The Daily Telegraph
Debbie Harry: life after the disco
Monday 25th May 1998
Seventies band Blondie and their pouting pin-up singer are back – for love or money? Charles Laurence reports.
[Picture: Nigel Parry/KATZ. Picture caption reads: Imaterial girl: ‘Madonna came right after me, and took the next step to become a real pop star… I wish I, too, could be a tower of power’]
WE HAVE arranged to meet at the Cafe ShaSha in Greenwich Village, but it is still early on a drizzly morning and the coffee bar is shut. I wait outside, pressed into the gated doorway for what shelter I can find, watching New York Bohemia scurry by with dogs and newspapers and loaves of fresh bread.
A Sixties Chevrolet in two-tone paint and still-bright chrome pulls up, and the passenger window slides down. “Hey!” shouts a woman wearing a crumpled top hat and heavy, dark make-up. A second woman sits behind the wheel, a tumble of light brown hair obscuring her face.
The passenger in the topper curses the ShaSha for being closed. They are not usually out so early, she explains, and didn’t realise. She pushes open a rear door, and I slip in. The driver twists around and offers a palm. It is Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie, and even now, after all these years, it is a shock to see her face so close, still beautiful, and smiling at me.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, when, truth to tell, Harry was already in her thirties, she set the world alight. Blondie – always a band, not a person – put songs such as Heart of Glass and Hanging on the Telephone into the international pop charts, capturing the moment with a blend of trendy disco and New York downtown edge. The album Parallel Lines sold a million copies in Britain alone.
Posters of Debbie Harry, meanwhile, went up on the bedroom walls of every young man who ever dreamt of having a pouting blonde girlfriend of his own. She was a Marilyn Monroe for the punk era: big eyes set impossibly far apart; wide, wide cheek bones; a kittenish nose and curvy lips. The whole was somehow suffused with a look poised between danger and vulnerability. Wow, we all went: where did they get her from?
Now, after some 15 long years, Blondie is back. Harry is on her way to the recording studios this very morning to work on 15 new songs. In the autumn, there should be a new album, No Exit, and an international tour. Both the songs and the performance, she promises, will be “recognisable” to old fans. In the meantime, Britain will get a glimpse of her this week when she tours in a different incarnation, as the singer with an obscure but critically acclaimed band called the Jazz Passengers.
Harry wrestles the wheel of the car and pulls out into the traffic. “Gotcha now,” she quips, in her strongest New Jersey accent, “you’re kidnapped.” The other woman, who turns out to be Romy, her assistant, laughs. I see Harry peering at me in the rearview mirror. Would I really mind if I were being kidnapped? We head off in search of the elusive combination of an espresso bar and a parking space.
She has aged, not gracefully, but rather, disgracefully. This is as it should be, a reflection of the real Debbie Harry. There may well have been Blondie fans who saw the band as mainstream Top of the Pops, and Harry as a young lady who might one day settle down to respectable womanhood.
But there were certainly others who knew all along that this was a performer who came from the more avant garde of New York’s clubs and who, as a waitress, had fetched drinks for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground as they played Max’s Kansas City.
They knew the legend, too, about how she had managed to conduct intimate relations in the telephone booth at Max’s, a story which she says is, yes, quite true.
Harry is unrepentant. She came to New York as a teenager from the industrial heartland of New Jersey, looking for the life swirling around Andy Warhol and the jazz clubs, and she found it.
“It was pretty easy to get access to that world, and it helped being a cute, tasty little 18-year-old,” she says.
“The scene then was really fun, and I started with visions of being a painter. But there was always a self-destructive element. People are bound to die and get messed up with that amount of drugs going around. It’s sad to see people go, but it’s not a new thing for artists. What was Shelly on?”
Even now, when, frankly, she needs the cash, she can’t quite bring herself to play things straight to promote a Blondie revival and secure her pay day. “Why are we together again?” she asks in a mocking tone of voice. “Why, of course, because I want to recapture my youth, jerk around in front of thousands of people and make lots and lots of money.” She convulses with laughter at her own joke, and then quietens down to add: “We reckon we should be able to sell out at least one tour simply on curiosity.”
This is Harry underselling herself, and it betrays a note of bitterness. Life after the disco did not turn out well and, for all her beauty, she looks as if she has suffered a monster hangover or two. The hair is a mess – blonde streaks at the front, a need for a brush at the back – and there is something carelessly dumpy about her stretch-pants, black T-shirt and well-used, black plastic raincoat.
