Brooklyn native Chris Stein played in bands as a teenager (including a memorable opening gig for the Velvet Underground in 1967), before cofounding Blondie with Debbie Harry in 1974 and documenting the punk scene with his camera.
MacDougal Street intersected with the park on its south side, creating a critical mass that included Wendy Clarke, the daughter of Shirley Clarke, who was another regular at Washington Square Park. “It was such a mixture of gay and straight and black and white,” she said. “You talked to anybody and everybody, and there was a lot of hanging out on the street. I loved walking around the Village, barefoot.” Back when Debbie Harry began catching the bus from New Jersey to wander the streets of Greenwich Village, Chris Stein (her eventual boyfriend and Blondie cofounder) was taking the subway to hang out in the area. “I used to come in from Brooklyn a lot,” said Stein, who would not meet Harry until 1973. “It was an interesting time, right after the Beatles came along. We used to play Washington Square, just hanging out there playing banjo and finger-picking stuff. We went to the clubs there to see groups, all that folk stuff.” When the city passed an ordinance banning musical performances in the park, the folk crowd pushed back hard. “There was the New York Mirror headline, 3,000 beatniks riot in village, on the front page,” recalled Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein. “That was for the right to sing in the square, and we won. So that became a huge gathering place, huge.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Debbie Harry loved songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” when she was young, and learned a lot about singing from listening to them. “Their lyrical themes were a little bit different than sort of what I ended up with,” she recalled. “They were all sort of a smitten and slightly abused from love, relationships. And I think my position was a little bit more sneering.” One group she was drawn to was the Shangri-Las, a 1960s girl group from Queens who became punk favorites (they even reunited for a show at CBGB later in the 1970s). They sang gum-smacking odes to rebel boys, eschewing feminine clothes and copping some serious ’tude in their tunes—which often strayed into unladylike territory. “When I was a kid I thought the Shangri-Las were too commercial,” Blondie’s Chris Stein said, “but then later on it just clicked and I realized how awesome it was. I still think they’re incredible.” That 1960s girl group was one of the common musical denominators that Blondie shared, and drummer Clem Burke explained the Shangri-La’s proto-punk appeal: “They had their black leather vests and their tight black leather pants, and they sang ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss.’ They sang about dirty fingernails, wavy hair, and leather jackets, and things like that.” The Shangri-Las cast a long shadow over glam and punk rock. The New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss” borrowed the spoken word intro from their “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” and another Dolls song, “Trash,” copped the campy “How do you call your lover boy?” line from “Love Is Strange,” a catchy 1956 hit by Mickey & Sylvia. The group’s final album, Too Much Too Soon, was produced by Shadow Morton, who had crafted the girl group classics “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” for the Shangri-Las.
The Velvet Underground won over future Blondie cofounders Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who saw them on separate occasions around 1967. “The stage was bright and colorful and beautiful,” Harry said of a show she saw not long after she moved to the Lower East Side. “I remember Nico was wearing a chartreuse outfit and it was stunning. It was just beautiful to look at, as well as to hear, and I remember Andy being there in the balcony. Andy Warhol was running the lights, and it was just this beautiful burst of colors and vibrations. The projections behind them were just so lovely and impressionistic, but also dark and scary at the same time. I guess I was drawn to the darkness.” Stein and his teenage pals loved the group’s debut album, and one day in 1967 they realized every garage band’s dream: opening for the Velvet Underground. “My friend Joey Freeman’s job was basically to go wake up Andy at his house,” Stein recalled, “and one day he told me that the band that was supposed to open for the Velvet Underground had cancelled. We just went up there, set up, and played at a place called the Gymnasium.” That casual pickup band was sometimes known as First Crow on the Moon, which Stein didn’t really take seriously, but the show itself was a life-changing event. “That Velvet Underground show was completely awesome, in every sense of that word,” Stein said. “It was just overpowering.”
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“That’s what Blondie came out of—we all had that influence,” said Debbie Harry, referring to the Velvets and the Warhol scene. “Chris [Stein] and I came from an art background, and it’s part of the way we think. There was also our association with Warhol, and Chris was really friendly with William Burroughs. Chris went to art school, and would either have become a photographer or a painter—and then the music evolved.” Andy Warhol and his collaborators regularly blurred the lines between the mainstream and margins—such as the time when the Velvet Underground appeared at “Freak-Out ’66,” with Warhol doing lights. The music festival’s lineup included Lower East Side noise anarchists the Godz, Top 40 girl groups the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, and baroque pop one-hit wonder the Left Banke, of “Walk Away Renée” semi-fame. (Coincidentally, the Left Banke was formed from the ashes of the Morticians, another Brooklyn band that Chris Stein played in as a teen.) Fans who went to check out the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las surely were in for a surprise with the Velvets’ musical dissonance.
