My second punk rock obsession after Never Mind the Bollocks was the New York Dolls’ self-titled album. “Personality Crisis” is a near-perfect encapsulation of teenage hormones firing in ten different directions at once, in a way that was sloppy, aggressive, sexy, and a little dangerous. Fairly or not to the other band members though, my fandom never went much beyond an obsession with Johnny Thunders and a fascination with the fact that David Johansen was also “Hot Hot Hot” Buster Poindexter. Curt “Lewis King” Weiss definitely put his research work in, and the result is a comprehensive and enlightening read on Jerry Nolan, whose drumming with the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers put him actively in the eye of the New York punk storm since the very beginning.
True to the biography’s subtitle, Nolan was a consummate thrift shop fashion plate whose ear for stylish ‘50s rockers like early Elvis and Eddie Cochran in his youth informed his belief in the power of slick personal presentation on stage (or “profilin”). Perhaps the biggest musical influence in Nolan’s life, though, is jazz drummer and band leader Gene Krupa. Weiss brings just enough analysis of technique to the table to tease out subtleties and illuminate facets of Jerry’s craft behind the drums without slipping into pedantics. Nolan’s Pre-Dolls and Heartbreakers career is traced all the way from his early teenage garage bands in Lawton, Okla., to his first recorded bands in the late ’60s, Peepl and Maximillian, who attempted to ride the wave of psychedelia that emerged in the wake of Jimi Hendrix. Along the way, Jerry had a drive for true fame that was constantly just slightly out of his reach, but exacerbated by people he came across in his life, like his childhood best friend Peter Criss and a dalliance with young Bette Middler.
Unfortunately, like many of these early punk stories, heroin might as well get second billing. By the time of the New York Dolls, Jerry was a daily heroin and methadone user. Nolan’s and Thunders’ bromance, while producing some amazing music, was also quite likely a slow death sentence for both of them, as the rest of their lives became about copping above all else. The book doesn’t shy away from Jerry’s dark side. He was unquestionably an asshole on many levels. While he engaged in the standard rock star tropes like womanizing and becoming a controlling egoist, there were also some tendencies of his that really went beyond, such as his stubbornly ingrained racist attitudes (despite being friends with many people of color), and the eagerness with which he and Johnny Thunders took in introducing people to heroin. For many early punks though, sketchy behavior is often par for the course, so hopefully most people are smarter than to look towards them as role models. –Adrian Salas (Backbeat Books, 33 Plymouth St. Suite 302, Montclair, NJ 07042, backbeatbooks.com)