Blondie’s Clem Burke on touring with Iggy Pop, his favorite NYC clubs of the ‘70s, and his personal love of music and pop culture.
In the second half of my conversation with drummer Clem Burke, I learn more about what turns him on musically, Club 82, drag queens, and waiting on Iggy’s man to begin playing.
Clem: Blondie’s first national tour was six weeks with Iggy Pop (with David Bowie playing keyboards) after our first album came out.
PKM: Did you have a feeling from there that you were just going to blow up?
Clem: No! I never thought that. My idea of success was… I used to buy all my records in Woolworth’s cut-out bins. My version of success was winding up in the cut-out bin. There was a Woolworth’s in midtown that was Andy Warhol’s favorite store of all time.
PKM: Remember that X-Ray Spex song “Warrior in Woolworth,” I guess they were in England too.
Clem: Yeah, they called it Wooly’s. Five and tens were predecessors of department stores. They sold anything from stockings to toothbrushes. They all had a counter where they sold hot dogs and sodas and things.
PKM: Change of topic – You were at Gillian and Legs’ reading in Los Angeles weren’t you?
Clem: Yes. At the Ace Hotel. A question came up about what Legs and Gillian thought about the show Vinyl and Legs was saying how much it sucked. I chimed in, being that I was singled out for being the only person in the room who had been there ‘back in the day.’ So I said that I thought Vinyl was really great and entertaining. It’s not factual, it’s a TV show. I do agree that they should have taken Please Kill Me and turned it into an HBO show. That would have been much better.
PKM: The guy who played Alice Cooper was fantastic.
Clem: Yeah, he was.
PKM: That show was a crime drama as well as a rock & roll fantasy. You travel quite frequently, how do you feel about crime in America?
Clem: I was thinking about the gun licensing thing, it should be federally regulated. Global Entry is something you do to immigrate back into the States. There is a semi-rigorous interview online and then you do another interview with the TSA, you have to show proof of residency. So if they can regulate that, why can’t they regulate that federally for gun control? My band International Swingers has a song called “Gun Control,” that we wrote two years ago. We were supposed to play Oct. 25th at this thing that fell flat.
Do you remember when the Ramones did that hands across America thing? It was for gun control and my band, The International Swingers, were supposed to play the one in Santa Barbara. They gave us air tickets and James Stevenson, our guitar player, was in this band called Chelsea, which was one of the original punk bands in the 1977 U.K. era. My friend Gary Twinn was the singer and Glen Matlock was the bass player, but he’s not doing it any longer. So a guy called John Carlucci, who is a DJ on the Underground Garage is the bass player now. He had a band called the Speedie’s, which was a band way before your time in New York. I produced their record way back when. When Blondie was at its peak, I was trying to produce young bands. I also produced this band called The Colors. A guy named Tomas Cookman was the singer. He was influential in the Latin music scene in New York, a Puerto Rican kid living with adopted Chinese parents in Chinatown.
They were gonna fly James out from England but then they changed the headliner to be Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald and they decided we were too punk rock. We had this song called, “Gun Control,” and it hits home because the shooting at UCSB was connected. Our singer Gary Twin was very good friends with the parents of the shooter. The shooter had been in his house and in his manifesto; he had written that one of the people he wanted to kill was Gary’s son.
PKM: Oh wow.
Clem: Crazy stuff.
PKM: What other bands are you involved with?
Clem: I have a band called The Empty Hearts, which was put together with my friend Andy Babiuk who was in a band called The Chesterfield Kings. A really great garage rock band. He also wrote a coffee table book called Beatles Gear, where he went into all the Beatles lockers with their gear and chronicled it all. Andy is also a guitar authenticator and he authenticated the guitar that Dylan played when he went electric at the Newport Rock Festival, the Stratocaster. He also authenticated the Gibson guitar that just sold for over a million dollars that was John Lennon’s guitar in the film, A Hard Day’s Night. He has a really cool music guitar shop in Rochester, NY called Fab Gear. The other guy in the band is Wally Palmer, who is the singer of the Romantics, of “What I Like About You,” fame. So we did this record with Ed Stasium who actually produced a bunch of Ramones records. He produced The Smithereens and Living Colour.
