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A NEW YORK DOLL SPEAKS OUT - PHYLLIS STEIN INTERVIEW BY MEL

Photo: The Village Gate at Heartbreakers/Senders gig 8/20/1977 by Phillipe Marcade
 
Phyllis Stein is a Native New York Girl, who was at the heart of the 70’s American early punk scene. She wrote a diary throughout, holding dates when/where bands played or certain events took place. She is a walking encyclopaedia of information, enthralling us on Facebook with images from this period. There’s a lot more to Phyllis’s story, here is a brief introduction.

First introduction to live music was watching The Ronettes at the age of 12, but as Phyllis says "From the beginning, I was a huge Rolling Stones fan and into Anita Pallenberg, no Beatles for me". Later she was often found hanging out at The Fillmore East in 1967, it was here she used to see Johnny Genzale (pre Thunders days), with ample cool rock hangouts like ‘Nobodys’ and ‘Max’s’ she encountered many people who would later form bands such as The New York Dolls. She has memories of attending some great events such as The Rolling Stones 1969 @ MSG to The New York Dolls at Mercer Arts, The Sunday Rock 'N Roll Parade in Central Park, plus all the other rock clubs.

Phyllis met and dated Jerry Nolan in 1976. In 1977, alongside The Hearbreakers she arrived in London whilst they recorded LAMF and shook the Capital. NY girlfriends at the time included, Sable Starr, Abbijane, Debbie Harry, Jimmy Destri’s sister Donna and the infamous Nancy Spungen.

Phyllis simply says:  We were just going about our lives being young and making and listening to great music in the clubs every night. I left the scene for a couple of years around 1980 when I decided I wanted to live. Heroin was taking its toll on me and everyone else. A couple of years later, I returned to the scene and started to see Jerry Nolan again. I was with him until he died in 1992.

MEL: It’s great to have you on-board today; can I start by asking how you would describe your exciting life during the 70’s period? From one who was stuck in the centre of NYC punk scene at the right time what was it really like?

PHYLLIS: It was really great fun. My best memories are those from the early days when there was a real esprit de corps amongst all these very talented musicians. In those days, before many went onto tour and record, almost every night there was great music happening around town, usually either at Max's or CBGB's.  There were some other venues like The Bottomline and The Village Gate and some others came and went but those two were the mainstays in NYC. You might start the night off at Max's to see Blondie and end up later on at CBGB's to see The Ramones. Other band members themselves were hanging out when they weren't playing to see their friends' gigs. Luckily, I still have my date books from that time. So looking at a week in August 1977, for instance, Blondie, Mink DeVille, The Talking Heads, The Patti Smith Group, Devo & Sylvain's band The Criminals all played that same week. It was an exciting time to be hanging out in NY.

Photo: Phyllis front row of The Ramones CBGB'S

MEL: I bet you didn't realise at the time just how lucky you were to be in the inner circle of creativity. You must hold so many memories in those little diaries of yours. Did you ever perform yourself at anytime or do anything else in a creative form?

PHYLLIS: No, I don't think any of us realized so early on that we were actually involved in a scene that would become a part of Rock 'N Roll history. We were just a bunch of young kids going out and having fun listening to or creating great music. Yes, indeed, I'm so glad I actually saved all these little date books as when I look them over it's even incredible to me how fantastic those times were. No, although I play piano and can read and write music, I never did anything professionally with it. I did attend the School of Visual Arts here in NY for photography and took lot of photos back in the day, mostly of my friends who just happened to play in bands. Like everyone else back then, I lacked the funds to do as much shooting as I wanted to as film and processing was costly. It was nothing like today where you can shoot tons of photos and be selective in the printing process for very little money.

MEL: What date stands out as one of the best times for you? And from the negative view point what would you consider the worst date or period of the time?

PHYLLIS: I guess I would have to say that summer of 1977 was really happening here. Everyone was in town and gigging all the time. Summers were great because we'd all walk back and forth between the  clubs and in the winters we'd freeze. So summer in the city with great music all around worked out well. The Heartbreakers had returned from London and Blondie had also come back from their tour. It was a time period before others would soon take off and begin touring around the country and the world as well. It's hard to pick a "negative" time, but let's just say it was less fun as everyone took to the road to tour and by the late 1970's that's exactly what was happening. There was still great music around but it wasn't as intense by 1979, let's say.

MEL: Punk in the UK had really become mainstream around 1978 and I think I dropped out around 1979. I'm curious to know when did the punk scene in New York as you knew it start to fade, you say that by 1980 you had left the scene, obviously H played some part in that but did you also become disillusioned and the excitement started to fade?

