Blondie’s Chris Stein Still Making Waves 40 Years Later
By Jaime Lees
Tue., Jun. 30 2015
For Chris Stein, music and photography have always been married. When he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York during the late ’60s, he made it his mission to document downtown culture. As luck would have it, that culture just happened to include a music scene that was on the brink of an international explosion.
“What I tell friends now, or photographers: Just take pictures of your friends, because you never know what’s going to happen,” he says.
It’s fitting that the Brooklyn native and icon of the CBGB scene is speaking to us about his body of work while walking the noisy streets of New York. As the guitarist for Blondie, Stein is often credited with bringing a fresh take to the city’s burgeoning ’70s punk scene. His musical instincts propelled the band well past its hybrid new-wave beginnings, and together the group explored elements of rap, disco, reggae and even saccharine girl-group sounds. The result was a genre-busting mixture of oddly seductive, delightfully bratty and distinctly catchy pop songs that still defy classification.
“I don’t know if we thought of ourselves as Renaissance people back then, but that was part of the equation, somewhat,” Stein says. “Everybody was just doing more than one thing pretty consistently. I guess some of the people were just doing music, but a lot of people I knew were doing more than one thing.”
Stein does more than one thing, too. Most recently he has received high praise for his photography book, Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk. Released late last year, Negative shows how Stein’s keen eye, coupled with unfettered access, made him one of the most celebrated and consistently reliable custodians of the era. The book contains hundreds of photos that archive the scene and people Stein encountered, focusing heavily on the undeniably photogenic Debbie Harry — singer for Blondie and Stein’s then-girlfriend.
The son of painter mother and a “frustrated writer” father, Stein describes his parents as “very supportive.”
“It was kind of a lower-middle-class artistic upbringing,” he says. “They got me my first guitar when I was twelve, and that was it.”
It’s been more than 40 years since CBGB opened and almost nine years since it closed. The Lower East Side has been scrubbed clean and Stein’s hair is now Andy Warhol silver, but the man retains the same spongelike attributes that helped to make him a world-famous musician. Though the 65-year-old admits to spending “too much time sitting around and watching TV” (Game of Thrones is a favorite), he still finds plenty of time to explore new projects. He claims that his creative drive comes in spurts, but it seems that something inside of him is always taking notes for future artistic purposes.
Stein credits his constant curiosity and energy to his young daughters.
“I have the same inner conflicts as everybody else,” he says. “I have to force myself to get motivated and move forward. I have two little kids now — it’s a whole different thing dealing with those guys. They definitely keep me in a younger frame of mind because I have to deal with them physically all the time.”
He keeps up with newer trends, too.
“I really like Instagram. I deal with that a lot, and there is a lot of amazing photography on there,” he says. “That’s always inspiring. A lot of street photography. And it’s really coming up now with the ease of taking sneaky pictures of people. Everybody wanders around staring at their phones and taking pictures of people at the same time.”
While he concedes he isn’t as active hunting for new music as he is with photography — “It’s just too much shit to plow through. It’s kind of overwhelming to go out seeking stuff,” he explains — Stein has found a new obsession in today’s Latin music, including reggaeton, cumbia and Latin electronica. He confesses that his Spanish is pretty lousy but says that he responds to “the musicality of it. The melodies and stuff. It’s beautiful. Reggaeton is really hard-edged — it’s a great combination of the hard-edged dance music with these beautiful melodies.”
Stein rejects his generation’s tradition of writing off all modern music.
“You hear it all the time: ‘There’s no good music now.’ But there is,” he insists. “It’s 50 percent garbage, but it was always 50 percent garbage. In the ’60s…nobody remembers the crap; they just remember the good stuff.”
Blondie at Fair St. Louis
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 3. The Budweiser Stage in Forest Park, 5595 Grand Drive. Free.
Bob Gruen Is a Rock & Roll Primary Source
By Jaime Lees
Thursday, Nov 10 2011
New York-based photographer Bob Gruen is a rock & roll icon. From photographing some of the earliest concerts of Ike and Tina Turner to chronicling months on tour with bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Gruen has done it all. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, capturing loving and candid shots of both emerging and established artists including the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith and New York Dolls.
