The bombshell strikes back
INTERVIEW:Her face and voice made her an icon as the frontwoman with Blondie, and the years have barely diminished her energy, but if Debbie Harry has excelled at anything, it is the fine art of surviving adversity, writes EDMUND GORDON
POP STARS DON’T age quite like other people – they do it enthusiastically (like Paul McCartney), or reluctantly (like Mick Jagger), but always somehow unconvincingly, as if the process was undermined by the more powerful image of their younger selves. About half an hour before I’m due to meet Debbie Harry, I discover that it’s her 66th birthday. This comes as a shock; both the day and the age she has reached. I was born in 1982, the year that Blondie first disbanded, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Harry has likewise gathered a few decades in the meantime; but I’d somehow anticipated meeting an only slightly older version of the pouting waif I knew from my parents’ album covers. And I remember the band’s comeback in 1999, not so long ago, when Harry tossed her hair flirtatiously on the video for Maria,looking not a day older than 40; and yet must have been, what – 54?
In the bar of her hotel, however, I have no trouble recognising her. All Harry’s considerable glamour resides in her face. She is still powerfully beautiful, a facelift in the late 1990s having helped to maintain the outline of her extraordinary bone structure. Her large pale eyes, at once languorous and intelligent, hold you almost unblinkingly while she talks. She can be brusque with interviewers, but her manner today is entirely relaxed: she laughs a lot, asks several personal questions, and somehow makes me feel as if we’re old friends; she is not at all intimidating, and does not seem to be at all affected.
So will she be celebrating this evening? “This evening?” She looks amused. “I’m celebrating all day.”
Blondie are at the start of a tour to promote their new album, Panic of Girls, the first single from which, Mother, has just been released. It’s a catchy, bouncy tune, a return to the territory of Hanging on the Telephoneand Heart of Glass, but the lyrics – “ We are the missing children/Mother in the night/Where are you, where are you”– are rather haunting, especially considering Harry’s relationship to her own mother: she was adopted as a baby, and when she finally hired a private detective to track down her birth-parents in the early 1990s, her mother apparently responded in two terse sentences: “Please do not bother me again. I do not wish to be disturbed.” Is this what the song is about?
“Oh, no, no, no!” She seems tickled that anybody could have taken such a literal interpretation. “It’s about this great club I used to go to every Tuesday night in the 1990s. It was sort of like my main social life, and then it closed because the rents went up high. The neighbourhood became gentrified, and then it was like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney every night. I mean, it’s awful, it happens everywhere. We must have some funk somewhere, but where is it? That’s what the song’s about.”
Other clubs have played a crucial part in Blondie’s development. They started out in the 1970s playing in the famous New York venue CBGB, alongside then-underground punk acts such as the Ramones. Then Andy Warhol noticed them, and they became regulars at Studio 54. Harry has spoken of how hard she worked on her image in the band’s early days; did Warhol have any influence on this?
“No, Andy really didn’t have anything to do with that. The character came from a couple of different sources. We were all into comic-book art; I was very influenced by, in fact in awe of all of these silver-screen blondes, that glowing image, and I wanted to bring that sort of screen presence to the front of a band. I didn’t think that had been done before.”
It is interesting that she describes her on-stage persona as a “character”; is that really how she thinks of it?
“I think at one point there was a real separation, and that my stage persona was a character. My intention was always to be an actor, and so to apply a character to what I was doing as a singer made sense to me. I guess that’s just the way I made it work. But I didn’t hesitate to incorporate personal references, bits of reality, into it. It wasn’t a complete facade.”
Was it a way of keeping her private self away from public scrutiny? “Partially,” she concedes. “But I guess I’ve come to a different place with that too. Maybe I’ve just gotten so used to it that I don’t notice a difference any more. But I feel like I’ve become more unified, or like my personality has become more integrated now.”
As we’re talking, Chris Stein – Blondie’s lead guitarist and, with Harry, the band’s founding member and main songwriter – unexpectedly enters the bar. Stein is a laconic, gentle-seeming man, who looks every inch the ageing rock star with his long grey hair and tinted John Lennon-style glasses. He has come to give Harry her birthday present – a small box-shaped object, slightly larger than a cigarette pack, shop-wrapped in grey-and-gold paper – which (to my disappointment) she slips discreetly into her bag without opening.
Stein and Harry were lovers for many years, and although he has been married since 1999 to the actress Barbara Sicuranza, with whom he has two children (Harry has remained single since their split), you can still sense between them the kind of intimacy more often shared by couples than by bandmates. They finish one another’s sentences; smile privately, affectionately, at one another’s jokes; and seem to have almost identical enthusiasms and interests. They reveal for example, a somewhat surprising shared passion for the English fantasy writer China Miéville.