When compared to Wayne County, both Lou Reed and David Bowie seemed as transgressive as the era’s most chaste pop act, Donny and Marie Osmond. While working for MainMan, Tony Zanetta cooked up a plan to manage County. With the New York Dolls monopolizing the downtown rock ’n’ roll spotlight with their own drag act, Zanetta figured that the only way to set County apart from her peers was a full-blown theatrical show. This led to Wayne at the Trucks, staged at Westbeth Theatre. “The Trucks” refers to one of Zanetta’s favorite downtown hotspots—a gay cruising area at the end of Christopher Street, by the Hudson River, where delivery trucks parked at the piers. He and County came up with the idea of setting the show at the Trucks while having lunch: “Well, it should be kind of Gidget Goes to Hawaii,” Zanetta said, “like, Wayne Goes to the Trucks.” They rented a theater for a week for rehearsals and one performance, and brought in Tony Ingrassia to direct the show. At the beginning of the show, County clicked the heels of a couple fabulous platform boots—with a realistic looking penis that curled up in front, like Persian-style “genie” shoes—it cued her offstage band (the Backstreet Boys) to start rocking. Play-House of the Ridiculous musicals usually placed the musicians to the side of the stage, an idea that County borrowed for this show and was later adapted by Bowie. “In a way,” Zanetta said, “Wayne at the Trucks was a little bit of a rehearsal for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, because Bowie wanted to do this theatrical tour but we weren’t sure how to stage it.” As Blondie’s Chris Stein recalled, “It was one of the first times that a rock show was done with a band out of sight. Many people think that was a big influence on the Diamond Dogs tour, where Bowie was onstage with a band behind a screen.”
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Andy Warhol discovered Eric Emerson dancing at a 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, he was promptly cast in The Chelsea Girls and several other Factory films. By 1971, Emerson had become the frontman of one of New York’s earliest glam rock bands, the Magic Tramps. He would wear giant glittery angel wings and other eye-popping accouterments onstage; when he chose not to wear clothes he just showered himself in gold glitter dust that flaked off when he flexed his muscles—lasciviously staring at some of the boys in the audience. “Eric Emerson was this beautiful blond boy,” said Jim Fouratt, who used to see him in the back room of Max’s Kansas City. “First of all, he was working class. He wasn’t a rich kid. And he was very pretty, but he was also very strong—handsome, sexy, sort of masculine.” The Magic Tramps started a residency at Max’s in early 1971 after owner Mickey Ruskin gave them access to the upstairs room, which had largely gone unused since the Velvet Underground played their final gigs with Lou Reed a year earlier. The Magic Tramps outgrew Max’s as the city’s glam rock scene flowered, so Emerson scouted for a new space to play and stumbled across the fledgling Mercer Arts Center. Emerson helped fix up Mercer’s in exchange for rehearsal space, and when it officially opened in November 1971 his band performed regular cabaret sets in the venue’s Blue Room. “I met Eric when I went to see the Dolls for the first time,” Blondie’s Chris Stein recalled. “The whole scene was very accessible, hanging out backstage and all that. Eric was a great character.” Stein became the Magic Tramps’ informal roadie after he booked them to play a Christmas party at the School of Visual Arts, where he was a student, and the two became roommates in a welfare apartment on First Street and First Avenue.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
One of Suicide’s earliest shows was in 1970 at OK Harris, one of the first galleries to open in SoHo. It was owned by Ivan Karp, an art dealer who played an early role in promoting Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. “I told him Suicide should play at his gallery,” Vega said, “and to our surprise he said yes, and they printed up postcards and everything saying Punk Music by Suicide. It was a pretty intense show, but we got invited back, even though we freaked everyone out.” The OK Harris show flyer contained the first use of the word “punk” by a band, one of the many ways in which Suicide was truly cutting edge. “I remember seeing Alan Vega around the scene very early on,” said Chris Stein. “Suicide was so groundbreaking, it’s hard to convey how far ahead they were in relation to what was going on at the time.” Debbie Harry added, “As a performer, Alan was sometimes a baffling struggle of danger, drama, pathos, and comedy. He held nothing back from us, and the interaction with audience hecklers was fundamental.” Not only was their music radically different from the New York Dolls, so was their look. “We were street guys, we took what we could get, sometimes from the garbage,” Vega said. “I remember Marty [Rev] went through the trash and other thrift store or Salvation Army type stuff, mainly out of necessity. We didn’t have any money, so what became the punk look was born out of necessity. I cut holes in socks so that my fingers went through and I stretched the socks up to my elbows and had a cutoff pink jacket. That was really something, man! Basically, I just wore what I could afford. I’m not sure really what the fuck I was thinking.”