Decades of constant documenting yielded many famous photographs and subjects, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Gruen befriended the couple in their New York years and shot some of the most iconic, enduring photos of Lennon, among them the one of Lennon wearing the sleeveless New York City ringer T-shirt and the photo where he’s flashing the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Gruen’s newest book, Rock Seen, serves as a collection of the photographer’s favorite shots from throughout his 40-year career — he also wrote captions and included behind-the-scenes stories to accompany the photographs. We spoke to Gruen in advance of his appearance this week at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and asked him about his work habits, past projects and plans for the future.
Jaime Lees: Part of what I like about your work is that you seem to be a fan first, and I think that it shows in your photos.
Bob Gruen: Yes, well, that’s because I didn’t choose to have a career. I was a child of the ’60s. You know, “Turn on, tune in and drop out”? And I did. I lived with a rock & roll band because I like rock & roll music, and I tend to be friends with musicians and performers and artists. And when they got a record deal the company used my pictures. And then they hired me to take more pictures, and every time I would go and do that I’d meet more people who would hire me to do more photos. And I just kind of fell into this career of rock photography. It wasn’t something I sought out — I really wasn’t planning to have any career. I was pretty aimless as a kid. I really wasn’t expecting much to happen. [Laughs] I couldn’t really do a nine-to-five. Like, my parents were sort of trying to get me into a nine-to-five office career, which didn’t appeal to me at all, especially the nine o’clock part. [Laughs] So that’s why I was living with a rock band, and it just kind of turned out that that’s what I was suited for and that’s what I ended up doing.
In spite of myself I have a strong work ethic. I figured out what it is: It’s because I really don’t like to work. And until I finish something, I feel that I’m working because I live in my studio. And if I came home at night and the film wasn’t developed, I’d have to do it the next day, and I had other things to do the next day. So I’d tend to go out and spend the night hanging out with friends and drinking and carrying on, and then I’d come home, and it’s four or five o’clock in the morning, and I’d develop the film.
How do you decide where you’re going to go shoot if you’re not on assignment?
Oh, if I’m not on assignment, I go to see friends or bands that friends recommend, pretty much. I’m not really looking for the next big thing. I never was. Usually the bands that I like don’t make it. [Laughs]
I still go out all the time, but I don’t work as much as I used to. Photography has changed nowadays; it’s much more accessible, so a lot more people are involved in photography. A lot more groups are doing their own work; a lot of groups are much more restrictive. Record companies got much more corporate, and they want to own the images.
And you have less access now.
Yeah, they control the access a lot more, and it’s not as interesting for me. They came up with a three-song rule, where you’re only allowed to take pictures for the first three songs of a group, and I was never into it in that sense of just being on assignment to take a picture of a guy onstage to show what color shirt he’s wearing. To me, I was always more involved as a fan, as somebody who really likes the music, and I wanted to capture the feeling and the passion of what’s going on. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen in the first three songs. Usually in the last three songs, not the first ones. [Laughs] When all of the lights are on, and all of the effects that the band has brought with them are on, and the band is really putting it all out, and the audience is really pumped up, and you have much more excitement and much more feeling — that’s what I’d rather photograph.
I do tend to think of myself as a photojournalist, but I didn’t visit this lifestyle as a journalist. I live this lifestyle, I’ve always been friends with musicians and artists; I feel very comfortable there. So that many times if I had an assignment to go to Madison Square Garden and shoot a band, I’d do that, but after that on my own, as a person, I’d go down to CBGB or Max’s just to hang out. And, you know, I like staying up late. I like going to clubs and hanging out with people, so that wasn’t really an assignment, it was just something I did in my life.
Yeah, you were just kickin’ it. So what’s your next big project?
Well, in December I have to go do an exhibition that we’re putting on in Buenos Aires, sponsored by the American Embassy down there.
Wow! Does it get any bigger than that? I mean, that’s huge!
I don’t know; it’s pretty big. They’ve done more and more events, but not many people in rock & roll are sponsored by the embassy, that’s for sure! But they’re starting to come around. I mean, rock & roll is not teenage music. When Bob Dylan played at Newport, I got my first photo pass there, so I was down front when he played with a rock & roll band, so a lot of people were very upset about that. But over the years I’ve thought about it, and I think what Bob Dylan was doing was kind of making the statement that rock & roll is the folk music of America.
