Song Writing

The Punk Photography of Chris Stein

by Greg Prato

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The Blondie founder shares photos and stories from his book about the New York City punk scene.

Blondie guitarist Chris Stein was smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning New York City punk movement of the 1970s - as his band was part of a downtown scene at the now-defunct CBGB's, which also included the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television, and the Dead Boys, among others.

And before, during, and after Blondie's whirlwind success, Chris documented his surroundings by snapping pix - which have comprised several books so far, including 2018's Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene. Chris spoke with Songfacts shortly after the book's release and shared some photos.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): You have some photos of the Ramones - how would you describe Johnny Ramone? I've heard all different sorts of descriptions of him as a person and his personality over the years.

Chris Stein: He was a nice guy. I was closer to the other guys - like Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee - more than John. He seemed nice enough. I never got that he was so much of a hard-ass as people are saying. But I heard him say he wanted to be a baseball player more than be in a band. And he also told me he never played his guitar except when they were doing the shows or the records. That was it. Which I always thought was crazy and funny.

Songfacts: You also have photos of William Burroughs, as well.

Stein: They got the date wrong in the book - it should be '86 was when I went to Kansas, not '76. They'll correct that in a further printing.

Burroughs was a great character and I was lucky to have been able to hang out with him. He was awesome. I always felt like I was getting wisdom from him. It was really great to see his comments on the time in the political climate, because he really hated Ronald Reagan, passionately. It would be nice to have his view now. He'd probably be horrified by what's going on. He was an interesting guy, a great guy.

Songfacts: How would you describe Burroughs' personality?

Stein: He was very sweet. A really nice guy and authentic. Just a kind person is what I felt. He had a bit of a tough exterior I think. But he was genuinely a nice guy.

Songfacts: There is also a photo of Debbie and Meat Loaf.

Stein: I think it's in a limo. It's around the time we did that dumbass movie with Meat Loaf, called Roadie. It's probably around that time. I saw him recently at some awards thing, but back then, it wasn't like we hung out with him a lot. It must have been in relation to that project.

Songfacts: Do you think Blondie could have formed in any other location or decade than NYC in the '70s?

Stein: I don't know. Just the mechanics of it were specifically where it was. But it's hard to say. I went to San Francisco in the '60s a couple of times in the summers... it's hard to say.

Legs McNeil, Anya Phillips, Debbie Harry on the Staten Island Ferry, 1976

Songfacts: I remember from a previous time I spoke with you, you mentioned that you attended Woodstock.

Stein: Yeah. Debbie was at Woodstock, too. Woodstock was awesome. I remember thinking at the time, "This should be going every weekend. It shouldn't be a one-off thing." It was crazy. It was a little, great thing. I missed the Saturday night stuff, but I saw Hendrix.

Songfacts: What are some memories of seeing Hendrix?

Stein: You can't tell from the movie, but there was hardly anybody there. It was much sparser, because he was the last thing. And he was on after Sha Na Na, and everybody hated Sha Na Na. That was the only time I ever saw him. And I remember when we were leaving, hearing "The Star Spangled Banner" in the background.

Songfacts: Did you bring a camera when you went to Woodstock?

Stein: No, I didn't. I wish I had. But I was too tripped out. I don't think it would have been too easy to deal with. It was raining and muddy the whole time.

But I remember it well. It was a great experience all around. I have friends that were at Altamont, too. They had no idea anything bad was going on there, because they were just further away from the stage. They just went to the concert and left.

Songfacts: You also have a photo of Warhol's Eric Emerson in the book. Would he have become a star had he lived?

Stein: Yeah, Eric certainly would have been an interesting actor, if not a musician. But he really liked doing music. He was a very interesting and creative guy. And a maniac.

Songfacts: Do you agree that describing Eric as a "New York City version of David Bowie" is accurate?

Stein: I don't know David Bowie... closer to Iggy, maybe. He'd be more like an Iggy Pop character. He was rougher - Bowie was very refined.

Songfacts: You also included some photos from 9/11.

Stein: I regret not going down, but we were really close to the Towers, where I was living - it was just like 10 blocks away. I sometimes think, "Maybe I should have gone down there further." But our friend who is a fireman said, "Don't go down there." So, I didn't go into the middle of it. But we did take some videos that are online that you can track down. I don't think I appreciated what a big deal it was on the day that it was happening.

For me, it was a big turning point in the city. After that, this flood of corporate money started pouring into the city. There was a push after 9/11 for the Olympics to be held here, and that got a lot of people really greedy, because the Olympics anywhere opens up a lot of tourism and stuff like that. So, all these things combined kind of marked the end of the old New York City, I think. That was kind of the turning point.

Songfacts: You also mention not caring for Facebook in the book.

Merch at a Blondie concert

Stein: I fucking hate Facebook! I have my Instagram with my link to it with posts on my page, but Facebook, it's really less about the politics of it than just the visuals of it, because it looks so boring and horrible. I think that the fact that it looks so boring and horrible makes people post in a way that would be different than if it were modern looking. I don't understand why they don't update the way the thing looks. It's mind-blowing to me.

The blue color is so horrible. It's so dull. It's like you go to a government office and that's the color it's painted. It's so stupid. I don't understand it. Facebook and Instagram are the same thing, and Instagram, they've updated it many times and it looks very modern. I don't know why they can't get that going on Facebook. Maybe it's a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality.

Songfacts: Plans for future photo books?

Stein: I have the stuff of Debbie, me, and Giger, which would be a nice book. Beyond that, just for a miscellaneous book, I have a bunch of stuff left - it's a finite amount of things. But I may try to get going with the Giger project in a year or so.

Songfacts: That's right - I forgot that HR Giger did the cover art for Debbie's solo album, KooKoo.

Stein: Yeah, around that time. He was interesting - he's another guy I was glad I hung out with.

Songfacts: How would you describe Giger's personality?

Stein: He was nice. Very brooding, very dark, but also a kind-hearted guy. He was interesting. He had a life-sized alien set up in his studio, and he told us that one or two times he'd wake up in the middle of the night and it would scare the shit out of him, and forget it was there!

Songfacts: What are Blondie's future plans?

Stein: More recording. I have to get back into music writing. Next year we'll get another record going. John Congleton [the producer of Blondie's 2017 album, Pollinator] was a lot of fun to work with.

November 7, 2018
To order Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, click here.

Further reading:
Marky Ramone
Glen Matlock
John Lydon
JJ Burnel
Danny Clinch: The Art of Rock Photography
Blondie Songfacts

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