There were few places to present video in the early 1970s, aside from screening venues like the Kitchen (in the Mercer Arts Center) and the pirate broadcasts of Lanesville TV. Into this vacuum emerged public access channels on cable television. In the early 1970s, public access stations began popping up around the country, channeling underground culture into people’s living rooms. Before Chris Stein cofounded Blondie in 1974, the guitarist collaborated with his friend Joey Freeman and some former members of the Cockettes on a public access show called Hollywood Spit. “It was the four of them—Fayette Hauser, Tomata du Plenty, Gorilla Rose, Screaming Orchids,” he said. “They considered themselves kind of the Drag Beatles. We just edited in the camera, carefully in sequence, as we were shooting, and it was just a weird, ahead-of-its-time drag situation comedy. Unfortunately, the tapes were destroyed in a fire in my friend’s loft.” Interview magazine contributor Anton Perich—who documented the scenes at Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Art Center with his Super 8 film and Portapak video camera—also began making his own public access show, Anton Perich Presents, which debuted in January 1973. “Video was the freshest flower in the machine garden, fragrant and black and white,” he said. “The Portapak was this miraculous machine in a miraculous epoch. It was truly a revolutionary instrument. I was ready for revolution.” In one infamous episode of Anton Perich Presents, downtown scenester (and soon-to-be Ramones manager) Danny Fields acted out a scene in which he tried to cure a television repairman’s hemorrhoids by inserting a lubricated lightbulb into his anus. “The show was censored during the cablecast,” Perich recalled. “They inserted a black screen and Muzak. It was the biggest scandal. Every major media outlet did a story about it.”
From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Looking to bring in new customers, the management inverted its name from the 82 Club to Club 82 and began booking underground rock bands like the New York Dolls, the Stilettoes, Wayne County, and Television. David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Bryan Ferry would also drop by when it was operating as an after-hours club (County recalled that Club 82 was where Reed met Rachel Humphries, the transgender woman who was his live-in lover for three or four years in the 1970s). “It was basically geared to look like a scene from Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret,” Paul Zone said, describing its elongated stacked stage, glittery curtains, and fake palm trees. “It was for drag shows—so the stage was elongated—but it was basically a basement.” Blondie’s Chris Stein added, “The most impressive thing it had was a photo wall in back. There was a photo of Abbott and Costello with a bunch of drag queens, which I thought was utterly amazing.” The butch lesbian bouncer rocked a classic 1950s DA haircut and wore a white T‑shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, which added to the venue’s eclectic atmosphere. Club 82’s mix of theatricality and gender-bending made sense, given that it was located next to La MaMa. Off-Off-Broadway and underground rock audiences often overlapped during the first half of the 1970s, especially when local bands such as the New York Dolls or Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys began playing at Club 82. Aside from a few bands that played there, by this point it had evolved into a shoddy underground disco. “It was a basement club, and this was the age of disco,” recalled the Cockettes’ Pam Tent. “Lights and glitter everywhere. Alice Cooper was there, Jobriath was there, Lou Reed was there. Everybody who was anybody in New York would turn up the 82 Club, and we all would do cocaine and dance all night.”’
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
As an adult, Debbie Harry cultivated her theatrical sensibility while working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, witnessing Jackie Curtis and others’ backroom shenanigans and learning several lessons from the Off-Off-Broadway world. “I approached the songs from kind of an acting perspective,” she said. “With each song, I could be a new character.” One of those characters was inspired by the streets of New York, where truck drivers and construction workers used to yell “Hey, Blondie!” at her. Harry eventually appropriated this catcall as the name of her onstage alter ego. “I originally saw Blondie as something like a living cartoon character,” she said. “I was thinking pop. The band was always into that pop aesthetic—B movies, comic books, combining pop culture and art and rock ’n’ roll and dance music. Mainly, I wanted the Blondie character to be funny and sassy and colorful.” Harry augmented her ratty blonde hair with thrift store clothes and cheap sling-back shoes, a style that was influenced by the drag queens they hung around with. “Her look definitely came from that trash aesthetic,” said Chris Stein. “It came from the Dolls and that whole scene, and all that came from Jackie Curtis.” When Harry became an international superstar, many of the straight guys who pinned her posters to their walls had no idea they were lusting after the image of a woman imitating men who were dressed as women. Onstage, Harry often played the straight role of a hot and horny woman, but she also broke character to reveal how femininity was just a performance, an act. “Blondie, as a character, was kind of bisexual or transsexual, and would change perspectives,” she said. “Or sometimes she would observe things from a third person point of view. Blondie was always morphing and taking on a new identity from song to song.” Her emphasis on acting over authenticity—fragmentation over cohesion—reflected what was happening around her in the underground theater scene. Harry’s image was an assemblage of tropes drawn from glamorous 1940s Hollywood starlets, seedy 1950s pinups, sneering 1960s rock rebels, and in-your-face 1970s glam queens.
