Magazines + Newspapers

The Times Magazine

Saturday June 17th 1995

Written By: Alan Jackson
Photography: Graham Wood

As the lead singer of Blondie, Deborah Harry was the embodiment of female post-punk cool. Now she seems a stranger in the pop landscape she helped to create, but Alan Jackson finds her star still shines.
THE JOURNALIST, the photographer, the diva and her stylist. And, of course, it is the diva who stops the traffic. Off-peak, a Saturday morning in Manhattan’s meat-packing district – animal flesh traded by day, human flesh by night – where they used to be the bad, the beautiful and all stations in between. Yet when Deborah switches on her star quality, people become undone. Now 50 years old and dressed shoulder to toe in the gauze-like black Yohji Yamamoto, she parades up and down the stained and littered sidewalk, ignoring the profane graffiti and twirling, whirling, vamping and stamping to order. At times, she looks childlike; at times, like some gorgeous but predatory madwoman.
“What’s this building, do you think?” I ask, of the gumpink, windowless edifice we stand beside.
“A whorehouse, maybe?” she replies.
“And over there is one of the city’s most famous sex clubs,” chips in Michael, the stylist, who is on bended knee while fastening to her waist a vast bustle of black net, the finishing touch to her ensemble.
Joggers, down-and-outs, cab drivers, the police… everyone who passes is fascinated by her, stops in their tracks, stares. Some whoop or call out encouragement and Harry blesses them with a succession of sweet smiles. One makes an indecent suggestion from the window of his car, though, and the singer halts in mid-pose, suddenly narrow-eyed and quite unabashed by the fact that her lingerie is on thinly veiled display. “Pervert,” she hisses malevolently. “PERVERT!” At which point a member of the NYPD pulls up and the mouth-on-wheels makes a judicious exit. “So what do we have here?” asks Officer Bruce Simonetti of the Sixth Precinct, West 10th Street, climbing out of his car and walking towards us.
At ten paces, he recognises her: “Could it be? It has to be. You’re Debbie Harry, aren’t you? Man, did I love you when you were in Blondie! I saw you play in some club once. You were terrific. Just terrific.”
She is pleased, visibly so, but it is as if she senses what will come next. “Minute I saw you, I thought it looked like you. Of course, a little older than I remembered but…”
The journalist, the photographer and the stylist all wince, but then the policeman recovers, makes quick amends for what he said. “Well, hey, aren’t we all?” he rallies. “I mean, I’m in no position to talk.” To illustrate the point he gestures to his hairline and his waist, shrugs and then grins.
“Finally turned 21, eh?” responds Harry, amused and instantly acceding to the request that she write in his incident book “some little dedication to New York’s finest”. Beaming with pleasure at whatever is the inscription, Officer Simonetti then exits in a flurry of further compliments and firm hand shakes.
“That was cute,” says the diva as he steers off into the distance. “Very cute.”
And then she bends back to the task of being photographed, throwing her hands to the heavens and vamping anew, her Yamamoto shoes twinkling in the dirt.
IMAGE, ICONOGRAPHY, the things they say and do. Every star casts some kind of shadow, but the one cast by Deborah Harry has spread further than most; also, it has endured. The ranks of high-profile female pop artists currently include such individualists as Madonna, Björk and K.d.lang. We are used to having our gender expectations challenged; demand and applaud it almost. But when Blondie’s first hit single, Denie, reached Number 2 in Britain, the climate was very different. Donna Summer’s brand of orgasmic disco had been the biggest news the previous year; Olivia Newton-John, in partnership with John Travolta, was about to top the charts for 16 out of 1978’s 52 weeks. Not women who promoted any radical agenda; just sisters doing it for themselves and their record companies.
