The Best of Blondie (on 8-track) was the first album I ever picked out and bought for myself; at 12 years old, the most thrillingly sexy song in my pubescent world was “Rapture.” So it was a special treat recently to find myself talking with Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein about the Bowery, CBGB, NYU, and the coming of Blade Runner.
I asked him what he thinks about Varvatos moving into CBGB and he replied, “Ah, what the fuck. What are you gonna complain about that for? The issue is much bigger. The Lower East Side, the city--it's all dead. I’m just waiting for economic collapse. It’s gonna be full-on Blade Runner.”
While the CBGB-to-Varvatos shift doesn't particularly trouble him, he said, “I’m not okay with what happened to the whole city. It’s a drag. Look at the fucking Fillmore, it’s a fucking bank. NYU, man. I protested when they tore down Edgar Allen Poe’s house. Edgar Allen Poe! You’d think any university would be thrilled to have that on their campus. NYU is fucking demented.”
"Everybody who helped add to the cachet of the city can’t live there anymore. The biggest shame is that everybody’s gotta have a job to live in the city now. There’s no time to make art. How can you keep your credibility if you have some stupid job you hate and still be a radical? I never had a job ever. I painted a bathroom once and that was it. I was in the band for 30 years.”
photo: Roberta Bayley
In the 1970s Chris lived on the Bowery, over a liquor store and across from what is now, as he puts it, “that museum thing.” He started going to hear music at CBGB before he met Debbie Harry, back in the summer before CB’s opened in 1973, maybe in 1972, when the place was still Hilly’s on the Bowery. There he saw Eric Emerson, Warhol star and member of The Magic Tramps. By the mid-70s he was a CBGB regular, playing with Harry. I asked him what he misses most about the old Bowery.
“Dead bodies and drugs!” he answered without hesitation, “I miss having to watch your back—it keeps you in a heightened state.”
Chris lives in a different heightened state these days, upstate with his wife and kids. But he still returns to his place in the East Village. While he enjoys wandering around the city now, he finds it’s “getting more and more Walt Disney.” And the people on the streets just aren’t the same. “Everyone’s got a driven aggressiveness, all these young people with an ‘I’m gonna get somewhere’ attitude. Everybody’s money conscious, materialistic."
photo: Marcia Resnick
He talked about what he calls the “everyone is hip syndrome,” saying, “There are so many people in the city who exude this false hipness that’s mostly based on what they are wearing or their hairdo or tattoos--a lot of just plain old straight people who are 'styled.’ The reason that the beats and maybe the punks could qualify for a less transient hipness is that they were a fucking minority."
So what's the solution to all this rampant false hipness and aggressive consumerism?
"We need a recession, it’s good for the arts. Man, I’d like it to be like Blade Runner, everything on the verge of collapse.” And the Blade Runner days will come, Chris says, when China and other foreign markets rise to economic power and take over the city. But on the other hand, “Like, 50% of the world has never made a phone call.”
Cue the opening riff of “Call Me” as Chris hustles off the phone to chase his little girls outside into the sunshine of a beautiful day far, far away from the vanishing New York.