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How Heroin Addiction Almost Crippled Blondie at Their Commercial Peak

In his new memoir, Under a Rock, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein looks back on the highs and lows that came with the band’s success. The pioneering punk band formed in New York in 1974 and achieved megastardom within a few years thanks to hits like “Heart of Glass” and “Dreaming.” By the end of the decade, Stein and his girlfriend — Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry — had become, according to Stein, “functioning addicts.”

An excerpt from the book looks at the period around the release of Autoamerican, the group’s 1980 album, which contained the Number One hits “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.” Behind the scenes, Stein and Harry were grappling with heroin addiction, contemplating remaking Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, collaborating with Swiss surrealist painter and Alien creator H.R. Giger, and still making sense of their fame, including a memorable SNL appearance.

In addition to the text from Under a Rock, Rolling Stone is premiering the same excerpt from the audiobook edition of the memoir. Actor Dennis Boutsikaris, who has appeared on the TV shows Better Call Saul and Sugar, reads Stein’s words. The audiobook also includes a foreword written and read by Debbie Harry and “Heartbreak Kid,” a song from Blondie’s upcoming album.

Here are Stein’s recollections of a tumultuous and exciting time in his life.

Behind everything was this lingering drug situation. Cocaine was everywhere all the time. We would meet some big celebrity and he would pull a bag of blow out of his pocket. But a lot of people were doing heroin as well. People we knew were functioning addicts. We began seeing a guy named Al who turned us onto the art of chasing dragons. A simple form that still requires a little technique — it’s just inhaling the smoke of the dope while it is burned on tinfoil. We had screwed around with sniffing heroin already, but smoking it was pretty insidious. One night a neighbor of ours, the guy who built out his walls, got mugged in Central Park. He fought off his attacker but got banged up and came over to our apartment. He was all bruised, so we chased some dragons with him without mentioning what it was. I think he thought it was some form of weed. He definitely left feeling better. That was the problem; it made you feel better.

At one point in one of the eternal Blondie tours, everyone was about to travel from Switzerland to Paris. Somebody in Zurich had given Debbie and me a bunch of heroin. As we were boarding the plane, after Debbie, Clem, and I went through the metal detector, one of the crew guys right behind us had a metal container of hashish in his shirt pocket that set off the alarm and he got nabbed. Everyone in the band and crew from the culprit back was taken away. Two security guys came on the plane and told us they’d be removing our luggage to investigate and asked if we wanted to leave the flight and accompany our bags as they were searched. Clem left; Debbie and me said no, thanks, and stayed on the flight. We did have this fairly large quantity of drugs with us and we became concerned lest we get busted arriving in Paris. We dumped most of the dope in the plane toilet but put a small amount in a cuff of Debbie’s pants. Of course nobody even looked at us when we landed, and we spent the afternoon stoned, wandering around the Champs-Élysées while everyone else sat around in an office at the Zurich airport in their underwear. We saw Klaus Kinski driving down the boulevard in a jeep.

On a European flight there was a guy in the last row who proceeded to get drunker and drunker, all the while shouting and raving in accented English. He was cheerful but creating enough weird volume that everyone on the plane noticed him. As we were getting off, I think in Germany somewhere, he pushed his way out of the cabin unimpeded and I noticed he was wearing a gun on his belt. He didn’t have any luggage and I realized that he was the fucking sky marshal on the flight, there to protect and serve, presumably to thwart skyjackers or other criminal airborne elements. The guy getting completely tanked wasn’t very reassuring.

Earlier, I guess in 1977 or 1978, I did get apprehended going into Toronto, Canada, with a small amount of weed. It was pretty pathetic. I had a hotel envelope in my bags that contained a third of a burned joint and some random ashes. The customs guy acted like he’d brought down Pablo Escobar. I was a bit burned out then and figured I’d just go to jail and do a lot of sit-ups but when I was turned over to the RCMP detective he was sympathetic. He told me that they’d recently had Keith Richards in the very same office and I was lucky I didn’t have any “white powder” with me. He knew about Blondie and said that I just shouldn’t tell my friends that I’d gotten off easy and we spent the remainder of my visit, about a half hour, talking about photography. When they eventually let me go, Debbie and others were anxiously waiting, on the verge of calling the lawyers.

In New York we had done a lot of recording at the Power Station where Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards pretty much lived full-time. They went home to sleep occasionally, I guess. I loved Chic. Nile came over to our apartment and we found out he was a rock fan, he loved Devo. We discussed a collaboration. Neither of us had worked with anyone outside our respective bands.

