Spring, 1990. I'm living and working in London, realizing a dream that's been percolating since college, when I started reading the music rags – Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds – and mags like Kerrang!, all of which struck me as far more witty and irreverent than the verbiage churned out over here (except CREEM).
Though I haven't achieved my other dream – as in, actually writing for these rags – I am playing bass in a punky garage band (The Vagrants), and going to live shows, typically two to four a week. Imagine my excitement when I find that one of my musical heroes – Johnny Thunders, one of the most implosive, combustive guitarists to stalk the planet – is hitting the Marquee.
I'd counted myself a fan since So Alone (1978), which I bought – on import – at the local mall, where the likes of Styx, Foreigner and Loverboy reigned supreme. Saying you liked Thunders, or his former bands – the New York Dolls, and the Heartbreakers – often triggered puzzled stares (“Who?”), or redneck pushback (“He looks like a chick, what you need that stuff for?”).
At any rate, I still have my copy of So Alone, and rank it among my all-time favorite records. Though I hadn't brought it with me, I figured that I'd grab a flyer, or maybe try and have him sign my ticket stub.
My mind was brimming with all sorts of backstage scenarios, until a couple weeks later...
...when I found out he'd canceled, because he was sick. Or so they said. But that must have been the case, because he came back in May 1990, and made up the date. Which did me no good, since I'd already returned to the States.
As anecdotes like these suggest, being a fan of Thunders and his bands took plenty of dedication – though only the more committed were acquainted with the power behind the riser, Jerry Nolan (1946-1992), whose drumming style, life and legacy are getting a greatly-overdue look in Curt Weiss's new book, Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan's Wild Ride - A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock (Backbeat Books).
In 320 pages, Weiss takes us from Nolan's Oklahoma beginnings, and all his major bands, before ending with his tragic death at 45 – less than a year after Thunders's own untimely demise – after suffering three strokes that leave him unable to move, or even speak.
The story that emerges is, by turns, inspiring – notably, when Nolan joins a grief-stricken Dolls, reeling from original drummer Billy Murcia's death, and helps them regroup musically – and depressing, although his lifelong (mostly losing) bouts with addiction are just one reason. Racism stalks the narrative, as well as physical abuse and manipulation (particularly women).
The nitty-gritty details of these sins recalls Ian Hunter's truism: “Trust the message, not the messenger.” Even so, Stranded In The Jungle is a timely reminder why we still celebrate the message, in general – and the Dolls, in particular.
Nolan summed it up in his typically succinct fashion for the Beaver County Times, in February 1974 (“The New York Dolls: More Than A Band”): “We want to make a living and a future. We're entertainers. We're the hosts, we'll entertain you.”
Frontman David Johansen pinpointed an equally compelling reason for the New York Times (July 23, 2006): “Our total attitude towards art was, like, get up and do something -- quit sitting there whining. That's what we stood for, that do-something spirit."
With those thoughts in mind, it only seemed natural to reach out to Curt, and find out what drove him to write Stranded In The Jungle -- among many other topics that we explored during our 75-minute phone conversation (7/05/18).
“THEN, I GOT IT”
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Start with the million dollar question: why write about Jerry? Because he’s not necessarily a guy the general public would really know.
CURT WEISS (CW): Well, he was in two of the most influential bands of their time – the Dolls, and the Heartbreakers – if you look at that 20-year period, from’72 to ’92, they really were as influential as anybody. They influenced all the great bands that came out of New York and CBGB’s – Television, Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.
All of them got something from the Dolls, and the first wave of British punk bands, [like] the [Sex] Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned. Then, the next wave, like the Undertones – out of Ireland – and even in the ‘80s, [with] the Replacements, and the Smiths.
Then you’ve got the glam metal, like, Guns ‘N’ Roses – there's nothing, almost, as influential as the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. And a big piece of that was Jerry, his style of playing.
You can hear it in Paul Cook, and Tommy Ramone, the way that he stripped things down to the most elemental. Even Clem Burke – to him, besides Keith Moon, it was [also about listening to] Jerry Nolan.
The Rock ‘n’ Hall of Fame, with all its faults, it’s still the closest thing we have to a Mount Rushmore of rock ‘n’ roll. The Dolls and the Heartbreakers deserve to be in there. So I think that needed to be appreciated. I had met him a couple of times…
CR: I was a drummer. I saw the Beatles on TV when I was four, and that blew my mind. I wanted to be Ringo for years. But there was something about seeing Jerry – close up, around 1980 – and I said, “Now I understand.”
Because people had been saying to me, “He’s the best drummer in New York.” And LAMF just sounded so raw, and the Dolls’ records sounded so raw, and badly recorded. I didn’t quite get it. Then, I saw him close up, and then, I got it.
