Punk Marilyn. Pop goddess. Icon of cool. DEBBIE HARRY has been all these things and more. Now, as the Blondie singer publishes her autobiography Face It, Paul Burston looks back at an extraordinary life and recalls an earlier encounter with pop’s original ambitious blonde.
Debbie Harry is debating whether to buy a shirt she has seen in Joseph. “It’s really beautiful,” she sighs, running a gentle hand over her bleached-blond tresses and smiling happily. It’s a smile so wide it looks almost painful, a smile so familiar it immediately brings back memories of school discos, skinny ties and Heart Of Glass. Then it’s gone. She frowns and fixes me with those sleepy, blue eyes. “But, y’know what?” she says. “It is very expensive. I’m not sure. What would you do?”
I tell her that I would probably buy it now and worry about it later and she snorts with laughter. “He’s a great believer in that,” she says, gesturing towards Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie, one-time boyfriend and still her right-hand man.
“I think you should buy it”, Stein says. “You never know what could happen. You could die in a minute. A meteor could come through this ceiling and kill you right now.” The year is 1999 and I’m interviewing Debbie Harry for The Guardian Weekend Magazine to mark the reunion of Blondie. A few weeks from now, the band’s comeback single Maria will shoot to number one in the UK charts. Thankfully, a meteor didn’t come crashing through the ceiling and kill them before they could enjoy their second flush of success. But, for now, Harry and her bandmates seem a little uncertain about how well their much-publicised reunion will be received.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have overlooked Blondie in the band’s heyday. Between 1978 and 1981, Blondie clocked up an impressive five number-one singles in Britain (Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl, Atomic, Call Me and The Tide Is High), plus a string of top-twenty hits that guaranteed their place in pop history (Denis, Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Union City Blue). Their musical range was extraordinary, combining the sweet sounds of sixties girl bands and surf music with the harsher elements of New York punk, art pop, disco, reggae and rap. And there, at the centre of it all, was Debbie Harry: the original ambitious blonde pop goddess, the punk Marilyn, the prototype Madonna.
By the time I met Harry she’d gained a reputation as a notoriously difficult interviewee. I have to say, this wasn’t my experience of her at all. She was clearly wary of the press, as anyone would be after some of the things that had been written about her. She was 53 when we met, and the tabloid knives were out for a woman who had the audacity to front a band and look the way she did – not quite the sex symbol of yesteryear, but still an enormously charismatic star with a somewhat idiosyncratic sense of style. Harry is the only woman who ever looked good in a day-glo yellow jumpsuit, and is the same woman who made a dustbin-liner dress look magnificent in the iconic video for Blondie’s smash hit, Atomic. The day we met, she’d opted for something slightly more-demure: a blue check two-piece, complete with bum-bag and chunky boots.
I asked about her reputation. Was it true that she spent an entire interview trying to slip the word ‘masturbation’ into the conversation as many times as possible? Yes, it was. On another occasion, did she really challenge the man interviewing her to a fist fight, over the telephone? She laughed. “But I say these things as jokes, y’know. Some of the people they send to interview you are so straight. I say these things to amuse myself, and then they start scribbling them down.” So, it wasn’t true that she once planned to run away with Patti Smith and live in a lesbian commune? “I do live in a lesbian commune,” she said, trying her best to sound convincing. “Write that down. Debbie Harry lives in a lesbian commune.”
For the record, Harry did not live in a lesbian commune then and does not live in a lesbian commune now. She may be a committed ally of the LGBTQ community, but she lives alone with her dogs. Her morning routine is simple. She walks the dogs, makes herself a coffee and reads in bed for an hour. I know this because she’s finally written her autobiography, and a fascinating read it is too, filled with insights and illustrated with famous portraits, backstage photos and fan art. Face It tells the story of how an adopted little girl from New Jersey grew up to become a pop icon and the international ambassador of New York City cool. Why Face It? Partly because Harry knows that her face is her fortune. “I take advantage of my looks and I use them”. Partly because she’s never been afraid to face facts.
“I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game”, she writes of her 70s Blondie persona. “I was saying things in songs that female singers really didn’t say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back. I was kicking ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll with a dark, provocative, aggressive side.”
It’s fair to say that not everyone appreciated this at the time. In the late 70s and early 80s, female singers weren’t supposed to go out on stage without any knickers, playing the part of the blonde bombshell and refusing to apologise for their sexuality. As Harry sang on the band’s third single, there were plenty of people willing to “rip her to shreds.”
“All the things that Debbie got rapped for are really commonplace now,” drummer Clem Burke told me in 1999. “To be a beautiful woman, and to play rock music, and to use her sexuality like that – people really came down hard on her. I remember there was one picture of Debbie with her tongue sticking out, licking a record. That caused so much trouble.”
“I did it all very consciously,” Harry asserted. “I wanted to inject some of that film-star glamour and I didn’t want to be portrayed as a victim. I felt that a lot of women in music sang songs about being victimised. I mean, I love Janis Joplin and I love a lot of the old soul singers, but I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be more playful about it and also sing in the third person, like with Sunday Girl. It was more like telling a story.”
