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i-D magazine

December 2003

Interview by: JT Leroy
Photography by: Yelena Yemchuk

Reluctant disco punk queen Debbie Harry talks to novelist JT Leroy about her new film role, the vultures in her tree and the Blondie reunion that’s been around longer than the original line-up.

JTL: First, let me ask about your film My Life Without Me, which has been getting rave reviews. How was doing that?

DH: It was great. I loved Isabel Coixet, the director, and Sarah Polley is just an extraordinary little actress. I say little, she’s shorter than me, she’s a big actress. She is very cool-headed and right on the money. She reminds me of Jodie Foster.

JTL: She’s got that quality.

DH: She’s got a sense of humour and everything. She’s a real down-to-it kind of person, she’s not all caught up in some big game. I know she’s a star, but she’s not part of the Hollywood scene as yet. Maybe she will be.

JTL: I’ve been working with a lot of musicians and people have such a block with musicians being actors. Did you have to fight for that acceptance as an actress?

DH: It’s a matter of luck sometimes, but also I never accepted a role that I felt was a spin-off of being a lead singer in a band. I just felt it’s never gonna turn out right. I’ll lose my mind and I’ll lose control and I’ll just hate it. So I had to be really patient.

JTL: I was really scared of meeting you, because by all rights you could be full of yourself. So it was disarming that you were so like, ‘Hey, I’m Debbie. I’m a human being.’

DH: I’m sure I have my ego problems and I get my own way at times, but I had a simple upbringing.

JTL: What was it like?

DH: Well, just conservative. Down-to-earth people, not particularly well off – we were struggling. When I was a teenager, my father started doing a little bit better, things got a bit easier. When you don’t have a lot of dough it gives you a sense of humility and value. But a lot of people come up that way; I’m certainly not bragging about it. Plus my mother and father have very old-fashioned values about loyalty and stayed married for 60 years through thick and thin. It wasn’t always great – they had their ups and downs.

JTL: How did they react when you were…

DH: They didn’t like it.

JTL: When you were punk?

DH: They didn’t understand it at all and they really tried to convince me that I was wandering off into the world of God knows what. They were kind of right, because I was taking a gamble with my life. But I don’t think they really had a clue. They weren’t musicians or artists in any way and I don’t think they understood that certain part of me, because they didn’t have it in them.

JTL: Was that in your family at all?

DH: No. No, No.

JTL: Did you ever think about it genetically? Like was there somebody…

DH: I suppose at some point there was. It’s complicated… you know I was adopted, so anything could be reality.

JTL: It just interests me, I’m always fascinated by where it comes from. Because around us we have seen a lot of people die, right?

DH: Oh, yeah.

JTL: And a lot of people cling to the art to help get them through. Is that genetic?

DH: The brain is a strange thing. What happens and how everything falls together is quite amazing. Everybody is a distinctive cocktail. You put all of the stuff in a shaker and shake it out.

JTL: There’s been a wonderful swelling of love about Blondie putting out a new record.

DH: Yeah. It’s a miracle that we even got together to do it. It’s been difficult to convince people. And the rumour mill is SO outrageous in the record industry. People actually pay attention to it. It’s like reading the Enquirer and deciding who to sign, it’s madness. But we had a good break with this manager that we got… so thanks to Alan Kovak.

JTL: How did you hook up with him?

DH: It’s a weird convoluted story. Chris decided to sell a bunch of his memorabilia, so we put an ad in the Village Voice and it got answered by this guy Ed. It turns out Ed’s married to Jackie and Jackie’s older sister’s name was Denis. One of the first songs we ever had a hit with was Denie – and, in actual fact, the song was written about her!

JTL: You’re kidding me!

DH: No! And then this friend of Ed’s meets up with Chris and says, ‘Oh, why don’t you meet this guy Alan that I’m working with?’ So we did and that’s how it happened. It’s very odd, all from placing an ad in the Village Voice.

JTL: That is quintessential New York. So he said, ‘Let’s put out another Blondie record’?

DH: Yeah, he had confidence. He said he felt he could do it and thought highly of our history and our sales record. Initially, I think he was just going to help us renegotiate our old deal because our old catalogue was still selling. It took a few years to pull it all together, to record everything and to get a good deal and to get the right personnel in the band. And then we had a lawsuit with our former band members who decided that even though they were not in the band they should get paid. [laughs]

JTL: How long from the initial idea to this point?

DH: I think it probably all started maybe 1994-1996.

JTL: Wow!

