In the 1970s, Laura Davis was the drummer in the Student Teachers, a New York City band that released a single on Ork Records and played famed clubs CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and Hurrah during the time when bands like Television, Talking Heads, and The Heartbreakers were at their early peak. Davis-Chanin, as she’s now known, was also a high school student at the time, balancing her life in the middle of the late ’70s NYC punk/new wave scene with exams and high school English.
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), Davis-Chanin tells the fascinating story of her journey, from Student Teachers to mingling with rock and roll royalty, where the drummer (then a mere 17 years old) immersed herself in the now-fabled world of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and the Ramones.
While her band never struck it big, they generated interest from Jimmy Destri, who took a personal, romantic interest in Laura that resulted in a tempestuous live-in relationship with the Blondie keyboardist. Amongst the narcotic maelstrom, Destri and Davis also managed to have a hand in co-writing Slow Motion and Angels On The Balcony, two of the more engaging deep cuts on Blondie’s Eat To The Beat and Autoamerican albums respectively.
Davis first saw David Bowie as a fourteen-year old at her first ever gig at Madison Square Garden in 1976 on his Isolar tour, and she meets him for the first time three years later in the late summer of 1979 at a party at the Manhattan apartment Debbie Harry shared with Chris Stein. Much of her autobiography finds Davis immersed in the backstage inner workings and personal lives of Debbie and David, with whom Destri was also working with at the time.
It’s intriguing to read about the author being ushered into back rooms of restaurants or mingling at the homes of some of the biggest players in the Seventies music scene, and most of the thrill is how her stories humanise these figures who have since been lionised to the point where they have become more “icon” than real living, breathing being. Harry provides comfort to Davis-Chanin when she is ill. Bowie lends advice on a bass part at a Student Teachers’ rehearsal.
At the height of fame, and unable to go out for fear of being mobbed, Bowie lives an elusive existence. Meetings with him are often clandestine, taking place in in the back rooms of restaurants and in hidden, secret apartments. He, however, becomes a good friend to Laura, attending a Student Teachers rehearsal and then a gig at CBGB’s, organising a support slot for them with Iggy Pop, and helping to build bridges with her father by meeting him to talk about his own intensive knowledge of art. His own infamous battle with drugs was almost under control, and, he is, with Debbie Harry, one of the few responsible adult figures in the book. Almost heroic, you might say.
An awestruck Davis receives further encouragement and guidance from the Dame, who sets the band up to open for Iggy Pop at the Palladium on Halloween 1979. In a remarkable coda at the end of The Girl in the Back, the night after the Iggy gig, some of the Student Teachers have gathered at Destri and Davis’s apartment with Bowie also present. There is a telephone call from a representative from RCA wanting to sign them. Destri, who has answered the phone, asks Bowie what he thinks. But he’s in the midst of his own intensive legal battle with the major label and shortly afterwards will leave them to sign to EMI. Bowie tells him not to let them do it as RCA will rip them off. Destri puts the phone down abruptly on the representative and the Students seek fame and fortune elsewhere.
It’s exhilarating! It’s the beginning of amazing success in rock ‘n’ roll. Until it all comes to a stunning stop. In her last meeting with Bowie in September 1980, just as he drops Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) then absconds to the theatre to take up the lead role in The Elephant Man, Laura tells him she’s tried modelling but realised that it is not for her. He advises her to listen to herself and asks what she really wants. She admits to him that she would like to go to college. He tells her that she doesn’t have to belong in rock ‘n’ roll and to follow herself. Davis is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Does it all fall apart? At dinner with the Dame, he whispers something to Laura. And it helps her save her life.
In prose that flows like music, Davis-Chanin presents a rich work of narrative non-fiction that is not only deeply personal but also revealing of the punk rock heyday in New York City. Infused with rare photographs, this book is a journey through a unique, ephemeral life experience. Destri doesn’t come off terribly well in this book, struggling with substance addiction and egotism, and often treating Davis poorly, allegedly physically abusing her on occasion. Although it’s patently evident David Bowie is someone she remembers wth a great deal of affection.
“I think the primary key to my story was the humanity he offered, without question or reflection. We certainly knew each other well during that time. But he and Jimmy were very tight—through the recording work, the performing on Saturday Night Live, the drugs (unfortunately)—and, well, I just happened to be there. But he showed kindness and interest and care, with my dad and mom and my sister. It was quite exceptional.”
“You couldn’t avoid when you were David the difficult experience of what I call ‘living in the bubble’. You couldn’t really walk down the street with him, but my experience with him was nevertheless very human and very real. I really wanted to show that side of him. These people that we see as our idols are human also, which in a way is unfortunate but which is the reality. He was a real humanist, and an incredibly kind human being.”
In this excerpt, Davis-Chanin recalls her first meeting with the artful pop icon, in the autumn of 1979:
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 David 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 Schwab 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
Steve Pafford is the essayist and co-compiler of Blondie’s Greatest Hits album
Klaus Keeps Swinging: the story of when Nomi met Bowie is here