DS Exclusive: Curt Weiss on “Stranded In The Jungle,” his wild ode to Jerry Nolan (New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers)

There’s a moment in the afterword of Curt Weiss’s fascinating debut book, Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride, in which the author spots his eventual subject walking into pharmacy on a crowded New York City street. It’s the early 1990s, and Weiss hadn’t seen Nolan for the close to the duration of the preceding decade. The passage is written in truly cinematic fashion and proves instantly relatable to anybody that’s fancied themselves an interviewer, or even just been a fan of another human being at some fundamental level. In it, Weiss explains how he’d played that very situation out seemingly countless ways, projecting what might have become a deep friendship between seemingly kindred spirits separated by the better part of a generation. However, he lets the moment pass, opting to let Nolan go on about his daily business. Weiss would move to Seattle literally the following day and Nolan would sadly pass away in January 1992, so the two unfortunately would not reconnect in person after that incident.

In a perfectly poetic world, the inspiration for Stranded In The Jungle would have started right then and there, on that New York City sidewalk. Reality maybe not always be poetic, but it is nevertheless fascinating. As would be revealed in our hour-plus-long conversation with Weiss in advance of the book’s release, the groundwork would come more than a decade later, but the inspiration and the connection came far, far earlier. When he was perhaps better known by his stage name of Lewis King, Curt Weiss ran in overlapping New York City circles with Jerry Nolan, albeit at opposite ends of a generation (Nolan was born in 1946, Weiss roughly a decade-and-a-half later). Years after Nolan’s career glory days as drummer of both the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, Weiss would end up inheriting not only an apartment that Nolan and one of his many girlfriends lived in, but eventually his role as drummer in the then-NYC-based rockabilly band The Rockats (formerly Levi and the Rockats) as well.

Weiss would eventually tire of the NYC music scene, turn thirty, and move to the Pacific Northwest. After years of working in the TV industry, Weiss got the bug to put together a project of his own. “I had a few aborted failures; a documentary that I didn’t get full funding for, and another thing I wanted to do with EMP, the Experience Music Project, that sort of fell through,” says Weiss. “Carla DeSantis, who used to have ROCKRGRL Magazine, said “you should write a book! Once you write a book, you’ll get on all those panels! South by Southwest will call!” So I said “alright, what the hell.”

As anyone — present company included — who’s ever toyed with the idea of writing a book will tell you, getting from the “alright, what the hell” stage to the “put pen to paper stage” is perhaps the most quantum of imaginable leaps. Just the idea incubation stage itself can be all-consuming. As Weiss explains, I was talking to my wife, she said “well, you can’t shut up about Dylan or the Beatles, why don’t you write about them?” And I said “oh Jesus, there’s enough Dylan and the Beatles books out there by people who know way more than me.” So I just thought about it and said, “Jerry Nolan!” Many of Nolan’s contemporaries, most notably his frequent collaborator in music and other, less reputable endeavors, Johnny Thunders, had received their due in both print and film over the years. Nolan had been an influential member in two of the more influential bands of a sound and a scene and a decade, and yet, like his bands, had been largely overlooked in more ways than one. And this, as it turns out, becomes one of the more recurring themes threaded throughout Stranded In The Jungle.

In or around 2006, Weiss set out to lay the groundwork for what would become his debut book. The original goal was to compile an oral history with Weiss, in typical drummer fashion, serving as the backbone of the project, tying it all together. In the years that followed, the project would evolve, taking on a life of its own. “I would put it down for weeks, if not months, at a time, and as you get further and further into it, I think there’s some old saying that “every branch of knowledge leads to another twig” or something much pithier than I can remember now. “The tree of knowledge has many branches,” or something like that. One thing leads to another leads to another leads to another, and you have to at least make the effort to talk to people.” The list of people contacted for the project is exhaustive; the rundown provided in the afterword contains easily a hundred names of all shapes and sizes. Names like Clem Burke and Chris Stein and Deborah Harry of Blondie, Richard Hell, Tommy Ramone, Suzi Quatro, Billy Squier, Mick Jones of The Clash and Glen Matlock of Sex Pistols. “I had eight years or nine years of gathering up material, but you start writing narratives and you realize there’s a little piece missing. You have to hunt for that piece, and if you can find it in a previous book or magazine or documentary, that’s great. Sometimes you have to call someone.

By 2013, an initial draft weighing in at approximately 700 pages had taken shape. From there, the whittling started, as did the hunt for agents and publishers. An initial contract was signed, calling for submission of a 75,000 word manuscript. (*Editor’s Note: For comparison’s sake, the story you’re reading now clocks in around 2200 words, or 10320 if you count the Q&A below.*) Weiss, due to his exhaustive research on the life and times of one of the New York scene’s most overlooked figures, would initially submit close to 135,000 words. Mike Edison, a writer and drummer himself (Edison had been a collaborator of GG Allin’s, for example) was brought in, and eventually the manuscript was whittled to just under 100,000 words. Stranded In The Jungle finally hit bookshelves this month, more than a decade after the wheels started turning. “It’s hard to believe that it’s just all-of-a-sudden there, after struggling for really eleven years.

The result of Weiss’s years of hard work, Stranded In The Jungle paints a compelling picture of a man who was arguably one of the few most underrated drummers in American rock music and who was, at the same time, a deeply depressingly flawed human being who saw many of his friends and peers pass him by. Childhood friends like Kiss’ founding drummer Peter Criss. Old flames like the Divine Miss M herself, Bette Midler. Even former bandmates and seemingly musical blood-brothers like Johnny Thunders would become more household names than Nolan, and that all says nothing about the seemingly endless list of bands that were directly influenced by the Dolls and the Heartbreakers: Sex Pistols, The Clash, Guns N Roses, Motley Crue, The Replacements, Black Flag, and on and on on. “The Dolls, they were the great catalyst. All of those early (New York City punk) bands — Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie — all of them had members who were deep New York Dolls fans, and they were just motivated by the idea that “if the Dolls can do it, we can do it.” If you can play three chords, maybe not play like Keith Emerson or Jimmy Page and talk about what you want to talk about, than I could to it too.

