“The New York Dolls are the new Rolling Stones.”
“Dolls are the best New York City band in a decade. Dolls are kings of the scene; Dolls are young; Dolls are a consciousness-raising band; Dolls’ scene is nice, friendly, a phenomenon infinitely more pleasurable than the uptight muttering about the sum of its parts.” –The Village Voice, 1972
“There was nothing else like the Dolls at the time, which was really cool. It was about playing with complete abandon and being as shocking as you possibly can." --Jack Douglas, producer, engineer on New York Dolls (1973), explaining the band's appeal
"For the record, the following is not an opinion expressed, but a fact stated:
"The New York Dolls are one of the four Fathers/Mothers of punk, along with The Who, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges. Their first child... The Ramones.
"Four outta five of these bands are already in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame." --Guitarist Binky Philips (The Planets), "December 19th, 1972: Me, Opening for the New York Dolls 40 (!) Years Ago" (The Huffington Post, February 20, 2013)
They may be gone, but the name lives on. For any discerning music fan, the New York Dolls are required listening, though few bands are so mythologized, yet so misunderstood -- as exemplified by their finish in CREEM's 1973 reader's poll as Best and (!) Worst Band. A look at the year's Top Ten albums sheds some light on that issue, with opuses by the usual suspects (Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) sharing space with less likely visitors (Carly Simon, Seals & Crofts, War). If these results sound confusing, well, it was a confusing time. That's how I remember it, anyhow.
Behind the cartoon glam imagery, however, and constant debate about their musical intentions and talents, lay a surprising degree of purpose, as the late bassist, Arthur Kane, informed the Beaver County Times, in February 1974: "We care nothing about technicalities. We don’t wear our instruments in a holster. This is strictly party, and don’t bother coming if you want to get involved.”
Jerry Nolan only needed three words to outline how he saw the band's mission: "It's a job." That meant doing whatever it took to get the crowd going, and keep their attention, reflecting the skills he'd honed over a decade or more of playing. Without his drive and innovation behind the kit, the Dolls might never have made the leap to their eternal almost-superstar, ever-underdog status -- which is where Curt Weiss and I start part two of our in-depth look at his new biography, Stranded In The Jungle.
“HE WAS IN COMMAND”
CR: What made Jerry the right drummer for the Dolls, and the other bands he played with? Again and again, you hear, “He made us a better band.” How did he achieve that?
CW: With the Dolls – the one thing they were missing is some musical professionalism. And Jerry, particularly compared to those four guys, had it in spades. He had played so many styles of music, all the clubs in New York, with so many bands. And he knew their music.
Compared to Billy – who they loved, because he grew up with them – Jerry could play with drive, and with swing, and with confidence, which Billy just didn’t have. When they heard themselves being driven by Jerry, I think they were startled at how good they could sound.
He had a lot of confidence when he played the drums, Jerry. He could really drive a band like a big band drummer. If you remember, big band drummers, you had literally 20 guys behind you, of horns, just wailing away. To be heard above that, you had to hit those drums hard, and you had to be in command.
That’s what Jerry was. He was in command, you had to follow him, and that’s the way he played. But he had that swing, also. He wasn’t machine-like.
CR: He wasn’t just a Mongolian tom tom pounder.
CW: No, not at all. People are mistaken in thinking that he was just some sort of lunk-headed punk drummer. There was a lot of nuance to what he did. As much as he could be a jazz drummer, and create on the spot, he was very deliberate about what he did.
Which meant, he took the music very seriously, and the song very seriously. That’s what benefited the Dolls, it’s what benefited the Heartbreakers, ‘cause Thunders – whatever greatness Thunders had, he was not a controlled being. He was out of control, and Jerry would try to control it, particularly onstage. He controlled the set. He controlled the setlist. He would try to draw Johnny back in. His [later] disillusionment with Johnny had a lot to do with Johnny's uncontrollable-ness on stage, which had to do with his addiction.
CR: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of ironic to read – he found that more off-putting, it seemed, than a lot of people. For that matter, even the people who paid to see that.
CW: Yeah, well, Jerry was ashamed of being a junkie. At his core, he was ashamed of what he’d become.
CW: And Johnny was the opposite. He had hypodermic needles in his hat, and he would trip over himself coming onstage, and Jerry would say, “You don’t have to be like that. It’s sloppy. You don’t need to be like that.” There was a point where he just said, “Screw you. I’m doing this without you.”
But he loved when Johnny would come crawling back. [laughs] He liked to show that to Johnny: “I was right. Now you gotta listen to me.” But Johnny would abandon him again, you know – over and over.
“WHY DIDN'T THEY PULL IT OFF?”
CR: Yeah. For sure, we’ll get to that in a sec here, I think, but – to our next question, then?
CW: Yeah. The Dolls seemed poised for the national breakout…
CR: And yet...
CW: Why didn't they pull it off? Besides being too effeminate, they were so raw and undisciplined. That was a little much for people to take, listeners to take. Their ear was not attuned to it yet.
