Magazines + Newspapers

Sunday Magazine

February 28th 1999
Photography: Bob Barker
Cover Photography: Scope
Interview: Liz Van Den Nieuwenhof

the lady is
a vamp
As a child she fantasised she was Marilyn Monroe’s daughter. As an adult she became the blonde icon of her generation. Then Madonna stole her act, did it better, and Debbie Harry fled into obscurity, got fat and learned the lesson every beautiful woman must learn one day – what it feels like to be plain and imperfect.
Adulation becomes Deborah Harry. On stage, squeezed into a get-up designed to take strain, Blondie’s ageing babe appears to have lost none of her allure. But the morning after having played shamelessly to the entranced and, dare I say it, greying crowd who had come to pay homage in Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Harry is nowhere near as captivating. Petulant more like.
Through a media flunky she lets it be known she wants to pack and make as earlier flight to Los Angeles and would therefore like the interview cut short. We’re not off to a good start.
In fact, from the outset, the interview proceeds doggedly and there is a distinct chill in Harry’s manner. Her arms are crossed tightly over a body that has, on closer inspection, not adhered to the bombshell image. She has packed on a few kilos since the day she reigned as the iconic blonde with a voice that inspired lust, and the roots of her bleached locks need urgent re-touching.
Yet back in the 1970s and ’80s Harry was the cynosure of sexiness and she milked that vampy image for all it was commercially worth. After all, it was her brazen blonde ambition and pouty, Monroe-esque appeal that got her crowned punk’s bad girl. She was it’s ultimate pin-up, possessed of a beguiling mix of fire and ice.
Unfortunately I meet with the ice. It’s in the glacial blue of her eyes and the artic edge to her voice. This reception, though, is not altogether unexpected. I’d been forewarned that Ms Harry, 53, is infamous for her truculent turns.
Thankfully drummer Clem Burke, considered the most laidback member of Blondie, is on hand to apply conversational first-aid. She had insisted he be present for the interview and it proves a godsend. Still, everything crawls along an alpine gradient and it’s proving a slog for all concerned.
But Burke valiantly sets to work. They’re all thrilled, he says, with the reception the resurrected Blondie got in Australia. For nostalgic reasons it was important to include Australia on their concert tour for it was here, thanks to Ian “Molly” Meldrum’s Countdown, that they rocketed to the top of the charts with In The Flesh.
Blondie was formed in 1974 when art student and guitarist Chris Stein teamed up with Harry, a former waitress and Playboy bunny with a penchant for dayglo Steven Sprouse. A year later they were joined by Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri.
With chart-toppers Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl, Atomic, Call Me and The Tide Is High, Blondie was credited with forging the new wave punk era. But the group always refused to be categorised, preferring their work to be seens as a fusion of new wave, funk, disco and art.
Then in 1982, following rumors of dissension, they hit the skids. First their album The Hunter failed to ignite, then Stein, the band’s bedrock, was struck down with a life-threatening and rare genetic disease called pemphigus. The group fell apart.
Harry, who had been Stein’s lover for 18 years, stayed by his side and devoted herself to nursing him. It took Stein two years to recover.
Although they split up not long after, Harry and Stein remained close. Indeed, it was Stein who begged Harry, then fronting vocalist with Jazz Passengers, to come back on board the reincarnated Blondie. She was, she admits, not entirely convinced they could recapture their past glory.
“I thought it was a stupid idea,” Harry says flatly, refusing eye contact. “I thought it was problematic and I was very involved with what I was doing. Musically I was exploring a new area for me and it was proving a great adventure. I probably wouldn’t have been a huge, popular success, but I found the intrigue of jazz very, very satisfying.”
On top of that she’d scored hits as a solo artist with French Kissing In The USA and I Want That Man and had appeared in a couple of films, most notably as the deranged mother in John Waters’ Hairspray. Also Harry, who shares her Manhattan apartment with her pet dog ChiChi, has grown accustomed to the singles scene.
“I date, when I have time,” she says, smiling weakly. “I have a lot of great friends and a pretty good social life but I don’t go into what you might consider traditional night life.”
It seems the once-outrageous party animal has embraced a more sober act. She says that while the rest of the band had partied on until four in the morning she was in bed by 1.30, then up at the crack of dawn for a brisk power-walk followed by a swim.
Burke gives her a horrified look and Harry responds with a deep, throaty laugh. It seems the ice maiden is slowly starting to thaw.
Life on the road, she says, suits her. It always did. “I’ve found that life presents you with problems even if you end up staying in one place.”
Raised by her adoptive parents in New Jersey, Harry spent much of her childhood indulging in grand fantasies that she was Marilyn Monroe’s daughter and destined for great things. Although hers was a largely happy childhood she admits she was desperate to break free.
“My mother and father loved being in their home and staying in one place. Other kids used to come in and out of my life. They seemed a lot more transient and I fantasised about what it must be like to move.”
Taking to the road with Blondie evidently fulfilled the fantasies. When Blondie disintegrated it left her shattered and emotionally adrift. “It all ended so chaotically. In fact it held such bad memories and bad feelings for me that I really didn’t want to go back to that.”
