“New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation With Blondie, Iggy Pop, and Others, 1974-1981” is a memoir by former Blondie member Gary Valentine. Published by Sidgwick & Jackson in London, the book tells the story of that band’s rise to fame through the furiously creative New York music scene of the mid-1970s that would retrospectively be given the title “punk.”
This scene featured bands as disparate as Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie, as well as a host of others who never got signed. Speaking from London where he now lives, Valentine says, “That’s something I always mention when people want to contrast the New York movement with what happened here. Maybe I’m ignorant about a lot of the U.K. [punk] bands but they did seem to have a similar feel and sound, whereas they were very different in New York.”
There was one thing the bands on the scene did have in common: disillusion with the virtuosity-obsessed rock establishment. “What happened in New York was focused on giving the rock establishment a kick in the ass,” Valentine says. “Saying, ‘we’re tired of these sated musos.’ To see bands like the [New York] Dolls play or the early Television or Patti Smith when they were just banging away at two chords, I thought, ‘yeah, this is great.’ That’s what led me to actually do it.”
Valentine — who as a teenager had dabbled in writing songs on an out-of-tune piano — was invited to try out for a new group called Blondie by an acquaintance named Clem Burke, who was the group’s drummer. Valentine soon became Blondie’s bassist, but the fact that he had never seriously played the instrument before didn’t particularly put him at a disadvantage compared to his new colleagues. Indeed, Blondie could boast a beautiful frontwoman in Debbie Harry, but precious little else. “Clem was the most proficient musician,” Valentine says. “The rest of us were pretty bad. We were all sort of amateurs at it and learning how to do it.”
Blondie became part of a music scene centered around CBGB — a previously obscure club located in the Bowery that has now become part of rock legend. The general musical ambience of this scene was arty and poetical. “People like Patti Smith and [Television’s Richard] Hell and [Tom] Verlaine had one foot in French symbolist poetry,” Valentine observes. “They were self-consciously emulating something like the late 19th century poetry movements in Paris. And it succeeded.” As to the name of this movement, Valentine recalls, “It was never called ‘punk’ there until after it had happened here and certainly not until ‘Punk’ magazine. In its early days, it was referred to as ‘street rock’ or ‘New York rock’.”
Despite the feel of a movement, there was often a lack of solidarity amongst the various bands, as illustrated by the way Blondie were looked down upon by their more proficient rivals. “We were the group who would open for anyone,” Valentine recalls. “We were third on the bill for a long time with lots of different bands and it was such a surprise and shock to most people on the scene when we actually started to put it together and master our instruments. Literally, everyone was saying to Debbie, ‘why don’t you just give it up?'”
Valentine recalls an intensive period of rehearsals, with no gigging, in early 1976 as being a turning point in the band’s development. One of the things that perhaps made Blondie seem insubstantial in the eyes of the other bands was their eschewing of hard and/or art rock for a ’60s pop approach, although filtered through the sensibilities of a generation besotted with trash culture. “[Guitarist] Chris [Stein] was really into Japanese monster movies and I was reading comic books and sci-fi all the time. Debbie was into film and Marilyn Monroe,” Valentine says. “We basically threw all those influences together.”
It was when Valentine came up with a risque but highly melodic number called “X-Offender” that things really started to happen for Blondie. “It just came to me one night at Max’s,” Valentine recollects. “I was just sitting there and the melody got into my head so I rushed back to our Blondie loft and picked up a guitar and got it down that night.” He played it for Harry the next day. “She said, ‘OK, I’ll come up with some lyrics.’ That’s the song that got the record deal. That was sort of our signature then. We closed the shows with it.”
When legendary ’60s producer Richard Gotterher (“Hang on Sloopy”) heard the track, he offered the group a contract with Chrysalis Records. Before they knew it, Blondie’s members were whisked from the seediness of the Bowery to the glamour of the rock star circuit. When they returned in the spring of 1977, it was to the sad realization that an era was ending. “The art-rock union lasted until about ’76 and then started to fall apart, especially with the influence from the U.K. when the Damned came,” Valentine laments.
The Damned were part of a U.K. scene massively influenced by the New York sound and headed by the Sex Pistols, whose nihilistic approach was adopted by most of their compatriots and then their trans-Atlantic cousins. “They were the first U.K. band to come and play,” Valentine says of the Damned. “They played CBGB and they really changed the atmosphere. That’s when the tag ‘punk’ became very prominent. People who knew nothing about the scene were coming from the suburbs. They didn’t know about Patti Smith or anything; they knew about punk rock and they’d be wearing safety pins. It became kind of stupid. You could really feel the difference. The sensibility shifted, the subtlety: Hell had a certain wit and the songs were full of poetic references. That went out the window and it was sort of like, ‘oh forget about all that, let’s just rock.’ So you had the Dead Boys playing a very simple, not particularly intelligent kind of excessive rock.”
Valentine, meanwhile, had problems of his own. “I felt constrained by Debbie and Chris,” he says. “I was the kind of George Harrison/Pete Best of the group: ‘you can have two songs, don’t pogo on stage and, no, you can’t play guitar’.” Though he was gone by the time Blondie recorded its second album, Valentine bequeathed the group the delicate “(I’m Always Touched By) Your Presence Dear,” which became a top-10 U.K. single for Blondie in 1978. Valentine was by this time broke and living in Los Angeles. “People would say, ‘Oh God, did you see Billboard?’ or something. ‘Your song’s in the top-10 in the U.K.’ So I knew that in a couple of months the money would be coming in. It was very gratifying.”
Blondie went on to superstardom but, for Valentine, something was lost in the process. “They went much more mainstream, but Debbie and Chris were very ambitious and good for them,” he says. Post-Blondie, Valentine ran his own band and played guitar for Iggy Pop when he supported the Rolling Stones in 1981 before nightly crowds of 80,000. But he gradually drifted away from music and became a freelance journalist in 1994, usually writing on occult matters, often under his given name of Gary Lachman. He is the author of a previous book, “Turn Off Your Mind,” about the occult counterculture of the 1960s.
With the Blondie days long behind him, he was surprised to be contacted by Stein in the ’90s. “Chris Stein tracked me down and he said, ‘please come back to New York — I want to put the original band back together’,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘well hell, I’m 40 years old and I’m not going to get an opportunity to do this again.’ So I went and worked with them for about a year and I really enjoyed it.”
However, the venture was to end in disappointment for the bassist when he was not invited to take part in the recording of a new album. The songs he’d written for the project were not used, something he only found out about through third parties. “In this business it’s not unusual that this sort of thing happens, but they could have called me and told me,” Valentine says.
Writing “New York Rocker” has given Valentine the chance to dwell once more on the CBGB scene and to ponder on whether it lives up to its reputation as a musical revolution. “It certainly was a very exciting, creative, passionate time,” he says. “It was a generation of pop and rock fans who took things into their own hands. You had people basically saying, ‘look, you don’t have to be some highly produced virtuoso musician in order to make really good music’ — and I think the bands and the albums that came out of there proved that right.”