Punk Reunion: New York
Members of Blondie, Ramones, Suicide, Television, and the Dictators remember the CBGB scene.
Like a mushroom on a pile of shit, punk came up in one of New York City’s foulest periods. Probably no other era could have produced it: Urban decay and lawlessness made Lower Manhattan a cheap place to live, and the desperate street vibe — combined with the art community’s down-forwhatever attitude — made for take-no-prisoners music. Punk would spread around the world, mutating as it went. But New York (with due respect to Detroit) invented it. The musicians who assembled for the following roundtable are all “lifers,” as Suicide’s Alan Vega put it, and all were part of punk’s birthing. Many hadn’t seen each other in a while, and the conversation ranged from old war stories (the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff had knives pulled on him in Union Square Park, a notorious drug zone in the late ’70s) to modern music culture (“Everyone’s connected online,” says Debbie Harry, “but they’re also more isolated”). None cashed a check on punk nearly as large as Green Day has. But you sense that retiring wouldn’t have been an option even if they had. “I take a piss, I eat, I make music,” says Vega. “It’s part of you. I don’t stop.”
So it’s the 30-year anniversary of 1977, and there’s been a lot of coverage commemorating that era in New York — not just the music scene, but also the city itself. What was New York City like back then?
ALAN VEGA: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
TOMMY RAMONE: Well, Chris Stein was nice enough to let us move into his apartment.
CHRIS STEIN: Yeah, Tommy stayed at my apartment at First Avenue and First Street –
RAMONE: On the Lower East Side — back when it was actually the Lower East Side.
ANDY SHERNOFF: Nobody wanted to live in New York at the time. When you drove down the Cross Bronx Expressway, there were all these abandoned buildings. And the city painted fake windows on them so people driving through would say, “Oh, someone’s living there.” You could get a rental in New York for 150, 200 bucks a month.
STEIN: You could live wherever you wanted. You didn’t have to give a hair sample and sell your children. Nowadays, I don’t have one conversation that doesn’t deal with real estate. It’s fucking appalling.
“HANDSOME” DICK MANITOBA: The weird thing is, at the time, being a musician was not a career choice. Now it’s a career choice. The music business has expanded tremendously. But I really had no options. It was either gonna be music or I was gonna be loading things in a warehouse.
RAMONE: You should’ve taken that job!
Did you guys find it dangerous living in the city?
VEGA: No, not at all.
RAMONE: That’s not true. It was dangerous. But you could protect yourself.
RICHARD LLOYD: Everyone told you not to go into Central Park, because it was dangerous. So one day I realized that if I go into Central Park after dark, I’m dangerous. So I went, and you should’ve seen the people scurrying away from me.
MANITOBA: And then there was Son of Sam [serial killer David Berkowitz]. I had this date every Saturday night with this girl. We’d go out to dinner, and I’d borrow my father’s car, and we’d have sex in the backseat on a softball field in the Bronx. And I remember after about six Saturday nights of that, there were newspaper headlines about the Son of Sam shootings. It was really a scary thing. So we stopped.
What do you remember most about the music scene back then?
RAMONE: It was somewhat intellectual. You know, there were ideas behind what we were doing. I think that was one of the reasons that CBGB’s actually happened. It wasn’t just the music.
VEGA: There was an art scene, too.
RAMONE: Andy Warhol was a major influence.
LLOYD: But don’t you think there was a vacuum in the general music scene, that there was nothing interesting happening?
STEIN: The general music scene was fucking vomit — the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt and all this horrible shit.
LLOYD: I was at CB’s one night and somebody said, “There’s a new band, and they’re playing at the performance space at 20th Street, and you oughta go see them.” So I went, and there were about 40 people there, and I didn’t know what the hell it was gonna be. And the Ramones came out and went “1-2-3-4!” and started this manic song, and everybody’s jumping up and down. And I knew this was something incredibly special. But Dee Dee didn’t know what notes he was playing, and Johnny got so upset they started this fistfight. And they went into the back — there was no dressing room — and all the audience went back there and separated them and said, “Please! Come back! Play some more!” So they did it again — “1-2-3-4!” — and Joey’s going “A-A-A!” and Dee Dee’s going “C-C-C!” The next time, Dee Dee had dots on his instrument marking all the notes.
How were things changing by 1977?
RAMONE: [CBGB’s] summer festival in ’76 was the first thing that got us a lot of exposure. Before that, the average audience was always five, ten people. After the festival, it was always packed on weekends.
STEIN: By that summer, it was going through the roof.
MANITOBA: You gotta remember something: I was 23 years old in ’77. To me, it was just having fun. When it exploded, there were limousines on the Bowery. But it’s not like we knew people would be looking back at this as some great history. We were just having a ball. If you’re not having a good time in your life at 23, you’re doing something wrong.
SHERNOFF: By ’77, though, the excitement waned a little bit. People had been signed; people had records out.