DH: This version of Blondie has been together just as long as the original Blondie back in the ’70s!

JTL: That is very intense.

DH: Well, it was unfinished business in a way. It felt like we had just gone up in a puff of smoke without a decent conclusion. We left a question mark. It was never really an explosive ending – it just sort of went ‘poof’.

JTL: You did the new video with Jonas Akerlund. How was it working with him?

DH: It was really painless and fun. He’s very confident and competent. There was this old silent movie from the ’20s I told him about called He Who Gets Slapped, and he went and dug it out of the archives in Sweden and called me back and said, ‘Let’s do it’! I think he’s great. I worked with him on that other movie, Spun.

JTL: It’s funny how all the circles are interconnecting – the producers of The Heart Is Deceitful did Spun.

DH: Wow! I would love to be in that.

JTL: The problem with that film is it’s all men. There’s no women in it. It’s just Asia [Argento] and the mother, this great Italian actress she’s cast to look like her. But I’d love to write something for you one day. I get thrilled just thinking about it.

DH: Oh, I would love it. My God! We have to sit sometime and just put our little heads together.

JTL: I work really well with parameters, especially if it’s someone I feel connected to. I think you have that presence with people – when you look into someone’s eyes, there’s that way you melt. When I went down to the Warhol museum, I could imagine you around that whole time.

DH: Well, I was on the fringes of that whole Factory thing. I was this shy person who didn’t talk very much, just hung out and looked cute and watched everybody. They were all so eccentric and beautiful and flamboyant then. It’s funny because – except in certain quarters – people have become so conservative and uniform. It’s like cookie-cutters – people are just stamped out. It’s so refreshing when someone like you comes along who’s exotic or eccentric, whatever you wanna call it.

JTL: To me I’m normal…

DH: Well, you are normal – but you’re normal for you.

JTL: But the world gets really freaked and upset. I was at this party and at the end Sean Penn’s wife pinned me up against the wall. This is back when I could barely stand to be touched. She grabbed me by my shoulders and said, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’

DH: She was just trying to make friends, that’s all. People have different ways of approaching you, especially after they’ve had a few drinks.

JTL: She looks a lot like my mom. Her face was disappearing and all I could see was my mom’s face. It’s easy to put rose coloured lenses on the past, but it seems that being ambiguous was more celebrated then.

DH: The conservative wave in America right now is really dangerous. If you criticise the government too much you get called a traitor, you’re not a good American. Part of being a good American is challenging what our rights are according to the constitution. I think people forget that. And this Patriot Act too. Why should they call it that? It has nothing to do with patriotism, it has to do with our basic civil rights. The problem is that smart people aren’t running the government. It’s really nerve-wracking.

JTL: Do you feel like you have a voice in this world and you have a responsibility to use it?

DH: In some ways yes, but I feel as powerless as the next person. The best thing I can do is make myself as visible as, say, Susan Sarandon. She’s way more politically outspoken than I am, but I try to include things in my writing. I’m sort of torn because I feel as an entertainer I should remove people from their day-to-day worries.

JTL: There are even rules in regards to ageism. People don’t expect to see a real woman.

DH: It’s a controlling thing. [Interupted by dogs barking] Sorry, I have a flock of dogs over here.

JTL: Are they your children?

DH: Sometimes I feel like they are. Sometimes I feel like my records are my children.

JTL: I feel that about my books.

DH: Isn’t it funny? But it’s true, I’m very protective and nurturing about my projects, and of course it’s my soul, I put everything into it that I would give to a child.

JTL: Did you ever feel the desire to have a baby?

DH: I did and I didn’t. When I was with Chris, I was very stressed out and I don’t think I would have been a very wonderful parent. I was sensitive about it, being adopted. I know that I could do it now. I might be too old to have a baby, but I could certainly bring up a child.

JTL: I think you’d be a wonderful mom. You can adopt me if you want…

DH: Okay! Come on over.

JTL: I’m always lookin’ for momma – that’s my lifelong thing.

DH: All of our relationships are like that in a way: we’re trying to meet people to supplant our need for a parent. Sometimes your friends give you parental advice and sometimes you give them parental advice.

JTL: My wound in life is definitely the parent thing. What’s yours?

DH: It’s not that anymore. I’ve gone past that. I think a lot of my wounds seem to be healing. I feel pretty centred. I’m really enjoying my work – the only hole I find in myself is I wish I was much smarter.

JTL: In what way?

DH: In every way. I enjoy what I do so much, I wish I was totally genius at it so I could totally blow people away.

JTL: Many people would say you’re already there.

