On top: Author Curt Weiss by ©Ernie Sapiro
Stranded in the Jungle; Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride
Q & A with Curt Weiss
by Tobe Damit
I have read Curt Weiss’s biography of the master drummer Jerry Nolan, Stranded in the Jungle, at least seven times. Meanwhile I’ve only been able to read several related books once. This book has everything a good rock bio needs, including a good discography and index. Most importantly the book never stops coming at you. Nolan is primarily known for his role in the New York Dolls. He replaced the band’s first drummer, who died tragically during their initial visit to London in 1972. Nolan stayed with band to the end in 1975. Before and after the Dolls he played in numerous other always colorful bands. His time in the Heartbreakers playing at Max’s is every bit as interesting as his time in the Dolls. Above all, nothing will stop this writer from writing his book, even if it takes ten years.
Jerry Nolan is an attractive character because, despite the heroin addiction with limited his career until the day he died, Jerry remained true to his calling. He was the best drummer on the New York punk scene, but it is his lifelong commitment to the essence of rock n roll that distinguishes him today. Stranded in the Jungle brings Jerry Nolan to life again. Reading the book I feel as if I know him and respect him despite his many often horrific faults. In fact, I only met him once. In 1991, shortly after his cover story in the Voice alerted all of us to his new story telling voice, I approached him at a party. I introduced myself and told him I’d like to discuss writing his autobiography. He looked terrific, but seemed overwhelmed as if too much was coming at him too suddenly. He needed time and space to reflect. Alas, there was little time left. I’m touched to see my name mentioned as a potential biographer. However I do not think I could have written as good a book as Curt Weiss has given us. Biography is a vital art form for all of us alive to the possibilities of discovering how the deeper motivations and actions of our artists influence the development of our way of life. Weiss is the kind of biographer a rock star deserves. Anybody he choses to write about should be thankful and encourage him. Curt Weiss is the real thing. He’s just as committed to his calling as his subject Jerry Nolan, except that he isn’t stranded. He’s made it out of the jungle.
Curt Weiss is a biographer to watch.
– Author VICTOR BOCKRIS, February 5th, 2019
To read my review of Stranded in the Jungle; Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride, just click HERE
Tobe Damit: Do you feel that The Dolls role in the history of punk rock has been downplayed?
Curt Weiss: I do. Less by the musicians than by the fans. So many members of the original, first wave of punk bands, like Walter Lure, Steve Jones, Chris Stein, Richard Hell, Mick Jones, Brian James, Dee Dee Ramone, they understood it. The simplicity of the chord structures, the pre-Beatles references, the street consciousness, the focus on emotions and youth as opposed to technical abilities and experience, the Dolls had that in spades and the new bands picked up on it. They may have had long hair but they also used clothing to provoke and outrage: leather jackets, Nazi armbands, fetish wear, women’s clothing, etc. The people who didn’t quite pick up on it were the public. I quote Eileen Polk in the book talking about how after the Sid & Nancy tragedy, people would scream out in the street, “Hey Punk! Go back to England!” That drove Jerry crazy, because he knew how much Malcolm McLaren took from the Dolls and the NY scene to put together the Pistols. There were many things that influenced the CBGB Punk scene. The Velvets, especially Lou Reed, are often rightly mentioned, but the Dolls were probably the greatest catalyst of the scene that formed around CBGB in ’74 which spawned Television, Blondie, the Ramones & Talking Heads. But I also remember PBS’s “History of Rock and Roll” series from 1995. It had ten episodes, and during the one on Punk there was no mention of the Dolls. That kind of stuff drove me nuts so I had a sense of what Jerry must have felt, although he felt it a hundred times worse than I ever could.
Tobe Damit: Is that what prompted you to write this book?
Curt Weiss: It started as less specific than that. I wanted to write a book, because I was bored with my life and I wanted something I could call my own. I liked writing but I struggled with exactly what I would write about. The world sure didn’t need another Beatles or Dylan book. Then in ’04 the Dolls got back together and soon after made another record. Plus, the film on Arthur Kane, “NY Doll,” came out. Then it all hit me: Jerry! His was an untold story. I knew people who had played with him, lived with him, and traveled with him, so I had a place to start, and it just went on from there. But while writing it I realized that there was something a little deeper about me in writing it. As a drummer I knew that by and large, most people ignore the drummer or at least take them for granted. I saw a documentary on the Ramones where both Dee Dee and Johnny were asked if they had any concerns about the future of the band when Tommy left. If you know anything about the history of the Ramones, Tommy was the only one with any professional experience, having been an engineer, and part owner of a rehearsal studio. The Ramones were really his concept. He recruited the others and only became their drummer when no one else could satisfy that vision. He also co-produced their records and took on a management and promotional role. So, his leaving should have worried them. But both Dee Dee and Johnny thought it was no big deal when he left. They figured they’d just get another drummer. That was the kind of thinking that I wanted to destroy, that drummers are so easily replaceable. Jerry was vital to the greatness of the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. Neither band was as good without him.
