Pages 30 & 31
BARRY CAIN threads his way through the decaying labyrinth known as New York, finds the other faces behind Debbie Harry, unearths two if the ‘fabulous’ pre-punk punkettes, the Shangri-Las, and slums his way into a Blondie gig.
DID YOU know there were four other people in Blondie apart from the sugar candy kisser of Debbie Harry and her beau Chris Stein (the man who bought his eyebrows from Axminster)?
Yeah, it’s true, I’ve seen ’em with my own eyes. Seen ’em on their home ground too – in ol’ numbland New York, that necropolis with neon tombstones where…
Oh, so you think it isn’t dead huh? Listen, any city that shows ‘The Partridge Family’ twice every morning on TV split only by ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’ re-runs just HAS to be dead, or severely wounded.
Feeling ever so slightly like a surrogate David Attenbrough venturing into fleshy foliage in search of an ambiguous tribe, I took a cab to a nocturnal recording studio in one of the more uncivilised districts where the natives eat strange, exotic food they call “Burrga Keeng”, which they claim possesses health giving properties and drink copious amounts of The Pepsee which winds its tortuous way through the narrow streets and is infested by a vicious animal known locally as “Deemugger”.
Alighting from the cab I asked a statuesque black where I might find the Unknown Blondie. His eyes froze, he uttered a primal scream the pierced the night time miasma, turned and fled into a brick shrubbery.
“My God,” I thought, “What have I let myself in for.”
Just then a wizened, hoary (old) man tapped me on the shoulder like they always do at such moments, and rasped: “The Unknown Blondie is the tribe of taboo in these parts bwana. Tis a curse of a thousand MacDonalds to merely mention the name.”
“But you mentioned it.”
“Yes – and I’m only 19!” he wheezed pointing to a dilapidated building. “There. But beware…”
A tangled web of close circuit TVs guarded the door. I beat my way through and slid into a waiting elevator. Up, up, up in the modern day quadriga. Up into a starfilled limbo. And not a trendy Desmond Morris in sight.
Out. Empty. No sign of life. Then I heard a rustle and a figure dashed from behind one speaker and disappeared beneath a control desk. “Nervy. Not used to being recognised,” I concluded. There was some undecipherable chatter. I reached for my Pistols’ album.
“You are a journalist?” It was the voice of Clem Burke. He touched me in what I thought was an Unknown Blondie ritual. But I soon realised he was just making sure I was real.
“Hey you guys, it’s a journalist,” he bellowed.
From the vinyl gloom emerged Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison and several Elvis Costello lookalikes.
“Wow.” It took some time to convince them that it was those four I intended to write about. Not Debbie or Chris, the Sonny and Cher of the lacqered new wave. You.
It transpired that Clem was involved in producing former Unknown Blondie bass player Gary Valentine and the tribe had gathered to listen and rave.
“This guy is sure talented,” said Clem in cute but cumbersome cocktail tones.
They decided to show me their native ways.
“Hey, let’s take a drive to McSorley’s,” said Nigel of the English intonation and fluffy curls.
On our way we saw a giant plastic lizard which had just been erected on top of a bank.
“Could cause a lot of trouble. Sure scared the shit outta me,” said Frank who looks like he could make it as a movieland method myth. Y’know, corrugated cheeks and Mogadon eyes.
McSorley’s Old Ale House (established 1854) is a soiled silent movie straightjcket of a bar in Greenwich Village (where the nuts come from). Fatty Arbuckle could have been filmed here, looking clown sad and lovable but all the while immersed in his crazed sexual fantasies. When it was built women weren’t allowed into bars so there’s no ladies’ john. Local libbers have complained but McSorley’s remains intact.
An Irish waiter asks if you want brown or light beer; brewed on the premises he maintains. The party went for light. It figures.
“No, I’m not at all jealous of Debbie getting all the attention,” said Jimmy with a face out of ‘Bestsellers’ lean but healthy. “See, I think she sees it from our level top.
