Blondie drummer Clem Burke talks to PKM’s Amy Haben about fashion, his career in Blondie, playing with the Ramones and more
I ran into Blondie drummer Clem Burke at a crowded show in the studio at Webster Hall last May. I was in a bad mood. It was hot outside and when I arrived, there was a long line to get in. At the box office, there was an argument over letting me in because the venue was over capacity, but they had no choice. I was on the list. My ex-boyfriend Mick Stitch was performing along with many other familiar faces of the East Village for a tribute show. Clem was playing drums and I was blown away by his skills. The only consistent record on my turntable as a freshman in high school was Blondie’s Eat To The Beat.
I caught Clem in the audience, and grabbed Mick’s fiancé, Lauren by the arm and dragged her over to Clem. “Can I get a photo, Clem? Great set!” (I’m shameless.) He agreed and after we took one, I pushed Lauren into his arms for a photo. Afterward, she thanked me, admitting she was too shy to ask.
Later on, Clem walked up to me at the bar and asked where the after party was. It was an opportunity… I grabbed a card with Brigitte Bardot on it and scribbled the words “Legs McNeil,” “interview” and “Please Kill Me” on it. The ink was running thin on the plastic card… “Damn!” He agreed and stuck it in his pocket. I was prepared to never hear from him again.
Six months later, he texted, inviting me to his show with Glen Matlock and both members of Sssh, Zak Starkey and his girlfriend Sshh Liguz, at the Roxy Hotel. He said that we could do the interview that week. I met him at an art show on 2nd Street and Avenue A, where we ran into our mutual friend Bob Bert. Bob teased that my interview would never be as good as his had been with Clem. After chatting, we walked over to the Bowery Hotel where I quizzed him, while good-looking blondes dropped by to sing his praises.
Clem: The first thing I tell people that want to interview me, when they ask if there is anything I don’t want to talk about, I say, “Yeah, don’t ask me what it was like at CBGB’s.”
PKM: I wasn’t going to ask that question.
Clem: There were no t-shirts, there were no punk rockers, and you know, not too many women either. That’s what you say. When the girls started showing up – that’s when you knew something was starting up. In the beginning, it was only Nancy Spungen, Sable Starr, and Janis (who was Linda Ramone’s best friend). Janis and Linda used to look like Raggedy Ann dolls because they were big New York Dolls followers. They had bright red hair, Raggedy Ann dresses and lots of rouge on the cheeks. I’ve known Linda Ramone forever.
PKM: Were you and Linda Ramone friends?
Clem: Yeah, and we are good friends again. There was a lot of acrimony for awhile when I was in the Ramones. The whole thing that was going on with John and Joey, and then John fired me after only playing with them briefly. He didn’t even want to rehearse with me. I didn’t want to be in the Ramones full time initially anyway. I was playing in the Eurythmics and they had asked me to join the Ramones about three or four times and I always declined. It’s really weird because the whole New York punk rock thing, I don’t call it that, it’s more of a bohemian thing. That influence has really endured in popular culture more than the classic, British punk rock thing. You don’t see too many mohawk haircuts and safety pins in their cheeks, but you see everyone dressed in black and wearing leather jackets. Even before that, the Edie Sedgwick thing, the Warhol thing. That was the whole connection with CBGB’s, it was a bohemian and art scene. It wasn’t about a revolution. It was a continuation of the Velvet Underground and Warhol aesthetic more or less. The Ramones were so conceptual. Arturo Vega was a conceptual artist, creating the presidential seal logo. The way the Ramones dressed, that’s how I dressed and it used to get me kicked out of school. I’d be wearing a leather jacket and jeans and they’d say, “You can’t come in.” That look has endured. The motorcycle jacket is so iconic and then it became super uncool for awhile and now it’s back again. By the way, that word “iconic” gets thrown around way too often these days. Everything’s iconic. My boots are iconic. There is something about the black, leather jacket with Marlon Brando. The red windbreaker James Dean wore is probably more iconic but you don’t see many people wearing those around.
PKM: The fashion aspect is funny. I watched this Blondie documentary and Debbie said that you got into the band because you had cool boots on.
Clem: They weren’t actually cool. They were red, platform shoes. I had a U.S. Navy sailor shirt on that I saw Keith Moon wearing. I had a shag haircut. I had the glam rock sort of vibe.
PKM: I’ve always thought you were the most stylish person in Blondie. I loved the polka dot shirts.
Clem: They would wear a lot of my clothes. I went to London in 1974 to visit my girlfriend who was going to London Polytechnic, and I met Malcolm McLaren and Don Letts, and saw Dr. Feelgood every time (who were a major influence on what was to become in rock ‘n’ roll.) I got to the airport and was so naive because I had packed so many clothes, that they said your bag is overweight by a hundred pounds. So I took them out and gave the clothes to Debbie and Chris, who drove me to the airport, and when I came back from England they were all wearing my clothes. They didn’t put them in a drawer and say these are Clem’s clothes or anything. I see all these old photos of them wearing all my stuff.
PKM: I’ve always loved polka dots all my life, but I think I started wearing them as a teenager because of you.
Clem: Oh, really? I’m sorry.
Clem: My friend in Jersey City worked in an Army/Navy store and they were selling clothes by weight. I went over there and there were polka dot shirts, paisley shirts and this black and white jacket that was very ’50s, Eddie Cochran, the top was white leather and the rest was black. Johnny Thunders would wear it. The whole skinny fit is a joke to me. I would put on my black suit that I bought for ten dollars and stand in the shower, let it get soaking wet, and that’s how it would shrink to fit me. I also would put beer and grease in my hair and turn on the oven and stick my head in there. I would be spiking my hair out because I didn’t have a hair dryer.
PKM: That was just poverty?
Clem: Eh, I don’t know, I didn’t have a hairdryer so I just stuck my head in the oven. Then we found a place in Hoboken where they were selling all these black suits. The black suit I wore on the Parallel Lines album cover I got for ten bucks. It’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sells for ten thousand dollars. My friend owned this store and I would take some clothes home to New Jersey and leave some at our studio on the Bowery. Nobody was into that look for the most part.
PKM: When I was really young, I would listen to Eat To The Beat on vinyl that I bought for a quarter at the Salvation Army. It was the early nineties, before vinyl was popular again and I had this Playskool plastic record player. My first three records were David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Blondie’s Eat To The Beat and Black Celebration by Depeche Mode. I would listen to the Blondie song, “Sound Asleep” over and over at night because it was a lullaby and Debbie’s voice was so beautiful on that track. I was at that age where I was still somewhat a baby and needed the comfort.
Clem: It’s a cool song. You were a baby. You weren’t thinking about sleeping with the guys in the band…
PKM: I was… but I had both sides to me.
Clem: Haha… okay. I’m sorry to be so…
PKM: Haha! It’s okay, you can be crass. I had a boyfriend who was eighteen and I would beg him to sleep with me but he wouldn’t. He was scared.
Clem: Well that was good of him.
PKM: He was probably just worried about the statutory rape charge.
Clem: That’s what the song, “X Offender” is about. My friend Gary’s girlfriend was seventeen and he was eighteen. They had sex and she got pregnant and her parents objected. She was underage, so that was the inspiration for that song.
Clem: I was pretty good friends with Scott Asheton a couple years before he died. We played at SXSW with my friend BP Fallon. Ironically, it was the same year Iggy and the Stooges was headlining at SXSW and Scott, “Rock Action” is actually what they call him, had some kind of heart trouble so he wasn’t playing. Scott was carrying his drums around in a little red wagon from gig to gig. It was crazy. He was a really, really cool guy. It’s hard to believe those guys are all gone and Iggy has survived.
PKM: I know. It’s strange.
Clem: If Johnny Thunders had survived, he’d be as popular as Iggy, you know?
PKM: Yeah, when David Bowie died, I cried an unusual amount, like he was family. What I realized is that as a teen, I saw Bowie as a father figure and Debbie was the mother figure for me.
Clem: Debbie is definitely a big sister to me. She’s ten or eleven years older than me.
PKM: Right, because you were the baby when you came into the band. Did Chris and Debbie kind of parent you a bit?
Clem: No, not me. Gary Valentine lived with them. After his incident with the girl, (the inspiration for X Offender), he was kicked out of his parental home and he did live with Chris and Debbie for a long, long time.
PKM: Tell me some Gary Valentine stories.
Clem: Gary and I and two other friends, a guy called Ronnie Toast, who wrote the liner notes and a song called “Rifle Range,” on the first Blondie album. On the second album, he wrote the lyrics to a song called, “Cautious Lip,” they are both very strange songs. I mean who writes songs about falling in love at the rifle range?
PKM: That’s not something you guys did regularly back then, right?
Clem: No. Chris likes guns, but I don’t. Had to shoot one in an Eurythmics video once. Gary Valentine, Ronnie Toast, and another guy called James Crash – we lived in a store front on East 10th Street together. There was an upright piano in there and Gary would play the piano and he would write poetry. At one of my first gigs at CBGB, Fred Smith, who went on to join Television, quit in-between shows, because we did two shows a night. Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith were at the show and he said, “I’m quitting, I’m joining Television.” Tisch & Snooky were the backup singers then. So that’s when the band fell apart, except I had just gotten together with Chris and Debbie. I’ve said this many times ad infinitum, as a drummer and as a young guy, I was looking for a focal point… the analogy I always make is… I was looking for my David Bowie. My Marc Bolan. My Mick Jagger, my David Johansen, and I knew I had to find someone with that charisma and talent. In order to have a band that was going to be a success, that was my mission. I was always trying to find that singer. It’s all about the singer, it’s all about the song, I mean, ya know, at the end of the day… that’s just the way it goes. That’s why you see today… everyone wants to be a solo artist. Bands are irrelevant now, as a drummer, I’m a dinosaur. There are plenty of people, like my friend Hal Blaine, who was the drummer of the Wrecking Crew, he did all the Phil Spector stuff. I played his 88th birthday party, he’s a very funny individual. He played on all the Ronette’s music like, “Be My Baby,” he invented that famous, “Ba-ba-ba-shhh.” One of his famous quotes is when people say, “My son wants to be a drummer, do you have any advice?” He says, “Yeah. Cut their hands off.”
