Interview: Chris Stein of Blondie
Blondie plays the Nokia Theatre in Times Square on Sunday, June 22. Tickets still available here.
"I was waiting for Debbie to come home, and across the street is a bunch of the neighborhood guys kicking this shit out of this black guy, right, for whatever reason. You know, just for the hell of it. Because he was in the neighborhood probably. And I'm just observing this and I hear a voice going, 'No, no. Stop. Call the police.' And it's fucking Debbie who has just arrived on the scene from visiting her parents, and after that we were like ostracized."
Brooklyn-born Chris Stein moved to Manhattan shortly before his 20th birthday. By the age of 30 he was a founding member of Blondie, the most commercially successful act to spring from the city's CBGB's heyday.
This year the band's best-selling album, the multi-platinum Parallel Lines, turns 30. And to celebrate--kind of--a retrospective disc will be issued later this month and all summer long the band will perform the record, start to finish, on dates that stretch from New Jersey to St. Petersburg (Russia).
We talked to Stein about the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the writing of "Heart of Glass," New York City real estate and why Parallel Lines isn't even his favorite Blondie album.
Tell me one thing that you've never ever done before in your life.
Never any sort of military altercation. I never got shot at or shot at anybody.
Well, that's good that you've managed to avoid gunplay. Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Jesus Christ. Well, the first stuff that comes to my mind is all related to sexual activity, and we don't want to go into that.
[laughs] No, your daughters may read this.
Yeah. What the fuck? Oh Jesus. Being as like I probably have lots of obsessive habits, I find myself getting into patterns of repetition. Probably I've been somewhere. We've only been to St. Petersburg once. We're going back so that'll be twice, but thus far it's only once.
We can take that.
Yeah, but that's not . . . You know, I have to think about that. Maybe I'll come back to that.
Okay. Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice.
Oh, Lolita is one of my favorite books. Every few years I read Lolita. I've read it ten times.
Are you a fan of Nabokov all over or just Lolita?
Yeah, no I've been reading a lot of his other stuff. I've just read the chess one. The Defense I've just read. Now I'm dived into fucking Cormac McCarthy really deeply. Because I was curious about . . . you know, the fucking movie [No Country for Old Men], you know, just gave me a lot of filmmaking questions. And I had to see what gave them [the Coen Brothers], you know, what they were so interested in, so I got the book, and the book is fucking awesome. I just wish they had the balls to have made a two and a half hour movie out of it.
But that's the problem. All the holes in the film are not in the book. And the book is very close to the film. They did a great job of capturing, you know, some of the ambiance and the scenes from the book, but there's big fucking gaps in the storyline. Like, Where did the money go? All that shit is in the book, you know. It's in the film, but after you read the book you understand. But it's not enough of a clue in the film, you know. So it's kind of fascinating. So then I talked to Richard Hell and he's a big Cormac McCarthy fan and he said, 'Oh yeah, you're going to love all his shit. I've read all his shit.' And now I'm deep into the trilogy stuff and I read Blood Meridian, and The Road is fucking awesome. I mean, that's the most accessible one, and the most horrifying one.
So you've still got the early stuff to go? Like Outer Dark and Child of God?
Right. Child of God I have. I'm just going to do that next after I finish the trilogy [All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain]. I'm just on the last book of the trilogy.
I think Child of God's probably my favorite.
Yeah? Is it more macabre?
Well, it's pretty fucked up.
I love that aspect of him, you know.
I like small, tightly wound books. Like really good novellas. You know, fiction that in a way operates like poetry in its preciseness. That's what I like about Lolita, because the whole thing is like a big tone poem, you know.
Well then, I think you'll like Child of God.
That's the next one I'm going to read right after I, I'm almost finished with Cities of the Plain.
I think it's probably the tightest of McCarthy's early work.
Did you read The Road, though?
It's so heavy. And it just stays with you. And it's so awful. It's awful but it's so compelling at the same time. You should read it. I recommend it. In the fucking blurb in the book it says it's his most accessible book and in a way it kind of is because it's different than the other ones, but it's not, you know. But it's very, very tight.
I'll put it on the summer reading list.
Yeah, I recommend it highly, but it really stays with you. It's about this guy traveling after some sort of unspecified nuclear event, you know. And there's nothing. There's just nothing. He's just traveling through this world of nothingness with his kid. It's gruesome, but fascinating.
Would it make a good movie?
No, it's so mental in a way. I don't know. I don't think you could capture the same thing that reading it does to your brain. I don't know. I think the trilogy would make a great . . . Didn't they make Pretty Horses into a film?