PHYLLIS: For me, the excitement went out of the scene when all my favorite bands started to make it. By then, they were always off touring around the world and weren't gigging at those great small intimate venues any longer. I was never disillusioned with the music and was very happy for all those who were achieving greater fame and recognition. It was the heavy drug use and addiction that was so sad and disillusioning. It was also the time AIDS, although not named that at the time, was just coming around the corner. So I consider myself very lucky to have pulled back from what was going on around that time.

MEL: If I throw a date at you, could you tell me in words and a photo exactly what happened on that date? Let’s say Feb 27th 1977 (my 17th birthday).

PHYLLIS: OK, February 27th 1977 ~ While you were celebrating your 17th birthday, I was in London with Jerry Nolan and The Heartbreakers. It was a Sunday and we had just spent the last two days in the studio where they were recording L.A.M.F. So I guess we were just hanging out at the flat where a lot of people would always come by, everyone from say Nick Kent to Nils Stevenson and a couple of The Banshees.

MEL: I too wrote a diary throughout this time but some of those times have faded in my memory. It all sounded such a wild, fun time, right in the thick of the action. What was your first impression of the London scene as opposed to the NYC scene?

PHYLLIS: That's a very interesting question. No doubt about it, the scenes in London and NY by the time I got there in February 1977 were very different. And what made it so divergent were two things as far as I could tell: the fashion and the audiences. In NY, we were very stylish and fashionable but in London it was taken to a whole different level. And I think Malcolm and Vivienne had a lot to do with that obviously. You wouldn't see a NY "punk" with safety pins on their clothes although Richard Hell used a safety pin to hold his shirt together because it was falling apart! But you certainly didn't see Mohawk haircuts and ripped mohair sweaters in NY, at least during the mid to late '70's. The audiences in NY were much more subdued and cooler. In London, I didn't even want to leave the dressing room at the first Heartbreakers show I went to at The Roxy as there was too much slamming and gobbing going on for me! Those kids were definitely much wilder in London at that time.

MEL: I am guessing that whilst you were in London that this is about the time Sid and Nancy were introduced? I guess Sid was hanging out with you guys? The media reported about Nancy in the vilest of terms. She has to be the most reviled woman in punk history and when she met her fatal end in the Chelsea Hotel it was almost as if people thought it was what she deserved. What are your feelings about Nancy, did you two hang out together? I was told that she had her sights set on Jerry in particular, but he was scared to death of her, did you witness any of this predatory stuff?

PHYLLIS: Ah, Sid and Nancy. I was probably the only person besides Jerry who was happy about that union! I had known Nancy since sometime in 1975 and I can understand how those who really didn't know her could have those opinions of her. However, she was a very bright young girl who suffered from an extreme case of low self-esteem. When I met her she was go-go dancing here in NY which was a nice way of saying she was prostituting herself on some level. I remember her telling me how she made more money in a night than I made in a week at my office job and trying to get me to join her. It just wasn't for me. Then, she would spend all her money on buying drugs for various guys on the scene. And yes, she did prey on Jerry and a few others. But they were all using her and I tried to explain that to her when she'd ask me why everyone disliked her so much. But she had emotional problems that were only made worse by her addiction. So once she went off to England, just as I returned to NY, I was glad she met Sid. She finally had what she couldn't find here, her rockstar!

I met Sid when she returned to NY and called me up to ask if she could bring him over to meet me. So they came over and he certainly didn't seem so "vicious" to me. She was in charge of that show as he seemed very passive to me. She'd say jump, he'd ask how high! I was very shocked when her mother wrote that book about her. Especially when I found not only my name in it, but also Jerry's and Philippe and Babette's, other friends of ours at the time. Quite frankly, I felt it was disgusting of her to try and make a buck off of her daughter's short and sad life.

MEL: Do you think her Mothers book accurately reflects the Nancy you knew and the way she maybe spoke about her childhood? And closing the Sid & Nancy theme here, I guess I should ask for the record - do you think Sid killed Nancy?

PHYLLIS: In many respects, I do think her mother did depict the troubled girl I knew in her book.
Nancy always spoke of her very difficult childhood and how she was so misunderstood by her family. They were constantly sending her to psychiatrists and she was put into special schools for kids with emotional issues. She had grown up in an upscale suburba
n environment in Pennsylvania somewhere and she was very different than other girls there. Being different created a lot of problems for her growing up. No, I never believed that Sid killed Nancy. I think that the police somehow coerced him into confessing as he was practically incoherent. Also, the police really didn't care about another dead junkie enough to conduct a proper investigation. It was much easier for them to just blame Sid. 

MEL: Talking of books, I believe you were interviewed by the lovely Nina Antonia for her Johnny Thunders book, 'In Cold Blood'. How was this experience? Can you tell us a little unknown story or fact about Johnny Thunders.

