Chris Stein:
Point of View

In conversation with Jon Ronson

“All my friends were outsiders.
Even before I got into the real artsy, beatnik-emulating crowd,
everybody was still on the fringes. That was the norm.” 
— Chris Stein

Chris Stein
Chris Stein is a musician, photographer, songwriter, and the co-founder and lead guitarist of new wave band Blondie. Originally from Brooklyn, Stein wrote and co-wrote many Blondie hits and was an integral part of the early ‘70s New York punk scene, capturing thousands of photographs of its atmosphere and key figures. He has published a number of photo books including Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk (2014) and this year’s Point of View: Me, New York City and the Punk Scene (2018).

Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson is a Welsh journalist, author, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and radio presenter. Ronson’s books include the bestseller The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), the basis of 2009’s feature film, as well as The Psychopath (2011) and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). He is also known for his award-nominated BBC Radio 4 program Jon Ronson on… as well as other radio contributions, including This American Life. Ronson has co-written the screenplays for Frank (2014) and Netflix’s Okja (2017) and appeared on various TV programs, as well as hosting his own late night panel, For the Love of… (1997-98).

Blondie is a New York rock band formed by singer Debbie Harris and guitarist Chris Stein in the mid ‘70s. A pioneer of new wave and punk rock’s music evolution, Blondie has released a total of eleven albums, including their self-titled first album in 1976, Parallel Lines (1978), and 2017’s Pollinator. The band holds multiple awards, including two Grammys, and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the co-founder of 1970s new wave cult band Blondie, Chris Stein is most well-known for his musical prowess. It should come as no news to his fans, however, that Stein has been blessed in equal measure with a flair for photography. His photographs of 1970s New York’s music and art scene are among the most visceral and coveted artifacts from Downtown’s golden age. Each snapshot glimpses the now-nostalgia-soaked world of pre-Giuliani New York, with frequent appearances from celebrities like Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, William Burroughs and Iggy Pop.

Stein’s newest photobook Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene (2018) comes four years after his last photo exposé, Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk (2014). True to its name, Point of View offers a deeply personal perspective on his early roots in New York’s punk music and art scene. Each page is brimming with everyday life—from Stein’s apartment to New York’s gritty streetscapes to the Ramones performing at Arturo Vega’s loft—and is sprinkled with candid photographs of ‘70s icons.

Bestselling author and journalist Jon Ronson penned the forward to Point of View. Having grown up in Wales during the 1970s epoch of punk, Ronson recalls watching the New York scene from afar with the sort of reminisce that marks a true fan of the era. Here Ronson rejoins Stein, covering topics of identity, historical turning points, and the shifting landscape that is New York City.

Jon Ronson: Chris, I’m curious what you were like as a teenager and a young man. Because where I grew up in Cardiff, there was nobody cooler than you and Blondie. What was it actually like to be you?

Chris Stein: All my friends were outsiders. Even before I got into the real artsy, beatnik-emulating crowd, everybody was still on the fringes. My earliest group of friends were more mainstream and went on to be normal. Then I hooked up with people who were musicians, photographers, and artists. I was sixteen or seventeen, and we all smoked a lot of pot. But even that first group was pretty fringe. That was the norm.

JR: There were a few bands who came along before punk was mainstream, and Blondie was one of them. Could you sense that something was in the air? Did it feel like history was being made?

Written, directed, and starring Woody Allen, Zelig (1983) is an American mockumentary set in the 1920-30s about a man who adopts the personalities and mannerisms of those with whom he is interacts. Co-starring Mia Farrow, the film incorporates cameo commentaries from the likes of Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Irving Howe.

Newport Folk Festival
The Newport Folk Festival is an annual folk music festival held in Newport, Rhode Island. The festival began in 1959 as the counterpart of the Newport Jazz Festival and is considered one of the first modern music festivals, remaining an important site for the expansion of the folk genre.

