The Tide Is In
A beautiful summer day in Brooklyn, and the barking dog and the voice of a female companion in the background suggest Blondie guitarist Chris Stein is taking a stroll while talking on a cell phone. "This is good," he exclaims. "Wow!"
Stein isn't excited to be talking to a reporter. He's, um, trash diving.
"It's a picture of, let's see what it says, St. John the Divine. It's a woodcut or something. It's cool. It's really good. I have to give up taking things from the garbage. One accumulates so much crap."
After 25 years in the business, one accumulates a weariness with the music industry as well. Stein's voice has a cynical edge, even when discussing the decision to reunite Blondie, which disbanded in 1982. Stein first approached singer and former girlfriend Deborah Harry with the idea. She consented, as did keyboard player Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke. Stein describes the re-formation of Blondie as an inevitable consequence more than anything else. "It seemed like an obvious thing," he says. "Everybody's always asked about it. Just what you'd imagine: All the old fans would constantly ask about it. It was an ongoing bone of contention in the world, whether or not it was going to happen. There was so much interest and enthusiasm. I thought it seemed appropriate."
At least Blondie didn't slap two originals on the tail end of a "greatest hits" to signal its return. The band released an album of original material, No Exit, in February. By no means an embarrassment, No Exit doesn't hold up well next to Blondie records like Parallel Lines (though the Destri-written single "Maria" is a keeper). Stein, who is 49, says that, as eager as fans were for a reunion, they weren't clamoring for the band to innovate pop music as it had 20 years ago. "Even now I see there's a certain formula involved," he says. "All the music scene is like this. At the same time people want to see you do stuff, be creative and expand, they also want to see you do the same old shit. Everything is very contradictory in this business. I feel a lot of constraints, often. But the fans are accepting; they pay attention."
"Turnover is so quick now in the business," he continues. "The flavor-of-the-month thing is such a mainstay now. It seems obvious that anybody with any longevity is going to come around again and take their shot."
Stein, a Brooklyn kid, met Harry, a Jersey girl, on the Manhattan scene in the early '70s. Stein joined Harry's glitter band the Stilettos, which would eventually evolve into Blondie. When asked what he thought of Harry when he first met her, Stein emits a low chuckle. Dumb question. What would any red-blooded young man think when he first met Debbie Harry? "I thought she was great," he says. "I was really attracted to her."
The original members of Blondie had a fondness for the trash pop and girl groups of the '60s. Their tastes would be expanded by the art punk school of the mid-'70s Bowery and the rise of artists like David Bowie across the ocean. (Blondie, in fact, first charted in the U.K.) The vibrant Manhattan scene was small then, Stein says, and unlikely to be found anywhere today. "You walk around these big cities, and it's not like there's this little nucleus of hip people. Everyone wants to be hip now, so it sort of spreads it out. It's taken for granted that everybody is a hipster. I don't know if that's good or bad, but at the same time, it makes for a lot of conservatism. New York is getting really fucked up. It's just turning into a big mall."
The band came into its own on its third album, Parallel Lines. Producer Mike Chapman put a disco whir into "Heart of Glass," which was previously recorded as a fairly straightforward pop-rock song. The album, which also featured "Hanging on the Telephone" and "One Way or Another," is a New Wave classic.
To its credit, Blondie didn't rely on one sound or Harry's frosty good looks. They later ventured into calypso (covering "The Tide Is High") and rap ("Rapture"). Stein and Harry had attended a rap festival in the Bronx in 1977, and Stein says that it was like watching a new genre pop out of the womb. "Rap has always paralleled the punk movement, too, you know -- the time line is the same. The destructivist mentality is similar, about breaking down existing forms and then putting them back together."
Bands with as much individual talent as Blondie are bound to bicker over control and credit. By the early '80s, the members were drifting apart and -- always a telltale sign of trouble -- putting out solo albums and pursuing other projects. A marketing winner, the name Blondie certainly contributed to the band's undoing. Tee shirts proclaimed that "Blondie is a band," but Harry's beauty (she's still unquestionably beautiful at age 54) and seductive voice were always the center of attention.
Guitarist Jimmy Infante sued the band when he felt he was being neglected. The case was settled, and Infante rejoined the fold, but the band broke up a short time later. (Infante has proved to be a litigious hire. Along with bass player Nigel Harrison, Infante is suing again, complaining that he should have been invited to the reunion. Stein's take on the lawsuit: "With any band, as soon as you make money, people sue you. That's a part of show business.")
Stein spent much of the next four years in bed, though it wasn't because of the grief over his band falling apart. He contracted pemphigus, a rare and debilitating genetic illness. He prevailed and today is free of any symptoms. "I don't really regret it," Stein says of his illness. "It was kind of interesting, all in all. I had a lot of great visions from being on these massive steroids. It was all pretty weird."
Although Harry and Stein broke up, the two have remained close. After Blondie, Harry released solo albums and built a respectable acting career (notable for her turns in a great batch of episodes of the TV series Wiseguy, in which she played a struggling singer, and the film Heavy). Stein started a record label and produced a number of albums including the Gun Club's Miami.
Blondie's music went through a fallow period before popping up on nostalgia-formatted radio stations and in the clubs again. "It's hard for me to be self-complimentary, but the stuff stands up," Stein says. "A lot of aspects of the music sound fresh; it's not that dated. Certain music sounds, like, really dated now. I'm always amazed at the stuff I liked 20 years ago and am sort of horrified by now. At the same time, certain things, the Stones specifically, sort of hold up. A lot of the Stones' stuff sounds really fresh."
And is another Blondie project in the works? Maybe, if an interesting idea comes to Stein. "I keep thinking we should do some kind of rock opera, as much as I am disgusted with the concept," he says. "There's probably some way to do something that's not just a collection of songs, to have a linking theme."
Like, say, garbage diving.
Blondie is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, August 24, at the Celebrity Theatre, with Reel Big Fish. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
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