Magazines + Newspapers


February 1999

Written by: Barney Hoskyns and Gary Valentine
Photographer: Joseph Cultice


She was the Marilyn Monroe of pop, her band a dysfunctional family of occultists, egomaniacs and ’60s obsessives. They wanted no more than to cock a snook at New York’s art-rock clique; they found themselves conquering the world. And now Blondie are doing it all over again – for fun. Barney Hoskyns reports; and on page 76 former bassist Gary Valentine recalls their sleazy splendour before fame came knocking.
Photography by Joseph Cultice.
I’M BUMPING DOWN Seventh Avenue, staring through the taxi window in wonder at a ginormous Levi’s ad in the garment district. It consists simply of a vast image of the Sex Pistols, with a slogan running vertically alongside it which reads, Our models can beat up their models.” Nearly a quarter-century after the halcyon days of CBGBs, this slice of corporate co-opting might well provide a fitting millennial epitaph for punk rock.
Later, in the cavernous Space photo studio down in Chelsea, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and I all agree that it’s, huh, mighty ironic. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when the entertainment industry wouldn’t touch the Pistols (or Blondie) with Brobdingnagian bargepoles.
Stein: “Everything is so tightly worked out now. It used to be like, Gee, let’s just go on a TV show!”
Harry: “The industry’s changed a lot. There really are no surprises. Everything is so carefully routed.”
It may be that Blondie are more sensitive to the changes in the music business than most of their fellow CBGBs legends – those, at any rate, who are still alive. For unlike Patti Smith, who recently returned to recording after years of hibernation, or Television’s Tom Verlaine, who produced many of the tracks on Jeff Buckley’s posthumous Sketches (For My Sweetheart The Drunk), Blondie happened to have sold millions of records, helping to transform punk into the much more palatable New Wave music of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Keyboard player Jimmy Destri could well be speaking for all four members of the re-formed original Blondie when he confesses that there was “a certain amount of guilt involved” in the group’s success.
“Blondie weren’t ever geared up to be the stadium-rock type of band that they became,” says the amiable Craig Leon, who co-produced the band’s first album in 1976 and then returned 22 years later to pilot their new No Exit. “They went from being The Band Least Likely To Succeed to signing to Chrysalis, probably the best record label of that era, and having big-time LA management. Anybody who said they knew Blondie were gonna be as big as they became would be full of crap. Blondie were not sitting around thinking, We’re gonna have six Number 1 singles. If Clem got his picture in a magazine he would have been the happiest guy in the world, and that was about it.”
The same could almost be said of New Jersey boy Burke 20 years later. Of the four original band members, Blondie’s drummer seems the least damaged by the saga of the band’s rise and implosion. Slimline and looking nary a day older than he did in 1977, Burke remains the enthusiastic heart of Blondie, a true fan. Craig Leon says that when the group recently dropped in on a session he was producing at Abbey Road, Burke – who’d worked at the studio with Leon on, of all things, a Mark Owen album – instantly became an unofficial tour guide, pointing out the piano John Lennon had played and showing them where Ringo’s drums had been set up.
Just as Burke had much to do with urging the demoralised Blondie of late 1974 to keep going, so it was he who pressed for the reunited band of the late ’90s to do this thing right. “The whole criterion was that it was important for us to become a band again before we tried to do any of this stuff,” he says. “And that’s what we’ve been doing over the past two years, really. We didn’t just decide to do this tour and then go and rehearse for a week and then go out. The management might have been in it for the quick kill, but as they got to know us they saw it would take a little time and energy on everyone’s part in order for this to manifest itself.”
Burke is seated on a sofa next to Jimmy Destri, the former hospital orderly and sometimes Milk And Cookies tinkler whose Farfisa keyboard chords added the crucial musical touch that set Blondie on their trashy peroxide-pop course. The Italian pretty boy of 1977 has aged less well than Burke, but the endearing Brooklyn street charm hasn’t deserted him. Occasionally, as the two men speak and interrupt each other, there are flashes of good-humoured friction that recall the volatility of the old days.
Destri: “You know, I think I’m part Chris Stein and part Clem Burke.”
Burke: “Man, that sounds horrible. How d’you live with yourself?!”
WITH A FINE REGARD FOR HIERARCHICAL etiquette, Destri and Burke have arrived at Space half an hour before Harry and Stein. Dressed all in black, they’re re-adjusting to the business of being pop stars, though one senses that both men are well aware of the risks the group is taking in bringing Blondie back to life. The good thing, they say, is that this time around they’ve been able to enjoy the various proccesses of writing, recording and rehearsing.
Burke: “We keep using the analogy of us being a dysfunctional family. Any relationship you go back to, be it an old friend or an old lover – you bring a lot of emotional baggage back with you. Sometimes that can work to your advantage. We’ve all been in therapy over the years, so that’s a big help…”
Destri: “We don’t take each other as seriously.”
Burke: “Plus we’re more aware of the business aspects. We were always pretty much business-sussed, but as someone once said, it’s the price of an education. It’s not unusual to get ripped off in the music business, and I don’t know if we have more or less of that than other people, except now people are smarter.”
Destri: “We have a bigger background of getting reamed, so we come with a little more cynicism. And that cynicism does breed a humour of like, Oh, don’t tell me that! It puts a sorta lump in your throat and paints you a little green with envy when an artist that sells half the records you do is living in a mansion in Highgate. But then some kids my age went to Vietnam and didn’t come home, y’know?”
LATER, AFTER A RESPECTFUL INTERLUDE, CLEM Burke will sit in on a conversation with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. It’s almost as though he wants to monitor how well the interview is going.
“Someone asked me if we anticipated great success with this record,” he interjects after Harry’s told me how much she hates rehearsing. “And I said that, for me, success was that we’d made the record. I mean it sincerely. That we actually got back together and made the record. So we already are a success.”
The quiet dignity with which he says this contrasts with Harry herself, who on this grey autumn afternoon seems strangely anxious and distant. Perhaps it’s the unwelcome pressure of a photo session that will undoubtedly focus on her, triggering uneasy memories of her status as one of pop’s major pin-ups. “She’s not very relaxed when she’s approaching photo sessions,” says author Victor Bockris, the confidant whose 1982 collaboration with Harry and Stein, Making Tracks: The Rise Of Blondie, has just been reissued in the US by Da Capo. “When they do these Blondie things, so much more is on her shoulders than anyone else’s. Because she is Blondie, she is the person everyone really wants to talk to.”
While Stein, droll and laconic, slouches droopily at his end of the sofa, Harry sits tensely at the other.
I ask the pair if the fame that suddenly swept Blondie away from their Lower East Side roots after 1979 disco-pop Number 1, Heart Of Glass, had in any way isolated them – from their friends, from their musical peers, from the rest of the band.
Harry: “I felt kind of cut off, yeah. And then of course the scene had changed so much, and it happened rather quickly. So I really had no place to go where I was just little me with my little friends. That had evaporated in the time that I had gone out.”
Stein: “I’m more isolated now, I’ll tell you, than I ever was in those days.”
Harry: “Are you?”
Stein: “Yeah! What the fuck is there to do in fuckin’ New York now?”
Harry: “Yeah, that is true. People really have gone their separate ways. I think what I really felt isolated about was that I had no anonymity, in that I couldn’t just slink around the streets being my own usual cruddy self.”
Stein: “But then you have to consider the inverse, which is not getting anywhere.”
Harry: “I don’t know if that’s true. I think that you can adapt to anything, and if you aren’t successful and you don’t get big popularity, you can find happiness doing other things. This is not the only thing in life that’s gonna make you or me or Joey Schmoe happy. You can hold on to your artistic integrity. Those things are kinda precious, and you compromise constantly when you’re reaching out or you’re getting bigger.”
FOR A MOMENT IT’S AS IF THE IDEALISTIC HIPPY-CHICK who warbled away in ’60s folk-rock troupe Wind In The Willows had suddenly blotted out any trace of the trashy street Venus who fronted Blondie and loudly proclaimed to the world that she was “no debutante”. It’s also a reminder that – according to received wisdom – Harry sacrificed any real chance of solo stardom in order to nurse a dangerously ill Stein back to health in the mid-’80s. Debbie Harry is nothing if not different when it comes to the matter of her celebrity.
