PKM talks to Student Teachers’ drummer Laura Davis-Chanin about her new memoir, The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the ‘70s Rock Scene and her experiences as a teenage musician in the 70s NYC underground
For every punk and new wave act from the mid-to-late-‘70s New York CBGBs that become legends, there were many others that didn’t make it big—or even make an album. Among them were the Student Teachers, who gigged quite a bit and managed to put out a 1979 single on the Ork Records label, as well as getting a couple cuts on the Marty Thau Presents 2 X 5 compilation the following year.
Still in (or barely out of) high school when their career picked up steam, they were distinguished by an all-woman rhythm section when such tandems were rare, with Lori Reese on bass and Laura Davis on drums. Their peppy yet tense new wave pop was barely heard on disc, however, before they broke up. (Nine songs they did manage to record—some cut without Davis—are on the 2013 Nacional compilation Invitation to…The Student Teachers: 1978-1980: The Complete Syllabus.)
Now going by the name Laura Davis-Chanin, the drummer has written a memoir of her volatile stint with the Student Teachers. The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the ‘70s Rock Scene is interesting whether or not you’ve heard of her band, and not just because of the friends in high places name-checked in the title. The book’s more notable as an engagingly personal, sometimes disturbing account of young, enthusiastic teenagers getting so galvanized by the New York punk/new wave scene that they formed a band, getting a sniff of the big time before, as so often happens, drug problems and infighting wore them out fast.
In some respects, Davis remained a normal teenager, watching network sitcoms, making money as a babysitter, and struggling to pass high school exams. In others, her life was utterly unusual, not quite successfully balancing those activities with nocturnal clubbing, drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll in the New York underground (which was swiftly becoming overground as bands like Blondie had hits).
Davis got to know some of her inspirations pretty intimately, becoming the girlfriend of Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, with whom she lived for a while (and while still in high school). A couple songs she co-wrote with Destri made it onto Blondie albums, including “Slow Motion” (on Eat to the Beat) and “Angels on the Balcony” (on Autoamerican). Destri also produced the Student Teachers, and helped introduce Davis to David Bowie, with whom Jimmy worked for a while. And Destri doesn’t come off well in this book, struggling with substance addiction and egotism, and often treating Davis poorly, physically abusing her on occasion.
A good storyteller, Davis writes about the music and the lifestyle with candor, including her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis after getting thrown out of the Student Teachers (who disbanded on Halloween 1980, after apparent interest from RCA having come to nothing). I spoke to her about the book just days before its publication in May by Backbeat Books.
PKM: It’s been about forty years since your time in the Student Teachers, and you’ve had a busy career in non-musical fields since then. What led you to recently decide to write a memoir focusing on that time?
Laura Davis: To be honest, I never planned to tell this story. As you can see, there are painful parts and I tend to be a very private person. However, in January 2016, I woke up, took a look at the news headlines, and the first one I saw said “David Bowie dead.” It had been many years since I had talked to him and I was in another world, but it really threw me. That day, I wrote an essay on what Bowie had done for me and meant to me, and it was published on The Partially Examined Life Website.
Lee Sobel, my agent, saw that essay and a few months later started talking to me about writing about that time period, the band, Jimmy, Bowie. I was hesitant, but he persisted. I gave it a try and found it to be cathartic. I had reconnected with my band in 2014, so it felt good talking about how we came together.
Richard Hell, Television—bands we were fans of were on Ork. Like Stiff Records in England and Slash Records in L.A., we thought getting signed to Ork was a huge win.
PKM: I would have been in the same grade in high school as you were, though I wasn’t in the New York area. Reading the book, I was struck by how different your experiences as a teenager were to mine. I, and no one I knew in my suburban high school, were not playing in a band in city clubs and going to those clubs with new wave/punk acts when not playing. Looking back on those years, does it feel unusual, even amazing, that you were able to experience this at such a young age?
Laura Davis: Oh, absolutely, looking back it seems quite amazing, very unusual—and certainly not something you’d see happen today. Growing up in New York was a key reason—like growing up in London, where the Sex Pistols and the Clash spawned—but of course a lot of kids grew up in New York and weren’t involved in that scene. But I lived in an artistic world and it was downtown, not far from CBGBs. As I mention in the book, I was best friends with a guy, [Student Teachers keyboardist] Bill Arning, who was wildly curious and adventurous; he became really involved in the scene, and took me with him.