“China’s my buddy now,” says Stein proudly, sounding like a star-struck teen. “I kind of stalked him for a bit. I read The City The City and it just knocked me out, and then I went and read all of his other stuff and it was just f**king great.”
“He’s incredible,” Harry cuts in, exactly echoing Stein’s tone. “Oh my God, Embassytown, that’s my favourite. It’s just insane. So brilliant!”
That Stein and Harry should still be like this, more than a decade after the demise of their relationship, is perhaps unsurprising. They have been through a lot together. When Stein became ill in 1982 with pemphigus vulgaris – a rare form of auto-immune disease which causes both internal and external blistering of the mouth and throat, and can prove fatal if left untreated – Harry took time off to nurse him back to health. They tend to dismiss any suggestion that she sidelined her career for him, arguing that they were a couple, and that he would have done the same for her – but the outcome was that by the time Stein had convalesced, four years after his original diagnosis, their record company had effectively lost interest in them.
Around that time, Stein discovered that they had lost all their money. They had invested in a legitimate tax-avoidance scheme that went bust, and they found themselves more than a million dollars in debt. The couple’s drug use was already becoming problematic, and, for a few years in the late 1980s, it slipped out of control. Asked once what her drug of choice was, Harry is reputed to have said: “I chose a lot of drugs.”
How serious did the drug-taking become. Were they junkies? “Only briefly, towards the end of the whole thing,” Harry says. “But yeah.”
And do they hold drugs responsible for some of their other difficulties during those years? “Drugs for me were always kind of like a loan consolidation,” Stein says. “Like when you transfer all your loans into one big loan. When you’re doing heroin, all your little problems become just this one big problem of having to do heroin all the time.”
But he admits that, if he hadn’t been taking so many drugs, he “probably would have paid more attention to the business”.
And what about the music itself – was that affected? “No, I don’t think so,” says Harry. “Not critically. What it affected was development of a more personal kind. It held back maturation; it interfered with growing up.”
Experience, she says, has brought a different sensibility to the new album, which is their first in eight years.
“Just having fuller thoughts, appreciation. In a way I think it makes you more sensual not to do drugs.” And experience has also changed her attitude to the music: “I feel a certain confidence about my material now. I feel that if I like it and feel good about it, that’s the most important criterion.”
“In the past we were always having to prove ourselves,” Stein agrees. “But now people know we’re good. Things are much calmer now.”
Blondie play the Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival on July 20th. Tel: 091-566577, galwayartsfestival.ie
In raptures after 35 years
Debbie Harry has been a source of inspiration to women since she first took to the stage with Blondie, writes of Fight Like Apes
It is 35 years since Debbie Harry released her first album with 1970s new wave punk icons Blondie, but even now, if you walk into the relentlessly trendy Punk pub in London’s Soho, you will see a string of girls desperately attempting to mimic her power and grace as a performer.
They might pull off a vocally accurate version of Heart of Glassbut it will never be more than that. A Debbie Harry is born, not made. I still remember as a 15-year-old, catching Sunday Girlon a Top of the Popsshow from 1978 for the first time, and being transfixed by the sheer cool, magnetic swag of her, just standing there in a slouchy, oversized man’s suit. Take note, Rihanna: our Debbie didn’t have to shove her under-dressed cleavage into the cameras or use her crotch as some sort of metronome to grab the spotlight.
Sure, her looks were remarkable, but it was about so much more. There are thousands of beautiful women who never came close to inspiring generations as she did. Everything about her was strong, from her voice to her stage presence. But it was a quiet strength.
She had Playboybunny looks but with the sass of an independent woman. Her calm, confident sexuality as a performer rendered props or any other distractions unnecessary. All she needed was a big man’s shirt and that steely, punk-y aura. Harry made it possible to be dainty and pretty while being strong and powerful.
She made sexuality something to celebrate in a way that wasn’t brash. Her voice with Blondie was the soundtrack of an amazing era, of a band spanning every genre from punk to disco with remarkable style.
There are no words to describe the astonishing feat of a band that’s managed to remain standing through 35 years of extreme highs and lows, of illness and poverty, of break-ups and line-up changes.
For all the punky nonchalance, Blondie were in the first wave of 1970s bands to spot the importance of music and promotional videos, and it had a huge impact on their international standing.
But success was neither easy nor immediate. Their first release was met by pretty lame reviews and poor record sales. There were low periods financially and health-wise. When her co-founder and partner Chris Stein became seriously ill, Harry left the business to take care of him.
I’m stopping this here. I refuse to elaborate on her acting career or charity work because I’m already in a jealous lather writing this. Three words: poor Mrs Stein.
Even at nearly three times my age, I would hate Harry to be my husband’s ex.