Sadly, Nolan’s history of having been left behind by abandoned dated back well before his music career began. “Not to sound to pompous,” Weiss says, “but I believe he saw himself as a ‘stigmatized other.’ He was abandoned by a first father-figure. The second father figure abandoned him. There was a lot of moving around, he was always the new kid in town. As cliched as that sounds, his life was saved by rock and roll!” Nolan and his mother eventually settled in New York City, where his career as a drummer would start to take off, albeit in small doses. Influenced by jazz and big band leaders like Gene Krupa before him, Nolan developed an identity that went beyond simply playing drums. “He had a full view of music, not just as a drummer, but what the band would sound like, how you should arrange your songs, what type of music you should play, what order the set should be in, the clothing you should wear. It was fully encompassing; he was not just the guy that kept the beat in the back.

As rock and roll giveth, unfortunately, so rock and roll taketh away, for as talented and influential a drummer as Nolan was, there’s a reason that we’re reading his first biography a quarter-century after his passing. Stranded In The Jungle could have been a fluff piece, particularly since author and subject shared a lot of mutual experiences. Weiss, to his credit, left a great many of the warts available for all to see. Nolan was not, as you have probably surmised by now, without more than his share of demons that held him back personally and professionally. Chief among those demons, as may be expected given that this is a New York City, Lower East Side, early 1970s story we’re talking about, was heroin. As Weiss explains, “every band has people like that who just stepped on people to be successful. (Nolan) became a drug addict, so he used people to meet the needs of his addiction. He used women all the time. He took advantage of people. He lied. He stole. He cheated. And people were enablers.” 

While Jerry Nolan was no stranger to the company of female companions, most of whom he’d use for his own personal gain, the two loves that would compete for Jerry’s affections the most for the remainder of his life would, of course, be the yin and yang that are music and heroin. “Other people, their careers are ascending and his isn’t and I think it was so painful for him,” says Weiss. “It was so painful to be left behind. Heroin made him happy. And that’s what people that use heroin say.” Heroin would take Nolan’s pain away while creating infinitely more pain in the process. “It’s sad that he didn’t have the skills to get through it in another way, and that our society wasn’t able to help him. All we did is stigmatize him more, and that just made him want to use more heroin.” And there we have effectively the entire cyclical nature of addiction in a nutshell.

As the years would go by, Weiss explains, Nolan would almost never find himself free of one chemical or another, especially once he got on methadone. Leee Black Childers would tour manage The Heartbreakers around a tour of the UK and find himself in possession of a quart-sized bottle of the stuff so that Nolan and his bandmates wouldn’t abuse it. “They were waiting for Leee to come by with their methadone and at 7:02 they’d be on the phone going “where’s Leee? Where’s Leee?” The came a later US tour as a member of The Rockats in a way that Nolan could get to a methadone clinic every morning, and idea that is sadly, heartbreakingly comical in some ways.

In his later years and with his health starting to fail, Nolan would become the subject of a lengthy write-up in the legendary New York newspaper, The Village Voice. In many ways, it would service as the first time that Nolan would start getting something resembling his “due.” “I think he wanted his due. It irked him so much that all these other bands, be it the hair metal bands of the ’80s or the British punk bands, got credit for so much that he and Johnny and the Dolls or the Heartbreakers really spearheaded. That drove him insane.” Talking to Weiss, it’s very apparent that Jerry Nolan himself wasn’t the only one who felt Jerry Nolan deserved his due. “The Dolls’ influence is so deep in all those New York bands and (Malcolm) McLaren. McLaren took it to England and all those bands. Really, the fact that the Dolls are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the crime of the century to me!“And then, of course, there’s The Heartbreakers, who just posthumously celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of their debut album, L.A.M.F. “Think about (it) — The Replacements, Black Flag and The Smiths, the core of ’80s indie rock, outside of R.E.M. and The Cure” were all publicly, directly influenced by that album. “The Heartbreakers as one of the most important influences in ’80s indie rock, and people don’t do that. But it’s a fact. You think about the Dolls and the Heartbreakers, Johnny and Jerry, who in the last forty years have been as influential as those two? Very few!

Stranded In The Jungle was released this month via Backbeat Books; you can pick it up at your local book retailer or, if you’re so inclined, at Amazon. Weiss is in the early stages of a book tour that finds him covering both coasts; head here for dates. Then, head below to check out our extensive interview with Curt Weiss himself!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Congratulations on the book…and when I say that, I mean it genuinely, because the amount of work that went into telling Jerry Nolan’s story it seems like was exhausting. Just the list in the back of the book of all of the people that you talked to and the other people that you talked to…I can’t imagine trying to compile all of that (and formulate it into a book). It must be cathartic to see it finally in print.

