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Q Magazine

August 1993

A Lady

Written by: Tom Hibbert

She started out as a hippy chick with a middle parting and a suspect folk troupe; then, almost without warning, she became The Most Famous Woman In the World, The New Monroe, The Punk Garbo and sang power pop tunes with a bunch of blokes in skinny ties. And now Debbie Harry is 48 and… well, completely deranged. “I’ve written a letter to Daddy,” she informs Tom Hibbert. “His address is heaven above.”
DATELINE: MAY 28, 1977. THERE SHE stood, growling, upon the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon with her skinny-tied boys around her. She was all got up in a black mini-shirt and black tights and black stiletto ankle boots. She was cool as mustard. We’d never seen anything like that before. She was, as she delicately puts it, “hot to go”. And when she sang, with that chilly delivery, we might have conjured up a thought like, “This bird’s a bloody star, mates!” had our brains not been racing away on amphetamines…
Sixteen years later, the world’s a different place. In 1977, there were only two McDonald’s in the whole of England. Now there are 487. In 1977, there was scarcely such a thing as a Rock Femme; we’d had the sozzled reprobates – Janis Joplin and Grace Slick – and all the drear and flitty Girls Next Door. We’d even had “balls-bustin” Fanny, but they were useless. We’d never had anything like her – the one all the journalists would slaver over. She was The New Monroe, The Punk Garbo.
Now there are 488 Rock Femmes. Madonna is one of them, Wendy James is another and it’s all her fault. Debbie Harry changed the face of civilisation and popular culture and music and everything else as we know it.
Debbie Harry is now 48. When you get to that sort of age, you have the inclination to spurn the diminutives. Debbie Harry is Deborah Harry to you, now, mister.
DATELINE: THE PRESENT. SOMETHING STRANGE is happening. The once pop star, nay Pop Goddess – she was the most famous woman in the world if you didn’t count Margaret Hilda Thatcher – has picked up a wig from the un-made bed in her London hotel room and she has popped it on her head. With wig, a long mass of curls, dark red, she comes towards me, arms outstretched and pleading queerly, knees buckling, mad in the face. “Har har!” she goes, cackling like a loon. And then she sings. “I’ve written a letter to Daddy, his address is heaven above, I’ve written a letter to Daddy, saying I love you… Yes, Debbie Harry has turned into Bette Davis (in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane). And I, seated, transfixed, am called upon to play the part of Joan Crawford. “Oh, Jane, if I weren’t in this wheelchair, you wouldn’t be so cruel.” “Yes, but chyoo are,” hisses Debbie/Bette/Jane.
And then she tries to place the wig on my head for a spot of role-transference mischief. Call me a spoilsport, but I’m not having that! Debbie Harry calls me a spoilsport. She is jolly. “I’m in such a good mood today. Tra la la!” She is deranged. She wants to chatter about nothing very much at all. Discussing one’s music and one’s career is such a bored when one’s in one’s middle years. “Do you know what I saw in London yesterday, which was really funny? There was this guy in his mid-sixties and he was carrying a skateboard! I was wondering if he really used it.”
Born in 1945, she is almost as old as Mick Jagger, though she certainly doesn’t look it. There’s a certain ripeness of the cheeks but Deborah Harry remains beautiful. Even in the wayward outfit she has chosen to wear this day – an extremely off grey and black jogging ensemble suitable for fitness persons, one supposes, but hardly becoming – she is a vision of no uncertain loveliness. She is hardly a “blondie” any longer, more of a “mousie”, but what’s the awful difference when you’ve got a face like that?
She is in Blighty “flogging” (her term: she’s quick to pick up on English slang terminology and her Cockney accent pours shame upon Dick Van Dyke) a new LP, Debravation. This is a thing stuffed with good and proper pop tunes and that voice. It is the best thing she has done since Blondie passed away. She seems genuinely amazed.
“You like it? That’s shocking! I’m happy to hear that.” The display of modesty seems unphoney.
There’s a song on Debravation called Communion, on which Harry tells the listener to drink her blood and eat her flesh – as if she has turned into Jesus Christ or something. This observation sets the woman off into a long barking crow of ecstatic amusement. “Ahahahahaha!” she goes.
SHE WAS BORN IN MIAMI, FLORIDA, AND HAS never known who her natural – and presumably very handsome – parents were. She was adopted by Richard and Catherine Harry and grew up in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She did all the things that good girls from New Jersey suburbia are supposed to do. Like she wore a little majorette’s outfit with little tassled boots and a stupid hat and diligently twirled the baton.