Now we have people like the New York Times recognizing rock & roll; it’s part of our culture. A lot of the magazines did not cover rock & roll or rock stars. There were music magazines, but Life magazine or the New York Times didn’t really review rock & roll at all. Nowadays, you’ll see a review of the Lollapalooza tour or Bonnaroo. We just had the CMJ festival in New York, and there was a big story in the Times about that. It’s becoming more and more regular, but I’m old enough to recognize that it didn’t happen 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Rock & roll was not a part of mainstream culture.
I just met a CEO of a major corporation the other day, and he was telling me about going out just about every night of the week to some different rock show, and he had this big smile like a teenager. And people who are into rock & roll tend to stay young in feeling. It keeps you excited and alive in a sense.
Well, I was at a rock show until 2:30 a.m. last night, and I can’t say that I feel all that excited or alive today…
[Laughs] Well, the next morning is a little difficult, but it is fun at night. I mean, for me rock & roll is about the freedom to express your feelings…loudly. I think that’s what people really like about it.
CBGB’s Final Show With Patti Smith (A.K.A. The Day I Got Covered in Brian Eno’s Sweat)
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Oct. 14 2011
Legendary punk club CBGB closed five years ago tomorrow. In its final week, the venue hosted a string of shows paying tribute its storied thirty year run, and it all culminated with a headlining set from Patti Smith. There were only a couple hundred people lucky enough to get tickets to that last hurrah, and one of them was me.
I don’t really romanticize New York City. I know a lot of people do, but I’m a Midwesterner who likes to drive, hates crowds and has a mild case of germaphobia. Mostly, I’m resentful on principle. I don’t like that one little place gets so much attention when there are plenty of other cool places and people outside of NYC that are rarely recognized.
That said, if I could live in any place and time, the Lower East Side in the 1970s would be a top contender. Maybe I’m a victim of selective history, but I’ve been led to believe that it was a vibrant place full of magic and creativity. And the music! Mercy. Most of my favorite music from that time came out of that little pocket of the world, and at the center of it all was CBGB.
Founded by the Hilly Kristal in 1973, CBGB was originally opened as a country and bluegrass club, but quickly morphed into a place where the mohawked were welcomed. Kristal only had one rule for the club: no cover bands, and bands were encouraged to play music that they wrote. This was intended as a precaution against ASCAP fines, but the rule unintentionally made the venue a receptive to original music. Known mostly as the venue that hosted early gigs by the Ramones (Who I never gave a crap about it. I know, I know. Save it. It’s too late for me.), CB’s also launched Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Cramps and countless other legendary punk and new wave bands.
Sometimes all it takes is one little building to change the world. CBGB stayed open for 33 years as a functioning little rock venue, continuing an open policy and giving hundreds of bands a place to play their first shows. And because of all of the greats that had played the space over the years, touring bands considered it an honor to play the tiny diagonal stage at CB’s and made the venue a priority on tours.
In 2006 some news came that saddened punx the world over: CBGB was going to close. As a result some sort of gentrification disaster and a rent dispute, the club that had helped to build the neighborhood for the past 30-plus years had also built its own displacement. The management at CBGB could no longer afford the rent for its home at 315 Bowery. Kristal hosted various fundraisers, but to no avail. Kristal had cut a deal with his landlord to be able to afford rent during the last year that the club was open, and as a condition of that legal battle he could not attempt to have the venue registered as a historic landmark. Kristal died of lung cancer less than a year later in 2007, prompting many to conclude that he was simply too weak to fight for the place.
CBGB announced a series of shows in the week leading up to the closing night on October 15, 2006. Bands like Bad Brains, the Dictators and Blondie would come out and play to celebrate the place that gave them their start. The headliner for the last night was Patti Smith, one of my all-time favorites. I’d been keeping up with all of the press covering the closure, and I read an article that said that tickets were going on sale the next day. I figured, “Hey, I’ll give it a shot. I mean, somebody has to win the tickets, right?”
