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May 18, 2018

Laura Davis-Chanin's Playlist for Her Memoir "The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer's Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the '70s Rock Scene"

The Girl in the Back

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Laura Davis-Chanin's The Girl in the Back is an engrossing first-person chronicle of New York City's '70s punk scene.

In her own words, here is Laura Davis-Chanin's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir The Girl in the Back:

In my book, I write about my life in rock n roll during the punk era of the late ‘70s, my relationship with Jimmy Destri of Blondie and my friendship with David Bowie, who, after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, gave me a wonderful push to pursue my real love, which happened to be very far from rock n roll.

The music I discuss in the book had vital, life altering effects on me and my friends, if only because we knew a lot of the musicians making that unique music at the time: Blondie, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Mumps, The Cramps, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop—and I am so thrilled to share some of the songs that played pivotal roles in my life at that time, and now, as I look back.

Mumps - Photogenia

I was just back from living in Berlin with my dad and my sister, MB. Bill Arning, my best friend, called and invited me to meet him at the Mumps' show at Max's Kansas City.  This began my re-involvement with the exploding music scene that was rampant throughout New York City.  I helped Bill with the Mumps fan club and started filming their shows.  We got to know the band members, personally, along with other bands that they played shows with. These experiences inspired and readied us to form our own band, the Student Teachers.  The Mumps, in addition, were one of the “M” bands (Mumps, Marbles, Miamis, Milk n Cookies) that showed us that the New York club style was not strictly “1-2-3-4” bands and that pop music with melody and hooks were permitted in that scene, as well.

New York Dolls – Personality Crisis

The entire New York music renaissance would never have happened except for the New York Dolls.  Much like the Ramones, who would later inspire hundreds of local bands to do it themselves, the Dolls’ street persona and unique style proved that you did not necessarily have to be a virtuoso, musically, to form a band and make a record. By the mid '70s the original New York Dolls had split into two main factions, the NY Dolls with David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and the Heartbreakers, with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. Both groups regularly played the clubs, Max’s and CB’s.

The Cramps – Green Fuzz

The Cramps were playing the New York clubs regularly. They, along with The Dead Boys, had moved to NY from the Cleveland area, seeking fame and fortune. Led by Lux and Ivy, they invented their own unique style, Psychobilly, that has been copied, ad infinitum, ever since. Kid Congo Powers joined for the Psychedelic Jungle album, their best, in my opinion. Kid was the most social of the group and ended up as one of the denizens of my ill fated crash pad, along with members of the Blessed, and many a visiting Los Angeleno like the Plungers, (Trudie Trudie, Helen Killer, Mary Rat), Pleasant Gehman and a cast of dozens, until that all came to an untimely end.

Ramones – Beat On The Brat

The most famous group to come out of Queens became one of the most influential bands for countless musicians for over 40 years all over the world.  They inspired me and so many other young punk wanna be rockers that anyone can do this!  They defined the punk sound, style and attitude reporting that we don’t care but want to have something to do tonight.  Numerous short songs telling stories of juvenile delinquency with absurd choruses like "now I wanna sniff some glue", "D-U-M-B everyone’s accusing me" and "beat on a brat with a baseball bat".  The band was a breath of fresh air performing at CBGB over 70 times over 5 years.  They defined our scene and generation and, as they toured the United States and the rest of the world, spawned countless DIY bands, in their wake.

Roxy Music – Remake Remodel

The Student Teachers had many music heroes inspiring us teenagers to form a band.  Our band wasn’t like so many others coming out of CBs and Maxs.  We couldn’t play well like many bands that started out at the NYC clubs but that didn’t stop us from trying as we were influenced by bands like the Ramones and Blondie but took some cues from avant garde art rockers The Modern Lovers, The Velvet Underground and Roxy Music.  These bands took smart songs, turning them into epic pieces of musical art.  We wanted to have that sound and style too, sometimes dressing up with jackets and ties, like Bryan Ferry did, when they performed.  This is the first song on the first Roxy album and it’s a rave up rocker.  The track opens with the sounds of a cocktail party before launching into some manic piano and oscillator squalls, care of the great Brian Eno.  The song has very few lyrics but has the hook, “she’s the sweetest queen I’ve ever seen” into the chant of "CPL593H".  That was the license plate of a man that looked like a women in the song.  And that was, at one time, the number of Bryan Ferry’s car license plates.  So clever and silly enough that The Student Teachers would open many of their shows with this song.  It became the one cover song the band would most often perform.  It also had the benefit of helping the sound man balance our instruments, since there were brief "solos" for all of us.