“I’m very happy having a face like that selling my music. I wouldn’t be in the position of selling records for Chrysalis if it wasn’t for her. She sells my music.
“I know that if I was in a record company and was responsible for marketing Blondie I would market Debbie Harry as a viable commercial product simply because she is the obvious thing.”
The table was by then overflowing with glasses. A dollar for less than half a pint.
“In time,” Jimmy continued oblivious to the stains, the ascending decibel scale banter on other tables beneath the timber walls heavily adorned by badges and original photographs, the cloth cap five o’clock shadow debauchery ghosts, “in time people will begin to realise that Blondie is a conglomerate of ideas.
“All of us can do other things. We’re good musicians. It’s really cool being in this position because I have the opportunity to do other things. See, I get the respect that being a part of Blondie brings – and so you get asked to do things.
“Okay, I admit being in the shadows was frustrating at the beginning, but now it’s just perfect for me. I don’t want to be a star. I’m happy everyone’s looking at Debbie on stage and not me. I’m content playing keyboards, writing and producing.
“Besides, it ain’t all that much fun being in a band.”
“Richie Blackmore’s mother…” what the hell has she got to do with this conversation? But Nigel was insistent. “Richie Blackmore’s mother said to him once, ‘Why don’t you get yourself a decent job son?’.” So? “Well, I love being in a band. It’s been my ambition since I was 16.”
“What made my dreams come true,” said Jimmy (in case you’re wondering, Clem and Frank were embroiled in knife deep conversation throughout) “was an anxiety to get somewhere. I came from a bad neighbourhood in Brooklyn which ain’t that different from poor parts of London except for the accent and colour of the police cars.
“I worked 14 hours a day to get through college. When I was 21 my father gave me 15 bucks and I felt like a king. Fifteen bucks!”
“I lived in Hollywood for a while,” said Nigel, “and many kids I bumped into who were in the music business were so rich. And you know why? Their parents organise trust funds for them from an early age. Y’know, 20 bucks a week for years. So these kids live a real maniacal life. It’s easy when you know you’ve got 20 grand coming to you in a year or so.”
The Irishman brought over yet another round of beers. Jimmy started getting angry. “Yeah, some people are born lucky. I worked in a hospital emergency room strapping up junkies. I saw people who had no determination or energy to try and get by simply because they’ve always had it easy.
“That’s why when a black dude whose a pimp or pusher starts making money he becomes very ostentatious and buys every flashy thing he can lay his hands on. He ain’t never seen ’em before.”
He then related the frozen stiff tale.
“One day Chris and Clem were walking in the Bowery and found a wino who was absolutely frozen solid. Dead. And they call this a rich country. You’re kept on a certain level and if you can’t transcend that you rot.”
The bar started to empty like the glasses. The band decided to move on to CBGB’s in search of the demon white powder – a new group causing a big stir in New York.
In the contrived decadence of the club, about as meretricious as the iceberg wino, the four dispersed checking out the – uh – depravities and emaciated faces.
“Hey, I’d like to introduce you to a cuppla friends of mine,” said Clem who could easily be mistaken for a hairdresser on a cold night. He ushered me to the bar and interrupted a conversation between two typical electrical appliance American housewives.
“This is Mary.” She wore golden glasses to match her long, straight hair. Her eyebrows were the same shape as her top lip which gave her face an arc shape. “Hi.”
“And this is Marge.” She was dark. Her skin had suffered slightly, maybe from excessive suntanning every summer for the last 15 years. Her smiles were tired. “Hi.”
“They’re the Shangri-Las…!”
I had visions of waking up in a hospital bed with a black nurse above me full of re-assurance and comforting words: “You’re okay now. You’ve just been in a state of shock for awhile. Take it easy…” When I was 12 the Shangri-Las epitomised for me everything… everything that was dirty, sex-wise and grease-wise. Libidinous 15-year-old punkettes inhabiting a voodoo vestibule where jailbait languishes on stained plastic sofas etc… I think it was the first time the thought of thighs ever crossed my mind, when I saw them singing ‘Remember (Walking In The Sand)’ on Top Of The Pops one Fireworks Night.