PKM: As a related question, during much of the time you write about, you were leading somewhat of a double life. For much of that era, your activities were similar to those of a normal teenager. Yet for roughly the other half, you were doing things few teenagers did: playing and going to clubs, but also recording, meeting celebrities like David Bowie and CBGBs bands, and living with a famous musician considerably older than you were. In retrospect, do you feel that some of the problems you and the Student Teachers had in sustaining a career sprang from that delicate balancing act?
Laura Davis: Partially—but I was the youngest, so I was more involved in living that double life, as Bill and [singer] David [Scharff] and [guitarist] Philip [Shelley] all graduated high school after the first six months the band was together, and Lori and [guitarist] Joe [Katz] had graduated before we started.
I think the problems in sustaining that career had more to do with other factors, such as being that young and handling the nightly party scene with drugs and sex and celebrities. As I mentioned in the beginning of the book when I quote Patti Smith: “punk rock is freedom”—and we were too young for that freedom.
PKM: Reading your account of the Student Teachers, it’s amazing, from today’s perspective, how quickly you progressed at such a young age. With members still in high school or not much older, you were able to get gigs in a highly competitive New York new wave scene and make records produced by one of the stars of that scene, though your arc was halted for various reasons. The music business has changed a great deal, of course, but it seems unlikely most comparable young bands now could do as much as you did so quickly. Do you have thoughts about how and why it was in some respects easier for a band like the Student Teachers to make inroads in the late ‘70s?
Laura Davis: First and foremost, we had the interest of Jimmy [Destri]. Being connected with him, and Blondie, really helped open doors to certain venues for gigs and recording opportunities. Those relationships helped a lot with us moving ahead as quickly as we did, which may have been a problem too. We probably should have had more time to evolve and grow musically.
For the overall scene, the Ramones really paved the way for everyone, touring all over and getting the word out about what was happening in Boston, New York, L.A., San Francisco. It wasn’t just the stadium acts anymore. It was right in front of you. And there was a bursting interest in these bands that just grew out of the energy of those scenes and weren’t aspiring toward big, hard rock arena concerts.
Being able to have those friendships and connections as a young band was extremely helpful. That is not something that is around today for a young band, a scene where people help each other out. It’s harder now, you really have to hustle.
This video of the Student Teachers’ “Christmas Weather” contains some good still images of the CBGBs scene:
PKM: The book reflects how difficult it is for bands to make it on the level of the top CBGBs acts. You need a good deal of luck, but most crucially, a ton of hard work and focus, as Chris Stein and Deborah Harry did in Blondie. What might have gotten in the way of the Student Teachers having those opportunities and that drive to go as far?
Laura Davis: Part of it was age. If we go with the Blondie comparison, Debbie [Harry] had been in the music scene for at least ten years and was in another band long before Blondie. Plus she was not only a real business thinker, but she was (and is) uniquely beautiful. So all of that contributed to Blondie becoming successful. Bands like Talking Heads and others were older than us by a few years, and had at least one member who was very thoughtful about how to get ahead.
I’m not saying we, or a few of us, didn’t think about getting ahead and doing more as a band. But we were distracted easily—that is an age thing. Many young stars now—Justin Bieber, say—or then, Shaun Cassidy, say—usually had older, more mature people behind them planning their careers. And yes, luck was critical—like it is in many fields.
Again, I’m back to the age thing—another band, the Blessed, who were big on the scene then too, also didn’t go beyond headlining.
Getting to the point of being big on the scene was not difficult actually. With consistent performing and getting to know the makers and shakers, it was not impossible to get to that point. Going the next step up is where it got difficult. Getting signed to a recording contract was key, and though we did—to Ork, and Red Star—they were indie labels, and weren’t thinking like major labels and promoting acts they had put on their label.
PKM: Although not too well known to non-collectors (though that could be changing after the recent Complete Singles box set), the Ork label gave opportunities to numerous acts that didn’t or weren’t ready to have major label deals, most famously Television. What were the advantages and disadvantages of working with Ork, and do you have any thoughts as to Ork’s value to the New York scene as a whole?
Two overviews of the Ork Records singles’ collection:
Laura Davis: It was total advantage and as kids we were in awe about it. It was so cool to us. Richard Hell, Television—bands we were fans of were on Ork. Like Stiff Records in England and Slash Records in L.A., we thought getting signed to Ork was a huge win. That was what happened to a lot of bands at that time that couldn’t happen today, because it was the beginning of that “you can start your own band and have a real chance at success” era. We hadn’t been together that long and then getting signed to Ork—it felt incredible—and it was completely due to Jimmy’s belief in us and his pushing for us.