MANITOBA: Bands were in the studio for six or eight weeks, then they were sent on tour. So the bands couldn’t be there [in New York] anymore. So we kind of had a lull, followed by a second group of bands that were also interesting. Then the same thing happened to them, but you had a third tier. And then hardcore came in. Also, back then, the drinking age was 18, so that made a big difference in who could come into the bar.
In ’77, there was a lot of energy in other music scenes around the city. Did you interact much with the early hip-hop and disco scenes? There was also the Latin scene uptown, and the experimental jazz and composition scene downtown.
MANITOBA: We were in an egg. Incubated in an egg. The only Latin scene I ever knew was when we played a Latin dance club with the New York Dolls on 56th Street for a week.
STEIN: [Graffiti artist] Fab Five Freddy took me and Debbie [Harry] to this thing in the South Bronx at the Police Athletic League in ’77. That’s when we first saw the hip-hop scene. We were very excited about it. And there was the 82 Club.
MANITOBA: The 82 was great — a transvestite club.
STEIN: The 82 is where punk met disco.
DEBBIE HARRY: I remember in my high school in New Jersey, the thing to do after graduation, after the prom, was to go to the 82 Club.
How much of a role did drugs play for you?
STEIN: Drugs were cool and sex was safe.
MANITOBA: There wasn’t much thinking going into it. It was like getting high was as important as anything else. I’m not speaking for the whole generation, just for myself.
VEGA: It was part of the thrill for me. It was part of the thrill to be at CBGB’s and walk a few blocks over. It was the supermarket out on the street. It wasn’t some secret society.
MANITOBA: You had places on the Lower East Side near CB’s where people would line up like they were going to buy a ticket to a hit movie. They had guys saying, “Straight lines, no singles.”
SHERNOFF: Seventy-seven was maybe the start of it. The East Village, where all of a sudden heroin chic became very chic.
STEIN: My parents’ generation didn’t have any information about drugs, so I never really knew how dangerous it was. I saw William S. Burroughs and Lou Reed, and said, “Hey! They’re my heroes!” I wanted to do that shit! I had no idea that I would be fucked up for a couple of years from this stuff.
SHERNOFF: We got fouled up because of the so-called management. People were fine with us doing pounds of cocaine. As soon as they found out we were doing smack, they fled. Those were the days. Nowadays, when an artist gets fucked up, you put him in rehab.
LLOYD: I didn’t think there was such a stigma. You did drugs, you didn’t do drugs. You were cooler if you did do drugs at the time.
In 1977, British punk was starting to reflect the New York scene back at itself. Most of you toured the U.K. at the time. You guys were big stars there. What was that like?
MANITOBA: England’s a really small place. America doesn’t realize that. When an artist gets big in England, we think they’re big. But it’s the size of Connecticut. They had three reporters that all had to fill the weeklies [Sounds, Melody Maker, and NME]. They each had a guy in New York, and they started to report about this scene at CBGB’s. But no one in England had heard the music, because nobody here had made a record yet. People started their own bands over there, and everyone was frothing at the mouth to hear us when we got over there.
RAMONE: The Ramones went there early. Before we played the Roundhouse, we played a small club called Dingwalls. We did a soundcheck there, and after, all these future groups — the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Chrissie Hynde — were in the parking lot waiting for us.
SHERNOFF: The first gig we did there, we were just boggled about the physical enthusiasm — these guys going completely fucknuts.
RAMONE: The spitting was disgusting. You’re full of saliva; people are spitting in your mouth.
SHERNOFF: But it wasn’t a negative thing.
STEIN: There was so much fear and reticence in the media and on the radio. People were scared to be in rooms with Debbie because of the “punks are coming” thing.
VEGA: It was probably the last time rock’n’roll was scary.
STEIN: And there was a lot of trepidation in the aboveground American media. It was so hard to break here. It was ironic: For all of this going to England and being accepted there, no one was really accepted here.
Was there a sense of competition between the American and British bands?
RAMONE: They took the lead from us. We invented rock’n’roll, but they did a pretty good job, too. The Stones and the Beatles were pretty good.
SHERNOFF: But the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers were having hit singles in England, and everybody else was struggling here.
STEIN: I mean, the Pistols’ first album is brilliant. What are you gonna do?
LLOYD: It was competitive. In retrospect, it was good because it made our records better. Our first record cost $6,000. We listened to the Pistols’ record and said, “Oh shit! We’ve gotta make our next record sound good.” The competition helped inspire us.
MANITOBA: But England also had a political upheaval in their youth that we didn’t have — Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones. None of them sang political lyrics. We were apolitical. They took the fire and turned it into something with much more angst. The New York bands didn’t have that type of anger, except for a very few of the acts. Then all of the historians started saying that punk started in England, which is just a bunch of crap. And it was painful, because we weren’t able to really make a dent in America. And they could.