“I wasn’t very good at twirling, actually,” she tells me. “I’d get very nervous and I would always drop it. But I think that’s why they chose me. They had me there twirling and dropping the baton for the bending over aspect. I was there for the pervert fathers. Looking at my underpants!”
And, in a way, you went on to make a career out of people wanting to look at your underpants, didn’t you?
“Ooh! Thank you. You’re such a sweet person.”
But, of course, as with most really famous personages, she says that she remembers always knowing that she needed, was destined for, that fame, for something more important than marriage to the owner of the local shoe-store. So Debbie was experimenting with make-up at an early age.
“I used to come into school covered in beauty marks. I looked like I was splattered in mud so the other girls thought I was a little bit weird. And I used to come home for lunch and if my mother wasn’t home, I’d whip into her room and start applying stuff all over me. But I was really young. This was pre-teen. As a teenager everything became acceptable.”
One time in her parents’ yard, she had a psychic experience. She heard voices coming from a brick fireplace; the voices were telling her complex mathematical information. What on earth could it all mean?
“I really have no idea…”
She hated school. “I hate school,” she hisses in the demonic tones of the girl in The Exorcist. She bleached her hair for the first time in 1959. “There was no colour I didn’t try, including green.” In her twenties, in the ’60s, she moved to New York. She got a job at Gift Mart, she auditioned for Broadway musicals and failed miserably. In 1967 she joined a folk-rock troupe called Wind In The Willows – and you could see how awful they were just by looking at their album cover; almost everybody has a moustache/beard composition and Harry’s hair is centre-parted in Laura Ashley mode. There’s lots of painted flowers and painted stars on it, too.
She offers no apologies for this musical mishap though, despite the fact that she spent the early years of Blondie trying to pretend that Wind In The Willows had never existed. Now from a distance of a quarter of a decade she looks back upon it all with a certain affection.
“I was a chirpy, cheery soprano in that group singing back-up and going, Oooooooo. Actually, I loved doing the music, because all I wanted to do was sing, to paint music, you know, but I was just really a sideman in that group and I found it very frustrating and I just lost interest. I haven’t listened to the Wind In The Willows album for 20 years, but I do actually remember some of the words. I do. Isn’t that funny? I actually remember those sappy lyrics.”
Go on then, give us a burst of that long-forgotten poetry.
“No! Please! No, no, no! If I recited any of those lyrics, I’d have long hair by the end of the day and I’d have grown a beard and I’d have bell bottoms. The bell bottoms wouldn’t be too bad, I suppose, or the long hair, but the beard… Hmmm, actually, I’d quite like a beard. You guys are so clever! You can grow beards! How do you do that?”
She has a way with flippancy, this woman, that’s quite charming, though when you come to think about it, you realise that all she’s saying here, avoiding saying here, is, yes, Wind In The Willows was crap; what a foolish young thing once I was.
The hippies bust up and Harry, loose in the naked city, got into drugs.
“I had my drug experience, yeah. That was OK,” she says with a knowing, conspiratorial sort of smile, lying back upon the hotel sofa and toying with the Baby Jane wig. “I was doing heroin. I was taking a serious addictive substance. Actually, I should say, was taking several serious addictive substances. Plural. But, you know, at that time it was part of the scene. Everything was like, Hey, man, this is the latest drug and this is the newest drug and here comes the next drug and you really ought to try this! So I tried it. Whatever it was.”
These were the days of the Velvet Underground and tiresome movies by Andy Warhol that went on for eight hours. Of course, one had to take drugs. The rest of America was in blissed-out, Woodstock don’t-touch-the-brown-acid haze, but New York was “art” and “deviant”.
(Interesting fact: as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, Debbie Harry served Jefferson Airplane their dinner the night before they went to Woodstock. “I was quite impressed to be waiting on Jefferson Airplane. But not that impressed.” Were they good tippers? “Hmmm. Now you come to mention it, I don’t think they were! Let’s go and kill them!”)
“Drugs was chic,” continues Harry. “Everybody in New York was fooling around with drugs. That’s just what the scene was like. It wasn’t like today where everybody knows what the implications are and what the results are. It was just a very small, elitist art world. Up in a loft. Look at my pictures! Aren’t they neat? Yeah? OK, let’s do some drugs to celebrate, then. It was just a fashionable situation. The stockbrokers weren’t doing cocaine, only we were doing cocaine. It was just for freaks, and the quantities that are available now weren’t available then. It was the 1960s, man.”
Did you enjoy taking drugs, Modom?
“Taking drugs? Most of the time, yeah.”
Did you ever take LSD?
Was that lovely?
