I saw Blondie a couple nights ago, It was wonderful. I had been waiting 40 years for that night.
I got really close once, in 1979, at the height of their power, but over those 40 years the opportunity never presented itself where I could take advantage of it. I felt like I was going to miss out.
In 1979 I was 14 years old and falling in love with popular culture, in particular punk rock and new wave music. I was obsessed. I would take a bus to the local bookstore and buy as many copies of NME & Melody Maker as I could get my hands on, along with Rolling Stone, Trouser Press and Creem Magazines. As an awkward kid living in snowy Syracuse, CBGBs and New York City may as well been a million miles away. These publications were my windows to the world, my passport to a seriously underrated decade of music and art.
I would save the change from my lunch money to buy LPs at Gerber Music which always had a top notch selection of the latest releases both domestic and import. I found out later that a large reason for Gerber Music’s excellence in this arena was due to the fact that the music purchaser in those days was none other than Paul Armstrong, he being the a member of legendary acts the Flashcubes and later 1.4.5. and a guy who never forgot his hometown. I can say first hand he is one hell of a nice guy too. It is not a stretch to say that PA maybe had more influence on my musical sensibilities than just about anyone and I probably never knew it until I was much older. It is not a stretch to say Paul Armstrong brought punk rock to Syracuse. So if you are reading this Paul, thank you.
One of the records I picked up right away was Blondie’s Parallel Lines. I don’t think this thing left my turntable for weeks. Of course the album contains the international breakthrough hit “Heart of Glass” a song I loved and still love, but that’s not what hooked me into going to get the album. I was with my mom and brother having dinner at a Pizza Hut somewhere. Back when it was more of a sit-down pizza joint with red plastic cups for bottomless Pepsi to get the kids all juiced up with. This particular Pizza Hut had a jukebox, and I knew I liked Heart of Glass quite a bit, I was thinking of getting the LP, so I played the B-side, a song called 11:59 which blew my doors off.
(Kids, back in the day, singles were sold with two songs, the hit side, and the B-side which was on the other size of a 7 inch vinyl record with a big hole in the middle, you had to stick an adapter gizmo in there in order to get the record on your turn table. Crazy right? )
I was instantly hooked. To this day I maintain that 11:59 is the underappreciated gem on an album that is on every “best albums ever” list you ever saw. A song that harkens back to girl group/wall of sound era pop perfection with just a bite of buzz saw guitar and an organ solo that would make Felix Cavaliere blush.
I got the album at Gerber’s the very next day and I must have worn the grooves down to nothing listening to it. I stared at the fantastically photographed album cover, I memorized the lyrics, I was even enthralled by the pretty blue Chrysalis record label. Soon enough the Debbie Harry poster went up on the wall. Beautiful, confident, street wise and smart. My teen dream. You can keep your Farrahs and Cheryls, my heart belonged to Debbie.
The music was a perfect counterpoint to the punkier sounds of my record collection. I needed my Clash and Sex Pistols, but Blondie fed my need for sweeter melody and more hooks than should be allowed by law. I collected every album, there isn’t a Blondie album worth owning. Well, maybe there is one, but I’m not going to tell you which one that is.
In 1979 Blondie released their 4th album, the follow up to Parallel Lines, “Eat To The Beat” which contained it’s own set of instant classics like “Dreaming” and “Atomic”, of course I picked that up as soon as I could. Also in 1979, my mom decided she would take my brother and I to a long weekend vacation trip to Toronto.
We stayed at a family style motel on the west side of the city close to Lake Ontario on Lakeshore Drive, there used to be a ton of them there, right near a place that was like a modern amusement park called Ontario Place. Inside the park, was a mid sized amphitheater called the Forum and as fate would have it, Blondie was booked to play there the next day.
I begged my mom in every way I could think of to let me go to the show somehow, even if I was going by myself. She was having none of it. “I’m a MATURE 14 year old!!” yeah, I tried to throw that card, but nothing doing. “UNFAIR!” I screamed. As a parent now I realize, of course she was right but I could see the park from the balcony of our room! It was torture! Even more so was the next day when I could see all the punk rock kids headed to the show. Huge mohawks, leather jackets in the July heat, boots! It was as if the scenes depicted in my precious rock magazines had come to life in front of me but I was not allowed to join in.
