A conversation with Laura Davis-Chanin, renowned drummer and author of the intriguing NYC rock scene narrative ‘The Girl in the Back’
Laura Davis-Chanin is in a unique position to write a personal chronicle of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s New York rock scene. As the drummer in the Student Teachers, she experienced firsthand the scene happening in places like CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City. She got to know many of the main players in that scene. Better yet, she got a rare opportunity to spend time with David Bowie, not as a hanger-on, but as a friend. Davis-Chanin has penned an extraordinarily rich account of those years.
The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie and the ‘70s Rock Scene (Backbeat Books, 2018) does include its share of sex, drugs and violence, but ultimately those aren’t what it’s truly about. It’s the story of one woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of an important part of music history. And it’s the story of friendship and inspiration in the face of some real setbacks, including being kicked out of one’s own band and developing Multiple Sclerosis. I read a lot of music memoirs, and The Girl in the Back rises above most of them. I recommend it without reservation, and when I got the opportunity to speak with Laura in late February 2019, I jumped at the chance.
Tell me about the circumstances leading up to writing the book.
What happened was that David Bowie had died. Obviously, many of us woke up kind of in shock when we saw that, and I was one of them. And it really weighed heavily on me that day, and I did a lot of soul-searching. Because I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time, and I’d gone in a different route in life. So I was trying to put it all in perspective for myself.
But the thing about Bowie is that he was such an enormous presence for many, many people across many, many disciplines in life. And I got to the point where I was thinking about his effect on me personally: in many ways, he kind of set me on the direction that I ended up going in. And I just felt that I had to write about it.
So, what I did is, I wrote this essay about that night when I was at dinner with him and he talked to me about what I was going to do at that point after having been diagnosed, and thrown out of the band, and lots of different things. The essay was published at the Partially Examined Life website, a site where I have a podcast, PhiFic, which is philosophy and fiction.
I guess about a month or two later, my agent—who also happened to be an old friend of mine as well, but we weren’t connected professionally at that point—happened to see the essay. And he started bugging me about writing this book. He had bugged me throughout the years, here and there, and I’d always said no. Oddly, I’m a pretty private person. So, I didn’t really feel comfortable doing it over the years. But he really pushed me hard.
So, I said, “All right, I’ll give it a shot, but if it’s really hard for me…” Not in terms of skill or technique, but emotionally, “Then, I’m going to stop.” But it ended up being a very positive, cathartic experience.
I had reconnected with the people in my band already because, in 2014, our compilation CD had been put out through [the band’s singer] David Scharfe. When I started writing the book, we re-reconnected and in many ways, it was really nice and wonderful, and kind of a unique experience for me.
The book comes off as a pretty straightforward and unvarnished account of that period in your life. From a personal standpoint, did you feel the need to skirt around certain topics or issues, or at least treat them delicately?
I kind of went full speed ahead. When you’re writing, you have a general idea of where you’re going, but you don’t necessarily know exactly where you’re going. And in the process of writing, that comes out; it happens. It’s like, “Oh, wait a minute. That’s where I’m going.” I even still have in my file on my computer here these outlines of, “Okay, this is where I’m going. I’m going to cover this, going to cover that,” but then I got into it and I was just doing the writing, and it came out pretty intensely and revealing for myself.
And when I hit certain things — like the abuse by Jimmy and the MS diagnosis and things like that — I didn’t feel like, “Oh, my God. I don’t know if I can handle this,” for some reason. It felt very helpful to write about it, and to write about it as succinctly and as clearly as I could. I didn’t feel scared of those topics. Maybe because I was at a point in my life that I can do that. You reach a certain point of maturity in life. You’re like, “Oh, I can deal with this.”
From the other angle, was there any kind of encouragement — spoken or unspoken — to include a certain amount of juicy detail that you might not have otherwise written about?
You mean in terms of the abuse by Jimmy [Destri]?
I wasn’t specifically thinking of that, but now that you mention it, I guess I probably was.
