Laura Davis-Chanin gives a charming insight into the world of 70s rock in her book ‘The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie and the 70s Rock Music Scene’.
We’re at a point now where every rock star seems to have written some form of autobiography, there have been some great ones in the past and some that well… you can’t help but feel were just a bit of a vanity project. Davis-Chanin swerves these assumptions narrowly in The Girl in the Back, writing a book that reads more like a love letter to the scene she grew up in than a story on herself.
All of this can be deduced from the title – she’s the girl in the back observing: the real magic is presented in the form of Blondie and Bowie. Speaking to Davis-Chanin, I can’t help but get the feeling it was all inspired by the man who fell to earth, in conversation with me she says, “In January 2016, David Bowie died, I saw the headline on the news and was really shaken, as I’m sure everyone across the world was. Even though I hadn’t talked to him in years, he had such a primal, profound effect on me and the choices I made in life. I spent the day after he died writing an essay about what he did for me at the time after I had been diagnosed with MS, and trying to figure out what direction I was going to take in my life. My agent happened to see the essay and contacted me about writing the book—again, I was hesitant—but I think, given Bowie’s death, I felt I wanted to tell the story because I wanted to show what a true humanist he was.”
Stories about Bowie have been told for years but never fail to intrigue. Growing up I saw the man as an enigma and Davis-Chanin gives that little bit of extra insight into what he was like when away from the stage, cameras and screaming fans. These parts of the book stand out as the most exciting, partially because of the aforementioned reason, more because they’re coming from someone who seemed to love him unconditionally. Speaking further about Bowie, Davis-Chanin said “The thing about Bowie is that there was a unique energy and flame within him. And that is rare. He was human and I say that because we tend to elevate certain humans to the level of Gods in this society, and I am loathed to do that here—except due to Bowie’s focus, his inner inspiration and the workings of his mind and true humanity, he had the effect that a God-figure has on people.” And of course, there was Blondie too, and these parts stand out in the same way as the Bowie one’s do, there’s a primal excitement in reading about these unreachable titans and getting to peer beneath the mask.
But ultimately this whole story is packaged around the life of a woman who was extremely young when thrust into this world of clubs, punk and drugs, and what the book does is give an astute reflection on the wake of all this. Admittedly the book can feel like it’s dragging at times, you need to be fully invested in Davis-Chanin to get the most out of it, but as I say she manages to throw in just enough excitement to keep it chugging along. She may not have the crazy life of an Anthony Keidis or Marilyn Manson, but everyone deserves to tell their story, and I’m sure most of us music lovers will find enough interest in that.
I’d recommend The Girl in the Back to those that want to dive a bit deeper into the world 70s rock’n’roll, Davis-Chanin has a perspective that few people share and for that, I thank her for telling her story. I’ll end this review with the Q and A I did with Laura, hopefully, you’ll decide to dive further into her life after reading it.
Her book ‘The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie and the 70s Rock Music Scene’ can be purchased from Amazon.
Laura, What (or who) inspired you to write this book?
Ah, well—this is what happened. I had been asked a few times over the years to write this story but said no because well, I’m basically a pretty private person. But then in January 2016, David Bowie died. I woke up that morning and saw the headline on the news and was really shaken, as I’m sure everyone across the world was. Even though I hadn’t talked to him in years, he had such a primal, profound effect on me and the choices I made in life. As a result, I spent the day after he died and wrote an essay about what he did for me at the time after I had been diagnosed with MS, and trying to figure out what direction I was going to take in my life. The essay was published on The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Network as I have a podcast on there (Phi Fic). My agent happened to see the essay and contacted me about writing the book—again, I was hesitant—but I think, given Bowie’s death, I felt I wanted to tell the story because I wanted to show what a true humanist he was.
Is there an overarching message that you want people to take from your story?
Well, the overarching message, I think, is to not give up–to not let the unpredictable, life-changing, often painful events in life, push you down, or take you out of the fight. The key is, when you are hit with such a change which redefines your life—make use of it. Remake and redesign your world. If you can’t play the drums anymore (as what happened to me) and you want to stay in rock n roll (though that wasn’t me)—then stay in rock n roll but in a different way—learn a different instrument, go into production work, or songwriting, or album cover design, or A&R for a record company so you can stay exposed to the new music being created. My point is, if it’s not immediately clear how to stay in what you want to do, redefine it. And if you don’t know what you want, then embark on a journey to find it—take on your own power–and make it happen for yourself.
The book mostly sees you describe your time as a teen in the Student Teachers but what big things have happened in your life since?