In that latter sense, Harry was no different: “I was just working for me, babe. That’s all.” But here was someone used to hanging out with the arthouse crowd (Andy Warhol was a friend and admirer), who was inspired by the trash-culture aesthetic prevalent at the time and incorporated it into her music, and who had glamour and insouciant appeal necessary to sell her product not only to the style police but also to the masses. Blondie was bubblegum with attitude, post-punk pop in its purest, most potent form, and for a while – the three years from Denis through to Rapture, the final UK Top 10 hit of January 1981 – it was invincible. Five number 1 hits, millions of records sold, Harry herself an object of worship for a generation of girls and of erotic fixation for its boys. Even now her fans remember all that she meant to them.
On arrival at my hotel in New York, I am handed a fax from a female colleague back in London. “Please tell her I think she is the most talented, inspirational and beautiful woman to have walked the Earth,” it asks, and so the following day I do just that. I say it as Harry and I are sitting in a booth towards the back of the Moonstruck Diner, a cafe near her rooftop apartment in the Chelsea district, and her eyes cloud instantly with emotion. “She actually wrote that?” I show her the proof. “My God, that’s so sweet. Really it is. Well, all right!” And the famous face is radiant, suddenly outshining even the jolly shirt and shorts outfit she is wearing against the humidity of early afternoon.
“You know, it’s only now that I sense that I did actually touch people’s lives in Blondie. When we were in our heyday, we had a very young audience – little kids almost. Now all those kids are young adults, and sometimes they come up to me with tears in their eyes and say things like, ‘Oh, when I was eight years old…’ It’s funny and I laugh it off, but we’ve all been there. I find it very, very flattering.”
This Deborah Harry – alert, funny and bright, endlessly good-natured – is one I doubted I would find. Past interviewers had told me that she could be difficult or, far worse, even a little dull. Meanwhile, cuttings from the files concentrated on shrinking record sales and ballooning weight (certainly not in evidence today). And then there was the introduction she contributed to a recent book, Never Mind The Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock, by Amy Raphael. “My intro. My my,” begand one of several distinctly odd paragraphs. “Here they come, the wet ones, the pools and swamps and warm currents of insistence – cold currents of existence. Surf’s up. Tide is high. Out at night for your insight. Shake your tambourine. Shake your moneymaker. Shake it, baby, shake it…”
Difficult, dull or just plain daft? Mercifully, she turns out to be none of these things. Nor, despite taking pleasure in such unsolicited devotions as those of Officer Simonetti, is she vulnerable to what might be perceived as journalistic flattery. For example, it is beyond doubt that Harry represents a milestone in the presentation of women in rock: as Raphael says in her book, she “was punk’s first female pin-up… she exuded something previously associated only with male musicians: cool.” But when I introduce into the conversation the names of Madonna and Annie Lennox and suggest that their famed manipulation of female imagery owes a debt to Blondie’s early cleverness, she stops dissecting her plate of melon and dissects me instead.
“Clever?” she exclaims. “I wish I were more clever. Because if I were, I would be selling records at the rate that they are. And that’s the truth, isn’t it?” The expression on her face is neither ironic nor challenging, nor even anything as easily countered as hostile. Instead, it is sweetly, unblinkingly reasonable.
“Well, er…”
“It is. It’s the truth, isn’t it? If I’ve really done all that ground-breaking work, and all those other postulates are correct, then how come it’s not working for me now?”
At issue here is the fact that, while iconoclasts aplenty have thrived in the pop landscape which she herself helped to fashion, Deborah Harry is currently without a recording contract. She is unsigned in America, in Britain, in every country of the world. She says she is not bitter, and I find it easy to believe her. Clearly, she is disappointed, though, and not without reason. Earlier in the year, Chrysalis Records let her go after an association which took in all of Blondie’s chart releases and three solo albums, most recent among them 1993’s Debravation. “Partings are rarely the most auspicious or happy of occasions and I don’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty of it all,” she says. “Someone’s always left feeling a little let down.” I have only to look across the table to see who.