So on Sunday, October 1, I woke up and shuffled over to my laptop. As the clock hit selling hour, I was there hitting “reload” on Safari. Just then, the crap internet connection that I was pirating from my neighbor went out. I got back online and tried again. The site crashed. I tried one last time. It was already seven minutes past sale time, but the ticket gods were on my side and a few short minutes later I got a confirmation email. It took a minute to sink in. Wait — did I really just get two of only a couple hundred tickets to the concert event of the decade? I mean, sometimes dreams come true, but this was akin to winning the lottery. I called the ticketing agency to confirm. The guy I got on the phone at customer service laughed at me and asked me to hold while he checked my transaction number. I heard him tap tap tap on his keyboard and then he said, “Holy shit. You got ’em!” followed by “Do you need a date to the show?” I didn’t. I called my friend in NY and passed on the good news: two weeks from this day we were going to see Patti Smith at the last show ever at CBGB. Ten minutes later I had my flight booked to NYC and it was all set. Holy shit is right, my friend.
That night outside CB’s was a madhouse. Though we arrived hours early, the line snaked down around the block. As it turns out, most of these people didn’t have tickets, they were just hoping to get in. From our spot in line at the corner of Bowery and E 1st, we had a good view of the circus under the famous CBCB awning while we waited. There were news trucks everywhere, photographers documenting the scene, journalists with tape recorders interviewing people in line and fans hanging out on the sidewalk just looking for a street party. Details were scarce and the line would take a while. In an attempt to cut off scalpers, the ticketing rules were strict. Two tickets only and no paper tickets at all. If you “got tickets”, your name went on a list at the door and you had to show an ID to gain entry. And because of sound check and photographs that had to be taken, they weren’t going to let the audience in until right before the show started.
Faces I recognized were streaming past, but I couldn’t place most of them. Most of them were older men who were probably in punk bands. Chloe Sevigny (fresh off of her heels-with-rubber-bands fashion statement) was about ten people behind me in line for a bit before she was whisked inside, not to be seen again. It was bitterly cold outside. So cold, in fact, that this night marks the one time in my life that I deigned to wear fleece. And right in front of Chloe, no less! The horror.
Finally, they let us in. We all thawed out quickly; it was already about a million and two degrees inside the venue. We made it to the floor in front, about seven feet from the stage. The music was already starting. We were quickly surrounded by the rest of the crowd. This would be our spot. We would not be able to get a cocktail. We would not be able to visit the bathroom. Not for fear of losing our place, but because it was so packed that we couldn’t move even if we wanted to. I took a deep breath and removed any extra clothing. It was going to be a long night.
I looked around and tried to take in the scene as the show started. Also, I was trying to peep out Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I couldn’t find him, but about five feet to my right was David Fricke of Rolling Stone. He’s tall and his hair is easy to spot. And in front of him was Elijah Wood. This would mark the third out of maybe eight times that I’ve found myself standing next to Elijah Wood at various musical events. Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, SXSW, he’s at all of them. (And I’m taller than him. This is rare.) Also in the house was music industry insider Danny Fields, photographer Bob Gruen, writer Jim Carroll and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads.
Then I saw him. Standing directly behind me was Brian. Motherfucking. Eno. I nearly fainted. I told myself that my eyes were playing tricks on me. I had nearly convinced myself of this, too, until I heard him speak and I took another peek. He was wearing intimidating, industrial strength earplugs. Of course he was! Those ears are like Tiny Turner’s legs or Dolly Parton’s rack — they are his finest and most bankable quality. (Hopefully, they’re also insured.) And when I say that he was right behind me, I mean really right behind me. He was breathing on the back of my neck and the convex curve of his belly was arching perfectly into the small of my back. (Does this read like pornography yet?) We’d only been inside for a few minutes, but everybody in the place was hot, Eno included, and it didn’t take long for his sweat to get all up in my biznass. It was so dreamy…but I must say, Eno’s presence was a point of distraction all night. He was super quiet and low profile, but people kept whispering and pointing at him. But I was in heaven. I was all, “CBGB who? Patti Smith what? I don’t care, I just want Brian Eno to stay pressed against me.”
