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NME

26th May 1990

 

Page 5

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Page 13

MA DONNA

Pre-Madonna, DEBBIE ‘dirty’ HARRY did it first, using her cheekbones and cheek to positively exploit her sexuality in a man’s, man’s world. The Blonde is back in bitchin’ form as JANE GARCIA discovers in bleached-out California-I-A.

Steve Jones, erstwhile Sex Pistol and one of the greatest cultural anthropologists of his generation (he’s shagged everything), once pontificated in an interview that the reason Deborah Harry appears to be so beautiful is that she’s constructed like a doll: a small, perfect body with a slightly oversized head.
Jonesy, in his own awkward way, was suggesting that LA Harry is not a great natural beauty, but taps into our feelings of affection generated by a childhood attachment to dolls, be they Action Man or Cindy. It will come as no surprise, dear reader, for you to learn that Steve Jones overfloweth with putrid bilge water. Deborah Harry in the flesh is – and always has been – absolutely gorgeous.
It’s Saturday afternoon in San Juan Capistrano, a pretty little Californian town 60 miles nearer the Mexican border than Los Angeles. I meet Deborah Harry in the lobby of the antiseptic Dana Point Inn, her place of residence during a three night sold-out stand at a local hostelry where loud music and drinking are encouraged, but standing during the show – ie enjoying yourself – is not. The greatest pop diva of all time was about to go for a drive around town, only to be snatched back at the last minute by her tour manager to be engaged in meaningful conversation with yours truly.
We plonk ourselves down in the upstairs lounge, where several noisy bastards are wholeheartedly devoting themselves to drowning out everything I could possibly want to hear on my tape. Debbie, dressed in workout gear, is wearing a strangely retro pair of yellow sunglasses that she fails to remove during our entire conversation. Every time I look at her, I see myself reflected in her mirrored shades. It’s very disconcerting because I wanted to gaze into her eyes. She has fabulous skin. Her face is a series of planes, and I don’t mean she has a nose like Concorde. In the ’30s, filmstars used to have their back teeth removed to get cheekbones like hers.

IT’S A funny old world out there. In the year that the British music scene finally came up with its first real post-punk phenomenon – the Soul II Soul/Lisa Stansfield dance-fashion axis – the great British Public made room for Deborah Harry to stage a comeback. The seven years between Blondie’s tepid last LP, ‘The Hunter’, and 1989’s far sharper ‘Def, Dumb And Blonde’ had seen the release of two solo albums that not only lacked the focussed pop sensibility that had been Blondie’s biggest strength, but failed to capitalise on Debbie’s privileged position as the female rock star of the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Meanwhile, the girl herself had been unable to give her career the attention it required after longtime collaborator/lover (now purely business partner) Chris Stein fell ill to a rare debilitating disease called pemphigus. Our Debs stood by her man, pushing the ‘Pause’ button on her own life to help Chris in the fight for his. It was one of the more touching moments in pop’s rich history. Photos of that precious face (hers, not his!), looking bloated and tired, appeared regularly in the Screws Of The World and your fabulous soaraway Scum, snapped by unsympathetic paparazzi camped outside the New York hospital where Chris was being treated.
“It was obnoxious,” Debbie says now of her run-in with the tabloids. “It was sort of predictable, but I was very distracted. I didn’t really have the energy to do anything but take care of business.”
One of the reasons Deborah Harry was away from the performing circuit for so long was that she failed to take care of business of a different sort – the all-important issues of management and record companies. Although she had remained on Chrysalis in the UK, she switched in the US first to Geffen, and now to Sire, home of another blonde bombshell, a singularly-named individual who was once married to a mad actor named Sean.
Untangling herself from management difficulties, Debbie handed over the reins to Gary Kurfirst, who has long guided the careers of The B-52s and Talking Heads. It was Kurfirst who linked her up with Thompson Twins Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie, writers and producers of two songs on ‘Def, Dumb And Blonde’, including the UK hit ‘I Want That Man’.
The collaboration may have got our girl back in the charts, but the thought of the dreary old Thompson Twins bossing about the coolest woman in pop quite disturbs me, especially since the public perception of the chronically unhip pair is the polar opposite to that of the lovely and talented Mademoiselle Harry.
Other people seem a lot more concerned with Deborah Harry’s image than she does. I read her part of a Los Angeles Times concert review headlined ‘Now 44, Harry Still Exudes The Heat Of A Punkette.’
“Harry could join Jane Fonda in the mass media’s eye as the model of the Baby Boom sex symbol,” writes the Times’ patronising bonehead, “moving through middle age with looks, moves and vitality intact.” Debbie looks amazingly bored by this observation, and, curling her lip sarcastically, responds only with “Isn’t that nice?”
I ask if it bothers her that people feel obliged to pat her on the head for being middle-aged and still sexy.
“Other people have done it, I don’t think about it that much. What should I do? Stay home? I like what I do. Guys do it; why shouldn’t I? I’m having more fun now than I did before. My performance is better. My singing is better. My writing is getting better. These are the real criteria of what you’re doing.”