“She wasn’t like one of these ambition people who kill to get to the top,” says David Johansen, who became a close friend of Harry’s after the demise of The New York Dolls. “One of the great things about her stage persona in Blondie was that you could see her nerves. She was like, I’m doing this, but it’s not easy. That made the show more interesting than saying, I’m just this indomitable spirit. She’s ultimately an intellectual. The whole Marilyn Monroe thing was just like a Jungian archetype. She turned herself into that archetype as an art project.”
“I think Debbie always had this great sense of irony,” says writer and Blondie acolyte Glenn O’Brien. “I think she always was completely aware of the difference between your intentions and how you’re perceived. She could play off of being the Marilyn monroe figure, but actually she was kind of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe wrapped up into one. She had a lot of life experiences to draw on when she was writing lyrics and putting herself together. She’d been a Playboy Bunny and a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, she’d seen the Dolls and Andy Warhol. She had a good education to work from.”
Could the story of Blondie, then, be of an “art project” which parodied and ironised stardom but miraculously metastasised into a bona fide megafame? Start with the dressing-up-box dreams of a pretty, adopted girl in Hawthorne, New Jersey; add the morose attitude of a skinny, Jewish, black-magic-dabbler from Brooklyn; work in the whole background of Andy Warhol’s glitzy decadence; and lo, what of all things you wind up with is a quintessential New York pop band whose sassy snap and ’60s referencing legitimately catches fire on a global scale.
“Blondie were the exception to the CBGBs rule in that they were actually a very good-looking group,” says Marty Thau, who signed the band to his Instant Records production company in 1976. “They were young, happy and positive, and their songs were loaded with hooks. They were really the pop dream.”
When Chris Stein first clapped eyes on the pert platinum blonde singing with a girl-trio-fronted band called The Stilettoes, New York underground was moving to embrace the trash aesthetic at the heart of pop. Five years younger than Harry and a roadie for Eric Emerson’s Magic Tramps, he swiftly finessed his way into The Stilettoes.
“When Chris saw Debbie, he had the hots for her, like, unbelievably,” says The Stilettoes’ prime mover, Elda Gentile, who’d recruited Harry after running into her at Max’s. “I was even a little surprised that she went for it. Let’s just say that he was very, very smart the way he handled her. I knew he wanted her body, soul and spirit, but he played it very cool to get her. He nurtured all her insecurities. Everybody loved Debbie because she had this Marilyn-Monroe-in-the-gutter quality, but she was very insecure, and a little bit paranoid.” (Harry’s early ’70s flirtation with drugs, including heroin, stemmed from this insecurity.)
The Stilettoes’ Rock Follies-meets-Riot Grrrl pop took the form of camp covers (Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, The Shangri-Las’ Out In The Streets, the latter reprised on No Exit) and became briefly hip among those in the know: Bowie and Iggy checked them, and Keith Moon swung by a legendary dyke dive called Club 82 to gawp. Harry was funky-but-chic, Stein a platform-stacked glitter boy. The couple fell so deeply in love that they were once discovered in flagrante in CBGBs’ notoriously revolting bathroom. “That’s true love, making it in the toilet at CBs,” chuckles Joey Ramone, whose band was rooted in the same customised teen-pop tradition as Blondie.
When The Stilettoes broke up in August 1974, Harry and Stein took the remnants of the band with them, playing their first CBGBs shows as Angel & The Snake. Within a couple of months Blondie was born, evolving through a series of unstable line-ups over the ensuing year. Even as she sung lines like, “I wanna be a platinum blonde/just like all the sexy stars”, Harry, alone in the spotlight for the first time, looked nervous and uncertain. “Debbie was not that confident,” says Victor Bockris. “She would try to do things and then look to the audience to see if it was right.”
Tiny and incestuous though it was, the CBGBs scene scorned Blondie as lightweights. Next to Patti Smith’s Rimbaud readings or Television’s tense jamming, Blondie’s ditsy True Confessions pop sounded lame. “Patti absolutely looked down on us,” says Stein, a trace of hurt in his voice even after all this time. Harry concurs, “She was very competitive.”
“There were a lot of little cliques in those days,” says Craig Leon. “These were all people running around thinking they were French Symbolists, and here comes Blondie, who are really like true punks and actually much more the mass-media future band than any of the others. In a way, some of those CBGBs bands might have been the dead end of progressive rock’n’roll. Not a lot of people really see that.”
Pretty much everyone who saw the early Blondie at CBGBs or elsewhere agrees that they stunk live. Even Alan Betrock, who included the group in the first issue of his pioneering New York Rocker in January 1975 and financed a primitive Blondie demo, admits the shows were completely chaotic. “They never had it together on-stage,” he says. “The guitar would break, they’d have problems. That’s why I thought their metier would be to record, and why we went and did this demo in Queens in some guy’s basement.” (Four songs were recorded: Platinum Blonde, Puerto Rico, Thin Line and Out In The Streets, all done live with a couple of guitar overdubs. For Out In The streets, Debbie sang the three harmony parts herself. At the end of the session, Chris suggested they cut what he called The Disco Song, a prototype for Heart Of Glass.)
One night in May 1975, Clement Burke made his debut on drums and bassist Fred Smith quit to join Television – a departure so devastating to Harry and Stein that they almost threw in the towel there and then. (Harry still blames Patti Smith, then Tom Verlaine’s paramour, for Fred’s defection.) Burke rallied them, and brought in an old school friend named Gary Valentine to play bass. Come the fall, James Destri and his trusty Farfisa were on board and Blondie were being re-evaluated by the CBGBs crowd. “Going to see Debbie at CBs at this time,” says Elda Gentile, “she’d discovered that Blondie identity and was able to run with her.”
When Craig Leon at Sire Records got wind of the nascent scene down on the Bowery, he convinced ’60s pop veteran Richard Gottehrer (The Angels, The Strangeloves) to come down and check out the bands. During a series of recordings for a Live At CBGBs album, Debbie Harry charmed Gottehrer into producing a single by Blondie. “I remember watching them play at a rehearsal and grinning from ear to ear,” says Gottehrer. “They had great songs. Playing arrangements almost beyond their means, the execution wasn’t perfect, but it had so much spirit. That got me interested.”
Sex Offender, written by Harry and Valentine and based on the latter’s traumatic experience of knocking up his underage girlfriend, was recorded at the comparatively plush midtown studio Plaza Sound and sounded killer. Retitled X-offender, it shocked many of Blondie’s detractors into begrudging repect. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, it was released on Private Stock, a label known principally for Frankie Valli’s 1975 Number 1 hit My Eyes Adored You.
“We ended up on Private Stock because everyone else passed on Blondie,” says Marty Thau, who shopped the single around town. “There were a number of good-sized companies who came to see them, but even those in A&R circles who knew what was going on downtown were hesitant because they didn’t believe in the so-called punk atmosphere.”
According to Thau, most of the work on X-Offender and the first Blondie album was done by Craig Leon. “Richard Gottehrer was in the studio and thought he was in charge,” he says, “but it was really Craig who was the backbone of the whole thing.” The producer also if The Ramones and Richard Hell’s seminal Blank Generation, Leon is self-effacing as to the accreditation, but concedes that he had more than a little to do with “shaping the sound that Blondie carried through all the way until they got really experimental with disco and rap”.
“They were shambolic,” he adds, “but through that you’d start hearing this great kind of recreation of The Shangri-Las’ mentality, mutated with this little Herman’s Hermits guitar thing, all these different sources. Then it hit me: Let’s take the best bits of all these ideas and make it so you can actually hear them one at a time!”
For Leon, Blondie, initially released on Private Stock in February 1977, bridged the group’s very different camps: Stein’s and Harry’s arty humour and Warholesque subversion, Burke’s Tiger Beat Anglophilia and Hal Blaine-meets-Keith Moon playing style, Destri’s Rascals-nurtured New York pop smarts. In the delectable In The Flesh – inspired by a crush Harry had once had on David Johansen and featuring Brill Building queen Ellie Greenwich on backing vocals – it also boasted Blondie’s first hit (Number 2 in Australia).
“Clem’s influence was the perfect counter-punch to Chris’s artier side, and that was really a driving force,” says Destri. “It was actually part of the thing that kept me there. I walked in with this vision of my own – here are my songs, and this is what I want to do – and Clem took me aside. Otherwise Chris and I would have banged heads from day one.”
