In her new memoir The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the ’70s Rock Scene (out now from Backbeat Books), Laura Davis-Chanin tells the fascinating story of her journey through the late-‘70s NYC punk scene, where the drummer (then a mere 17 years old) immersed herself in the now-fabled world of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and the Ramones, embarked on a tempestuous relationship with Blondie’s Jimmy Destri, and received encouragement and guidance from the one and only David Bowie.
In this excerpt, exclusive to Flavorwire, Davis-Chanin recalls her first meeting with the pop icon:
From Chapter 21, “Intemperance”
A sudden and unique fissure in the fabric of our daily life popped up, in early fall, when Jimmy said that Bowie had called him and wanted to get together for dinner. He also told Jimmy to bring me along. I couldn’t believe it. Even more frightening, I was going to have to find a way to talk to Bowie, not only in an “adult” way, but in an interesting and intelligent way. I was completely beyond myself. How in the world would I handle this?
That night, we took a cab to Frankie and Johnnie’s Steakhouse, in the theater district. When we got out of the cab, I looked around. “Frankie and Johnnie’s . . .” Where . . . where? I couldn’t find the place. Small drops of rain started to float down.
Jimmy said he was sure he had the right address—West Thirty-Seventh Street—but we still couldn’t find it. That restaurant was deeply veiled somehow, and for good reason, I thought. This first confused and mysterious step nearing a big mainstream legend like Bowie made me realize the weight and complications that come with being close to that kind of fame. Finally, we found a small awning with the name on it and a dank, gray, uninviting door. When we opened it, there were stairs leading up to another bleak, nondescript door. When we opened that one, though, a luxurious gold-trimmed dining room with buttery linen tablecloths and flames burning in a fireplace against the back wall exploded in front of us. It was startling.
The place was full of people who didn’t turn at the sound of the door opening, or waiters walking around—at anything. There seemed to be a distinct and unspoken directive that when you entered this restaurant, you were to be discreet and not bother anyone. We looked around. No Bowie.
A moment later, an older gentleman approached us and asked who we were and why we were there. Why? To have dinner, idiot. It was a restaurant—an odd and strange one—but still a restaurant. That guy annoyed me. Maybe it was because he looked like Fredo Corleone from The Godfather—a weak, unnecessary pawn. From the look of that place, I expected Fredo’s murderous father, Vito, to come out any minute.
But I kept my mafia assumptions to myself.
Jimmy told them we were there to meet Bowie. The man looked in his notebook and then nodded. We were in.
He took us to the back of the restaurant, down a long hallway into the kitchen, then through a pair of hanging white curtains at the end of the kitchen, then through another door in the back. When we entered, David and his friend Coco immediately stood up and shook our hands, pulling us over to some chairs. Coco asked for menus as David and Jimmy immediately launched into an intense discussion about the album that David was working on.
Trying as hard as possible not to stare passionately at Bowie and to maintain an air of composure, I turned my head and looked around. It was near impossible.
I sipped my water and leaned in next to Jimmy as they talked, trying to seem like I was a part of the conversation. Bowie looked exquisite—he wore a plain but spit-clean blue shirt open at the collar and pressed gray slacks. Simple. Dignified. As I sipped my water silently but feverishly, I couldn’t help noticing his chest through his open shirt. My gut seized up. I gulped and started to not breathe. Jimmy looked at me.
“You okay, honey?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I whispered. A cough cracked through my throat. I was becoming too obvious.
I turned away. The room was empty except for the single large round table at which we were seated, and all of the windows were covered by long gilded curtains. My eyes wandered around. This was a cloister. It was safe. It was closed. It was covert. That was why he was here. I imagined all the other people out there, in the front room, had come here to disappear into this sanctuary, too. They could eat upscale Italian cuisine, secluded and sheltered from the outside world. Thing was, to me, it felt more like a prison.
Jimmy ordered the meatballs and I got the chicken marsala. After a few minutes of remarks about the size and weight of the dinners, David looked over at me.
“I met you at Debbie’s place, didn’t I?” he said.
“Yes,” I carefully replied. My stomach wobbled. I put my hand on it.
“You’re the drummer, right?” he asked.
Jimmy looked at me, snickering in an annoyingly paternalistic way.
“Yeah, I play the drums for a local band called the Student Teachers,” I said.
A sharp pain dug into my gut. I wasn’t going to make it through this.
“Right, right, Jimmy was telling me about them.” Bowie took a sip of his wine. “I’d like to come and see you. Are you playing soon?”
I gulped. I wasn’t sure.
“Uh, yeah, but I’ll have to let you know. I have to ask my manager,” I said, holding my now throbbing stomach.
“Great!” He looked at Coco. “We’re in New York for a while, right?”
Coco nodded. Bowie turned back to me.
“Let me know.” He smiled at me and winked.
I smiled back. My gut dropped as I desperately tried to keep sitting peacefully and appearing self-possessed. David Bowie wanted to see my band. In what universe was I traveling? Was this real?
“The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the ’70s Rock Scene” is out now.