We wrote a bunch of songs separately and collaborated on two and recorded pretty quickly, as I was the only outside musician and the guys from Chic worked as a well-oiled machine. Nile got the whole album on two two-inch tape reels. One of the songs I had that was called “Chrome” on the project had originally been intended as theme music for the supposed remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville. Amos Poe was going to direct, Glenn O’Brien wrote a screenplay, and Fripp was to be the male lead opposite Debbie. This didn’t happen in part because we talked about it prematurely (which I learned not to do again. As soon as the story hit the media, at least one band and various other things, records, and clubs called Alphaville appeared). We did get to meet Godard, who questioned our sanity for wanting “to make this old movie” (French accent). We gave him a thousand bucks to option the rights and later found out he probably didn’t have the rights himself but Amos got a contract with his signature, which we figured was worth a grand.

Right at the same time we noticed that Swiss artist H. R. Giger was having a show of his Alien illustrations at a gallery that was down the block from us on Fifty-Seventh Street. We went to the Hansen Gallery and by some quirk of fate Giger was there on his way back to Zurich after having won the Oscar. He knew who we were and he and his wife, Mia, came back to our apartment and sat around on the terrace. I’d known about Giger for quite a while from his graphics, and Alien was a cultural phenomenon. We had discussed doing something together and when we finished this record, we called him about possibly doing the cover. Brian Aris did a photo session that was the basis for the cover image. Giger had some input with the Koo Koo title as he sent us a sketch early on of Debbie’s head being pierced by safety pins and suggested an acupuncture/punk reference. We traveled to Switzerland to work on videos with Giger.

Giger’s place in Zurich was on a countrified neighborhood block in a section called Oerlikon. It was in a row of houses where he’d knocked several together to make a large studio space. As one might expect, his environment was very magical and magic-influenced. Like Rosaleen Norton, Austin Spare, and Alan Moore, Giger definitely identified as a magician. I don’t know that he practiced directly but his work reminded me of the metaphysical diagrams of German philosopher and mystic Jakob Böhme, which were intended to affect the ether.

His Oscar lived on a shelf in his mural-decorated living room next to skulls, a shrunken head, and African fetish figures. The whole place was filled with Alien residue, including a life-size Xenomorph figure. Giger told us that while he was working on the film props, he would come upon the figure in the middle of the night and it would “scare the shit” out of him. His backyard was decorated with strange figurines and had what he called a ghost train that ran on miniature tracks.

Giger threw himself into the project and made a bunch of related props. He made a tiara that was based on the one on the cover image. The tiara had a round stone set into the front that was surrounded by radiating lines. The whole thing was a copy of an IBM chip, and, concerned that there might be some vague copyright issue, Giger had added a small rectangular element to the design so it wasn’t exactly the chip. He was meticulous. I saw him working on a book while we were there and he sent back the test pages several times because of slight color variations. He was also working on a series of airbrush paintings of New York City. He said the city was like an inverted crucifix with the vertical buildings and the horizontal underground beneath the streets. The videos took a week or so and afterward Debbie and I went to La Prairie clinic on Lake Geneva and got treatments that involved embryonic-sheep-cell shots. After a week there I felt very relaxed and clear. We returned to Zurich and I remember considering getting stoned, smoking hash again, but I didn’t consider too much. I knew I would cave and after getting high felt cloudy and depressed. We reentered the world.

One of the first things we did when we got copies of Autoamerican was bring one to the Dakota apartments and leave it for John and Yoko. The doorman knew who we were and we later heard that John had been playing it at home. More recently Sean Lennon has said that “Tide Is High” was one of the first songs he remembers from his childhood. It seemed like just a short time after that, John was killed. It was very disturbing and I flashed back to my father dying.

Autoamerican got mixed reviews but “Tide Is High” went to number one in the U.S. Then when “Rapture” was released, Frankie Crocker at WBLS, one of the most influential DJs in the country, got behind it and was a major part of its success. “Rapture” went to number one in the U.S. too. Blondie had the number one and number two records on WABC radio in New York, which, I was told, was a rare occurrence; only the Beatles and us.

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Debbie was on Saturday Night Live and we played two songs, “Love TKO” by Teddy Pendergrass and “Come Back Jonee” by Devo. But we got to pick a musical guest, as Debbie was the host. We asked the Funky Four Plus One to do the show. Sha-Rock, the “Plus One” in the Funky Four, is considered the first female rapper, and the group was the first hip-hop act on national television in the U.S. I tried really hard to have their DJ actually scratch on SNL but they couldn’t connect their turntables. The show even sent a couple of the kids from the group uptown in a limo to look for cables in somebody’s apartment but it just couldn’t get done and they wound up rapping to their tape at the end of the show as the credits rolled. Still it was a great moment.

Excerpted from Under a Rock: A Memoir by Chris Stein © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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