Even in the pre-Costco days of the 1970s, his minions were somehow able to wheedle methadone from the Brit clinics two quarts at a time…”
by marc covert
Heroin addiction is like driving a car with the steering going out. You eventually resign yourself to the inevitability of what’s going to happen. – David Bowie
He was falling between glacial walls, he didn’t know how anyone could fall so far away from everyone else in the world. So far to fall, so cold all the way, so steep and dark between those morphine-coloured walls…
Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm
In case you haven’t heard, heroin addiction is no joke—never has been, sure as hell isn’t now, and for damn sure never will be. It’s easy to resort to maudlin descriptions of the hardscrabble life of the rock and roll junkie, or to marvel from afar at tales of smack-driven depravity—Keith Richards’ Life is filled with them—especially when writing about legendary, much-loved train wrecks like Johnny Thunders or his seminal band, the New York Dolls. In his new biography, Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride—A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock, author Curt Weiss delivers a wide-ranging, unvarnished treatment of Thunders’ longtime bandmate and co-conspirator, drummer Jerry Nolan.
Weiss, a drummer in his own right who for years skirted around the edges of Nolan’s careening life and career, started the book in 2006, realizing that Nolan’s life and influence on the New York punk scene was a story left for the most part untold. His timing gave him the advantage of being able to track down still-living friends, lovers, family, and band members, many of whom did not live to see the result of his efforts. Leee Black Childers, who played such a prominent role as storyteller and protagonist/participant in Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, died in 2014; Nolan’s doting and indulgent mother, Charlotte Ballas-Nolan, passed recently; Tommy Ramone made his final exit in 2014 as well.
Had he lived, Nolan would be 72 years old today, which means his rock and roll credentials went way back. Weiss describes Jerry’s wonder at seeing Elvis when he was 11—while he was impressed at Presley’s sense of style and showmanship, it was his older sister’s reaction that stayed with him. He watched in awe as she and hundreds of other young girls lost their collective minds, and saw something he liked. He was able to meet his idol, Gene Krupa, by just hanging around outside his shows in New York and pestering him to talk drumming, style, and any number of inappropriate topics for such a young lad. Charlotte, the Nolan matriarch, scraped together the money her son needed to indulge his passions—mainly clothes and drums—through numerous moves and jobs and father figures. One stepfather is described as an Army sergeant and closeted knitter who outed himself to Jerry by beating the hell out of Charlotte with his knitting needles.
Twenty pages in Jerry’s future is more or less set. According to his girlfriend at the time, Corinne Healy: “Jerry never wanted to do anything but play the drums. There’s actors…they’ll wait tables and stuff like that. He didn’t want to do any of that.” Weiss writes:
Gregor recalled that “the only books Jerry ever read” were by the celebrated pimp Iceburg Slim, who most-famous books were Trick Baby: The Biography of a Con Man and Pimp: The Story of My Life. Slim’s work was lauded by gangsta rappers including Ice T and Ice Cube, whose names alone were undeniable homages. “He got a lot of weird stuff from Iceburg Slim, ways of talking…and how he treated girls,” recalled Gregor.
Taking a pimp as one’s role model is not what most people would describe as “enlightened.” But Jerry was committed to his lifestyle. “I always thought he had only one goal, and that was to be a rock star,” said Art. Others existed only to serve that purpose.
The story arc of the New York Dolls only takes up 56 pages—Part 2, “Babylon”—which seems appropriate for a band that blasted its way into legend in such febrile and tragic fashion. Nolan’s turn as drummer came after the accidental death of Billy Murcia (which torpedoed a $100,000 advance deal with Track Records), so life as a New York Doll was even shorter for him, but of course it led to the doomed, symbiotic partnership of Nolan and Thunders. Here, finally, is where heroin rears its ugly head, to sadly predictable results.
Part 3, “Too Much Junkie Business,” is the real meat of Weiss’ book. His use of first-hand anecdotes does a fine job of keeping Nolan and the Heartbreakers from appearing flat and caricatured. The Heartbreakers’ first tour of England coincided with the early days of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, The Damned, and many bands of the wakening punk scene; they were seasoned veterans compared to the Brits and it showed:
But everyone was in awe of the New Yorkers, not only because of Johnny and Jerry’s stint with the Dolls, but owing to Leee’s previous work with Bowie, Iggy, and Mott [the Hoople]. These were members of royalty within their midst. Still, the Pistols felt they were the local stars, and were fearful of the Heartbreakers, who dressed and acted like New York toughs. The Damned rode in their own vehicle, but the other three shared a bus. Leee: “It was like a school bus. The Heartbreakers went straight to the back. The Sex Pistols sat in the front, and the Clash were in the middle. The bad boys go to the back, the smelly little ass-kissers sit in the front because they’re the stars, and the poor little boys who are just glad to be on the bus at all take any seats they can get. It would have been absolutely forgone for Johnny and Jerry to be in the very back of the bus, back of the classroom, back of everything.”
Leee Childers was managing the Heartbreakers, against his own and others’ better judgement, and his stories lend the ring of authority to Weiss’ book. It was Leee’s sad duty to keep his charges supplied with methadone in England, one he wisely delegated when possible. Even in the pre-Costco days of the 1970s, his minions were somehow able to wheedle methadone from the Brit clinics two quarts at a time (“They would go and lie to the doctor, who knew they were lying. They knew he knew they were lying. The he would hand Dibbs two quarts of methadone. Quarts!”), not to mention doling out what little money they made, arranging for recording sessions, and generally playing the role of den mother to a pack of fantastically talented junkie swindlers.
Jerry had a long list of women in his life, many of whom talked to Weiss, providing some of the more candid reflections on his subject’s many facets. Dolls-era girlfriend Michelle Piza provides devastating testament to Jerry the junkie thief; Phyllis Stein, who saw enough vulnerability and humanness in Jerry to give him a place to stay toward the end of his life; wife Charlotte Lotten delivers one of the most jarring recollections in the book: “Jerry was Catholic and very serious about marriage. It got to be a very important commitment for me too. Jerry was a committed, loyal, and great husband…but he did introduce me to smack.”
Weiss is careful to let Nolan’s times and events and those who were there paint the overall picture of his life and influence. Hero worship and whitewash have no place in Stranded in the Jungle, and it’s gratifying to see such a strong work on one of the most underrated and tragic figures in rock and roll. It’s been written that many who saw the Dolls walked away wondering if they had just seen the greatest or the worst show of their lives. Weiss’ book leaves it to readers to decide the same thing about Jerry Nolan.
Stranded in the Jungle
Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride—A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock
By Curt Weiss, with a forward by Chris Stein
Backbeat Books, 2017
310 p., $24.99