The Lovin’ Spoonful
The Lovin’ Spoonful is a US rock band known for a number of 1960s hits including “Do You Believe In Magic” and “Summer in the City.” Founded by musicians John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, the band has had a rotating cast including Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty of the Mamas & the Papas. The Lovin’ Spoonful has released seven studio albums and was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Paul Butterfield
Paul Butterfield was an American blues harmonica player, singer, and the founder of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Regarded as one of the best-known blues harp players, Butterfield’s band was popular in the late 1960s on festival line-ups and recorded several Billboard charted albums. Butterfield is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

MacDougal Street
MacDougal Street is a one-way street in the Greenwich Village and Soho neighborhoods of Manhattan, New York. The subject of many songs and poems, MacDougal Street has been the site of many homes, hangouts, and music venues for famous personalities ranging from Louisa May Alcott to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, E.E. Cummings, James Baldwin, and many other celebrities and bands. Venues include Night Owl, The Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha?

The Left Banke
The Left Banke is an American baroque pop band formed in 1965 and best-known for their hits “Ballerina” and “Walk Away Renée.”

CS: I was always in this kind of Zelig position. The first time I ever smoked pot was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a year after Dylan went electric. I almost went in 1965 but didn’t make it until the next year when I was sixteen. By that time, everybody had accepted all the electric bands, and The Lovin’ Spoonful, Paul Butterfield, and all those guys played.

I used to hang around the MacDougal Street milieu, which was the center of the youth scene before the East Village. I jammed at the Night Owl with my friends, and then we played with the guys who went on to become The Left Banke.

JR: How did you see yourself back then? Did you see yourself as a musician or a photographer?

CS: I identified as a musician, mostly. I spent more time playing with my friends in bands, so more energy went into music than photography. I was always carrying cameras around though.

There wasn’t any kind of popular music school back then the way there is now. There was just Juilliard, which I wasn’t cut out for. So I went to the School of Visual Arts which was kind of the equivalent.

JR: I’ve always thought of photographers as on the outside looking in, observing things rather than being part of it, which sometimes means you don’t feel you fit in. Do you remember feeling confident or feeling awkward? Were you comfortable in your skin?

Blow-Up is a 1966 mystery thriller by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni and starring David Hemmings alongside Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Birkin, Peter Bowles, Veruschka, and other 1960s icons. Hemmings plays a British fashion photographer who believes he has unwittingly captured a murder scene. The film was considered sexually explicit for the time, and its popularity influenced the birth of the MPAA film rating system.

CS: No, I was always a nerd and had to push myself to go into social situations. All my friends identified with David Hemmings and Blow-Up, but that kind of confidence is few and far between. Maybe some of those aristocratic British photographers were confident, but I think for the most part it was something else.

JR: Did it ever get sketchy? You were dealing with some famously shy people, like Andy Warhol. Did photography ever become a burden, where people thought you were being intrusive?

CBGB was a New York club and music venue opened in 1973 in Manhattan’s East Village. It became famous for hosting punk and new wave bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones. The club closed in 2006 with its final concert featuring Patti Smith.

CS: By the time I was going to CBGB, everybody was friends and there were a bunch of photographers around. So that was a given. Then as the band became successful, it was a kind of doorway for my photography.

Bowie was really cautious, but I think it was more about controlling his image. I only got a couple shots of him and Debbie.

JR: Did he say something to you about it?

CS: I just got the sense that he wasn’t sure of my ability. I would have liked to get a couple more posed things. The shots I did with Iggy and Debbie at the same time are more creative than the shots with Bowie.

“I’m tempted to say it’s less of a struggle now for people to succeed. It feels like Lil Pump or somebody is immediately thrust out there and sell a million records overnight.”
— Chris Stein

JR: Did you ever feel shy in those days? I don’t know how I would have handled meeting people like Warhol.

CS: I felt shy initially. When I first started going out to clubs on my own, I would frequently have a flask of bourbon or cheap whiskey to bolster my forward motion as it were. But it passed when I started meeting people and getting in with different crowds.

Then I started wearing makeup, which I liked the reaction to and the freaking people out. I loved going out on the subway and having people look at me like I was a complete weirdo.

JR: Eventually, people must have felt shy and socially awkward around you when Blondie became so successful.

