At 16 I was mostly smoking weed and trying to get romantically involved with women. And I was involved with the local band scene. I wasn’t much into school. I have two daughters now and their school seems idyllic compared to mine. They don’t have teachers who are fucking psychopaths like we did, teachers who shouldn’t have been around other people, let alone children. My daughter just left middle school and her friends were all crying because they’d loved it so much. To me that was such a crazy concept, because to me it was like the ninth circle of hell.
When I was 12 my parents got me a guitar. I’d been putting out that I wanted one every birthday and Christmas then they finally got me one. At first I was just playing along with records – I listened to a lot of jazz and film soundtracks before the music, like West Side Story. That was a huge cultural event in America in 1961, a few years before the Beatles. So for me the actual songwriting stuff came later, when I met Debbie [Harry] and we formed a band. It was a necessity in the music scene, we needed original songs.
If you met the teenage Chris now you’d find someone pretty awkward. I don’t think I had self-confidence until later, when I was in the band scene. I was a total hippie, a weirdo. I was expelled from school because of my hair. That was weird and fascinating ’cause it shows how stupid the schools were. The dean told me and my friend he was concerned we’d be crossing the street and a wind would come and blow our hair in front of our faces. That was his excuse but really he just couldn’t handle it because it was too sexually ambiguous or whatever the fuck it was.
I had no brothers or sisters. I had lovely parents. They were bohemians and they were reds. My mother was a painter, a very artistic and smart lady. My father died early on, when I was 16. That was a big tragedy that sort of caught up with me and I went pretty crazy when I was 19. I just didn’t process it well. And it made me a bit nuts. He was a sweetheart, he was a good guy, a frustrated writer. I still feel I don’t know anything about him. He came from Russia when he was a boy and we don’t even know his real birthday. My kids are really curious about our family background but I really don’t know anything at all.
I knew early on that I wanted to always be in bands. When I was 17 I got to open up for The Velvet Underground. I had a friend, Joey Freeman, who worked for Andy [Warhol]. He used to go to Andy’s house in the morning and wake him up, when Andy was still living with his mother. Joey just showed up at my house one day and said the opening act had pulled out and did we want to do it? So we grabbed our instruments and dragged them on to the subway to this place up town. The Velvet Underground were amazing that night, it was very exciting for us. Maureen Tucker even let us use her bass drum. Later on I got to know Lou [Reed] pretty well and I found him to be a sweet guy.
When I first met Debbie [Harry] I just thought she was really fantastic, musically. I think I just saw what a lot of other people saw later on. She was very charismatic and beautiful and all that stuff. I was at the first show of her band The Stilettos and I joined up shortly after. Then it all started. When you’re caught up in the moment it’s sometimes hard to see it from a distance. But it was a terrific period. I mean, Clem [Burke, Blondie’s drummer] and me talking years later realised we never saw Saturday Night Live in the early days because we were always out on a Saturday night.