Book Review and Author Interview
Stranded In the Jungle; Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride, A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, The New York Dolls and Punk Rock
Curt Weiss (Backbeat Books)
Curt Weiss’s new biography of Jerry Nolan is this years crucial rock read. Joe Whyte speaks to the author and peruses the book. (The full unabridged interview with Curt will appear in print in the January issue of Vive Le Rock magazine.)
I’ve read dozens of rock biographies and autobiographies over the years. In fact, make that hundreds.
I can safely say that Curt Weiss’s “Stranded In the Jungle; Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride, A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, The New York Dolls and Punk Rock” (yep, it’s quite a mouthful!) is up there with “Please Kill Me”, “England’s Dreaming” Andy Blade’s “Teenage Punk Rocker” and our own Brother John Robb’s “Punk; An Oral History” as one of the best accounts of the era of punk rock and the preceding years and aftermath. With interviews with all of the main and the peripheral players, many of whom are now sadly gone, it’s a full-throttle race through the mean streets of 70’s NYC, the Anarchy Tour and the drug dens and dives of the world and (occasionally) the redemptive power of rock and roll.
Taking Dolls/Heartbreakers drummer Jerry Nolan as the fulcrum, the book is a whizz-bang journey through the early seventies and beyond with Nolan’s often dysfunctional and chaotic life illustrating the times beautifully. As such, it is very much a book that does not miss its target; Nolan and others are honestly shown to be pretty unsavoury characters at times and the extent of Nolan’s ducking, diving, drugging and conniving ways are laid pretty bare throughout. The author clearly has a real fondness for his subject, however; his early life and abandonment issues are obviously a factor in the shaping of the young Nolan’s personality and Weiss’s love of Nolan’s drumming skills and get-up-and-go drive and stylish charisma are as manifest as they are endearing.
During the years that Weiss researched his subject (whom he’d latterly replaced as drummer in The Rockats) it seems that the very close-knit Thunders/Dolls/Heartbreakers internet community became rather less than enamoured with his honesty and candour as regards his subject and a campaign of online sniping caused a bit of a fuss. Thankfully, Weiss has stuck to his guns and the book simply oozes frankness and impeccability. This is a man who knows his subject and isn’t afraid of ruffling feathers.
I spoke to Weiss about his experiences of writing the book and his thoughts on Nolan and that scene that sparked a million bands.
Firstly, I wondered about the difficulties in his honest approach-
CW- “I recently learned a new word: hagiography. It means a biography that idealizes its subject. I really don’t believe in sugar-coating stuff. I couldn’t just write nice stuff about the people I liked and slam the people I didn’t. I wanted it to be credible, and honest. I suspected it would upset some people so I needed to have the facts on my side, which is why I researched the hell out of it. Jerry’s story is a cautionary tale. He had immense talent, and because of a number of things, mostly drugs, never tasted any sustained success. But the drugs were really a symptom of other issues. There were a group of people that were initially supportive until they got a sense of where the story was going. They wanted it to be the story of a noble hero. That’s a myth, like George Washington and the cherry tree. Too often, the facts told me otherwise. Jerry could be caring, friendly, funny, mentoring, insightful and loyal to a fault. But, he also used people, first to become successful, and then to meet the needs of his addiction. He robbed several girlfriends. He took advantage of his aging mother. He turned people onto heroin. People are denying they were interviewed, despite the fact that I not only recorded it, but we exchanged numerous e-mails and documents. They’re slagging the book, although they didn’t read it. I’m understand that the truth is unpleasant for some people. I’m sorry that people had to find out they were just another person for Jerry to use or lie to. I’m sorry that some people might realize they weren’t as close to him as they thought. But my job wasn’t to perpetuate myths. My job was to get at the truth. ”
Was it difficult to reach people connected, to get them on board?
CW-“It took time to gain people’s trust. Syl Sylvain wasn’t on board until about 2013. I think that’s when the reformed Dolls were put to bed, and he wanted to take control of his own story, and decided that by speaking to me about Jerry, he could also start to speak about himself. The same with Jerry’s ex-wife Charlotte. It took her some time. I can understand that. I was a stranger to her and its reasonable not to blindly trust an unknown person from the get-go. David Johansen didn’t respond for a few years. Finally, I tried for what must have been the third time in 2012 or ‘13. Like Syl, I have the deepest respect for him as an artist. I said something to the effect of, “I need to close the book on research soon, and it would be a shame to not get any input from someone who worked so closely with Jerry and shared an experience with him as lasting and impactful as the Dolls were.” He responded and said to send him a couple of questions. I think his answers are some of the most thoughtful of any in the book.”
I wonder about the inspiration behind the writing:
CW- “I’d seen hundreds of bands by the time I really connected with Jerry in 1980. Watching him play was such a revelation. That stuck with me for years. And I’d heard stories about him from the other Rockats, and friends and I just thought he was one of a kind. As time went on, I realized there’d been books and documentaries on the Dolls, Johnny & Arthur, and combined with my own love of Jerry’s playing, my background as a drummer and my experience in TV, I figured I could do it. I didn’t think anyone else was going to do it, so it was mine for the taking.”
I ask Weiss his take on Nolan’s legacy;
CW– “Jerry, like the Dolls & the Heartbreakers, was about the trend to come. He created a drum style that was the template for punk drumming. He influenced Clem Burke, Tommy Ramone, & Paul Cook. Jerry & his bands were always ahead of their time. Bowie saw it way back in ’72, and you can hear it on ‘Aladdin Sane’. Plus, if “Rebel, Rebel” isn’t the New York Dolls version 2.0, I don’t know what is. They were the great catalyst of the NY Punk scene, as much as, if not more than, the Velvets.”
Favourite Jerry performance on record?
CW-““Trash” is so great, as is “Showdown,” “Baby Talk,” and “Get Off the Phone.” But maybe “Jet Boy.” The build-up of tension, and the release of that tension are stupendous. I love his stutter-step fills just before the band crashes into each chorus. And matching Thunders’ airplane dive-bombs in the outro help create as jubilant a record as any. It’s an awe-inspiring performance.”
The full interview will be in Vive Le Rock Magazine in January 2018.
Buy the book here
Curt Weiss is on Facebook
All words by Joe Whyte. Author profile here.