Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie

INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR AUTHOR EDITOR DESIGNER SITUATIONIST BOCKRIS

Click to read my review!

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.

Sticky Fingers album cover, showing a close-up of a jeans-clad male crotch with the visible outline of a medium-sized penis; the cover of the original (vinyl LP) release featured a working zipper and perforations around the belt buckle that opened to reveal a sub-cover image of cotton briefs. Behind the zipper the white briefs were seemingly rubber stamped in gold with the stylized name of American pop artist Andy Warhol, below which read “THIS PHOTOGRAPH MAY NOT BE—ETC.
Christopher Makos, White Trash, 1977 · Cover back and front

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.

Book Cover of Beat Punks by Victor Bockris. Click on it!

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.

The French Version of Videodrome (1983) Movie Poster featuring Deborah Harry.

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.

Chrissie Hynde, Pauline Black of Selector, Debbie, Poly Styrene, Viv from The Slits and Siouxie Banshee by © Chris Stein.

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.

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie watch Godzilla in their apartment

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.

Debbie and Anya Phillips in “The Legend of Nick Detroit”, PUNK Magazine ©Artwork By John Halstrom and Bruce Carlton

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.

Debbie Harry & Chris Stein, NYC, 1978 by ©Bob Gruen

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.

Blondie

Looking Through The Heart of Glass

by Tobe Damit

Da Capo Press 1998 Edition

I just finished reading Debbie Harry’s biography Making Tacks/The Rise of Blondie written by herself, Chris Stein (photographs) and under the general supervision of Victor Bockris who aided in the formation of the text and the selection of the photographs. It seemed the perfect time to read and review it since she just announced the release of Pollinator, Blondie’s 11th album, due for release on May 5, 2017 by BMG Rights Management. I was really looking forward to read this book since Blondie is a band whose music would be omnipresent on ”the soundtrack of my life’s movie”, if such a thing would indeed exist.  Blondie has always managed to preserve their uniqueness and integrity throughout the years. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a story of perseverance, hope and faith. Seeing how often everything could have just gone down the drain, this is the ultimate proof that you really have to give it all you’ve got to make it… Sometimes even giving it what you haven’t got…Yet!

Young Debbie reading a book.

The prologue (added in the 1998 Da Capo Edition) is in fact a very juicy conversation between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris, recorded in 1980 when Blondie was at the top, during which it appears that Chris may hold the upper hand in their couple, a subject that is rather downplayed otherwise. It also sets the tone for the lavish story, the rocky early days and the forces at work behind the creation process since Chris and Debbie obviously are at the very  core of Blondie. For the rest of the book, the story is told almost exclusively from Debbie’s point of view, constantly keeping us captivated with a very uplifting, spontaneous, straight forward and witty narrative . She goes on and about everything and everyone meaningful in her life; ”I don’t know exactly where I came from because I don’t know who my natural parents are. Chris thinks I’m definitely an alien because I fit the description in a book he read of a race of females who were put on this planet from space”.  Right in this first sentence, one can immediately sense the hurting and the wounds but also the way Debbie has learned to deal with it, and how Chris later came into play. Young Deborah knew what she was destined to be before the age of six and never wavered in her firm conviction; ”I always knew I was a singer. When I began singing with the radio I was struck by the fact that I knew the next note before it was played.”  

Very early on, she was a trendsetter during her High School days, dying her hair every possible color starting as soon as 1959 and always dressed in black, not giving much thought to what would people might say. ”When I was a freshman I started to draw attention to myself, with the orange hair and mostly black clothes(…)I always dressed intuitively and emotionally”.

Chrissie Hynde, Pauline Black of Selector, Debbie, Poly Styrene, Viv from The Slits and Siouxie Banshee. ©by Chris Stein 
Debbie and Joan Jett ©by Chris Stein

Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie gives a very moving image of how Debbie was trying to become an artist during the mid sixties, working small jobs,  going to auditions and painting. She was already singing in a folk group called Wind in the Willows. It was hard but at the same time we get to see how much that, from the sidelines, working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City by the end of the sixties, she observed, watched and learned.”When I worked at Max’s I loved all the people from Andy Warhol Factory, like Eric Emerson, Viva, Ingrid, Taylor Mead, Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Candy Darling, and all the superstars. I was just a baby growing up in the middle of this whole incredible scene, watching Andy Warhol’s eight-hours movies and listening to all kinds of fantastic music very close up at the front.” 

