INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR AUTHOR EDITOR DESIGNER SITUATIONIST BOCKRIS
Intro: The first thing I would say about Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie is that it was a book of photographs by the band’s leader and, in collaboration with Debbie Harry, premiere song writer, Chris Stein. Stein was no fly by night paparazzi, by the time he met Debbie in 1972 he had already studied depth and perception photography at Cooper Union and started collecting photographs. While she was still singing with the female trio The Stilettoes, he was making inroads into punk by quitting his glitter band and letting the first Ramones live in his Lower East Side apartment. Meanwhile, Chris moved into Debbie’s Thompson Street pad and started playing with The Stilettoes. Soon thereafter he began contributing pictures of Blondie to Punk Magazine. By the time I met them on the night of the great New York Blackout in July 1977, I was developing a role as the only writer who went back and forth between The Beat Writers, Andy Warhol and the New York Punk bands, and wanted to write about all of them as a new generation. We got a wonderful editor in Fred Jordan, who had been one of the first Grove Press editors and was now running the U.S. branch of the famous British publisher, Methuen.
Across the universe of writing and designing the book both publisher and authors went through significant changes. During May 1982 when the book was released almost simultaneously in New York and London, Methuen was no more and Blondie had shifted down through changes which included Harry’s first solo album Koo Koo. We were now with Fred Jordan Books in New York distributed by Dell and Hamish Hamilton in London, editor Roger Houghton. Both editions of the book were launched at lavish openings of Stein’s photographs at the Daniel Wolf Gallery in New York and David Dawson’s B2 Gallery in London. Despite this focus on Stein’s fine set of pictures, Jordan’s ability to sell the book to Hamilton for a $50,000 advance was primarily due to Debbie Harry’ autobiographical text, written in collaboration with myself and Chris. However, what had started as a labour of love ended on a negative note when Bondies’ manager coerced the world right’s back from Jordan but never got deals for the four more foreign editions we could have had in Germany. Italy, Holland and Japan. Agents can make all the difference in a case like this, but we had no one to turn to. For me the subsequent loss of revenue without discussion turned the successful collaboration into a route. The book sold well in the U.K. but virtually disappeared in the States. At first Chris and Debbie took quantities of the book on the road, selling them at their concerts until the band broke up a year later in 1983. We would have to wait for another thirteen years before the three of us would have the opportunity to launch Making Tracks again. -Victor Bockris
LAN: Debbie seemed to be part of the scene for a very long time, maybe not as an artist at first but I’m curious to know when was the very first time you met her.
Victor Bockris: Yeah Debbie was a Slum Goddess of The Lower East Side in the late sixties. She began to get it together around the New York Dolls in the early Seventies. Blondie had their first #1 in Australia with In The Flesh in 1977. I first met Debbie and Chris at the apartment of a photographer Christopher Makos 227 Waverley Place on the night of the great New York Blackout, July 13. The room was pitch black so I could not see her, but I recognized her the minute we met. Next thing I knew I was in the back of the Frontiersman’s van with Debbie, Chris Stein and Liz Derringer on the way to Makos opening for his White Trash book. In an appropriation of Warhol’s cover of the Rolling Stones raunchy Sticky Fingers, Makos put a shot of Debbie’s crotch in a tight black miniskirt on the cover of his White Trash book. I made my entry into this scene wearing a tiger skin bikini in the back pages of Makos catalogue of trash.
LAN: What were you first impressions?
Victor Bockris: I had already seen Blondie perform at CBGB’s with a bunch of people from the Factory in 1975 and 76. Everybody liked her but Debbie was still so lacking in confidence she was not carrying her performances to completion. By the blackout meeting she had grown stronger. It was such a smooth part of my 1977 transformation, my impressions of Debbie and her partner Chris Stein were seamless. I felt very much a part of the scene for the first time since 1974, hanging out with Debbie and Chris extended my territory. Soon I was taking them to meet my people as they introduced me to theirs. Threads of Punk wove together with Beat and Warhol threads. The Beat Punk Generation was beginning to get up and walk.
LAN: What were the events leading to your involvement in the writing of Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie.
Victor Bockris: They had started to talk to me about Chris Stein’s photographs at the time I was writing With William Burroughs. In fact they were in the Burroughs book. Working on Tracks began with a recording of a Dinner with Andy Warhol. It took me a long time to realize all we needed for the text was Debbie’s account of the Blondie Story to compliment Chris’ photographs of the same. I wrote a proposal and we soon got an exciting offer from Fred Jordan at Methuen in New York. This thrilled me because Jordan was one of the three men who started Grove Press, which published many of the ground breaking books of the 1960s. And Methuen was a British publisher with a long list of distinguished authors including Oscar Wilde. I was looking to connect the Beats, Warhol and the Punks so this was right my street.
LAN: How would you define what was your role in the writing of Making Tacks/The Rise of Blondie?