Yeah, it’s hard to believe that it’s just all-of-a-sudden there, after struggling for really eleven years. I would put it down for weeks, if not months, at a time, and as you get further and further into it, I think there’s some old saying that “every branch of knowledge leads to another twig” or something much pithier than I can remember now. “The tree of knowledge has many branches,” or something like that. One thing leads to another leads to another leads to another, and you have to at least make the effort to talk to people. And there are some people, like Debbie Harry I wanted to talk to. I had an old girlfriend that I’m still friendly with who is very well-connected, she worked for Robert Altman and stuff — she knows Debbie, and she just wouldn’t respond. But then I ran into her at Leee Childers’ memorial and she was very nice. A memorial is not a place to do that — I guess if you’re Paul Newman in that movie The Color Of Money you do that — but I wasn’t going to. I just quietly introduced myself and how we knew each other. I don’t even remember what I said, but she told me some little snippet about Jerry sitting in for (Blondie’s) old drummer – their pre-Clem (Burke) drummer – and we just kinda giggled about something and went on our way. There were people that I talked to that shortly, and then people like Walter (Lure, The Heartbreakers) that I had several long phone conversations and lots of emails with. It runs the gamut of three minutes with someone versus three one-hour sit-downs and emails. It’s all over the place. And I was lucky I knew a good bunch of those people. That helped.

That probably helped you get access to a lot of other people, for sure. If it were an outsider — if it were me, for example — trying to write that book, a lot of people would probably be guarded or not really want to talk in detail. But because you have the same sort of overlapping experience with Jerry, that probably lent a lot of instant credibility to the project.

It helped, particularly at the beginning. I knew Leee Childers from way back, I knew all the Rockats — I used to play in that band. I knew Lesley, who was Jerry’s girlfriend ‘79 and ‘80 — I inherited her apartment, which Jerry lived in. So that was the core I was able to start with, and each one helped me speak to another person who helped me speak to another person and so on. And some people, like Billy Squier, I never expected him to respond to my email, which I just sent through his website. But he did! Suzi Quatro, same thing. Through Suzi I got her sister, Nancy, who I had a very long phone conversation with. Through Billy Squier I think there were a couple other people, like Danny McGary who was the bass player in Piper and another band he was in with Jerry. One thing led to another. And then the whole Curtis Knight thing! I had no idea he had any relationship with Curtis Knight…and like seven of those people played with Curtis Knight! It just kept going and kept going. If I had known in advance all the things I would have to do to get this done, I may not have done it (*both laugh*) But you just get further down, and you get more exposed, and really there’s a part of this where you think ‘boy, I will look like a complete idiot and a failure if I stop now.” There’s that sense of failure of being a public idiot…(*both laugh*)

I’m gonna have to remember that line!

It’s very motivating!!

Absolutely! The project seemed to go on forever, but where was the real start of it? You sort of reference in the afterword of the book seeing Jerry walk into a drug store or a convenience store or whatever it was just before you moved to Seattle. That scene in and of itself is, in my opinion as somebody who’s pretended to be a writer over the years and done dozens of interviews with people I know and respect — is so cinematic in the way it plays out. Is that where the bug had started or had it already started at that point?

It had sorta already started. There’s a million — well, not a million, but there are endless memoirs out there. Anybody and everybody seems to be writing memoirs, from Keith Richards all the way down to members of fledgling punk bands, and God bless them. So somewhere around 1990, I turned 30 and I thought I had just had enough of the music hustle having done it pretty hard for about ten years. I just started collecting all my thoughts and memories and stories. And I did like to write. I used to write more before that, when I was younger, and I was just fascinated by the stories. Musicians — and me — have a point of view of something that is really romanticized and mythologized by other people. And every day does have some of that. There is a rarefied existence, but there is also the drudgery of it. The stuff of living in a van for eight hours a day and all that goes on.

Anyway, I just wanted to capture all of that. In capturing my own life, I had to come across Jerry and the Rockats and the people who I was friendly with and involved with before that. I decided to move to the West Coast, and I believe it was literally the last day before I moved that I ran into him. I hadn’t seen him in years! I was thinking, “boy, I should talk to Jerry if I’m doing this memoir, just to reconnect.” I mean, I lived in his apartment, I had some of his clothes! But I just…I hate cold-calling people, I hate walking up to strangers, so I just let it go, you know? So maybe it was always in my mind, but it really started in 2006. I was working in TV and trying to do some music-related things, and I think I had a few aborted failures of a documentary that I didn’t get full funding for, and another thing I wanted to do with EMP, the Experience Music Project, that sort of fell through. Carla DeSantis, who used to have ROCKRGRL Magazine, said “you should write a book! Once you write a book, you’ll get on all those panels! South by Southwest will call!” (*both laugh*) So I said “alright, what the hell.”

So as I was thinking about it, I was talking to my wife, she said “well, you can’t shut up about Dylan or the Beatles, why don’t you write about them?” And I said “oh Jesus, there’s enough Dylan and the Beatles books out there by people who know way more than me.” So I just thought about it and said, “Jerry Nolan!” There’s books on (Johnny) Thunders, and I knew Arthur was writing a book and the Dolls had reunited and there were documentaries about Thunders — there was one one that came out in the late ‘90s (*editor’s note: Born To Lose: The Last RockNRoll Movie*). So I thought I would start it as an oral history, like (Legs McNeil’s classic book) Please Kill Me. I’d worked in TV, so I thought it was like that, where you’re filming a bunch of people and they’re doing all the talking and it’s kind of just cut-and-paste. You keep interviewing and keep interviewing and keep interviewing and then you put something together. And really, that was the idea for a few years. So that was really where it started. A few failures in the early 2000s, with the documentary and trying to do something with EMP, those failures made me want to do something that I owned; not a band where I needed the partnership of other people, not looking for a grant, not having to hire photographers and editors and beg for people. I could do this and I could write it at any time. I didn’t need to work on anyone else’s schedule. I could call anybody or email anybody and pursue this at my own schedule. And that’s how I did it and that’s why I did it.

How quickly did the ball get rolling once you started pitching the idea of doing Jerry Nolan’s story? Were a lot of the people that you mention in the book on board pretty quickly?

