The Leee Black Childers interview
(c) Lee Sobel, 2011 - Previously unpublished
In 2011, I was working on a book about New York City in the 1970's that I never completed and interviewed Leee Black Childers (July 24, 1945-April 6, 2014) who had worked with Warhol, Bowie, Jayne County and was the manager of the notorious band Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and later Levi and the Rockats. He was an amazing photographer too. This interview has never been published and, sadly, Leee, who was a delight when I interviewed him, passed away three years after this interview in 2014.
Being a teenager in New York City in the 70's, I was lucky enough to see the amazing Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers play Max's Kansas City numerous times. Many years later I had the honor of selling the memoirs for band member Walter Lure and I highly recommend that book if you want to know what it was like to be a Heartbreaker. This interview will give you a little insight into what it was like to manage this band, as well as all the other fascinating aspects of Leee's career.
For some reason, two memorable things that Leee told me were lost from our interview: before he managed Johnny Thunders, back when Johnny was in The New York Dolls, Leee's nickname for Johnny was "Wig Store" because Johnny's hair was so big that Leee thought Johnny was wearing like twelve wigs on his head. The other story that disappeared was Leee telling me how much he loved Sid Vicious when he first met him in London and that he thought there was no way Sid could have killed Nancy because Sid appeared to be a very sweet person, who may or may not have been confused about his own sexuality.
Iggy Pop with Leee Black Childers
Johnny Thunders, Nils Stevenson and Leee Black Childers
Admittedly, this is not the greatest interview. If all it does is make people who don't know who Leee was go look him up and learn more about him, then I'll be satisfied with that. Suffice it to say, Leee was an important part of the underground music and theater scene in New York City in the 70's.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about living in New York City in the 60's.
Leee Black Childers: When I moved into the Lower East Side, I was living with Jackie Curtis in this little studio apartment. We had like nine people in a one bedroom apartment. That’s how you did it in those days. And we were all on speed so we never slept. And I remember one night I was sitting on the stoop with Penny Arcade and we both got mugged. They didn’t hurt us. All they did was take our money and what was our money? Thirty-seven
cents. I remember Penny saying to me, “Things are getting weird around here. I think I’m going to have to move.” She lived right on St. Mark’s Place in those days. New York got really dangerous. I don’t know what happened. New York just changes its mood from day to day, from year to year. It became dangerous after the spread of drugs. There was heroin everywhere. In '77 there was a garbage strike. I lived on a ground floor apartment on 73rd Street. And the garbage just piled up. It piled up, so of course someone just came along and threw a match on it. So I’m looking out my window, Jayne County and I are looking out my window, and the whole street is up in flames. New York was really out of control but I would go back to those days in a minute because it was fabulous. We looked out the window and we thought we were going to get burned up alive.
Lee Sobel: You were Jayne’s manager before Peter, right?
Leee Black Childers: I was never Jayne’s manager. Jayne is unmanageable.
Lee Sobel: I heard that Peter Crowley asked if he could manage Jayne and you said Jayne was unmanageable and when you said you wanted to manage The Heartbreakers, he said you were crazy.
Leee Black Childers: That was actually the main one. Anthony Zanetta was the president of Main Man while I was the Vice President of Main Man. So we had problems. We had David Bowie and Iggy Pop and stuff. And we got through it, although they were totally, also crazy. And so Anthony Zanetta and I were at CBGB’s when Johnny Thunders came up to me and said, “Hey I have a new band. Will you manage us?” And I looked at Tony Zanetta and said, “What do you think? Let’s do it. Let’s do it.” And Tony Zanetta looked at me and said, “Are you totally crazy?” But I went and did it, of course, and Tony Zanetta did not. But I’m sure Peter Crowley at one point or another said the same thing to me because junkies are crazy people, and the drag queens, because that’s who I loved. If you look at my photo archive, that’s who all the pictures are of: junkies, drag queens, and rent boys, and just trash.
Lee Sobel: How did you get involved in the music scene in New York? You said when you first moved to New York, you moved in with Jackie Curtis.