Yeah, Billy Bob Thornton directed that one. And I think maybe even Penelope Cruz was in it. I think she was the . . .
The girl, yeah. Huh. I was thinking that those three might work, and then I kept seeing Blood Meridian as some sort of a Jodorowsky/Fellini fucking fever dream type film, you know. Because that's a great thing. Because his fucking writing is like so hypnotic it pulls you in. It lulls you. And some of them are these long spaces where nothing happens except for imagery and scenery and this visceral shit, and then these little bursts of action and violence. It's terrific shit. I'm really enjoying it. I'm a big reader, as you can see.
I can definitely can tell. So here's kind of a segue. Tell me the name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
Shit. Any of those Fellini . . . 8 1/2 is one of my favorite movies of all time. I watch that repeatedly. And I was watching fucking No Country for Old Men several times because there's something about it and that's what drew me into the reading of all his stuff.
Was that your favorite movie of last year?
Yeah. No, I liked the Sinclair Lewis thing [There Will Be Blood, adapted from Lewis' Oil!]. I liked that too. I've got to read that yet too. I have that on my . . . I buy all these fucking books and I don't have enough time to read them. I've got to read that yet. I read The Jungle which is kind of cool.
Are you able to read on the road?
Yeah, yeah. I read in cars and just everywhere. That's how I get away from everything at this point. You know, I just fucking go into this world.
Okay, so you're starting a pretty long tour tomorrow.
Are you touring because it's the 30th anniversary of Parallel Lines or would you have toured anyway and this presented a nice marketing tie-in?
Yeah, yeah. That's just it. It never even occurred to me. It's also the 25th anniversary of Thriller and I'm wondering why he got to fucking cash in at 25 when we had to wait to 30.
That's my big question. Because all the radio's going, Hey, it's the 25th anniversary of Thriller. I've been hearing that for the last few weeks. But, you know, it's partially financial and all that other stuff because the money isn't there for recording for us, so we have to . . .
Yeah. I don't think recording's working out financially for much of anybody right now. I think you pretty much have to be on the road.
Yeah, I mean like to me it's like the whole music industry was torn into little pieces and they threw it up in the air and everybody's still waiting to see the pattern, how it settles down, you know. It's fucking nuts now, what's going on.
Yeah, and it may be a few more years before all those pieces land.
It'll take a while before everything is . . . It's kind of like the government. It's all in massive flux.
Well, since it is the 30th anniversary and since you are touring and since you do have a Parallel Lines 30th anniversary CD coming out later in the month . . .
Yeah, we're doing the whole record.
So it will dominate the set list.
We've got that first - in order - which is weird but we wanted . . . We were doing the same show for like several years now anyway, so we wanted to change it around, just the order of stuff. You know, we've been opening with the same things, closing with the same things, so at least that enabled to us change.
That should be interesting. Can you tell me about the compositional process of "Heart of Glass"? I was struck by how few Harry/Stein compositions there are in the Blondie catalog. There's only two, for instance, on Parallel Lines, and "Heart of Glass" is the most famous one.
That's a good question. You know what MIDI is? You know what musical instrument digital interface is?
It's a computer language that all instruments share now. It's been going on for like 20, 25 years almost. And you know, you buy any kind of synthesizer and you can MIDI into another one and they'll talk to each other. So if you had thought of all those parts of "Heart of Glass," you could've done it maybe in a day or maybe even five hours with MIDI, but it took us maybe four or five days and it's all done manually. It's all completely pieced together. The bass drum took three hours. All those guitar parts took, you know, four hours just going digga-digga-digga-digga. Because every 16th note was in time with the rhythm machine. That was the foundation of the whole thing. So it's an interesting . . . I mean, I don't know how many songs have been put together . . . . I think probably a lot of disco songs and things from that period were pieced together like that, but nobody does it anymore with digital because now it's, you know, you only have to play something one time.
Right. And loop it. When you say that the rhythm was the foundation, does that simply mean that the bass and the drums are the rhythm section or does it mean that the rhythm part came to you first?
No, we probably worked that stuff up as we would do it. The first thing that was on the track was the little rhythm machine that you hear in the beginning, and the synthesizer just playing bugga-bugga-bugga-bugga. Everything else was built on top of that. Was punched in, you know, and stuff. But everything is in real time. There's no looping. There's no anything. So every time you hear something it's the only time it's there.