“I always knew the songs were pretty well sussed,” says Burke. “There was a nucleus of maybe 15, 16 at the time, and there was also the taste we all had in cover songs. I didn’t know too many people in my group of friends who really liked The Shangri-Las or The Velvet Underground; they were all in their bedrooms trying to be the next Jimmy Page. There was a specific vision we had that not many people had at the time.”
As Blondie’s sound crystallised, so the band’s ’60s thrift-store Mod look came together. “The reason we got these clothes is because they were what we could afford at first,” Debbie Harry recalled in 1979. “I was always raving in the early days about straight-leg pants. Bell-bottoms used to really make me crazy because they’d swoosh and get in the way and I was always falling down in them.” A key influence on the band’s skinny-tie, narrow-collar image was that of designer Stephen Sprouse, who lived for a while in a Bowery loft with Harry and Stein and urged them to make bright colours and monochrome simplicity a Blondie trademark.
FROM A BRITISH PERSEPCTIVE, BLONDIE WERE A knowing power pop antidote to the splenetic rage of punk – a retro dream for the Phil Spector fan in all of us. We loved the nod to West Side Story in A Shark In Jet’s Clothing, the surf-pop homage that was In The Sun, the B-movie goofing of Kung Fu Girls and Attack Of The Giant Hits. Not to mention the sheer gleeful trashiness of Rip Her To Shreds. (An infamous early Chrysalis ad featured a pic of Debbie and read WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO RIP HER TO SHREDS? Countless spotty young onanists wanted to do exactly that. In the tender words of a boy interviewed for Fred and Judy Vermorel’s marvellous book Starlust, “I’d like to screw the heart off Blondie, and I said heart not arse”.) In May 1977, we got to see the band when they came to England to support critics’ darlings Television, and nine months later we made their gender-reversing adaptation of Randy & The Rainbows’ 1963 hit Denis(e) a Number 2 smash.
Watching Blondie at the Hammersmith Odeon on that tour, did I honestly think they were as important as Television, whose brilliant Marquee Moon had just come out? Of course not. But when I walked out of the gig I realised Blondie had been a lot more fun than Verlaine’s faintly self-important quartet. Amusing, then, to hear from Blondie 21 years later how miserable Television (and “Patti’s clan”) made life for their support act.
“We were pretty much at the bottom rung of the totem pole in the CBGBs scene,” says Destri. “The only reason we went to England with Television was that we had a label and they were willing to put support on the tour. And we all knew each other. Miles Copeland, who promoted that tour, figured we wouldn’t fight on the bus, that type of thing. So we went out, and the audience reaction was great for us. And that was the first indication that somebody else gets this.”
As good to Blondie as London was Los Angeles, where – following February 1977 gigs at the Whisky-A-Go-Go – the band was quickly embraced by a burgeoning New Wave scene and welcomed with open arms by scenesters like KROQ jock Rodney Bingenheimer. “LA was pretty inspirational for us,” attests Burke. “We were able to get out of New York, and it was certainly a much less jaded type of audience, more open to the kind of trash aesthetic we were putting forward.”
Away from the CBGBs in-crowd, Blondie were starting to cross over. By the 1978 release of Plastic Letters – a darker collection of powerpop which nonetheless included Denis and its fine follow-up Brit hit, (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear – Debbie Harry had become a star, a pop permutation of the luscious dumb blonde blueprinted by Monroe and filtered through Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, though what she really resembled was an Eastern Bloc idea of Dumb Blonde sexiness. (“She looked like a corn-fed Polish girl,” recalled Ritty Dodge, who’d worked alongside Harry as a Playboy Bunny.) “I wanted to come across as a naughty, sexy, tarty woman who was really living,” says the queen of the pop shikas.
“Debbie and Chris come out of the beatnik tradition, and those people did not see themselves as entertainers,” says Victor Bockris. “Yet she once showed me how she would transform herself from Debbie Harry into Blondie: the different layers of make-up she used, and how she got dressed. By the time she was finished, I was very turned on. It was like, Now I’m Blondie, a sort of pouty cartoon character.”
“Both Marty Thau and Richard Gottehrer said to me that the way I performed and sang and the way I wrote was so different from the person they knew socially,” Harry says. “They just couldn’t put those two personalities into one person. I guess they thought that I should be always completely raving.”
Harry’s elevation to sex-symbol status was always tempered by the knowledge that she and Chris Stein were lovers – a unit unto themselves within Blondie. Indeed, the band’s manager Peter Leeds was so concerned about the detrimental effect of Harry seeming sexually unavailable to the world that he suggested she and Stein split up.
Harry: “We always operated as a couple. Although I was very decisive and instigated a lot of stuff, Chris would be the one to tell people.”
Stein: “Nobody now realises how much criticism Debbie got for being overtly sexual and doing the stuff that was commonplace among male performers.”
Harry: “For the times I guess I was shocking, but by today’s standards it was nothing. There weren’t very many girls around, and the ones that were pretty strong-willed. Tina Weymouth, and Lydia Lunch was around a little bit later on. Of course women’s lib was in the press at that time, and all that stuff was going on. At that time I really did not want to do stuff that victimised women. That was clearly a motive.”
AGAIN AND AGAIN IN THE BLONDIE STORY ONE comes back to a central conundrum: how a besotted bohemian couple came to front one of the biggest pop acts in the world, and how they did (or didn’t) handle it. Plus, as an adjunct to that, how they were royally screwed by almost everyone along the path to success.
Perhaps the biggest turning point in that path was Blondie’s signing to Chrysalis, whose English boss Terry Ellis was as smitten with La Harry as the callowest of schoolboys. “She’d be throwing things and screaming at everybody backstage,” he remembered in a recent VH-1 Behind The Music special. “That kind of friction and energy made them exciting and wonderful.” Early pictures he saw of Harry, Ellis says, “shrieked stardom”.
“After the Pistols, so many bands just got eaten up,” says Elda Gentile. “But Chrysalis were very smart. They developed Blondie over three or four albums – they worked them, which is an unheard of thing in this day and age. Debbie did have an opportunity to be groomed for the industry and do something really fantastic.”
A catalyst was Australian producer Mike Chapman, half of the great Chinnichap glam-rock team which had churned out early ’70s hits for The sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro. (More recently, sans Chinn, Chapman had delivered hits for Exile and The Knack.) “Mike Chapman actually inherited a lot of the efforts of what we did way back then,” says Craig Leon. “But in my opinion he is probably the greatest producer of the ’70s pop ear. He really made Blondie into something commercial and worldwide.”
Swanning into New York’s Power Station studio in his aviator shades, a cigarette jammed into a naff white holder, Chapman announced that he was going to make a masterpiece. What he actually produced, in the summer of 1978, was a crossover album par excellence – what Lester Bangs in his book Blondie called “New Wave for that great mythic Ozzie and Harriet audience out there in the heartland”.
“Parallel Lines is good, tight listening,” Chapman later reflected. “That’s what Blondie’s all about… I didn’t make a punk album or a New Wave album with Blondie. I made a pop album. If radio stations would only forget this evil word ‘punk’. It’s modern rock’n’roll.”
“Modern rock’n’roll”, in Chapman’s definition, included the reworking of The Disco Song aka Heart Of Glass, a bete noire for the band’s hardcore fans but an American Number 1 hit in March 1979. How ironic that a song recorded almost as a novelty – a perverse New York nose-thumbing to the Disco Sucks crowd – should have been the one to propel Blondie into the big time. But propel them it – and Parallel Lines – did, in the process fostering an entire American wave of lame noowave skinny-tie bands.
Parallel Lines introduced a new Blondie line-up, with Gary Valentine replaced by ex-Silverhead Brit bassist Nigel Harrison and the guitar sound bolstered by a runty-looking guy called Frank ‘The Freak’ Infante. (Harrison and Infante nearly managed to sabotage the Blondie reunion by refusing – as members of the financial partnership that is ‘Blondie’ – to give it their blessing. In addition they sued Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri for $1 million, claiming their finances had been mismanaged and demanding a re-auditing of the Blondie books.)
In Britain, where they were bigger than ever, Lines spawned four hits, including two Number 1s in Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl.
‘Blondiemania’ was no exaggeration for what the band experienced at events like in-store signings. Suddenly, says Debbie Harry, “everyone was at you, at you, at you…”
Back in Manhattan, a mixture of local pride in their success and resentful envy served to cocoon the band still further in a weird bubble of fame.
