Magazines + Newspapers

Q Magazine

August 1996

Pages 48 & 49


WITNESS: Gary Valentine
EVENT: Blondie “go pop”
DATE: 1977
LOCATION: New York, Los Angeles and, er, Bristol

[Picture captions: Top left: Blondie live at Max’s Kansas City, early 1976: (from left) Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Debbie Harry and Gary Valentine. Bottom right: Blondie’s first LA visit: (from left) Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke, Gary Valentine (“rocking” the Mike Mills), Stein and (in car) Harry.

Mired in impecunious punkdom, yet to shed covers-hatin’, PCP-tokin’, soon-to-be Pete Best-emulatin’ bassist Gary Valentine, the pre-July ’77 Blondie were an ambitious yet cranky collective. “I saw Debbie turn into a skeleton,” Valentine tells Johnny Black.

“I was living on the streets in Manhattan in the middle of 1975, when Clem Burke asked me if I’d like to join Blondie. I knew Clem from Bayonne, New Jersey, where I used to carry his drums into high school dances where he played. I was 17, and I’d got in trouble when this underage girl I was going out with got pregnant and her parents had me arrested for statutory rape. So I left home and moved to Manhattan, which was strictly illegal because it was breaking probabtion, and that’s when I met Clem again. I fell in love with Debbie Harry the first time I saw her sing. I had such a crush. These seemed like such glamorous people to me. Debbie was about ten years older than me, and Chris Stein about five or six. She’d been in Wind In The Willows and been a Playboy bunny and they hung out with Warhol people. I was in awe of them.
Anyway, when Fred Smith quit Blondie to join Television, Clem suggested I might be able to play bass. I looked right. I was wafer-thin, going through my Ian Hunter lookalike period, and I could barely play, which was important criteria at that point. He took me to a midtown loft on 37th, near 8th Avenue with all the hookers outside. We jammed on the Stones’ Live With Me for about an hour, smoked grass and just kept playing. At the end they said, This is fine. I was in. I could sleep in the rehearsal space and every week I’d report back to my probation officer in New Jersey and lie about what I was doing.
We did a lot of shows as a four-piece where Chris and Clem and I would back up Debbie, in little dives, where you’d set up a guitar amp and a mike on the floor in the bar and play. If we each came out with $5 at the end of the night, that was fine. That meant a cheese sandwich, some potato crisps and breakfast tomorrow, but it was clear that the sound wasn’t strong enough, so we corralled Jimmy Destri from Milk’n’Cookies.
Later, I moved in with Chris and Debbie in their tiny one-bedroom flat in Prince Street, Little Italy, packed with guitars and amplifiers and clothes. We weren’t making any money, though. I had to wear Chris’s hand-me-down clothes because I had nothing else. Debbie made jewellery at night. She would solder pewter with lapis lazuli in it and sell it the next day to some guy who would sell it on to the shops. Chris was collecting disability money, I never knew what for.
Debbie would make us scrambled eggs and coffee in the mornings and then we would rehearse. Jimmy Destri was an orderly at a hospital in Brooklyn. He’d work the late shift and then come to rehearse still in his white smock, dead tired, then go home and crash.
Gradually we started getting better gigs and moved into a loft space in the Bowery, which was a whole new trip. There was a lot of dope and coke around, and Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell were doing heroin. I don’t think Debbie and Chris were into that then. I took heroin once and it made me sick. In between vomits it was great but, believe me, once was enough. I smoked angel dust once with Debbie Harry and it was hellish. I kept seeing her as a skeleton.
What we did do a lot was fight. I remember Chris demolishing a coffee table. We’d got into an argument and he started pounding on this table, and kept pounding until it just fell apart. There was always a lot of that sort of tension.
We hunkered down there for a long time, working Jimmy Destri in on keyboards. That’s when I wrote X-Offender. The tune came to me one night in Max’s Kansas City, and I went back and played it for Debbie and she came up with the lyrics. She turned it into the story of my problems with the law. It became our theme song and we would close shows with it. But after the press picked us up, the record company didn’t care who played bass. Debbie was what they wanted.
We started working with Peter Leeds, who had been Debbie’s manager before. I didn’t trust him from the moment I was him. Nobody asked him to, but he set up some gigs for us in LA and flew us out. At the Whiskey he came backstage and said he didn’t think we should be doing a song I’d written called Euphony. I said, hang on, you’re not our musical director. From that moment I’m sure he wanted me out.
A couple of days later he took us to his hotel, the Sunset Marquis, and says, I want you to sign this contract. It was like a 10-year thing, and either we signed or he was going back to New York without us. So I said, I’m not going to sign anything without a lawyer. I started screaming and kicking, but Chris and Debbie told me not to be so adolescent. In the end, signing that contract cost them millions of dollars, which they admitted in their book.
When the X-Offender single came out, Private Stock put out this infamous photo of Debbie in a see-through blouse, which was not the character of the band. She did sexy stuff on stage but it was tongue-in-cheek, very camp. That pissed us off, and I don’t think she even liked that picture very much. For the album photo session I remember we all got loaded. I was drinking White Russians, one after another, and I’m absolutely plastered in that photograph. It’s amazing that it came out such a real good cover.
The British tour in 1977, with Television, was fantastic. Being 21, I couldn’t believe I was in London and it was like being The Beatles. There were problems though. Our sound was not full enough to fill up these spaces. We hadn’t played much to crowds that size. Also, I would pogo around and either I would have my dark glasses on so I couldn’t see anything or I wouldn’t have any glasses on at all, which was just as bad because I’m short-sighted. One night, in Bristol, suddenly the stage wasn’t there any more and I landed on my back. The bouncers picked me up, threw me onto the stage and we went into an encore.
Because of the personality clashes, there were fist-fights on stage. In England it was Jimmy and Chris. Another time Jimmy got annoyed with me in LA because of all my jumping around. He said it could knock the tuning off on his synthesizer, but I think he just didn’t like me trying to draw so much attention to myself. So he picked up my Rickenbacker bass and threw it right across the stage. By the end of that tour, I knew I wanted to quit, so when we got home, and this was pretty naive of me, I told them that because of the tension, the fighting and everything, I thought I should leave after the second album.
My girlfriend Lisa, who I’d written (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear about, made the decision to move to LA and when I came back from seeing her off at the airport, I got this call from Leeds saying I wasn’t in the band any more. Ironically enough, it was July 4, Independence Day. I think Chris and Debbie had decided they didn’t want anybody in the band who wasn’t 100 per cent committed but they couldn’t tell me, so they got Leeds to do it. I think he was more than pleased.
A month later I shipped everything out to Los Angeles to be with Lisa, who went on to work with Coppola quite a bit and appeared in The Cotton Club and When Harry Met Sally. I hoped to get my band, The Know, recorded, but it didn’t happen.
I didn’t see much of Chris and Debbie after that until about 1983. I was running a book store in LA and they dropped in and Chris looked like an old Hell’s Angel or something. A lot of his teeth were missing. I could barely recognise him. I heard he’d gotten sick with some new illness that actually got named after him. That’s when Debbie quit her career to look after him.
The only real regret I have is that I didn’t do the world tour with them. Leeds was collecting a percentage of my royalties from Blondie for years after I left, until I finally refused to pay them. I said if you want it, sue me. It was stupid. I was paying this guy thousands of dollars, just because I’d signed a paper I never even wanted to sign in the first place.

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