Chris Stein: “I still feel protective about Debbie”

The Blondie guitarist and photographer looks back on his bohemian family, his relationship with Debbie Harry, and getting "too crazy", in his Letter To My Younger Self

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. 

The British papers were the first ones to give us a lot of coverage outside of the local New York City papers. That was kind of an indication that we might get big, when Melody Maker and the NME showed up and wrote features about the scene and about us. Then we came to Britain and the people were going kinda crazy. What struck me was the physicality of the audience. There really was no rock dancing in New York. So when we came over for our very first show and everybody started going crazy and jumping around, that was like a revelation. I remember playing the Glasgow Apollo. The stage was built up so high, it was like performing on the edge of a cliff. And way below us, all these people going mad.

It didn’t bother me that Debbie got all the attention. We were together [they were a couple for 13 years, from the late Seventies] so I always just heavily identified with her, I was never jealous. That was probably different for some of the other guys in the band. I’d never thought about that, I just wanted to be in a band. Fame wasn’t something I aspired to especially. When we go out travelling and all the autograph people come up to us in the airport I can always dunk away. I still feel protective about Debbie but she gets the brunt of it.

If I wanted to impress my younger self I’d show him our second tour in the UK. That was very dramatic for us, there was a kind of Blondie mania, thousands of people showing up. The craziness surrounding that has always stuck in my head. But things are nice now, you know. We have quite a bit of credibility and we’re treated like elder statesmen.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

I’m a pretty optimistic person. When I got ill [Stein was diagnosed with autoimmune disease pemphigus vulgaris in 1983] I never through it would be fatal, I just thought it was mysterious and annoying. And I had to be in hospital for three months. That was annoying but I did a lot of drugs throughout [Harry has spoken about smuggling heroin to him; they were both heavy users at that time]. I don’t know if they helped but I had a fucking spinal tap and that really hurt so I got stoned after that. But doing drugs really compromised my immune system which might have exacerbated the whole thing. So it probably wasn’t a great idea.

I have fond memories of smoking pot when I was a kid so it’s hard to tell my daughters not to smoke too much pot. But I was functioning, I was doing stuff at the same time, which is fine. It was only later when I started doing the harder stuff when it wasn’t so good. Even after all the illness, in the Eighties and Nineties, I was definitely doing too much cocaine and that was a bad time. I got too crazy. And I could see I was doing so much coke I was becoming paranoid and I was getting delusional. But then I met my wife and that was a very sobering experience. She’s great. We’ve been married over 20 years now. She was an actor in the theatre scene in New York. She was more sober than me and that was something I aspired to. I didn’t want to be fucked up in front of her.

If I could go back to any moment in my life, I really wish I’d brought a camera to Woodstock. I went when I was just 19 and it was fucking great. I loved it. I was tripping a lot of the time but I remember a lot of it. It was the only time I got to see Jimi Hendrix. Debbie was there also but we didn’t know each other yet.

I’m getting older. My brain is pretty much still all there I think, but I get fatigued and all that crap. And I have an irregular heartbeat so I have to take fucking medication for that. But I wouldn’t trade my brain for a new body. I’m pretty happy with a functioning mind and I’m still using it.

An Evening with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in Conversation takes place in Glasgow (April 22) Birmingham (24) Manchester (26) and London (28) blondie.net