Unidentified, Leee Black Childers, Nancy Spungeon, Sid Vicious, Dee Dee Ramone
(Photo by Danny Fields)
Leee Black Childers: Well, she moved in with me. You know, when I was in high school some well-meaning teacher appointed me photographer. And I didn’t know anything about photography, didn’t care much about it. I was standing outside on the sidelines of football games with one of those huge cameras they used to have back then, trying to take pictures of football players bouncing around and everything. And I never thought that was going to be anything but when I got to New York my brother gave me a little camera, a Canon. So once I was in New York, that was the way you could make friends, if you’re really a
Kentucky boy that has nothing to offer. When you’re walking down Christopher Street and there’s this fabulous seven foot tall drag queen wearing four wigs on top her head and you say, “Oh, can I take your picture?” That’s how I started out becoming a photographer. I got invited to Jackie Curtis’ first wedding, and took pictures from the roof top and all that. And Andrea Feldman took me and said, “Let’s go to the reception.” So we went to Max’s Kansas City. And that was the first time I ever walked into Max’s Kansas City and Andrea Feldman was the perfect person to walk in with.
Lee Sobel: Andrea “Whips” Feldman.
Leee Black Childers: That’s her. And they said Lou Reed is going to be doing the whole summer at Max’s upstairs with The Velvet Underground. Please come and see it. I went at night and photographed it. Finally his parents grabbed him and threw him inside an insane asylum. Bridget Polk had already done Bridget Berlin. She had been recording it. You know about this album, of course.
Lee Sobel: Oh, yeah. You mean the Live at Max’s album?
Leee Black Childers: The Live at Max’s Album. Bridget did that. Then they said there isn’t any picture of it. No one has any pictures. And Lenny Kaye said, “Oh I remember this weird little guy that would sit on the edge of the stage and take pictures. I’ll try to find out who it is.” And it was me. And that was how I suddenly became a rock ‘n’ roll photographer.
Andrea "Whips" Feldman with Leee Black Childers (Photo by Gerard Malanga)
Lee Sobel: That’s what led you into Main Man and managing?
Leee Black Childers: Well I was always working with Jackie Curtis and underground theater. We did a few plays. Andy Warhol came up to us and said, “I’ve got all these tapes. Do you think they would make a nice play?” Because we were always looking for something new to do. So he handed us this huge box of cassette tapes and said, “Listen to them and see if there’s anything you could do with them.” So Tony actually listened to them and edited them down into Pork, which is Andy Warhol’s Pork, the play.
Lee Sobel: Which was a huge influence on Bowie, right?
Leee Black Childers: It was funny. It was smart. It was very controversial. We got picketed and all that stuff. While I was there Cherry Vanilla and I decided- because Cherry was playing Pork, the title character. And all I was was the stage manager. But we decided we would pretend to be rock ‘n’ roll journalists. And Danny Goldberg, who ran Circus Magazine at that time, went along with it. He said, “Okay, if you want to do that if anyone calls me I’ll say yes, you represent Circus Magazine.” And it worked magnificently. We would just go to every rock ‘n’ roll show in London at that time. We just got totally escorted into the backrooms. We got fed wine and treated fabulously because they thought we were American journalists, which was a huge lie. And what Cherry wanted to do was get laid and what I wanted to do was take pictures of them all. So, we did that the whole summer of 1971. Cherry and I would go through the New Musical Express to see who we could rip off and go see next. And there was this tiny little ad that said David Bowie at some really tiny, tiny club way up in North London. And I said, “Oh, I remember something about him. I think he dresses in drag. Let’s go see him.” And then Jayne County said, “He dresses in drag? Yes! Let’s go! Let’s go!” So, Cherry and I came under the guise of being Circus Magazine journalists, got in, and there were only about 50 people in the audience anyway. And he wasn’t in drag, at all. He was just in bell bottoms and a big, flower hat. But we kind of got to know him, him and his wife Angie. We went with him to a gay bar and we would go out with him and just dance and get picked up and all that kind of stuff. And we came back to New York. And about a year later I got a phone call and suddenly he was a big star. And he didn’t want normal people, he wanted crazy people working for him. And they said, “Do you want to change your career and go on the road with David Bowie? He was signed with RCA and they were going to buy us all the tickets we need and all the hotel rooms we need. So I came along and that’s how I got involved. And it was fabulous for as long as it lasted.