PHYLLIS: In the summer of 1991, Jerry and I came over to Paris and London. When in London, we  took a train out to see Nina in Barnes so that she could interview Jerry for an updated version of "In Cold Blood" that Jungle was putting out. I remember that day really well right down to the clothes we were wearing, pink and black. Nina is very easy to talk to and work with. So, yes, I spoke with her again after Jerry died to bring her up on what had happened and that's how her book ends. I guess what I would like for people to understand about Johnny was that while he was a great guitarist and rock 'n roll personality, he was a real person with problems like drug addiction but he also had another side to him that was extremely sweet, especially with children. In the late 1980's he had written a song called "Children Are People Too". Jerry would tease him about this song and another called "Society Makes Me Sad" and ask him if he was now becoming a folksinger! Johnny asked me if he could do a video at our loft with my daughter and her friends who he already knew pretty well. It's out there on youtube called Johnny Kids 1 and 2. I remember that day so well. The girls were very excited to do the video and he was so good with them. He was great with everyone's children. Too bad he really never got to know his own.

MEL: Jerry Nolan drummer with The Heartbreakers was your partner in 1976, you split up but resumed your relationship with him in later years, until he passed away from a stroke brought on by pneumonia and meningitis. That must have been a really sad period of your life when he passed away in 1992. What are your most treasured memories of Jerry, do you have any keepsakes which mean a lot to you?

PHYLLIS: Yes, you're correct. Somehow Jerry contracted meningitis and pneumonia, and while they were treating him for that at St. Vincent's Hospital here in NYC, he suffered a few strokes which were the real cause of his death. He'd often get migraines so when he got this horrible headache we just thought it was another migraine. But it wasn't. Unfortunately, 11 weeks later he passed on. It was an incredibly difficult time for me which lasted a couple of years. I've so many great memories it's difficult to think of just a couple. But I'll always cherish the times we got to travel and, in particular, meeting up again after some years had passed. I've kept certain things of his such as his drum sticks and guitar, personal letters and cards as well as some his clothing like his favourite leather jackets and such.

Photo: Phyllis & Jerry Nolan 1991

MEL: One of your girlfriends during the 70’s, was the late Sable Starr, what are your fondest memories of her. I always wondered why she packed up and moved to Vegas.

PHYLLIS: Sabel was always really upbeat and a very happy person to be around. She was hanging out in NY and needed a place to stay so she lived with me during the summer of 1977. We had a lot of fun and got into a lot of trouble that summer. You never knew what to expect with her as she was always up for anything! She was a great storyteller and I loved to hear her tell me about her "groupie" days when she was only a young teen in Los Angeles. She left New York and went back to live in California. There she got into more trouble and battled her drug addiction and eventually won with the help of a 12 step program. She learned how to deal cards to support herself and that's how she ended up in Vegas. For the last 15+ years of her life she had been living with her long term boyfriend Bill near Reno, Nevada working as a croupier in a large casino. We always kept in touch throughout the years and she would visit me in NY for a couple of weeks every June. As you probably know she passed away in April 2009. I miss her very much.

MEL: Another of your girlfriends was Debbie Harry. Do you have a favourite Debbie story to reminisce; did you guys hang out in those early days and beyond? She was so incredibly beautiful you could almost believe she was Marilyn Monroe's daughter (a rumour still circulating today).

PHYLLIS: The first time I ever saw Blondie was on a very rainy Tuesday night at Max's and there were hardly any people in the room. At the time, I remember telling my friend who was with me "Oh, this girl has IT!" The band at that point consisted of Debbie, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Gary Valentine & Jimmy Destri. I started to date Jimmy and that's how I met the rest of the band. So I was hanging around with them and went into Plaza Sound Studios with them a couple of times when they were recording their first album. It was all very exciting at that point. Debbie is such a stunning girl and, to her credit, she never let it go to her head. I recall one of our earliest conversations was about being adopted as I was also adopted. I think all adopted kids feel a bond with the others. Most of us do wonder about our biological parents and in her case, the Marilyn Monroe "tale" emerged. Quite frankly, I always felt she was prettier!

Photo:  Clem Burke (Blondie) & Phyllis 1977

MEL: Who are you in contact with today from the NYC days?

PHYLLIS: There were many people I never lost contact with like Sabel, Bob Gruen, Philippe, Lenny Kaye, his wife Stephanie and others. We'd all get together throughout the years for holidays like Thanksgiving, Passover and Bob's infamous birthday parties. I'd see others at less fortunate events like funerals, all too prevalent among our friends. But Facebook has put me back in touch with practically everyone who survived the times. As a matter of fact, just today I saw Walter Lure and Andy Shernoff to discuss an upcoming project. Walter's doing well, still working on Wall Street and playing with The Waldos often. 

