Life & Culture

The Life and Times of a New York Doll

Jerry Nolan was a gang member then band member, drumming for The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, and pioneering the genre of punk rock – this is his story

Hailing from Brooklyn, back when it was still a gang town, Jerry Nolan (1946-1992) was an indisputable force in shaping the look and sound of the city’s biggest glam and punk rock bands. As the drummer for The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, Nolan set the pace, crafting the face of hard rock during the 1970s – a distinctive combination that was at once raw, rough and rugged, yet highly dandified and charismatic.

“Jerry saw Elvis when he was really young, back in 1956. It reminded him of the gangs he saw in New York,” says Curt Weiss, author of Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – a Tale of Drugs, Fashion, The New York Dolls, and Punk Rock (BackBeat Books), which released its Kindle edition yesterday. “For Jerry, gangs and rock and roll were interchangeable. It was a secondary family. He never had a dad; his mother kept divorcing, remarrying, and moving around. The only constant men in his life came through gangs or music.”

Nolan, who had learned to sew and cut hair, created what he described as a “profile,” which allowed him to stand above the crowd. “People thought he was in a band even when he wasn’t,” Weiss notes. But soon enough, he was. He joined The New York Dolls in 1972 after drummer Billy Murcia died of asphyxiation following efforts to revive him after a drug overdose while on tour in England.

“Jerry had been playing in bands like Suzy Quattro, Billy Squier, Wayne County – he could play with anybody,” Weiss recounts. “He laid down that beat and reminded everyone where the cuts, accents, and changes were. He was a master of simplicity on that first record. His style of drumming is a template for what Paul Cook did with The Sex Pistols.”

Hailed as the second coming of The Rolling Stones, The Dolls recorded and released their eponymous debut album in 1973, filling the void left by the dissolution of The Velvet Underground. True provocateurs on all fronts, The Dolls embraced cross-dressing decades ahead of popular culture, donning high heels, flamboyant hats and androgynous clothes as decidedly cisgender heterosexuals.

“If you listen to that first album, there’s not a bad song,” Weiss opines. “They are three-minute packages of pop songs, with that unmistakable Johnny Thunders sound of an alley cat whose tail hit the third rail. It’s very simple but they were undisciplined, sloppy, and out of tune. The press loved them but the problem was taking it to the radio and taking it outside of New York. They were too early. America was not ready for men who looked like women.”

Although commercial sales were poor, Malcolm McLaren took notice and decided to manage them. “Malcolm spurred them on to write new songs including Red Patent Leather [which is] about Chairman Mao,” Weiss explains. “They played behind a hammer and sickle. And this was in ‘75 when America was still in the Cold War. It was too early and too raw.”

After their second album Too Much Too Soon (1974) failed to sell, a feeling of panic overcame Nolan. “Jerry was doing heroin,” Weiss explains. “He and guitarist Johnny Thunders bonded over that. Jerry’s trauma was abandonment – not really having a father; Johnny also never knew his father.”

The Dolls end came on a Malcolm McLaren led tour. Vocalist David Johansen got sick of them and said they were replaceable. Nolan told him, ‘The hell with you.’” He and Thunders returned to New York where they were treated like kings. In 1975, they started The Heartbreakers, a new band with bassist Richard Hell and Walter Lure.

“It was their way to move into the new look, the new sound,” Weiss explains “As much as The Dolls kick-started CBGB, they were still at the end of glam. The Heartbreakers immediately went to the front of the class. The problem was they were unrepentant drug addicts.”

McLaren invited The Heartbreakers on The Sex Pistols’ infamous Anarchy in the UK tour, where they only played seven of the 19 gigs booked. “They got a record deal out of it – but again, they had the wrong people in the studio. The record, L.A.M.F. – gang slang for ‘Like a Mother Fucker’ – is a flawed masterpiece,” says Weiss.

Yet once again, the band was unable to crossover. “That lack of success, the lack of success of The Dolls, watching Peter Criss, a childhood friend who wasn’t half the drummer he was become a star in KISS, Suzy Quattro sell millions of records, that all just tore at him,” Weiss goes on.

“Even Thunders, a walking trainwreck, was still a cult star. Johnny, just like all those father figures, would eventually abandon him. Jerry had a lot of pain. But he was not bitter. He helped define these two bands both musically and stylistically who are as influential as anyone – from Bob Dylan to David Bowie. There are so many bands that saw The Dolls and got the message.”

Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – a Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock, published by BackBeat Books, is now available on Kindle.