Curt Weiss has spent over thirty-five years working in the media industry.
As “Lewis King” he was one of New York’s premier drummers in the 1980’s playing with major-label artists such as the Rockats and Beat Rodeo.
He is currently a television producer and writer.
"Stranded In The Jungle – Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – ATale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls and Punk Rock", Curt’s biography of Jerry Nolan, the drummer of the legendary New York Dolls, is published by Backbeat Books.
PML: How did you get into music?
CW: I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show when I was 4 years old, and that pretty much changed my life. The next year, after seeing HELP, I decided I wanted to play the drums. I was lucky enough to grow up with all the great radio of the 60s, and I was also very fortunate that my parents and schools encouraged my musical education.
PML: So you had formal musical training?
CW: I had some formal training but most of my education came from playing along to records. The rudiments and jazz training had their benefits, but they didn’t really teach me how to play rock and roll. That came from records. I went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston for all of a semester and 3 weeks. I really hated it there. Seeing Elvis Costello and the Attractions on my 18th birthday convinced me to drop out. I stayed in Boston through the summer of ’78 and was lucky enough to work in a restaurant that was next door to a sleazy club called the Rat, which was Boston’s CBGB. I saw New York based bands there like the Dictators, Helen Wheels, and the Cramps. I also saw the Nuns from San Francisco, and great local bands like La Peste, DMZ and the Atlantics. There was a nicer club called the Paradise where I saw the original Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, the Dead Boys, Robert Gordon with Link Wray, and Lou Reed. It was a great time.
PML: When did first see Jerry Nolan play?
CW: Besides seeing him on TV with the Dolls, it was probably at one of the Sid Vicious shows. I moved back to NYC in September ’78, and those shows were that month at Max's Kansas City. But by ’80 I had met people at the Soho Weekly News who introduced me to the Rockats and the rockabilly scene. I started to go to their shows, which is how I first got drawn to Jerry who, at the time, was their drummer. He was fantastic.
PML: Why did you decide to write his biography?
CW: From seeing him perform, meeting people around him, and knowing his history, I felt his was a fascinating, untold story. He was in two of the most influential and infamous bands of the period: The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. He’d played with Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell, Sid Vicious, Jayne (Wayne) County, Bette Midler, Billy Squier and Suzi Quatro. He’d been on the Anarchy Tour and was either at or playing CBGBs early on. He was at the center of the punk craze as it exploded in England. He knew people in the Ramones, Blondie, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. His punk rock credentials were as authentic as anyone’s. But he also didn’t have the success or longevity that some of the others I mentioned did, and that added an element of pathos to his story. And there was nothing like seeing him play live. I thought his story should be told.
PML: How long did Stranded take to write?
CW: About 10 years, mostly due to not being in a hurry and not knowing anything about the business of books. I started in 2006, spent a few years searching for people, and archival materials. I’d take time off to live my life, and then come back to it.
PML: How did you proceed?
CW: Each person I’d interview would often connect me to other people or give me encouragement to keep going.
PML: Were most people willing to speak about Jerry?
CW: A number of people didn’t want to talk, presumably because they were tired of talking about Punk Rock for 30 plus years or didn’t want to be associated with Jerry. Plus there were people who, after realizing I wasn’t going to write the book they wanted written, pulled out. Some people seem to have a lot invested in perpetuating myths.
CW: There are people who like to think of themselves as the sole experts on Punk Rock or the Dolls, or Thunders or Jerry. They think that if they knew Jerry or Johnny for some period of time that they have the inside track on what made them tick. It’s their own little cottage industry as well as something their whole self-worth is wrapped up in. But Jerry was an addict, and as wonderful, talented and charming as he could be, as an addict he had one priority: meeting the needs of his addiction. To do that, he would say or do just about anything. So he used just about everyone at one time or another. That includes his mother, and all the women that loved him. People often don’t want to admit that to themselves. So the Jerry people think they knew is often not the real or complete Jerry. That idea is very threatening to those people. But I was writing a biography, not a hagiography. And I also never promised to write the book that someone else wanted. That’s why my name’s on it. If someone else wants to tell the story differently, I say, “Have at it.” When people say, “That can’t be true! That wasn’t the Jerry I knew!” my response is “Thank you.” Isn’t the point of a biography to reveal things to the reader they didn’t know beforehand?
PML: So who opted out?
CW: Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols didn’t want to be interviewed. Richard Hell sent one short e-mail which ended with something like “don’t contact me about this anymore.” Mick Jones of the Clash seemed to have a bout of amnesia when I asked him some questions. John Lydon ended up threatening me with “litigation.”
PML: Why am I not surprised?
CW: As I spoke to him “between” his two books, I like to think that I may have had something to do with changing his story about Jerry in his 2nd book.
PML: You did manage to pin down Sex Pistol Glen Matlock…
CW: Yes, but Paul Cook and Paul Simenon where just unreachable. Debbie Harry, Willy DeVille and Bette Midler wouldn’t agree to be interviewed, although I did run into Debbie at a memorial and she was actually very sweet and friendly. Sylvain ended up coming through after 5 or 6 years of trying, and he was great. David Johansen too, although only for a few questions via e-mail. Still, his contributions were priceless.
PML: I was wondering whether you spoke to Terry Chimes (drummer on the first Clash album) who often sat in for Jerry when he was ‘indisposed”?
CW: He was another one I reached out to who never responded. But I was actually more interested in finding Rob Harper, the drummer for the Clash on the Anarchy Tour. Drummers are used to sitting, watching, and observing, particularly other drummers. No luck.
PML: For all that, it’s a very complete, detailed biography. Was it difficult to organise all that material?