DH: That’s really great, but as an artist don’t you feel that way about yourself. That’s part of what we do – you’re always searching and learning and agonising over it.

JTL: Do you think the Blondie reunion taking this long was almost a spiritual thing?

DH: Maybe. It’s hard to think like that these days, because spirituality isn’t talked about, but we are part of the universe so it all comes to play. We can’t get away from that.

JTL: I’m a big believer in ‘door closes, window opens’. God moves mountains, but bring a shovel.

DH: You have to take responsibility for your life and your actions. Having a sense of belief is a terrific thing and it really works, however you place it.

JTL: Did you ever have a sense of destiny?

DH: Basically, I feel that we are God. We embody God, there is no higher being, and if we don’t take the responsibility for our actions then that is evil, if you wanna call it that. Taking God and elevating him into this supreme being that draws you from being responsible for your fuck-ups is a big mistake. It’s like saying, ‘I’m an idiot.’ It’s very simple. [Dogs barking] I have a vulture in my tree. Isn’t that weird?

JTL: Maybe it’s a pterodactyl.

DH: It’s probably some sort of goose.

JTL: If it ain’t a pigeon, we don’t know what the hell it is. You know you wore that dress by Gary Gram at our Index show? He was so thrilled.

DH: He has some great stuff.

JTL: I can’t say that I understand the fashion world, but for me it’s a way to play with persona.

DH: Yeah, it’s fun.

JTL: In the past I really associated it with the enemy. Only rich fucked-up people cared about that shit.

DH: I used to be like that. I couldn’t look at Vogue magazine.

JTL: It seems like it’s geared towards depression.

DH: In some ways it’s part of our ideology. Cynicism is a major thrust in culture.

JTL: That’s why it’s important to support people like Gary. Our job as artists is to make sure people’s voices are out there. They’re always looking for the new thing.

DH: That’s the whole disposable thing – we’re so programmed to want the next thing. It’s a little scarey.

JTL: It’s more than a little scarey Debbie, it’s horrifying.

DH: People like Nina Simone, all these great artists, it’s like saying we don’t expect that to happen any more.

JTL: Yeah. Billy Corgan was saying to me that our society has to get rid of the old to be able to have a place for the new. I think in Europe they value things more.

DH: They do have a different sensibility, that’s for sure. Maybe because they were bombed. They feel how vulnerable they are; it gives them a finer sense of humanity or something.

JTL: Did you see Bowling For Columbine with that cartoon by the South Park guys? We were founded by a bunch of bearded crazy fuckin’ nuts from Europe, you know.

DH: It’s true.

JTL: Certain words and phrases are still part of our consciousness, like ‘rule of thumb’ – you know where that comes from? A man was allowed to beat his wife as long as the stick wasn’t bigger than his thumb.

DH: Ha. Yeah, it’s right in front of us, constantly.

JTL: That’s why I think it’s incredible that you are out there again. When you’re on stage, there’s the fantasy that you take people away to, but there’s also this history and this presence, and there’s a respect.

DH: What you’re saying sounds pretty scarey to me. I don’t want to be held a candle to. Being a punk is really being stubborn and holding onto your things and what you feel good about.

JTL: It’s about heart. It’s about doing away with bullshit.

DH: I’m sure there was plenty of bullshit going on in the punk thing, but it certainly gave us an avenue for our attitude.

JTL: Do you get nervous onstage?

DH: I’ve gotten to that point where I feel pretty good about walking out there. I try to enjoy myself, I try to give it out, give it up.

JTL: Do you get annoyed when people call you Blondie?

DH: Oh no, it’s my name, it’s my ID, whether I’m the personification of Blondie or whether it’s the band – it’s just a name that seemed to work. I figured it was already established in everyone’s consciousness. Madonna is an even bigger one. As a matter of fact, Jimmy Destri’s sister Donna, her real name is Madonna, and she had a band. They were trying to think of a name, so I said she should call herself Madonna. Every fuckin’ symbol in the world is the Madonna, it’s the biggest fucking thing. That was 12 years before Madonna came out.

JTL: Why didn’y she do it?

DH: She felt it was too ordinary! There were 25 Madonnas in her catechism class.

JTL: You know what’s funny? My tricking name was Terminator. And I was getting all these emails: ‘You’re running for governor!’ I was scared that someone had written me in, because weirder things have happened.

DH: You should accept graciously and say, ‘I’ll do the best I can.’

My Life Without Me is showing now. The album The Curse Of Blondie is out on Sony.

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