Few people personify the downtown New York aesthetic like Chris Stein. As the guitarist of Blondie, he’s helped to define—and defy—what people talk about when they talk about New York. Fortunately for us, he was documenting his adventures in the dangerous old New York, as proven in his book of photographs. These were shown at the Chelsea Hotel in September, and a new show opened yesterday on the other side of the pond at the Somerset House in London.
We were at Blondie’s panel at SXSW this spring when Stein said, “Everyone in the CBGBs period was really rebelling against the MOR—I don’t think they use that term any more—middle of the road.” He cracked up the house by continuing, “It’s a whole cultural shift. The biggest point is the explosion of hipster culture. Around here it looks like WWZ—everywhere you look are fucking guys with plaid shirts and fedoras.”
We caught up with Stein, a disarming inconoclast, to talk about cultural shifts, traffic in London, and the blistering set Blondie played at SXSW.
The London show is nice, the place is fancy. The Somerset House is right in central London. They have a Van Gogh — the one where he cut his ear off — and Degas, and all this shit, so it’s nice. This will be very different from the thing in Chelsea, almost the opposite, it’ll be high-end. The Chelsea thing I liked, it was very charming because it was really funky.
It’s ok — it’s part of my history, it’s not a negative thing. There’s always the back and forth with having to embrace this stuff. It’s like doing the old songs. You have to accept that it’s part of the people’s backgrounds. The Soundtrack of Our Lives bullshit. It’s the same with the images.
I don’t think I was thinking about a historical context when I was taking any of that stuff, I was just trying to make things that were successful unto themselves. To get the composition and lighting and all of that stuff.
Yeah. It was never consistent even back then—it was a little more measured. I always have a camera. I just got this new iPhone which is really cool. The camera’s great on it. I have old stuff I would like to get going, passionately. I have this whole book of the stuff we did with Giger, I think that should be the next thing.I have to ask you about your comments from the SXSW panel — I even asked Penny Arcade about it.
Debbie Harry said, “It’s subverting the subversive—it’s so fast now, everything that is ‘cool’ is subsidized and corporatized so quickly, it’s hard to tell what’s legit.”
And you said, “When we were starting out, if you were in a band you were totally on the fringe. You were completely on the outside of culture. Now the whole mass of culture is all on the inside.” How do you get outside now?
Now, I don’t know. I think you have to be a hacker or a coder or something like that. But nobody‘s really classically trained in this environment. Like that movie Performance with Mick Jagger — it’s one of the two or three best rock and roll movies, or music movies at any rate. That and Inside Llewyn Davis are probably my favorite music movies. But in that, he’s reading from Borges and shit like that. God knows what else they quote in that. And it’s a different mentality. When I was a kid we thought of these, our heroes, as kind of intellectuals. And I think that’s now absent from the equation. Maybe there’s something in there. That you could be an intellectual and a pop star, in the immediacy of the media.
There’s probably new forms that are developing that people haven’t latched on to. I like the computer music scene — EDM and all that stuff is kind of exciting, nobody expected that to take off as much as it did. That whole scene is kind of on the outside. The music did develop on its own away from the mainstream music industry.
Yes and no — it’s also part of the whole cultural movement away from music being on the fringes and dangerous. There were aspects of music in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s that were like that, that now there isn’t. Miley Cyrus at her craziest is not really dangerous. People may be hating on it, but it’s not really pushing; it’s something that’s expected. It’s not like fucking Wendy O. Williams, topless, blowing up cars, smashing TV sets on stage—that was really radical. Everything is just our context of what’s accepted, now it’s just stretched so much. It’s all basically tits on television. You didn’t used to have that, now it’s fucking the norm.
I always wanted to write a New Yorker article about traffic, because that’s completely the opposite. It fascinates me. You take your fucking life in your hands crossing the street in London. You know how you’re driving in New York and some guy will walk in front of your car and give you a dirty look and slow down deliberately, “I dare you to fucking approach me?” That does so not exist in London, they would just fucking run you over. If people drove in New York the way they drove in London, they would just be dragged out of their cars and beaten. It’s amazing to me how opposite it is. Crossing the street in London is like walking into a raging river.
I know people over there who’ve had little kids hit by cars—I don’t know anybody here who’s had a kid hit by a car.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg.”