Some were. Charlotte, Jerry’s wife in the ‘80s….I’d have to look back, but she didn’t respond quickly. It took a little bit, maybe a couple of weeks or something. And it really took a few years of back and forth with her to build up a sort of trust. And there were things she told me off the record that she wouldn’t go on the record with for years. It took her years. And Sylvain! I think it was like seven years before he responded! That was one of the advantages of this thing taking so goddamn long. I don’t want to talk to much out of school, but I think things had developed enough with him that he wanted to take control of his story. That kept happening throughout. I realized that people wanted to tell their story. They felt that in the story of the New York Dolls and the story of Johnny Thunders — he’s such a cult hero throughout all this. In fact, I traded a couple of emails with (Dolls’ vocalist David) Johansen. I didn’t want to abuse that relationship. He answered two or three questions, and I remember asking him about “why was Jerry always the outsider? You’ve talked about Johnny, you worked with Syl, you had Arthur in the reunion, and you never mention Jerry.” And he goes “Ah, that’s the Johnny cult talking.”

Really?

Yeah, he goes “That’s the Johnny cult. If (Jerry) had written songs in the Dolls, we’d be talking about him and playing those songs on stage.” And I used to see him plenty. (Jerry) did interact with David throughout the ’80s many times. They did interact and they were friendly, but Jerry held a lot of grudges. And David, in retrospect, really was probably smart to not include him, because Jerry was as unreliable as Johnny. He didn’t play with Johnny either. He wanted to play with reliable people who were serious about what they were doing. You can have fun and get drunk and do whatever else you want to do, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to be dependable. But I think he called Jerry, I wish I could remember it exactly, but a “bitter Irishman” or something like that. It’s kind of a cruel thing to say, but he says something like “he was a junkie not fit for work.” It’s a terrible thing to say, but when you look back at Jerry’s life and the bands he was in, that did constantly happen. He did get thrown out for taking drugs or just being a really difficult guy to work with. So getting people to sign on or be involved, there really were a lot that did because I think they just wanted to tell their story.

The other side of that is that there were people that just did not. Somebody gave me (Sex Pistols’ guitarist) Steve Jones’s number and I just cold called him — I know, I said I hate cold calling people — and he just said “I’m not doing interviews right now,” and that was it. I waited like three hours outside of a show for (The Clash guitarist) Mick Jones – he had a band with Tony James from Generation X called Carbon/Silicon maybe ten years ago, and they came to Seattle. I waited for their bus to drive up and for them to get out of the bus; it was probably like two or three hours, and there were a lot of other people there. And he kept answering questions, but all he said was “I can’t remember! Gee, I can’t remember!” (*both laugh*) The other members of The Clash never responded. Bette Midler never responded…

I was just going to ask about if Bette Midler responded.

Nope. Nothing. I think Willy DeVille’s manager, before he died, said “Willy does not wish to speak about this subject” or something like that. So yeah, there were people that just didn’t want to talk. There are people that, I think, got angry that they realized after a while that they weren’t going to be able to control the story or that it wasn’t going to be the story that they wanted. Jerry compartmentalized his life. He was an addict first of all. If you go back, like Bob Dylan, he would use people for success, to get ahead in the business. The business is littered with people like that. Bob Dylan is the most famous, but think about it. Every band has people like that who just stepped on people to be successful. And then he became a drug addict, so he used people to meet the needs of his addiction. He used women all the time. He took advantage of people. He lied. He stole. He cheated. And people were enablers, and they don’t like to realize that they were taken advantage of or lied or used or were cheated or were enablers. That bothers them. I’m sorry it bothers them. It hurt Charlotte when I told her a couple of things, and she got disappointed that Jerry had done (those things) and lied to her. That’s why I think some people didn’t want to be involved or had backed out. But I couldn’t give control of the story to anybody. I couldn’t.

Right, because then it’s not your story. I mean I know it’s ultimately Jerry’s story anyway, but (giving someone else control of your story) would be a different book altogether.

Yeah, and if somebody else wants to, that’s fine! They can write their book. (*both laugh*)  If you want to write that story, go for it! Good luck!

What comes across in the book, and to go back to something you just said about another conversation, but that Jerry did compartmentalize his life. He had this history of being kicked out of bands for what effectively was drug use, but it was never really because of his playing. It was never really because of his unprofessionalism as a drummer. That thread carries throughout the book, that say what you will about him as a person – and we’ll do that later – but he almost always was the leader of the band.

Almost always, yeah. He did take a lead very much in band direction, both musically and stylistically. How you presented yourself was important to Jerry. He learned that from Louis Armstrong, watching Louis Armstrong’s band. He learned that from Gene Krupa. He learned it from the early rock and rollers like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Elvis, of course. But I think also a piece of that, not to sound to pompous, but I believe he saw himself as a ‘stigmatized other.’ He was abandoned by a first father-figure. The second father figure abandoned him. There was a lot of moving around, he was always the new kid in town. As cliched as that sounds, his life was saved by rock and roll! It gave him some identity. He rebirthed himself.as Jerry Nolan, this little kid with a pompadour at sixteen. He had a full view of music, not just as a drummer, but what the band would sound like, how you should arrange your songs, what type of music you should play, what order the set should be in, the clothing you should wear. It was fully encompassing; he was not just the guy that kept the beat in the back. He was proud to say something to the effect of no matter how high I was, I never screwed up a show. But, you know, he did do that with Cradle, which is why they threw him out. He did do that with The Ugly Americans at the end. It did happen — not often. There was usually some deep, emotional thing going on with him. He was so crazy about Nancy Quatro and he felt like an outsider and he was getting high on Lord knows what — Nancy wasn’t sure what it was. And with the Ugly Americans, his marriage was falling apart, and he may have been starting to get sick.