“When we started getting attention, it was such a weird thing,” says Chris Stein. “Everybody was just a bunch of fucked-up maniacs on the streets, and it seemed like a fluke – this attention was almost unreal and we’d better all jump on it. As a result, everybody got competitive.”
“Of course everyone was jealous,” says Craig Leon. “None of the other bands had hits, apart from Patti with Because The Night. Blondie were the only ones where you could actually point to a chart and say, ‘Here is one of the CBGBs bands and they’re up there with David Soul!’ I’m sure it got a lot of people angry, because Blondie were so hap-hazzard and lackadaisical about the way they played.”
“People forget that Debbie and Chris wrote most of these worldwide hits that sold millions of records,” says Alan Betrock. “People don’t realise how much work and dedication it took. None of the other New York bands could match that. Patti Smith’s hit was written by Bruce Springsteen.”
WITH MANAGER PETER LEEDS PUTTING them on nonstop worldwide tours, the inevitable happened, only it was exacerbated by a uniquely New York surliness and recalcitrance. First the band weren’t talking to one other, and soon they couldn’t stand to be in the same room. “Everybody would always disagree about everything,” Stein says. “Debbie and I would disagree with each other, the band would disagree with us, the band would disagree among themselves. Turmoil.”
“They went through the same thing a lot of groups go through, where there’s success and then everybody’s ego gets inflated,” says Glenn O’Brien. “Even though Chris and Jimmy were the principal songwriters, and Chris in a way was the musical director and Debbie the star, all of a sudden Frankie Infante thinks it’s a democracy. Democracy and success is something that bands have never resolved.”
Manager Peter Leeds failed to mollify growing friction. Nor did the cash flow run smoothly. O’Brien: “People don’t realise that Debbie and Chris would be calling up Chrysalis and saying, ‘Where’s the money?’, and Chrysalis would say, ‘It’s in the pipeline.’ There was a big lag between the time they got famous and when they actually earned anything. I think they were taken advantage of by a lot of people. I don’t think Blondie were very lucky.”
“Leeds gave birth to Blondie, in a sense,” says Victor Bockris. “He put them on their first world tour, and got them a higher profile. But Debbie and Chris were very straightforward about things, and expected to be treated straightforwardly. And they weren’t.”
With the release of 1979’s Eat To The Beat, Blondie switched their management to LA big shot Shep Gordon. But Gordon wasn’t ideal for them either. “I don’t think Blondie was the most important thing in the world to him,” says Bockris. This didn’t stop Eat To The Beat continuing the group’s meteoric rise, featuring as it did Dreaming, Union City Blue and the glorious Atomic, Blondie’s third British Number 1. Much of the record, though, sounded cold and antiseptic, making an odd contrast to the sexuality ostensibly projected by Harry. (Lester Bangs – who en passant claimed the he “couldn’t even work up a decent pornographic fantasy” about Debbie – argued that Blondie’s music had become “a wall”.)
When touring stopped, Harry and Stein retreated to a townhouse they’d bought on East 72nd Street, hiding away from the glare of cameras. In this splendid “oral history of punk”, Please Kill Me!, former punk figurehead Legs McNeil notes that at some point he actually began to feel sorry for Harry. The former fun-loving scenester, he said, “just seemed so lonely”.
“And there were certain periods when Chris was very depressed because of the whole Peter Leeds situation, and it wasn’t easy for her,” says Victor Bockris. “We think it’s ridiculous for rock stars to complain when they’re making so much money and they have all this crap that everyone wants, but the fact is that it is really painfully isolating in a way that very few people understand.”
Asked about the band’s unravelling, Chris Stein replies simply that “it was never ravelled… the band exploded and then I exploded”. Clem Burke says that between 1980 and 1982 he saw no one in Blondie socially. Which only makes 1980’s Autoamerican more remarkable for its stylistic range, not to mention the huge success of the pointedly un-Blondieish singles The Tide Is High and Rapture, the first a cover of The Paragons’ reggaw classic, the second the first real example – five years before Run DMC’s Walk This Way – of white pop interfacing with black hip hop.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of 1982’s The Hunter, the disastrous last album by Blondie Mk 1. (For this fan, the writing was really on the wall when the band paired up with Giorgio Moroder for 1980’s horrible electro-rock smash Call Me.) In six years, Blondie had gone from being one of the most vibrant pop bands of the ’70s to being mere MTV fodder. Stein, in any case, was becoming visibly ill, wasting away and becoming worryingly pale. Outsiders assumed he was a junkie; his friends thought he must have contracted a scary new virus then beginning to ravage America’s gay communities.
“Nobody knew what was wrong,” says Glenn O’Brien. “We thought maybe he had AIDS, but how did he get AIDS because he didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do to get AIDS? He was like a skeleton.” Stein’s disease was eventually diagnosed as the rare and potentially fatal skin condition pemphigus vulgaris.
With Harry and Stein all but disappearing from view, Blondie quietly dissolved, the band’s other members scattering to find gainful employment. Clem Burke played with Eurythmics, and then with The Romantics and various other powerpop-rooted entities (most recently the re-formed Plimsouls). Jimmy Destri released an unheralded 1982 solo album, Heart On A Wall, bounced around Europe, and eventually settled for life back in Brooklyn as a contractor. Nigel Harrison played with Burke and ex-pistol Steve Jones in Chequered Past, then wound up working in A&R for Capitol and Interscope.
HARRY AND STEIN FINALLY RE-EMERGED IN THE mid-’80s, with Stein apparently on the mend. “Chris came over to my apartment to meet William Burroughs in 1986,” says Victor Bockris. “He was a completely different person – so turned on, and so funny, just talking and talking. He was back completely. It did take a few years, because it wasn’t just a physical illness. The fallout at the end of Blondie also created enormous stress. To get out of the tangled web they were when he fell ill was very complicated and took a long time and was very boring and stressful.”
Harry, whose solo career had started rockily with 1981’s much ridiculed, Chic-produced Koo Koo, returned to make Rockbird (1986) and hit with the bubbly, inane French Kissing In The USA. She also continued the movie career she’d begun with Union City (1979) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982), appearing as Sonny Bono’s wife in the John Waters romp Hairspray (1988).
“Of course I was kind of lost after Blondie,” she says, “but I kept on trying to figure it out. And then I wanted to make more records. I really didn’t know what it takes to be creative and to hold on to my artistic soul; I didn’t know how to activate it. One of the reasons that I was so attracted to Chris is that he is so naturally adept at expressing that constantly. And it’s taken a while just to become habitually in touch with that, to live my life like that.”
Stein and Harry remained close friends and continued to work together – on Def, Dumb And Blonde (1989) and Debravation (1993), neither terribly captivating. I Want That Man was another overproduced piece of late ’80s schlock, and another hit. Who really cared? Meanwhile, Blondie’s influence peeped through only in the underwhelming form of The Primitives, Transvision Vamp and Kim Wilde. Of course, there was that Madonna broad…
More cred-boosting by far was Harry’s work with The Jazz Passengers, a loose-knit New York bop ensemble who may have heard her initial (and very credible) stabs at jazz singing on Autoamerican. “It’s much more about real singing, which is definitely what I’m more adept at,” Harry says. “I really am good at that. I work very hard to be a good singer and I study, and I’ve kept working. In my performance I consciously hold back from dancing too much because I know that it’s going to affect my singing. I really work to be a musician, and I contribute to the arrangements as much as I’m capable of doing. And that’s what I love. I get joy from that.”
“The Jazz Passengers thing was really good for Debbie,” says Glenn O’Brien. “It improved her skills while taking the spotlight off her and just being one of the boys in the band. That was a situation she was never in before. And I think she’s more one of the boys in Blondie now than she was in the beginning. She’s not playing up the glamour part so much as just being a great entertainer and kind of a freak.” (“She’s become really good at it, to the point where it lights bulbs in my head as to doing a real Debbie Harry jazz album,” adds Craig Leon.)