So when you say that the rhythm machine is the first thing and everything else is built on top, are you talking about just the recording process or is it both the writing and the recording process? Are you writing the song as you record?
Yeah, it's kind of both. I think some of the parts, you know, we would find as we were working them up.
I get annoyed with [Parallel Lines producer] Mike Chapman now because he gets this sort of . . . I mean, I really love and respect him, but he has a crazy view of things and he still presents the whole picture as if we were a bunch of wild, out of control maniacs that he was roping into whatever. And, you know, I saw him learning stuff as we were doing it. He did stuff with us that I'm sure he had never done before. I know he was inventing things as he went along. And also, he never had a hit in the States from what I understand. At least before us, so all those things considered.
But yeah, actually all that stuff, a lot of it was worked up as we went along.
Does Debbie write the lyrics after all the tracks . . .
Some of them. I remember in "Heart of Glass" I came in with the "heart of glass" phrase and that was one of the last things of lyrics. And I really wasn't aware of the film at all at that point.
Speaking of Mike Chapman, if Richard Gottehrer gets credit for discovering . . .
It was really Marty Thau, I think, who should have the credit, because he's the one that got Gottehrer and Craig Leon to come down and see us, you know.
See you at CBGB.
Gottehrer produces your first two records and then Mike Chapman produced Parallel Lines. Is it a big deal when you leave the producer of your first two albums for someone completely different?
Yes and no. We didn't know if it was or not at that time because . . .
That bullshit I only did once was all of those fucking things: firing our old manager and all that crap. That was a one-off experience so I couldn't really judge, you know, what kind of a deal it was. But Gottehrer got disgusted with our manager, I remember. He said, 'I just don't like the way the guy does business.' And while we were making the second album with Gottehrer, the manager was in the process of getting Chrysalis to pick us up from Private Stock, so there was always a lot of fucking stupid politics and wheeling and dealing going on with the band. You know, that's what happened. And then when we got to Chrysalis . . . I don't know if Terry Ellis was instrumental in bringing Chapman into it, but everybody takes credit for different things. You know, memory is subjective.
Okay, so there's politics and who knows who's taking credit for what, but how does a band that plays in a bar where the bathrooms should be condemned turn into a multi-platinum act less than three years later?
Well, it was just the period, you know. We were just lucky that it all happened like that. It just was what it was. I mean, the fucking Ramones certainly, you know, should've had the same, you know . . . I mean, in a way they do, but they never made as much money on paper as we did. I mean, they have a huge following and were completely influential, it's just ironic that they had a different kind of focus. But how? It was just the time and all that stuff. It was a lucky period in New York, and now you're going to get into New York real estate. That's the next fucking thing, you know.
Okay, so let's talk about New York real estate. You grow up in Brooklyn. When do you move to Manhattan?
I think I got my first apartment in like '69, '70.
And where was that?
First Avenue and First Street. The funeral home was still there. And then the bathhouse was like the first gay bathhouse in the city. That used to be right there, but I can't remember what the name of it was at the time.
And how long did you stay there?
I was there a long time, on and off, and then Tommy Ramone took over that apartment and Dee Dee and Tommy lived there. And Eric Emerson lived there too. Then when I met Debbie I started living over on the West Side with her.
Okay, I'm not exactly sure how to ask this question, but when you and Debbie move to the West Side, is that more like an apartment where it would be okay to bring your mom over for a visit?
You know, it was totally fucking mean streets there. It was completely that, you know, cache was going on. It was exactly what's in the film with all the fucking social clubs and stuff like that. So eventually we were sort of like, you know, blacklisted in the neighborhood because we were just too weird. What happened was I was waiting for Debbie to come home one day and I was downstairs and I had like super long hair and used to wear fucking make-up and all this shit, so everybody thought we were completely weird but we still got along with the super of the building and all the people and stuff. I was waiting for Debbie to come home, and across the street is a bunch of the neighborhood guys kicking this shit out of this black guy, right, for whatever reason. You know, just for the hell of it. Because he was in the neighborhood probably. And I'm just observing this and I hear a voice going, 'No, no. Stop. Call the police.' And it's fucking Debbie who has just arrived on the scene from visiting her parents, and after that we were like ostracized. Nobody wanted the stigma. We weren't a part of the crowd.
Where on the West Side was this?
Did you move again after Parallel Lines hit?
Yeah, then we moved to 58th and 7th. We got Lillian Roth's old apartment which was a penthouse at 200 West 58th Street which cost $500.