Debbie And Andy Warhol ©by Chris Stein

Now of course you also get to know, in parallel, what was up with Chris Stein, how his mother was a  beatnik painter and his father died when he was only 15, how he also always was into music, painting and arts in general. He is responsible for most of the incredible amount of wonderful pictures that can be found throughout the book, giving a visual dimension for each period that Debbie takes us through. Chris and Debbie went to a lot of events and shows at the same time but it took awhile before they would bump into each other. They had very similar tastes and both enjoyed seeing live the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane. Each of them were being influenced by both the NYC and the LA scene. Chris had his own isssues, he’d taken a lot of acid and was experiencing long periods of seeing everything as cosmic dust(!). He even received his draft notice at the beginning of ’69 while in an asylum, where he spent three months after completely flipping out. He was twenty at the time and this was a delayed reaction to his father’s death. He managed to insist he had all that was needed to be NOT eligible to join the war effort, got out of there with a 4F and rushed up to Woodstock. Debbie was there too, she had served Jefferson Airplane their dinner at Max’s the night before they left for Woodstock. They just didn’t know each other yet so they went separately, never bumping into each other.

Debbie Devolves ©by Chris Stein

Debbie had a lot of issues of her own, being so depressed that she couldn’t sing without bursting into tears. For a while she managed to keep it all together by using various drugs but 1969 was a very pivotal year for everyone. ”Paying for the drugs and doing them became a bigger drag than the problems I was trying to solve(…)It was a tremendously down period and we all had to shake off the freakouts that occurred in ’68 and ’69(…)All that sadness and tragedy just kept going through my head. I love the blues, but I didn’t want to sing them. I wanted to entertain people, have a good time, and be happy.”

Debbie looking fabulous on front of CBGB’s©by Chris Stein

So, she quits drugs and took a sabbatical from the whole scene for three years, during which time Chris, having been released from the asylum for good, went on welfare and, sponsored by the division of vocational rehabilitation, was studying photography at the School of Visual Arts, and making some of the connections that would eventually lead to the fatefull event of Debbie and Chris finally meeting.

Chris Stein and Blondie (Not from the book!)©Robert Rosen REX

The Stillettoes

The Stillettoes Amanda, Elda and Debbie ©by Chris Stein,1974

Debbie gives us a very detailed description of what she was trying to accomplish musically with The Stillettoes who were Elda Gentile, Rosie Ross (later replaced by Amanda) and Debbie; ”a combination of the aggressive Shangri-La’s rock and the round solid vocals of an R&B girl group. The overall idea was to be entertaining and danceable. The original group included Tommy and Jimmy from the Miamis, Timothy Jackson and Youngblood. Tony Ingrassia was the choreographer and worked  on giving them a cohesive look so that they each had a stage concept.” 

Eric Emerson©by Chris Stein

Chris became involved with Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps via the School of Visual Arts by becoming the Dolls’ opening act, and quickly became friends with all those people who hung out on the periphery of the Dolls, eventually becoming Eric’s roadie. He was invited to the second Stillettoes gig at the Boburn Tavern on 28th Street by Elda herself who was the mother of Eric’s children. ”The most striking thing about collaboration is that it often happens in dreams. A microsecond of dream will unfold an elaborate scene in a flash.It’s an amazing form of communication and it happened between Chris and me the first time we saw each other when I was singing and he was in the audience(…) I was very nervous so I delivered a lot of songs to him. We had a psychic connection right away, which struck me particularly because I’d previously only had such string psychic connections with girlfriends”. Chris joined the group on Elda’s request.