Yeah, that definitely comes across at the end of the book. And yet, as important as he thought the appearance of the band was and how you carried yourself and presented yourself as a band was, I kept finding myself rooting for him — even though he’s not necessarily the most rootable figure (*both laugh*) — and hoping that he can incorporate that into his life and put the drugs down so there’s not this dichotomy between what he wants his professional life to be and what his personal life was. Yet I never really picked up on even a moment of clarity. It was almost like he was resigned to be a drug addict who, when he played drums, was able to put on the costume of somebody who had that together.

Yeah, you know I think he tried near the end of his life. He was on a better methadone maintenance program. He was seeing a shrink. And I think there was an effort for him to get his life together, but I think his illness had progressed too much. And I think being high was the only time that he really felt good. Phyllis really cared dearly for him. It was really a good thing that she came into his life at that time. I think Charlotte would have done the same for him, but he had insisted that she go into rehab – he wouldn’t go, so it was best to leave him, in that sense. And yeah, you do find yourself rooting for him. I think one of the reasons that the facade was so deep with Jerry was the self-esteem; that really, he was responsible for so much of his own failure. He wanted to blame Johansen, or the managers, or Leee, or Johnny getting too big for his britches, or whatever it was. But he really had a lot of responsibility for what went down, and that was too much for him to take.

And I appreciate that you leave all of that stuff out (in the open). Like you said, everyone seems to be writing memoirs or biographies that sugar-coat a lot of the warts that people have, but you certainly leave all of that stuff in the mix, and I think it’s important to the story.

For example, there was this one English reviewer who couldn’t believe the racism stuff. And, you know, there were seven people on the record — I went back and counted seven people from ‘78 to ‘80 that brought it up. I didn’t push them. If it was one, I’d just move on. But SEVEN?!? (*both laugh*) That’s real. That’s real. But at the same time, I never heard anybody say anything about it in the ‘80s. I know his wife, Charlotte, has run for office and has been very active with an anti-racism, pro-feminist, pro-immigrant party in Sweden, and I think there was like a Zelig element to Jerry, that he when he was with people like that, he could keep that side of himself in check, but when it was an accepted thing or something that made you feel cool, it came out. I referenced the Lester Bangs article that came out in ‘79 about the New York scene and about racism in the New York scene. And, I have to be careful. I talked about this with my editor – here I am a white guy – a middle class white man – and I’m going to start explaining racism. I don’t want to be Mr. Whitesplainer, I just want to kind of put the facts out there, and he was pushing me saying “I don’t think this is an issue, you can just put the facts out there and say ‘hand’s off.”

So I tried to give it some context, but I didn’t want to seem like I was making excuses for him. If I had to classify it…there’s that term ‘microaggression’? Jerry was a major microaggressor, let’s put it like that. Barry Jones was kept out of the Sid Vicious band because he was black. Several people told me that. People who were in the room. Steve Dior suspected it. Babs Kane, Arthur’s wife, told me that was it. That was the scene then. If you had black people in your band, it was going to be tougher for you in New York. Fact. And, I couldn’t ignore that. I was painting a picture of Jerry, and I was painting a picture of the time. Johnny (Thunders) would just blurt out the “n word” in songs and on stage! Jesus Christ, people hold him up as some sort of cult hero, and you have to stop people and point out that he was a very flawed person, and Jerry was a very flawed person! This is the world they came out of. At the same time, his oldest, deepest, dearest friend, Buddy Bowzer, was black. His first bands, he was the only white guy in it. He loved those guys like brothers, and he would fight to the death with those guys. It is the most horrible cliche to use when somebody accuses you of being a racist that “some of my best friends are black.” It’s the oldest excuse, but when you look at Jerry, that is a fact. That is a fact. You just have to step back in wonderment and realize that people are complicated and complex and they’re not necessarily what you want them to be because it’s easy and comfortable for them to be that way. That was it.

Those warts are part of the story. It’s tough to glamorize somebody that lived that lifestyle and hold them up in high regard and not acknowledge that, because then you’re not telling the real story.

If you look at anybody’s life as closely as I looked at his, you’re going to find unpleasant things. You’re going to find contradictions and regrets. Five years ago, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were both against gay marriage. That’s how quickly society changes and how people view things changes. Now that’s the law, and if you’re against it people accuse you of being of homophobic. People don’t view Hillary and Obama as being homophobic, but that was their stance just five years ago. My point is, I’m not trying to make a political point, but to judge 1979 on 2017 terms, that’s going to happen. You’re just going to scratch your head and say “I can’t defend that…things were different then.”

Yeah, and he never, unfortunately, got a chance to really evolve with the times. Like you said, Hillary and Barack Obama were able to evolve their views based on new information, and Jerry died in ‘92, so he never got the chance to evolve that way.

Yeah, people do stupid things and ignorant things, but if you can give them the opportunity to learn and evolve, that’s a success, and like you said he didn’t have that chance. I think maybe he was (evolving) in the ‘80s, because it never came up again in conversation.

This is going to be a really long-winded question, as most of mine tend to be..(*both laugh*) In addition to saying congratulations on writing the book like I did, I also wanted to say thank you for writing it. As somebody who was born at literally the very end of the 1970s, I missed the punk explosion and the first and second waves entirely and I tried to absorb all of that stuff in hindsight and I always got the sense that the New York Dolls were one of those bands that, like Blondie or like the Talking Heads, that got lumped in with the New York punk scene but that weren’t what we thought of as punk bands in the 1990s. If your first experience with “punk music” was Bad Religion or Green Day, the New York Dolls are not that, whereas the Ramones were, and the Heartbreakers were closer. So it helped put that New York Dolls stuff in the appropriate context. I thought they didn’t quite fit in as I was growing up, and I realized that, yeah, they didn’t fit in. That was part of what made them who they were.