In the interview with Johnny Rotten for this issue, he said this about the New York scene: “I saw a lot of self-love and fanciful poetic leanings….None of them had any street sense of This is all fucked up, let’s change it….They looked down at us, and they shouldn’t have. We looked up at them because they were older.”
STEIN: The guy’s name is Johnny Rotten; that’s what he’s paid to do. He likes to be a public bitch and say how fucked up everything is and how much he hates it. The New York scene was a home-brewed scene — invented by the people themselves, developed by the artists themselves. The London scene was much more marketed. There were managers and stylists and money put into it and agents and everything that came in pretty early on. That never happened in New York. Older New York acts had to develop all by themselves with no money, no support. That English scene is totally different. Look at Malcolm McLaren. He came to New York, saw Television, tried to manage the New York Dolls. But then the Dolls self-destructed, and he went back home and put together the scene over there.
LLOYD: But then he wanted to manage us, and [former Television bassist] Richard Hell wanted it to happen. I thought it was good to have a huckster –like Colonel Tom Parker. We were walking down 56th Street and Tom [Verlaine] turned to me and said, “I’m gonna say no.” And I said, “Why?” And he says, “Do you want to wear red patent leather?” So we told McLaren no. He told his [partner, designer Vivienne Westwood] about the clothing, because we were wearing all these ripped T-shirts. You can’t sell ripped T-shirts, so she put zippers in them. And then he said, “Well, fuck it. I’m gonna go back and make a Television-Ramones copy band.” And he gathered these kids up, and they became the Sex Pistols. And when they came out, the record was great — “God Save the Queen” and all that — but it was kind of an affront.
STEIN: Malcolm came backstage once after the Ramones had played, and he made some little aside to the person he was with. Johnny [Ramone] somehow heard this and picked up his guitar and aimed at Malcolm’s head and fucking swung at him with all his might. If Malcolm hadn’t ducked, he would’ve taken his head completely off. Johnny chased Malcolm out of the dressing room, swinging his guitar at his head. That was one of my favorite moments in rock’n’roll. It brings tears to my eyes.
SHERNOFF: I think the real essence of what Rotten is saying is that he’s still mad at the Ramones from when Dee Dee pissed in a beer, and they gave it to him and watched him drink it.
SHERNOFF: I’ll tell you what Joey told me, and Tommy can back me up. They were playing at the Roundhouse, and these guys come backstage to meet their heroes, their inspirations, their reason for existence. And they had a little initiation. “Hey, Johnny, you wanna have a beer?” Dee Dee had pissed in the beer, and Johnny drank it down.
Did he know?
SHERNOFF: He does now!
He also said, “The record company wanted to shove us into that CBGB’s world of New York, but that was a world of foolishness.”
ALL: [Assorted curses and laughter]
STEIN: Johnny is more punk and uptight and cranky than we are. Great.
SHERNOFF: Let’s take a vote. Is he right? I think he’s absolutely right!
STEIN: In the film Spirits of the Dead, Fellini did a short based on the Edgar Allan Poe story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” The protagonist’s name is Toby Dammit, and he’s played by Terrence Stamp, who does his version of Johnny Rotten — this is 1969 — which I always thought Johnny Rotten ripped off 100 percent.
How do you think the spirit of the punk era influences what you do now?
HARRY: I have a lot of faith in my own creativity, and I make my own decisions. The industry is always wanting you to do something they interpret from your work and they think that they can sell, and you really need to clamp down on what you want to do. That’s the problem with the divas they have floating around now. They’re creations of other people’s minds.
VEGA: Like Johnny Rotten.
HARRY: That’s one of the things that punk has instilled in all of us. We’re firmly affixed to our identities and our styles, and we just hold on to that.
RAMONE: Every place we played — not just Europe, the United States, too — we would leave a city, and all of these bands would start. Because they got the gist of what we were doing. And not just punk bands. It was just the concept that you don’t have to be a virtuoso musician to create interesting, great music. You could be an architect, a writer, an artist.
MANITOBA: When the Ramones got their place right around the corner from CB’s, Joey was really proud of it, and he invited me over. And we thought about maybe writing a song. So I asked him, “Well, why don’t you bring out your guitar?” And he says, “I don’t want to bring it out.” I said, “C’mon, man!” So he brought it out, and it had two strings on it. I said, “Where are the rest of the strings?” And he says, “Well, I worked really hard learning how to play those two.” He wrote his songs on two strings. It shows you the simplicity and the melody and the drive. Guitarists now play like they’re playing video games. It’s all virtuosity. But we had melodies and ideas.
RAMONE: Right now I have this thing called Uncle Monk; we’re an indie-bluegrass duo. We’re basically taking the same concepts of stripping ideas down to their essence. We’ve come full circle: CBGB’s started as a bluegrass club. Somehow we ended up back there