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain is an American chef, author, documentarian and TV personality known for his focus on international cuisine, culture and realities. He rose to fame with his tell-all book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) and has hosted well-known TV shows including his Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (2005–12) and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013-18).

“Liz and Dick”
Liz and Dick was the popular nickname for celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In 2012, Lifetime premiered a biographical film Liz & Dick from director Lloyd Kramer, starring Lindsay Lohan in the role of Elizabeth Taylor and Grant Bowler as Richard Burton.

CS: I guess. We ate with Anthony Bourdain when he was filming Parts Unknown right before he died, and he said he was in the same place as us a couple of times. And I said, “Why didn’t you say hello?” And he said, “Oh, you guys were like Liz and Dick, I couldn’t do it.” I thought that was funny.

JR: What do you miss most about those days?

CS: I miss my youthful energy. I recently missed playing a bunch of shows because of an irregular heartbeat—really stupid and boring. But I was probably a lot more egotistical and crazy back then, and I like where I am at mentally now.

But as far as the environment, there are a lot of aspects of corporate New York that I really don’t like now. Soho was so great back then, and now it’s a shopping mall. Times Square had an atmosphere, and I liked the funkiness and shittiness of it. That’s missing now. You know the Scorsese movie After Hours?

JR: Yeah, of course.

CS: That’s what Soho was like. It’s a great encapsulation of the whole atmosphere and how crazy it was. It was like some kind of weird dream. A lot of where we were was very dreamlike. There were little cliques of people who were isolated and unaffected by notoriety, just functioning on their own with their weird little clubs you could go to.

I remember I was at a squat, an abandoned building with a weird, makeshift club in a basement. We had been watching some jazz band there, and we walked right out into the Thompson Square riots which were in full swing.

JR: What do you remember about the riots?

CS: It was crazy, and the police were definitely overreacting. We saw them pull this guy off a bicycle who was just driving by. He had nothing to do with anything, and they just grabbed him and dragged him off his bike. We got out of there pretty fast.

The Deuce
The Deuce (2017-) is an HBO TV series created by David Simon and George Pelecanos and featuring an ensemble cast with James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. A historical fiction, it follows the rise of New York City’s porn industry in the 1970s with subplots involving police corruption and the drug epidemic.

JR: I watched the first episode of season two of The Deuce last night, the HBO porn show.

“One of the things I like so much about your photographs is you’re not capturing grime or misery. You’re actually capturing a lot of happiness. You can tell that New York hadn’t been gentrified, but you’re portraying young people full of life, excitement and adventure.”
— Jon Ronson

CS: Yeah, it’s very dour.

JR: At one point I turned to my wife and said, “Every time they turn on the radio in this show, an iconic classic of the time is playing.” Like “Roadrunner” or “Don’t Worry About the Government.” I bet in the mid-’70s, when you turned on the radio most of the time the songs that came out were shit songs that nobody remembers.

I look back on those times and what you’ve captured and created musically as one of the most exciting, iconic times of my lifetime. The people you met—Basquiat, Warhol, the things that you did as Blondie, and the music that you created, culture doesn’t get any better than that. Did it feel like that at the time? When I look at your photographs, it feels like you knew you were in the middle of something amazing.

CS: It was always exciting, but I don’t know how much focus I had on the future and what was coming at that point.

I’m tempted to say it’s less of a struggle now for people to succeed. It feels like Lil Pump or somebody is immediately thrust out there and sell a million records overnight. It’s probably not the case, and people are probably still struggling. But we really did have a physical struggle living in very shitty environments and not having any money. That was going on, and maybe that lends itself.

Rudy Giuliani
Rudy Giuliani is an American politician, attorney, former Mayor of New York City, and current advisor to President Donald Trump. He succeeded David Dinkins as Mayor of New York City in 1994 until 2001 and is best known for his successful efforts to clean up New York’s streets and lower its crime rates.

JR: It probably did lend itself. I remember when I lived in Manchester in England, and the rehearsal rooms were really cheap. Bands could afford to rehearse and record, and nobody needed a job. These days if you want to live in Manhattan you have to be pretty rich, and as a consequence I think creativity doesn’t happen as much. So when did you see it all change? I guess it was Giuliani where things started to go wrong.

