JERRY Nolan, arguably the best punk and post-punk drummer ever, New York Doll, heartbreaker and Heartbreaker – and that even rarer thing, a dignified junkie – is the subject of this forensically detailed and brilliantly written biography, Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride. It’s one of those books that is so good, you get a mild panic attack as you approach the end of it, knowing you are no longer entwined in the cheap, druggy, messy and twisted world of (mainly) 1970’s New York, and that in the end, all the important people die- in this case, Nolan’s former bandmate and best frenemy Johnny Thunders – and Nolan himself.
Weiss , a drummer himself, does that rare thing so difficult to achieve in a rock biog: he keeps his avid fandom in check, writing with grace and distance about a guy who was faultless as a musician, but not always the nicest person to deal with personally. While knowingly and rightfully praising Nolan’s technically excellent chops and impeccable sense of style and charm, he acknowledges, through seemingly hundreds of interviews with former friends, lovers, bandmates, and other writers – that there came a point where it was hard to know where Jerry ended and heroin dictated his every human interaction. This, as in the best writing, is shown, not told, though hundreds of anecdotes – that Nolan didn’t really know how to navigate life and love without a pin in his arm, or a glug of methadone.
Within this pacey, rollercoaster of a book, charting Nolan’s teenage obsession with great musicians, notably Gene Krupa, his early years with the Dolls, The Heartbreakers, and the madness of world-touring while in full-blown heroin addiction – there are moments when you think he was actually a bit of a jerk.
He used women for money and stability, he was casually racist, a liar, and a thief. Even the most articulate and close-to-Nolan apologists, notably ex-girlfriend and talented art director Lesley Vinson – who was a sort of It Girl on the NYC early punk scene – seems to waffle a bit when asked about Nolan’s racism, trying to contextualise it by saying he was working class and that was the norm.
While largely about Nolan himself, this book is also a wonderful chronicle of time, place, movement and just what the heck was going on in NY when punk was in its blossoming years; when you could have a terrible job or no job and still have a roof over your head, if you had, like Nolan, wit, charm, looks and magnetism. It also flags up the weird collisions of seemingly incompatible lives. Of course we knew the very mainstream and incredibly young (then) Todd Rundgren produced the first Dolls LP, but it seems so strange, now, as does Nolan’s not his usual type romantic liason with … Bette Midler. A truly wtf moment in one of many.
In one gem of a sentence, Weiss sums up not only all the things about Nolan that did not seem to “fit” Nolan, the paradox of the tidy junkie, the boy “girl” the swift progression and even swifter decline of all the bands he was in, and his inability to ever hit the big time, fame or moneywise, despite his undeniable talent and charisma: oddly, he’s not talking about Nolan here, but Rundgren, “He also saw them (The Dolls) as funny and possessing a real rock and roll attitude, which might overcome their lack of technical ability.”
While those of us too young to have ever seen them live have to take other peoples’s words for it that they were much better live than on records ( which I think are great) , we still have this comprehensive history – a book I will no doubt lose as I do all my favourites, in thrusting it into someone else’s hand and saying, “You HAVE to read this.” Why not spare me the misery and just buy one?
by Michele Kirsch
Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride by Curt Weiss (Backbeat books, $US 24.99).
The book is also available on Amazon (£18.25)