Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride by Curt Weiss
A REVIEW by TOBE DAMIT
The New York Dolls were born in a city in a total wreck, therefore a perfect ground for rock’n’roll to emerge. The Dolls grew out of it just like weeds in a crack of cement. The Dolls are of the rawest band in rock’n’roll history and when they came out of the woodwork there wasn’t any sense of danger coming from rock’n’roll during that period except for the MC5 and the Stooges from Detroit, a city that would later on give birth to Kiss, who’s drummer Peter Criss was, for a time Jerry Nolan’s best friend and quite a success story. To me they were also filling an important gap in NYC between Andy Warhol TVs stardom, the Velvet Undergound and the Ramones, using the new ways of expressing yourself in a very direct, almost obscene way back then, a way paved by the Velvet Underground. The Dolls definitely were the continuation of Andy Warhol’s TV world that gave birth to Glam and then to Punk Rock as a statement even if the Dolls nor the Heartbreakers never defined themselves as a punk band.
”The Dolls were never inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but if ”Right when you go through the turnstile,there’s a small exhibit. Artifacts from different bands. When I walked through and went (in)’ right through the door, bing! There was the bass drum head from Jerry’s drums! ‘New York Dolls’ with the chick bending over. The thing I handled for all those fucking years!”.
It’s the perfect introduction to rock’n’roll. – Stranded in the Jungle, Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride by Curt Weiss, quoting roadie Max Blatt.
Stranded in the Jungle constitutes a precious document in regards to the New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers but also indeed the perfect intro to rock’n’roll as you get to know about the multitude of bands in which Nolan has ever been part of. Weiss also chronicles what it was like to be at the dawn of the punk era for all those rock’n’rollers of the 50’s. You get a lot more than Jerry Nolan’s story. First thing that pops out what a unique drummer he was and that Gene Krupa, Nolan’s mentor, would have been proud of his career. There is another side of him that is revealed that’s not so shiny, rather like a worn out leather biker jacket. Nolan is described like a very dark and complex human being, a women manipulator, a hopeless junkie whose time that was not devoted to music was dedicated to getting some or some more heroin any which way he could. He is also guilty of being a racist in his own way but racist still. He often gets in rage over details, especially if the drugs are scarce and for sure if they are nonexistent. The use of drugs here by Jerry Nolan does not seem to be the usual excuse that can be used if you are not up to the high standards you aimed at so you can say ”Oh I was high al the time”, an excuse in case you never quite made it to the toppermost of the poppermost, people will still say: ”Oh if it hadn’t been on drugs he would have been absolutely fantastic” but he did have very high standards about his playing… so yeah…Maybe there was a little of that but it got lost in the long run I guess…
These subjects are treated with honesty, without detour and in the most clever way, deconstructing the behavior to understand it better on various occasions and different circumstances. Anyways we all get to the conclusion that if he could have, Jerry would’ve jump up and say, just like in the Pistols’ track Bodies: ”I’M NOT AN ANIMAL!” and we get to go a lot deeper than dates and facts, thanks to the attention paid to those little details. I got into a very introspective lecture, also crossing my mind was Iggy Pop’s lyrics of Cry for Love ”And every Bum Should wear a Crown” because despite all of his lack of empathy and manipulation, Nolan had his way of being loyal, he had his own code that he lived by, very often based on pride and respect. He just wouldn’t or couldn’t really apply it when it came to women or dark-skinned people. reading this you get the impression that if it wouldn’t have been for his drum playing, maybe he would have turned into a psychopath but don’t fool yourself, most addicts when under the influence are… there’s a very thin line here to be crossed (read Disco Bloodbath and Micheal Alig if you’re sceptical).This racism in punk music had never been treated in such a direct way and I’m kinda glad it did because I always felt that underlying white power heed emanating from the world punk scene that always had a racist connotation that was maybe carried out to the extreme by the USA skinheads?
Women would get another kind of respect and sometimes a magnetic kindness but go figure if it was part of a set up to get some drugs or if it was real… Anyways, he is not very distinctive from Keith Richards, whom many consider to be an asshole as a person even if nothing short of a genius as a musiciansby those same people and many others. It’s just that Keef got to write his own bio so he could put it in a milder way than Curt did for Jerry. If you get to read other bios about Keith you discover some stuff that’s not in his autobio, nothing you wouldn’t expect from a rock’n’roller like him and Jerry but just a little more raunchier than the stuff he wrote about himself…
All through the book even if you get to that not very shiny image of Nolan, you little by little get to really understand the way he works in his mind, not totally but a lot can be understood in the way that he was involved in the Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious ”murder”, affair. I put murder in disambiguation marks since I am personally convinced that Sid didn’t do it. I’m not going to defend myself here on why since I already wrote about the subject but you get a very unique chance here at getting a very privileged angle at the whole affair as you get to see the whole rock’n’roll scene and story throughout the whole book. This book is not only about The Dolls, The Heartbreakers and all the incredible amount of bands Jerry Nolan touched directly or indirectly but a very complete portrait of the story of rock’n’roll and punk (even if Jerry Nolan always said he was into rock’n’roll and not punk) in the US and in the UK.
