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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!