Victor Bockris: They looked to me like a producer, they were trying to figure out how to put books together. They thought I knew. I look back on my collaboration with Debbie and Chris as among the best in my career. But I’m not so impressed by my contribution. At first at my suggestion we took Makos on board as art designer, but Makos treated Chris in a ridiculous way. He over charged him to print up some pictures doing a lousy job that made them look bad. After Debbie fired him over the phone I put together a mock-up the book all three of us liked. That was when we really started collaborating on the book. I managed to carve a good text out of many tapes with Debbie then Debbie and Chris. When we got through that Debbie went to Toronto to film Videodrome. Chris and I stayed in New York and came up with an excellent design for all the book’s interior pages. I cherish my memories of working with them individually and together.
LAN: A recorded conversation between you, Debbie and Chris, used as the prologue raised many questions in my mind. Could you explain why you chose to use this conversation as a prologue?
Victor Bockris: I thought it caught the three-way humor that kept the book from taking itself too seriously.
LAN: In your opinion is Blondie linked to the empowerment of women, a movement that most probably spurred the career of artists like the Runaways, Siouxie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde and many others?
Victor Bockris: Debbie had an enormous influence on opening the pop – rock scene for women. Madonna comes out of Debbie. There’s a great color photo in the book of Debbie with Chrissie Hynde, Siouxie Sioux and others that says it all. Blondie was good to her friends, the band was good to the scene, it helped spread reggae and rap among others things. Debbie is undoubtedly a great heroine of the counterculture, particularly the downtown punk scene and beat punk scenes of the high seventies. One reason I wanted to work on a book with her was to extend her talents into other fields. I cannot believe she has not written one of the great biographies of her times. She has a huge story to tell. Maybe I should call her up.
LAN: You most definitely should! Why do you think Blondie got a better reception at an international level than many other bands from New York?
Victor Bockris: Blondie’s international success in the 1970s and today comes from the vision to go on a world tour before they were a world band. Their early success in Australia came about because they went there. Secondly their music and songs were easy to translate, and thirdly because Debbie had by far the most sellable image and she and Chris worked endlessly touring radio stations to connect with DJs. Most partnerships in rock n roll are between men. Debbie and Chris may be the most successful long-term male/female collaboration in the business. They are really good people.
LAN: How was the book received when it was published?
Victor Bockris: The book was poorly published in the U.S. But Fred Jordan got us a $50,000 advance in the U.K. which was unbelievably great and Hamish Hamilton in London, with editor Roger Houghton, did a fine job. However, when Blondie’s manager insisted Jordan return the world rights thus cutting off any further foreign publications the book was virtually but not completely dead. I had depended on the book having at least five foreign deals so I was very disappointed. Rock’n’roll is a multileveled business. At the time they are completing a new album and planning a huge world tour. The power of their upcoming world tour took them out of my orbit. The next time I saw Debbie and Chris was backstage in Philadelphia that August were they played in front of 50,000 people and Chris Stein looked like a ghost in a Fellini movie. Making Tracks got a lot of notices in the press, but no serious reviews. I think part of the reason was that it was really a book of photographs by Chris Stein but it was sold as the autobiography of Debbie Harry. However it did have lasting influences on many people who read it and it would find a longer life in the following decade. And again now.
LAN: Do you know why it is that, when Blondie co-founders Chris Stein and Debbie Harry reformed the group in 1997 for Blondie Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, they “forgot” to invite bassist Nigel Harrison or guitarist Frank Infante, leading to the Hall of Fame incident that left a lot of people speechless and the bad blood never quite trickled away?
Victor: Infante and Harrison had sued them or were in process of suing them. Don’t forget Debbie and Chris were left to deal with all the band’s post 83 breakup fallout including financial on their own. When they reformed the band in second half 1990s they were under no obligation so far as I know to take anybody on, except Clem. When they first hit big instead of being grateful to Chris and Debbie for writing the hits and working 75% harder than the rest of the band did in their heyday everybody got incredibly paranoid and there was a lot of aggressive infighting, which messed up he music and wasted their energies. Ex band members often sue because lawyers tell them they can get some free money. I’m glad Debbie did what she did, she shouldn’t have had to go through that on Blondie’s inauguration into the ROCK N ROLL HALL OF FAME.
LAN: What is the main difference between Blondie the band, and Debbie Harry? In other words, what was the main contribution Chris Stein brought to the table?
Victor: Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s forty-five year collaboration on making music and running Blondie stands out among the greatest male-female collaboration of all time. It has gone through many phases, but to answer your question, in its first stages between 1972-1975 Debbie and Chris equally transformed each other by making music making love and banging heads. They both came from backgrounds that left them creatively intact but insecure in the delivery. They soon became a part of the CBGB’s scene, but throughout the years the tight unit they forged in the cauldron of New York’s downtown scene from Watergate to Drop Dead New York in the ragged summer of 75 would always remain the single strength beating at the heart of Blondie.
LAN: Thank you so much for your precious time I know you are very busy right now and I wish you the very best, hoping that with Blondie’s new release of ”Pollinator’‘, people will feel the urge to read Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie as an autobiography or a photo album, either way ,it still is a wonderful book that has aged very well.