It took Stein close to three years before he finally enticed Harry back into the fold. “He was very determined and because my love and trust in his instincts and his intelligence knows no bounds, I gave in.”
The regrouping, she says, proved remarkably trouble-free. From the outset, though, all the band members were emphatic that they would hit the comeback trail armed with new material. No Exit, their new 14-track album, described as a perfect evolution of Blondie, caused an instant sensation on its release and the single Maria rocketed to number one in the UK this month. In Australia, it has languished at the back end of the charts ahead of the album release last week.
Not surprisingly Harry finds herself, once again, occupying centre stage. Her past media exposure was said to be the cause of some friction within the band and she is determined not to revisit that terrain. It explains her insistence on having other band members present during all interviews.
Yet the fascination with Harry continues. Only now there seems to be an almost universal fixation with her advancing age. She’s getting mightily vexed over it. So much so that when Maria shot to number one, Harry let it be known she was not bent on “being the latest and hottest pop star”. She has been there and done that. Not that there’s a risk of her playing down her sexy image. It’s as much a part of Blondie as her distinctive voice. A reunited Blondie without its blonde deity seems inconceivable.
“Debbie has been an icon for a lot of young women, always has been and that has continued,” concedes Burke. “And I guess there’s an element of curiosity.”
Harry tries to be philosophical about the attention: “I can’t really look in on myself. I don’t think it makes for a good perspective,” she says, sliding me a penetrating look. “I am, believe it or not, a pretty sane person although I’ve gone through my crazy periods.
“I now just want to concentrate on my job and the work I do. I try not to think of what people think of me. What’s important is getting my songs across and making sure my technique is up to the standard I’d like it to be.”
Burke wades in with a compliment that draws a dazzling smile from Harry: “I think Debbie is singing better than ever. But then we’ve all had a lot of life experiences in between that have no doubt helped us in our music. We’re a bunch of punk rockers who’ve evolved musically.”
Both Burke and Harry fastidiously avoid the word “comeback”. Says Burke: “It’s more a continuation of where we left off. It just took us a long time. I think musicians live in dog years.”
For the first couple of months after their reunion the group spent much of their time holed up in Stein’s basement just enjoying being a band again.
“That was the fun part,” says Harry. “Then, somehow it all just flowed. I think that was one of the things about Blondie and why our music endured. It’s a part of us, it’s a force to be reckoned with. Everyone is so-o-o into it, so-o-o excited about it. There’s this pressure that builds up and everyone gets into it. It’s really very exciting making a record with this band. In some sense it’s this healthy competition … sometimes a very dangerous area that you walk in … it sort of works for us and we get very fired up and work hard,” she says animatedly. Burke calls her back to earth.
The combination of all our talents contributes to the sound,” he says. “When the four of us get together it is a great starting point. It kind of just evolves from there.”
The title track, No Exit, was originally called Gothic Cups and written by Destri as a gangster rap song.
“That was until Chris got his hands on it and slammed some guitar in,” Harry says.
The new title was supplied by Burke who remembers sitting on a couch at the rehearsal studio looking at an exit sign. “It brought to mind Jean Paul Satre’s Hell Is Other People.”
All the band’s energy is now being channelled into getting their world tour happening to promote the album.
“This is a pretty organised attack,” says Harry. “We weren’t interested in a nostalgic tour because it would have been a waste of time and energy.”
If there is one regret, though, it’s that Mike Chapman, the Australian record producer, won’t be part of their renewed success. It was Chapman who, in 1979, helped Blondie hone its radio sound and created the album Parallel Lines.
Says Harry: “Joining forces with Mike was the turning point for us. He came to see us in a club in Los Angeles and became instrumental in us achieving what we did. I think our recording career would have ended had it not been for Mike.”
There were a couple of false starts with Chapman who was initially keen to work with the reunited band.
“But there were too many problems. His lifestyle has changed radically. He’s married and leads a more secluded, settled life,” Harry adds.
Would having children make it that much harder? “How the hell should I know,” she snaps.
Harry, who divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, has made it known the thing she regrets most is that she never had a child with Stein. I don’t have the courage to verify this for fear of prompting another arctic blast.
We briefly return to safe ground with strained talk of how much the industry has changed since Blondie’s heyday. Much of it she sheets home to the advent of MTV.
“There’s no longevity factor,” she remarks tartly.
“There is this glut of material and product that seems very short-lived. It’s a pity really because people want to relate to artists. They want to have a relationship with them, so to speak, and to chart their lives according to the music they produce.”
Blondie did do that to a large extent. It may do so still.
Meanwhile, Harry has a plane to catch. She excuses herself to go to the loo and I take a cue that my audience with pop’s greatest survivor has finally ground to a halt.
My last view of La Diva is of a retreating figure dressed in diaphanous white culottes revealing skimpy black knickers. She always loved making a saucy exit.

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