A chat with Blondie in NYC

On March 25, 2013 by Will Hermes

I’ll be speaking with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie on Wednesday, 6PM, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, in the Bruno Walter Auditorium. It’s free, but the staff suggests arriving early as space is limited. More details here.

I’m especially excited that Stein will be sharing some of his b&w photography from the era. (Prints of his work, including the above, are available through the Morrison Hotel Gallery.)

Here’s an excerpt about the band’s birth from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire:

Deborah Harry was raised, like Patti Smith, in the Jersey suburbs. An adopted child, she was smart, restless, alienated, with beautiful features and dark brown hair. She defected to New York the minute she finished high school. She worked as a bar dancer in Union City, as a bunny-eared hostess at the Playboy Club on E. 59th Street, and as a waitress in Max’s, serving drinks to the Warhol demi-monde. Meanwhile, she passed through a number of musical identities. In ’69 she was a 24-year-old hippie-folk siren fronting The Wind in the Willows, who made a forgettable record for Capitol. A few years later, she joined scene-diva Elda Gentile in The Stilettos, a trash-camp, performance-art take on of ‘60s girl-groups like The Ronettes.

Chris Stein was an arty intellectual Jewish kid born to Eastern European parents and raised in Brooklyn. Kicked out of high school for having long hair, he wound up at Quintano’s School For Young Professionals, an art school for misfits at 154 W. 56th St. and 7th Ave, behind Carnegie Hall, where he was a classmate of Johnny Thunders. He began his adult sub-cultural life as a hippie, lighting out to San Francisco in ‘67 to catch rays from the Summer of Love, trekking up to Woodstock in ‘69. Back in the City, he played in various bands, one of which opened for the Velvet Undergound, and he took classes at the School of Visual Arts, including one in electronic music taught by Steve Reich. (“All that talk about polyrhythms went over my head,” he later confessed. )

Stein watched the Dolls come up, and occasionally played guitar with their glammy Mercer Arts cohorts Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. Through Emerson he met Elda Gentile—who had a baby with Emerson and later dated Richard Hell—and one night in the fall of 1973, Stein was invited to see the Stilettos perform. It was their second-ever gig, at the Bourbon Tavern, a dive on West 28th St. in Chelsea. The place was nasty, but he found one of the singer’s was sumptuous. Stein and Harry bonded, and the Stilettos had a new guitarist. They opened for Television at CBGBs in May of ’74.

By the summer, though, the group fractured. Gentile was out; Harry and Stein remade the band with Harry as its focal point. At first they were called Angel and the Snakes; after a couple of gigs, they recruited the Bronx-bred sister team Tish and Snooky (Patrice and Eileen Bellomo of The Palm Casino Revue, a cabaret show that had been running at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre across the street from CBGBs) as backup singers. Stein and Harry changed their band’s name to Blondie and the Banzai Babes. Their second guitarist was Czech ex-pat Ivan Kral, the bassist Fred Smith, the drummer Billy O’Connor.

This line-up was also short-lived. The downtown rock scene was small and incestuous; allegiances were mercurial. Kral defected to join the more promising Patti Smith Group in December, then O’Connor left for law school. At one point, in a pairing that might have pioneered synth-pop, Harry teamed up with Suicide’s Marty Rev for some jamming and recording. The project went nowhere, and the tapes, as far as anyone knows, were lost.

In early ’75, Blondie was auditioning drummers at Tommy Ramone’s studio on 23rd. A 21 year old from New Jersey named Clem Burke was on the stool, and Patti Smith drifted into the room. This wasn’t unusual; though Harry and Smith weren’t exactly friends, they knew each other.

When the band stopped playing, Smith, in her nasal come-hither sneer, says “Heeeeey, you’re pretty good. What’s your name?”

Harry stared daggers at her. Ivan Kral had defected to her band only a few weeks earlier.

“Patti,” she says. “I’m working with this guy.”

“Oh,” responded Patti casually.

Smith left. Not long afterwards, Burke auditioned for her, but didn’t get the job. He played his first gig with Blondie—who were still being billed in CBGB ads as The Stilettos—in March. That night, Fred Smith told his bandmates he was leaving to join Television. He would be replacing Richard Hell, who was tired of deferring to Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was in CBGB’s that night, Patti Smith with him. But they didn’t linger.

Fred Smith’s replacement would be Gary Valentine, a New Jersey fuck-up who liked to occasionally go out in drag and had a talent for songwriting. For awhile he lived with Harry and Stein in Harry’s tiny one-bedroom at 105 Thompson Street; Stein was subletting his own place on First Ave. and First Street to Tommy Ramone. Harry had a ’67 Camaro which opposite-side-of-the-street-parking rules had her or Stein moving back and forth in the early morning. But it was beloved; on summer days she’d drive the guys to Jones Beach or Coney Island, looking like a modern version of a Shangri-Las song where the girl had the wheels and called the shots.

While there was plenty of mixing, aesthetic lines were being drawn. There were the pop-rockers in one clique: The Ramones, The Dictators, The Miamis, and Blondie (and later, The Heartbreakers). And there was the art-rock clique centered around Patti Smith and Television, now fronted solely by her sidekick and presumed lover, Tom Verlaine.

The divide grew. “I may be paranoid,” Harry reflected in the wake of all the musical chairs. “but I think that whole clique wanted to destroy us.”

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