CS: Well, 9/11 was the real big change. Two years after that is when the money started pouring in, which is part of why people are so suspicious about 9/11 because it seemed like it opened the floodgates of corporate interest. Things that had been in the private sector were suddenly taken over.

Otherwise, the change had been gradual from about 1995 onwards. We went right from Dinkins to Giuliani.

JR: I have no idea what Dinkins was like as a mayor.

CS: He was non-existent. He didn’t do anything anybody could see, and that was why you could go into grocery stores downtown and buy drugs pretty easily. It was the height of drug plagues on the Lower East Side at any rate.

JR: When Giuliani became mayor, did you watch it gradually disappear?

CS: It felt like it took about ten years for it to make a dramatic change. I remember the police busting all the bodegas and grocery stores that were selling drugs. That was on its way out. But it seemed more gradual. I mean, ten years really isn’t a long time, and maybe it was even less.

JR: One of the things I like so much about your photographs is you’re not capturing grime or misery. You’re actually capturing a lot of happiness. You can tell that New York hadn’t been gentrified, but you’re portraying young people full of life, excitement, and adventure. Did it feel that way?

“New York of 1970 was closer to 100 years ago than we are now. Before the technological revolutions with the improvements of telephones and TV, there wasn’t much of a sea change as they say.”
— Chris Stein

CS: It’s hard to be objective because I was so embedded in it, but the New York of 1970 was closer to 100 years ago than we are now. Before the technological revolutions with the improvements of telephones and TV, there wasn’t much of a sea change as they say.

JR: Do you think that New York is completely gone, or does it still exist in its corners?

The Fifth Element
The Fifth Element (1997) is a French sci-fi action film co-written and directed Luc Besson and starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Milla Jovovich. Set in the 23rd century, the plot follows Willis as a cab driver suddenly tasked with the responsibility of saving planet Earth together with Jovovich.

Max’s Kansas City
Max’s Kansas City was a popular New York nightclub and restaurant opened by Mickey Ruskin in 1965. Located at 213 Park Avenue South, Max’s was a hub for many famous musicians, poets, artists, politicians, and celebrities in the ‘60s and ‘70s, until its closing in 1981.

CS: I think there’s plenty of it about. Physically, there’s not been a huge change. We’ve got these glass towers, but it’s not like The Fifth Element, yet. Maybe that’s coming with the infinite things shooting up in the sky.

But, everything is getting cleaned up. Right where I live there was a really great building that was always covered with crumbling paint. They hadn’t painted the damn thing for years, and then they finally fixed it up last year. And it kind of ruined it for me. It looked like something from New Orleans from the French Quarter, and now it looks like everything else. There’s a building right around the block from Max’s [Kansas City] that I used to go to that had these weird, wooden structures that looked like they were 100 years old. Then the facades got all redone, and the interiors got redone. That goes on, but overall the physicality is still there.

JR: When you mentioned your health, it reminded me that you got pretty sick in the ‘80s.

CS: I had wrecked my immune system from drugs, so I got this congenital condition. You have to be Mediterranean or Eastern European to get it, and it was time-consuming but also kind of fascinating.

JR: Did photography help?

CS: We took some Polaroids of the hospital room I was in for like three months. It was a real pain in the ass.

JR: Were you housebound for a long time?

CS: Not too long. By the time I got out, most if it had died down. I still have scars on my back because the proteins that bind your skin together break down. It’s called “Pemphigus,” which is Latin for “blisters.” It was potentially fatal years ago, but now they treat it with steroids.

JR: What would you say is the difference between your photos and music? Are they about the same thing, or do they come from different places?

CS: I think they’re different. You get a bunch of people listening to the same music, and it probably triggers the same synapses and brain locations, so there’s a kind of bonding that goes on. When people look at the same photograph, that’s not as guaranteed. They may all have separate associations.