I continued to torture my poor mother, but to her everlasting credit she was intractable and I couldn’t go. I was resigned to the fact that I had to settle for reading about the show in the Toronto newspapers, which I did, over and over that long weekend.
I never got another chance during the original run of the band, they eventually, as all bands do, broke up, I considered them to be one of the great bands I just wasn’t going to get to see. I, of course, came to this conclusion after the usual progression of going through the steps set out by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her stages of grief. Later on, as I was older and into the tyrannies of adulthood and parenthood, I saw on TV that Blondie had reformed with some original members. There was a televised concert and I remember being truly overjoyed. I was kind of emotional. I was sure I would never hear those songs performed again. Debbie sounded great, amazing presence. The band sounded fantastic, the new guys filling their roles nicely. For me, it was Blondie, in the flesh, if you’ll pardon the pun. (I honestly can’t help myself.)
They played a show or two at a nearby casino, but I just couldn’t get there, life, as it often does, got in the way. But then, this year, Blondie was booked at the NY State Fair, the mega-expo in my own hometown. Finally I would not be denied.
Denied I wasn’t, nor was I disappointed when Blondie came to the fair. I knew Nigel, Frank, & Jimmy wouldn’t be there, and I made peace with that, nothing stays the same after 40 years. I was a little disappointed when I found out later that Chris wasn’t there. But I knew Debbie would be, and when I walked into the seating and saw Clem’s kick drum with the arrows on it, that was a “holy shit” moment for me. That’s when it all got real, Elvis Ramone was in the house. Just seeing the kick drum was enough to raise goose bumps. The great Kurt Riley got a chance to go back stage and he saw that Clem carries, in his travel case, a mini shrine to Keith Moon. Because, of course.
I was talking to one of those “wonderful people” in this town I keep telling you about, Paul Doherty,(The Trend) no slouch himself behind the kit and he spoke about a kind of holy trinity of drummers, Keith Moon, Clem Burke and Tommy Allen (Flashcubes, Screen Test) and I think that pretty much clocks it. But if we can have a troika of four, I might suggest letting Paul get in there too. He’s responsible for more than his share of goosebumps raising “holy shit” moments in my life of rock n roll appreciation.
When the show started, leading off with “One Way or Another” it released a whole flood of emotions. First and foremost, the song rocks, but also the fact that my own son, who was with me, is not much younger than I was when I first heard the song. I was struck that when I was an awkward high school kid, loving this music, sometimes I was ridiculed for it. Here it is, 40 year later and it’s making thousands of people happy from a rock n roll stage, just like it must have at the Ontario Place Forum that night in 1979.
I was gobsmacked by how great Debbie looked. 73 years old, looking great, singing great, still with the moves and such a commanding presence on the stage. A force, but more than that, think back to all the times you have read about her, or seen her on TV. This woman embodies living history. She came on stage with a light jacket with the words “Stop Fucking The Planet”,, when she turned her back to the crowd, the cheering gave me hope that maybe not all is lost in this troubled country.
They ripped through a 90 minute set that had a few newer songs, which is something that is imortant to me, I understand the draw of an “oldies” group, people love those songs, but I think bands need to keep creating whenever possible and I enjoy hearing what new things a band I love is up to. The new songs more than hold their own with the established catalog. Songs like “Fun” and “Long Time” fit right in with “Call Me”, “Atomic”, “Heart of Glass” and “Dreaming”
It’s not often in life when you get to close the book on a 40 year old disappointment. It’s not every day you
get to explain what it all means in your heart to your 10 year old son. It’s not every day you get to see a band that is among the upper echelon of an era and still churning out great work. But I would be lying if I didn’t say, it was also a wonderful throwback to a time in my own life when I would seek out and devour music by bands like Blondie and others and that’s okay. It’s okay to look back every once in a while.
From the stage that night Debbie talked about seeing Cher the week prior with a friend, and when Cher busted out “I Got You Babe”, it moved her and friend to tears. Music is like that, it hits neurons you didn’t know you had like nothing else can and can take you back to places in your mind, and in your heart you had thought you had long abandoned.
After seeing Blondie the other night, I know exactly how Debbie felt.
Thank you to Neil Dailey, Paul Doherty, Linda Ferguson, and Kurt Riley for sharing their pictures and experiences.
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