Friday, May 9, 2008

A Blondie on the Bowery

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.


Anonymous said...

If I may just point out a correction: you don't need a job to live in this city now, you just need lots of money. There are many little yunnie kids flouncing around here whose "work" is transient at best, their sources of income being more diverse than a mere job. While, conversely, there are many many many many people with jobs who can't exsist in this city anymore. All work doesn't pay the same, remember.

Anonymous said...

Compare and Contrast. This is what's Bowery being transformed to nowadays -- even they admit it -- "there goes the neighborhood"(see Rogan opens on Bowery). Time to bail out of NYC.

Anonymous said...

...ah. Drunks passed out on the Bowery in front of the Palace Hotel as The Magic Tramps jammed inside at Hilly's. A much better time indeed!

Chris Stein said...

bravo josh... indeed money is the root...
mypoint about China is more specific; when i was young 'made in Japan' stood for all that was cheap and superficial and discardable, the role now occupied by the 'made in china' tag... sooo what happens when the same course is followed by the chinese, the same trail into the realm of high end consumerism and the production of the best technology hmmm?
the Blade Runner reference is to everything going the route of the only Main Street in NYC: Flushing Queens, twenty years ago NOT covered with signs written in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean... not that this is a bad thing i sort of love it
chris stein

Anonymous said...

"...ah. Drunks passed out on the Bowery in front of the Palace Hotel"

How is this different from the drunken girls in their mini skirts and high heels stepping out of the bars in the new EV that you guys revile?

Anonymous said... didn't have to listen to the passed out drunks squealing their stupidity up and down the street: "OMG!!! I'm so F'd Up!!!"

The bums just laid down and didn't really bother anybody. You could just step over them...too bad we can't just step over these hipster Carrie Bradshaw wanna-be a-holes as well.

L'Emmerdeur said...

The old-school drunks are either still drunk or have graduated to dead.

The new-age drunks will sober up as soon as they find their Mr. Big to fly them off to their palace full of spawn in Greenwich.

When did hating vapid, shallow sorority girls become an activity to be criticized?

Anonymous said...

And if the new age drunks don't sober up or find their Mr. Big, I surely hope that they end up still drunk or dead and NYC and the EV will revert back to when and how it was before.

"hating vapid, shallow sorority girls"? I love them. There's just something about these Carrie Bradshaws that you just want to f__ 'em and leave 'em. See how that feels since they're doing this to NYC.

Anonymous said...

Blondie(s) are still in Bowery (the Blondies that SATC spawned). Man, how time have changed -- welcome to the devolution.

The beats and the punks are still a minority in the city. The difference is that, back then, they had their places to go to express their artistic inclinations and individuality.

China and Europe have taken over NYC because of their economic power(thus the age of consumerism in NYC), but the Blade Runner days won't come until their, along with the U.S., economy also collapse.

"I have great faith in fools; self-confidence my friends call it." ~ Edgar Allan Poe

Anonymous said...

J, Chris Stein is on-target with his observations, particularly the made in Japan/made in China analogy. What's next, made in Myanmar? Laura Bush is hot to save them! See today's Times? Hedge fund vampires are after NY rent regulated apartments. Call Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford, Sean Young; Blade Runner II can't come soon enough.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to be in the same blog-thread with Chris Stein, who made some of the greatest rock & roll ever played, good on ya...

Anonymous said...

I live in Flushing. Every time I'm on Main Street and it's raining I feel just like Harrison Ford ; )

Chris hit the nail on the head here, though. It's unfortunate that the only thing that will rid this city of the vermin which plague it and make it a city with soul, character, and one in which the creative and the working class can live is economic disaster, but so be it. Sometimes an infected limb needs to be severed to save the body.

I say bring on the next crash. I'll be the first one down on Wall Street encouraging the fascists who lost it all to do their best Superman impressions like they did in '29. When the reckoning arrives, and it will, them and all their yunnie kids will finally have their comeuppance.

JakeGould said...

Chris hit the nail on the head as far as fake authenticity goes. But you know what else is destroying the soul of this city? How thin skinned and over-sensitive the majority of hipsters are.

I grew up here and if I see a crazy person walking down the street, I don't freak out... In contrast I was in SoHo a few months back and there was some really screwed up, but very clean and talking on her cell phone. I see her and then some other pedestrian grabs my eye. I simple shrug a "What can you do?" because anyone from NYC knows, what can you do. That's them. But the guy who caught my eye is literally shaken up by seeing this and talking to me about how stressed he is since this was *GASP* the second crazy person he saw today.

