Debbie Harry: ‘Sex is what makes everything happen’

In her new memoir, the Blondie singer writes candidly about sex and fame

Debbie Harry on her memoir: ‘I should put a disclaimer on the cover.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times

Debbie Harry on her memoir: ‘I should put a disclaimer on the cover.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times

 

For decades, Debbie Harry has been saving her fan art, hundreds of versions of that familiar siren face, rendered by admirers of all talents. There are children’s drawings in markers and crayons (“Happy Birthday Debbie Love Miyuki”) and ink portraits by skilled illustrators. There are dolls and T-shirts, works on canvas, wood and in mosaic.

Harry keeps these images of herself not to prop up her ego, she said, but to honour the makers, and the effort and spirit of their gifts. She had been storing them haphazardly in drawers and boxes until she began rounding them up for her memoir, Face It, which is published today.

“I couldn’t just abandon them,” she writes in the book, adding that some of the portraits have traveled around the world with her, through bad weather and flight delays, “surviving just like me, a bit frayed at the edges, but still intact.”

Harry is a plain-spoken rock goddess, and Face It is a no-frills read

But Harry, who turned 74 in July, displays no frayed edges whatsoever. Her face is unlined (she is straightforward about her plastic surgery, comparing it to a flu shot), and the other day at her apartment in Chelsea in New York city, her platinum hair was swirled around enormous rollers, evoking her role as the aspirational mom with the exploding beehive in Hairspray, John Waters’ goofy-sincere 1988 film.

Hairspray: Debbie Harry starred in John Waters’ 1988 comedy. Photograph: Warner Brothers
Hairspray: Debbie Harry starred in John Waters’ 1988 comedy. Photograph: Warner Brothers

Harry wore a crisp red collared blouse with white polka dots and red leggings, and apologised for the dusty condition of this elegant and minimally furnished one bedroom with pickled floors and a pair of cream-coloured leather sofas that has been her home in New York for nearly 20 years.

The dust wasn’t from poor housekeeping. It’s just that Harry had been touring all summer. Her longtime band, Blondie, the pop punk ensemble that first dissolved in 1982, has been on the road for some part of each year ever since they got back together in the late 1990s. And Harry spends half her time in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in a modest house with four dogs – “three Japanese Chins and one mystery meat” – in a town she moved to in 2002 to be near her father, now deceased, who was ill at the time.

“I don’t want to sound like an old lady with dogs,” she said. “They are funny, though. You get entertainment value with pets. When you have more than one, they work as a collective. I had a herd of cats when we lived on the Bowery.”

Those cats saved her life by waking her up as the place was filling with carbon monoxide leaking from a faulty boiler. That was in the notorious Blondie apartment, a crumbling loft in a building just down the block from CBGB.

A young Stephen Sprouse was an upstairs neighbour, and it was there that he began dressing Harry in his signature couture-punk styles. “I would come out of my closet dressed for a show and he would look me up and down and say in his quiet way, ‘Is that what you’re wearing?’”

The next apartment she lived in also had a conflagration (bad wiring was a common accoutrement in 1970s-era Manhattan real estate), and Harry and Chris Stein, her longtime boyfriend and bandmate, took advantage of the atmospheric char to photograph Harry in the ruins. Clad in a chiffon gown, she wields a flaming frying pan: an avatar of punk domesticity.

Ring of fire: From the ‘In Marilyn’s Dress’ series. Photograph: Chris Stein/Face It
Ring of fire: From the ‘In Marilyn’s Dress’ series. Photograph: Chris Stein/Face It

The photograph is now part of the Debbie Harry canon, as is their long relationship and musical output. Though they broke up in 1987, on the day Andy Warhol died, she noted, they remain best friends and collaborators. Stein married actress Barbara Sicuranza in 1999, and Harry is godmother to their two teenage daughters.

“I’m looking back on all of this in a romanticised light,” Harry said. “Memory being what it is. We were struggling, but we were happy for the most part. Our personalities working together — my shortcomings and Chris’s shortcomings. We actually made one great person.” As is typical of rock stars she added an adjectival curse.

If often burned out, the ecosystem that was downtown Manhattan in the 1970s was also fertile and febrile, as Face It depicts. It seemed as if everyone was in a band and making art of some sort. Bands traded musicians like suburbanites at the time traded spouses.

Sex is what makes everything happen. Sex is why people dress nice, comb their hair, brush their teeth and take showers

And all the participants dressed for the party. Harry scoured the city’s thrift shops for prom dresses and other garments she might shred or otherwise interfere with and wear onstage. Tish and Snooky Bellomo, the sisters who opened Manic Panic, the punk atelier, on St Marks Place in 1977 and sang with Blondie in its early days, often accompanied her on these outings.

Houston Street, lined with shops selling sunglasses one week or gaffer’s tape the next, was another source. It was life as bricolage. “I should put a disclaimer on the cover,” Harry said of her memoir. “I don’t know if any of this is real or not.”

“Everyone was poor and it was very small and insular, and we were all each other’s audience,” Tish Bellomo said in a phone interview. “It was the school of punk rock. That the economy was so bad was a good thing, because we could never have done what we did.”

“We all wanted to be part of it,” said Cyndi Lauper, who arrived in New York a little later. “Debbie led the pack. She had so many setbacks, and she just kept going.”

‘A really good scene’

Harry’s first apartment, four rooms on St Marks Place, rented for $67 in 1965. She sold candles for a wholesale housewares company, and worked as a secretary at the BBC, as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City and as a Playboy bunny.