Yeah, I think so!

And that’s not really a question, I guess. It’s just a statement.

That first wave of New York punk; if you look at Television, the Ramones, Blondie, Suicide, Patti Smith, they’re all very different bands. The Ramones are the closest to what became a template for punk rock, with the leather jackets and the music but with Richard Hell’s hair and and torn clothes. The Ramones had long hair – they were like a ‘60s garage band when it came to hair – but everything else about them was pretty much “punk.” That was the template. You put bits of those two bands together and you’ve got the template. And that became the Sex Pistols, really. I mean, (Johnny) Rotten was the last piece that they didn’t have. The other three were a really ass-kicking rock and roll band but Rotten was the one that made it something else with the political piece. The political piece wasn’t really in New York. If there was any politics, it would sound too ‘60s in New York.

The Dolls, they were the great catalyst. They were the end of glam, the end of that New York scene, a bit of Lou Reed – the milieu of the Velvets and Lou Reed. All of those early bands — Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie — all of them had members who were deep New York Dolls fans, and they were just motivated by the idea that “if the Dolls can do it, we can do it.” If you can play three chords, maybe not play like Keith Emerson or Jimi Page and talk about what you want to talk about, than I could to it too! Talking Heads sound nothing like the Dolls. Tina (Weymouth, Talking Heads’ bassist) told me “I told David (Byrne) to look at this band! They’re in New York and if they can get accepted in New York we should go to New York too because they’ll accept us!” That was the Dolls great contribution. Well, and Johnny Thunders and Jerry. You listen to that Sex Pistols album, and so much of it sounds like Johnny and Jerry. It’s unfortunate, I don’t know if you saw that film Anvil about ten years ago. It was about this metal band out of Canada who struggled throughout the 1980s. They played the Monsters of Rock tour with Metallica and Slayer and some other band that became gigantic, and they’re all saying that “Anvil are so great! Anvil are so great! What happened?” And then you go to the present tense and the Anvil guys are like working in restaurant supply stores.

And the Heartbreakers were kind of like that when you look at the Anarchy tour. Those other bands, The Damned and the Pistols and The Clash are the bedrock of punk, and the Heartbreakers were playing rent gigs two years later. They fell apart. But when they went to England for that tour, that woke people up. All the bands got better after seeing the Heartbreakers, which was the irony, because the Dolls could be so undisciplined and not really play well at times as an ensemble. The Heartbreakers did it better. So yeah, my long-winded answer is that I did try to tie it all together. How the Dolls fed into punk, what was punk really like then, and what was Jerry’s contribution to it.

It is really is startling that that (the Dolls) were really only around for two, maybe three years in that lineup.

Yeah, Jerry came in in like December of ‘72 and March or April of ‘75 they were over. They were so explosive in New York. I remember Gregor Laraque, who played in a couple bands with Jerry in the ’80s because he had a van (*both laugh*) There were two things he would do: you’d hire him to put up posters around town, because he would do that at like three in the morning, or he would drive bands and their equipment around. So everybody knew Gregor. And he said “if the Dolls were playing in town that night, you didn’t want your band playing in town that night. Nobody would come!”

But outside of New York, there was just little pockets of it. That album cover killed them. It killed them! And the music was a little too raw and crude compared to the other glam acts who were still struggling. Bowie and T. Rex were not cleaning up in the United States during ‘72 and ‘73. Slade were doing okay, but they were all working bands. They had to work, you know? And Bowie would tell you he was broke ‘til like ‘79. He had that big tour at Madison Square Garden in ‘74 with Diamond Dogs and he had cranes and stuff, and he was broke. My point is that the Dolls’ influence is so deep in all those New York bands and (Malcolm) McLaren. McLaren took it to England and all those bands. Really, the fact that the Dolls are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the crime of the century to me. There was no more influential band. And then you look at the ’80s and the hair metal thing that lead up to Guns N Roses, who are in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame! Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt…that’s the Dolls! That drove Jerry crazy! That drove him insane!

For somebody who was as influential as Jerry was, my God he was the odd man out so many times over the years, whether because of him as a person or his bands, he’s the second guy on the totem poll all the time!

Yeah. He could be a bristly guy, but at the same time I found over and over that bands take drummers for granted. There was a Ramones documentary called End Of The Century and they talk to Johnny and Dee Dee, and the question was something like “Were you worried when Tommy left the band?” and the answer was like “nah, not really. We’ll just get another drummer.” Tommy formed that band, it was his vision, he was the only one that had experience as an engineer on some of those Hendrix repackages. He had to show everybody how to play their instruments and he became the drummer only because none of the other drummers could actually do it. He was so important. If it wasn’t for him, that band would never have happened. And for them to say “eh, we’ll just get another drummer, no big deal”… (*both laugh*)

It’s literally Spinal Tap.

I’ve seen it happen in other bands. I loved playing in the Rockats, they were great guys, we’re still friends. And I thought we were really good when I played with them. Not always great. It was not as good as when Jerry was in the band. I saw that band at least a half-dozen times, and they were fantastic with Jerry. Jim Marshall, who’s a DJ in New York, great guy, said “I remember seeing them as Levi and the Rockats they were kind of a pretty boy band, and then Jerry joined and they were a rock and roll band!” People just take for granted the drummer, but when you take them out of the mix, you realize something’s not right.

Was there a sense that you had to play like Jerry when you followed him up (in Rockats)?