It amazes me. These kids from sheltered lives come to NYC for authenticity, then something like this crosses their path—literally—and next thing you know they need therapy.

He'd probably freak out if he knew my mom made cheese sandwiches for the neighborhood burnout because he was nice and she felt bad for him.

Anonymous said...

May 9, 2008 10:55 AM

Sesu Tramp said...
I want to confirm what Chris {Stein} said about NYC. Being in the 'Magic Tramps' with Eric Emerson when Chris saw us playing on the Bowery at "Hilly's On The Bowery" {CBGB's} in 1972, was a time when the city was a collective group of blocks. When uptown was passing north of 14'th. St. The Bowery was a daring area for some outsiders to travel on. Living on the lower East Side it was a daily event to walk down the Bowery to get to 'Mercer Arts Center' - 'Canal Jeans' - 'Chinatown' - Soho- etc. It had personality & charm. I still visit NYC often & it still is electric, but a lot of memories leave me feeling empty, not for me but for the City that once was real {mom & pop places actually existed around town} - Not recognizing the familiar landmarks, one feels lost, inside & outside. Going by 'Max's' - 'The Factory' - 'Mercer' - 'CB's' - all gone. Soho was a last resort to live & visit - not it is THE resort. It's not only memories - it's watching the real decay of the City as it's being rebuilt. "Wall Street - greed is good." Yuppies are the new cockroaches. The art scene is reduced to various events put on by those who invite the artists to make it an art event? What's wrong in this picture? Now gathering with a few who lived & experienced the 'cultural' evolution of the NYC streets is a treat. I realize while being at these events, it also brings out the 'wanna-be's' who seem cool & want to know from us 'mentor's'...."were you really practicing in the 'Mercer Arts Center' when it collapsed?" "Was the Bowery scary at night?" - "You really lived below 14'th St.?"
People were doing their thing during the days Chris reflects on - thus creating a scene...Now it's a bit pretentious & the scene is 'forced' - more of a museum gathering rather than a happening.. Perhaps with the economy & everything priced out of control,{my apt. was rent controlled at $92.87 a month.} NYC is becoming the "Island Of Lost Souls" - perhaps leading to a "Blade Runner" sequel. This all reminds me of the American Indian trail...take their land - corrupt the spirit - remove them from their home and customs - build a structure, pollute it, sell it, tear it down & build another out of glass & chrome. It happened to the Indians & the artists - {as expected} - but now the people - the everyday person who has to pay rent & buy food is being forced out. Forget "Big Brother" - I'm concerned about "Soylent Green" !!!
Good comments Chris & I'll always cherish the moments when we were there together as free spirits & thinkers during a period when NYC was home. When we knew Mickey owned 'Max's' - Hilly ran 'CB's' - & being in a band was special - comrades knowing the 'lay of the land' we have become 'statues' in our own park - now owned by Hong Kong...Think I'll go to Gem's Spa' on St. Marks Place & get an egg cream while it's still there...

May 12, 2008 12:31 PM

Anonymous said...

"SATC" and "Blade Runner" are both works of fiction, yet the majority (if not all) of the JM's commenters prefer to have the latter fictional work to exist in NYC? Doom and Gloom much.

Anonymous said...

I think you misunderstand. It isn’t a matter of choosing one or the other, as SATC and Blade Runner are fictional depictions of more or less the same social order, albeit from different perspectives. It has nothing to do with our preferances.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of whiny old f**S! Things change. New York City has always been a megacenter for uber-capitalism. There have always been yuppies and hipsters running around in this city. And there will always be a genuine countercurrent of real artists living on the down low and making things happen in ways that the mainstream can't even dream about.

Anonymous said...

Salivating at the thought of a massive economic recession. Just think: with buildings going up by Rem Koolhaas and Ben Van Berkel we will have that Blade Runner production design to cast in sharp relief the chaos occurring around us. It's gonna be something!

Anonymous said...

Keep salivating, Rx, for your Blade Runner scenario. The way things are going, it'll be more of a Minority Report.

Anonymous said...

Multi-million dollar "luxury" condos? Overpriced hotel room boxes.
How many hedge fund hamsters will be caught up short when their mastery of the market proves incorrect, leaving other suckers in these buildings to pick up the tab which they can ill afford to do?

Obama, are you sure you want to preside over this collapse?