CR: Right. As you say in your afterword: “Okay. This is what he means.”
CW [laughs]: “Yeah. This is what people mean.” Now I understood it.
CR: Critiques aside, getting into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is considered one of the ultimate validations, so…
CW: Oh, definitely. Obviously, like the Velvets, they [the Dolls] didn’t sell a lot of records, but they influenced so many people.
Really, outside of New York, they didn’t cause a stir. A little stir in L.A., but there were these pockets around the country, and all those people – like The Dead Boys, The Cramps – that just got so into it. They were like these pied pipers. The Ramones were the next set of pied pipers, or Johnny Appleseeds, going around there.
CR: Because the attraction of the Dolls was that they [audiences] did not know what they were going to do or say next.
CW: Yeah, and it was this strange mix of New York – you had some of the Warhol scene, bits of the gay scene, bits of the glam scene, and underground rock. I think Richard Hell called them “an inept Rolling Stones.”
There’s [also] bits of the ‘50s in there, bits of a lost rock ‘n’ roll, like, a Little Richard sort of thing. People found that very exciting, and it was very sexual.
CR: And they were very R&B-oriented, which is something that not a lot of people at the time were necessarily trafficking in.
CW: If they did, it came off like boogie, like the Allman Brothers, or Savoy Brown, or something like that – it didn’t sound exciting anymore. It just sounded like old people, you know? Or long-haired people, as much as we all did have long hair. I think Johansen called them, “the denim bedraggled.” The Dolls didn’t wanna be that.
CR: Exactly. Well, it was much more stylin’, of course.
CW: Yeah, it was style, but it reflected who they were. Syl talks about, they would take hours just to leave the apartment, because he just didn’t wanna go out just being a nothing. It reflected something new, and you rebelled against the previous generation. They were so much of that. They were exciting, there were people that saw that.
“INNOVATORS ARE OFTEN LIKE THAT”
CR: For the people who struggled with it, it was a struggle – but people who liked them picked up on them really fast.
CW: Yeah, people saw the Dolls on that first record cover, and said, “These guys look gay, or they dress like women, and that’s it. I cannot give the music a try.”
Of course, if they did hear the music, it’d just sound a little too raw, and out of tune. They just couldn’t give it that extra effort, and so, they were victims of that [thinking]. They were two or three years just too early. Innovators are often like that, sadly enough.
CR: For sure. Researching Jerry’s life, what challenges did you encounter, and how did we work through them?
CW: Well, the quickest way to research was books and articles, and what I couldn’t find from books and articles, I would do interviews, and vice versa, really – there people that didn’t wanna talk. Bette Midler didn't wanna talk, Steve Jones didn’t wanna talk.
CR: Oh, you went through some experience with Nina, from the articles that I read. She wasn’t really too cool with it, either, at a certain point.
CW: At first, she was very supportive. She sent me a number of articles that were lost from smaller magazines, and they weren’t on the Internet. I had sent her – I had some bootleg Thunders stuff, and we traded a lot of e-mails. She cared about Jerry, and was glad that somebody was trying to keep the legacy alive.
And then, a few years in…I was first approaching this as an oral history, and sent her some stuff from ’79-’80. Jerry’s addiction was really overwhelming at that point. I think she was kind of shocked, at some of the things I had…I'd sensed this from other people, too: they wanted to see Jerry as a noble hero.
And there was a side of Jerry who was very loyal. A good friend, funny, and innovative, and all those things. But there was another part of him that was a duplicitous drug addict.
CW: He could use people, take advantage of people, and lie to people. And some people don’t like seeing that. It makes them have to rethink their own relationship with Jerry. And Jerry hid a lot from people. He had a lot of self-esteem issues, confidence issues. That’s so much of why clothing and style was so important to him, because he was able to recreate a Jerry Nolan that didn’t really exist. And it was hurtful, I think, for some people to admit that.
But I would say, some of the biggest obstacles? Bette Midler didn’t wanna talk, Debbie Harry didn’t wanna talk. She was very sweet, when I met her, but she wouldn’t do an official sit down. Mick Jones didn’t wanna talk.
CR: Right, and I guess Phyllis [Stein] didn’t either, right?
CW: She didn’t wanna go on the record.
CR: Because she would have been really crucial for a lot of the last couple years of his life?
CW: Yeah. I had my sources, nonetheless. You’ll see a lot about her, and that period. But Jerry’s mom, Charlotte, was fascinating. Even if I had to take some of what she said with a grain of salt. And Jerry’s ex-wife, Charlotte.
CR: From Sweden.