But although she genuinely doesn’t want to be caught badmouthing her past employer, the very subject dampens her mood. I distract her then with the observation that those solo records seemed racked by compromise to me, unsure whether to perpetuate the wacky, peroxide goddess persona of old, or to enter the more adult territory patrolled so well by another former pop princess, Marianne Faithfull.
“You’re right,” she says readily. “I agree. But it’s very difficult when you have an identity that locks you into a
format. On the whole, I think the songs were good but that the interpretations were limited. There should’ve been more hits [only one solo Top 10 entry, for 1986’s French Kissin’ in the USA], but I imagine every artist thinks that of their work. Perhaps, had I stayed with the identity of Blondie, the industry would have considered me more of a sure thing. But because I veered off, it was hard for anyone to grasp – or to be bothered grasping – where I was headed. I wasn’t a big enough world seller by that point to merit anyone giving me that kind of attention, but hey, onwards… I’m free now. Free to be creative, to be my little artistic self, which is a great liberty, a great privilege.”
And to ensure that I understand this is the official line, one from which she will not be tempted to stray, she fixes me with the most dazzling yet blank and subject-closing of smiles.
“You know, it just seems very odd to me,” she adds after a moment or two. “I can go anywhere in the world to perform and draw a great audience. I’m a really good singer and, I think, a really good performer. I can also make records and write songs. Yet people in the corporate world look at me as not being a safe bet. It’s just a bizarre position to be in. I’m not really worried about it: I play the hand I’m dealt; that’s what’s pulled me through in life. But don’t you think there’s something wrong with that picture? I do. I think there’s something very definitely wrong with a picture like that.”
And then she goes back to eating her melon.
TAKING A RECORDING contract away from someone who has had one for most of their adult life is like taking away the safety net of a trapeze artist. Will their equilibrium hold, you wonder, or will they falter and fall? Harry admits that on the few days when the phone has not rung, her nerve has been tested: “What’s going on? My God, nobody wants me. I’ve been deserted.” But most days the phone has rung, and the offers have been many and varied. In recent months, for example, she has recorded as a guest vocalist with Talking Heads (now without frontman David Byrne), the Latin band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the Jazz Passengers – the critically acclaimed collective with whom she and Elvis Costello will perform next week at the first of the London Festival Hall’s series of Meltdown concerts.
There have also been solo recordings for a tribute album to veteran r’n’b composer Otis Blackwell and a CD-Rom game to be marketed by Sony Japan, plus some low-key club performances alongside her former partner and Blondie collaborator Chris Stein (now fully recovered from a debilitating skin disease, pemphigus) in a band called Mad Man’s Drum. And there’s more. Harry has also resumed an acting career that has previously included film appearances in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and John Waters’s Hairspray, by making two more soon-to-be-released pictures, the art-movie Heavy with co-stars Liv Tyler, Shelley Winters and Evan Dando, and a pop-industry parody, Drop Dead Rock, with Adam Ant.
“The former is a sad little thing, but tender. I play a barmaid. It was a real acting part, and I enjoyed doing it. The other is an outrageous comedy in which I play a record company executive – and boy, am I evil.”
Did she base the character on anyone at Chrysalis? Her immediate reply is one long pantomime of an imperious stare.
“No!” she then says, speaking the word as if in response to an uninvited advance. “Just on everybody I’ve ever met in the entire industry. Wait… don’t you dare put that in!”
Reputations mean little in the entertainment world unless an individual is truly in the superstar league, and Harry makes no pretence but that she must line up for an audition with the rest of America’s hopefuls.
“At first it’s nerve-racking, but now that I know I’m not going to get the best parts it doesn’t affect me so much.” A self-deprecating laugh. “But yes, it is about being judged and in that sense it can be brutal. A lot of the time, decisions are made on purely visual grounds, so the minute you walk into the room the casting agent’s mind will be made up. Usually they’re very courteous, though, and even if they’re not really interested they give you the chance to read for them. It’s just how it is and I like to do it. It’s good to meet all these people.”
