Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Jerry Nolan by Nina Antonia

Billy Rath, Nina Antonia & Jerry Nolan backstage Lyceum 1983
(copyright Mike Thimren 2001)

First post of 2011 and it's the first of two New York Dolls related pieces. I may be biased, but as far as rock biographies go, Nina Antonia's Johnny Thunders biography from 1987 "In Cold Blood" is hard to better. As to why I might be biased, a special issue of WANWTTS on Johnny Thunders by the very same Nina (though writing under the name Nina Valez Guido) pre-dated the book in 1985. "Private World - The Gratifying Chaos Of Johnny Thunders" was a 20 page magazine which Nina describes as "a form of preview to my book, to be published shortly, "Johnny Thunders - In Cold Blood" which is the official biography, covering over a decade in Johnny's life and career." It uses excerpts from the book alongside an otherwise unpublished narrative that reads at a thousand miles an hour. There's a selection of Nina's own photographs of Johnny and his band, and it's a publication I was very proud to be involved with.

I got to set up a stall in the foyer at the Marquee in London at one of Johnny's shows to sell the magazine. Johnny comes in, is brought over to my little table, introduced to me and I hand over a couple of copies to him. I was, I'm not ashamed to admit, more than a little intimidated and it was the briefest of encounters - and the only time I ever met him.

So, the magazine came out in 1985, sold well, and I believe acts as a great companion piece to Nina's fine book.

Two years later and we'd planned two Dolls related pieces for issue seven. There was an interview with David Johansen in his Buster Poindexter character by Karen Schoemer which we'll run next and this piece, an interview by Nina with the late Jerry Nolan.

Sticks And Style – The Art Of Jerry Nolan

by Nina Antonia

Behind the drum pulpit, caught in an electric pyramid of stage lighting sits Jerry Nolan. Features as immobile as some Egyptian stone monument. His abilities as a drummer are legendary, even on one of those nights when playing with Johnny Thunders is a re-run of Custer's last stand.

In dressing rooms, Nolan disengages himself from the swarming litany of often dubious backstage characters: carving out a solitary corner, preferring to call the shots on whose company he seeks – if, in fact, there is any. This exterior armour is both an innate and necessary pre-requisite for the life he leads. However, Nolan, when ready, can also de-mask himself with disarming ease and charm. Early last year (1985), whilst briefly residing in an apartment off London's Baker Street, he spoke for several hours, proving to be a consummate narrator – reflecting on past and present in almost celluloid terms. The result is practically a monologue, the questions having been discussed prior to the interview session.

“Everything okay, Jerry?” - he leans forward to press the record button down, in answer.

Early 1960's

“Jazz inspired me a lot – not so much the music, although the early jazz music, like swing, that type of jazz, influenced me. The whole atmosphere and environment around it inspired me a great deal, because swing jazz had the same approach, the same dynamics as early rock'n'roll music did. I grew up in an era where I got into my own music, but 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 seen the excitement in it. The fore-runners, like Gene Krupa for instance: there was no drummer around like him 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, so I did not do well. I have a terrible education except for music and art, which of course I was great at. So 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 o'clock when it opened, and I stayed and came out at 12 o'clock at night. It totally changed my life, not just a dream but a dream I knew I could accomplish.

I was so shy, I didn't even have enough guts at a little prom, that I didn't even ask a girl to dance with me...and guess what....in my math class, a new girl came to school and she sat right next to me in class, and this little girl was absolutely gorgeous. I was shy and nervous because of my grades, but I loved her. Her name was Cathy Brill, and she used to have this beautiful hairstyle they used to have in those days – it was like your basic sixties style – teased up in the back, and an extremely exaggerated DA, and she used a little diamond, like a rhinestone in her jet black hair. She looked like Kim Novak with black hair. So what I did was...I used to rehearse with this black kid who approached me after band rehearsal and said “Hey man, I can tell you're from New York, aren't ya?” - and these guys were all real hicks, real rednecks, all with short 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 from the get go. But I finally learned to play a full set of drums and we learned these songs. We got to play the school assembly – every Wednesday they'd put on different shows, talent shows, and me and Buddy played the show, just a drummer and a saxophone player, but we tore the place up.

Afterwards, Buddy said “Hey Jerry, let's go in the hallway and get a drink of water” so we went in and everyone was coming up to us, putting their arms around us, and saying it was great. And that changed my whole life, just going into that hallway. I got that girl, got her for a girlfriend. I wasn't ashamed any more – I could finally do something real good.


