Book: Under a Rock

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Under a Rock: a memoir by Chris Stein

1970s New York City birthed punk rock, disco, and hip hop. Think about that for a second. Hip hop is the predominant global culture of the last 20 years, punk rock fueled new wave (which helped create electronic dance music), grunge, and a freak/DIY ethos of art/film/ publishing/everything that’s blossomed from the underground as the digital age democratized the media (for better or for worse), and disco…well, it got people dancing and that counts for more than you think.

A born-and-raised Brooklyn kid and founding member of the band Blondie Chris Stein chronicles life in the storied streets of the city that never sleeps during some of the most exciting times in its history—the glory days of Warhol, Basquiat, CBGB’s, Max’s, Studio 54, Wild Style, and the slow rise to international mega success of Blondie, plus life with its iconic singer/icon Debby Harry.

But Under a Rock is far from glamourizing or sensationalist. With a true local perspective, Stein writes with a steady, almost deadpan voice about the scenes, venues, and characters that have since become icons of NYC history and American culture. Characters like Ronnie Toast (named such because he apparently burned down his parents’ house then later went back and spraypainted “toast” on the boarded-up plywood) are given the same narrative weight as dinner with Warhol, David Bowie’s stint acting in Elephant Man on Broadway, or jamming the band into a station wagon to drive to Philadelphia for an early show. It all happened, so it’s all part of the story–no one part hugely more important than the next. Which isn’t to say Under a Rock lacks behind-the-scenes insight into the music industry—recording, touring, shitty contracts, drugs, band conflicts and more…it’s all in there— but Stein gives just as much attention to describing the run-down East Village lofts they live in or the cats that keep them company. His relationship with Harry isn’t the driving force of anything, (but you can also tell it kinda is) and Stein’s book lacks the romantic allure of Patti Smith’s Just Kids or the bonkers, once-in-history artist perspective of Debbie Harry’s Face It (though I recommend you read all three back to back). Instead this is a book about day-to-day life in a very specific time and place that just so happened to be one of the most culturally important of the last hundred years.

In 1972, the city was relatively empty. It felt to me like there was more of a focus on work and the day-to-day normal comings and goings of regular inhabitants. In and around that façade of vague normalcy, the various freak cultures that were based on shared affinities in sex, art, and music wove themselves throughout society without much actual overlap….
[In 1975] everybody noticed these flyers on lampposts around CB’s that said PUNK IS COMING. We assumed it was a band with the dumbest name possible, but it was John Holstrom and Legs McNeil, two guys who were into cartoons and music who were attempting to start a magazine/newspaper with a much more hands-on personal approach that was closer to the musicians and local freaks than eve the Voice or SoHo Weekly News. Everyone liked these two and were glad to contribute. Punk definitely provided us a sense of empowerment. By the forth issue, Debbie was the foldout.”

Chris Stein

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