Blondie's Chris Stein Switches Out His Guitar for a Camera

Dee Dee Ramone and Joey Ramone backstage at a punk rock show.
Dee Dee Ramone and Joey Ramone backstage at a punk rock show. Photo by Chris Stein
Though he’s best known as the guitarist and a co-founder of Blondie – a well as co-writer on such hits as “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture,” and “Dreaming,” Chris Stein has been an avid and serious photographer just as long as he’s been a musician.

With his lens, Stein has captured visuals of both the famous and unknown in shots both staged and completely natural. His new and second book of photos, Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene (208 pp., $55, Rizzoli) shows scores of images he shot in the 1970s and ‘80s on the streets, in the clubs, inside apartments, and around areas like Soho, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Coney Island.

click to enlarge BOOK COVER BY RIZZOLI
Book cover by Rizzoli
But his work shows a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore, given how the years have cleaned up parts of the city from being somewhat dirty, dangerous places to a more hipster-and-tourist-friendly or gentrified locations.

Porn theaters in Times Square have been replaced by grown men in Disney Character costumes posing for paid photos. The real estate that was home to iconic punk club CBGB’s is now a high-end John Varvatos store.

“Yeah…what you saw 40 years ago was closer to 100 years prior to that than to where we’re at now!” Stein says today. “A lot of social and political and economic aspects to the city are different now. I do like what’s going on now, it’s exciting. But we’re in the late days of capitalism here, and it’s a very different place.”

Point of View features candid photos of musicians, writers, and artists like the Ramones, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Meat Loaf, William Burroughs, Lester Bangs, and Legs McNeil (“People always take pictures of their friends,” Stein says).

Of course, there’s also many photos of Blondie front woman Deborah Harry, with whom Stein was in a relationship with and lived with at the time. There she is at a train station, in their apartment with a cat, on stage, in a car, and at the World Trade Center. In these shots, she has a look that speaks to her familiarity with the person on the other side of the shutter you’d never see in official publicity photos.

But it’s the non-celebrity images that really show the character of the city: Two old men in a costume shop with Halloween masks all around the walls; a tired store clerk or cook in a white apron taking a smoke break in a door entrance; a street preacher talking up the word of God; a well-dressed older couple sitting next to a group of black children coming back from a fishing trip on a city bus. And pictures of commuters on the street, people in the park, dilapidated buildings, diners, burnt-out cars, and even the front of an adult video shop.

One picture features two young girls on a stoop circa 1971-72. After Stein posted it to a Facebook group called “Manhattan Before 1990,” he was shocked that the now-grown girls each contacted him separately only hours later. Stein discovered that one of them was a 20-year vet of the NYPD and book author, and the other an actress.

“That’s one of the nice things about social media. People put up a lot of personal images. I’ve had several pictures identified with location, but the thing with the girls is pretty great,” Stein says.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHRIS STEIN
Photo by Chris Stein
And as for taking pictures of random citizens on the fly? Stein says it was a different era as well. “I can’t remember anything too violent or extreme happening to me. You had more credibility then waving a camera around. Today, every fucking single person is taking pictures. It was a bit more of an anomaly back then to have a camera stuck in your face, and people regarded it differently.”

The photos in Point of View are reproduced in both color and black and white. And while cost prohibited too many in the former format, Stein himself prefers the start visual contrast of the latter.

“I like black and white, the color in color photos can be kind of visually confusing,” he says. “When I’m on Instagram, the black and white makes things better. And black and white is always cool.”

On the music front, Stein says he hopes that Blondie can make some new music in 2019 with producer John Congleton, and there are a smattering of live dates on the books. When I mention that I’m currently reading the autobiography of former Ramones drummer Richie Ramone, I also note that original-and-current-Blondie drummer Clem Burke had a very brief stint with that band behind the kit as “Elvis Ramone.”

“Yeah! The Elvis Ramone thing was short lived. But I think he enjoyed it!” Stein laughs. “Clem is always threatening to write a book, and Debbie actually just wrapped up a book, which is an interesting project.”

Finally, this interview took place the day before the 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were announced – and Stein himself is a member, having been inducted with Blondie in 2006 alongside Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Miles Davis, and the Sex Pistols. That means he also gets to vote, and at least one act on the ballot  gets a big endorsement. 

“I couldn’t fucking believe that Devo wasn’t in already! They’re one of the most innovative groups ever of all time as far as modern bands go!” he says.

The 2006 induction ceremony had its own interesting twists. Instead of any members of the Sex Pistols showing up, vocalist Johnny Rotten sent a short, handwritten letter basically excoriating the Hall, calling it a “piss stain.” Nevertheless, the letter was read aloud from the stage in its entirety.

Blondie’s own induction moment and speeches made for one of the more memorable - and awkward - moments of the night when estranged and litigious former band member Frank Infante asked (begged pretty please, really) Deborah Harry onstage if he and the similarly estranged Nigel Harrison could join the current version of the band scheduled to play right then. That request was declined.

“Everybody thought the Sex Pistols were going to steal the show for controversy, and then Frankie decided it was a good moment in front of millions of people to complain about not playing!” Stein says. “And if he had called me in the 20 years since I saw him, we could have worked something out. But I never heard from the fucking guy. People still ask me how much we paid him to do that!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero