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?
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?"
As we drive out of the city to Massapequa, through the East Village, Chris Stein shows me all the places the Blondies once lived and copped. Noticing CBGB is sparkling white, "Ha! Giuliani made Hilly paint the place!" he laughs. I ask him if a rock scene like the glory days of CBGB could ever happen now. "Financially, forget it. How can you afford to have a rock band and a fucking job in an ad agency? How can you be expected to pull down $1000 a week and be in a rock band? It doesn't work spiritually, financially, or aesthetically." Burke adds, "It's not centralized like the CB's scene was; we used to live like a few blocks away, all the different bands lived there. Today, few artists can survive in New York City." Stein, a former SVA student, complains, "It's totally thoughtless on the part of the powers that be, there's no consideration for the arts. The art scene in Soho is so fucking horrendous the worst it's ever been. Decorator art to match the couch. It has nothing to do with fuckin' art."
But at least, I protest, the music's alive and kicking around St. Marks. Guardians of the faith D Generation just released a new album. Down at the rock & roll club, guys flash hefty baskets, and proud roosters flash their crowns hair teased, spiked, but slicked down around the face. Dirty sweet good-bad grrrls the Prissteens mix girl-group defiance with sex-predator sneering; I once heard them worrying that their size-two pants weren't tight enough. Yet still, as Harry points out, "They all work at other jobs, or they have a whole thing going on that's been flourishing for a while. A kid who comes to town today is going to have to really hustle to meet expenses. I mean, just to have rehearsal space."
By 1 p.m. Monday we're in Massapequa, for Blondie's No Exit in-store signing at Tower Records. The store is overrun by obsessive fans who were children when the band crumbled 17 years ago, the result of infighting, mysterious illness, and bad business. Suburban moms in parkas and black leggings, banana-clipped bi-level cuts, bring in their daughters, six- and nine-year-olds in full parochial-school outfits. With their best manners they ask Ms. Harry for her autograph. They grew up on the music; they know who she is. Body-modified kids mix it up in raggy NIN T-shirts, green spikes, dog collars. Ravers, jocks, even two members of the North Massapequa Fire Department, are making the scene. Cookie from West Babylon says "Heart of Glass" was her first 45, back in seventh grade; she was the only punk in the dark ages, when hair bands ruled Long Island. Most of the fans are in their middle to late twenties, but Brankita, a Lunachicks fan with a Rancid patch, is only 14. She and her 17-year-old sister Michell are Croatian teens from Astoria who cut out from Cathedral to see their idols. They stick around the whole four hours. Blondie's official tour doesn't even begin until late spring; they've only had two shows, one in New York and one in L.A. But they are godz again.
As for me, I'd spent the earlier part of the morning trying to get my hair like Clem Burke's, but it didn't work out. I look like Janet Reno. I need more body, and my color is way off. Sympathetic, Clem advises, "Try Herbatint, it's natural, no ammonia or peroxide." He's got on a navy blue suit, black shirt, maroon tie, black flat boots. The band is total Hilfiger, even the shoes. Burke says, "We told Hilfiger we wanted a Rat Pack look. Our biggest score was getting all these clothes from him for free." Nobody has looked this cool since the Imperial Lords of Coats and Boots (Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan) departed the earth. Chris Stein's silver sharkskin suit even matches his hair. I wanna see all boys in tight black leathers again, Jimmy Destri style. Faux skins are even better PETA is rock & roll! Debbie Harry's elegant new black-on-red diva-slut getup knocks me out. For almost a decade, the asexual, loose-fitting "alternative" regalia of grunge culture cast a dull cloud over American fashion. But I wanna see the body again. Skintight, thigh high. Nipples popping, a nine-inch bulge where size matters, boys. Eyeliner on everyone, mascara too. NY rockers gonna rise again.
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