No one had to tell me to do that. I wanted to do that. I mean, I loved Ringo and I wanted to play like Ringo, and there were some other jazz/swing influences that I could bring to the band. Just the way I had my snare drum leaned forward like the old jazz guys did. The roadies didn’t understand, because they were used to rock and roll. I knew that was a side that the music needed, that sort of swing piece. But yeah, I do think drummers are taken for granted and Jerry felt that. It would flip a switch in him going back to when he was a kid and his father abandoned him and took the other kids. He was always this kind of unimportant, outsider guy. Add that to the New York chip on your shoulder and it doesn’t make for the most friendly person. Although he was a friendly guy. He was a charming guy. A raconteur.

Well sure, just look at the amount of people who contributed to the book and had positive things to say about him in spite of how cold and prickly he could be.

Oh yeah! Like Lyn Todd loved Jerry so much. Even Charlotte, who divorced him, feels somewhat indebted to Jerry for so many good things.

Yeah, you talk later on about how she didn’t experience a lot of things growing up and he introduced her to a lot of that stuff, good bad and otherwise.

Oh yeah! Steve Dior and Barry Jones loved Jerry and could talk about Jerry ripping them off and lying to them and just kind of laughing about it now. They really still loved him. I remember Ernie White talking about being at Jerry’s funeral and just saying “I cried like a baby. I cried like a baby!” That’s not just somebody who’s another drummer.

Once you had all these stories together, how long did it take to compile things into an actual book? Was there a point where you had to cut off the collecting story part because the tree of knowledge started to just become a wreath with all stories winding around each other?

Yeah, it does. It’s like those vines in your backyard that you can’t control. There was a period…I started weaving it together in 2010 or 2011, and I had a version I’m going to say in 2013. A very oral history that was really still raw and it may have been like 700 pages.

Wow!

And that’s when I started looking for agents. I wrote a narrative chapter somewhere in 2014 or ‘15 — the one where the second album had just come out. That was the first narrative where I took the raw history stuff and wrote it into a story. That was 2014, and I think we got a deal in 2015. Then I had about a year, a little more than a year, to make a presentable manuscript, and I got it down to about 170,000 words, then I got it down to 130,000. That’s what I submitted, about 130-135,000 words. The contract was for only 75,000! But I just couldn’t do it! In time, it took them a few weeks to figure out who to work with, and they found Mike Edison to help me. Mike used to play in a band and he’s a drummer himself, and he’s a good writer himself. He’s helped a lot of people. I think they thought that his sensibility in being a drummer would help. He helped me get it down to a little over 100,000 words. It’s madness, that last year.

To hand in a manuscript took me close to a year. I had eight years or nine years of gathering up material, but you start writing narratives and you realize there’s a little piece missing. You have to hunt for that piece, and if you can find it in a previous book or magazine or documentary, that’s great. Sometimes you have to call someone. I think I called Walter a couple of times and said “this doesn’t make sense…what happened here? What happened there?” There are stories I left out that I thought were poignant and beautiful that I thought just didn’t work anywhere so I had to pull them out, but I still have them all. I would have loved to sit down with Debbie Harry for an hour. I would have loved to sit down with Steve Jones for an hour. In ‘83, there was a period where Jerry lived in Pimlico I think, in London, with Tony James and Johnny Thunders and Steve Jones. Steve Jones doesn’t mention it in his book. I would have loved to sit down with Bette Midler and gotten something from her.

God, I wonder what that would take.

Who can imagine!

I think that that was one of the parts of the book that I was especially blown away with. It never remotely dawned on me that there would have been a connection between the two of them, so her name almost stuck out like a sore thumb.

I know! I know! Syl brought it up again, when they were in some TV studio in LA, it was in the same studio as Carson’s Tonight Show, and Bette Midler used to be on that show all the time. She was so happy to see them! Her star just rocketed. Peter Criss’s star just rocketed. And Suzy Quatro. And for Johnny to leave…it was really painful for Jerry to take, and I guess that’s where heroin came in. I don’t know..did you play in bands?

No, I noodled around on guitar and bass over the years but coincidentally could never find a drummer that was either really good or unfortunately could stay out of rehab.

There’s like a panic. I’ve been in bands where even if you choose to leave, you’re kind of in a panic for a while. Like, “oh my god, why did I leave? Why did they throw me out?” And I think Jerry felt that panic when the Dolls were falling apart. He felt like he knew it. And he was like 28 at the time, which is old for the time. And I think he thought “oh my god, that’s it for me! My train has left the station! What am I going to do now?” And that’s sort of where heroin took hold. Other people, their careers are ascending and his isn’t and I think it was so painful for him. It was so painful to be left behind. Heroin made him happy. And that’s what people that use heroin say. People describe it as “like my mother holding me in her arms.” It’s that deep. Think about when people are dying and in the worst pain ever. What do we give them? Morphine! Heroin! That’s what he found helped him, and it’s sad that he didn’t have the skills to get through it in another way, and that our society wasn’t able to help him. All we did is stigmatize him more, and that just made him want to use more heroin.

In my day job, I work in an addiction counseling treatment setting, so I’m very familiar with that concept, unfortunately.

Did you ever read Gabor Mate’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts?

No, not yet.

It came out about five years ago. There’s a zillion books about addiction and drugs, as you probably know better than I, but that is really one of those demarcation points in drug and addiction understanding, not just drug addiction but sex and gambling and all of the other different things. He makes the point – and it’s not his point, he credits other people — with intravenous drug addicts, 99% – and probably the other 1% are lying or don’t remember — but 99% have had some sort of trauma as a child.

Yeah, I would probably agree with that.

