Magazines + Newspapers


June 1999


By Glenn O’Brien
Front Cover photography by Rob Roth

She’s influenced performers from Annie Lennox to Liz Phair and, oh yeah, Madonna – bringing an ironic, witty glamour to punk rock. Now Deborah Harry and her seminal band, Blondie, have reunited with a fierce new album, No Exit, and a cross-country tour. Are you ready for the rapture?
I met Deborah Harry and Blondie in 1976 at CBGB’s, New York’s famous Bowery dive. I remember the night vividly. Debbie, who was drinking Heineken out of a bottle, would have been overawing if it weren’t for a radiant warmth that put me at ease right off. Chris Stein talked as fast as Woody Allen, with contortions of logic that indicated an alarming and subversive genius at work behind those nighttime sunglasses. I was working for Andy Warhol and writing the music column for Interview, and they actually read it. We hit it off immediately and permanently.
Although she looked like a kid in the CB days, Debbie had been around. She’d been a folkie with a band called Wind in the Willows, a waitress at Max’s Kansas City during the wildest of the Warhol days, and a Playboy bunny. In 1973 she joined a proto-punk band called the Stiletos, and at their second gig she met Chris Stein, an art student, photographer, and guitarist. The two clicked almost magically. They moved in together and in 1974 formed the group that would eventually – with drummer Clem Burke, Keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and bassist Gary Valentine – become Blondie. The rest, of course, is music history.
“Heart of Glass” was Blondie’s first No. 1 hit – and something of a miracle: a disco song by a punk band at the height of the late ’70s “disco sucks” movement. They had the first No. 1 reggae song with “The Tide Is High” and the first No. 1 rap hit with “Rapture.” If punk was about getting back to basics and away from the excesses of dinosaur art rock, Blondie’s special gift was for making pop songs with great hooks – songs that were ready for Top 40 but had wit, irony, and stripped-down musical virtuosity. Debbie was, in a way, the first real woman rock star. She was cool and beautiful and had great style – making her a diva for our times.
She was also launching an acting career, with roles in 1979’s Union City and David Cronenberg’s 1982 sci-fi thriller, Videodrome, co-starring James Woods. And she starred in the Broadway show Teaneck Tanzi, a comedy about women’s professional wrestling.
Then, suddenly and bizarrely, things fell apart. In 1982 Chris was taken deathly ill with a rare genetic disorder. Debbie dropped everything to nurse him back to health, and in the meantime the band broke up. Chris recovered, but their romance didn’t. They separated, amicably, and remain best friends to this day. Debbie continued to act – from John Waters’ Hairspray to James Mangold’s Heavy. She released several solo albums before joining a band called the Jazz Passengers in the ’90s.
Last year, as spontaneously and unexpectedly as they split, Blondie reunited. Debbie, Chris, Clem, and Jimmy got together to perform a few shows and noticed there were a lot of young faces in the audience. They realized they could still make powerful, relevant pop music and rock a big house. Blondie’s new album, No Exit, is a remarkable accomplishment – one that’s enjoying both critical and commercial success, as the band gears up for a 13-city tour in May and June. They’re having more fun than ever. And dare I say they’ve matured? “Everybody’s a lot less fucked up now.” Chris concedes. “Nobody’s stoned. In the old days everyone was horrendously fucked up and negative about everything. Today we’re horrendously fucked up but really positive. It’s a big difference.”
It’s not common for a seemingly dead band to resurrect itself, let alone achieve superstardom again. Some people think you’ve got to be an angry, alienated, savage young kid to push music to the next level. But a kid’s got nothing on four angry, alienated, savage adults who also happen to be smart, cultured, and incredibly accomplished. Debbie Harry and the boys are older, wiser, and – in the very best sense – wilder than ever.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Hi Debbie. I called earlier, but I guess you were out.
DEBORAH HARRY: I was walking La Poochita, and it took longer than usual because her gonads are enraged.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Enraged? Does that mean she’s on heat – or infected?
DEBORAH HARRY: Probably both. It’s that time of year. She was standing there on the street getting head from this black Lab. It was really quite erotic.
GLENN O’BRIEN: It would be more interesting if people went into heat seasonally. What do you think?
DEBORAH HARRY: Some people do. Walking around the streets now is much more rewarding than it was in March.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Yeah, it was unexpectedly chilly yesterday and suddenly there was all these girls in tank tops with goosebumps.
