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Interview: Chris Stein

Blondie's main man on one of pop's longest relationships.

    Stein and Harry in their punk heyday
    Stein and Harry in their punk heyday

    Before Lady Gaga and Madonna, there was Debbie Harry, the original subversive platinum blonde pop star. In the late '70s and early '80s, she became the world's hottest pin-up. And Blondie, the New York band with whom she was the singer, were one of the most successful pop groups on the planet on the back of hit singles such as Heart Of Glass, Denis and Atomic, and the 20-million-selling Parallel Lines album.

    In the UK, there was Blondiemania, with 13 top 40 chart entries between 1978 and 1982, including five number ones, making them arguably the biggest ever American band in Britain.

    Then, following a 15-year hiatus during which Harry pursued a solo career and nursed her then-partner - the band's guitarist and songwriter, Chris Stein, who was suffering from a near-fatal disease - Blondie even managed what no other act has done: they got back together and had another number one hit, with the song Maria in 1999.

    Now they have done it again - reformed for an album called Panic of Girls, their ninth since 1976's self-titled debut, and for several live performances.

    "If we have one more top 10 we'll be tied with [pioneering rock'n'roll guitarist] Duane Eddy for having hits in the most decades," says Chris Stein. "And if we get to number one we'll be the only band to have a number one in four different decades." He seems almost wistful. "Who knows?" he says in his distinctive Brooklyn drawl.

    Who knows, and who knew? Nobody suspected that Blondie would be the band to succeed out of the NYC punk milieu of the late '70s, centred around the legendary nightclub, CBGB's. Great things were expected of their peers Television, Talking Heads, The Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, and The Ramones, but not Blondie and their awkward blend of '60s girl-group melody and '70s punk energy.

    Nor did anyone realise at the time - or if they did, they kept quiet - just how crucial a role Jewish musicians played in the scene. Apart from Chris Stein, there was Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB's, Jeffrey Hyman and Tommy Erdelyi of The Ramones, Richard Hell ne Myers, and Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group. Even Richard Gottehrer, who produced the first Blondie album, was Jewish.

    Still performing together today
    Still performing together today

    Little wonder that the New York Times ran an article in 2009 declaring that "punk is Jewish".

    Is it?

    "Perhaps," ponders Stein. "If you consider Lenny Bruce a punk… Woody Allen might also be construed as a punk."

    Funnily enough, Stein, now 61, attended the same school - Midwood High School in Brooklyn - as Allen, although the comedian had long since left by the time he arrived. Not that Stein was a pupil there for long. "I got thrown out for having long hair," he recalls. "But I didn't care. I really hated school, so it was fine by me."

    Another significant event during Stein's adolescence was the death of his father, aged 55. That, plus some serious experimentation with the drug LSD, precipitated a mental breakdown when he was 19.

    "My father dying made me a little crazy," he admits. "I wasn't able to deal with it."

    Did the Stein family "sit shivah"?

    "No," he replies. "We played Gustav Mahler at his funeral and that was about it. There was no religious context to it."

    There was not much religious context to Stein's upbringing. If his parents believed in anything, it was communism, but they also knew about the power of faith to provoke hate, hence their choice of a Christian name for their son.

    "Yeah, that was really bizarre," he drawls. "There are a lot of 'Chris Steins' now if you look it up, but not then. I remember guys saying when I was growing up: 'Oh, that's a weird name for a Jewish boy!' My parents didn't want me to be subjected to a lot of antisemitism.

    "Both of them were 'reds'," he explains. "They had met in the party so my Jewishness was limited. They were more atheistic in their views, and I didn't have a barmitzvah, although of course I had plenty of relatives who were practising. In retrospect, I wish I knew a little more Hebrew. My father used to speak Yiddish with my grandfather quite fluently. I love listening to Lenny Bruce - I admire his ability to make Yiddish sound cool."

    These days, Stein describes himself as "an animist. I'm kind of in there with the American Indians - I believe everything has a life force. I'm not an organised religion-type person."

    He does, however, discuss Judaism with his two young children, even if he will eventually leave them to "figure out all that stuff themselves". And although he denies turning to it during moments of crisis - his father's death, or his '80s battle with pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease - he does admit to having "great sympathy for the Jewish faith", adding that "there are many aspects that I wish I'd paid more attention to over the years".

    Then again, he was quite busy, being one half of pop's most glamorous couple and working as an integral part of one of the era's great hit machines. What was it like going out with the most adored woman on earth?

    "It was kind of weird," he deadpans.

    He is reluctant to say more about their relationship, but he does respond to one question. Had they got married, would Harry have converted.

    "Probably not," he laughs.

    If dating Harry was weird, going from being a group who parodied pop success to actual chart-topping stars much have been pretty strange too.

    "Well, I think everybody that walks on stage in a bar in the back of their minds they see themselves performing in front of thousands of people," he says. "I was always optimistic about it. In a way, I took it too much for granted."

    Several factors led to Blondie breaking up the first time, in 1982, including stress and overindulgence. "We got worn out from working so hard," says Stein, who along with other band members began to take drugs. Was it for pleasure, or due to pressure?

    "All of the above," he says. "There was a lack of information about how much we were going to get screwed up from that stuff."

    Does he believe that fame and its attendant anxieties contributed to the demise of his relationship with Debbie Harry?

    "Maybe," he sighs. "Maybe it ran its course. I don't know. We're still very close so it's hard to say."

    True enough: here they are, nearly 40 years after they first met, he and Harry, side by side, in the same band. Is he amazed that they're still doing it?

    "Yeah, sure," he says. "But then, when I was a teenager, a lot of my heroes were the blues guys, who were all in their 50s and 60s. The hurdle for us now is to see how much success we can have at our advanced age." He smiles, then, in that laconic Flatbush drawl, adds, "Let's see, huh?"

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