Clem: There are too many conditions for this band to actually play. I just like to play. I don’t really care about making money. I have enough money. I like to play in little, funky clubs. Some of the people in the band aren’t ready for that. It’s always interesting the people that turn up. I just played in Newport, Kentucky; Lexington, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Chicago, Illinois with my band, The Split Squad. We went to France and did five or six shows. We played in the street in Paris, literally in the street. It was right around the corner from the Bataclan, where the shooting was during the Eagles of Death Metal show last fall.
I’m really into pop culture and people always ask me how I remember things. It goes back to what I was saying originally. I always had this vision of trying to follow this path. It was like tunnel vision of knowing what I wanted to do. I was the kid on 48th Street when it was music row, I would say, “Oh, that’s the guy from Uriah Heap.” I could always figure out who was in what band. It’s how I make my living, so I don’t feel that I’m in some adolescent, teenage dream about following rock & roll. I think it’s much more important than that. I’ve worked with Dylan, I’ve worked with Nancy Sinatra. Bob Dylan is the biggest music fan you’d ever wanna meet. You could talk to him about bands all day long.
PKM: How were the clubs in the ‘70s that you went to?
Clem: Club 82 was on 82 East 4th Street. It was basically a gay dance club that had bands once a week. New York Dolls, Wayne County, or Debbie and Chris’ band, The Stilettos, would play there. Ironically, it was around the corner from CBGB. They played mainly disco music but then they had that band The Neon Boys, which Verlaine and Hell had prior to Television, and the New York Dolls had an infamous Halloween show there. It was in the basement. I would go there as a kid and David Bowie and Lou Reed would be there. It was the tail end of Glam rock. People would rent out spaces.
My friend Leigh Foxx, who is the bass player of Blondie now, was in a band called the Sidewinders. Lenny Kaye, from the Patti Smith Group, produced their album. A guy called Andy Paley was the lead singer. He had a band called the Paley Brothers. They were on Sire and good friends with Seymour Stein. Legs and the Ramones knew Andy Paley. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers were the headliners. It was in a basement of a porno place on 42nd Street, I remember there were maybe fifty people there. It was a great gig. Dave Robinson went on to be the drummer in the Cars and Jerry Harrison went on to be the keyboard player in the Talking Heads.
Clem: (Checking out a girl) She was pretty skinny, huh?
PKM: You like twigs? Haha!
Clem: Well I’m not gay. I just like women. I’m not too ashamed to say I Google myself on a regular basis. There was something about, “How many people think Clem Burke is gay?” I’m definitely not gay.
PKM: I never thought you were.
Clem: I wish I was, but I’m not. Seems like life would be a lot easier.
PKM: It’s the same no matter what your preference. Relationships are work. I do love gay culture though.
Clem: Drag queens are fun. Ever hear of Romy Hog?
Clem: She’s in a couple David Bowie videos. She had this great drag club in Berlin. One time I went there with some friends and must’ve had too much to drink. One of the drag queens took a hand mirror and smashed me in the side of the head with it. There was blood coming down the side of my face.
PKM: Oh my god! Did you grab her butt or something?
Clem: I was being antagonistic. Drag queens are the most dangerous people of all. Like the whole thing with Wayne County smashing Handsome Dick in the head. It’s heavy. Because they are masculine guys in drag.
PKM: Well, they had to fight their whole life to be the person they want to be, which will make you very tough.
PKM: Who are your favorite writers?
Clem: I like Steinbeck, Bukowski, and I actually like Capote a lot. I’m reading the Bruce Springsteen book now. It’s profound. I relate to him because of his dysfunctional home life growing up, the Jersey connection, his family is Irish and Italian and my family is Polish and Italian. Our families are both working class. He was basically surrounded by women and had a license to do whatever he wanted. He’s not an only child, but I am. We both grew up with Ellis Island being next door and our ancestors coming through there.