Time kills. To be confronted by these 30-year-old women made me suddenly very depressed.
And, believe it or not, they’re making a comeback. Well, just these two, Mary Weiss and Margie Ganser. The other two – Betty and Mary Anne – are probably happy hoovering, content cleaning, pleased polishing, glad golfing…
Maybe their voices were still full of that rubsucking venom. “We broke up originally,” said Mary (straight voice, like the steam from the spout of an ELECTRIC kettle), “because we were young and there were too many people out there trying to squeeze every last drop of money they could get their hands on out of us. That left a really bad taste in our mouths.
“For a long while we’ve been running away. But now it’s time to face the music. Besides, the business was much more dangerous in those days.
“There’s a child in my soul and I don’t want it to die. I can’t let it perish. Cos when that goes you’re dead.
“I really got screwed up when the band split. I was 19. I’d never been out with anyone while I was on the road. Christ, I’d been a rock’n’roll star at 14 and I was only just getting over my first period.”
Margie tried to talk over the band on stage (it was audition night and they were playing ‘God Save The Queen’ like they were a Woolworths cover job or a too dark Xerox). “We never knew what was going on. How could we at that age? We got to do things 15-year-olds never dream of.
“It started off with High School dances – we were younger than the punters – and just escalated. We played parties where the kids used to make their own wine cos we were all under age.”
Mary was looking a little spaced out. She offered to drive me home. (She MUST have been spaced out, Ed.)
In the car she said they had met with little success at New York record companies. “They expect us to be completely punk. Y’know, they say things like ‘How does it feel to be the Queen of Punk?’ And one guy wanted us to be the female equivalent of The Ramones.
“I’m 29 years old. I’m serious about music. I don’t care for that much punk.”
I said I’d call her for some more gen. She said okay. I said goodnight. She said seeya.
I never called.
“Hey, what happened to you last night?” said Clem straightening his collar in the dressing room. “We had a real great time. After we left CBGB’s we all went on to Max’s Kansas City and met up with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Real nice guys.”
My Father’s Place is a club on Long Island about 40 minutes’ drive from Manhattan. Blondie were playing two shows that night. It’s a converted bowling alley and the long tables where the punters sit are the original lanes. Neat, huh? Pin table pyrotechnics with free pizza thrown in.
Backstage the Greenwich weirdos are out in force. Prurient poofs and strawberry blancmange brasses eager to lavish praise on what looks like becoming New York’s creamiest cult band.
Debbie doo doo’d past in a white kulot outfit, took a seat opposite a reporter from the strike ridden New York Times (an interminable garrulous gonzoid) and churned out the same old spiel while the doting dykes strained their ears.
A guy came to the door and asked a sound man for Debbie’s autograph. As he mentioned “Debbie Harry” his hand automatically reached down to his crutch and he mimed a jerk off. Smiled and left.
Blondie are as big in the States as they were here a year ago – in other words they ain’t big. My Father’s Place seats about five hundred. Oh sure, they were all diehard fans who gasped the moment Debbie appeared looking like a sensual Sandra Dee. Blondie’s three minute bam bam is the ultimate in poposa perfection. Sanguine satisfaction in every root-e-toot-toot nuance, in every elegeant Harry aphrodisiac mouthwash phrase.
The set was predictable. Highlights from the first two albums – a substantial segment of ‘Parallel Lines’ and the obligatory ‘Get It On’ encore. The only real difference was the slight corpulence around Chris Stein’s stomach and jowls. Indolence behind the locks on the door of his Manhattan apartment.
The second set was the same except for Debbie’s loose fitting orange dress. But the audience was cut by half, and those that remained were almost entirely made up of the first set patriots.
Still, the ‘World About Us’ was never like this. And they have already found their shangri-la in the verdant pastures of English charts.
But will they ever make a ‘Leader Of The Pack’?