Disadvantage-wise—it may have kept bigger labels from looking closer at us. Indie labels, indie bands—it was really new to the industry, thus I don’t think the bigger labels understood that evolving energy.
PKM: The passages on “the Hats” [a trio of Hasidic Jews involved with Ork who hung around the studio when the Student Teachers recorded] are real interesting, as they aren’t the kind of guys you’d expect to be involved with a new wave indie label or act. What could they have been expecting to get out of the association, considering they didn’t seem to have a passion for the music?
Laura Davis: Haha! Yeah, the Hats were the money behind Ork. Their interest was in keeping track of their investment, and to make sure we weren’t at the recording studio any longer than we were supposed to be, as recording studio time is expensive. They didn’t care about the music. It was an issue of the money and protecting it. Hence, they just ate, smoked and snorted their time away there.
To be a teenager and have David Bowie tell you: ‘You don’t have to be here, you don’t have to be in rock’n’roll. You can do what you want to do.’—it’s powerful.
PKM: How do you think the Student Teachers would have developed had not various things gotten in the way, and you managed to last longer and record more – at least an album or two?
Laura Davis: I think we definitely would have grown musically in terms of skill on our instruments, particularly me and Lori as we were new to them when the band started. In terms of songwriting, Philip, who wrote “Looks,” our most popular song, definitely had it in him to write a really big hit, I believe. Other than Bill, Philip, and Joe—who knew their instruments very well—I think the rest of us would certainly have grown and matured musically with time.
But time isn’t necessarily something you have when you start to get involved with record companies. They want to make a profit and they don’t have time to help you evolve as an artist. You can see that with many artists who start out with a good first album but do an even greater album later on—think of the Beatles or the Stones, even. Time is a great healer and a great illuminator. We just didn’t have that time.
PKM: As the Student Teachers didn’t record much, especially when you were in the band, it’s a little difficult for people who didn’t see them live to get a full sense of their sound. What do you think made the group’s music most distinctive, both within the New York scene and in the general late-‘70s era as a whole?
Laura Davis: We were definitely a pop/new wave sounding band. New wave was actually just starting to take off when we were in the scene with bands who were not going pure punk—Talking Heads, Squeeze, the B-52s, the Mumps, Devo, the Pretenders, the Police. Blondie was certainly new wave when they started, but evolved into a high-power pop band. We were in that vein. This is a taping of our song “Looks”:
PKM: Women rock drummers, and also women rhythm sections, were rare in the late 1970s, though less so now. Although it seems like you took to the role naturally, do you see yourself as a pioneer in this regard when you look back at what you played with the Student Teachers?
Laura Davis: I didn’t until I talked with [Yo La Tengo’s] Georgia Hubley and [Luscious Jackson’s] Kate Schellenbach. There were other female drummers/bassists at the time—Jane Fire in the Erasers and Elissa Bello of the Go-Go’s, and certainly the bass player Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time, as I mention in the book. When we formed the band my first thought was how cool—even revolutionary—it would be to have a female drummer. We all felt that at the time, but being so young it didn’t occur to me that I might trigger other females to pick up a pair of sticks. I and the rest of the band just thought it was unique and would make us stand out.
PKM: Your relationship with Jimmy Destri, both personally and musically, of course is a big part of The Girl in the Back. You detailed the good and bad parts of it in the book. What would you say were the best things both of you took from the relationship, and in retrospect what were the biggest problems it had to weather?
Laura Davis: Well that’s a loaded question, as you can imagine. At the time it was very exciting of course. He was extremely handsome, exactly my type, and was a fast, emerging rock star. I tried to capture the heat and confusion of the time for me, in the book—being young, impressionable and overwhelmed. The best things to come out of the relationship certainly were the songs we worked on together, the production work he did with the band, the remarkable world in rock and entertainment he opened up for me, the Blondie tours through the world he took me on, and Bowie, of course.
But, as with any relationship, at the end of the day when everyone goes home, and the lights go off and it’s just the two of you, that’s when reality sets in. Being in love isn’t a lifeboat. We were too young, there were a lot of drugs and, even more importantly, we weren’t living in the real world. High-powered rock’n’roll, entertainment—is a world of pretense—nothing is real.