PKM: Ellis Island was a pretty terrible place.
Clem: No it wasn’t. It was the hub for immigration to the United States.
PKM: Yes, but you had to be there for weeks. Sometimes they would send your kids back or you back without them. There was a lot of family separation.
Clem: I don’t think they sent them back.
PKM: Well, if you actually go there, you can read all about it. There is even historic, anti-American graffiti on the wall with a stick figure holding the American flag upside down because some people were already unhappy with America and they just got there.
Clem: In the Godfather, they do a great job of showing how the names were changed. Marlon Brando’s character was from the town of Corleone but they changed his last name to the town.
PKM: My grandfather was Harold Minkowski, but at Ellis Island they changed it to Minter because it was easier to say and sounded less ethnic.
Clem: New York history is very interesting. The Five Points area and all.
PKM: You should read Low Life by Luc Sante. It’s all about old New York. From living in a tenement with other families on the Bowery to McGurk’s Suicide Hall.
What bands were you really into when Blondie first began? Were you into the England scene at all?
Clem: I really liked The Damned and still do. I made a record with Brian James and Duff McKagen. I did a record with Brian James and Wayne Kramer as well. It’s called Mad For The Rocket. We did an English club tour with the bass player from Stone Roses, Mani. The Stone Roses were a major, major influence on one of my favorite bands of all time, Oasis. Noel Gallager is an amazing talent. The first time I saw them was at the Wetlands in Tribeca twenty years ago. I like The Troggs, The Ohio Express, all that garage rock ‘60s stuff. I like bubblegum music a lot. The Ramones were into that too. The Velvet Underground, The Yardbirds, The Who, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, New York Dolls, Eddie Cochran.
PKM: Who was your biggest music idol that you’ve met?
Clem: Every time I talk to Bruce Springsteen, it’s a thrill. I’ve met Paul McCartney a couple times. Ray Davies, we toured with the Kinks right before “Heart Of Glass” became a hit. I worked with Bob Dylan on a record called Knocked Out Loaded in the mid ‘80s. Dylan and Springsteen are my absolute favorites. Bob Dylan told me that he remembered going to school and seeing the headline that Richie Valens died in that plane crash. He was devastated and actually had tickets to their show because they were going to be in that part of America. Ian Hunter from Mott The Hoople tells me that P.J. Proby was a big influence on him. P.J. was a Texan who went to England and became a big star, sort of like their version of Elvis. He had a ponytail and was known for splitting his trousers on stage because they were so tight.
I like Adam Faith a lot. The producer Joe Meek, who pushed his landlord down the stairs. He produced that song “Telstar,” by The Tornados. I was talking to Marky Ramone yesterday and we talk nonstop about music. I’ve been DJing a lot lately, which is fun. I spin vinyl. I have a couple thousand records in my collection. I worked this Tiki bar in Las Vegas recently.
PKM: Tell me about Blondie’s recording session for Pollinator.
Clem: We were at The Magic Shop in NYC and there were many reminders of David Bowie around the studio. His birthday is January 8th and there was a champagne bottle he’d signed, “David’s birthday 2015.” The studio was friendly, not your corporate type of studio. We took a break for Christmas and when we returned in January 2016, David had died. His spirit was in the studio.
Our record was formed by David in a lot of ways I feel. Well, David and others as well. There is a song that Laurie Anderson plays on and a punk rock song inspired by the Ramones that Joan Jett sings on. Then the studio closed down after twenty-eight years. We were the last band to make a full record at The Magic Shop. The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, many people recorded there.
I’m trying to write a book now. I did a reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Everyone was really receptive of my stuff. I might just turn it into a scrapbook.
PKM: It’s very therapeutic to write your story.
