Debbie Harry on the Party That Birthed Blondie

Debbie Harry on the Party That Birthed Blondie

Harry and Chris Stein discuss the CBGB scene, as captured in Stein's new tome.

Harry and Chris Stein discuss the CBGB scene, as captured in Stein's new tome.

Text: Devin Barrett

This interview appears in the pages of V116, our Winter 2018 issue, hitting newsstands on November 8. Pre-order your copy of V116 at shop.vmagazine.com today! 

In his new book, photographer and Blondie guitarist Chris Stein shines a light on the birthplace of Blondie—the downtown New York club scene of the 70s and 80s, where those in search of a good time could be at Studio 54 one night and CBGB the next. Here, he and Blondie cofounder Debbie Harry reflect on this largely bygone social scene, in which biker gangs and drag queens rubbed shoulders, and the biggest pop-punk band of the 20th century was born.

Chris Stein In retrospect I wish I had taken more pictures. I would frequently go to a concert, or something like that and I would have to decide if I wanted to deal with a camera or not, and sometimes I’d just say, “Oh forget it, I’m just going to go and have a good time and not deal with it.” I never took pictures of Studio 54, though. We’d go out and there would be tons of photographers there.

Debbie Harry We met at Bobern Tavern at a Stilettos show. It was a rather incestuous, small scene at the time. And CBGB had just started having [rock] bands. Up until that time it had been more bluegrass and folk, and occasionally comedy. There was no interest from record companies. The audiences were small, intimate. We would invite friends. It started with the Warhol Factory, and grew from there. And then it opened up when the Ramones got into town. Talking Heads moved from Providence to the Bowery, where I lived.

CS I only remember a handful of specific parties because it was just ongoing. There was a great scene over there at 82 Club. It was a drag club at first. It was always a party—very unique. It was very funky and old school, with fake palm trees and glitter curtains. But Mafia guys would go there.

DH The back section of the 82 Club had all these black-and-white glossy photos of different artists, like Abbott and Costello, comedy and magic acts.

CS There was a picture of Abbott and Costello with drag queens that I always thought was amazing. These big, tall go-go drag queens.

DH That was the kind of acts 82 Club had. It had a very naughty reputation. I think that was why people would go there. It was risqué, edgy, and not common at all. And the club was run by Tommy, who was a woman, very butch. And because of the growing scene, they started having bands there as well.

CS The [New York] Dolls played there a lot. Once while wearing dresses. We played there. I think we opened up for the Dolls once or twice, too. I think that’s when Clem [Burke] first saw us play.

DH At that point, it was no longer the same kind of drag club. And it certainly wasn’t a Mafia hangout; we took it over. The bands made it a different place. It was a very smart move on Tommy’s part to reidentify.

CS The area was in the middle of empty lots, garages, gas stations. It wasn’t a fancy neighborhood; nothing like the New York of today.

The CBGB font was the same as the font for the Hell’s Angels biker gang, who were headquartered nearby. I’m not sure how many people recognized that, because by the time we started going there, I’m not sure it was even a biker scene. It was just a very social scene. Ten years later, people were still hanging out on cars in front of CBGB.

DH One night we invited everyone that was hanging out over to our loft on the Bowery. We had this enormous party with the band, friends, girlfriends. It just went on and on. Clem had come back from England with the Dr. Feelgood album, which we had been playing. It was a big moment. Everyone was really excited about hearing this. At the time it was a breakthrough sound.

CS The loft was also definitely haunted. All of that kind of textbook stuff went on, things getting knocked off shelves, tapping in the walls.

This was the last big music movement before the digital era maybe on the hardcore scene and the old stuff that came out of CBGB. It was just so different; it took years before we got any attention. That made a difference in the quality. Now as soon as something happens everyone knows about it immediately. 

DH I also think that people felt intimately involved. It had that enveloping atmosphere because you felt like you were a part of something. That’s a very attractive feeling; it’s a very seductive feeling.

As told to Devin Barrett

Photography Chris Stein from Point of View (Rizzoli)

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