Barry L. Kramer's interview with The Blondie Review (June 2007)

Barry L. Kramer is known as perhaps the earliest, civilian insider with Blondie and its members. His personal connections with Deborah, Chris, Jimmy, and Clem are approaching 20 years. Barry pioneered meaningful Blondie historical archiving, reporting, and civilian promotion.
I had been corresponding with Barry since he began "Fan Mail", and finally got to meet him many years ago at the famous Cathay Che book release party at Mothers in New York City.
Here is TBR's first interview with this fascinating man. --Ed

TBR: The obvious question: How and when were you first attracted to Blondie?

BLK: You would start off with a difficult question! To be honest, I don't remember a time when I wasn't attracted to Blondie and their music. I vaguely remember hearing some of their stuff on the radio around 1977, and definitely in 1978, and thinking it was spectacular, but originally I didn't know who was playing or who Blondie was. (It's always been a personal complaint of mine that radio stations don't announce who the artist is, so if you hear something, you can't identify it. Fortunately the Internet has partially corrected that.) Before 1978, I didn't know myself particularly well and I had no interest in music at all. Now it's the opposite, although I don't play and all I really know about music is that I like it! But back to your question: At that time, it started as my simply liking their material and the offbeat subjects they wrote about; then in 1979 and early 1980, I started to see Debbie Harry on TV and in magazines and I thought she was so flawless (and I still do). The first music I ever bought was an 8-track of Parallel Lines (I still have it!), which was right about the time I got my driver's license. I loved it immediately and used to go out driving around at night for no reason just so I could listen to it. I would go to the library at school when I had free time and read all of the Blondie articles I could find in periodicals. I'm a perfectionist engineer and when I get interested in something, it becomes a passion (or is it called an obsession?), so I always wanted more. Good quality stereos and CDs definitely attracted me to Blondie even further because it makes the music overcome you and I'm sure that was part of it early on. I'm fairly high-strung and it's always been an escape for me. I vividly remember seeing The Midnight Special and a broadcast of the complete video album for Eat To The Beat on TV and having major issues controlling my excitement…

Today, the attraction is still just as alive as it was 30 years ago. I am in a unique position now to be able to return something to the band and at the same time provide a service to the fans through my involvement in blondie.net, my recognition as a collector and the band's official archivist, and as a friend of the band members.

TBR: I know you have a close relationship with Chris Stein. Tell us about how that began and how it led to where you are now with your relationship to the band and the official Web site.

BLK: I was fortunate enough to have had access to the earliest incarnations of the Internet. In 1984, almost a decade before most people had dial-up access, I had email and usenet through Lehigh University. At the time, I didn't realize how important the Internet and the communications it enables would become. It really is the ultimate form of free speech. In the mid-1980s, I typed a letter to Chris on an antique mechanical typewriter and mailed it to him at Chrysalis Records. I didn't' hear anything back. By 1987, I had a couple of my letters printed in Melody Maker in England, which got noticed by a few people who would become my friends and play a part in my eventual involvement with Blondie. We set up an online emailing list (which eventually became the DHBIS which Louis took over in 1995) and I began to collect so much information from the people I wrote to (online and through regular mail) that I realized the collective power of a large group exceeds the sum of the individuals. I wanted to get the information out, so I started the Debbie Harry Collector's Society and its newsletter, Fan Mail. The first issue was out in February 1988 and by the 15th issue (December 1993), I needed 500 copies professionally printed on gloss paper to meet demand.