Blondie

Early Blondie: Gary Valentine, Debbie, Chris Stein and Clem Burke

Now I gave you a very detailed insight of the early days but the book is even more exhaustive, leaving absolutely no stones unturned as the group slowly takes shape, requiring numerous musicians replacements, new musical directions, new looks and styles, the final result of all this evolution being the band worldy known today as Blondie -always  having at it’s very core Debbie and Chris Stein. Reading it you really feel as if you are right there with them, reliving every moment and all aspects of what was to become a very unique band, not really punk, not really disco, Debbie insists on saying that Blondie was a pop band, nothing more, nothing less. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a very fascinating journey to the top with all its up and downs, the tours, the crazy people, the shady promoters, the providential roadies, the tragic and the funny anecdotes, and everything stardom life is about. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry being always the very core of Blondie, you get to see them on various pictures with all the punk and post punk icons as they go on tour around the world several times, living their success with an integrity as persons and artists that is rarely seen.

Starting on the Bowery’s very distinct selective CBGB’s club with The Ramones and all the other bands that have now become legends, Blondie was to later gain international success and go around the world more than once to become one of the most successful bands to have risen from NYC. Here are a few people that you can see with Debbie and/or members of the band on photos included in the book: Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Devo, H.R. Giger, Siouxie, Chrissie Hynde, Andy Warhol, The Screamers, David Bowie, Ray Manzarek, Suzie Quatro, Joan Jett, Cherie Curie, The Buzzcocks, The Screamers, The Ramones to name very few, thanks to Chris Stein who really did an amazing photography job!

Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, David Johansen and Joey Ramone ©by Chris Stein
Debbie and Iggy ©by Chris Stein
Debbie and Bowie ©by Chris Stein

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debbie Harry during the video production of the “Koo Koo” project with HR Giger ©by Chris Stein

You also have a very interesting insight on various projects she was involved with like Blank Generation, a seminal movie about Richard Hell, a remake of Godard’s movie Alphaville that sadly has never seen the day, a promotional clip involving HR Giger‘I Know You Know”. I also happened to watch a cult sci-fi horror movie from 1982: ”Videodrome”, directed by David Cronenberg. Deborah Harry plays the role of Nicki Brand, a sadomasochistic psychiatrist and radio host. I found Debbie’s performance more than satisfying and the movie to be very prophetic.

Robert Fripp as Lemmy Caution, Debbie Harry as Natacha von Braun; from the never made remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Hair by Mary Lou Green ©by Chris Stein

The book doesn’t contain the usual formal complete list of everything Blondie or its members have been involved with nor a complete discography but rather focuses on the narrative and it’s quite ok since it’s done in a way to sustain the readers interest in the story Debbie tells with a surprising gift for writing. Such a list would have been a cool addition but I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard to find on the internet.

     Making Tracks is not only about The Rise of Blondie but also about how they all handled its success. It does not contain a complete discography nor every movie she has played in Every true Blondie fan should read this book since it contains everything you want to know delivered with Debbie’s very witty way of seeing things that always sustains your interest since it is written from a very intimate point of view; and as I mentioned the photos are a very important ingredient in making the reader ”part of the gang”. The whole story is very cohesive and never boring. I will leave you with this quote written by Debbie near the end of the Heart of Glass European Tour that I found very interesting as she compares the UK culture with the US:

”Politics is business-getting enough money to win, keeping enough to stay in power and make more as a politician. The politicization of art in the sixties was very hypocritical. It existed in the minds of the people who wanted it to exist, but the people who were in power were definitely not having anything to do with it.

Debbie Harry and the Buzzcocks during Blondies European Tour, by ©Chris Stein 1978

I don’t think there’s too much difference between the Americans and British scenes, Everybody wants the same thing for themselves and their culture, but the methods have to be different because of the differences in the way the cultures operate. In America Iggy was a radical force without saying anything political. His presence and what he did was a radical phenomenon. If somebody can get on the subway and wipe out the minds of the people who see him, he’s having an effect on them and doesn’t need to say anything. I hope the kids in England realise that we all want the same things, we’re just going about it in different ways.”

Debbie with Iggy Pop by ©Chris Stein

Almost all of the pictures above are taken from the 1998 edition of Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie and taken by ©Chris Stein. I only posted very few of them. The book is litteraly loaded with awesome pictures, most of them are very hard to find.

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