I remember: Chris Stein

Anna Walker

Co-founder and guitarist of the legendary new wave band, Blondie, Chris Stein (69) has also made waves as a photographer, with his work perfectly capturing the heyday of New York City

…Growing up in Brooklyn. I spent my first couple of years living on a high street before we moved to a more rural area. I was always out on the street with my friends from the neighbourhood. There wasn’t this fear of trouble or being abducted, or murdered back then.

 

…I started playing guitar when I turned 12—my parents bought me one for Christmas. It was a Harmony Rocket and it was kind of simplistic, but I had it for a long time. I used to sit in my room making noise for hours and hours.

 

…I enjoyed all the usual suspects during my childhood: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, all the British Invasion bands. I have always been a big fan of Cream—when their first album came out, that was a big deal. I was also exposed to really diverse music, Latin and R&B and all kinds of stuff beyond rock ‘n’ roll. Hip-hop in particular was very exciting. I realised this energy going on uptown was the same as what we were doing downtown.

 

…I got thrown out of school for having long hair. The dean called a bunch of us into his office and told us he was worried that our hair would blow in front of our faces and we would get hit by cars.

I was happy to get out, I hated public school. Schools are different now because they’re inclusive and there’s diversity but when I was a kid, they were staffed by some sociopaths who shouldn’t have been near children, let alone teaching them.

 

…My mum was always very supportive. She was a painter, and her work was very abstract, Picasso-esque. She used to be a window designer in Manhattan and claimed to have hung out with Willem de Kooning and people like that. I always Lemmy [of Motörhead] there when he was in Hawkwind and talked to him in a pub for a while.

I stayed up by Portobello and I went to Notting Hill Carnival. That was the first time I was exposed to reggae music. I was really excited by that because, like hip-hop, I wasn’t very familiar with the genre. I had only heard “Stir It Up” by Johnny Nash in the States before then.

"My memories of 9/11 are very vivid because we were right there. It was heavy duty and it hurt for a long time"

 

…The scene at CBGB was exciting, but also very isolated and incestuous. The audience was made up of people from the bands and their friends. There wasn’t a lot of outside attention at first. The British papers were the first to pick up on the New York music scene. Melody Maker and NME came over—before then we’d only been covered by local press. There was a legend that Jackie Kennedy went to CBGB. The veracity of that I don’t know, but the story goes around…

 

…Debbie and I were a lot more tentative when we first performed as Blondie. We had to learn it all. We’re not extroverted people and there was a lot of self-pushing to get ourselves to do it.

 

…We were doing an in-store appearance at a place called Our Price Records on Kensington High Street. They expected a couple hundred people, but thousands showed up. The street was blocked, and the police had to come out—it was full-on mania. It was exciting, but we weren’t quite ready for it. The Beatles were our heroes, so it was cool to go through the same rights of passage.

 

…I was always fooling around with box cameras as a kid but the first real camera I owned was a Pentax. At first, I just wanted to make nice images and shoot stuff that I saw around. It was only later that I thought about putting together some kind of atmosphere of the period in my books. There’s a lot of stuff I wish I’d taken pictures of, but I’d often go to a concert and think, I can either take pictures or enjoy the music, it’s one or the other. We saw Bob Marley in Texas and I wish I’d brought a camera to that. That was one of my favourite concerts ever.

"Thousands of people showed up. The street was blocked, the police came—it was full-on mania"

 

…Andy Warhol was really sweet, such a nice guy and a great listener. He always lent this air to any event he was at. If you were at a party and Andy showed up, you’d think, Okay now we’re at the right party. I used to say it was like the pope coming in. He was always very gracious and friendly, so I never felt put off photographing him by his status.

 

…The last time I saw David Bowie was right before he died. He was always very kind and professional. But he was really cautious when I was around him with a camera because he was protective about his image, so I only managed to get a couple shots of him and Debbie.

We were on tour with him in America when he was playing keyboards for Iggy Pop on the Idiot tour. It was our first big tour and we were really excited to be with those guys because they were our heroes. I remember having conversations with David where he was analysing the punk scene and what it meant to be a punk. Iggy was being a punk before anyone else was. I photographed Debbie and Iggy too, and he was always a lot looser.

 

…I met my wife [actress Barbara sicuranza] when she was doing a show. I thought she was really attractive and smart, so I pulled myself together and approached her. We were friends for quite a while before we got together romantically.

"My daughters help me with my old age because I have to keep up with them"

 

…My memories of 9/11 are very vivid because we were right there. I don’t think I appreciated the scale of it at the time. It was heavy duty and it hurt for a really long time. We were about ten blocks away from the site when it happened. My wife and I took a bunch of videos—you can find them online. A few of them were filmed in Debbie’s apartment. We were visiting because she’d just gotten a kitten, and you can see it in some of the videos. Then we walked back downtown with our cameras facing forward and there was this huge dust cloud. We cried a few times.

I kept coming across cars that had stopped in the street, and there would be a whole crowd of people listening to the radio with the doors thrown open. As we passed one of the local hospitals there was a huge, huge line around the block, of people wanting to donate blood. They were turning people away because they couldn’t accommodate them, and they didn’t think there would be that many survivors, which is so sad in retrospect.

There was a lot of camaraderie in New York for about a year after that. But it changed our cultural environment and the financial environment in the city too, because it opened the floodgates to consumerism. Suddenly New York got a lot of attention.

 

…How fatherhood changed me. My daughters help me with my old age because I have to keep up with them. It’s kind of fascinating seeing them evolve and become more intelligent. At one point they only cared about Spongebob, but now that they’re 13 and 15 I can talk to them about movies and social things that go on in the world. They’re both really into graphic stuff now. The little one is drawing all the time and the older one does a lot of video and editing. They’re both very modern kids though, and on their phones all the time…

 

…New York has changed so much. It’s the same as London or any other big city, where small businesses are having trouble. Everybody is at the mercy of Amazon and so on. There used to be so many great little bookstores and gas stations in the city and you can’t find a gas station anywhere now. There used to be all these little clubs too and now everything has changed over to big hotels and chains.

It’s still a thriving city though, and there are a lots of cool bands like Surfbort, a great punk freak band who I really like.

 

Point Of View: Me, New York City and The Punk Scene by Chris Stein is available now, published by Rizzoli, £40