And then I looked up, and there she was. Patti Smith is an interesting creature. She’s half wise old lady and half wide-eyed little girl, and she’s been like this all of her life. She dresses like a boy, but has always had the strength of a woman. She uses at least five different voices: 1. the sweet, child-like talking voice, 2. the monotone poetry-reading voice, 3. the Dylan-esqe singing voice, 4. the soulful, robust singing voice, 5. the angry, barking rebel voice. She’s both a goddess and a hobo. A wild-haired rock star and an introspective bespectacled poet. Worldly but down-home.
She came on stage with Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, Tony Shanahan and a big smile and started with an impassioned reading of Piss Factory. Her singing started out a little shaky, with a few false starts. It seemed like nerves had gotten the best of Ms. Smith. She apologized, bashfully, and made a joke out of it. (“We’re here to prove that we have not improved”) And then she got back to work. It seemed like she knew that she had a big job to do there that night and she was a little intimidated. But with every song she gained more confidence and soon both she and the crowd were having a good time.
Smith’s personality shown through when she spoke in between songs. She’s all love and praise when she’s telling stories and she has a sweet kind of old timey way of speaking. She says “piana” instead of “piano” and she never, ever pronounces the “g” on anythin’. Sometimes it’s jarring when she goes back to singing because it’s hard to reconcile the difference between the sweet little story-teller and the powerful woman-goddess singer.
Smith was careful to make sure that everyone possible was acknowledged. On top of the cover songs that she and her band played, she read lists and lists of names from the heyday of CBGB. Some on the lists had passed, some were in the audience, some were on the stage. She gave shout-outs to people from both the music and writing world like Richard Sohl, Deborah Harry, Blondie, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, Television, William Burroughs, Nick Tosches, her manager Jane Friedman and tons of others. Smith has always been very concerned with respecting her elders. (And personally, I think she’s a little obsessed with dead guys.)
Once it seemed like her acknowledgment duties were over, she loosened up and the gig turned perfect — even transcendent. During the show, she was joined on stage by both Richard Lloyd from Television and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t even like RHCP, but Flea is such a lovable character. I was thoroughly entertained watching him try to restrain himself and not to “Flea-out” and do that full spine roll head bobbing thing that he is known for. Flea was particularly impressive during the always-creepy “Birdland” where his bass led the band into a crazy, frantic jazz-like ending. Smith repaid him by leading the crowd into singing “Happy Birthday to You” to him on stage — it was his 44th.
Her set included both rarely played older songs and covers of classics from the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” to Television’s “Marquee Moon” to Blondie’s “The Tide is High” to the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” to the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” and the Who’s “My Generation.” She and the band also did a Ramones medley near the end of the set that the crowd loved. Still, the high point of the night for me had to be when she unleashed the musical trifecta of “Free Money” then “Pissing in a River” followed by the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” It was absolutely amazing. Even Brian Eno had to bop around a bit.
Looking back, it’s probably the best show I’ve ever seen. It would have been even if it wasn’t at CBGB, and even if it wasn’t the last ever show at CBGB. I’ve seen Patti Smith quite a few times, and this was the best show that I’ve ever seen her play. It was certainly the most important. I witnessed rock and roll history. Smith was on the cover of the New York Times that I picked up at the airport on the way home the next afternoon — it was a photograph of her taking a photograph of the famous awning.
When I think back on the show, I remember a lot of details (and a lot of Eno), but one thing really stuck with me. Thankfully, recordings from the night allow me to transcribe it here exactly. Smith had told stories of the first time she went to CBGB (Easter night, 1974, to see the third ever Television gig) and about some of her favorite nights at the club. Then she said:
“Now, you know, kids will find some other club. They’ll need some place to play. (boos from audience) Yeah, no! Yeah! Cause that’s what’s supposed to happen! This place is not a fuckin’ temple. It’s just what it is. And the greatest thing about it, and the best way that it can serve the people, is just show an example of what you can do. You just gotta place, just some crappy place, that nobody wants. And you got one guy who believes in you. And you just do your thing. And anybody can do that. Anywhere in the world. Anywhere. Anytime.”