You look at it: Richard Hell’s father died suddenly when he was ten years old, Dee Dee had a terrible relationship with his father, Johnny (Thunders)’ father left when he was born. Jerry’s father was not really his father. Even the guys like in the Idols and the London Cowboys, Barry Jones and Steve Dior — Barry’s father left him very young and Steve was adopted. It’s there, it’s somewhere in the psyche, it just does something to your chemical makeup. And another thing, and I know I’m really going off on a tangent, but only because you said you worked in an addictions center, is cortisol. Cortisol is a naturally occurring chemical in your body — 

–when you get stressed, right.

Yeah, when you are really stressed and you feel it in your stomach, that’s cortisol. And when Jerry’s mother was carrying him, she was a stressed mother; stressed because she’s carrying the child of a person who is not her husband. That stress, that cortisol, and the cortisol is transferred to the child. It has it’s impact, a permanent impact. And so you put those two things together and it did something to Jerry. It made him more susceptible to addiction.

Sure, and then once you actually add the heroin into the mix…

Oh yeah, it’s like he found his love. I think Nancy Quatro said to him, when he got into heroin, that “oh, this is your new girlfriend, Jerry.”

I get the sense, in reading the book that Jerry would be proud that his story was finally being told. There’s all the talk about Peter Criss and Bette Midler and Johnny Thunders and whoever and their stars rocketing by him. I get the sense that he’d be proud that this was coming out and that his face was on the cover of a book in 2017. I think he’d think it was a cool thing.

I think in general he would. I would sense he would have some problems with some things that are in the book. But you know those interviews that he did with the Village Voice near the end of his life were very revealing. They don’t reveal everything, and also sometimes don’t know themselves real well or they have problems admitting certain things to themselves. But yeah, he was working on a memoir himself. Nina Antonia was going to do the London research and Victor Bockris was going to do the US research, and I think after he died everybody just went on to other things. Yeah…I think he wanted his due. It irked him so much that all these other bands, be it the hair metal bands of the ’80s or the British punk bands, got credit for so much that he and Johnny and the Dolls or the Heartbreakers really spearheaded. That drove him insane. Nina Antonia, I remember her being almost apoplectic explaining to me how crazy it drove Jerry. And I remember Doug Simmons from the Village Voice who did all those interviews said it drove Jerry crazy that the “Brits were little kids, as far as (Jerry) was concerned, who could barely play much less shoot heroin, and they were getting all the credit. It drove him insane.

I get the sense that he didn’t take it personally on those guys, necessarily, as much as on the popularity that their band had taken on.

Yeah, the British guys all loved him. Tony James talks about how much he loved spending time with Jerry. And the Anarchy tour, they’d all just sit around and Jerry would just tell stories, because he had real stories to tell from touring with the Dolls. They really looked up to him. There’s a picture that Joe Stevens took of (John) Lydon and Jerry together at CBGB’s in what looks to be about 1979. So they were obviously still friendly if they would run into each other. But, you know, none of them asked Jerry to join their bands…

Because of the heroin.

Yeah, I think so. It’s just too much. As your band ascends and you have to be that much more responsible, I really go into detail about the Rockats and what it was like, and they didn’t even have a record deal yet. This was not sustainable. You had to stop in methadone clinics in every city. Leee Childers was the funniest when he goes “methadone is the biggest scam – I think it was developed by a junkie!” Methadone was the safety net so he doesn’t go into withdrawal, but he still wanted to get high!

Just the image — I think it was the Rockats — of them scheduling those early tour dates around where they could get to methadone clinics the next morning is both comical and heart-breaking, you know?

It is! It is! In England when poor Leee would have to go get a big quart bottle and he would have to hold on to it because he knew that they would abuse it or sell it. And they would just be calling him from the second they woke up in the morning. That was Jerry’s thing, the first thing he did every day was go to the methadone clinic, and if it opened at 7, he would be there at 7. That’s one thing he would never miss. So they were waiting for Leee to come by with their methadone and at 7:02 they’d be on the phone going “where’s Leee? Where’s Leee?” Really, in the end, people tell me he was more a methadone addict.

Did you get the sense that there was ever much clean time at all once he actually started with the methadone?

Not really. There was a little bit on the Anarchy tour where he was clean. A short period, but then they got back to London and he went right back to shooting dope. I think after that, outside of the times he would be arrested, he was on something every day of his life. It’s sad. He just couldn’t get off.

And yet he played. And he played as influentially as anybody.

He did. He was sort of losing it toward the end. The Dolls were never great ensemble players – the skill and art of playing together, listening to each other. Like, Ringo Starr is not a technical master but he’s a master ensemble player. You listen to the song, you know what your part is, and the others do the same, they listen to you. They play with each other. Johnny (Thunders) was so out of control, which was one of the things that was really exciting about him, but he was just like an explosion. And Syl, did things in his own way to keep things together but he was putting on his own little show. Johansen’s the singer…he’s a sphinx at the side of the stage. They really didn’t play “together.” Jerry’s job was to drive it and for them to follow him in whatever ways he could get them to, but that was often futile. He did an amicable job (*both laugh*) of keeping the chaos somewhat presentable.

But that first Dolls, album, even with its sloppy playing, is as good as any record out there. L.A.M.F. is a flawed masterpiece, but there’s still a magic to it. The import of that record, as much of a mess as it was, but Paul Westerberg of the Replacements loved it, and Henry Rollins from Black Flag and one of the guys from the Undertones and Johnny Marr from the Smiths. Think about that — The Replacements, Black Flag and The Smiths, the core of ’80s indie rock, outside of R.E.M. and The Cure – although Peter Buck is a record collector so he probably was into it. You have to really give deep credit to The Heartbreakers as one of the most important influences in ’80s indie rock, and people don’t do that. But it’s a fact. You think about the Dolls and the Heartbreakers, Johnny and Jerry, who in the last forty years have been as influential as those two? Very few!


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