When I got to that, [I had been] going through a linear progression of, “the band started in 1978, and then this happened, and this happened.” So, obviously, I hit stuff as I was moving along, in terms of memory and in terms of the writing. And when I hit those things, that became a challenge: “Okay, what kind of writer are you? Are you going to really reveal this? How do you feel about this? Is this something that you’re going to just skirt over?”
And I felt very strongly that I had to be very blunt about that, very clear, and the same with the MS. I just went through the details of what I experienced. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s wrong with my tongue? Why does my tongue feel swollen?” I was just absolutely convinced it was the drugs and the partying that comes with rock and roll. So, I didn’t feel hesitant to be as blunt and revealing as I ended up being; I felt it was really important.
When you were writing, did you find that you were easily able to write from the perspective of “that” Laura? In other words, the one who was young and experiencing those things in real time? And did the present-day Laura ever sort of get in the way of your being able to tell the story in that linear fashion?
Actually not. It’s funny how you say that because I’m still in the process of working on a draft on the next book, which is on Michael Alago. He’s the guy who actually discovered Metallica. And he’s actually an old, old friend of mine. He’s mentioned briefly in [The Girl in the Back]; he was there when our band started, and he was there from the beginning. So he and I have been working all this last year on his book. He had a movie come out about him on Netflix called Who the Fuck is That Guy?: The Amazing Journey of Michael Alago
Anyway, here I am giving you the whole Michael Alago story. But my point in bringing this up is that I just got an email back from the publisher who had read through the draft of Michael’s book just last week. And the one thing he remarked about was how at certain points, he really felt like he was there in the moment. So, I remember doing that when I was writing my book; I felt like it was really important — and it felt very natural and comforting, actually — to be able to put myself back in the moment and describe what I was going through in that way.
And I’ve gotten that response from a number of people about the reading of the book, that it felt like it put them right in that time, like they were experiencing it as well. And I feel very comfortable doing that. I’m working on a novel now and I find myself writing in the present, even though it’s not the present. Because I’m writing it [about] when I was a younger person. For some reason, that comes to me very naturally: to put myself back in whatever time it is that I’m in and speaking in the present of that time. I don’t know why it’s natural for me. But I had no problem with that.
I thought that your citing the Rashomon effect was really effective. Since the book has come out, have you heard — either directly or indirectly —from any of the characters in it that, “Hey, that’s not the way I remember it”?
Oh, my God. You have no idea. We had a release party for the book in July, and everyone in the band was there. I have to say, in the course of me writing the book, this is why I was very careful and very specific about footnoting about what people remember if, in fact, it was different from what I remembered because nobody’s memory is the same, right?
And this is true in life. There was a movie made, maybe six, eight, ten years ago, maybe less, about an assassination that takes place in Italy. Rome, I think. They film it from about six different people’s perspectives, and everybody sees it differently. Everybody experiences it completely differently.That’s the thing about memory when you’re dealing with multiple people.
So this was a big issue and it became an issue while I was writing the book. And I remember one particular instance where I was writing about this scene: we were living on Perry Street in the Village. I was staying in this apartment or basement storage place…
Oh, sure. Owned by the guy from the Lovin’ Spoonful, yes.
Yeah, Joe Butler. So, I was staying there and there was an evening where we were all there; everybody in the band was there hanging out because we were all like family anyway. We were watching the Jan and Dean movie, and then we drove over David’s car to Max’s Kansas City to go have a hang out, a drink or whatever. And my memory of what happened is very different from everybody else’s memory, and everybody else’s memory is very different from each other. And we had a very, very violent, practically fiery debate over email about what happened. “That’s not even what happened. We didn’t do that. We didn’t skirt that way. We didn’t hit that.” Because it was snowing and we had a little bit of a car crash or car whatever.
And this actually came up at the release party. I don’t know if somebody asked us about it or something, but I think Philip, the guitar player, brought it up. He brought up the fact that there were and still are disagreements as to the way certain things happened, the memories of certain things happening, and that’s why I tried to put in that concept of the Rashomon effect and put it in the footnotes. I don’t think that’s just a matter of the fact that we’re many years away from that time. Even if it was ten years ago, we’d probably remember it differently.
