Book Review: Kembrew McLeod’s “Blondie’s Parallel Lines”

I think I remember watching Sandy Bull sit in with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and his band at the Five Spot on St. Marks Place in 1975—on oud. Bull, with a ranging style and diverse musical interests, was one of my favorite guitarists as far back as 1968, yet this was the only time I ever saw him live—if I did.

A friend of my mother’s was fellow harpist Daphne Hellman. I didn’t like her much, having felt snubbed by her once as we sat together at Carnegie Hall. I wasn’t a musician, wasn’t of interest to her. Reading her obituary in 2002, I gasped as I learned that Bull (who had died a year earlier) had been her son.

The point is connectivity. Or missed connections, in this case.

The beat at the heart of the best of cultural studies pushes discovery and exploration, connections, completed or not. Hellman to Bull to Cherry and further—fleshed out by the contexts of the meetings, the milieus and the time.

Nothing can be explored in isolation or with limitation. You go where the evidence leads.

Even myths contribute. They are also connections: It doesn’t really matter whether or not I actually saw Bull that night.

In New York right then, cross-pollinations and new connections were taking place that, though I was unaware of most of them, were going to have an influence on me and on the culture I live it. Some of these were gelling into what was soon to be widely known as “punk” and “disco.” Others were building (sometimes without even knowing they were doing it) a longer-term and more political movement, one that would flower in the 2010s with growing acceptance of LBGTQ and the institutionalization of gay marriage.

The stew of life—what seems to be a stew but, perhaps, is more accurately portrayed as a labyrinth beyond anything even Daedalus could imagine—feeds us even as it confuses us and challenges our understanding. The labyrinth—let’s switch to that metaphor—has walls and openings and paths, but they all keep changing like something out of Harry Potter. The road to understanding is on-going and serpentine even at its easiest.

There are no clear boundaries to the study of the cultures that bind our lives, not between generations, nations, classes, ethnicities nor even between students and teachers. The best cultural studies invite their audiences to partake, too—of the discussion and the topic. There are no finished projects, no ‘four corners of the page.’ Nor are there temporal or geographic restrictions. No necessity requires staying within ‘discipline’ boundaries nor within the confines of any anchoring topic. One goes where the connections lead. Not even the finality of publication is an end or an encapsulation.

Which brings me to this:

There’s a little book I’ve been devouring on the subway this past week or two, Blondie’s Parallel Lines by Kembrew McLeod. It’s part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33-1/3 series of small books about popular music. It has had me tracing and re-tracing connections all over the place, re-examining my own assumptions about my own evolving musical tastes and cultural assumptions from the time of my first transistor radio, when I had my ear glued to an Atlanta pop station waiting for Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel” to appear again in the rotation.

The book takes us through the cultural and musical evolutions of Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and their band Blondie up through the breakthrough Parallel Lines album and beyond. We get a taste of the New York underground of the period 1965-1975 that molded them, especially the gay cultures that were beginning bubble against the lid of society’s pressure cooker, the released steam already affecting other parts of American culture.

The evolution of Blondie’s musical tastes was certainly not linear or focused—nor was mine, making the book all the more pleasurable for me. At the same time that I was discovering pop radio, I was learning to love the sounds of Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar—and would sneak to the family hi-fi to listen to the soundtrack of The Fantasticks. Musical influence is heterogeneous. Trying to chart a single or even logical path for it is impossible. McLeod never tries to force it into narrow channels.

Refreshing.

For music never exists alone. It is part of wide-ranging artistic and cultural movements. McLeod doesn’t forget this, allowing his little book to explode beyond its pages.

CBGB, the club at the heart of Blondie’s development, was no place I ever felt like frequenting (though my brother did, even occasionally moving equipment for bands or acting as an informal bouncer). The only band I ever saw at Max’s Kansas City, where Debbie Harry once worked, was Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, a determinedly acoustic group with a sound unlike anything associated with Andy Warhol, a Max’s stalwart, or the downtown scenes that led to Blondie. I didn’t even care much for Warhol at the time and was even less interested in the music that surrounded him.

Over the years, my attitudes toward the scene I had missed changed. On a visit to Dia:Beacon, I was bowled over by the Warhol collection, necessitating a re-evaluation. Today, I understand what the Ramones were about; in the seventies, I just thought them stupid. McLeod’s book didn’t change my opinions, that had already happened, but it did bring together for me many aspects of the era that I had never bothered to consider.

McLeod has also shown me that I have many more connections with the scene that produced Blondie than I ever suspected—right down to a not-so-secret love of girl-group schlock from the early sixties. That the book did this for me means that it can for just about anyone—even those born long after Parallel Lines was released in 1978 or those who have never even been to New York.

We’re all caught in the same web, after all, just in different spots.

Enjoy the book and see.

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