CW: Yeah. Who also let me come over there, and just dive through all these storage units, just filled with stuff. She was great. I think she had three storage units.
“HE WAS VERY ARTISTIC”
CW: Because she had these fascinating things, like these little boxes Jerry would buy. He would decorate them, as well as put all his sewing tools in them, the buttons, and snaps, and things like that. He would organize and collect them in there. He was very artistic.
CR: Yeah, he was very creative, in that way.
CW: Very creative, yeah, so I got to see all that kind of stuff.
CR: Who was really crucial to your understanding of him, especially in the pre-Dolls era – which I’d not heard much about, till your book came out, at least.`
CW: Obviously, I had to cover his whole life, from beginning to end. But I was interested in what made him him. His first major girlfriend, Corinne, from ’62 to ’72 – she was fascinating.
As well as the people in that band, Cradle. As well as a lot of the people in the smaller bands – it would have been great to have Steve Jones, and Mick Jones, from the Clash.
But Joe and Simon from the Daughters, who backed Thunders, like, ’81, ’2, ’3, and played with Jerry around that time, they were great. And [guitarists] Steve [Dior] and Barry [Jones], from the Idols.
CR: Yeah, he [Barry] had a lot of great quotes in there.
CW: Oh, yeah. They were fantastic. And Nancy Quatro. People like Greg and Vinny from the Plug Uglies, and the people in the Ugly Americans –
CR: From that period.
CW: Yeah – there was the band Shaker, so it was Gregor, and Art. They were just great, because they lived and struggled with Jerry. So they would get to see a real Jerry – like Peter Jordan, the Dolls' roadie, who also played bass. And Buddy Bowser, what a character Buddy was. Because Buddy goes back to, when he [Jerry] was 15, 16 years old, on the Army bases in Oklahoma.
I would have liked more time with David Johansen, but he just finally said, “All right. I’ll answer a couple questions through email.” I think they were both two-part questions, so I cheated a bit. But he was great. I loved what he wrote. You know, Leee [Black] Childers was great. You had also asked, what were the surprises?
CR: Yeah, I interviewed him a couple times for my own Dolls story [for DISCOveries, in 2000]. He was great.
CW: Oh, Leee loved to tell stories. Leee loved to talk. He was so much fun. When I was in the Rockats, he had first managed them, when they were Levi & The Rockats. Though they had split, he would still come to shows, I would see him, and he was always really sweet and funny. But I didn’t realize how much Leee hated Jerry, the deep divisions and issues they had.
For years in the ‘80s, he wouldn’t talk about Jerry, and I interviewed Lee three times through the years. By the last interview, he had, maybe a self-realization, that he and Jerry really loved each other. I don’t mean in a sexual way.
He said, “Look, those last six months between Johnny’s death, and Jerry’s death” – where Jerry confided in him, and realized that without Johnny, they didn’t have to compete anymore for Johnny’s attention. They could just focus on each other, and they had been through the wars together.
I think Jerry realized that Leee really was looking out for his best interests, and particularly because Jerry knew, he was HIV positive, that he was sick, Leee was someone he could confide in, and who understood him, to a degree maybe that others didn’t.
People think addiction is the issue. And it is an issue, but addiction is a reflection of something else, a manifestation of something else. What is that something else? Often, particularly with intravenous drug addicts, it’s almost always trauma as a child.
The traditional traumas are physical and sexual abuse, but with Jerry, and so many others in the scene, it was really abandonment. Johnny never knew his father.
Jerry really never knew his real father. And two ex-father figures left him and abandoned him. Richard Hell’s dad died suddenly, when he was 10. The guys in the Idols, who were addicts – one never knew his father, one was given up for adoption. I mean, you see this over and over.
So, understanding more about that in Jerry, and knowing that he never really got any validation or recognition from people outside of his mother, I think, until he started to play the drums. And so, those were kind of the surprises…
CR: That came out of your research.
CW: Yeah, and some people think, maybe I’m being tough on Jerry. I had to tell the truth in the book. But I think of him as a tragedy, and a victim of this – his mother loved him, but she couldn’t give him everything he needed, and she couldn’t be his father, and she couldn’t make up for that, for him being abandoned by fathers.
He needed something no one was able to give him, and he wanted so badly to be successful – and when the Dolls fell apart, nothing got rid of that pain, except for drugs. It almost sounds like a cliché, but there was some sort of pain he felt. Heroin made that pain go away. That simple. It just made that pain go away.
WHEN WE RETURN (FOR PART TWO): A look at Jerry Nolan's musical legacy, and what made him such a compelling drummer, as well as life with Johnny (Thunders, that is), and the mental and physical issues that he faced down for most of his life.
Stranded In The Jungle: