With his camera eye, Blondie’s guitarist offers a fresh angle on the city where he grew up and the punk scene he documented, in his new book. In a candid conversation with Eric Davidson, he recalls the times when NYC was disheveled but fun, when Lester Bangs criticized Blondie, when Clem Burke stuck his head in ovens to harden his hairdo, when the Ramones would argue on stage, and other sights and sounds from his past.
Chris Stein’s first photography collection, Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk (2014), focused on the original 1970s NYC punk scene. As its title implies, Stein’s latest book, Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, widens out to the city that surrounded the dives (though there are still great shots of the Ramones, Blondie, and other bands throughout.) Unlike many of his 1970s NYC punk contemporaries, Stein doesn’t grumpily mythologize that era, but he recognizes its appeal and his own good luck in finding himself smack dab in it. His photos are mostly traditional B&W, but are fairly bright, often daylight shots, and not saddled in the ubiquitous “ruin porn” preference of current 1970s NYC documentation.
The straightforward, written remembrances that accompany the photographs reveal the perspective of someone who did not form a gauzy reinvention of “dirty old New Yok” after the fact, when it suited a request to be on a museum’s “punk panel.” Born and bred in Brooklyn, Stein just took it all as simply the city he lived in, the every day of making your way around criminal alleys, rusted-apart buildings, and a trash-strewn economy that, when you’re in your late teens into your twenties, doesn’t really matter much. What mattered was finding himself, as he sure did as founder/guitarist of Blondie.
Just about any urban center has its community of corner booth-inhabiting musicians who sit around saying how much “cooler shit was back then,” generally evoking a sense of embittered shouldabeen-ness. NYC might be the capital of such activity. You still see Chris Stein sometimes in a corner booth, or at some gallery or film screening, though his demeanor remains chill and reflectively humorous. Sure, it’d be easy to assume that he may not harbor that ubiquitous bitterness because he actually got the success that 80% of his early ‘70s, groundbreaking new wave counterparts were never privy to. Yet these pictures prove he was always wide-eyed about his grimy hometown’s edges. Never too sweet – it would be kind of impossible to pull rainbows from any photo taken on the 1970s NYC streets – Stein just seems openly observant, non-judgmental about his human subjects, and slyly humorous about all that post-industrial crumble that lies around like an un-stretched canvas in some abandoned painter’s studio he might’ve snuck into at age 17.
Jon Ronson’s succinct introduction to Point of View does a great job of explicitly saying what Stein’s visual and written vibe evokes: yes, NYC has really changed, but it’s probably pointless to wallow in a perceived past. If you must, look at photos that weren’t perceived, but received.
PKM: I’ve always wondered about that great photo of Blondie on the cover of your first greatest hits, The Best of Blondie?
Chris Stein: Oh, this British photographer, Martyn Goddard. I think it was on top of the Gramercy Park Hotel. He did a lot of great stuff, a lot of classic shots of Debbie [Harry]. He’s probably still out there. I think that was just an all-day shoot, up there on the roof.
PKM: There are a lot of shots of people and faces in your book. Nowadays, everyone has a damn camera in their hands, constantly taking pictures. Do you think that kind of ubiquity has changed the way people react when someone takes their picture? Like what was the usual reaction back then to you walking up and taking someone’s picture – compared to now?
Chris Stein: Back then, it was a little more of an anomaly to have a camera stuck in your face. So people were a little more taken aback. But I think they might’ve had a little more interest, or sense of wonder of why you were doing it, compared to these days, where it’s just another person taking another picture. But I don’t mind everyone having a camera now. I’ve seen some really great stuff, and we have all these pictures. And there are some benefits that come with it, like police watch stuff, it’s another way to police them, etc. More things are being documented, and that’s good.
PKM: But maybe our memories are going, we don’t have to recall as much.
Chris Stein: Yeah, and you know in London there’re like six surveillance cameras for every person, so that’s a little weird.
PKM: You mentioned you had a police scanner back when you started taking pictures. And it reminded me of Weegee [street photographer Arthur Fellig (1899-1968)], and how he had a police radio, and would rush to crime scenes to get pictures before the cops got there. Did you try anything like that with your scanner?
Chris Stein: Oh yeah, I know Weegee. But I was just listening for information, for fun. There was that great movie, Nightcrawler, recently. Did you see that one? That’s fuckin’ great, using his scanner to do that. Maybe I should’ve tried that more.
PKM: You mention in the book breaking into abandoned buildings and taking photos, scavenging around. What were the best neighborhoods for that?
Chris Stein: I didn’t do a hell of a lot of that, but I mention a couple in the book. The place we lived on the Bowery back then, the top floor there was just totally wrecked. But we kind of liked that when we lived there, sneaking up in there. We went back there about eight years ago with a TV crew for some documentary, wandered around, and that top floor was still destroyed, empty. 266 Bowery, below Houston.
PKM: Wow, rarely do you hear of a story from that area about a building that hasn’t changed since the ‘70s.
Chris Stein: Yeah, but that side of the street, there are a few things left. The downstairs of that building is a restaurant supply place, but it used to be pretty empty.
PKM: Aside from just having this kind of beat up, open city to work with, did you have any photographic inspirations early on? Or did you just get a camera and start shooting?
Chris Stein: I was into photography a bit. Then I had this buddy, Dennis McGuire, he was on the periphery of the art world before I was. He apprenticed for Diane Arbus before I met him. He was great, still is. We took him on tour at one point, at the end of the first period of Blondie, and he took a lot of shots. We should get some book going with that stuff.
PKM: Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk (2014) was your first book of photos, right?
Chris Stein: We had that book we did with Victor Bockris – Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (1982) – with some of the same images as Negative, but it didn’t have such high quality of printing and all that, didn’t have big distribution.
PKM: So what was the connection from Negative to Point of View? What did you want to focus on this time?
Chris Stein: More of the street shots, a little more of the atmosphere of the period. There just seems to be more and more interest in that period. Did you see that last Anthony Bourdain episode, about the Lower East Side? That was amazing, and kind of the same deal, where people are just showing a lot of interest in that old New York. And there’s that show, The Deuce.
PKM: What did you think of that show, how it depicted the era?
Chris Stein: They did okay with the sets, around 42nd Street. They really made all the marquees the same, but some were different, I mean little geeky details I could go into, but they did a good job.
PKM: Well it was definitely better than Vinyl.
Chris Stein: Yeah, Vinyl was wack, I don’t know what they were doing. I only watched a couple episodes.
PKM: Yeah, I thought by the end of the season, they were going a little more into the murder plot point, and they did that alright, and I thought, well maybe if they just turn it into a crime show instead of trying to show the music biz of the time. But then maybe we’re looking at it coming from working in the music industry and really being deep into music history, so depictions of it are inevitably going to look a little goofy or off.
Chris Stein: My memory of the music business was not like that. All those guys in the music business world back then were just straight suits. They weren’t those polyester, sunglasses-wearing dudes. We had like one agent who was like that, and he was a total out freak, kind of well-known because of that. But the guys actually in the record companies were pretty straight and conservative. I can’t imagine those guys doing fucking blow in the offices and shit like that.
PKM: So no bowls of coke on the conference table?
Chris Stein: Ha, no, it was the opposite. They were all accountants and shit.
PKM: That’s kind of what I got out of your book, actually. Like since visiting NYC a lot when I was young, and now living here about 15 years, I’ve accumulated as much as I can, anecdote-wise – going to loads of shows, panel discussions, book signings, whatever – and there is definitely some mythologizing going on about that ‘70s era NYC, even by the people who actually lived and ran around in it back then. But you have this kind of fresh angle in Point of View, where you are just shooting the streets you were growing up in. And your commentary is straightforward memories that don’t seem embellished with extra grime to make it seem way crazy, if you know what I mean.
Chris Stein: Yeah, well a lot of crazy shit definitely went down for sure, but it wasn’t ongoing all the time. Actually, Please Kill Me made it seem like a murder fest. Ha ha. For me, those instances were few and far between – though when you read it all in one go, it’s a different perception. I mean shit happened, for sure.
PKM: Well, then let’s just add to the myth then, ha. Do you have a story of coming across a dead body?
Chris Stein: Yeah, of course, like when we lived on the Bowery, there was this one, really cold wintry night, and people coming and going. And some people from downstairs came up and said, “There’s a dead guy downstairs!” So we went down, and there was a guy who fuckin’ froze to death, a homeless dude right outside the building.
PKM: When you wrote the stories in the book, what was harder: winnowing down all the photos, or writing about yourself?
Chris Stein: Well the writing was triggered by the photos, so that was actually kind of easy for me. I mean I guess it would be different and daunting if I was writing a full-on memoir because then I have to pull all this shit out of my head. The photos help, surrounding the words. Putting them together was definitely a lot of work. I did find a couple things that I hadn’t recalled, like that shot of the House of Detention. It’s so hard to catalogue all that stuff, scanning. It’s a pain in the ass.
PKM: So like anyone in the early 1970s punk scene, there was that moment when you decided, “I’m cutting my hair.” Do you have a memory of that decision? I’ve seen those pictures of you with very long hair from the early ‘70s.
Chris Stein: Ha, ha. Well that was everybody in the band. That was when we already had Blondie together, and everyone in the band had long hair and had to cut their hair. I think Gary (Valentine, bass) was the first to get a haircut. We were all inspired by Television.
PKM: So you all cut it yourself?
Chris Stein: That’s a good question. Let’s see… Debbie did a little haircutting. Clem had his Bay City Rollers cut. He used to literally stick his head in the stove, like one of those big hairdryers? Ha ha. He’d turn it on and wait for it to get warm, and then stick his head in.
PKM: Hardens up the hairspray, right?
Chris Stein: Oh yeah. We were all too macho to go to a hair salon.
PKM: You may have tired of the telling, but if you want to give the basic story of the Stilettos, and how you originally met Debbie Harry, and Blondie forming, etc.
Chris Stein: I knew Eric Emerson from the Stilletos, it was all related to Eric, and he was around the whole Warhol thing. The weird thing was they actually shouted the Stilettos out in Vinyl, which was so weird because they’re still really obscure, those guys. And they also fucking shouted out the Good Rats! There’s this scene, they’re all in the office talking, and someone goes, “Hey man, we gotta sign the Good Rats!” The Good Rats were like a shitty bar band. Well, I don’t wanna say shitty, but back then no one really knew who the fuck they were. I guess they had a following.
PKM: I remember there was a scene in Vinyl where a character said, “Oh, you gotta check out the Neon Boys! I’ve seen ‘em a couple times…” Didn’t the Neon Boys only play like one show, maybe not even one?
Chris Stein: Ha, yeah. You know both Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine swear that I auditioned for the Neon Boys. I met Verlaine when he first came to New York, and he had long hair and was still kind of a hippie. He’s told me I auditioned, and Richard mentions it in one of his books even. But I don’t remember trying out for the Neon Boys at all.
But anyway, everyone knew Eric, and we wound up going to the first Stilettos gig, which was Eric’s girlfriend, who he had a kid with, and Debbie, and this other girl Rosanne. And that’s about it. I got involved with them, playing guitar – they had musicians changing all the time. Then Blondie came out of that, basically.
PKM: Where was that first Stilettos show?
Chris Stein: It was a bar on 24th or 26th Street, I think, called the Bobern Tavern, run by Bob and Ernie, which contracted into one name. They were playing with Holly Woodlawn in the loft upstairs.
PKM: Is there another dive or club from the early Blondie days that you liked a lot and think deserves some mention?
Chris Stein: Oh yeah! Club 82! It’s a shame there’s not more stuff about it out there. It was on 1st Street maybe. It was kind of a drag bar, going way back to the late ‘40s. And it was downstairs. It had this really tacky, awesome environment, sleazy Las Vegas kind of environment. They had these old celebrity photos on the back wall, and they had one of fucking Abbott and Costello with some drag queens, taken at the club way back. I thought that was the most amazing thing. Mafia guys had hung out there, y’know. But it got taken over by the New York Dolls and all that. The Stilettos played there, Blondie…
PKM: So, once CBGB and others got more active, it just kind of faded?