While the reactivated Blondie of No Exit kicks off with a supercharged blast of vintage Blondie pop (Maria) and returns to the band’s Shadow Morton girl-group roots (Out In The Streets), it also takes in a slew of very different genres, each bringing out a new element in Harry’s voice. There’s the slinky hepcat jazz of Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room, the stomping ska-pop of Screaming Skin, the gothic hip hop of the title track (featuring Coolio), the hyper sequenced, tres ’80s Forgive And Forget, and a lovely, sensuous reverie called Night Wind Sent. “Getting herself comfortable with even singing in a pop style again was hard,” says No Exit producer Leon. “She’s having fun doing it, but it’s probably musically a little less interesting than the avant-garde things she’s recorded.”
All of which begs the question of just how keen Harry is to re-enter the arena of Anglo-American pop culture as “Blondie”. At 53, she may have a rough ride at the hands of ageist commentators. The best news for the moment is that the group’s reunion has been, for the most part, a happy experience. With the trusted Leon at the controls and the powerful Left Bank management team behind them, Blondie have found a renewed zest for life as a band. Even the arguing has been fun this time around. “There’s always this melting pot of ideas on the same song,” says Craig Leon. “It can still get pretty violent with everybody fighting for their ideas: Chris wanting it one way, Jimmy wanting something here, Clem wanting something there, and Debbie serenely sitting back and saying, ‘When you guys get it together, I’m going to give you the hit melody and vocal.’ It’s all because they all have a fabulous sense of pop history.”
Sitting with Blondie at Space, on the eve of their first tour in over 15 years, the band appear cheerful enough about their prospects.
“As it goes along week by week,” says Chris Stein, “everybody’s getting much more positive about the whole thing. The last tour Debbie and me did, what’d we do? Two of the fuckin’ hit songs, maybe. I remember people leaving and going, ‘Well yeah, but I had no idea what that was about.’ Five years ago I wouldn’t have wanted to do the old songs, but now I feel real positive and real emotional about doing them. Unless we get heavily bombarded by tomatoes and beer cans, I think it’s going to be fine.”
THERE ARE NO TOMATOES IN evidence when, six weeks later, Blondie take the stage at Poole’s Arts Centre for the penultimate gig of their European tour. Instead the Saturday night crowd gives the band the rapturous welcome that’s become routine on the tour – a welcome born of equal parts nostalgia and curiosity. You spot the punk vets who’ve hung up their safety pins and joined the mortgage set, but you also see Debbie-ettes who were still in nappies when Blondiemania ruled.
For a few numbers the performance looks tired and uninspired. Harry wearing a ’40s hourglass suit that suggests a 1974 Roxy Music backing singer’s outfit, seems tentative as she tackles the sequenced rock-pop of Forgive And Forget. Meanwhile the others look like LA musos. Lee Fox, black jacket sleeves rolled up to his elbows, has the termerity to play a bass solo on Atomic. From The Shangri-Las to… Spyro Gyra! Is it meant to be ironic?
But as the show goes on, Harry, her voice huskier and more Joni Mitchell-ish than it used to be, loosens up and starts to enjoy herself. When the Poole boomers bob as one to Sunday Girl, clapping along on the bridges with Harry, the band goes with the flow. “Oh baaaybeh… my sweet baaaybeh,” Harry coos, and for a second we’re transported back to girl-group heaven – Brooklyn, summer ’64. By the time the band reach Rip Her To Shreds, via In The Flesh (“the song that got us away from New York City and into the big wide world”), everybody’s happy.
“NO ONE CAN SAY WE DIDN’T HOLD OUT FOR 15 MINUTES,” reads the back of the Blondie tour T-shirt, the quote daftly attributed to Sarte (author, lest we forget, of a play called No Exit). It’s not as if the band don’t realise how sad these reunions can be. After obligatory encores of Denis, The Tide Is High and Heart Of Glass, Blondie leave us with our warm memories of picture discs and Top Of The Pops.
“Personally it’s been very stress-free as a result of so much acceptance,” says Chris Stein, apres le gig. “Debbie’s the most worn-out, because I get to sort of phase out, whereas Debbie’s level of focus is a lot higher.”
Burke tells me it’s “getting boring saying how good everything’s been going”. Only an hilarious incident in Lugano, Italy, where Blondie were being presented with a highfalutin’ cultural award – previous recipients: Fellini, Callas, Nureyev – provided any hiccup along the way. “Polanski was there with some 11-year-old dancer,” says Stein. “I don’t know if it was his date. Clem got really drunk, tried to leap over his drums and fell on Paul and Lee in front of this whole crowd of bejewelled courtesans.”
“I had completely forgotten that I had drunk three bottles of champagne, and also that I had my Anello & Davide Cuban-heel Beatle boots on,” says Burke. “I got over the drums and next thing I know I’m on the floor, and then the drums come crashing down in a chain reaction, and 500 people go, Oh my God… in Italian, of course.”
“A disaster, but a major existential moment,” chuckles Stein.
Debbie Harry emerges from her dressing room to pose for pictures with a pair of peroxide-blonde girls, each wearing the ‘Vultures’ T-shirt Harry sported back in ’77. Pop’s sometime Marilyn Monroe looks glazed but happy.
“You girls were relentless tonight,” she tells them, her arms spread round their shoulders.
“Vulture women rule!!”
Thanks to Kate Simon, Howard Thompson and David Fricke.

“Must be into The Shangri-Las…”
Fashion victim, Barely housetrained. Partial to jailbait. No bass-playing experience whatsoever. Gary Valentine was just the plunker Blondie were looking for – and an idea flatmate too…
I FIRST MET CHRIS STEIN AND DEBBIE HARRY IN 1975. I was 19, had left home the year before, and was living in a storefront on East 10th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, in New York’s East Village. The neighbourhood, on the fringe of Alphabet City, sported junkies, prostitutes, East European immigrants and gangs of Hispanic kids. Back then it was a sort of no man’s land, but nowadays yuppie moms wheel their prams through the reclaimed streets without a second thought. If you throw a rock in any direction, you’re bound to hit a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop, or a Gap. Maybe a Tower Records.
Not too long ago I walked through the old neighbourhood, remembering what it was like. A lot of places remained, like the Russian baths on 10th Street that William Burroughs mentions in one of his books, and the B&H Dairy Restaurant in Second Avenue, where you can get hot borscht and challah bread like nowhere else. But some places had changed. The store-front I lived in, for example: 23 years ago the windows were so filthy it was an even bet whether the shades were drawn or not. Today a Tai Chi studio is there, and a big Yin and Yang symbol advertises the place. The shop windows, filled with holistic health notices, are very clean. Apparently it’s true: you can’t go home again.
I MOVED TO NEW YORK FROM MY PARENT’S HOUSE IN NEW Jersey, just across the Hudson River, more or less behind the Statue of Liberty. A series of misadventures, culminating in my underage girl friend becoming pregnant and my being arrested for it (the ‘autobiographical material’ behind my song X-Offender, Blondie’s first single), led my parents to giving me an ultimatum. Change my ways, get a job, think about returning to university and forget about rock’n’roll. I packed a bag and left. A friend had sublet the store-front from a friend of his, who had converted it into a studio. ‘Converted’ is too extravagant a word for it’s condition. There were mounds of unwashed laundry, a couch that was more holes than couch, a dilapidated stereo, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and roaches, and stacks of greasy dishes. It was dark, dirty and stale. Perfect, I thought. My hero at the time was Henry Miller and my plan was simple: I was going to become a poet.
My friend was eccentric. He divided his time between working for the Manhattan Transit Department, studying the Bible for hints about the end of the world and wanting to be a rock’n’roll star. He also squeezed in a considerable number of drugs. He wore eye-liner too, a leftover from the glitter days of The New York Dolls and Club 82, an old drag club on East Fourth Street, between Second and Third Avenues, which for a brief time a year before was the centre of the New York ‘underground’ scene. We had a vague plan to start a band, and one item in the store-front helped: an old, shattered piano. Practically every other key on it was broken, but this didn’t matter. I taught myself how to play and started writing lyrics instead of poetry.
Most of the time I was hungry. I had barely enough money to cover my rent, and occasionally I shoplifted food. It was the kind of life you’re supposed to lead if you want to write or paint or be any kind of artist. At least that’s what I told myself those days I hadn’t eaten, when I tried to quell the pains in my stomach by drinking warm water, a trick I picked up from the French writer, Rene Daumal. It didn’t help Daumal much: he died of tuberculosis at 36. Luckily for me, something happened in the summer of 1975 that gave me something more substantial to sink my teeth into.