Cherry Vanilla, Leee Black Childers and Jackie Curtis
Lee Sobel: Do you have any memories of New York City in the 70's that you'd like to share?
Leee Black Childers: Do you want to know the absolute craziest one?
Lee Sobel: Please.
Leee Black Childers: I went to a Thanksgiving dinner at this woman's apartment and then she went around and gave everyone a tab of acid and then we drank some more Jack Daniel's. And then she said, "Okay, we're going to Studio 54." And I thought, "Wait a minute. I am so stoned. This is so crazy." We hopped in a limousine and headed to Studio 54. As soon as we pulled up it turned out the doorman had known me for years. So he said, "Leee! How fabulous. Come right in." And I was completely tripping on acid. There was this bar with a
bartender in the middle. And he was this gorgeous boy and I had met him before, so we knew each other. And so I just said "Oh, hello." and jumped over to join him inside the bar. I said, "I'll bartend with you." And, what did he care, he said "Fine." So then as the customers would come up, I wouldn’t let anyone pay for anything but also wouldn’t let them order for anything. I would just tell them what they needed to drink. I would make up these bizarre, weird drinks. And at one point one of the security people came up to Steve Rubel and said “Leee Childers is behind the bar, making drinks, and giving them away for free.” And Steve Rubel just looked over and said, “Oh, great.”
Sobel: How sexual was Studio 54?
Childers: Everyone had sex there! That’s what it was there for. People would be up in the rafters, it would be blowjob heaven. You just went there and misbehaved. Everyone did, too. Don’t let anyone tell you different because everyone was into it. No one was standing there with their less crossed.
Lee Sobel: Let’s talk about The Heartbreakers. Is there a crazy story you can tell me about The Heartbreakers that was not in Please Kill Me.
Leee Black Childers: Well first of all, here’s a big newsflash for you, I haven’t read Please Kill Me, so how do I know?
Lee Sobel: Why haven’t you read Please Kill Me? You’re in it.
Leee Black Childers: That’s why.
Lee Sobel: You were saying about how heroin was everywhere back then.
Angie Bowie with Leee Black Childers
Leee Black Childers: Heroin was everywhere with everyone. It wasn’t just them. Everyone. Everyone and I’m not going to name names, you know I don’t do that. Everyone was taking heroin at that time. I wasn’t. I tried and it just made me sick and I thought this ain’t no fun. Who wants to take this? It makes you throw up. Johnny Thunders, bless his heart, would not mind my telling you this. He was a junkie, of course. Everybody knows that. But he was more than a junkie. He was an everything junkie. I remember one time I was in London and I had a little money, I said let’s go out for dinner. We went to just this normal steakhouse on Carnaby Street. And he ordered two steaks. And I said, “Johnny, you can’t even eat two steaks.”
Leee Black Childers with Rodney Bingenheimer
And he said, “I want them anyway.” And that’s where he was at, really. Jerry Nolan was a true, real junkie. He liked his heroin. Johnny was a weird, other kind of junkie where he just liked everything. If you handed him a bottle of whisky, he would drink the whole bottle immediately. If you took him to a restaurant, he would want two steaks instead of one. I don’t know what it was about him. He was just so all-consuming. But so sweet and fabulous about it that you just-I mean, God knows, there are lots of living people who would tell you that sometimes I would just grab him and just slap him silly. Because that was all I could think to do. And I didn’t want to hurt him. Sometimes you just had to hit him real hard and say, “Snap out of it!”
Lee Sobel: So did you feel almost like a dad to the band sometimes?
Morrissey with Leee Black Childers
Leee Black Childers: Yeah I did. I was their protector. And sometimes when you’re their dad you have to discipline them. And they needed disciplining, especially Johnny. But he was the sweetest junkie in the whole world that I ever dealt with. And believe me, I dealt with a lot of junkies. He was so apologetic and everything about it, when he would throw up and stuff like that. When he would go on wild escapades and disappear in the middle of Amsterdam. And you would have to go running after him in the middle of night -- and Amsterdam is a difficult city to go running in the middle of the night. And he would run off and we had to go out and drag him back because he had to perform.