PKM: Hahaha! As a drummer, did you ever long for the spotlight? To be in say, Debbie’s position up front?
Clem: No. I don’t like being in the back. That wasn’t my mission, no. The Beatles were four superstars. New York Dolls were five stars. No, I was never interested in being in the back. Of course, Keith Moon was a big inspiration for me as Ringo was, and they were both rockstar drummers, they were not the drummer in the back. There was no jealousy over Debbie’s position, other than I wanted to be famous too and when you’re young and you’re trying to be famous you kind of have a gunslinger attitude. I wanted to be the best drummer… not even the best, “the best” is a really weird term, there are so many people more talented than me or Debbie in this world. It takes more than that. It takes charisma, and Debbie had tremendous charisma. You have to endure a lot of rejection and you have to endure a lot of adversity in order to be that successful. It doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be able to deal with rejection. Of course, we would joke that we were the best opening band and no one really got what we were trying to do.
PKM: Tell me about your recent collaborations?
Clem: The Huffington Post wrote this thing on the L.A.M.F. gig I did at the Bowery Electric with Wayne Kramer from the MC5, Walter Lure (the only surviving member of the Heartbreakers) and Tommy Stinson from the Replacements. One of the best shows I’ve seen in the last two years was The Replacements at the Hollywood Palladium, it was absolutely amazing. I mean Paul Westerberg is a great songwriter and they were a great band but for whatever reason, they chose not to continue. Maybe that’s why Tommy wound up not being in Guns N’ Roses anymore because he thought the Replacements would carry on. That song “Left Of The Dial,” is about how all the cool radio stations are on the left-hand side of the dial. Like in New York there’s 91.1 WFMU and in L.A. there’s a station 88.5 which is out of Northridge University, which is an amazing station with no commercials. WFMU has been around forever. They started in Orange, NJ and had a massive, 50,000 watt tower. Now they are in Jersey City. The Replacements were just in one of those bands that were great in the ’80s when not much was great. The Smiths, The Stone Roses, and The Eurythmics (who I played with) were okay, but all that hair metal stuff never appealed to me. Like Motley Cruë, I detest. You probably like them with all your tattoos…
PKM: Shut up!! Haha! No, that’s not true. To me growing up in L.A. the whole Guns N’ Roses and Motley Cruë thing was cliché.
Clem: You were prime for it though weren’t you? What.. you were too young? You never went to the Cat Club in L.A?
PKM: I was fourteen in ’94, so I was a nineties teenager, but I was always into seventies music, so I was different from everyone else. Everyone else was into Guns n’ Roses at that time but not me.
Clem: I did do a gig with Gilby Clark, who went on to play in Guns N’ Roses. We were opening for Vince Neil in Vegas, one of the weirdest experiences of my life because of the people they attract.
PKM: Oh yeah…
Clem: Duff McKagen is a really cool guy. Guns N’ Roses is okay. You may or may not know this, but when they played at the place next to CBGB’s… The CBGB’s gallery, they did an acoustic thing and Duff wore the CBGB t-shirt and that’s when it really took off. He also wore it in a Guns N’ Roses video.
PKM: Before Urban Outfitters sold them. Tell me about the beginnings of Blondie, when you started getting off the ground?
Clem: Yeah. Nobody really understood what Blondie was trying to do in the beginning. It took awhile to develop and when we made the song, “X Offender,” with the producer Richard Gottehrer, we made a record, we didn’t go in and make….. well to me, I still call things records ’cause initially, a record is called a record because it’s a record of the performance. Back in the day… that’s why they’re called records. Obviously, technology is advanced now. When we went into the studio, we made a piece of art I feel with, “X Offender,” it wasn’t representative of us performing live, it was representative of us doing something in the studio. Richard Gottehrer embellished it. He wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back,” which is why “X Offender” has that little drum intro. He wrote, “Hang On Sloopy,” he was in that band The Strangeloves.
PKM: I love “Hang On Sloopy!”
Clem: The Strangeloves was four Jewish guys from the Brill Building saying they were Aboriginals.
PKM: As in native Australians?
Clem: If you read the liner notes on the album, they say they are Aboriginals, the dark-skinned Australians, like the actor David Gulpilil.
PKM: They were trying to mythologize themselves.
Clem: Yes. On the back of the album, they were wearing zebra vests. American people were probably so stupid at the time, that it probably took a professor at Harvard to say, “No, Aboriginal people don’t look like that.”
Clem: Richard was conceptual and didn’t mind trying out some weird stuff. He really knew how to make a great pop record. That’s when things changed for Blondie from being this band that maybe didn’t play that great… I was actually really good because I had been playing for a long time. I got a bit of a reputation for being a great drummer because the whole impetus about being punk rock is that you just picked up an instrument and played…