CLEM BURKE, WHO I KNEW FROM HIGH SCHOOL AND who had been drumming in bands since he was a kid, had started playing with a band in New York. I had seen Clem play for years, and we had become friends. He was always on top of what was cool. He had some sixth sense about what was going to be the Next Big Thing, and more times than not he was right. He knew about David Bowie before any one else, and in ’73 was already walking around with lipstick or his eyelids painted red, a dangerous thing in New Jersey. I admired Clem for his commitment to the rock life.
It was something of a coup to have a place in the city, and he was always dropping in, bringing some grass or a bottle of wine and a handful of new records. Most of the time we had Ziggy Stardust, All The Young Dudes, Fun House, White Light/White Heat or Highway 61 blaring, and we’d sit and talk about how we were going to be bigger than The Beatles. Clem was still in college and occasionally he’d ask me to write a paper for him, or a poem for a creative writing class. His band was playing somewhere in the Wall Street district. Did I want to come?
Yeah, sure. What’re they like?
“Oh, sorta campy. The guitarist’s a real nut. But the singer’s sexy. We do some weird songs.”
Yeah. What’re you called?
“Blondie. You saw them once at Club 82. They were The Stilettoes then.”
I vaguely remembered: Club 82, to me, was a melange of the Dolls, Rock The Boat, glitter shoes, drag queens, transvestites, earings, lipstick, a brief encounter with Lou Reed and David Bowie, too many Tequila Sunrises and an unfortunate whiff of amyl nitrate. But I think I saw them on the same bill as Wayne Country.
Yeah. Sure. I remember.
He told me the name of the place. White’s pub, a dive somewhere in the financial district. If I wanted to go I should be there when he got there.
I HAD ALREADY BEEN TO CBGBS – Country, Blue Grass and Blues – on the Bowery to see Patti Smith and Television, and I had observed Richard Hell prowling the streets of the East Village with what seemed like a perpetual sneer cut into his face. Like him, I had taken to wearing shades just about all the time. I had picked up the habit from peering at Ian Hunter albums and old Dylan photos, and what I gained in imperturbable cool I lost in eyesight.
In those days there really weren’t many places for unsigned bands to play, especially bands like the early Television, who were working, more or less, on a ‘learn as you go’ basis. Max’s Kansas City hadn’t re-opened yet, Club 82 had lost its cachet when glitter dried up and ‘real’ venues like The Bottom Line wouldn’t look twice at the likes of the bands who would start to bring crowds to what used to be a biker bar in what still is a pretty ratty part of the city. Walking around Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, I’d see little flyers for Television or Patti Smith posted to street lamps, or spread across abandoned store-fronts. But they were just a small part of the samizdat self-advertising that goes on in any big city, competing with notices for avant-garde theatre productions and political rallies. In that early summer of 1975, things were still pretty quiet on the rock’n’roll front. Hence Blondie busking in the depths of downtown Manhattan.
I don’t remember a great deal about the show. A friend, Ronnie Toast, a maniac poet who later wrote a couple of songs for Blondie, went with me, and I remember sitting in the back, huddled in a dark corner, nursing the one beer we could afford. My hair was long and I don’t think I said much. The place was practically empty. White’s wasn’t exactly on the clubbing circuit, and what I remember of the audience is a handful of barflies occasionally letting out a frank appraisal of the singer. If they didn’t always appreciate the material, at least they liked her looks. It was only later I found out they got the gig because Debbie worked there as a waitress.
My memories of Debbie from that night are vague. But I was impressed by Chris’s voodoo attire. He was always covered in skulls, pentagrams, crossbones and swastikas, this last item a bit odd for a Jew. (Recently, when I met him again after 20 years, I saw his tastes hadn’t changed. His loft in New York is somewhere between The London Dungeon and a Damien Hirst installation.) He wore dark eye-liner, his nails were long and black (he never used a plectrum, and played his guitar as if it were a banjo), and his hair fell around his rouged face in gypsy ringlets. Later, when I joined the band, and Blondie had it’s first incarnation in ’60s retro gear, I always thought Chris felt out of place in Mod suit, skinny tie and Beatle boots.
Also there that night was Fred Smith. When he left Blondie to join Television – after Tom Verlaine had given Richard Hell his walking papers – it probably seemed a chance he couldn’t pass up. After all, Blondie then – and for a long while after – were really little more than a joke. Television were getting press. Verlaine’s surreal lyrics and switch-blade guitar were grabbing critics’ attention. Blondie had little more going for them than Debbie’s looks. It was a good move for me, because soon after Clem asked me if I wanted to play bass with the band.
BEFORE THE PROPER INGREDIENTS congealed into the distinct bands, Clem was, like Fred, on the look-out to better his situation. He saw an ad for a drummer in the Village Voice. He called. It was Patti Smith. Did I want to go to the audition?
We went to a rehearsal space that night somewhere in uptown Manhattan, above 14th Street, which, for East Villagers, may as well have been Catskills. He had yet to crop his hair to the moptop he sported on the first Blondie LP and, like Chris, was still hanging on to remnants of glitter. A weird Rod Stewart shag, like a flaccid octopus, hung around his head, and he chain-smoked Marlboros with a quick, jerky motion. I guess I was there for moral support. I wasn’t really a musician, and my clothes were definitely uncool. When I thought about it, all I had going for me were my dark glasses.
Inside the room were some amlifiers, a set of drums and two people: Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith. Not one to mince words, Patti came to the point.
“Which one’s the drummer?”
Clem twirled his sticks.
Then she looked at me.
“And what about you?”
Again the look.
“Well? Whadda you play? Hmmm?”
She looked at Lenny.
“Maybe sunglasses?”
She laughed. Lenny picked up his guitar and started strumming. In a thin, sarcastic voice he sang, “You’ll look sharp/Wearing sunglasses after dark.” Clem didn’t pass the audition.
MY OWN AUDITION FOR BLONDIE WENT SOMEWHAT better. After hanging around at a couple of gigs they knew who I was. Clem had told them I was a poet and that I wrote songs – my repertoire on the clapped-out piano was growing – and I guess I looked the part. I was thin. The fact that I couldn’t really play the bass was a minor detail. If your standards for rock musicianship were Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer then, yeah, practically none of us could ‘really play’. But that was unimportant. The whole idea behind the early New York scene was that you didn’t have to depend on established rock performers to provide your musical sustenance. If you had the nerve to get up on stage and bang away, you could do it yourself.
One day Clem came to the store-front, told me Fred had quit and asked if I wanted to audition. I said yes. I could play a little, having picked up a few chords from guitarist friends in Jersey – while they were figuring out Allman Brother licks, I was slugging away at Johnny B. Goode. He said they’d have a bass at the rehearsal space – I didn’t have one – and gave me the address.
The place was uptown, in an office building on West 37th Street, near the Port Authority Bus Station, not far from Hell’s Kitchen. A year or so before I spent a day panhandling at the bus depot, trying to get enough money for a decent meal (I think Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Book suggested it as a good place to ask for spare change), and at one time my friend and I thought it was great fun to photograph each other talking with the hookers who worked the neighbourhood.
What I remember most from that first jam was realising how attractive Debbie was. Not that I hadn’t noticed this before. But sitting across from her, talking, in a small, brightly lit room, was different from seeing her in a dive like White’s, where she mumbled a quick “Hi” before and after a set. Like every male who’s seen her in the flesh, I knew I was looking at a very sexy woman.
Chris was there, done up as usual in his Bela Lugosi best. Clem was very supportive and somewhat avuncular, jollying me out of my natural shyness, telling them about my poetry and songs. Chris lit a joint, and after it went around, handed me the bass.
“Whaddya know?” Er…
“Can you play A and D?”
“OK. You know the Stones’ Live With Me?”
I nodded.
We went to it. Chris had a scratchy, plucky way of playing, as if his fingers hit two different chords simultaneously, one banging into the other. Clem hit a steady beat. I ploughed into the bass, figuring it out with a kind of join-up-the-dots approach. Debbie let the chords churn around for a while before coming in. Casually, in thin T-shirt, ripped jeans and tennis shoes, she sang.
“I got nasty habits…”
I bet she does, I thought.
“C’mon now honey, donchu wanta live with meee…”
An hour later we stopped. Finally Chris said, “OK, you can play.” Clem got off the drums and moved over to the piano.
