Entertainment Guide that came with The Irish Independant
Written by: John Meagher
Debbie Harry may be an icon, but she’s also a tough old broad with an intense dislike of journalists, as John Meagher found out.
DEBBIE HARRY is about to come on the line but before she does her American publicist decides to have a little chin-wag.
“You know, Debbie would really rather talk about her new album and her tour than any of that old stuff.” The old stuff is Blondie, circa 1978, her relationship with the band’s guitarist Chris Stein and the nasty things that the US tabloids wrote about her after the band’s demise. But that’s precisely the stuff that the fans want to hear. Blondie, despite the new music, will always be remembered for being frontrunners of the short-lived New Wave movement in the late 1970s, early 1980s.
In the band’s heyday, Harry was famed for not suffering fools and if recent press coverage is anything to go by, she enjoys nothing more than a good spat with journalists – even over something as basic as her name. One day she wants to be called Deborah, the next Debbie. I end up calling her both.
Debbie/Deborah is 58 and sometimes she sounds older and younger than that. Her voice flits from girlish giggle to granny grumble in the same sentence, but it’s only when she isn’t giving monosyllabic answers, which, unfortunately, is most of the time.
Blondie are in the middle of a mini, five-date US tour when I speak to her. The crowd’s reaction has been good, apparently. “It’s fun,” she says in her flat East Coast drawl. “These are kind of warm-up shows for the UK and Ireland. The crowd seems to like the new songs. We’re opening our set with a song from the new album. It will make people sit up and listen.”
The album is almost completed, as yet untitled and due for release early next year. “We’re mixing some stuff now and debating about one more track, about how to finish it.”
Not that Blondie are short of material. It has been rumoured that this could be their first double album. “It feels like it could be a double album, but I don’t think it will be.”
What can fans expect from the Blondie live experience in 2002? Her laugh is oddly disconcerting and her answer is just plain odd. “A big headache – no, no, just kidding. A nosebleed – no, no, just kidding. The band sounds great, better than ever. We’re trying to include the hits and some new material and some surprises, like covers that we really love playing.”
When Blondie split in 1983, Debbie Harry didn’t think there would be a reconciliation, let alone another album. In fact, there would be a 16-year wait for the next Blondie release – 1999’s patchy No Exit. And, she admits, Blondie would never have reformed if it weren’t for the efforts of former lover Chris Stein. “Chris initiated the whole thing. We had interest from a management company and he felt that if we didn’t do it at that point it would never get it done and we might regret it later on. He was right.”
Harry has lived in her beloved Chelsea area of New York for most of the past 20 years.
Autograph hunters don’t bother her, but that, she snaps, is not because people don’t know who she is. “I think it’s a very New York thing not to bother you on the street. It’s the one place in the world where you can have anonymity and people respect that. They are friendly and cordial but not intrusive.”
When she’s not touring with Blondie, she plays with the quirky, avant-garde Jazz Passengers, who are popular among Manhattan’s glitterati. They recently played at a private party for designer Donna Karan. And they played at London’s swanky Barbican Centre with the BBC orchestra – an experience she describes as “quite interesting and really beautiful”.
Which band does she prefer playing with? The silence is so long I fear that she has just walked away from the phone. “I don’t know if I could choose one or the other,” she says at last. “I think Blondie is more personal, but I think Jazz Passengers has given me a new set of wings.”
I ask her if music in Blondie’s heyday was more exciting than now. “The formats for radio are very controlled and it’s difficult for new music to emerge on commercial radio. What annoys me is that more than ever, a lot of people who are not musicians get to say what music others should hear.”
She says she misses the mid-1970s. “When the Trade Centre went down it hit me hard and I wished it was 1975 again. That was an exciting time to be starting off. The attacks made me realise what an important time that was for me.”
She was in New York on September 11. The smouldering twin towers were visible from her apartment. I ask her about reports that New Yorkers made more than an effort to be friendly in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and she takes offence at this. “I’m always amazed that outsiders think New York is an unfriendly place,” she says, tartly. “I think people were very supportive of one another after it happened.”
She may have been considered the epitome of New York in the 1979s, but Harry was born in Florida and raised by her adoptive parents in New Jersey. But Manhattan soon pulled her away and she worked briefly as a Playboy bunny and then a waitress at CBGB’s – the down-at-heel home of New York glam rock and, later, punk.
Blondie sprang from the New York punk scene in the early 1970s. Harry met Chris Stein when she was a member of the all-girl tribute band, Stiletto. Debbie was soon lured away to form a new band along with bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O’Connor. After using various names, they adopted the one that truck drivers shouted at Debbie in the street and, as Blondie, the band recorded a demo featuring Platinum Blonde.
When Smith left to join Television in 1975, Stein’s persistence prevented the group from folding. His enthusiasm was infectious, and with new bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri on board they resumed rehearsing.
The result was a superb debut single, X-Offender, with spoken intro by Harry. With confidence running high, they turned in some dynamic live shows. Blondie (1977) expanded everything that had been condensed into X-Offender.
Harry, now in full ice queen persona, joined the major league with the 1978 album, Parallel Lines, which spawned four singles, Hanging On The Telephone, Picture This, Sunday Girl and Heart Of Glass – the last of which was a number one all round the world, even in the band’s native America.
Its follow-up, Eat To The Beat (1979), generated a groundbreaking video album with a promo to accompany each track. The cover of John Holt’s The Tide Is High became Blondie’s fifth UK number one in two years, and was a taster for Autoamerican, which also contained the early rap crossover single Rapture.
In 1981 Harry released her solo debut Koo Koo, produced by Chic mainstays Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Despite the presence of Stein, the set failed to capture Blondie’s sense of simple pop. For much of the decade she tried to break into acting, but with the exceptions of cameo roles, most notably in David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome, she just ended up playing herself.
In the 1980s, an era she now calls the “ice-cream years”, she put on fat too much weight and seemed to have temporarily given up on the notion of pop stardom. The tabloids had a field day with her weight gain, her reclusiveness and the whole sex-symbol-gone-to-pot idea.
Now she spends many of her days alone. She says she likes to eat alone and enjoys dropping into gigs throughout NYC. She is also fond of walking. With her dogs, I venture? That seems to offend her. “You know, in the UK when people think of an old woman walking her dog, they think she’s sad and pathetic, living a lonely life.” I try to explain that I didn’t mean to cause offence, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. “But people are much more open over here. They use the dog as an excuse to chat you up.”
That invites questions about her love life, but she doesn’t want to indulge me. “Let’s just say thing are fine at the moment.” And how are things between her and Chris? “Just fine.”
She seems more comfortable as our conversation winds to a close. The Irish shows, she is convinced, will be “hot”. And she has one last message before she goes. “Don’t write us off just yet.”
Blondie play Dublin’s Vicar Street on December 2 and 3. Blondie’s Greatest Hits is out now.