Lee Sobel: What was your impression of CBGB’s back in the 70's and Hilly Crystal who owned it?
Leee Black Childers: Hilly didn’t do anything. I don’t want to talk badly about Hilly because he almost created it accidentally. He thought he opened a club but then Richard Lloyd and other people turned it into something else. And then Hilly just sat there. In fact, he didn’t sit there. It would be traditional to walk into CBGB’s and find Hilly passed out on the end of the bar. But that’s all he had to do. He owned the place. He didn’t have to do anything further. And there he’d be and you’d just see Hilly passed out. I’m not putting him down at all. He was very enthusiastic. But he would often say “Fuck this” and go to sleep. And I couldn’t blame him. Because I could sleep in the middle of noise. The floors were uneven, and you could barely walk on them. Someone once said to me, as we were stumbling out of there one night, “You walk on these floors better than anyone I’ve ever seen.” And I said, “Because I knew where all the cracks are."
Lee Sobel: Okay then, let’s talk about Nancy Spungeon.
Leee Black Childers: At the time, I really thought she was so horrendous. Because she was loud, and she was pushy, and she was pushing drugs. It would hurt my bands because she would show up with heroin. And this was not a good thing for me. I was never mean to her. I was always nice to her but to me she was the enemy. She was bringing drugs around, so she could find love. I’ve been in a few films talking about Nancy, and I said she was as bad as she could be. And maybe I was a little wrong. Maybe all she was was just being Nancy. She did a lot of harm and she, obviously, created a lot of chaos. But she was just being Nancy.
Lee Sobel: Two more quick things about ’77. Do you remember anything about the blackout of ’77 and what do you remember about Son of Sam?
An early photo of the New York Dolls by Leee Black Childers
Leee Black Childers: I was still in London because I had to be there. I had to do some more business but the band, The Heartbreakers, had to come back to New York. And as they went off I said to them- because I knew what their history was. They were junkies. I knew they were going to go straight to Norfolk Street and get heroin and things. So I told them, “Listen. I will have people there watching you because I’ll be there in two days. Just go there. Rehearse.” Because they were going to do a show on Bleecker Street, at the Village Gate. And they said okay, okay, okay. But I had to stay in London. They were on the plane-and this is really true. You can check it out with Walter Lure. So Johnny's sitting there, with Billy Rath and everything, the plane’s coming in for a landing in New York and all the lights go out in New York, while they are still on the plane. And Walter just looked at Johnny and said, “Did Leee do that?”
Lee Sobel: So, they couldn’t cop.
Leee Black Childers: [laughing] Exactly.
Lee Sobel: Danny Fields told me he sneezed when the lights went out and he thought he did it.
Leee Black Childers: That’s brilliant. He sneezed and all the lights went out!...So, I had come back to New York because I had to be back for the shows. That’s when the Son of Sam thing happened and the death of Elvis. Well, New York went completely crazy because Elvis died the day before Son of Sam was arrested. So in two days-I mean, you can google all this and tell me I’m wrong. This is how I remember it. Elvis died and everyone went crazy. Every bar in New York had free drinks for everyone. It’s all on Elvis. So, New York kind of went crazy. And then, the very next night, Son of Sam got arrested. So then it was free drinks again! It was like speakeasy time. New York went crazy for that whole weekend. It was so fabulous.
Lee Sobel: I love that your memory of Son of Sam was free drinks.
Leee Black Childers: Oh, it was. Every bar in New York was like, “Son of Sam is arrested? Have anything you want.”
Lee Sobel: Tell me about Levi and the Rockats who you also managed. I heard you brought them to Andy Warhol and introduced them as sexy, rockabilly boys.
Leee Black Childers: It’s true. And he was always insatiably crazy because I attracted gorgeous, young boys. That’s what I do. I’m very good at that. And so, I would bring them up to meet him because he enjoyed that. (pause) I always get insecure when people interview me, because I know I talk a lot. And I ramble.
Lee Sobel: No, you were great.
The End. RIP Leee Black Childers.