“C’mere,” he said. “Play one of your songs.” I put down the bass and sat at the upright. The tuning wasn’t great, but compared to the one at the store-front, this was a Steinway. I hit a C, got my pitch, and sang something I had just come up with. They nodded.
“OK. Sounds good.”
“So?” Clem asked.
“So he can play. So He’s in.”
“Yeah. Sure. He sounds great.”
Cool, I said. I had made it. I was officially in a New York rock’n’roll band.
A LOT HAPPENED AFTER THAT audition. For one thing, my friend at the store-front announced he was moving to a kibbutz in Israel (the spot, apparently, would be safe when Armageddon arrived). I had to find a new crib. Rehearsals with the band were going well, and I was getting better on the bass. There was no way around it. I took a deep breath and knocked on my parent’s door.
That lasted a few weeks. The fact that I was playing in a band didn’t go down well, and that it was in New York made it even worse – they didn’t care for me crawling into bed at 4am after a gig or a night out. I received another ultimatum, packed another knapsack, and left.
For a few nights I crashed at the rehearsal space. Technically verboten, I had nowhere else to go. I crashed on another friend’s couch in Jersey City, but after a couple of nights his mother didn’t care for this and so I was back on the street. Eventually my plight came up at rehearsal.
“Debbie,” Chris said. “Gary doesn’t have a place to live.”
Then a thoughtful moment.
“Well, I guess he can live with us.”
CHRIS AND DEBBIE LIVED IN A tiny one-bedroom flat above a grocery store on Thompson Street, in the interzone between SoHo and Little Italy, the kind of neighbourhood you’d expect to see an Al Pacino film. There was hardly enough room in the place for the two of them. Every vertical level surface was covered in photographs. A bulletin board on one wall had flyers for The Stilettoes, and Elvis record cover, a photo of Debbie in her Chevy Camaro, a picture of Billy Doll, the drummer from The New York Dolls, who had OD’ed and been replaced by Jerry Nolan, the inevitable skull and crossbones, a Rolling Stones button with Brian Jones. The refrigerator had pictures of Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, Eric Emerson from The Magic Tramps, another rock martyr who had met an early end. Crucifixes, magical talismans, voodoo dols, images of Warhol, The Velvet Underground and junk art Chris picked up from the trash: the bric-a-brac of the streets found its walk-in display case in that small flat.
My other vivid memory is of shivering myself awake most of the first night I spent there, crashing on a small couch amid amplifiers, speaker cases and guitars, because I was too shy to ask for a blanket after Chris and Debbie had gone to bed.
Memories: Debbie making coffee in the morning – Cafe Bustella, a real New York item, like the bottles of Manhattan Special, an absurdly sweet coffee soda we’d get from the deli below. Bleary-eyed, rats’-nest hair, she’d fall out of the bedroom wrapped in a housecoat, then pull out a frying pan, yawn and make scrambled eggs for Chris and I. Most times I had been up already for a few hours, reading, or quietly plucking one of the guitars. I tried to keep out of the way.
She’d kick us out every now and then, just to have the place to herself. Chris would roll a joint and we’d hit the streets, usually heading across Houston to the East Village. I wore his hand me downs – black peg-leg pants, a Canadian Film Festival T-Shirt, a white leather jacket. I even got a new pair of shades – a little less dark – using his Medicare card.
By then we had done a few gigs, recorded the Alan Betrock demo, and I had had my trial by fire. My first performance was at a dive called Monty Python’s, on Third Avenue and 12th Street. It was the only time I ever suffered stagefright and played with my back to the audience – mostly another batch of barflies and a few other musicians. In the early days different bands would support one other, turning up to what might otherwise be empty gigs, like people on a desert island taking in one other’s washing. (After the A&R people started coming, competitiveness eroded the early camaraderie.)
Chris had sublet a flat on First Avenue to Tommy Ramone of The Ramones (who else?) and brought me around to meet him. Then there were The Miamis. We did a lot of shows with them; they wrote great songs and were a fun band, but were lost in the shuffle when the record companies started signing people. It was at their place that I first met Dee Dee Ramone. The Ramones had just been signed to Sire Records and Dee Dee was feeling rather pleased. We sat at the kitchen table, the inevitable joint had gone around, and Dee Dee was holding court, telling us what it was like dealing with record company people. The usual questions were asked: How much money did they get? When was the album due? Were they going on tour?
Somebody asked if the Ramones would still play CBGBs. “Well, y’know, probably. But not that often. We’d rather do bigger places, y’know, being signed and all that.”
He lounged back in his chair, satisfied with his assessment of things. Then suddenly he leaned forward, put his hands on the table and earnestly assured us, “But I’ll come to see you guys play. I don’t want to lose touch.” I hadn’t said much. I sighed and shook my head. “Gee, Dee Dee,” I said. “It must be lonely at the top.”
The others laughed. Dee Dee seemed a little put out. I don’t think I made a good impression.
WE PLAYED A LOT OF SMALL GIGS IN those early days – bachelor parties, weddings, forgettable dives with names like Brandy’s and Broadway Charlie’s. The idea was to get money to eat. Most people think a musician’s life is about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, but most of the time it’s about food. After a show we’d hop into Debbie’s Camaro and go to Dave’s Pot Belly, an all-night coffee shop on Christopher Street, west of Bleecker, in Greenwich Village, and stuff ourselves on cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes. If the take wasn’t good there was Smiler’s Deli, on Seventh Avenue and Sheridan Square, for less sumptuous fare, like chicken salad sandwiches and chocolate milk. For special treats Debbie went to Chinatown and brought a sack of bao back to the flat, steamed buns filled with pork and sweet sauce.
At one party, for the Equestrian Club, somewhere on the upper East Side, we did our originals but filled out the set with covers of the Stones, The Supremes, The Doors, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground – we even did a version of Television’s Venus De Milo. We played for three hours but, for lack of material, repeated the same songs over and over. Nobody seemed to mind. The food was good, and so were the drinks. We made about $300, the most money we had seen, and thought, Yeah, this is what it’s all about.
IN JULY WE DEBUTED AT CBGBS FESTIVAL OF UNRECORDED Rock Talent, playing with The Ramones and Talking Heads, and in August, supporting The Heartbreakers, we shared a bill with the Talking Heads. We were known as the band who would open for anyone, and to a degree this was true. We simply weren’t that impressive. Debbie would forget lyrics. Chris would look at his guitar as if it had just materialised out of thin air. The only one of us who could keep things together was Clem. We rehearsed at a loft on Third Street, just around the corner from CBGBs, owned by Arturo Vega, who later became an art director for The Ramones. But after a few weeks he lost interest in us and we had to find a new place. Meanwhile, the Thompson Street flat was getting too small. Obviously it was time to move on.
We landed in an illegal loft space above a liquor store on the Bowery, two blocks from CBGBs. A friend of Chris’s had got a lease on the place and he rented us a floor. The friend, Benton, was the most peculiar individual I had met to date. Thin as a rail, with a long mane of blond hair, he was an artist of sorts, but spent most of his time wearing biker gear and fantasising about the Hell’s Angels. (During the end of our stay there, on a PCP binge, Benton asked an Angel to beat him; he obliged.) Sometimes he wouldn’t leave his room for days, and his floor was dotted with Coke bottles filled with his urine.
The loft was unheated; I spent one Christmas Eve (my birthday) burning a stack of Jimi Hendrix posters to stay warm. Any furniture we had was dragged in from the streets. Naturally it was filthy. Outside the sidewalk was covered with winos and down-and-outs; often we had to push the door open in the morning, because a bum had camped out there the night before. One winter morning we discovered one had frozen to death; someone suggested hauling the body inside, but luckily an ambulance arrived. (Benton had got his hands on a series of Tibetan paintings, one of which was a cheery scene of a group of monks eating one of their fellows).
An eerie statue of a nun stood in front of a fireplace. A cross was painted on her forehead, and rosary beads hung from her hand. The fireplace itself was covered in occult formulae. Benton was fond of Aleister Crowley, meditated on the Tarot, and in inspired moments read aloud from Diary Of A Drug Fiend. Between this and Chris’s voodoo fascination, the place had the air of a bad satanist film. Chris said the loft was haunted, and that he could feel poltergeists (Chris always had an active imagination). Debbie had brought her cats, and their nonchalant defecation combined with Benton’s piss to create a particularly aromatic atmosphere. (Brecht said that the world of culture is built on a mountain of shit: if nowhere else, this observation fitted the New York scene. CBGBs was notoriously known as ‘the toilet’, and I remember being told that Richard Hell had thrown his girlfriend out because she had flushed the loo.)
