Sticks & Style: The Art of Jerry Nolan
Nina Antonia, Spiral Scratch, August 1991
Even on one of those nights when playing with Johnny Thunders was reminiscent of Custer’s last stand, Jerry Nolan remained infallible in both technique and stance; caught behind the drum pulpit, features as immobile as some Egyptian monument – a testimonial of impenetrable cool. In dressing rooms, Nolan would disengage himself from the swarming litany of often dubious backstage characters. Carving out a solitary comer, preferring to call the shots on whose company he sought, if, in fact, there was any. This exterior armour is a necessary prerequisite for the life he leads. It’s an arena and he’s the gladiator. However, Nolan, when ready, can de-mask himself with disarming ease and charm; tilting back his black hat, revealing hair a desperate shade of Diana Dors blonde and a smile that owes more to Huckleberry Finn and summertime days than any of the old, bleak narcotic wounds. For the historians amongst you, the following material was gathered episodically from 1984-87, between soundcheck and gig, in hotel rooms and en route to airports. Back then, Nolan had a distinct air of exile about him, having taken up residence in Sweden “I go through hell and high water there, it’s pretty boring…I miss television, things like that. I can always rent a video, if things get that bad!”
A vivid narrator, Nolan reflected on past and present in almost celluloid terms. The result is practically a monologue, the questions having been discussed prior to the interview sessions.
Early 1960’s: High School Hopes
“Early jazz music, like swing, influenced me. The whole atmosphere and environment around it, inspired me a great deal because swing jazz had the same approach and dynamics as early rock ‘n’ roll, did. The whole idea, the way musicians looked in books, made me feel like ‘Wow! There’s something more to music than just being a musician’ – it’s fun…I saw excitement in it. The fore-runners, like Gene Krupa for instance; he was the first drummer to bring out drums to be a solo instrument – he even headed an orchestra, and of course, he, was an exciting drummer. At the time, I was living in Oklahoma and I was in Junior High School. The things I was interested in and wanted to learn, they just didn’t teach. I have a terrible education except for music and art. I used to play hookey a lot and one day – as I was in the school band, I played the marching drum – The Gene Krupa Story was playing in this theatre in Lorton, Oklahoma. I went in at 12 when it opened and stayed until 12 at night. It totally changed my life. I was so shy, I didn’t even have the guts at a little prom to ask a girl to dance with me…and guess what…in my maths class, a new girl came and sat next to me, she was absolutely gorgeous, I loved her. Her name was Cathy Brill and she and she used to have this beautiful hairstyle they used to have in those days – it was like your basic 60s style – teased up in the back, and an extremely exaggerated DA. She looked like Kim Novak with black hair and I was shy and nervous because of my grades.
Anyway, I used to rehearse with this black kid, Buddy. He had first approached me after a school band rehearsal and said “Hey man, I can tell you’re from New York, aren’t ya?” – and these Oklahoma guys were all real hicks, rednecks with crew cuts, white socks and penny loafers – but I wore continental suits and had this big pompadour. Those types of people are very prejudiced – I’m from New York, Buddy’s a black musician – so the guys hated us. I finally learned to play a full set of drums and played the school assembly talent show, just me and Buddy on the saxophone. We tore the place up. Buddy said, ‘Let’s go in the hallway and get a drink of water’ so we went in and everyone was coming up to us, saying it was great. That changed my whole life, I wasn’t ashamed any more – I could finally do something real good…and that girl, Cathy, I got her for a girlfriend.
1970’s: New York Dolls – Max Factory Miners
Before I was in the Dolls, I used to have to settle for playing with lots of different types of bands – I auditioned for Suzi Quatro and everything worked out well, so I drove back to Detroit with them. I lived with them all summer, did a few gigs but it ended up that Suzi got an offer from an English guy and you know what happened to her career after that. I went back to New York where I was playing with all kinds of people – I was even playing with this old Italian guy that used to play bars all over Queens. Then I started playing with Wayne County, that was when the Dolls were formed. I started to get to know the boys, especially Billy (Murcia), the first drummer, and Syl and Johnny. When the Dolls first started, Syl wasn’t even in them. They had this guy Rick Rivets, Syl was in a band I was in. When I saw Dolls at rehearsal, I respected their ideas very highly. They didn’t play so well and being a little older, I was more advanced as a musician, so a lot of my friends used to say ‘Jesus Christ, Jerry, how could you play with these guys? They don’t play so good.’ And I said ‘Hey man, you’re missing the whole point – nobody plays so good at first….what they’ve got, what I see in their approach and music, that’s magic!”
Before I met Johnny, I had seen him and his girl friend around, many times. Johnny was a great dresser, you just couldn’t miss him. Johnny and his girl friend were very similar, they both looked beautiful, original. His girl friend had a lot to do with creating Johnny’s style; I think he’ll even admit that. She was very fashion inclined and sort of kicked it off for him. Johnny took it from there, created his own look. Me and my friends used to say, ‘There’s that couple again and don’t they look great’, and do you know what else I said? ‘That guys a musician, I’m going to play with him one day’. First I met Johnny I told him that. I said ‘Do you play?’ and he said ‘Yeah, I play bass.’ I said ‘We’re going to be in a band together’. I felt it and I knew.
