In the late 1960s, Debbie Harry sang backup vocals in a short-lived hippie band named Wind in the Willows, then quit the group and worked as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City before joining the Stilettoes and eventually cofounding Blondie with Chris Stein.
Much of the pop music Debbie Harry and Patti Smith listened to as adolescents was a product of record companies and song publishers that were located in the midtown area. The music industry was concentrated around the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, which was packed with songwriters who pitched their musical products to hit-seeking record labels. Midtown was also Manhattan’s primary entertainment district, where popular and highbrow fare could be enjoyed in Broadway theaters, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Additionally, the area had several large movie palaces, such as the Bryant Theatre on Forty-Second Street.
From the Introduction of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Debbie Harry grew up in the small idyllic town of Hawthorne, New Jersey, where her parents ran a gift shop and life was dull. “I hated suburbia,” Harry said, “and I always dreamt of having a bohemian life in New York.” At first she found her escape through music, listening to pop songs from an early age, though she didn’t collect records herself. “A friend of mine had a great record collection, and I listened to whatever was on radio,” she said. “I was always changing channels and searching around.” Harry and her friends watched American Bandstand to learn dances like the Hully Gully, the Swim, the Twist, and the Watusi to show off at their school dances. “We also did a lot of slow dancing,” she said, “a lot of grinding, which was always fun, very passionate dancing.” Much of what then dominated American radio was a product of a music business hub known as the Brill Building. It was an office building in midtown Manhattan located at 1619 Broadway, on Forty-Ninth Street and Broadway, that held the offices of several song publishers. The “Brill Building” more generally referred to a cluster of record companies and song publishing businesses found in buildings around the same area—such as 1697 Broadway and, a little to the south, 1650 Broadway. In between was the small Roulette Records building with a neon sign that said home of the hits.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.”
Between 1961 and 1964, MacDougal Street was crawling with coffeehouses that catered to the tourists who came downtown on weekends. Peter Crowley—who later booked Debbie Harry’s and Patti Smith’s bands at Max’s Kansas City during the 1970s—ended up working at one of these tourist traps in 1963 after a stint at the Living Theatre. He was walking down MacDougal Street one day and saw a sign on a coffeehouse window that said Drag Wanted. Crowley inquired inside, wondering what in the world that sign meant, and was told, “Oh, we need somebody to stand outside and drag the tourists in.” “Well, I could do that,” he said, so the manager hired him on the spot. There Crowley was, hustling tourists in front of the Why Not Café, across the street from the more famous Café Wha. “The coffeehouses were fake, where you would just drag the tourists in with the sales pitch, almost like a carnival,” he said. “The opposite was done by the manager of the Café Rafio, who would stand out in front. He looked like a Viking with really long red hair and long red beard. He dressed all in black and would glower at the tourists. So having gone past all these places that tried to drag them in, tourists would see this guy standing at the doorway, giving them dirty looks, and they’d say to each other, ‘Oh, this must be the real place,’ and they would go in there.”
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.
Several future stars and cult artists also passed through Max’s Kansas City. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman worked as busboys, and country singer Emmylou Harris was a waitress in the late 1960s. Jayne County recalled another waitress who “was always stoned and regularly dropped cheeseburgers in people’s laps. Her name was Debbie Harry.” She had sung backup vocals in a short-lived hippie band named Wind in the Willows, then quit the group and worked as a waitress at Max’s. “I had fun and I certainly had friends there,” she said, “but I wasn’t part of the Warhol crowd. I wasn’t part of any single crowd. I was pretty much the fly on the wall, so to speak.” The back room crowd was always trying to one‑up each other and gain Warhol’s attention—like Andrea Whips, who might jump on the table and announce, “It’s SHOWTIME,” then insert a wine bottle in her vagina. “Max’s back room was everything you’d think it would be,” said Play-House of the Ridiculous actor Michael Arian, “with art on the walls and people freaking out and jumping up on the tables, throwing chickpeas everywhere, wagging their feet at people, and fucking on the floor in the back. It was a great place.”
From Chapter 18 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.”
From Chapter 27 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.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Debbie Harry’s campy pre-Blondie group the Stilettoes were right at home performing at Club 82 on a bill with Wayne County. During the early 1950s and 1960s, when it was known as the 82 Club, this Lower East Side venue hosted nightclub revues that attracted A-list stars looking for edgier entertainment. Judy Garland frequented the basement venue and, according to a legendary showbiz rumor, movie star Errol Flynn once unzipped his pants and played the club’s piano with his penis. It had been one of the premier venues for drag queens—who were largely shielded from homophobia behind its closed doors. “I used to go to the 82 Club,” recalled Agosto Machado. “Gray Line Tours used to go down there, and they would advertise female impersonators there with a postcard of the showgirls in costume, which said, ‘Who’s No Lady?’ ” The drag queens who appeared at the 82 Club were relatively traditional—a far cry from the likes of Wayne County and Jackie Curtis, who never bothered passing as “real” women. After Stonewall, gay men no longer felt that they needed to hide behind the closed doors of Mafia-run bars; the crowds at the 82 Club thinned because drag queens could freely camp it up in the streets, and gay culture was also shifting away from a femme aesthetic. “There was a big difference between what had been gay in the fifties,” Tony Zanetta said, “and what gay life was in the late sixties, early seventies. The whole macho man thing emerged. Drag had a special place within gay culture, but after Stonewall it changed. The 82 Club had basically emptied out.” The neighborhood was also deteriorating; the cashier at the nearby corner bodega sat behind an inch of bulletproof Plexiglas, and on one occasion a man was gunned down in front of the 82 Club’s battered steel door.
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.
In 1975, Blondie performed as the backing band in a revival of Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory, with Debbie Harry playing the role of Juicy Lucy and the boys in the band wearing identical blue sharkskin suits that Chris Stein found at a discount store on Broadway. Danny Fields wrote about the show in his SoHo Weekly News column, which was the first time Blondie was mentioned in print. “That was big for us at the time,” Stein recalled, “and we got a lot of attention. We got exposed to a lot of the intelligentsia through that.” Local media outlets like the SoHo Weekly News, Village Voice, and the soon-to-be-launched New York Rocker played a pivotal role in the development of the downtown’s various arts scenes. Influential rock writers like the Voice’s Robert Christgau publicized what was happening and accelerated their momentum, creating a kind of feedback loop. Tony Zanetta was also cast in the revival of Vain Victory with Blondie, which was directed by the ubiquitous Tony Ingrassia. “I think a singer or a star needs to be able to magnify their own personality,” Zanetta said, “and Tony was really, really good at that. I mean, he worked with Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Wayne County, and Cherry Vanilla, and I think they all took something from those experiences.” Back in 1973, when the Stilettoes were performing at places like Bobern Bar and Grill, Harry and Stein hired Ingrassia to help the group with choreography, projecting a cohesive image, and singing with attitude. “Tony did a lot of stage work,” Stein said. “He was a very flamboyant and a loud guy, and was responsible for a lot of cool projects, even though he was very unsung.” Harry added, “He was a slave driver. He was making us work very hard and not to sing technically, but to sing emotionally. And that was a great lesson, to make sure that you really had a connection with what you were saying or talking about or singing about, rather than just singing a nice melody with good technique.”