Sharks and Jets

In 1975, before Blondie, Debbie Harry's Stilettos did a cover of "Out in the Streets," the Shangri-Las' mid-'60s lamentation for a recovering bad boy: "He don't comb his hair like he did before, he don't wear those dirty old black boots no more . . . something's missing inside, something's died, his heart is out in the streets." He's the real deal, but he's sold out, and he did it for her. Cleaned up, he's lost his edge. She knows she's gotta let him go, for his sake. Bands work the same way: When they experiment, change, branch out, fans feel abandoned.

I felt abandoned when Blondie started having disco and rap hits in 1979— "Heart of Glass," then "Call Me," then "Rapture." Why were they polluting punk's sacred scene with the polyester menace? Disco was rooted in gay, non-Caucasian, urban dance culture, but we late-'70s bridge-and-tunnel kids didn't know that then; we just wanted guitars. By the time we heard about disco, it had filtered upward to places that excluded us. We used different drugs, we wore leather, the synthesizer wasn't our world. We preferred the piss-factory dives with pool tables, bikers, broken beer bottles, and backroom pirate love. Uptown, we'd never get past the ropes, or afford the covers. Eventually, as disco mainstreamed, it spread outward, toward the boroughs, the Saturday Night Fever Guido vanguard. "Disco Sucks!!!" we screamed at the carloads of cretin boys who mistook our miniskirted, ripped fishnet, big bad hair-rocker-sleaze look for Bowery hookers'.

Two decades after "Heart of Glass," in a Rolling Stone review of the band's Top 20 comeback album, No Exit, Greg Kot charges, "Blondie indulge in the kind of dilettantish genre-dabbling that preceded their 1982 demise." "Screaming Skin" is festive ska-pop, Coolio brings the group's rap cred full circle on the title track. "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" shows off Debbie Harry's swing-vocal prowess. Drummer Clem Burke defends the digressions, saying, "There's nothing so wrong about being a dilettante, you have to be a pretender to become real." And he's right: What was punk anyway but one big amateur hour, a cultural celebration of the dilettante? In the audience one day, onstage the next?

Kids grew up on her music; they know who she is.
Ebet Roberts
Kids grew up on her music; they know who she is.

No Exit also has a cover of "Out in the Streets," less melodramatic than the original, but still tragic. The Shangri-Las were originally two sets of street-smart sisters, tough Catholic girls from Cambria Heights, Queens. As the only Caucasian girl-group of any consequence, they were the pride of the white ethnic boroughs. They were produced by Shadow Morton, who later produced '70s bridge-and-tunnel kids the New York Dolls. If you study Johnny Thunders's early hair, it's pure Ronnie Spector— long thick black layers, locks draped over eyes, pinned eight miles high, the result of beer cans, Final Net Extra Hold, and gobs of Dippity-Do. And Joey Ramone's hair looks like Shangri-Las lead singer Mary Weiss's— slinking over the face, like a Hollywood starlet punched out by the wrong guy at the right time. Glamour and gutter, love and death in the outer provinces, these are the roots of New York punk.

Blondie still remember the hitters, the tough guys the girl groups fought and cried over in the pre-Beatles age of grease. Boro Park, Brooklyn­bred keyboardist Jimmy Destri explains, "My uncle was the drummer in Joey Dee and the Starlighters [of 'Peppermint Twist' fame]. They were a bunch of wiseguys. But the tougher guys in that neighborhood were the pizza store guys. In the early 1960s, nobody was tougher than people who worked in pizza stores. They were big, heavy, mob-connected guys who'd get out of work all covered with dust and go sing doowop on the corner. Another group in my neighborhood was Tony and the French Fries. They were packers. They used to come out with their price stampers in their back pockets and go out on the other corner and sing. I think it was just an escape, or people would kill each other. I mean there were hitters in the 1940s, thank God for WWII— they all had an outlet. In the 1950s, if it wasn't for a cappella doowop singing, there would have been so much more violence."

Guitarist Chris Stein grew up in Flatbush, the son of lefty, bohemian parents. But he says it was "the same as Boro Park, both Jewish and Italian, hitters on both sides. There were private homes and apartment houses on my block. The supers were all black. They played harmonica and guitar. It was my first exposure to cool fashion." Destri agrees: "The white kids looked really stupid in folded-up jeans and Converse sneakers. The black kids had, like, suede shoes and iridescent pants and porkpie hats, Ban-Lon shirts, and bracelets. It was so cool, they were totally accepted too."

West Side Story, in 1961, was a pivotal moment. Destri recalls, "The girls in the audience were crying. But for us it was like a war movie, the way a kid would go to a construction site afterwards and pick up a stick and go 'Dat dat dat dat!!' After West Side Story we got the knives, the whole look." The film mapped out the human cost of ethnic gang conflicts— first-generation Puerto Ricans, new kids on the block, versus Polish, Irish, and Italian sons. Sequential waves of immigrant labor locked in turf wars. America's pop Romeo and Juliet, Jet Tony meets the virtuous Maria, sister of a fierce Shark. They fall in love, it's forbidden, someone dies. With its rapturous orchestration and wall-of-sound wink to girl groups, No Exit's revealingly named single "Maria" knocked the Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)"— a rockist slam defending turf against guitar-free hip-hop hordes and wiggers who dare cross over— from the No. 1 spot on the U.K. charts. Only Clem Burke's drums cut us slack from the high Roman Catholic devotional, which goes so far as to quote "Ave Maria." We hear unquenchable desire, the impossible yearning for the girl, for the American dream, for God's light. "She doesn't know your name, your heart beats like a subway train— don't you wanna make her all your own?"

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