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Mojo

November 2018 – Issue 300

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.”

[Photo caption – RECKLESS ERIC – (right) Stein: “Eric Emerson was an important character in the history of Debbie and myself. He was a very flamboyant guy who went way back – he’s in a bunch of the Warhol films. He had a band called The Magic Tramps, who I wrote a couple of songs for, then The Stilettos, which Debbie and I were in. He also had his own tattoo machine – he did the dagger on his arm here.”]  

[Photo caption – THE HOT SHOT – (below right) Stein: “It’s odd that I have those negatives. I would give my camera to someone in the audience occasionally, so that’s why I have it and I’m in it. This was probably the first show Blondie did with Clem [Burke, drummer]. Was both of us wearing shorts an egalitarian gesture? No, it was more because it was very hot! It was purely practical.”]  

[Photo caption – A BUG’S LIFE – (below) Stein: “Scenes like this were pretty commonplace. Manhattan’s Lower East Side was really beat up back then, and it got worse in the ’80s, when this ridiculous war on drugs got started. At one point in the ’80s, the South Bronx looked like Dresden after the bombing. Just blocks and blocks of demolished buildings. I wish I’d taken more pictures of this stuff!”]  

[Photo caption – CRÈME DE LA CREEM – Stein: “Blondie never had stylists helping us with our ‘looks’ – we just made it up as we went along. I remember how horrified the Chrysalis people were the first time Debbie chopped her hair off. We actually had feedback from them – like, ‘Oh my God, what have you done!?'”]  

[Photo caption – WE’RE A HAPPY FAMILY – (top left) Stein: “I was knocked out by the Ramones from day one. They were very focused in what they were doing musically, a real sharp definition. In New York there were still a lot of blues-based bands, bar bands, and the Ramones were a whole new animal. And Dee Dee [foreground, with bespectacled Joey] was an amazingly vulnerable character while at the same time being so tough and aggressive.”]  

[Photo caption – SNAPPED CAT – (far left) Stein: “The cat, Daniel, was one of three cats. One of the others, Daniel’s brother was called Sunday Man – that was the one that the song Sunday Girl was partly about. I never asked Debbie why she had a cat called Sunday Man.”]  

[Photo caption – DETROIT 442 – (left) In spring 1977, Blondie supported Iggy Pop on the North American leg of his Idiot tour, on which David Bowie played piano. “Iggy was relaxed,” remembers Stein, fondly. “We hung out with him. Bowie occasionally. With Iggy there was general craziness and anarchy. He’s up there with William Burroughs, for me.”]  

[Photo caption – SUBWAY SECT – (below) Could Blondie have only happened in New York? “Maybe,” ponders Stein, “or it could have come out of the UK, because there was such back and forth between the scenes. The Dolls had been to the UK, and Dr.Feelgood had come over here. And Hawkwind, particularly, had been an influence on the local scene. They were the darlings for a while of the New York rock press. That raw, stripped-down thing was what people were aspiring to.”]  

[Photo caption – FAN MAIL – (left and below) Stein’s shots of Debbie Harry with icons on higher rungs of celebrity (left, with Bowie on Iggy’s The Idiot tour in ’77; with Andy Warhol, centre, and actor Dennis Christopher) show the Blondie singer looking truly at home. In 2016, shortly after Bowie’s death, Stein would recall how supportive Bowie and Iggy had been as tour headliners: “Just being nice to everybody around was something I picked up on from Bowie,” said Stein.]  

[Photo caption – FLAMING YOUTH – (left) In late 1980, Stein snapped kiddie punk band The Brattles (famed for supporting The Clash at their Bonds International Casino residency in Times Square, May/June 1981) with Fab 5 Freddy and Snuky Tate. “The Brattles were two of Eric Emerson’s sons by two different women,” says Stein. “Emerson Forth was the son of Eric and Jane Forth, the Warhol superstar [AKA Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane], and Branch Emerson was the son of Eric and Elda Stiletto, who passed away only last week [the other Brattles were David Johansen’s drummer son Dagin and singer Jason Collins, son of John Collins from Bang Zoom/The Terrorists].”
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.

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