CW: I had first approached it as an oral history: a series of quotes strung together to tell a story. PLEASE KILL ME is done in that style. Studs Terkel, Jean Stein & George Plimpton also famously wrote oral histories. So, when I switched over to a narrative, it was all laid out from beginning to end. It was a great guide.
PML: The first chapters are very evocative. You really capture the atmosphere of New York in the early 60's ‒ the gangs, a 13 year old Jerry being tutored by jazz great Gene Krupa...
CW: It’s all background. How Jerry became Jerry.
PML: I was intrigued by the pages about your romantic interest in Jerry’s girlfriend, Lesley Vinson. Given Jerry’s street gang background and that he wasn’t exactly easy going, weren't you taking a risk?
CW: People told me he was incredibly jealous. The book has stories of his girlfriends Michelle and Esther which illustrate it. But I never really flirted with Lesley or made a move on her. She was about 6 or 7 years older than me, and after her relationship with Jerry ended, she always seemed to be dating someone from the Soho News. Also, by the end of her relationship with Jerry, things had deteriorated so much he often wasn’t there. He would disappear for long periods of time chasing drugs or money. In fact, I was disappointed when he was out of the band and her life. I wanted a chance to see him some more.
PML: How did you go about getting Stranded published?
CW: It wasn’t until 2013 that I went to a writer’s conference and pitched to agents, and realized that I had to write something called a proposal. I spent the next 6-12 months working on that, and when I had a version I was happy with, I sent it off to several of the agents who showed interest.
PML: How did it end up with Backbeat?
CW: One agent was a fan of the Replacements who in turn were big fans of Johnny Thunders. He ended up representing me. He finally got me the deal with Backbeat in 2015, and I handed in my first manuscript in September of 2016. Over the next 6 months or so I worked with a number of editors and the book was released about year afterwards.
PML: Jerry’s was a sad life… Wasn’t it harrowing spending so much time with him?
CW: Between, the Dolls, the Heartbreakers, Sid, Johnny, and his own death, I knew Jerry’s story was a tragedy before I started working on the book. I knew what I was getting into, so it wasn’t a surprise. I was more concerned about getting at the truth and getting it right.
|Rockats: Jerry (left)|
PML: Is there anything to be learned from his life?
CW: The most obvious is: Don’t use heroin. If you’re an addict get help. But Jerry had other emotional issues which probably made him more prone to addiction, in particular never knowing his real father, and being abandoned by the next two father figures he had. He probably should have had counselling when he was a kid. Jerry also didn’t like to admit he was wrong and found it very difficult to apologize for anything, which in turn made many of his relationships difficult. He also had difficulty admitting when he didn’t know something, like how to tune drums well, particularly in the studio. This affected his recordings. So the lesson is, learn to admit when you’re wrong or don’t know something. You can’t learn if you can’t admit you don’t know everything.
PML: That said, even without drugs, it’s difficult to imagine The New York Dolls or The Heartbreakers hitting the top of the charts…
CW: He would have been more successful if he hadn’t become an addict. There’s a part of the book where I note all of the bands that knew Jerry and loved the Dolls, needed drummers and how none of them called him. If he hadn’t been known as a junkie, they probably would have.
PML: How did Jerry influence your own music?
CW: In 1980 & 81, he was probably who I emulated more than anyone except Ringo. I wanted to look like him, move like him, and swing like him. He was so impressive on stage. He also taught me that a drummer should drive the band and keep the band centered. You’re the train and the track. Everyone else needs to climb on.
PML: You took over from him when he left the Rockats…
CW: After he left the band they tried another drummer who didn’t work out, and in March of ’81 I joined them. I stayed with them through August of ’82.
|Rockats: Curt (left)|
PML: Who else were you playing with?
CW: Through the 80’s I played with former Rockat Tim Scott McConnel, the Vipers, Beat Rodeo, Elliott Murphy, Carmaig de Forest, and George Usher’s House of Usher. I also played with members of the B-52s, the Violent Femmes, & the Modern Lovers.
PML: Which other drummers do you enjoy listening to?
CW: The Beatles and Ringo were always number one. But I also loved Ian Paice from Deep Purple and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. Sorry if that breaks the hearts of punk rock purists, but credit should go where credit is due. Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions was also phenomenal. His playing on This Year’s Model is really as good as it gets. I saw him on TV with Jake Bugg 2 or 3 years ago and he’s still fantastic. In my late teens and early twenties, I started to go backwards as far as the roots of my musical influences and discovered Panama Francis and Earl Palmer. Francis was a top New York R&B studio drummer who played on many early Atlantic hits with Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Lavern Baker, after playing with people like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. He’s on “Jim Dandy,” “Splish Splash,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Calendar Girl,” “The Wanderer,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Prisoner of Love.” The guy had exemplary swing, and could just do the simplest of things to lift a chorus or add drama to a song. And Earl Palmer played on the Little Richard and Fats Domino hits out of New Orleans as well as some Eddie Cochran stuff like “Somethin’ Else” which has those explosive cymbal crashes. Plus tons of Phil Spector hits. Francis and Palmer both had jazz roots and applied them to R&B to really create the foundations of rock and roll drumming. They’re the bedrock. And it just happens to be the stuff that Jerry grew up on too.
PML: Will you be writing another biography some time?
CW: I’m working on a book about a father who is nearing the end of his life and may not be deserving of compassion and love, and the struggles his children go through in offering it. It has nothing to do with music, but man does not live by bread alone.
PML: Thanks very much for this, Curt. One last question: What do you do in television?
CW: Make a living. I can make you a mean spreadsheet and pivot table.
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