Unfortunately, demands on my professional life made me unable to continue publishing it, but that newsletter was really how I met Chris and Debbie. They really liked it. My friend Gunter Ahrendt, from Austrailia, who to my dismay has since disappeared off the face of the Earth, collaborated with me on it. Around the time of the 7th issue (November 1989), when Debbie was doing her solo tour for Def, Dumb, & Blonde, I went to a show at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia (I've always lived in south-central Pennsylvania). I got there early so I could be in the middle of the front row and was so blown away that I sent Gunter an email and said, "Do Anything" to come here and see the shows. At that time, hardly anyone had even heard of e-mail yet. We did because I had just finished college and he worked at one. So he went into his boss's office and said, "I'm leaving for the United States for three weeks, be seeing you." and bought a plane ticket and just left. I picked him up two days later after a 28-hour flight and drove 90mph from the Dulles Airport to the next show and saw four more after that including The World in New York. A couple of months later, he came back to the U.S., sublet an apartment in NYC and we worked on a "project" to call everyone we could find who ever had any involvement with Debbie or Chris. There were hundreds. You should have seen the phone bill! Through that month of craziness, we met so many famous people… Bob Gruen, Paul Zone, Bobby Grossman, Tish and Snooky, and lots of others. In particular, I remember the first time I met Roberta Bayley, the photographer famous for her Ramones album covers and amazing photographs of Blondie. She also ran the U.S. fan club around 1979-1980. Roberta always knew what was going on, and through her I found out about events in New York (in early 1990) that helped me gain a familiarity with Chris and Debbie that over time developed into trust and a friendship. We actually got invited to Joey Ramone's private birthday party. Chris and Debbie were there, and we met Joey's mother Charlotte Lesher who was very nice. What a unique experience. It's really a privilege for me to be in a position to return the favor and promote Roberta's wonderful new book of early Blondie photography on blondie.net, but an even greater privilege to be able to return something to the band that inspired all of this.

My relationship with Chris and Debbie has outlasted several management companies and record contracts, and my involvement with the Internet so early on (even before they called it that) and their trust in me is why they still effectively own and have complete control over the site they chose to adopt as their official one. I am deeply committed to them. I also have an intense dedication to Blondie's fans and collectors, which is I try to answer all the site email personally, help Chris with his site updates, keep the band news current, and at least try to encourage Debbie to interact more. I also developed the memorabilia section, published a comprehensive Blondie gig list (which I've been researching for over 15 years), and most recently offered the original Blondie Fan Club merchandise for sale for the first time in 25 years. I bought everything that remained from an estate when it was sold on ebay.

There is some more information about my early involvement with the site and with Chris and Debbie and how we first met on my Debbie Harry Collector's Society website (debbieharry.net), although I have to admit that my current work with blondie.net and my engineering consulting business has prevented me from updating it in a long time. But there have been so many improvements in the quality of my life that are a direct result of my relationship with Chris. I get to meet people (which has always been difficult for me) as a result of my involvement with Blondie, and some of them are special beyond words. I wouldn't be the same without them. This is the treasure that makes all the work worthwhile.

TBR: You had an early Blondie Web site, back when few people had Internet in their homes. How did you become interested in computers?

BLK: I've always had an interest in electronics and computers, ever since I was a child. I've been playing with circuits as far back as I can remember, and definitely for as long as I've been able to read. When I was about 10, one of my uncles gave me a present: an electro-mechanical computer. It used relays and switches and lights and mechanical devices and could only do the simplest things, and that's after you wired it up yourself. It was completely unlike the computers people are familiar with today. Recently, I completely disassembled it and restored it to its original condition. Did I mention that it was sold in 1961 and is now a museum piece?! The first real computer I used was in high school, but it used cassette tapes to store programs, which was unreliable to the point of uselessness. I bought a computer in my third year of college and my whole career since graduation has been in computers (hardware and software engineering). I can actually design computers. This was one of the reasons Chris and I hit it off. He was fascinated with computers and physics (Nikola Tesla's work with electromagnetism for one thing) and I can explain anything technical to anyone. One of the first things I did for Chris was build him a computer (which at the time was a skill that saved a ton of money!) and teach him how to use it. Of course, it was "mutual fascination society" (my perspective on Chris will be obvious to anyone reading this). I've learned so much about myself and my environment from Chris and his perspectives--he is extremely intelligent and uniquely insightful. I think it's fantastic that he's contributed so much to the site though his direct interactions with the fans and their questions, and written so much at a personal level and made all of this available on his band member page. Chris also reads all of his email personally (after I scan it for viruses).