DEBORAH HARRY: And miniskirts with no stockings. And guys with no shirts on. Actually, I saw guys with little shirts – they’re not completely toples yet.
GLENN O’BRIEN: You live in Chelsea – it won’t be long. What’s Poochita’s real name?
DEBORAH HARRY: Chi Chan. I call her Chi Chi too. And Peepers.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Does she answer to all of those?
DEBORAH HARRY: She answers to nothing and no one.
GLENN O’BRIEN: The other night you won a Lifetime Achievement award from one of your favorite New York clubs, Jackie 60. Did you give an acceptance speech?
DEBORAH HARRY: I was completely surprised by it. I said, “Thank you very much, but I’m not dead yet.” And left the stage immediately.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Do you still perform at Jackie?
DEBORAH HARRY: Occasionally. On awards night I was supposed to present one, and I was really chagrined because when I got there, they said we weren’t going to be presenting until 2:30 a.m. I screamed, “What?!” I was really tired that night. I’d just gotten back from a trip. That hour is a little beyond my scope now.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Maybe you used to be a woman of more leisure?
DEBORAH HARRY: I certainly was a woman of a different schedule. Now my schedule is quite early.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Have you ever been female-impersonated?
DEBORAH HARRY: Miss Guy did me at Jackie 60 a few weeks ago. He lip-synched to “Rapture” and had various people doing the walk-on bits from the video. It was video verite’. It’s a new breakthrough in performance.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Was there any resemblance?
DEBORAH HARRY: I’m horrified if I look and act like that. But I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I shouldn’t really critique it, though, because I’m friends with Miss Guy.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I thought it was a travesty!
DEBORAH HARRY: You weren’t there!
GLENN O’BRIEN: OK, I wasn’t there. I meant it was a transvesty. How is the tour going?
DEBORAH HARRY: It’s going well. It’s probably going to last six more months before I kill someone. Maybe several people.
GLENN O’BRIEN: How is it different traveling with the same four you travelled with 20 years ago?
DEBORAH HARRY: The personalities are pretty much the same. It’s not the same testosterone level. Jimmy [Destri] is married, so he’s not out every night with a different groupie.
GLENN O’BRIEN: What does he do instead?
DEBORAH HARRY: We go out for dinner, sit around the hotel bar and make jokes, meet people, go to parties. It’s more adult-ly social.
GLENN O’BRIEN: What about Chris? I thought he was out every night with a different groupie.
DEBORAH HARRY: He was for a while, but lately he’s got himself hooked up.
GLENN O’BRIEN: When you and Chris broke up, did you go through a jealousy period?
DEBORAH HARRY: Well, breaking up is hard to do.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I know. How do you do it?
DEBORAH HARRY: Oooh! You’ve done it. Well, I guess not successfully.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Yeah, only 10 years and a million dollars later.
DEBORAH HARRY: Do you really want to go into all this sad stuff?
GLENN O’BRIEN: No. But I know the readers do.
DEBORAH HARRY: I can’t. The mornings are hard enough for me. I drink a cup of coffee, and I’m full of anxiety. Even though it’s decaf. I can’t talk about it.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Do you have a new movie? I heard you made one where you have sex with your son.
DEBORAH HARRY: Six Ways to Sunday. It came and went quickly, but it’s a cute movie. The lead, Norman Reedus, is a terrific actor. He used to model for Prada.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Did it feel incestuous?
DEBORAH HARRY: It was more camp than anything. I’d like to do more movies. Blondie’s reunion is good for exposure – maybe it will make people think of me for parts. I’m ready. I’m really ready, Glenn. I’m ready!
GLENN O’BRIEN: Do you think they’ll ever make Blondie, the TV movie? Like the Sonny and Cher movie?
DEBORAH HARRY: Oh, VH1 tried. They offered a low budget, and we thought it would be really tacky.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Well, they did Sonny and Cher, and now Cher has that big hit.
DEBORAH HARRY: Sonny and Cher had a really big career and all those different stages. Their story was much more evolved.
GLENN O’BRIEN: But you’re more evolved people than they are. Does performing feel different now from the way it did in the old days?
DEBORAH HARRY: I really enjoy myself now and have a better understanding of my job as a performer and entertainer now. Although sometimes I’m not the most wittiest or most articulate person.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Oh, come on, Debbie! Give me a break. You’re the Cole Porter of chicks.