In Face It, Harry writes openly about the pitfalls of fame and the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. “Fame was a sensual sort of feeling, initially,” she writes. “It felt like having sex, a wash of electricity coursing through your fingers and up your legs, sometimes a flushed feeling at the base of your throat.” And with fame came introductions to other famous people, not least Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and David Bowie.
In one memorable scene, Harry is backstage with Bowie and Iggy Pop and Bowie pulls out his penis in front of her “as if I were the official cock checker or something. Since I was in an all-male band, maybe they figured I really was the cock-check lady.”
In another chapter, Harry and Chris Stein are attacked by a man who breaks into their apartment, steals Stein’s guitars and then forces himself sexually on the singer. “The stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape”, Harry writes, somewhat controversially.
In an another equally disturbing incident, our heroine accepts a lift from a smartly dressed man. They drive in silence, until the man’s body odour becomes so overwhelming she tries to open the car window, only to find that there’s no window crank or door handle. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Every instinct was on full alert.” She managed to escape and thought no more of it until 15 years later when she opened a newspaper and read about the execution of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. “There was a photo of him. He gave the journalist a description of his car and his modus operandi and how he got his victims and it matched exactly what had happened to me.” Others have argued that Bundy was in Florida and not New York at the time of Harry’s abduction, but she remains adamant, “It was him.”
She’s refreshingly open about the fact that she’s had plastic surgery. “I think it’s the same as having a flu shot, basically, another way of looking after yourself.” But there have been times when she didn’t look after herself as well as she might have done. She’s disarmingly honest about her drug use. “I didn’t care for coke too much – it made me jittery and wired and it affected my throat.” But she soon developed a taste for heroin. “I felt a kind of rush I’d never felt before. And I thought, Oh, this is so nice, so relaxing, aah, I don’t have to think about things.”
In classic rock and roll style, it was drug addiction that contributed to Blondie splitting in the early 80s, at the height of their success. Then Chris Stein became ill with a rare autoimmune disease and Harry spent the next few years nursing him back to health. “The press were trying to portray me as the second coming of Mother Theresa,” she writes in Face It. “But that’s ridiculous. He was my partner. Of course I would look after him.” But when she wasn’t by his bedside, she was out looking for a fix. “The heroin was a great consolation. I would head out in the middle of the night and score by myself.”
In the mid 80s, she pursued a solo career. But by now she was pushing forty and there was another ambitious blonde on the same record label, a young wannabe by the name of Madonna. “My relationship with Warners was really over by then,” Harry told me in 1999. “I felt overshadowed by their commitment to Madonna, and this feeling that I was being viewed as some sort of competitive thing that they couldn’t devote much time or energy to.”
She turned her attention to acting, earning plaudits for her roles in films like Hairspray. In the mid 90s, she appeared as a featured vocalist with contemporary free-jazz outfit the Jazz Passengers. “I think I’ve been kind of lucky with that,” she told me in 1999. “I’ve had the chance to do a bit of experimentation, retreat from the spotlight of being a pop star, and just work as a singer and as an artist. All artists need to hide behind closed doors sometimes.” Still, when people started turning up at Jazz Passengers gigs dressed in vintage Blondie T-shirts, Harry couldn’t resist the pull of nostalgia.
It’s no coincidence that Blondie’s 1999 comeback album was called No Exit. The title comes from a play by Jean Paul Sartre, with its famous quote, “Hell is other people”. From the time the band split in 1982 until they reformed in 1997, hell was other members of Blondie. “I can’t speak for everyone,” Debbie told me back then. “But Chris and I were certainly estranged for a while.” In the past, she had been less tactful about the split, saying that “hate had a lot to do with it”.
Since their 1997 reunion, the band has remained together, more or less. The line-up may change, but Harry and Stein remain as professionally committed to one another as they’ve been since first forming Blondie way back in 1974.
The band’s most recent album, Pollinator, is as good as anything Harry and Stein have produced. In her book, Harry explains that the title refers to the cross-pollination of musical influences which have been part of Blondie’s sound since the start. But she also keeps bees and is personally dedicated to “the desperate plight of honey bees and other pollinators struggling to live with pollutants and pesticides”. For the accompanying live shows, she appeared on stage wearing a giant bee head and a jacket that read “Stop Fucking The Planet.” As she writes in Face It, she’s still a New York punk at heart. The book ends with Harry hinting that there may be a follow up. “I still have so much more to tell, but being such a private person, I might not tell everything.” This is exactly what you’d expect a queen bee of her calibre to say.
Forty-five years after Blondie played the band’s first gig, Debbie Harry shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m still here,” she writes. “I have had one fuck of an interesting life and I plan to go on having one.” With her track record, I’m sure she’ll make it glorious.
Face It by Debbie Harry is published by Harper Collins