Before I was in the Dolls, before they even got together and I seen them play, I had that idea in my mind anyway, as far as the way I was dressing at the time, my attitude, and what I should like to see in music, that didn't then exist. But it seemed, and I spent a few years with this strong feeling, it just felt as though I was the only one. I may have come across one or two guys who sorta had the right idea. I used to have to settle for playing with lots of different types of bands – Jayne County and even Suzi Quatro – I auditioned for them, and they liked it and everything worked out well, so I drove back to Detroit with them: I lived with them all summer, we rehearsed, 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. She went to England and I went back to New York where I was playing with all kinds of people – I was even playing with this oldish Italian guy that used to play bars all over Queens – him, a bass player and me.

Then I started playing with Wayne County and this other band, on and off, and that was when the Dolls got together and started up. But before that even, I started to get to know the boys, especially Billy, the first drummer, and Syl – I knew them first, well Billy, Syl and Johnny. When the Dolls first started, Syl wasn't even in them – they had this guy Rick Rivets – and at the time Syl started playing with this band I was in. When they got Syl, I certainly had no hard feelings and I wished Syl all the luck. When I first saw the Dolls at rehearsal, the combination and the ideas they had, I respected it very highly. They didn't play so well and being a little older, I was basically a lot more advanced as a musician than they were – 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 “Look 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!”

Signed Dolls photos from Nikki Sudden's collection

I remember before I met Johnny, I seen him many times, around, him and his girlfriend, He was a great dresser, you just couldn't miss him. Johnny and his girlfriend were very similar – both looked beautiful – they had real originality. His girlfriend had a lot to do with creating Johnny's style- I think he'd even admit that. She was very fashion inclined and she sort of kicked it off for him. Johnny took it from there on his own, created his own look. Me and my girlfriend used to say “Wow, there's that couple again – don't they look great?” and you know what else I said? “That guy's a musician – I'm gonna play with him one day.”

Johnny Thunders (Marty Perez, Chicago 1989)

First time I met Johnny, I told him that. He didn't know what to make of me. He thought I was a little weird so I said, “D'you play?” and he said “Yeah, I play bass” as that's what he's playing at that time. I felt and knew and said “We're gonna be in a band together”.


I was asked recently on a Swedish TV documentary about drugs and their use, and my responsibility towards the public's attitude. The interviewer was going on about that I should care about whether people take drugs or not. You can't answer a question like that simply yes or no. I mean 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. In some ways it's not of anybody's concern, in other ways maybe it is a little. Drugs 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 I have no regrets in my life. That if I lived my life over again, I'd like to do it the same way. Sometimes I feel that way and would like to be able to say that. But if you really get down to it, whilst it's not like I regret my life as a whole, 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. It hurts me very much that I have hurt other people, so I do have regrets. And if I lived my life over again, I would make a few changes. I do notice though that even out of bad, good things do 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 own weaknesses. There was a time when I used to be a very good fighter in my heart and soul and mentally I usually won my battles. Drugs were the first time I ever lost a battle and I had a very hard time losing the drug battle. Hard for me to take but I found out a lot about myself and that helped me for the future.

Nolan And Thunders

If I had it my way, and Johnny too I think, had it his way, deep down in his heart, we would always have played together. But, I don't know, certain things happen where we had to separate for a while, which I think is too bad, because we do work well together. We bring out the best in each other. Friendship wise we bring a lot of good out of each other too, but sometimes we bring bad out of each other too. Musically though, man, we're really good for each other. It's more than just playing, it's creating. We just click and that's it. Who knows why some people do, but we do and we can't deny that. But if I feel something's not going right musically and I feel it's because of Johnny, I just won't play with him. Of course, drugs have affected my relationship with Johnny to some bad 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, We may sometimes be slow learners, but I'd like to think we've learned some lessons. I sure hope so. "


  1. One day I hope we'll get a Nolan biog. He deserves it.

  2. With you on that one my friend!

  3. Thanks Nina. Great interview. I still remember that day in the summer of 1991 when we came out to see you. Love, Phyllis

  4. Jerry was a great drummer going way back, He was also a great guy who respected everyone. We hung and jammed a lot back in the pre Dolls days. I will
    miss him forever.

  5. Thanks for your comment Jon. I met Johnny a coupla times, and Syl the once but never met Jerry. Never heard anything but good about him though. Oh, and to have been around pre Dolls, WOW!

  6. Jerry was a prince of a guy, a real guy, a real rock and roller. The first time I met him although I was already a huge fan and because of the hair I had no idea I was talking to Jerry. So we get to music and we go on and on and we by chance get around to the Dolls. So I tell him I think their lightning in a bottle and he gets this smile and tells me he's Jerry, and I'm like going bull shit no way. Man he got me good. Always good to see him Happy Birthday Jerry May 7th

  7. That was an awesome read,thanks a million!