In the mid- and late-90s, I had a lot of friends in the computer field, but one in particular introduced me to the developing Internet. By 1997, with his help, I had registered blondie.net and debbieharry.net. I worked with my long-time friend April Kincaid and later with Louis A Bustamante (who you'll know from the TikiLAB forum, the DHBIS list, and deborahharry.com) to develop the first incarnations of blondie.net. I archived the original sites so visitors can still see them. I really don't have a lot of artistic talent, so today, Louis does most of the artwork and develops the presentation for the site, and I do most of the technical work, the Archives section, answer the email, work with Chris, and keep the news and tour schedules current as I mentioned before. Computers are just wonderful as a form of communication.

TBR: What are you listening to when you aren't listening to Blondie?

BLK: I like a lot of stuff (and dislike some stuff) and you can see the details on my personal information page on debbieharry.net and my myspace, but since you're inviting me to elaborate, I can tell you I spend a lot of time listening to Garbage and Goldfrapp who were both influenced by Blondie. They make a great effort to communicate with their fans through their websites, and their music absolutely kills me so if you haven't heard it, fix that….

I remember thinking that I was going to have a heart attack when I found out that Shirley Manson was performing a duet with Debbie for the October 2004 "WomenRock!" benefit. Shirley wrote about it in her personal diary on garbage.com. When Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2006, she gave the introduction speech and it was world-class. Chris said he was really touched by it in his March 16 post ("MAYHEM AND CONFLICT AT THE HALL OF FAME!!!"), which is on his band member page.

I've been concerned for a number of years about how much control "the media" (and the massive conglomerates) has had on what gets airtime on radio and TV and the negative effect this has on what choices people, especially young people, have available for listening and purchasing. As a result, I've been very supportive of local bands and less well-known acts, trying to get out and see shows, and discovering variety in material from unsigned artists (at gigs and on myspace). Some of it is incredibly good, but it takes work to find, yet almost always in my experience, musicians are some of the nicest people on the planet (and interesting and crazy) and it's worth the effort. I also take personal recommendations very seriously. I try to see as many bands as I can, but currently, I'm actively following the recently signed band Halestorm (from York, PA which is just a coincidence. When I first saw them, it was so fabulous that I went to their next 20 shows and made a fan site for them) and the unsigned band Me Talk Pretty from New York City. Their singer Julia Preotu found me on myspace based on my musical interests and invited me to a show and I absolutely loved it. They're almost finished with a new CD and have a show in Manhattan on June 8. It's a 3-hour drive but I can't wait to go! I work very hard so these diversions keep my sanity … or is that insanity? I really like to have fun, and after all, conformity and moderation never lead to anything interesting.

I'm sure you noticed I have a thing for female fronted bands. I'm not sure I can explain why.

TBR: What's the most recent concert you've attended? …most memorable concert?

BLK: The most recent was to see Charm School (from NYC) at the Clash Bar in Clifton NJ. By the time you read this, I'll also have seen Doro Pesch (from Germany) at Crocodile Rock in Allentown and Me Talk Pretty at the Mercury Lounge. I was in Philadelphia not long ago to see The Sounds and in New York for Goldfrapp. I'd go out a lot more if I had more time and money, but I am fortunate to live where I do. I wanted to see Clem at the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash recently but I couldn't avoid missing it. Clem is a fantastic and dedicated musician and always treats me well. I really respect him.

TBR: Most memorable concert?

BLK: That would have to be the one where I met Debbie for the first time (June 28, 1990). I love to tell that story in person, but I'll be writing all night if I try to describe it now.

I've done some crazy things to see shows. When I got laid off my first job, I bought a ticket to London to attend the entire 1993 Debravation tour. Since then, I've taken a bunch of domestic flights and traveled to the UK three more times to see Blondie! I wouldn't want to know how many hundreds of hours I've spent driving to shows, but I'm happy I installed my own audio system.

TBR: Where would you most like to go on vacation? Where was your last vacation?

BLK: I like the warm weather and the beach (and the girls) so I try to do that every year (usually in Delaware). It's irritating that the world is so early-oriented and that the beach closes at night.

It's been difficult financially for me the last few years so I haven't done any extensive travel lately. It's more like one-day trips to NYC for shows. If that wasn't an issue and I could vacation anywhere, I'd like to visit LA to hang out with some friends for a while, and I'd also like to go back to Europe. I've always loved being in England and Wales. Cardiff is always wonderful. It would be great to go there when it's warm for once! And I'd like to visit Amsterdam. I've never been there.