Iggy Pop – Nightclubbing

Iggy had made his return to the music scene under the auspices of David Bowie, at this time. The song, Nightclubbing, was a huge part of the scene that developed where the punk/new wave bands discovered that you could be more successful if you could be danceable, as well. The clubs like the Peppermint Lounge, the Ritz and Hurrah’s were routinely packed as the hip alternative to disco. We were dancing to this very tune when we heard that we had been signed to Ork Records. That seemed like a very big deal to us, at the time.

Bowie – Fame

He sang this when I saw him on the Isolar at Madison Square Garden in 1976, a scene from which I open the book. I also quote from "Fame" toward the end of the book. It is one of his most famous, obviously, but means so much to me not only because he played it at the first major concert I ever went to but because it was co-written with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. I talk about meeting Lennon as I talk about the unique force Bowie had in my life then. Additionally, the lyrics in "Fame" are not to be discounted:

“Fame makes a man take things over

Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow

Fame puts you there where things are hollow (fame)

Fame, it's not your brain, it's just the flame

That burns your change to keep you insane (fame)."

It’s empty, it’s a fallacy, its not a dream and can really lead to a nightmare. I think Bowie knew that, and Lennon too.

Bang-A-Gong (Get it On) - T-Rex

In an early chapter, I talk about the first time I met Lori, who became the bass player in my band, The Student Teachers. Lori and I became really good friends which, as I wrote about, is helpful because the bass and drums make up the backbone and it’s important for those musicians to be in sync, I believe. Being close with Lori opened up a lot of the rock n roll world to me and one of the key reasons was T-Rex. I didn’t know about T-Rex at the time I met Lori and when she played his album Electric Warrior for me—which included the hit "Bang-a-Gong" he grabbed me. I loved those lyrics: “You're an untamed youth that's the truth with your cloak full of eagles. You're dirty sweet and you're my girl.”—it fed right into the passion and energy of my 15-year old self.
Shark in Jet’s Clothing - Blondie

In an early chapter, Jimmy Destri appears. I write about how my band had been playing a gig at Max’s Kansas City opening for The Know, a group headed by Gary Valentine, who had been the guitar player for Blondie until 1977. I talk about how we were upstairs at Max’s after our show and suddenly Jimmy walked in and I remember thinking when I first saw him—it’s the shark! At that time, it was one of my favorite songs of Blondie’s and the lyrics “We're meeting in a neutral zone: the last car on the train/The love you brought shaking up my bones and crawling through our veins—in hindsight, made sense, as Jimmy and I ended up together although it isn’t a love song. And ironically, the lyrics toward the end of the song, “We always met at the edge of a blade and we left at the end of the fight” definitely reflect the long dance to how our relationship ended. Though I believe the song is actually about the gangs in the movie West Side Story.

The Quake - The Student Teachers

I write about "The Quake" and quote it because it was one of the first songs my band did and it was written by Bill Arning, the keyboard player. It’s essentially about Friends Seminary High school where both Bill and I attended and met and which I write about in the beginning of the book. Friends is a Quaker school and Bill pinpoints the religious angle in the lyrics:

Some people twitch to Christianity
In Michigan, it’s polygamy
Then there’s folks who do it Mormon
Finding Baptist close to boredom
A shiver up my spine
My stomach starts to shake
My ears begin to melt
And my hips begin to ache
Hey baby! I’m doin’ the Quake!

It was one of our first songs and it was a real blast because our first show was in the gym at Friends and we thought it so rebellious of us to sing about the Quakes!

School’s Out - Alice Cooper

Although I don’t cite “School’s Out” specifically, it was one of my favorites at the time and was one he played at the Savoy in August 1981, a show I talk about toward the end of the book. The reason I, and so many of us young high-school chained kids, loved it was that as far as we were concerned, school was “always out”. As flamboyant and gaudy and dazzling Cooper was, he captured a serious high-school reality—that the last place we wanted to be was in school: “Out for summer/Out till fall/We might not go back at all” I talk about Cooper’s show at the Savoy because it played an unexpected role in my final decisions about life in rock n roll.

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