“Ye-e-e-e-e-s! I’m tripping! I’m tripping! But drugs for me now, it’s not always a pleasure. It’s become something that I’m not interested in. But at the time I was very interested in drugs. It was an illusion.”
Lots of drugs and a succession of rather awful day jobs, that’s what she had before she became famous by mistake.
To turn a buck, Deborah Harry served time as a Bunny Girl.
“Yeah, I hopped around as a Bunny. It was a great way to make money. It was very lucrative.”
Rather undignified, though, surely, what with the daft ears a Bunny Girl had to strap to her head?
“I beg your pardon? You think the ears were undignified? Did you ever see the little furry tail?”
Contrary to popular belief, being a Playboy Bunny was not all discussions of a biological kind with rich businessmen from nowhere. Not even kiss-ups for tips.
“No, we got treated very well. It was one of the best jobs in terms of security that I ever had. It was all very middleclass. You were considered an asset.”
Not so at that other “notorious” New York nightclub, Max’s Kansas City, where Ms Harry also waited tables.
“You were treated like a piece of spaghetti in that place. You were totally expendable and you were like a rat on a sinking ship. I was serving all these people like Jane Fonda and James Coburn and the Andy Warhol Factory crowd, but tottering around as I was with trays, half asleep on drugs, I was in awe of all that but at the same time it meant nothing.”
FINALLY, IN 1972, SHE GOT TO SING IN A proper group, The Stilettos, a camp girl trio with mad blokes on the side. They sang to drunks in bars for pin money. “It was such fun. The Stilettos were only ever watched by drunks and low-life in sleazy bars and we made no money, but it was fun. That whole early ’70s period was fun. Sometimes I miss those times. The New York Dolls were fabulous fun. That whole period, I don’t know, there were just a bunch of nice bands then, elegant glitter bands with big platform shoes and big everything. It was great. And it was the same in England with, what’s his name, Bolton? No, you know, the guy who did Jeepster.”
You must be referring to Marc Bolan.
“Yeah, Mike Bolan was doing his thing over here and that was fabulous. I just used to fall off my platforms.”
And what were The Stilettos like, in retrospect?
“Oh, we were just fooling around. We were campy. We used to have a song called Narcissisma. (She proceeds to sing in style that would not disgrace Bette Davis at her most potty) ‘Narcissisma, narcissisma, it’s the bell of Biloxi, Biloxi, Biloxi, Biloxi, says she looks like me but she will look like you when I’m set free’. We did Goldfinger, too. (Oh, dear, she’s going to sing again) ‘GoldFINGAH! He’s the man, the man, with the Midas touchhhhhh!’ And then we had a song called Rouge which was written by Alice Ghostley who was a very odd comedienne – she was on Bewitched and she was always the fucked-up, crazy witch aunt. She wrote this song called Rouge and the lyrics were fabulous. ‘Back, oh no, I’m never going back, not back again to Hackensack. My reputation there is black, and it’s all because of Fred, Fred Black, who made me see red. Rouge, scarlet rouge, flaming rouge are the lips he’s no longer kiiiissssing!’ Did you like that song? Isn’t it excellent? It was the funniest thing! You see The Stilettos were just like this absurd girlish thing. It was mostly the drunk perverts who liked it but, well, I was used to that.”
Then one night at a Stilettos show, eyes locked across an uncrowded room. Chris Stein was in the audience and Deborah was on the stage and it was love both ways at first sight.
They formed a band called Angel And The Snake and Chris Stein wrote a song called Heart Of Glass. Then, in 1974, they changed their name to Blondie. The rest is, perhaps, history.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing when we started. We did some Tina Turner songs and a few Rolling Stones songs. We weren’t that good. We were just learning. All we wanted to do was songs that had a hook in them, that were danceable, because up to that point everybody was watching these long guitar solos and good old boys singing about ‘the road’ and it didn’t relate to our urban experience at all. It was just middle America music and we were sick of it.”
Blondie were the first of the many, the famous and the legendary (Television, Ramones, Talking Heads), to play regularly at CBGBs. Reading reports, from across the Atlantic, of the goings-on at CBGBs in those heady days of musical drift, it all sounded so exciting. But CBGBs, says Deborah Harry, was one hell of a hell-hole.
“It was horrible. It was real disgusting. Every night you just had to watch where you walked. Dead dogs, vomit, urgh.”
I expect you got paid quite a lot, though?
“Paid? Bite your tongue. You’d get a couple of beers and then we’d owe them money. I’m serious. There was no money involved. The CBGBs guys were just happy to have somebody in there making some noise. It was a Hell’s Angels bar.”