Haha—well that depends on how you define “big” I guess! If you are saying knowing Bowie and Blondie and playing with the Student Teachers at the Palladium are big—well, life obviously changed. I had children and ran my own law firm and am now working as an author—to me, all very big things. What we define as big in this society, really isn’t—being on the front cover of a magazine, or having lunch with a famous person, or starring in a movie—those aren’t the big things in life. Unfortunately, they are what are defined in our society today as big. Having children who are happy and fulfilled, pursuing a passion in a field or world that is important to you—giving to others who aren’t as fortunate—those are big things.
Are there any lessons you learned during your time in the Student Teachers that you still carry with you today?
Primarily to not abuse my body with drugs and endless partying which a lot of that time was characterized by. As I mentioned in the book, I thought the early symptoms of my condition were being caused by the drugs, the alcohol, and the exhaustion.
What does the 70s Rock Scene mean to you?
The beginning. I know we had Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who—world defining acts. But the ‘70s saw a revolution that we hadn’t seen before and I talk about it in the book. The energy coming out of CBGBs with The Ramones and from the Sex Pistols and The Clash out of London—these angry, demanding, screaming bands made not just great brutally new and great music, but went beyond music—presenting a message of power and individualism and strength—and even more important–that we all have something to say, that what was happening in the small rock clubs were as important and vital and exciting as what was happening on the stadium stage. The ‘70s rock scene gave that to us—Talking Heads, the B52s, the Cramps, the Mumps, the Dead Boys, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, The Clash Siouxsie and the Banshees—out of the small clubs. It was a different way that musicians emerged, and it was encouraged by Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB—for us all to get up on stage, and we did.
You briefly detail the lives of your band members and musician friends since the band ended and not many of you continue to perform music. Why do you think this is?
Well, actually, a number of the guys in the band went on for a while to perform in other bands—Philip, the lead guitar player had a number of bands and Lori and David continued in music for a while. I can’t really speak to why they didn’t continue—it’s like any profession—as you move along and if you aren’t seeing the kind of success you would like, then you make changes. I know that Bill—the keyboard player, was as passionate about art as he was for music and he has an extremely successful career in it now.
Do you try to immerse yourself in modern rock? If so, what do you think about the current climate of rock music?
Haha—well, no not really. I love jazz and baroque music and Bowie, certainly, and absolutely adore Rhythm & Blues and funk. As far a rock today—not super impressed with it. I think rap and hip hop are really important sounds and movements—it just isn’t for me.
You discuss in great detail the effect that David Bowie had on not just you, but the world. Is that a characteristic that you think any rock stars possess nowadays? Or will anyone ever possess a quality like that again?
Well, I am a little prejudiced! But the thing is—to be where we are today in rock n roll, we wouldn’t be here without Bowie, or Iggy, or Elton John or Queen—and they wouldn’t have been anywhere without The Beatles—Lennon, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Janis Joplin. Actions and developments, cultural or societal—grow, feed and draw on what came before them.
The thing about Bowie is tho, that there was a unique energy and flame within him. And that is rare. He was human and I say that because we tend to elevate certain humans to the level of Gods in this society, and I am loathed to do that here—except due to Bowie’s focus, his inner inspiration and the workings of his mind and true humanity, he had the effect that a God-figure has on people. The thing is he knew that. And he respected the effect he and his work had on others—because he respected the people who worked with him and the people who loved his work. I’m not saying he didn’t have an ego—but it was an ego-fueled to life he led. It was a generosity of spirit.
I am not aware of anyone in rock n roll or anywhere today, who has that quality of powerful effect that Bowie brought to the world. Will there ever be anyone like that again? Of course! But he or she won’t be Bowie. That—was once in a lifetime.
Is there anything you would have changed about your teen years and time in the Student Teachers?
Yeah—be older! Haha! We were too young—and need time to mature and learn and evolve. I think we would have achieved more success if we had been older and been able to commit ourselves to developing our skills as musicians and talent in writing songs.
Finally, this book details you leaving home at a young age and making magic with your band. What advice do you have for young people who want to turn music into their career?
Well, first—do it! And through the process, you will find if it is truly your passion. Sometimes, particularly when we’re young, we believe, we feel rock n roll is our passion–it opens up a world that we’ve never seen before and it’s exhilarating. But if there was one thing Bowie taught me and I hope comes through in my book—it is that there is passion and beauty and excitement and thrills in many worlds out their—art, medicine, social work, cooking, interior design—many, many things—it doesn’t have to be rock n roll. That’s what he was saying to me—you don’t have to be here (rock)—look in your heart and follow what it is telling you.
That was quite amazing to have the icon of rock n roll in my world, telling a teenager, that I didn’t have to be in rock to achieve and find great things, that I should follow my heart—even if it’s out of rock n roll. And I that’s what I did.