The wiring, like everything else in the loft, was faulty, and once when I reached out to move a lamp I suddenly had 110 volts running through me. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t let go of the lamp. A black mass like storm cloud rose from the back of my skull and headed toward my forehead; I knew that when it got there I’d be gone. I tried to call out, but my muscles were paralysed. Chris miraculously emerged from the back room and, calmly smoking the ubiquitous joint, stepped over to the socket and unplugged the lamp. I collapsed. For several days after my arm was numb, and I often fell asleep, sitting up, with my eyes open.
Another time I got arrested by an off-duty policeman. A friend of ours was acting in The Tempest, and Clem, Benton and I had gone to a matinee at the theatre in Chelsea. Walking back we shared a joint. From out of nowhere a madman grabbed me, shouting, “No! No! This can’t happen. Not in my neighbourhood!” I had no idea what he was talking about. In those days people more or less smoked openly, figuring that the police had better things to do. He never said he was a policeman, showed no badge or ID, just flashed a set of bracelets and tried to cuff me. I fought him off, but he chased me into the street. A crowd gathered, and Benton and Clem looked on, uncertain what to do. Finally, he grabbed my shirt and threw me to the asphalt, my head hitting the deck, stars and tweety-birds whizzing before my eyes. “Is he all right?” I heard. “Do you think he’s epileptic?” Someone suggested sticking a wallet in my mouth. I’m in a scientology commercial, I thought, before conking out. The next thing I’m in a police car heading to jail.
We spent the next three nights in three different jails. It was Friday; the courts didn’t open until Monday; there was nothing for it but for the three of us to spend the weekend enjoying the hospitality of New York’s finest. My head pounded from its recent meeting with West 18th Street. I couldn’t see. The police had taken my glasses and had refused to give me pain-killers, suspecting that I might slit my wrists with the broken lenses or overdose on two Excedrin. And I was hungry. Life in the Big Apple. Worse still, we had a show at Max’s Kansas City that Monday night and there was no guarantee we’d be released on time. Throughout Clem kept up a mantra of “Shit man, this sucks” and minor variations thereof, which Benton would counter with his single maxim for a philosophy of life: “Learn to love it.” The cops didn’t know what to make of us, and I was concerned that Benton might taunt one of them into living out one of his masochistic fantasies. Clem asked a black guy for a cigarette. The guy eyeballed him. “Hey, man. You look like Mick Jagger. You want a cigarette? You gotta sing for it, man.”
Clem took a deep breath, and let rip.
“I can’t get no satisfaction. I can’t get no…” He got the smoke.
It’s strange, the people you see in a cell. Crumpled up in the back and obviously getting a bad bout of smack, I saw a guy I knew from the third grade who’d made a habit of beating me up. There was some justice after all.
Monday rolled around and we spent the day in a holding pen, waiting for our case to be heard. Chris and Debbie got a public defender. He told us not to worry. We weren’t. We just wanted to get out of there. Finally we were brought before the judge, five minutes before he left for the day. The arresting officer admitted he hadn’t identified himself as a policeman, and that was it. Case thrown out. We made it to the soundcheck at Max’s. The best thing about it was that I was interviewed by New York Rocker.
AROUND THIS time Jimmy Destri joined the band. He had come to our gigs at Mothers, a gay bar on 23rd Street across from the Chelsea Hotel. Every now and then they let rock bands play there, and we had done a few shows with an assortment of sidemen, including a flautist and a conga player. Jimmy had played with a group called Milk And Cookies but was axed just as they went to England to record an album. He was a friend of The Fast, another unsung band from the mid-’70s, two of whose members, Miki and Mandy, succumbed to Aids. He brought his Farfisa organ to the loft and it sounded right.
One of the first things we did together was the music for a production of Vain Victory, a play by Jackie Curtis, one of the Warhol crowd. Chris and Debbie always aspired to that set and thought it was a coup when Debbie got the part of Juicy Lucy. I remember little of the play but for the lines, “I’m so hungry I could eat you.” “You’ll do no such thing. Have another saltine.” But the party after closing night was a smash. Lisa Persky, an actress, who also wrote for New York Rocker, had been invited by Benton, and in the taxi uptown she sat on my lap and we made out. At the party I got progressively loaded, and went from room to room asking for the redhead I’d arrived with. Eventually I found her. We decided to go to her studio on Christopher Street. The elevator down was a bit abrupt, and when I hit the street I heaved. She huddled me into a taxi, and when we finally got to her place we ran into her father, who had dropped by for a visit. I later wrote (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear, Blondie’s second hit, for lisa.
Clem went to London for a six week adventure; we took the opportunity to write songs and work Jimmy into the band. The first album grew out of this time. We worked every day. My relationship with Lisa developed. She was acting in an off-Broadway production called Women Behind Bars where twice-nightly she was raped on stage by Divine of Pink Flamingos fame.
When Clem returned from England he brought back the first Dr Feelgood album. We threw a party at the loft and invited everyone. They all came. We had more people there than at any of our gigs. Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Hell, The Ramones, The Miamis, The Marbles, Lance Loud And The Mumps, The Dicktators, Talking Heads, Suicide. Conspicuous by their absense were Verlaine and Patti Smith. They didn’t mix much with us or the other bands, and inhabited an exclusive atmosphere of art and self-regard. Chris and Debbie were convinced Patti had a vendetta against them. The paranoia drove them to succeed.
Clem played the Dr Feelgood album over and over. Strange the give and take between New York and London. The stripped-down, straightforward R&B of Dr Feelgood inspired everyone there that night to go on, and not too long after the torn shirts of early Television would turn up in the whole Sex Pistols aesthetic, shipped back to us via Malcolm McLaren.
BLONDIE’S RISE TO FAME AND SUCCESS BEGAN WITH OUR first shows at CBGBs with Jimmy Destri, in February 1976. The work we put into writing and rehearsing paid off. For the first time, Blondie sounded like a real band. The joke was over. We started building up a following, and were becoming a force. At the time it was a struggle, but looking back the rest seemed to follow as a matter of course. At 20 it’s immensely gratifying to see people in different cities across the country wearing peg-leg pants and skinny ties, just because you do. That’s what happened in Los Angeles, where we played with The Ramones and Tom Petty, in San Francisco, and later across the States after Blondie was released and we opened for Iggy Pop on a nationwide tour.
The same thing happened when we toured the UK with Television in spring 1977. That was my favourite time with the band. I was always an Anglophile, and to find myself playing London, Manchester and Glasgow was a dream, even if I did fall off the stage in Bristol (oddly enough, that was one show I didn’t wear my dark glasses). But in July that particular dream ended. I left the band, moved to the West Coast and pursued other goals, one of which was fronting my own group, The Know.
But my life with Blondie wasn’t over yet. Almost 20 years later, after I had moved to London and was working as a freelance writer, I got a call from Chris Stein. He had tracked me down through a friend. It was an odd sensation hearing his voice on the telephone after two decades, but what he asked was less expected still. He wanted, he said, to put the original band back together. Was I interested? I had just returned from a tour of Eastern Europe, where I had played guitar in a gypsy band in Istanbul and Macedonia, and had covered an arts festival in Tuzla, Bosnia, for The Guardian. Heading to New York to play pop music again wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but I was intrigued, and Chris seemed very eager. I decided to give it a try.
In november 1996 I landed in New York. Jimmy Destri met me at JFK and we drove to Chris’s loft in Tribeca. After the initial shock of comparing grey hairs and paunches, things settled into familiar, old routines, the way it is around family. Later that day Debbie showed up and we talked and remembered a few old times. Maybe you can’t go home again, but it sure is interesting seeing your old room-mates 20 years on.
From 1975 to 1977 Gary Valentine was the bassist in Blondie, composing (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear, the groups second hit. Since the early 1990s he has been a freelance writer for – among others – the Times Literary Supplement, LA Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, Gnosis, ReVision, Quest. Now in London, he has co-formed a new group, Fire Escape; contact him by email on After recording one of his new compositions with Blondie in the winter of 1996, and performing with them the following summer, Gary was surprised not to be invited to play on Blondie’s recent UK tour.

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