So how, if you were playing in this scummy bar and making absolutely no money, did you manage to survive?
“Oh, I was working. I was bar-tending. I was selling pot – out of the trunk of my car. But every once in a while the group would luck out and get to play at a party. One time we played this party after a horse show. It was a real rich person’s show, after a show jumping thing. So there were all these people from Uptown and we went to this beautiful town house and they were all in fancy dresses and asking us to play songs we didn’t know. Like Hotel California and Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and old rock’n’roll stuff and Johnny Mathis. But we just kept playing our same five songs all night. And they liked us. We got paid!”
“We had absolutely no equipment when we started out. We were terrible. It seems absurd that we ever made it to be famous, you know. Chris had a little tiny amp thing that was terribly noisy. The police radio never stopped coming through. Everyone was responsible for their own mix so it was all, Your amp is on 10 so mine’s going on 10, too, dammit! Let’s watch the singer bleed, I’m putting my amp on 11! See the singer bleed through the nose! But, oh, God, seriously, those were fun days at the beginning, before we got famous and all that shit. We were just disreputable and funky and sleazy and smelly in every way. We were jerks. We were the underdogs.”
And then everything changed. In 1976, Blondie signed to Private Stock records. In the spring of 1977, they came to England to support Television on a tour. Despite the irksome pre-publicity posters – “Wouldn’t You Like To Rip Her To Shreds?” ran the crass motto over Debbie looking sultry (she wasn’t altogether thrilled by this) – despite some idiotic reviews (suggesting that this blonde singer was no better than a prostitute because she looked sexy) Blondie delighted the public and went on to sell an awful lot of records.
Debbie Harry changed the world with her frocks. She became the toast of the New York art set, rubbing shoulders and lipstick with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, the madcap lot.
Mention of Warhol causes Harry’s eyes to go misty: she misses him terribly. Mention of Burroughs causes her to fall about laughing. “Oh, Bill, he’s mad! I actually had dinner with him recently and I have this little dog now and she doesn’t like to be touched on one spot on her back and she doesn’t like to be held like she’s trapped. She’s tiny – she only weighs four or five pounds – so Bill looked at the dog and said, Watch this, watch this creature! and he picked her up and held the dog all the way through dinner and the dog was biting him all over his bony hands the whole night. Bill seemed to enjoy it! But at that point, my dog hadn’t had her rabies shots, so I was a little concerned.”
After five years of intense celebrity, Blondie split up in 1982. “It was a madhouse. We didn’t take any vacations and that was the big mistake. Whenever we read bad reviews, we’d have these tremendous fist fights and everybody would be really freaked out and pissed off with everybody else for being jerks. It was like punching up your brothers, a family feud thing.”
Chris Stein became ill with a rare wasting skin disease called pemphigus – he wouldn’t have fallen sick if Blondie hadn’t worked so frenetically, says Harry – and Deborah spent years nursing him back to health, although they are no longer together.
Meanwhile, she continued to make LPs. There was Koo Koo (whose cover featured Deborah’s head with nails sticking into it; posters of the same were banned from the London Underground: “They wouldn’t hang it in there because they thought it was a bad influence on children. I mean, the cover has nails sticking in my head so what are children going to do when they see that? Obviously they are going to stick nails right through their little heads. Mummy, Mummy, Debbie Harry did it, I can do it, too! If only children were that susceptible. Let’s kill them all, harhar!”) and there was Rockbird and Def, Dumb And Blonde. None was awfully good – until Debravation. And she appeared in some films that were really quite absurd: in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, she was this mad thing with a whip and an out-sized perversion torturing poor James Woods. In Hairspray, she was this mad thing with a bee-hive and a handbag, married, poor chump, to Sonny Bono.
“The best thing about Sonny was that he had a short fuse. He was a pretty nice guy but everywhere we went, people would come up and go, Hey, Sonny, where’s Cher? And he’d go so frosty all his limbs would seize up in anger and he’d go, If I hear that one more time… It was like being haunted, poor guy. Hey, Sonny, where’s Cher? Hey, Sonny, where’s Cher? If that happened to me, I’d just tear my ears off.”
“WASN’T THAT A NICE LITTLE WALK DOWN Memory Lane?” coos Deborah as my audience draws to a close. I ask her whether she has any further acting ambitions. In reply, she plops the Baby Jane wig upon her head once more and snarls, “I never speak to Joan Crawford! She’s a bitch!” And then she asks a question. It is this: “Do you know where I can buy some weird kind of jockstrap?”
What a truly extraordinary woman she is.

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