WHILE HER recording career was on the back burner, Debbie made giant strides on the acting front, getting great reviews for her appearances in Wiseguy, a stylish US TV series about an undercover cop, which featured her in a storyline about corruption (perish the thought!) in the record business.
Before that, she did a hysterical turn in John Waters’ Hairspray, playing Sonny Bono’s wife, Velma Von Tussle, a beehive hairdo’d mother from hell. In the climactic scene, her two foot-high wig, concealing a bomb, explodes, flies across the room, and crowns her “daughter” Miss Auto Show 1963.
One of the first films, Videodrome, directed by psychological terrormeister David Cronenberg, the twisted genius who later gave us The Fly and Dead Ringers, got her canned from Breakfast Time in 1983 by BBC producers shocked that “Debbie Harry of Blondie” would appear as an S&M freak whipping James Woods, who pulled pornographic videocassettes out of his stomach. As an early victim of censorship, Deborah isn’t surprised at the way the tide has turned towards conservatism, especially in the US, where things are moving backwards at an alarming rate.
“I’m appalled at the level of intelligence of the American people. I know that potentially everyone here is as smart as anyone anywhere in the world, but the way the people are perceived and addressed in this country is as if they have a lower mentality, and I find that really insulting and degrading and infuriating,” she says.
“I don’t know if that’s symptomatic of the government. Quite possibly it has a lot to do with conservatism and the idea of Christianity as being such a high ideal… In a sense, as with creative energy, you go through creative periods when you’re energetic, and then you have periods when you have to lay up, and I don’t see any difference in a country being like that.
“In this country, there has to be a lot of creative energy and reorganisation in the corporate world. The corporations have become extremely powerful and wealthy and haven’t exhibited a great deal of responsibility for our environment, and now I think that really has to change. It’s pretty obvious that the only way the environment is going to get cleaned up is if environmental cleanup become profitable.”
As if on cue, she starts coughing and spluttering, explaining that she’s allergic to California or, more specifically, to all the crud in the air. Time to change the subject.
Even in the years when they weren’t in the public eye, Debbie and Chris Stein stayed as cool as cucumbers in a North Pole freezer. On a recent Yo! MTV Raps, the show’s host, Fab 5 Freddy, a pal from way back, took the pair around some of their old lower Manhattan haunts to reminisce about their salad days, passing by the Mudd Club, where Blondie’s video for ‘Rapture’, the first song featuring rap to top the US charts, was made in 1981.
“We did Saturday Night Live and got the first real rap act on the show,” remembers Debbie. “I was the hostess, and I got the Funky Four Plus One More on with a DJ, and oh, they were so cute. So bright. They did all their rapping and there were really great break dancers. It was really cool. But the people on Saturday Night Live were so afraid. They were freaked out. They said, ‘What? What are they gonna do? Oh, we don’t know…’ And we had to convince them to have the group on. They were so harmless.”
Fab 5 Freddy featured in the’Rapture’ video, along with Jean Michel Basquiat, a celebrated downtown artist who died of a heroin overdose a few years back. Basquiat and Keith Haring, who recently fell victim to AIDS, were the young artists at the turn of the last decade, ordained by their art world equivalent of the previous generation, Andy Warhol. Debbie had tenuous links to Warhol, and merited several mentions in the infamous Warhol Diaries. Although she says she didn’t know him well, she wasn’t surprised at the dirt-dishing that went on.
“It’s so great, isn’t it? I didn’t think they were bad enough. Andy was never offensive in public to anyone. He was always sort of bland. The only way you could tell that he wasn’t fond of you was if he would be brief. He’d just say, (Adopts spaced-out voice) ‘Oh, hi… Oh, gee, really?… Nice to see you.’ And he’s gone. He was just like a wisp of smoke, Andy.”
Warhol, for all his affected superficiality, hit the nail on the head in the diary entry for Thursday, October 24, 1985, writing “Debbie actually was the first Madonna.” It’s an observation that Debs, who’s met her emulator (“She was very cordial”) doesn’t dispute, although she reckons “diehard, devoted Madonna fans definitely do not think she ripped me off, so it’s a moot point really.”
What Deborah Harry did do before Madonna was exploit herself, although in these ‘enlightened’ times, Madonna gets praised, not criticised for it, whereas Debbie was almost crucified for the suggestive “Wouldn’t You Like Tp Rip Her To Shreds?’ poster promotion of Blondie’s first album.
“I imagine that it’s the same thing that happens to Iggy Pop in a way. He did things that really upset people in their psyches and he really freaked them out. I guess it was so shocking at first. Somehow or other, I have done that in some small way… When somebody came after me and did very similar things, people were like ‘Oh. We know what that is. It’s alright. It’s understandable.’ So I guess that’s all it takes. I think The Slits were much more outrageous than me.”

IGGY’S EARS must have been burning, because the night after our conversation, he turns up at Vertigo, a pseudo-trendy LA club, to see Debbie’s band play its last show prior to an Australian tour. Joining forces onstage for an encore of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, Debbie and the Ig draw on their combined 80-odd years of experience and get down to some serious bumping and grinding, pretending to do the wild thing doggie style. As she leaves the stage, Debbie pulls off her T-shirt dress and strolls casually to the dressing room in her bra and panties. Smelling salts are handed out to all patrons as they exit the club.
Backstage, fully-clothed once more, Debbie sits meeting and greeting the adoring throng. Everyone is aghast that she stripped off. Fourteen years after upsetting your older sister, and possibly your mum, Debbie Harry can still be controversial, engaging in wizard wheezes that shock people and keep them talking about her.
The girl just can’t help it.

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