But my uncle had to co-sign the lease. Then my mother took that over and then I couldn't get it back. The fucking agency wouldn't give it to me, of course, because I would've had to have lived there for two years. Which I didn't.
And when did you finally leave the city?
Just six, seven years ago finally. I had a really nice loft on Greenwich Street, but we were right in the fucking thing when the Trade Center blew up. We were right in the front lines there. I had like a 4000 square foot loft with a street entrance. It was like a thousand bucks for ten years, and then it went up to five thousand bucks. It was like ridiculous. That was the end of it.
So leaving was as much financial as it was the Trade Center?
I'm annoyed, as probably a lot of other people. The people who helped build the cache of the city are all priced out of it, you know. That's a drag. They have that artist's building on 42nd Street, but you know . . .
Has Blondie played Times Square before?
Yeah, we played at Bond's. We played there.
That was the location of the big Clash stand.
Yeah. Right, right. And we played at Roseland a bunch of times, I think. You know what I just discovered is the New York Times, you go on their website you can order photos from them. And I had this front page picture of a guy on the Ivory Coast throwing a Molotov cocktail clipped out for the like the last five, six years, and I just ordered a print of it. For like 175 bucks you get an 11 x 14 print of the fucking photo. If the photos have a New York Times credit on the bottom you can order a copy of it.
That's cool. Where will you hang a photo of a Molotov cocktail-throwing man from the Ivory Coast?
I don't know. I've got a photo collection. Did you see about the Weegee pictures? That they just found them?
Yep. In Kentucky.
Yeah, I just found out because I've got a bunch of Weegee pictures that I bought from these guys. Daniel Wolf Gallery. I don't know if you know that name, but those guys bought like a thousand or so pictures from a wire service in 1980 maybe, '81. And they knew what they were and they probably only bought them for like a thousand bucks, and then they sold them for a hundred bucks each. And they all have his writing on them and the stamps and the whole shit, so I bought a little collection of his things. Now it's like a whole fucking thing.
So you're a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And that wasn't around when you started . . .
Yeah, right. That's my . . . I'm ambivalent about it at best, you know. I mean, it's okay. If it was something that was going since the '50s it would have a different thing.
So if Blondie hadn't gotten in, it wouldn't have been like a void in your career.
Absolutely not. You know, my feelings about it are like, you know, it's a big commercial endeavor. It's not the same as other things. It's not like getting the Pulitzer Prize or something.
So what is the highlight? When your daughters have kids and you get to be a grandfather and their children crawl up into your lap . . .
Probably these dumb little records like we have. We're the only band to have a number one and two back to back on WABC Radio besides the Beatles. Debbie is the oldest woman with a number one song in the UK. There's a lot of shit like that, you know.
And those are the stories that you'll tell.
Yeah, and we have like six, seven number ones in the UK and four here. If we have one more number one in the UK, we'll be the only band to have one in three decades, I think.
Is Blondie still as strong or stronger in the UK as you are in the States?
We go to the UK like every year and do that summer festival routine.
I attribute it a lot to the national music press over there, because there's no equivalent thing in America, you know. That's why all those fads come and go so quickly there. You know, everybody in the country overnight would know about what was going on in London, and what the popular thing of the week was. And here it's regional and bigger and all this stuff. But the fans there are very dedicated and they do have a longer memory, it seems, than in America.
What do your audiences expect from you now?
I don't know, you know. I think they come a lot based on their memories and stuff like that. I mean, songs have a lot to do with what they, you know, evoke in the listener and what the associations are. It's partially that, maybe, for the older people. The kids . . . There's always been a do-it-yourself quality to Blondie. I mean, everybody really knows that we weren't the product of stylists and all those other kinds of junk. It's always been a homemade thing, so I think people like that.
So it's the 30th anniversary of your best-selling album and you're going to play it from start to finish at every show. Is Parallel Lines Blondie's best moment? Is it Blondie's best album?
I kind of like Autoamerican because I had more to do with that. I was the one who picked "Tide Is High." That's the only song I was sure was going to be a hit beforehand. I mean, I knew that if we recorded that song that it would be a hit, but that was because of what we were doing and, you know, what position we were in and because it said "number one" in the chorus and all this stuff, you know.
So two years from now when you're doing the 30th anniversary of Autoamerican we'll do this again and we'll compare Cormac McCarthy notes.
Yeah, we'll see how he's doing. I hope he sticks around long enough to write a few more novels.
Blondie plays the Nokia Theatre in Times Square on Sunday, June 22.
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