As far as the good things, I guess I grew up a lot. In a strange way he showed me a world I learned I didn’t want to be a part of—not necessarily music, but the constant partying, the drugs, the alcohol. And obviously the difficult parts involving the abuse were very hard. But it pushed me to grow up real fast.
PKM: As a producer, what do you think Jimmy’s strengths and weaknesses were?
Laura Davis: His strengths were his couple of years growing with Blondie on tour as a professional musician (as opposed to us amateurs), and being a strong producer from working with [Blondie producers] Richard Gottehrer and Mike Chapman. We gained so much from him musically and in the recording process.
Weakness would be that he was learning as we were, as our single “Christmas Weather” and our recordings on Marty Thau Presents 2 x 5 were his first official studio productions.
PKM: There’s a great deal of literature about David Bowie, especially in the wake of his recent death. What do you think you wrote about your friendship with him might bring to light that’s not as evident in other writing about Bowie? (One interesting story I hadn’t come across before was how he urged the Student Teachers not to sign with RCA.)
Laura Davis: Yes, a lot has been written about him—he was a unique presence, known to the world. And certainly, there were a lot of experiences many people had with him. I think the primary key to my story was the humanity he offered, without question or reflection. We certainly knew each other well during that time. But he and Jimmy were very tight—through the recording work, the performing on SNL [Saturday Night Live], the drugs (unfortunately)—and, well, I just happened to be there. But he showed kindness and interest and care, with my dad and mom and my sister. It was quite exceptional.
Even more so, though, after I was diagnosed with MS, he could have stepped back and sent me well wishes through Jimmy or [Bowie’s personal assistant] Coco [Schwab]—but he didn’t. He showed love by helping me to be honest with myself and accept who I was, and pursue what I really wanted to do. MS didn’t make me a non-drummer—that conflict between rock’n’roll and scholarly pursuits was always there, and he knew it. To be a teenager and have David Bowie tell you: “You don’t have to be here, you don’t have to be in rock’n’roll. You can do what you want to do.”—it’s powerful.
PKM: The section at the end updating readers on what happened to the other members of the band and some associates was interesting, and it seemed like some or all of them were able to read what you’d written (with them offering clarifications and different viewpoints in some of the footnotes). It didn’t seem like Jimmy Destri had read or reacted to your memories. Has he read or reacted to the book?
Laura Davis: I don’t know if he has read it. Debbie and Chris have, and they love the book. I hope it is clear that the problem wasn’t Jimmy, the problem was what the drugs were doing to Jimmy.
PKM: Although your relationship with your father [Newsweek art critic Douglas Davis] is not one of the book’s main concentrations, it’s interesting and disturbing that he was simultaneously strict in some matters, and in some others seemingly unconcerned with your everyday welfare. Was this both an advantage in having the freedom to live a rock lifestyle few teenagers could have accessed, and a disadvantage in the instability it added to an already complicated life?
Laura Davis: Yes, to both. But the other guys in the band had a lot of freedom as well, as did many of the teens and young people in the ‘70s. That time was very different than now. Teens were allowed in all bars and clubs and never carded. They were free to do whatever they wanted. That, as you point out, was both helpful and potentially dangerous.
My dad was very dedicated, or obsessed, with his work as a writer and artist, and it was helpful to him that my sister and I were out of the picture a lot—hence kicking us out of the house in Berlin [where the family lived for a while before the Student Teachers formed]. The times when he was strict, as I mention in the book—when he threw us out—I wonder if it merely went to help him get peace in the house, so he could work.
Yes, it added to a very complicated life. I always say, my dad was a terrific parent because he taught me exactly what not to do. You’d have to ask my kids how well I learned those lessons.
PKM: I know the book’s just coming out, but have there been reactions from readers aside from your bandmates and associates?
Laura Davis: Not yet really, as the book isn’t out yet. Though I‘ve heard from some industry people they love it, like Debbie and Chris, as I mentioned.
PKM: Aside from having written and now promoting your book, what are your other current activities?
Laura Davis: At this moment, I’m co-writing Michael Alago’s autobiography, I Am Michael Alago Breathing Music, Signing Metallica, and Surviving the AIDS Crisis. The documentary, Who the F*** Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago came out about his work with remarkable musicians last summer. I’m also working on a novel based on true events, entitled A Finished Noise, as well as a collection of short stories. I also co-host a podcast on fiction and philosophy called Phi Fic on The Partially Examined Life Network, and when I get a few minutes I take my dog Ellie for a walk and pick up a cup of English breakfast tea.