TBR: First Blondie concert ever attended? How old were you?

BLK: August 16, 1982 at the Merriweather Post in Columbia MD. I had just graduated high school, and fortunately was able to obtain a real drivers license (that didn't expire at night) at age 17. I think they've since eliminated that provision as part of the insanity around what I call the "liability and safety culture" (which I despise). Anyway, I had tickets for Row NN and drove down for the show. It was not only my first Blondie concert, but my first concert altogether. I'm very happy (and lucky) that I got to see them then. I remember "Union City Blue" being really amazing, but it was unfortunately cut out of the video. At the time, I didn't realize that Chris was sick and that they only played two more shows after that. The strange coincidence is that when I went back there in 1990 (for the show I first met Debbie and Chris at), my tickets were also in Row NN.

TBR: What picks you up when you are down?

BLK: My friends, listening to music, and interactions with the fans and people I meet on the Internet because of my involvement in blondie.net. My closest friends I met because of the work I do on the site. E-mail is so fabulous, except for the spam of course. It's especially good for people like me who have the "bad first impression curse."

TBR: Favorite Blondie song? Album?

BLK: There are so many good ones and it varies according to my mood, but Parallel Lines is probably my favorite album with Eat To The Beat being a close second. I like the rock albums. As for songs, I've always liked "Call Me", "Fade Away and Radiate", "Fan Mail", and "Angels On The Balcony." I've always been a big fan of Jimmy Destri's writing. When I first met him, I asked him if he could hear in his mind what it would sound like if Debbie sang what he wrote, and he confirmed my suspicion. I really miss his involvement in the band and the tours.

TBR: When did you first hear of, or see on television DH or Blondie? Where were you? Your first thoughts?

BLK: I don't have a clear recollection of that, but as I mentioned, I do remember seeing them perform on The Midnight Special around 1979, and trying to play cards with friends when the whole ETTB video album was broadcast. They were very amused at my level of distraction! I also remember trying to see her episode of The Muppet Show (which she did in 1980), but it kept being pre-empted. It was years before I was able to finally see it, which is ironic because I've always been such a big fan of the show.

I'm not sure what my first thoughts were other than being in awe of Debbie's physical beauty and the effect her voice had on me, but I know it wasn't very long until I had decided I wanted to know her. It's really amazing what you can accomplish with perseverance and tenacity (to use Debbie's words) after you realize the only thing that really can stop you from achieving something is yourself.

TBR: What qualities do you admire most in a person?

BLK: Self confidence, passion, and the ability to communicate well. I admire and am very attracted to people who know themselves and are confident in their abilities, say what they mean, think and actively make choices, and who try to live life to its fullest.

TBR: What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

BLK: That I can talk about?

I took a flight to North Carolina to meet and visit someone I met on the Internet who had become a close friend over the course of about a year. She was 18 and still living with her parents, and when they found out, they just went crazy. Her family had always been terribly controlling, and now she feared for her safety, and that was the last straw for her. I wasn't supposed to leave until the next morning, but she convinced me to throw away my return ticket, and I rented a car and drove us back to Pennsylvania. During the next few days, my land line and cell phones were tapped and helicopters were flying over my house constantly looking for her. She wanted to see New York for the first time so I drove her there and we planned to stay for two days just a few weeks before 9/11. Despite being a devout Catholic, her father had organized and brought with him a group of thugs with guns who drove up from Raleigh. We just missed them when we left PA. They found us in the hotel lobby the first evening because of the phone taps. It was a classic ambush. They dragged her away kicking and screaming and that was the last time I ever saw her. The police didn't arrive in time to catch the ones who were threatening and assaulting me, but they all vacated pretty quickly when I told the hotel clerk to call the cops.

TBR: Do you have any hobbies?

