Magazines + Newspapers

The Big Issue

10th May 1999



I hated Debbie Harry. Blondie, post-punk’s biggest pop group, used to soundtrack those teenage parties which are fortunately a blur in my memory, apart from snatches of lyrics like “Ooh Denis ooh-bi-doo” and the “ooh-ooh-woah” refrain from Heart Of Glass while someone was banging on the lav door just as you’d passed out, yelling, “We’ve got to get in, Tony’s going to be sick.” The fact that every post-pubescent boy present fancied the pants off Debbie Harry, and would drop their best girl to lick her spiked-heeled boots if they got half a chance, was a defining factor of sexual jealousy for me and just about every other teenage girl at that time.
She wasn’t like today’s brand of homely-cute pop geezer-bird. She was an ironic American blonde, with perfect, glacial beauty. She’d been a Playboy bunny, a junkie and part of New York’s infamous punk scene. The fact that she’d done everything in her power to trash it only gave her glamour more of an edge. She was dirty and dangerous, she looked as if she didn’t give a toss about anything, and between 1979 and 1982, with the band’s street-smart pretty boys, made some of the most perfect pop records ever. I tell Debbie Harry what I used to think of her, which she accepts with perfect grace, because I definitively stop hating her when she arrives for our photo-shoot. She is, at 53, shorter than you’d expect, broad in the beam and still so extravagantly beautiful she appears unreal. The studio is heavily populated with ever-so-trendy hair, make-up and styling people who introduce themselves by their trade immediately the voluptuous ultra- diva arrives. “I’m make-up,” says Make-up. “I already did my make-up,” she replies, eyes narrowing a film-noirish fraction, like a rock’ n’roll Lauren Bacall. Make-up floats off to sulk, along with Hair, Styling and Hangers-About. “I’m not getting changed,” Harry says firmly. Having ignored the stylist’s 1999 update on the punk look in favour of her own baggy jumper and trousers.
Deborah ‘Debbie’ Harry begins to explain what it felt like when Blondie decided to reunite after a near-fatal illness, drugs, acrimony, therapy and a 16-year gap, and found themselves as much the flavour of the month as they ever were. Maria, the first single from their comeback album No Exit went straight in at number one. “Too old? Just fuck off,” she laughs.
She does camp, and sassy, and slightly bonkers, but mostly she does nice and thoughtful, which is a surprise. “I do a lot of things I feel too old for. I used to wonder about putting on the Blondie character. I’m less innocent and naive now.” Her eyes narrow again, archly, as I murmer that these weren’t the immediate qualities associated with Blondie’s knowing persona. “It’s nice to have this outline of a character to stand behind. But this record has more depth and sincerity. It’s more mature. And we’re all,” she pauses for emphasis, “… more mature.” “I’m surprised it was such a commercial success,” she continues. “I get alot of satisfaction from writing songs and performing and singing. I really enjoy those things and I’ve gotten really good at it. But it’s even more personal now, so I can focus on the music.”
No Exit, flawed and emotional, sounds as if Blondie’s impersonal heart of glass has turned flesh. It’s as if adult humans, older but wiser, have replaced pop’s prettiest automations. “We left our reputation hanging in the air,” she says. “I’m really proud that we could pull it back and still be credible.” This isn’t quite the same Blondie, though. The years in between have taken their toll on various band members, and it shows in the songs. “Music is very emotional, it conveys meaning,” says Harry. Some of the songs are light- hearted, but some are more moody, and layered with meaning. Records used to be like a little journey for me, and this one’s like that.”
It’s hard to imagine Harry’s blank, brittile former blonde ambition persona saying that. When Harry was in a glam-trash band, pre-Blondie, called The Stilettoes, they covered the Shangri-Las’ Out On The Streets. It’s reprised on No Exit in a poignant, world-weary version. “We thought it was topical because in the States gang activity takes the place of love or personal relationships. It’s like being in the army, giving up civilian life, and people can’t grow out of it,” says Harry sadly.