“You have a time-relationship to a song that you’ve listened to for twenty years, whereas photography pulls you into these moments that are a long time ago.”
— Chris Stein

I also don’t think the time travel aspects of music are as immediate as they are in photography. You have a time-relationship to a song that you’ve listened to for twenty years, whereas photography pulls you into these moments that are a long time ago.

JR: How much editorializing do you do with your photographs?

CS: They’re all full-frame for the most part.

JR: That qualifies as not editorializing, right?

CS: The composition is editorializing, but that’s just how you adjust the camera. I remember as a kid discovering that you could look through the lens on a camera. I didn’t know you could do that because I was using a Brownie camera where you look through a second lens. The fact that you could see exactly what you were taking a picture of was something I was really happy about.

JR: Right. Because the times I’ve met you, you always very happy and warm-spirited.

CS: Am I?

JR:  You always seem that way. I think when you go through an extraordinary era or experience, you can be left with the joy of it, or you can let the little slights consume you so all you think of are the bad times. It seems like you just remember the good times and have a very sunny outlook on life.

“There’s a comedy routine to people saying, ‘Remember when we were shooting up and the guy sold us Drano and we had to go to the emergency room?’”
— Chris Stein

CS: Life is amusing. There’s a comedy routine to people saying, “Remember when we were shooting up and the guy sold us Drano and we had to go to the emergency room? Remember how great that was?” That’s kind of my take on reality. I try to be optimistic about life in general.

JR: I think of your pictures as optimistic, do you see them that way?

W. Lester Banks
W. Lester Banks was an American music journalist, critic, author and musician known as one of America’s most influential rock critics. Banks wrote regularly for Creem and Rolling Stone magazines, as well as the Village Voice, Playboy, and more.

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart is an American comedian, writer, producer, director, political commentator, actor and TV host. He is well-known for hosting, writing, and producing The Daily Show (1999-2015), a satirical news program on Comedy Central, as well as The Jon Stewart Show and You Wrote It, You Watch It. Stewart also hosted the 78th and 80th Academy Awards and has written a number of books including bestseller America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction (2004).

CS: Maybe. I mean, I always found decaying stuff really attractive in a weird way and kind of fascinating. There’s definitely a beauty in all that.

You go on Instagram, and there’s so many photographers devoted to this dark art and gloomy stuff. I don’t know if it’s emo or what, but it’s attractive. I don’t think that genre used to be out there so much.

JR: The decay in your photographs isn’t about how terrible everything was but about the possibilities to create really interesting things, which you did. You captured the milieu from which some of the greatest culture of the century came. I think that’s what’s so good about your photographs. They recognize that the mounds of rubble aren’t  bad, but are about creating a world from which amazing things can come.

CS: Yeah, I don’t know. I was always drawn to it, maybe because it was familiar.

JR: My favorite photograph in your book is that one of W. Lester Banks on the beach at Coney Island.

CS: That’s a classic. It’s one of my favorites. I gave a very large print of that to Jon Stewart when we were on his show. He was excited because coincidently his father lived in one of the apartment buildings in the background.

JR: How did that photo come to be? He looks like somebody who’d never been on a beach before. He’s enjoying it but is also incredibly uncomfortable.

Punk (magazine)
Punk magazine was a music magazine created by cartoonist John Holmstrom, publisher Ged Dunn and music journalist Legs McNeil in 1975. With its 15 issues between 1976-79, Punk popularized ‘70s New York’s underground rock music scene, featuring the likes of Blondie, Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop on its covers. “Mutant Monster Beach Party” was a feature-length Punk fumetti starring Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, and many other celebrities.

CS: That’s a good description. He was both uncomfortable and sort of flamboyant at the same time. It was from one of the Punk magazine fumetti things, the Mutant Monster Beach Party.

JR: What do you want people to take away from the book?

CS: The time travel aspect. I’ve seen people being fascinated by that period, so if I can convey a little bit of that, especially to the younger people, then that’s successful to me.

JR: Do you think there’s a third book that you can bring out? Are you still taking pictures now?

CS: I take pictures now, and I still maintain my Instagram. I probably could put together enough stuff, but as far as the old stuff goes it’s finite.

All images © Chris Stein

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