Tobe Damit: How well did you know Jerry Nolan prior to writing this biography?
Curt Weiss: I only met him twice, the tales of which are relayed in the book’s afterword. But at the time he was in a band that I loved, had a girlfriend I was crazy about and had so much history. And I saw him play live in the late 70’s into 1980 maybe ten times. He was always a joy to watch. He was everything I wanted to be…except the addiction and the psychological issues.
Tobe Damit: Reading the book you get the idea that Jerry was really hard to get along with. Did you realize that as you were writing the book or did you already know that?
Curt Weiss: I was not aware of it in the beginning, although the first time I met him he started a silly argument with his girlfriend within just a few minutes. I think that increased as his addiction progressed but always as a by-product of putting on a tough street persona, and his lack of trust in male authority figures. Most people describe Jerry as a funny, friendly and loyal guy. And if he was high, he was usually happy as a clam. It was when he was on the hunt for drugs or more so from methadone. It turned him into a crabby zombie. But I think the repeated disappointments he endured, from the demise of the Dolls, or the Heartbreakers, or Sid, and watching Peter Criss, Suzi Quatro and Bette Midler become successful, it tore him to pieces. I think that at his core, in his worst moments, he didn’t like himself.
Tobe Damit: In a few words, how would you describe him as a person?
Curt Weiss: Conflicted, troubled, sad, but also friendly, funny, loyal, and streetwise. And like Johnny, he loved music. As damaged as those guys were, at their core they loved music and it was essential to who they were. I think it was Barry Jones who said, “they just wanted to get high and play bad ass rock and roll.” Music was everything to them. It defined who they were. There was nothing else they could do for a living. Despite the fact that Jerry could cut hair, design clothes and draw quite well, it was all about music for him.
Tobe Damit: He got really close to Sid Vicious during what was probably the worst times of Sid’s life. Why do you think he was so kind to Sid?
Curt Weiss: I think he saw himself as a father figure to Sid. Sid worshipped Jerry and I think Jerry felt some responsibility to look out for him, and Nancy. Plus, those two had money and Jerry didn’t. That was always an attraction to him. But he also thought Sid had the potential to be a great front man and by controlling the music side, Jerry thought working with Sid could be financially rewarding. Sid & Nancy’s death blew up all of that.
Tobe Damit: Do you prefer The NY Dolls or the Heartbreakers?
Curt Weiss: Probably the Dolls. That first album is flawless. Johnny and Jerry usually get the credit as they’re the dead cult figures but Syl is very underrated as a musician. I’d suggest checking out his album “Paper, Pencil & Glue.” I think its great. But Johansen brought a sense of New York bohemia to the band. It’s a shame they couldn’t have stayed together and made a third album.
Tobe Damit: Who was Jerry’s best friend in your opinion?
Curt Weiss: Probably Buddy Bowzer. I’m not aware of any fall outs between the two of them. They met as 16-year-old army brats in Lawton, Oklahoma, played in loads of bands together and always seemed to look out for one another. They were friends until Jerry’s death. Early on it was KISS drummer Peter Criss. Jerry was the best man at his wedding, but they had a falling out in ’74 over Jerry’s heroin use, and never re-connected. There was a love between Jerry & Johnny Thunders but there was also competitiveness and betrayal. But Jerry would always forgive Johnny. That said, Jerry was more like a father to Johnny than a brother or friend.
Tobe Damit: Who (or what) was his worst enemy?
Curt Weiss: He was his own worst enemy. I don’t think he ever came to terms with a perception that he was somehow deserving of all the bad luck that had befallen him.
Tobe Damit: Who really gave you the key to Jerry Nolan’s personality (crisis!)?
Curt Weiss: It was a combination of people. Band mates had one point of view, but the girlfriends had another. They were separate worlds for Jerry. But specifically, I’d say Walter and Leee played a large role in giving me a window onto his, for lack of a better description, psychosis. But the girlfriends like Michele and Lesley, and his wife Charlotte, were also integral to help me figure out what made him tick. Also, Gregor and Art from Shaker, and Barry and Steve from the Idols.
Thanks Curt for your kindness and devotion, thank you to have taken the time to work with me to make this interview a very interesting piece for all Jerry Nolan’s friends and fans but also to those who were just curious about a story that had to be told. Thank you for this book, the story of a constant, but fascinating struggle.