recorded – it’s like a board tape. It could have been a great third Dolls record. Really could have been, because Johansen's first [solo] record has, maybe three of those songs, and Sylvain recorded a few of those, and the Heartbreakers did a few of those.
Again, if they had gotten a trusted producer, and had a little bit of discipline, you think about could have been, so…I guess we'll have to leave it there, you know?
Curt Weiss: https://www.facebook.com/curtweissauthor/
Stranded In The Jungle: https://curtweiss.com/book/
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING (For more blurbs, links and reviews, see "Media" section at:
"Author Curt Weiss knows of what he speaks, having worked as a drummer himself..." (Lisa Torem, "Raging Pages," PennyBlackMusic.co.uk, 8/18)
“…a worthy addition to punk lore." (James Mann, THE BIG TAKEOVER #82, 6/18)
“Weiss tells the story succinctly, bolstered by first-hand interviews from bandmates, family and girlfriends, analyzing Nolan’s most dazzling moves and non-judgementally recounting the addiction that persisted…”
(Kris Needs, RECORD COLLECTOR, 4/18)
"...Weiss's tale is harrowingly essential." (John Colpitts, MODERN DRUMMER, 4/18)
“…Curt…is to be applauded for not pulling his punches…” (Dave Thompson, GOLDMINE, 2/08/18)
"Weiss is careful to let Nolan’s times and events and those who were there paint the overall picture of his life and influence. Hero worship and whitewash have no place in Stranded in the Jungle, and it’s gratifying to see such a strong work on one of the most underrated and tragic figures in rock and roll." (Marc Covert, smokebox.net, 2/01/18)
"...really well done. Recommended!" (Blondie drummer, Clem Burke, 12/4/17 Tweet)
"Curt 'Lewis King' Weiss definitely put his research work in, and the result is a comprehensive and enlightening read on Jerry Nolan, whose drumming with the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers put him actively in the eye of the New York punk storm since the very beginning." (Adrian Salas, RAZORCAKE,
"This is the book you want. It’s filled with info and insights, it’s got plentiful tales that reinforce the importance we put on those times and people. It does it’s job making you see the value and contribution of Jerry Nolan and ultimately makes you feel the weight of loss with his death." (Blowfish, www.bostongroupienews.com)
"Well-written and painstakingly researched, “Stranded” presents Nolan as a complex and layered character, while exploring his technique and approach to drumming." (Puma Perl, chelseanow.com, 10/31/17)
“Coming into this reading with a completely open mind, I can say this from the research and writing point of view and style, Mr. Weiss is a damned fine writer. There’s none of the deifications that writers tend to do when writing about a “hero” of theirs; it’s objective, fact-filled – painstakingly researched and simply fascinating…” (Rob Ross, Popdose, 9/27/17)