Just as Eric Emerson had helped kick-start the scene at the Mercer Arts Center by offering his carpentry skills to fix up the venue, he did much the same for Kristal back when it was Hilly’s (Kristal didn’t change the name to CBGB until late 1973). Emerson frequented the Hells Angels clubhouse and spent time in the area, and around 1972 he convinced Kristal to let him and his Magic Tramps bandmate Sesu Coleman build a small stage there. “I saw the Magic Tramps at CBGB before I saw them at Mercer’s,” said Chris Stein, “though it might not have been called CBGB at that point, maybe it was still called Hilly’s on the Bowery. I just randomly walked into the bar and saw them play.” Between 1972 and 1973, Suicide, the Magic Tramps, Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth, and a variety of other downtown musicians performed on that stage.
CBGB had been around since 1969 in an earlier incarnation, Hilly’s on the Bowery, which was named after owner Hilly Kristal. He began his nightlife career in 1959 as the manager of the jazz club the Village Vanguard, and went on to open Hilly’s on East Thirteenth Street, where he booked folk and blues acts throughout the 1960s. Like many in the downtown’s bohemian circles, Kristal put down roots on the east side. “One of the drinking places we went to when I was doing shows at the Old Reliable was a place called Hilly’s on the Bowery,” recalled playwright Michael McGrinder. “It was a big, big, place. One day there was a new sign outside and it said, CBGB & OMFUG. I said to Hilly, ‘What’s going on? What do those letters mean?’ He said, ‘CBGB—Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.’ I don’t know if it was a whim or what the hell was going on, but Hilly couldn’t put his name to anything because he had no credit left in the world. Everything was in his wife Karen’s name.”
Future Blondie members Clem Burke and Gary Valentine also hung out there when they were crashing at a friend’s storefront pad. “I was living in New York,” Valentine said, “and I was basically leading a kind of decadent juvenile delinquent life in the East Village. I was hanging out at Club 82 prior to when I was playing in Blondie.” Burke played drums in a band called Sweet Revenge, which sometimes performed at Club 82, where they covered David Bowie and Mott the Hoople songs mixed with some originals. “One of our big songs was called ‘Fuck the World,’ ” Burke said, “which was kind of punk rock.” Paul Zone, who would join his brothers’ group the Fast in 1976, was also at that Dolls performance at Club 82. It was there that he met Harry and Stein, as well as Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman—all of whom would go on to play a big role in his life. “We all met at that Dolls show,” Zone recalled. “That was one of my first times with Kristian, at a Dolls show.” Hoffman added, “Paul and his brothers knew who we were, like, ‘Oh, it’s An American Family!’ Something like that. So Paul just came up and just started talking to us. Paul wasn’t in the Fast yet. He was kind of like the designer-manager person for the band.” Also in attendance was Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB and shot album cover photos for the Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Bayley had recently moved from London to New York and heard about the New York Dolls, but hadn’t yet seen them. “It just happened that the Dolls were playing directly downstairs from the loft where a friend of a friend lived on East Fourth Street,” she said. “That was Club 82.”
Noting that Blondie absorbed some disco influences at Club 82, drummer Clem Burke said, “The music that they would play at Club 82 in between sets would be like ‘Rock the Boat’ or ‘Shame, Shame, Shame,’ and all this dance music. The whole disco scene was going on simultaneously to the punk scene.” Early discos and punk clubs often coexisted in the same downtown neighborhoods and occupied similar kinds of spaces: lofts, storefronts, basements, and bars. But, of course, only one of these subcultures was praised by rock critics. Most white male rock writers turned a blind eye to disco’s subcultural leanings, or were outright hostile to the music and its fans. Many of these same critics also helped popularize a macho, cartoonish version of punk that had little to do with the much more artistic, gay scene that originated downtown. The fact that Blondie eventually crossed over with their disco hit “Heart of Glass” underscores how Lower Manhattan incubated several musical-cultural movements throughout the 1970s. An important early disco known as the Loft was originally located just a few blocks from CBGB, and many downtown gay bars and discos hosted punk shows. “Blondie used to play with the Ramones and lots of our other friends in gay clubs and drag clubs,” Burke said, “and the music that was playing was dance music. I always point out that disco music was probably more subversive than punk rock. That whole lifestyle—the underground clubs, the gay culture, the leather scene—all that stuff revolved around disco. Before it became Studio 54, it was an underground phenomena in New York gay clubs. That was definitely a left-of-center movement, the same way punk was.”
Bands bounced back and forth between CBGB and Max’s, as well as lesser known venues like Mother’s—a gay bar near the Chelsea Hotel where Suicide, the Fast, Ramones, and Blondie played. In the punk scene’s early days, well before the genre’s loud-hard-fast formula was established, bands were free to pursue their own unique paths. There was no unified sound or style, but by 1977 the music would be widely known as “punk”—a useful catchall term for critics and journalists, but one that flattened the nuances that existed among a diverse range of downtown musicians.