She helped out in a head shop, among the first in New York City. She went to happenings, and to Woodstock, and joined her first band, the First National Uniphrenic Church and Bank. “I don’t know if I banged sticks together or screamed,” she writes, “probably both.”

Harry is a plain-spoken rock goddess. As a memoirist, she has none of the raconteur’s eloquence of Keith Richards, nor the showy intellectualism of Patti Smith; the book was put together from interviews with Sylvie Simmons, a British rock journalist. It is a no-frills read: “He got me hot.” “I made it with him once.” “It was a really good scene.”

Debbie Harry: ‘I usually just say that I’m up for grabs, but I date.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times
Debbie Harry: ‘I usually just say that I’m up for grabs, but I date.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times

But it shows its author’s grit and moxie. There have been minor blows, and catastrophic setbacks: an abusive, stalker boyfriend (who was the inspiration for One Way or Another, from Blondie’s breakout album, Parallel Lines); punitive record contracts; a felonious business manager who “forgot” to pay Stein and Harry’s taxes; those fires; drug addiction; and the dreadful period in 1982 when Stein fell ill with an autoimmune disease and was unable to pay his hospital bills.

It was the height of Blondie’s fame, but she and Stein were in terrible shape financially. The band broke up that same year.

It was during this period that Stein and Harry sold a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat to an art dealer for an amount Harry can’t recall, but which was many times more than its purchase price. Stein and Harry had bought the piece for $300; it was the artist’s first sale, and both the couple and Basquiat felt they had got the better deal.

And then there was the night, she writes, that “Chris and I blew into a bodega for milk and cookies,” which meant they had no money to give the man with the pinned eyes and the long, stylish leather coat who held them up at knife point, marched them into their apartment, stole Stein’s guitars and raped Harry while a roommate snored next to her on the loft bed.

“I think I was more embarrassed than afraid,” she said, adding that the loss of the guitars stung the most. It was well before any fame had accrued to them, in the days when they were paid in beers, not dollars.

“I don’t like to dwell on the past,” she writes. “You do something, if you’re lucky you learn from it, and you move on.”

Sex and drugs

Before she was a punk princess, before she was a darling of photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz and Stein (Warhol, who also made her portrait, once said that if he could have any face it would be hers), she was a shy and dreamy child growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey.

Debbie Harry: ‘The only thing I regret is I can’t wear heels anymore.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times
Debbie Harry: ‘The only thing I regret is I can’t wear heels anymore.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times

Her father, Dick Harry, worked in the garment industry; her mother, Cag, was a housewife and baseball fan. They were doting but incurious parents, bewildered by her fame, and confounded by the fans, who kept turning up at their door or writing to them during Blondie’s heyday.

Debbie Harry had been born Angela Trimble and given up for adoption when she was three months old by a musician who’d had a tryst with her married childhood sweetheart. Harry writes that she reached out to her birth mother when she was an adult, but that the woman declined to meet her.

Harry was a good student; she liked books, geometry and television. She identified with Marilyn Monroe, dying her hair platinum with Cag Harry’s bottle of peroxide. She pined for New York City, and would take the bus in for a dollar and wander around Greenwich Village. She went to junior college because art school was not in her family’s budget, and she wanted to leave home and be an artist.

She said her manager had long encouraged her to write a memoir (“I had no intention of doing it, but he kept nudging) and that it took years. Simmons knew how to ask questions, she said, “and would contribute her own story, and a lot of times we were sort of comparing notes,” Harry said. “It’s been stewing for a long time, and it feels good to get it out there.”

Last year, she left an envelope with a few chapters in a coffee shop on her block. When she went back to retrieve it, the man who had found it was grinning broadly, she said. “I don’t know what part he had read.”

Maybe it was the section in which she described how Penn Jillette, an old boyfriend, had reworked the jets on a Jacuzzi to her specifications, so as to give a female bather the most pleasure? (The Jill-Jet, he called his contraption.) “God bless Penn!” she said.

Debbie Harry: ‘The heroin was a great consolation.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times
Debbie Harry: ‘The heroin was a great consolation.’ Photograph: Celeste Sloman/New York Times

Harry writes matter-of-factly about sex and fame. She is clear-eyed about her role as a punk pinup. “I like that I was on the fans’ bedroom walls, helping them to entertain themselves,” she writes. “Sex is what makes everything happen. Sex is why people dress nice, comb their hair, brush their teeth and take showers.”

She was amused when David Bowie showed her his penis one day when Blondie, Bowie and Iggy Pop were on tour, and relieved, she said, that Iggy Pop didn’t follow his lead. “I would have been outnumbered,” she said.

She is as matter-of-fact when she recalls Stein’s illness, and their drug consumption at the time: “The heroin was a great consolation. Desperate times, desperate measures, as the cliché goes.” She said it wasn’t easy to give up but demurred on the details.

As for her current love life, Harry has a practiced response. “I usually just say that I’m up for grabs, but I date,” she said. “I have a couple of really great friendships, one in particular, but I don’t want to talk about that.”

Waters, a friend since before their Hairspray days, said, “Debbie has kept all her friends close. I don’t trust people who don’t have old friends.” He added, “She’s a good date, and she always puts out in the glamour department. She’s a class act and a hard worker. Who else could play CBGBs, and the Carlyle? She’s on the road constantly, like a vaudeville player, and that means she always has good gossip.”

Up to a point. Brushing aside a reporter’s question about her decades of losses, financial and otherwise, Harry said, “The only thing I regret is I can’t wear heels anymore.” — New York Times

Face It is published by HarperCollins

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