Having also a very privileged look at their influence and how far ahead they where when you get into the story of this famous tour that in the end had only five dates: The Anarchy in the UK Tour ’76. Here’s a (cool) quote from the book:
”The Clash played. They were just beginning. They couldn’t really play, so no one paid that much attention to them. The Heartbreakers went on next after the Clash. They were like old blues musicians. (Johnny) Certainly knew his business and Jerry certainly knew his business. Everything just changed from that moment they got on stage. The audience was milling about. Everybody was drinking pints. Nobody was really paying attention. And that first note, it was perfect. Everyone stopped and looked at the stage (…) Four seconds into the song, no one was paying attention to anything else . Johnny and Jerry and me (Leee Black Childers) have all said that at that moment… The Damned said, ”We’re leaving this joint” Johnny and Jerry, they were good at that first dramatic musical moment, because they weren’t moving. Nothing moved. It was just… Those notes of ”Do You Love Me”. It caught everyone’s attention”
The other bands noticed it too: They were scared. When they saw the Heartbreakers, they thought, ‘Oh shit, this is real. We are not real’ and they were right in that respect”. It was obvious the Heartbreakers were in a league all their own compared to the others. Billy: ”They really picked up a lot from watching us, and they knew they had to go, because we could play”… Stranded in the Jungle; Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride by Curt Weiss, p. 141
Back to this ”gap” I was talking about. Nolan persona covers just about everything starting with his first drum and his mentor Gene Krupa and this point during wich ”It seemed as if no one, not even the Dolls themselves, wanted the Dolls as they were. Not middle America, not Marty Thau or Leber-Krebs, nor the radio or even their hometown of New York City. However there were smatterings of old fans who were inspired by what the Dolls had accomplished–people who didn’t look the way rock stars were expected to look, who didn’t kowtow to industry expectations, and who didn’t exhibit virtuosic abilities. Clem Burke, the drummer from Blondie, recalled, ”Everyone cut their hair and took their platforms shoes off, walked up to the Bowery and put on leather jackets. That’s when so-called punk rock started.” But it would be such a mistake to say that the influence and the NY Dolls era and influence stopped since when their last manager Malcolm Mclaren gave up on them and took off UK and exported what was already in style in New York and commercialized and monetized it, he must have taken a thing or two from the Dolls, plus after the Dolls were the Heartbreakers and their influence went right up there in the UK as I said earlier…
Than we cannot talk about Jerry without talking about his best friend, band mate Johnny Thunders with whom they were like 2 of the three Stooges!! This relation is very well described along the thread of adventures of the Dolls and/or the Heartbreakers. Not in a scholarly way but in a very humane way. Not like some wildlife specimens who were mating from time to time but in various situation where a certain moral deduction can be formulated. Unfortunately it came with all this the heroin use and we all know ”the needle and the damage done….”. I think it’s Leee Black Childers who describes methadone as just another way to enable the heroin users, ok, maybe in a way it’s true but without that certainty of being able to at least put one foot in front of the other, let me tell you that, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan and so , so many others wouldn’t have gone a very long way and would have never made it further than 2 or 3 years. I bet if it hadn’t been for methadone, the Heartbreakers would certainly would have not still been around when Mclaren commercialised Punk and unbeknownst to him, Punk becoming a way of life.
While I was reading that book, I caught myself wondering if, some nights, Jerry would wake up, feel the weight of the night, of his life and of everyone who depended on him as well as everyone he depended on and realised how fucked up his life, as well as the life of the people around him, the whole punk scene in particular and life in general were and I wondered if it made him want to freeze it all even more with one more fix. I also couldn’t help to notice that Kiss released their first successful album the night Jerry got stabbed. On that day, he was hurting both mentally and physically. He still was able to become a generally revered musician/drummer, the saint patron of the junky drummers, but also a true warrior who always managed to get around one way or another and even to bear witness to all of those pivotal moments in such a historic times for music.
Thanks also to Curt Weiss for being the guy who noticed him and all that he could bring to the culture and knowledge of the punk era… I wanted to learn about the gap between the VU and the Ramones and I ended up with so much more, not only history wise but personally, even if it wasn’t in Curt Weiss intentions… He did it!
Other than that it certainly made me realised that some of the qualities to be a musician are not all in the way you play. Yes, it’s a huge part but you have to be street wise, to instinctively know who to trust, be able to pick up the vibes from the streets, to know how to put your anxiety to use, to be disciplined and not to fall into the despair of nihilism, HA! That’s a tricky one when you’re in a proto-punk band and so vain!! Jerry Nolan certainly had all it takes, he just happened to be a junkie racist womanizer!! He certainly has his place amidst the legends of rock’n’roll, not only by himself but also just being around with all those people, all those artists living life to the max, taking their longing for a very long, far stretch and staying true to themselves as much as possible when you’re out on a limb with minor extras with caricaturesque nicknames like Tony Machine and Bobby Bear. I wish there were more Jerry Nolan on this Earth, but not too much because they would lose their unqiueness, remember: ”There can only be one…” Many thanks for this ode to all those courageous (cool) cats!