I was very committed to doing it that way because I recognized, as I was talking to them and as I was writing it, that we all remembered it drastically differently in some incidences. Like after the Palladium gig when we were at Jimmy’s and my apartment, and Bowie and a couple of other people were there. David was there and I think Philip was there; I can’t remember now, myself. And the phone call came in from the people at RCA offering us a contract, and Bowie urged us to turn it down. Anyway, everybody remembers that differently.
So, I have to say, that was a difficult thing, but then I came back to them and I said, “Look, bottom line, this is my story. So, I’m going to recognize everybody else’s as much as I can,” and that’s what I did. You can only do so much.
You have kids. To what degree do they know their mom’s history as a musician?
I don’t know how much they do know. I mean, honestly… how do I describe this? After the book came out, I was asked by my doctor at Mt. Sinai to do a couple of speaking engagements to people in the MS and medical community. I was happy to do that, and one of the things that she’d always said to me or she did say to me was, “You know, you never said a word about your background in rock and roll, about knowing Bowie, about working with Blondie.” And she’s right. And other people in other areas of my life have said this to me too: “I had no idea.”
And this goes to the question about my kids; it really does. I have found, in the course of my life, that when I’m leaving a world, I’m shutting the door. It’s done. It’s finished. It’s over. For most normal people — not myself, because I’m not in that normal range —that to them is a memory that they would tell people about, or ruminate or whatever. But what I did, and unfortunately still do, is when I shut a door, I shut the door and it’s like it never happened.
So, not only did I not tell people I knew that were contemporaries, but I didn’t tell my kids about my background. They’ve certainly learned about it in the last year or two years, in the course of this book. They were at the release party and everything, and they’ve learned a lot. My youngest daughter read it; my oldest daughter is not hot on reading it yet. I’m not sure why.
So they’ve learned a lot, but it’s been in the course of my writing this book, not before.
What are some of the takeaways you have from the part of your life chronicled in the book?
There are a lot of takeaways. Well, I did write about the effect of rock and roll. In other words, I don’t like to just focus on it only being rock and roll, but there is a large partying, drugs and alcohol quality to rock and roll. And many other worlds we know, but definitely rock and roll. That’s just sort of written into the pattern and into of the reality of it. One of the takeaways from that is that was an unfortunate part of it that’s affected a lot of people I knew then. And it still does. And that’s worrisome and unfortunate.
Obviously, with Bowie, the minute I even mention his name, my heart just expands. I’m just so grateful for having that opportunity to know him and talk with him and just learn from him. He was a very unique person. I’m playing with the idea, at the moment, about writing a book about his childhood because not much is known about it. There was that show David Bowie Is, which was at the Brooklyn Museum. It started in London and it went all over, and it was at the Brooklyn Museum for a couple of months last summer and I remember going there to see it. And one of the things that struck me is that they did very little about his childhood.
There’s a book that was written about him called Starman. And at the beginning of the book … I don’t know if it’s a quote from him or a statement about him … but one of the reasons you don’t know a lot about his childhood is he didn’t like to remember things. When something is finished, it’s finished and he just didn’t want to know from it again … particularly his childhood.
I’m so grateful that I knew him and that I have this opportunity to really have that energy left with me. And it’s a beauty that I’m just so lucky and so thrilled to have been connected to at some point in my life.
The other takeaway that I wrote about is–obviously, I wrote about Jimmy, and Debbie [Harry], and the band and everything. I did talk to Debbie after the book came out, and she just loved it, which was really nice. But it’s unfortunate about Jimmy. I haven’t talked to him since the book came out. I don’t know how he felt about it. I can’t imagine he felt good, but so I’m sort of sad about that. The last time I saw him was probably about ten years ago, and unfortunately he was still doing drugs and ruining his life. But he’s gotten over that. He’s doing better now.
Anyway … what else did I take away? Well, I wrote about the MS thing, and I hope that it came off that it’s not a life-ender. It’s just part of life. It’s just something that’s part of life, like many things. Like one’s blue eyes. I always say to people, when they ask me about it, I say, “My MS is like my blue eyes. It’s just a part of my life.” So, life goes on and you continue to live your life and you live it to the most and best that you can. And if you can, not let something like that bring you down.