You compare them to Bowie – why could Bowie pull it off? Remember, Bowie never got American radio play until Young Americans. That was a different Bowie – it wasn’t as effeminate. He looked more like an entertainer.
CR: Well, and it could be argued, too, his [Bowie's] band, the Spiders From Mars, were more professional, or, at least sounding more like what people were used to hearing at the time.
CW: Oh, Mick Ronson. Particularly, yeah. Mick Ronson was well-trained. His skills as an arranger and as a musician were far beyond what the Dolls could have imagined – just imagine, if Mick Ronson had produced the Dolls, or if Bowie had produced the Dolls. Or somebody like Chris Thomas – Chris Thomas did the [Sex] Pistols album.
CW: To have professionals like that, who took so much care – that really would have made a big difference with the Dolls. But it was not to be. It was not to be. They were too far ahead of their time.
CR: For sure. Leading into Number Six...in purely commercial terms, Jerry did get a second chance, with the Heartbreakers – and, arguably, a third, with the band you were in, the Rockats. But he couldn’t capitalize, though the goal of “making it” was obviously so important to him. Why not?
CW: It was. Well, he was a stubborn addict. People say he was a heroin addict, which is true, but from what Walter told me, and others – he was really more a methadone addict. That doesn't so much make you high, it just kind of makes you prickly. He just was a very impatient guy, and he could be difficult to get along with on the road – plus, he would just disappear, to cop.
CW: You just didn’t want to put up with traveling around the country, particularly, if you wanted to cross borders, knowing that this guy is probably carrying, and has works with him. You’re gonna get in a lot of trouble.
And he wouldn’t show up to a gig, and he’s gonna be in jail, or you can't find him – finally, at the end [of the Rockats US tour], they had to fly him back to New York, because he couldn't hack it anymore. Who wants to put up with that? You're trying to become successful.
“THEY NEVER GOT OVER IT”
And Johnny and Jerry, they didn’t wanna listen to anybody. They fed each other's worst inclinations. Years later, they talked to David about it [getting back together], and he just said, “Who could put up with that?” And it really plagued Johnny and Jerry, till the end of their lives. They never got over it. They never got beyond it.
CR: And, in a sense, they paid for it at the box office, because, basically – after the Dolls – Johnny never again had an American record label backing him.
CW: No. No. He never did, but if he did, it was a tiny one. But I think they were all British labels.
CR: Right. Although, as you mentioned – in Johnny’s case, he seemed to rely on Jerry more for the live stuff, than the studio side of things.
CW: I think Barry Jones pointed this out. Johnny would just go for the money, he'd get some record deal, and if he didn't have Jerry, he could keep most of it, and just kind of play whatever the producer wanted.
CR: You make a very interesting point. Throughout his career, it seemed like Jerry was unhappy with the way he was represented in the studio, and yet, he never apparently developed the vocabulary to try to communicate that, to get a different outcome.
CW: No, he didn’t. A piece of it was, he didn’t trust authority figures. But he also had to face the fact there were things he didn’t know. That was a step too far for him to make.
Smart people know they don’t know everything, and they hire people – like, John Bonham had Glyn Johns, or Ringo had Geoff Emerick – somebody they could really trust, and knew what they were doing. Jerry just didn't do that. I don't think he had a good drum sound till the Idols, really.
I mean, people talk about LAMF, and say, “Oh, it was the mastering.” Maybe there was an issue with the mastering, but the drums really sound like shit. A piece of why they sound like shit is that Jerry did not tune them well, or what he heard in his mind, what he was trying to get, he could not communicate to the engineers and producers, and they did not work as a team to achieve that. It was just a fight, the whole time. Just everything that could go wrong – the endless overdubs, the playing at outrageous volumes.
CR: Jerry didn’t write many songs, but – judging by the handful that he did – he had a good grasp of melody and arrangement. Why didn’t he do more?
CW: He needed a good partner. Walter was the best partner he had. Walter knew that he was the new guy in the group, and was willing to do anything Johnny or Jerry asked him, at that time.
There are a handful of songs – I note them in the book – where Jerry would have a hook, a chorus, or a riff, and Walter would write the remainder of the song. But they formed a Lennon and McCartney [type of] partnership, so to speak, where Jerry got half the credit. But, yeah, Walter was a great partner. I don’t think he ever had as strong a partner.
He [Jerry] was a really good arranger. I heard that from the Ugly Americans, from the Rockats, from the Plug Uglies. Again, people think he's just the drummer, going boom-bang in the back. Besides his skills as a band stylist, his skills as an arranger were really powerful.
And Johnny? Walter said the same thing, you couldn't really sit down and write with Johnny. Particularly, Johnny was undisciplined, and Jerry had his social inadequacies. And they were outrageous, unrepentant addicts…
CW: But they really loved the music, and were passionate about the music, and people shouldn’t forget that. It wasn’t just about having a party, getting high, and wearing cool clothes. So, your next question…
COMING IN PART THREE: A look at the last years, Jerry's musical legacy, and what makes him -- then and now -- a drummer who warrants more extensive musical study and listening time.