BLK: I'm a huge Blondie collector (printed material, records, recordings, and other memorabilia). Besides for music and what I do on the computer, I like sleeping late, taking photographs, and being outside … in the warm weather during the day, I like gardening because I enjoy flowers and think that food you grow yourself tastes better. I enjoy cooking (I'm very good at it, and if I could handle the hours, I could probably make a living at it). I love the night sky, and the night in general, so I try to go outside every night all year. I wrote this whole interview outside in the dark. I like to watch thunderstorms. I try to follow the latest discoveries in technology, genetics, and cellular microbiology, and I have two sons (ages 6 and 8) with voracious appetites for knowledge so as you can imagine, I don't have much unoccupied time and I wish society would be less rigid and value personal time more than it does.

TBR: What's something you've never done but would like to do?

BLK: Since interstellar space travel seems to be out of the question during my lifetime, I'd like to see the night sky of the southern hemisphere, and to have a conversation, in person, with Shirley Manson of Garbage.

TBR: What are you afraid of?

BLK: There are so many bad things that can happen to a person that it's hard to answer that. Disability would probably be high up on the list, although I don't worry or have any significant fears of the unlikely on a day-to-day basis. I've sort of been through it all. Crime is always a concern. People have been stealing from me all my life and I have a lot of possessions that are important to me and irreplaceable. My car has been vandalized or burglarized almost every time I've ever visited New York. That's scary. On a personal level, being betrayed is always difficult to handle. I was betrayed by most of my engineering staff and some others at work and as a result, my career went away essentially overnight, and at the same time, the company was being "Enron'd" from the inside, and that combined with 9/11 instantly wiped out my, and my family's, investment. The only ones who got rich committed crimes and they all got away with it. After that, it took me years to build up a consulting business that I enjoy and can live on; in the meantime I spent a lifetime of savings trying to survive a long period of unemployment waiting out the economic depression. A lifetime of gratitude goes to my father for saving me on that one.

On a more global scale, I always worry about not having a future career that I enjoy because so many jobs in technology have left the country, and indiscriminate spending and waste by all levels of the government is a serious fear I have for the future. There is no accountability in place and no one wants to take responsibility for their own actions, so it won't change for a long time. The spread of radical religions and the use of religion, religious principles, or morality as an excuse to erode the personal freedoms of others (in the U.S. and abroad) is probably second to that, but just barely.

TBR: Do you have any habits that others would consider to be strange?

BLK: I think everything about me could be considered strange. I'm definitely eccentric and have a wacked-out sense of humor. Maybe not any "habits", but a lot of people have been floored by the way I just say outright what's on my mind. At work it sometimes has gotten me in trouble, but in my personal life, it's been uniquely rewarding. I'm often considered strange because of how much personal information I publish on the Internet, but it sometimes makes for good conversation. I insist that people use my middle initial when writing my name. I also like insects a lot.
And I particularly don't like it when the sun shines in my ear. But I'm sure that's very common and not strange at all.

TBR: Do you still have an aversion to creamy white sauces?

BLK: Oh definitely! Barry L. Kramer, No Creamy White Sauce Club - President and founding member. Not so long ago I discovered there are legions of people with a similar aversion and granted some of them memberships.

TBR: What makes Blondie uniquely talented?

BLK: It's a combination of things. They have a lot of variety in the subject matter of the lyrics and the inspirations for the songs, intricate detail in the music and the production, and Debbie sings with passion. It makes you feel something, and their material still sounds good and continues to attract fans of all ages--decades later. And their fans - with very few exceptions - are very dedicated.

TBR: Would you encourage your children to be passionate about music or anything else?

Absolutely. The abilities of children are severely underestimated. Many parents think they can only learn what they can express back, but this is completely wrong. Children need to be encouraged to explore and they need access to good information throughout their entire development. I see a pattern in people (myself included) where they learn too late in life who they really are, so they get a late start going for what they want. People of all ages need more positive encouragement to become passionately interested in something, whatever that might be. It makes the difference between competence and excellence. It's important to be passionate about something rather than moderate about everything. It differentiates you. Everyone needs less description about what they can't do and to realize that it's necessary to define one's self through thought and self-evaluation, and that the earlier it happens, the more you can accomplish. I tend to agree with Chris and Debbie that the educational system doesn't generally achieve this.
I have a myspace but haven't chosen a URL so visitors should search me by my name or my email address blk@debbieharry.net

Copyright 2007 Barry L. Kramer and The Blondie Review
All rights reserved.