Book Review: Chris Stein’s “Under a Rock” — A Complex Account of Love, Loss, and New York City

By Paulina Subia

Part of what makes Under a Rock special is Chris Stein’s open-eyed fascination with New York City.

Under a Rock: A Memoir by Chris Stein. Foreword by Debbie Harry. St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $30.

“I’ve always been attracted to little things that carry on in the fringes of our secular existence,” writes Chris Stein in his memoir Under a Rock. This focus on the marginal neatly separates this book from its punk remembrance cohorts. As the founder and guitarist of new wave icon Blondie, Stein is not interested in romanticizing what once was. Instead, he searches for a deeper meaning in life’s minutiae, such “little things” as a collection of handwritten notes left in a fence on the corner of Houston and Bowery, the image of a wine glass shattering atop a speaker at a Wall Street bar, and a vision of a group of girls in their school uniforms walking along a dirt road in Europe. Stein claims of the latter that “the fleeting temporal image has maintained space in my head forever.”

Born in Harlem in 1950, Stein was raised in Brooklyn to parents who met in the Communist Party. (His sardonic comment: “This sounds more glamorous and/or terrible than it likely was.”) In the book’s early pages he evokes the essence of ’50s Brooklyn, drawing on old-school charm and cautionary tales. We read about trips to Woolworth’s department store, summers spent at Coney Island and Brighton, and boyhood hazing initiations. They are conventional memories of what has become a bygone era. Still, he accompanies his memories of preschool with a mature observation: “Beyond that I remember that I had a fringed yellow leather jacket that I pulled the fringes off and gave to other kids. Was this a metaphor for seeking popularity by distributing oneself?”

In fact, throughout this narrative Stein grapples continually with loneliness. Why? Perhaps it is because Stein was an only child. Or the paranoia generated by the political turmoil of the ’60s. That isolation is compounded when his mental health struggles begin, tellingly, during the onset of the Vietnam War and subsequent army draft efforts. “I began having actual psychotic breaks that included auditory hallucinations — voices and odd sounds — and distorted thoughts,” Stein writes. “Wandering around the Lower East Side, I decided that the buildings were in fact a kind of set, a facade that I could get behind if I found the right route. An overheard phrase from somebody on the subway, like, ‘Be careful,’ would become a direction of deep cosmic significance.” Yet Stein’s loneliness is not always painful; when he’s on even keel he appears to be wholly comfortable with solitude. And that is oddly refreshing. Along with Stein’s admissions of guilt, wrongdoing, and uncertainty — the cracks in its facade of “celebrity” — he seems to enjoy solitude, to be set apart from others.

Part of what makes Under a Rock special is Stein’s open-eyed fascination with New York City. We are given the candor and humor that’s expected in a musician’s life story, but along with that he articulates his heightened awareness of his surroundings. Stein grounds the narrative in the grimy, crumbling, often dangerous neighborhood streets he walked through. We are given a vivid sense of the urban jungle, the homes, venues, bars, and places of the metropolis. New York City is not just a setting — it is an essential, visceral part of Stein’s life.

A catcall hurled at Debbie Harry on Thompson Street — “Hey, blondie!” — gave the band its name. Following the group’s live debut in the fall of 1974, it solidified a cult following after some initial pushback. “It seems incredible that there was resistance because we had a girl singer and a raw sound, but there we were,” Stein writes. “The gatekeepers had established this boys’ club that didn’t want a bunch of do-it-yourself maniacs as members.” For those who lived through the birth of punk, glorification of the period has become customary. Personal anecdotes of debauchery and hedonism, an embrace of antiwar/government/ whatever ideologies, the valiant effort to “look the part” in leather-clad dress, have become de rigueur. That looks mighty attractive to the oversaturated youth culture of today — nostalgia is dictating the future. As someone who did not live through punk’s heyday, it is hard not to fall victim to the exaltation of its past. The hope is that some of the era’s dissenting energy will catch on in the passive, balkanized culture of today. Toward the end of Under a Rock Stein takes a final look back at the counterculture, and he states, “I’m grateful to have grown up in the 1960s. There was no struggle to create what was creating itself. As a segment of the macrocosm, I’m caught up in a pursuit of nostalgia.”

Chris Stein at SXSW in 2014. Photo: Wiki Common

The urge to look back with romanticized longing is understandable, given today’s cultural demands. But Stein manages to be coolly removed — you could almost say wryly inquisitive — about the era in which he came of age as a performer. Under a Rock probes the idea of the nostalgia trip. It does not just do the expected name-dropping — David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the like — but attempts to place Blondie’s career in the context of punk’s rise and fall. This is not just a “tell-all” about the joys of fame and fortune; instead, the memoir chronicles excess and loss. Stein goes into the vacillating emotions that come with touring, drug use, love, and a plethora of other emotions, and that lends this narrative of rock stardom a rare intimacy.

Fans of Blondie will appreciate Stein’s stories about the band’s travels around the world, encountering renowned characters and fellow musicians. (He remembers these meetings with startling accuracy.) Stein’s trajectory of the band’s career counters the dominant notion that it was “Debbie Harry & Co.” The book’s cover art suggests Stein’s perspective: it is a black-and-white image of Harry leaning against a wall, glaring at the camera, with Stein standing somewhat out of focus. He is strumming his guitar in the background, dark sunglasses shading his face. Of course, Harry’s glamour and vocal talent remains the backbone of Blondie’s legacy, and Stein acknowledges this. Still, our Pavolian emphasis on saluting a band’s lead singer, with little to no reference to the instrumentalists, is refreshingly critiqued in the ironically titled Under a Rock.

Paulina Subia is a writer from New Jersey. She has written for the Boston Globe, Metal Hammer, Legsville, and more.

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  1. Tim Barry on June 23, 2024 at 7:44 am

    Great review! Liked the line about the “passive, balkanized culture of today.” Too damn true.

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