Chris Stein: Kind of. I don’t really know why it died off. It was only a couple blocks away from CBs.
PKM: Speaking of which, what’s your memory of the first time seeing the Ramones?
Chris Stein: I knew Tommy from the Mercer Arts Center, he had a band called Butch. I remember he asked me about finding a place to play downtown, and I told him about CBGBs. So I’d like to think I was a little part of the Ramones finding their way there. I’m pretty positive I saw their first show at CBGB. I think I also saw them before that; they’d do these showcases at studios with a handful of people. This was all going on around the same time as the Stilettos. And they were just awesome, they were amazing to me – even early when they were always stopping mid-song and arguing with each other. Fuckin’ hilarious.
PKM: Yeah, I think it’s easy to forget the context back then, it would be verboten for “serious” bands to argue on stage, and how ridiculous that must’ve struck people.
Chris Stein: Oh yeah, it was all kind of a showcase for them in the very early days, it’s not like there was a big audience for them, so they did whatever. But then they kind of made it into a shtick – but that stemmed from earlier when they were actually arguing.
PKM: In Point of View, you make a reference to a line from a P.D. Ouspensky book about a character who has a chance to go back in time, but he ends up doing everything the same, he doesn’t change a thing.
Chris Stein: Yeah, yeah, it’s a cool book. He’s like a metaphysical writer, philosopher. But that’s kind of the punchline here, right?
PKM: Yeah, guess so. But in the spirit of not mythologizing, is there anything from that era of New York City that you do not miss?
Chris Stein: Well nowadays, I like the connectivity, and with social media it’s good being able to see fans’ comments and pictures, that’s pretty great. But what I don’t miss from back then? Well you know, I have two teenage daughters now, and I don’t have to worry about them getting murdered on the subway as much.
PKM: You did move out of NYC, but you moved back.
Chris Stein: Yeah, we lived near Woodstock for a while, and we still have a place up there.
PKM: Why did you come back?
Chris Stein: Because up there you have to drive everywhere. And the winters are like The Shining. But you know, you miss being able to walk around and see the familiar stuff. It’s exciting here.
PKM: Have you been able to do any sort of book tour for Point of View?
PKM: Do you remember that Blondie book that Lester Bangs did, from 1980?
Chris Stein: Oh yeah, that was great, because he was pretty critical, and just weird about Debbie in pictures in her underwear and all that. “She was using her feminine wiles!” Especially in light of the way female pop stars dress since then. I always say, I wish Lester would’ve lived long enough to see Brittany Spears – his fucking head would’ve exploded. And the other thing was, we were doing that book, Making Tracks, about the band, so we didn’t want to do an interview with Lester too for his book. So he was pissed off that we didn’t want to do the interview, the grumpy bastard!
PKM: I remember he said they’d given him the advance, he spent it, and he of course procrastinated and had to get the book finished in like a week. So it’s basically one of his long rants, writ longer.
Chris Stein: Ha, yeah. And another thing is, I don’t know if you remember, but Lester tried being a rock singer at one point. And I remember clearly him coming off stage once, and he came up to me and said, “I didn’t realize how hard this was.” So more critics should take the lead from him and try to do what they’re critiquing.
PKM: Lastly, you made a nice mention of the cats in Mr. Daniels’ TV Repair Shop, below where you grew up in Brooklyn.
Chris Stein: I just remembered the general vibe of that pace being covered with cats, on Ocean Ave. in Flatbush. That’s where I grew up.
PKM: So was Lords of Flatbush a realistic depiction of growing up in the Flatbush area in the end of the ‘50s?
Chris Stein: There really was a gang I heard of when I was a kid called the “Ducky Boys.” But that’s from The Wanderers though. That was a real fucking thing! Also the “Fordham Baldies” in that same movie. So some of that in there is based on reality.