GIMME DANGER[Photo caption left – LOOK GOOD IN BLUE. Chris Stein’s relationship with Blondie’s singer – as boyfriend and bandmate – made it hard for him to fully grasp the outside world’s perception of Debbie Harry as an instant rock’n’roll icon. That said, she continues to be his most consistent subject for portraiture: “Obviously I was always aware of how striking she was, in her physicality and what she could project.”] [Photo caption right – THE CAPE MAN – Stein: “I always had a bit of a mystical bent, although this was before I could afford real skulls! So that’s a plastic skull. But I was always fascinated by what went on in the world of the occult. My old colleague Gary Lachman [AKA Blondie bassist Gary Valentine] writes about this a lot. He’s just written a book about mysticism and Trump that’s pretty interesting.”] BLONDIE GUITARIST CHRIS STEIN’S NEW BOOK OF PHOTOGRAPHS CAPTURES THE GROUP AT TADPOLE STAGE AND THEIR NEW YORK HABITAT AT A TIME OF UPHEAVAL, WHILE THE NEXUS OF PUNK ROCK, STREET LIFE AND BOHEMIA IS BROUGHT VIVIDLY TO LIFE. “THE CITY IS LESS DANGEROUS NOW,’ HE TELLS DANNY ECCLESTON, “BUT THE CULTURAL SACRIFICE HAS BEEN IMMENSE.”
BEFORE THERE WAS BLONDIE THERE was Chris Stein – art student and photographer – and Debbie Harry, waitress, go-go dancer and nascent icon. Stein’s new book of photographs, Point Of View: Me, New York City, And The Punk Scene, which is published on October 16 by Rizzoli, offers charming glimpses of the pair before the concept of a lifetime in music was even conceivable. Although, as Stein explains in still definably New York tones, the realisation came to them later than you’d think.
“It was such a different period,” he tells MOJO. “I don’t think we ever understood that Debbie was a ‘star’. It wasn’t that clear. Not like now, someone has one hit record and you’re called a star immediately.”
Stein’s book is a Tardis trip to an East Side milieu that was very much the wrong side of the tracks. Raised in Brooklyn in the ’50s, which was when he first picked up a box Brownie, he studied Fine Arts at Manhattan’s School Of Visual Arts but baulked at the institution’s preoccupation with conceptualism. “I found it very dry,” he says today. “Photography seemed to address the romanticism of what I was feeling.”
Indeed, a very romantic-looking Stein can be clocked in early self-portraits – in a cape, holding a skull, like Tiny Tim playing Hamlet. He wore the cape mooching around New York’s occult bookstores. And he wore it to a Frank Zappa show at the Fillmore East, flying on LSD, when he was thrown off the stage multiple times before being shown the exit. “The energy around the Fillmore was incredible,” he recalls. “It was an island – it wasn’t as mainstream as it is now to go see bands.”
It’s a theme Stein returns to and his photographs ingrain: a pre-Giuliani New York that was sketchy but rich in culture. “It was creative because of this contrast between what was going on downtown in the art, music and film scenes and the rest of the city – which was pretty conservative,” he explains. “The city is less dangerous now but the cultural sacrifice has been immense.”
Stein’s pre-Blondie existence drew together bohemias old and new. He shared an apartment with charismatic former Warhol superstar Eric Emerson, whose group The Stilettos included a brown-haired singer called Debbie Harry. When Emerson – a heroin user who would die in 1975 – left to shack up with Edgar Winter’s ex, and Stein moved to the West Side with Harry, now his lover, Tommy and Dee Dee Ramone moved in. Luckily, Stein took his statuette of St Mother Cabrini with him, since Dee Dee always had a problem with it. “She was the first American saint,” says Stein, “but Dee Dee was terrified of her. It still has holes in it from where he attacked her with a kitchen knife.”
The definition of a stayer, Stein is still in Blondie (last year’s collaborative album, Pollinator, included tracks with Dev Hynes, David Sitek and Johnny Marr) and still taking photographs (his Instagram feed @chrisstein is great for vintage shots of The Screamers and updates from Blondieworld – including glimpses of Morrissey). And he still lives in New York, with his wife since 1999, Barbara Sicuranza.
“I still like it in New York City,” writes Stein in his book’s Afterword. “I tried living away in the country for a bunch of years. We came back to the city. Back in the 1960s and 1970s I had no idea that I’d come to miss the decay and the danger.”
The pictured artists had all recorded Christmas tunes for a cover mount flexidisc for the UK’s Flexipop! magazine; Blondie’s Yuletown Throwdown was based on an original, slower version of Rapture on which Freddy and Harry had contributed seasonal raps. “For some reason,” notes Stein, “possibly incompetence – it came out in February.”] GO THROUGH IT
Point Of View: Me, New York City, And The Punk Scene by Chris Stein, is published by Rizzoli on October 23, 2018.