Clem: You start thinking about people who are dead, people you got high with, people who you slept with. It’s actually more difficult to write about people who are still around. I want it to be the real dirt though. Like the time I saw Gary Glitter at the Lyceum. He was wearing a tight, white jumpsuit with a wrestler’s belt that had a cod piece. All of a sudden the belt broke and it’s down around his knees! Gary Glitter is not a guy with a cock out that big. (mimics a big size)
PKM: Haha! I’m so jealous. You’ve seen so many great shows.
Clem: I saw everything. When I heard Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album, that was it.
The Ramones ripped off the sound from “Hang On To Yourself.” Johnny Ramone, his thing was that song “Communication Breakdown,” by Led Zeppelin. That’s where he got his guitar style. All great art is inspired by something that came before. How original is Andy Warhol painting a Campbells soup can or Damien Hirst and his dots?
PKM: Do you have any Johnny Thunders stories?
Clem: Johnny would always start playing “Wipeout” whenever he saw me. One time at the Limelight, he was playing and I think I was more fucked up than he was. I jumped on stage and started playing with him. He was a sweet guy. We used to give Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shit. We would tell them that they stole Johnny’s band name.
PKM: Do you like Roxy Music?
Clem: Yes! Paul Thompson, the drummer of Roxy Music, is one of my all time favorite drummers. Actually, I watched them record the album Manifesto. Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Elvis’ drummer, Ron Tutt… they are some of my favorite drummers.
PKM: Tell me about one of your favorite places in NYC?
Clem: One of my favorite places to eat in NYC is an Italian restaurant named Patsy’s, I would go there with Nancy Sinatra. It was Frank’s favorite place to eat.
PKM: If there was a movie made about your life whom would you want to play you?
Clem: Pacino or DeNiro. But I guess they are too old. A swarthy, Italian, baby-faced actor I guess? People used to tell me I looked like Mickey Rourke, believe it or not.
PKM: You don’t at all. What song would you want played at your funeral?
Clem: At Kurt Cobain’s funeral they played “In My Life,” which is a good one. I would say The Teddybears, (Phil Spector’s band) “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” Phil took that off his dad’s gravestone and his mom sued him for copyright infringement. True story. My friend had to testify at the trial. Anyway, I’m not gonna die so it doesn’t matter.
PKM: Oh, right. You’re immortal.
Clem: I’m gonna live forever. That’s a good one. “Live Forever,” by Oasis.
PKM: Tell me about your time with Iggy and Bowie?
Clem: Blondie supported Iggy Pop in 1977 on our first national tour. Right when we arrived, the door opens to the dressing room. It’s Iggy and Bowie. Introducing themselves, Bowie says, “I’m David,” and Iggy says, “I’m Jim.” They set the precedent for how you should be to an opening band. One night David had his hair combed forward and he turned to me and said, “This is my Tom Verlaine look.”
I also toured with Iggy in 1981. We did a six-week tour when he had that Party album. We opened for the Stones in Pontiac, Michigan. It was kinda infamous because we had so much stuff thrown at us. My arms were covered in blood.
PKM: Because everyone wanted the Stones and not you guys?
Clem: It was the Rolling Stones, Santana, and Iggy. Iggy was mad because Mick Jagger wouldn’t say hi to him. But Keith Richards was being friendly.
On that tour, Iggy was wearing a mini skirt, a motorcycle jacket, nylon stockings, and a garter belt. This particular night, he decided he was gonna wear just a motorcycle jacket and a pair of pantyhose. So when the lights went on him as he came out to the stage, everyone in the audience could see through his hose, so he was basically naked. All this stuff started raining down on us. He was singing the song, “I Need More,” and he was taunting the people on the end of the stage. Throw more bottles, throw more knives…. Bill Graham was the promoter and he thought it was so funny that he had all the roadies pick everything up and write down what was thrown. Right before the Stones went on, he read out loud on the mic what was thrown at Iggy.
We were in San Francisco, where Allen Ginsberg was chanting backstage. Target video has a great live video of that concert. Iggy was missing a tooth. I think he had a semi-nervous breakdown after that. I remember being in Canada in a snowstorm and we had to wait for the guy to bring blow to go onstage. The rule on that tour was, “No blow, no show.”