1980’s Blue Valentines
I was asked recently on a Swedish TV documentary (Rock Around The Drugs) about drugs and their use and my responsibility towards the public’s attitude. The interviewer was going on about should or shouldn’t I care about whether people take drugs, or not. You can’t answer a question like that simply yes or no. It can be a delicate subject and it’s a hard thing to talk about. People are different; people are involved in drugs in different ways. I n some ways, it’s not anybody’s concern…in other ways maybe it is a little bit. Drugs, on the whole, can be a very big problem for a lot of people. It’s been a problem with me. Most of the time I would like to say in my life I have no regrets. If I lived it over again, I’d like to do it the same way.
Sometimes I feel that way and I’d like to say that. But, if you really get down to it, it’s not like I regret my life, but I do have some regrets because my drug involvement has hurt many people I love and who love me, and that’s hard to take. So, I do have some regrets and I think if I lived my life again, I would make a few changes. I do notice that even out of bad, good things come – believe it or not, out of some of the terrible things that drugs have caused me, learning for instance, just who your friends are. Learning about your weaknesses. There was a time when I used to be a good fighter in my heart and soul, and mentally, and usually I won my battles. This is the first time I ever lost a battle. I had a very hard time losing the drugs battle. It was hard for me to take, but I found out a lot about myself, too. That has helped me for the future. Of course, drugs have affected my relationship with Johnny to some degree, but like I said, even out of bad some good things come, even if it’s just a learning experience. Not that I’m suggesting anybody should do such fucked up things just to learn a lesson. You’ve got to know where the line is between courage and foolishness. I respect courage, but it reaches the stage where it can be foolish too – you have to learn where that line is. I think me and Johnny have learned. Sometimes we’re slow learners, but I’d like to think we’ve learnt some lessons – I sure hope so.”
S&N And Other Volumes…
Then of course, there is the autobiography…in 1987, while I was working on my own book, Nolan, during (yet another) interview, inquired as to how much old press I had. Why? He has his own chapters to write: “Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I got more of a story to tell than that. Obviously, that’s going to be the most important part. I’ve got a few interesting stories…” Understatement. From past girl friend Bette Middler: “When I met her, she actually gave me one of those Mae West come- ons, ‘Hey big boy!’, camping it up, she was real cute.”…To going to see Dion and Frankie Lymon at the Alan Freed show in the 1950’s, to the Chelsea hotel room of Sid and Nancy.
What did you think of the film considering you’d known them both? “I didn’t like the Sid and Nancy film too much. I could see a little bit of humour in it, and I could probably see why maybe a lot of people liked it; but a lot of those same people also buy records that aren’t worth buying. What’s his name, the guy who wrote it, Cox? He called me up one day before he made the film – to this very day I don’t know why he called me – he didn’t ask me anything in particular…the only thing I got out of him was that he’s got a script he’s going to send me, which is the second script of another script. So I said, ‘Fine, what’s your reason for sending it?’ I couldn’t get a straight answer. I said, ‘Look, what is it you want from me? Do you want some information? Do you want me in this film?’ No, he didn’t want me for the film, which is understandable, ten years had gone by. We got into some conversation about Sid; I don’t know how we led into the subject, I was probably wanting to say something to break the monotony. We started talking about the so-called murder, stabbing scene, or whatever…I said to him I had a possible theory, even before I spoke to Sid and he was arrested.
At the time, I thought, if he did stab Nancy, this is what happened…other than the actual stabbing, I know that he was on a lot of barbiturates – and I knew Sid and Nancy very well; especially Nancy. Anyway, I suggested to him (Cox) that if there was a stabbing, he was not only on dope, but barbiturates.
Barbiturates are a very funny thing. You have strong memory lapses and confusing dream-like qualities, especially if you don’t do many, which he didn’t. And he didn’t do all that much heroin, but when he did it, it was so strong. The film portrayed Sid totally out of character. Sid put on a certain act, they came across with the act, but it wasn’t really the one he did put on. I described the exact scene in the film of how Sid supposedly stabbed Nancy – not in cold blood – just confusion…fighting, both sort of wanting to commit suicide…it just sort of happened.
Me and Sid were very close. The day he got out of jail, he was looking great, very clean, he had brand new clothes on. Malcolm (McLaren) happened to have bought him new jeans, new boots and a new sweater, and I gave him my black and white motorcycle jacket. We got to talking, the conversation started getting a little serious…he brought up Nancy…he said ‘I’m kind of feeling low’ though he wasn’t into no suicidal talking – he says ‘You Know Jerry, I’m going to fight this thing…’
When Sid got arrested, the police made some not very clear comments about something that gave them some information, by what Sid said, that led them to believe that he did stab her. But I knew Sid, he was pretty egotistical, he wasn’t the sort of guy who’d put himself on edge, just for the attention, but this started getting serious. Sid was saying why he was feeling so positive, completely the opposite from when he went into jail – he looked me dead in the eye ’cause, you see, he knew that Nancy was in love with me at one ‘time; now I never had a relationship with Nancy, not sexually, we were friends. I respected and liked her because she was one of the few people that understood where The Heartbreakers were coming from, musically. And not only that, she was a lot of fun to be with. Sid knew this and he knew that Nancy came to England to follow The Heartbreakers. Sid said, ‘Jerry, I didn’t touch her, I didn’t stab Nancy’. I believe that. Sid didn’t stab Nancy, he maybe wanted people to think he did – for the kicks – he was only a kid…she stabbed herself, he didn’t stab her. I know.
There are a million stories…