DEBORAH HARRY: I’m coming along. I squeeze out a joke now and then – and I actually get the audience’s laughter, which thrills me to no end. I would love to be a stand-up comic. [Beat.] Just kidding.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Do you get nervous before performing onstage?
DEBORAH HARRY: Instead of getting nervous and internalizing, I get angry. I get ferocious before I go on. I’m like the bull or the bronco in the pen waiting to get out and explode. That’s how I maintain control.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Which of the songs you’ve written is your favorite?
DEBORAH HARRY: I like “Double Take” off the new record. I really spent some time and thought it through, and it has real meaning for me. I achieved some songwriting truth in that.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Have other artists covered Blondie songs?
DEBORAH HARRY: The girl from Rugrats did “One Way or Another.” Melissa Joan Hart did it, too. That one’s been picked up a lot.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Are you making big money now?
DEBORAH HARRY: What’s happened is that the old catalog has gotten a big boost. So far we haven’t made any money from the new stuff.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I remember when Blondie were No. 1 all over the world, and you guys had no money, and Chris would call the record company, and they’d say, “It’s in the pipeline.”
DEBORAH HARRY: It’s a long pipeline. Even longer than “The check is in the mail.”
GLENN O’BRIEN: What’s the weirdest rumor about Blondie that was ever in the tabloids?
DEBORAH HARRY: Just the usual crap. What could they write?
GLENN O’BRIEN: Well, last week I think it was the Enquirer that had the headline CHER HASN’T HAD A MAN IN SIX YEARS. It said she was encouraged to be a lesbian by her daughter, Chastity.
DEBORAH HARRY: Well, I don’t have kids. But in England they wrote that I had conversations with my fireplace.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Like Nixon?
DEBORAH HARRY: Actually, Nixon was there! I think I told someone that when I was a kid my father built this brick barbecue that was shaped something like a Mayan temple, and I used to play in front of this structure and have communications with it. It was like my dollhouse. I think they took it from there and said I was communicating with aliens that were speaking from the fireplace.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Is it true that you’re a lesbian?
DEBORAH HARRY: Just because I haven’t had sex in six years and I’ve been seeing Cher a lot?
GLENN O’BRIEN: So it’s true about you and Cher?
DEBORAH HARRY: Absolutely. I’m just jealous that she has a big hit.
GLENN O’BRIEN: A big head?
DEBORAH HARRY: No, big hit.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Oh, sorry. That makes sense because your head is much bigger than hers.
DEBORAH HARRY: I do have a big head.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Do you have groupies on the road?
DEBORAH HARRY: I’m gonna work on it this time. I swear to God, Glenn, I’m gonna try to have a lot of sex with a lot of strangers, OK?
GLENN O’BRIEN: As long as you’re safe.
DEBORAH HARRY: I’ll be safe. I’ll bring a big supply of fresh butt plugs.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I always wanted to do that. Not butt plugs. Sex with a lot of strangers.
DEBORAH HARRY: You always wanted to be a slut?
GLENN O’BRIEN: Yeah, kind of.
DEBORAH HARRY: You were a babe magnet!
GLENN O’BRIEN: But I was too stoned to act on it. Girls would come up to me, and I’d be, “Oh, hi.”
DEBORAH HARRY: You sounded like Andy Warhol when you said that.
GLENN O’BRIEN: And he had a lot of sex. Not! I learned my pickup technique from the best wallflower of all time. You were pretty good friends with Andy.
DEBORAH HARRY: I was just getting close to and getting really comfortable with him when he died. He was always so nice to us. I can’t believe that people would say bad things about him. He was such a nice person.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I know. He was my father figure. He truely was.
DEBORAH HARRY: I was devastated when he died. He played a heavier role in my life that I ever realized when he was alive. I was actually crying in mourning over this person. And life really changed.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I remember the day he died. I cried all morning, and in the afternoon I suddenly realized, There’s nobody left whose opinion of my work I care about.
DEBORAH HARRY: He made you measure up. And you know what? The day I left Chris, the day that I told him I was leaving and wanted to live by myself, was the day Andy died. Chris said, “Your timing is impeccable, as usual.” It was all the more devastating because, as you know, breaking up is hard to do.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Yeah. How do you do that?
DEBORAH HARRY: Aw, fuck off!
Glenn O’Brien was an editor for INTERVIEW, ROLLING STONE, and SPIN and writes for PAPER and DETAILS.

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