She has long been offended by snatched photographs and mean-spirited captions which parade an overweight, apparently gone-to-seed Harry. Her natural tendency is to some fairly serious padding around the middle, the hips and the thighs, but she looks better now than she did five or six years ago, when she was bloated and looked miserable.
How does she plan to appear on stage?
“Well, I’m not as perky as I used to be, but my bosoms are still pretty good,” she says, arching her back and wiggling a bit. “When we get on that stage, it’s going to be recognisably Blondie, believe me.”
The Blondie revival is the idea of the man behind the original band who has been at the centre of Harry’s life through good times and bad. She met guitarist Chris Stein when he sought her out after a club performance of her just-for-fun all-female band. Romance blossomed, then a professional partnership, then fame and fortune.
“We put our heads together,” says Harry, “and out came a new entity.” They worked side by side for 18 years and lived together for 15. It never occurred to them to marry. Stein has since been married, but is now back making music with Harry.
A PRODUCER suggested a revival album to him, and he in turn brought the idea to Harry and persuaded her to give Blondie one more go.
Nobody, it turns out, made a fortune from the original incarnation of the band. Blondie suffered, like many other pop groups of the era, by being tied to an old-fashioned recording contract from which the musicians were the last to benefit. They spent what they earned in a few years of high living, and then broke up before they could rewrite their contracts and make any serious money. One good tour and reasonable album sales could transform their finances.
While Harry seems content with a rather frayed, bohemian existence, she has a brittle edge to her. It is hard to imagine her being truly happy. But she insists that she would not be reviving Blondie again, were it not for Stein’s persuasion.
“I love him very much,” she says. “I live on my own these days, and want it that way, but with Chris – what more proof of love do you want? We have a relationship that’s important whether we are married, living together or whatever.”
At one time, she would have liked children; his children. But it is too late for that now, and she brushes away that line of interrogation with an icy: “I try to avoid regrets.”
After their foray into the top of the music charts, Stein and Harry remained together on the return journey to relative obscurity. In the early Eighties, just as Blondie were peaking, he fell seriously ill with pemphigus, a rare and debilitating skin disease.
For a couple of years, many friends, including Harry, feared he would die. She nursed him devotedly. But by the time the illness was over, so was the romance.
Harry now refuses either to accept accolades for her devotion – she says she simply wanted to be with Stein – or to blame the demise of Blondie on his condition. She takes the longer view that they simply failed to make the transition from an art-house band that got lucky to a true, commercial pop band. Blondie burnt out, she believes, because its members stayed true to their roots.
“We were art, not product,” she insists, “and in the end, we couldn’t make the step from being art to being product.
“It was sort of funny being a part of that whole scene, with everyone becoming more and more famous and at one point, I suppose, us being the most commercial of anyone. But the scene evolved and dissolved at the same time.”
Afterwards, Madonna assumed the mantle as the pop world’s pin-up – for which Harry takes a little credit. The path had been cleared for the Material Girl.
“Madonna came right after me, and took the next step to become a real pop star. You know, I would love to have the mansion in South Beach – or Morocco, actually – but it is just not in my personality to do it.
“In some ways, I wish I too, could be a tower of power, but really my goal in life was to be an artist, and being a star is really not worth it to me.”
ODDLY, perhaps, Harry pulled back from the brink of lasting stardom for much the same reason she became a star in the first place. She had moulded herself as the incarnation of Blondie with a sense of ironic distance, and she destroyed the image when faced with the prospect that she might truly become that character.
She had long been fascinated by the blonde movie stars of Hollywood’s golden era, and her first song, Platinum Blonde, was written in homage to them.
“I was reacting to the hippy-dippy era of the Sixties, when you weren’t meant to admire these women,” she says. “but we all did: women are forced to evaluate themselves according to their ration of beauty. I thought, ‘OK, let’s do it, let’s have some action’.”
Yet, all the time, she seems secretly to have despised herself for it.
She was an adopted child who grew up variously teased, envied, admired and lusted over for her pretty face. But her adoptive mother, “plain but smart” and much loved, continually reminded her that it was something other than looks that really counted in life. It was what was in the head, and in the heart.
“I believed her then,” says Harry, “and I believe her now.” More than anything, the pop legend of Blondie wants to be known for her smartness.
Deborah Harry will be appearing with the Jazz Passengers tomorrow at the Oxford Playhouse (01865 798600); on Wednesday at the Salisbury Festival (01722 320333); Thursday at the Barbican, London (0171-6388891) and on Friday at the Hay Festival (01497 821299).