MEL: I had a question today from Den he asked - "Phyllis Stein" is a typical NY name - but it sounds the same as "philistine"?! Is it a punk-type name like "Dee Generate" etc or is your real name?

PHYLLIS: Yes, that is really my name! I thought it was pretty funny when Glen Matlock named his band The Philistines! BTW, I always hated those stupid names people made up for themselves, especially Johnny Rotten, Rat Scabies & Sid Vicious. How ridiculous!

MEL: I wonder - did you ever encounter Andy Warhol or any of his Superstars in the 'backroom'?

PHYLLIS: The Factory's "new" digs downtown were very near to Max's. So they hung out there. But I was underage at the time I went to Max's probably starting in 1969 a few times. So I never hung out with Andy or his Superstars. I met Lee and other Mainman people but that was later on. As I also lived in the area, I'd see Warhol from time to time in the street.

MEL: Can I ask for a couple of all time favourites 1) image of the punk period 2) Favourite single 3) book?

PHYLLIS: I always find this kind of question the most difficult to answer. It's hard to narrow it down to my favourite five, so one is particularly hard. But that said, I guess my favourite image would have to be hanging out in the dressing rooms upstairs at Max's with friends on a really happening night when one or more of my favourite bands would be playing.

Favourite single . . .definitely "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" by The Heartbreakers.

And my favourite book would have to be Nina Antonia's "In Cold Blood" but "Please Kill Me" is a pretty close second. I really found it interesting to hear everyone else's take on what was happening at the time. Pretty funny stuff especially from some people who have or had a great sense of humour like Leee and Dee Dee.

MEL: What made you decide to start posting photos and diary notes on face book? And have you ever considered writing a book to share your memoirs?

PHYLLIS: When my good friend Abbijane passed on in March 2009, friends of ours had made a fan page for her on Facebook. I joined FB so I could view her fan page and add some photos I'd taken since 1976. Sabel had also told me she had an Official Sabel Starr fan page so I wanted to see Sabel's page too. Not long after, there was a Jerry Nolan group formed also on FB. Since I had photos I sent some on to the creator of the page who lives in Stockholm. At the same time, I put some up on my own page. I found friends, they found me, you know. I was really surprised to see so many people I knew on FB.

As I've yet to write word #1, there's not much to say about a possible future project. Some friends have already written their memoirs while others are doing so now. So who knows?

Photo:  Patti Palladin, Abbijane & Phyllis 1996 NYC

MEL: Where are you at now in your life and how is your life in comparison, do you ever wish you’d done things any differently looking back?

PHYLLIS: To quote the fabulous Edith Piaf, I have no regrets. Life has been very fulfilling on many levels which also include being a parent. I've been lucky so far just to have survived those times when many of my other friends didn't. I really do miss them all, especially my girlfriends. I had many great times and many very difficult ones, as most people have had. But I'm in a good place these days with a few projects I'm currently working on. There's been some interest in a memoir which I have been giving a lot of thought to. Although I haven't yet written anything, I've been organizing my thoughts, date books and photos and making an outline with notes about interesting times I've had. Perhaps I'll do a photography book as well. Time will tell.

Photo: Phyllis & Sable Starr 2000 NYC

MEL: And finally in an imaginary world you have a huge dinner party, who would you chose as dinner party guests (dead or alive) - what music might you play?

PHYLLIS: Let's see. Well, those that have passed that I'd invite would include Jerry, Abbijane, Johnny, Sabel, Patti Giordano, Elliott Kidd, Willy DeVille, Dee Dee Ramone, and Arthur Kane. And depending on how large the party would be, I'd include many friends from the old days that I've stayed in touch with regularly. Many are on FB. They know who they are. The usual suspects. As for music I'd play a bit of my all old faves: The Heartbreakers, Mink DeVille, The Ramones, Blondie, The Senders, old The NY Dolls and Iggy mixed with some Stones and the Blues.

One last word from Phyllis: Sometimes I look back and think I'm like Forrest Gump. Without planning it, my life just took me down a road where I've met so many interesting, talented and famous people.”- Phyllis Stein June 2010

Thanks Phyllis I’ve really enjoyed this trip through your memories, it’s been a privilege and we wish you every success with your book. I’ll be checking in with you on Facebook for further updates.

Interview by Mel 26/06/10
Photos supplied by Phyllis (Many taken by friends) The Ramones gig at CBGB's - Phyllis & Clem Burke photos by Stephanie Chernikowski), L.A.M.F. album cover 1977 Photo Roberta Bayley.
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