Meanwhile, she says, it would be nice to start writing and recording alone again, perhaps to put out a record independently or even to have another deal. “But with somebody who has the right mindset about it. It all depends who you’re working with and how much they’re interested in you. Of course, it would be good to have a hit record again. It would be great.”
And it could come sooner than she thinks. She has no power of veto over Chrysalis’s use of the Blondie back catalogue, and is astonished when I tell her that Heart of Glass will be put out again in a newly reworked form later this month, the first single to be taken from the forthcoming Beautiful: The Remix Album, featuring all the group’s hits.
“Another set of remixes?” she asks incredulously, in tones similar to those in which Lady Bracknells inquire about handbags. “They seem to be putting them out every six months. It’s ludicrous.”
She has not heard the tracks, had no prior knowledge of the project, comforts herself purely with the fact that she will profit from any sales.
“Even so, it must be galling,” I suggest hopefully.
Not a muscle in her face moves as she looks at me. Then, eventually, she reaches with her fork and spears another piece of fruit.
In Deborah Harry’s apartment earlier, a rummage among the various magazines stacked on top of a glass coffee table had established the catholicism of her tastes. “Perhaps you gentlemen are working for the wrong publication,” she had suggested dryly, nothing that both journalist and photographer were leaving untouched such titles as Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and Details, and instead had gravitated shamefacedly towards the likes of Screw (sample cover line: “The Most Sickening Sex Acts Anywhere”) and a small, French-language publication for sadomasochists, Demonia. There, amid wriggle-inducing photographs of a rapier-heeled dominatrix presiding over the humiliation of various sad and skinny males, was a feature in breathless homage to Herself. Funny the sort of fan mail a female pop star can attract. What about the real-life person without the costumes and make-up, though?
“My God, it’s worked for me,” she says, asked if her beauty has been a double-edged sword. “But, yes, it has in a way. Because although I’m not a great thinker, I’m not an airhead either, and pretty people are just not expected to be serious. They don’t have to be. They can survive on being attractive, sexy, seductive, whatever it is they do. So, the reasoning goes, why would they want to be anything more?” Which in the comparatively Neanderthal era of Seventies corporate pop, meant that label executives addressed themselves to the boys in the band, never to Harry. “And I found that very upsetting. The only way to deal with it was to put my frustration into performance or into songwriting, which I did constantly.”
That old story about her having turned into a rock’n’roll Florence Nightingale when Stein was taken ill… She throws her hands up in the air in sudden exasperation. “I didn’t do all that, OK? Let’s just cut to the part where he’s in good health again, OK?”
“Well, if you don’t mind me asking, are you in a relationship now?”
“I date. And it’s an awful thing, dating… it sucks. You go to dinner and, well, it’s just not as rewarding as one would expect. Or hope. I shouldn’t complain, though. I work hard and then I go out. I usually have a good time. I have a life. I have a love life.”
Also, and so confounding those who’ve predicted her descent into bloated middle-age, she has a strict exercise regime and looks impressively taut and toned. Swimming is her latest craze, and when I comment that all that back-and-forthing amid the chlorine soon gets boring, she looks at me with amusement. Swimming a la Harry involves weights on the wrists and ankles, not to mention a snorkel and all manner of underwater aerobics. Instantly, I feel ashamed of my lack of imagination.
“I’ve never really been a successful party person when I was doing any kind of substances,” she continues of her physical renaissance. “I was more the sort of person who’d like to hide away and get high. I was never really outgoing and frivolous. And I’m much happier sober and without any chemicals or liquor. I get dark and introspective when I do those things.”
The opposite of what she is today. “Hey, Debbie!” exclaims the Moonstruck Diner’s proprietor, passing by our booth just as she prepares to leave. “Nice to see ya! You’re looking sunny.”
“Why thanks you,” replies the woman in the beach clothes, sandals and ankle bracelet, as she gets up, shakes my hand, turns to go. “That’s because I’m feeling sunny today. I’m feeling very sunny.”

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