Chris Stein misses the New York that once was, yet he would never leave it. “It is what it is, the city becomes a part of you. It’s corny to say but that’s what happens,” he tells CR.
The Blondie guitarist, photographer, and lifelong New Yorker candidly captures the essence of New York City’s combined complexity and captivity in the new book Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, published by Rizzoli. Featuring portraits of everyday citizens interlaced with ones of Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and David Bowie, the book encapsulates the music scene of downtown Manhattan during the ’70s and ’80s, and concludes 20 years later on the same streets–as Stein documents the harrowing aftermath of 9/11.
“I don’t think anyone quite realized what a big deal it was immediately,” he says. “That it would affect the whole tone of the city completely after that.” By waxing nostalgic over the New York of the past, with the simultaneously rough and brilliant nature in which it constantly evolves, Point of View ultimately reads as a bittersweet love letter to the grim and glam soul of the city that never sleeps–one that is as elusive as it is ever-present. CR sat down with Stein to talk about his complicated love for the city.
In the book, you talk a lot about being nostalgic about the New York that once was, as opposed to the one that exists now. What do you wish was different?
“Generally I think that the corporate onslaught…the city might be better without that. Where I live in West Village, there are empty storefronts, because the landlords are at a point where they’d rather have a bank or something that’s paying a lot of rent, instead of small businesses. I don’t know if that’s for the best or not.”
Is there anything that you like better about it now?
“Well I have teenage kids [who] ride the subway to school, and you don’t worry about it too much, so to a certain extent that’s better. But then again, I was a teenager in New York too, so it’s hard to say. It’s better that there’s not the drug epidemic everywhere you look, as it used to be. East Village was dangerous, but the drug epidemic is a product of the stupid drug war mentality…so it’s hard to say. Everything is kind of ambiguous, always problems and solutions.”
You have a way of capturing both strangers and celebrities in the same candid, intimate way. Do you have any strategies and what have you learned along the way?“I think it was different when everyone wasn’t taking pictures all the time. It might have been a little bit easier to approach people because they weren’t so familiar with having their picture taken, or they thought that if you actually had a camera with you on the street you were somehow more qualified to be taking their picture. Now it’s just everybody, everywhere, taking pictures.”
Tell us about your relationship with Andy Warhol. What was he like?
“He was just a great character. He was a modest, very sweet guy, and a great listener. Debbie [Harry] and I would always say that what you learned from Andy [was] how to listen to people, because he was always taking things in. He wasn’t the type who’d interrupt, you know, he was a nice guy. I always hit it off with him. We were lucky to have been able to spend time with him.”
How did you first get to know him?
“Probably, when we started getting successful, when he noticed us. He was always a celebrity, but everybody knew each other in this scene. Everybody was connected at that point, but I can’t remember the first time we started hanging out with him. The first time I ever saw him in person was in 1965, which was kind of a great thing. The contrast of what he looked like then in comparison to everybody around him was amazing, he was just so futuristic.”
Blondie was big in the ’70s and ‘80s, which was also the focus of your book. What was so great about that time, in terms of music and life in the city?
“There’s a lot to be said for the connectivity that goes on now, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that everybody in the music and art scene was very isolated in New York during those years. Especially in the early to mid ‘70s, the scene was cut off from the media, there wasn’t a lot of attention immediately. Again, it’s ambiguous, I don’t know which is better–it’s kind of cool that everyone can get a lot of attention quickly now, but maybe there is also something to be said for things being able to ferment and go on for awhile before getting attention.”
The book wraps up with a series of photos of downtown New York on 9/11. What do you remember about that day?
“I sometimes regret not having gone down into the thing [Ground Zero] but our friend, a fireman, said, ‘Don’t go down there, stay away from it,’ so I was at a distance, yet [I was] pretty close to it. Two years later, everything in the city started changing. I [read] recently that there was a big push by various financial [players] in the city to get the Olympics here right after 9/11, it brought in a lot of corporate interest.”
What do you think makes New York so irresistible in spite of its toughness and grimness?
“The first thing is probably its diversity. In the music scene we were always exposed to stuff from all over the world here and that was great. This whole other slice of culture that was going on alongside us, it was a great moment.”
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