If Harry’s original Blondie persona was a glorious cartoon, the woman sitting here today is infinitely more complex and a million times more likeable than the image. “I really don’t give a fuck what I look like,” she says. “I have a beautiful face, and that’s wonderful. But at times, I feel a mess. That gift has nothing to do with what a person is. If anything, it’s made me work harder.” But the look was carefully created, and as Harry talks, it’s easy to see a schism between woman and artist. Blondie had it’s roots in New York’s low-rent lower east side scene, where everyone wanted to be creative. If Brits only decided they liked artists recently, when they started behaving like pop stars, then New Yorkers could only stomach pop when it was rooted in an artistic aesthetic. Art was a means of rebellion. “There was a common element of us being underdogs, and Blondie was a conceptual piece,” says Harry, who has extended her artistic career into acting and singing experimental jazz. Blondie were friends with Andy Warhol. Their Svengali, guitarist and Harry’s erst-while long-term boyfriend, Chris Stein, was an art student. The American punk scene fused art and music; Blondie, who knew how to manipulate their look as much as their music, were the scene’s most meteoric success.
At this stage in the conversation, Stein arrives, avant-garde black threads, shades and entourage. “Chris is wonderful,” Harry says, several times, varying in emphasis between pride and wistfulness. She admits the main reason she agreed to the reunion was because Stein was so keen on it happening. “I never thought we would get back together,” says Harry. “But Chris thought we’d regret not doing it before we were too old.” The room fills with black leather, cuban heels, sharp suits and feather haircuts which haven’t been sighted this side of the Atlantic for years. Harry abandons the interview momentarily to advise Stein not to eat the heads off his prawns. She sounds motherly; unsurprising really. Stein nearly died of a wasting disease in the mid-Eighties and Harry nursed him devotedly for three years.
She starts talking again, more personally this time. “I do give myself a hard time,” she says, leaning forward. “I guess. I’d like to be comfortable and cosy but there’s this …THING… [she mimes a terrible struggle] which forces me to do these other things. As a kid growing up in the suburbs, I was horrified at the lack-adasical… being part of the status quo. I always thought the idea that I’d lapse into a routine way of life was horryfying. I like shock. I like stimulation. I like to be painfully aware. Like drugs.”
Harry hasn’t touched heroin since 1984, after Stein’s ilness (which he has admitted was exacerbated by his hard-drug use) and the band’s implosion. Still, the band hung around with famous deceased junkies like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders, and did their fair share of the art-punk scene’s coke-and-smack drug combination of choice abd what ever else was going; a track on 1978’s Plastic Letters was called I’m On E years before Ecstasy was heard of over here. “It wasn’t meant to be that, it was ‘I’m on Empty’, although it was as well,” she says with a sly sideways smile. “But I think the psychedelic thing is incompatible to the environment in New York. In London, it’s softer. I’n NY, it’s harsh, cement-filled. It’s bleak. Psychedelics make you open and softened and NY doesn’t make you want to do that.” And yes, of course, she went looking for a wild side to walk on as soon as she could. “I had to go to New York. I had to see. It was very scary to think, ‘I’m going to be an artist’. But what a time it was.”
She set out to be a star as surely as Madonna did. In retrospect, Harry thinks it was a lazy way of getting affection. “We wanted to be loved, to be fancied,” she says frankly. “It’s a deep need, to be sought out and admired, a way of being popular without having relationships. You’re off in the distance and adored.” The mature Harry is a single woman who lives with a cat and a dog, and the legacy of having influenced the (wet) dreams of a generation.
Because Harry has always been the band’s focal point, it’s easy to attribute a certain anon-ymity to the backing band. Not so in the flesh. Once drummer Clem Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri, who wrote Maria and their new single, arrive, the room’s full of them, looking worse for wear and better for it, as Harry gently vanishes. The three men, elegant and courteous, talk at machine-gun speed in a nasal New York drone, thoughts and ideas twisting round each other as minds work faster than speed of sound voices. Stein wears inpenetrable back sunglasses indoors; he and Harry haven’t been an item since 1986. Despite the sense of inevitability about the Eighties comebacks, this one has a touch of freshness. Blondie have kept their interestingly edgy style and attitude. “We don’t have any- thing to prove,” says Stein.
Clem Burke has the last word. “We opened doors that other people in the industry walked through. So now we’re trying to reap some of the rewards. We’re like a dysfunctional family, but I think we were always ahead of our time. What we’re doing is being appreciated now.” One small thing has changed. Twenty years on, I think Debbie Harry is lovely. Blondie’s new single, ‘Nothing Is Real But The Girl’, is out May 24 on RCA.

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