Pages 1 & 3
Escaping from Ted Bundy, flirting with Woody Allen, immortalised by Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry has lived a tabloid life. But many people believe that the blonde behind Blondie is actually a genius. Barry Egan spent an evening in Amsterdam deconstructing Harry.
IT WASN’T so much a heart of glass that the young blonde needed that terrifying night in New York as a heart of steel. Deborah Harry recalls that fateful summer evening when she tried, unsuccessfully, to get a cab on the Lower East Side in the early 1970s.
One of the most infamous serial killers in US history stopped by the kerb and, slimily, offered her a lift.
“I got into his car late at night,” she says. “I was trying to get across town and I had on these wicked platform shoes. He kept circling and coming back saying: ‘I’ll give you a ride! I’ll give you a ride.'”
Remarkably, she got in. The gates to hell had opened and Ms Harry went in.
“I knew there was something terribly, terribly, terribly wrong,” she says.
How did you sense that? “He smelled really bad.”
Other clues: it was summer time and he had the windows rolled up. Debbie couldn’t imagine why he had the windows rolled up in that long, hot summer heat.
This mystery was explained when she shot a quick glance at the door to roll the windows down. There were no door handles.
“The hackles on the back of my neck just went,” she says. “I was completely alarmed.”
And rightly so. She squeezed her skinny arm out of a little space in the door and got out by opening the door from the outside. The serial killer with the unusually heightened psychotic disorder unsurprisingly didn’t stop the car to let her alight. The woman he doubtless intended to rape and murder like the 30 or so others (sometimes by bludgeoning, other times by strangulation; then necrophilia) spilled out on the road, bruised but alive. (Bizarrely, Harry, years later, starred in Intimate Stranger, a film in which she played a telephone sex worker pursued by a serial killer.)
“People who have tried to debunk the story by saying Bundy wasn’t in New York at that time, they have no idea,” she says four decades later.
“I got a sense of very alien from him. My responses were totally instinctive, sort of like an animal reaction.”
Debbie didn’t think any more of it until years later after Terrible Ted had been executed on January 24th, 1989, – in the electric chair with 2,000 well-placed volts – when they did a television show on him and his macabre modus operandi: that’s when she realised, she says, that she had “a very, very close call. I was a real lucky girl”.
Deborah Harry is a bit sniffy today in Amsterdam, but at least she’s alive – “Debbie” has long since been discarded for the matronly “Deborah”.
Her two-tone bottle-blonde hair is history too. Fade to grey. Her feet are tucked up under her chair in the hotel, like some curmudgeonly, former sex goddess in thick white woolly socks and flat shoes that went out with the Cultural Revolution.
The sixtysomething coughs and splutters throatily, and by her own admission “sounds like a frog today”. She complains of the draft whipping in off the canal and that someone has left a door open. We’re sitting in an area off the lobby.
She gloomily asks the waitress in a thick American accent for “broth”. I translate this for the waitress, who goes off looking more baffled than ever. When she returns with soup, Ms Harry takes one look at it and promply proclaims it to be like Lemsip.
Sipping it miserably, she looks more like Lauren Bacall these days than the mesmerising blonde Venus in the barely-there outfits – the off-kilter Marilyn Monroe of New York punk circa 1977 that I remember from my teenage years.
I also remember as a young teen in Dublin suburbia watching Deborah on The Muppet Show, vamping it up all over Kermit The Frog as she duetted with him on Rainbow Connection with a vaguely punk Muppet band. Both of us are older now, of course. And with age comes strange tastes in existential angst.
After about an hour of stuttering, stilted conversation, Debbie and I realise we are currently reading the same book: Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy. (I knew she’d made a vocal appearance on the 1997 Edgar Allan Poe tribute album, Closed On Account of Rabies, so I knew that she had a healthy interest in life’s darkness.)
As the Dutch wind howls around us, she mentions her favourite lines in the new tome by the sepulchral Jewish misery guts: “What I do know about physics is that to a man standing on the shore, time passes quicker than to a man on a boat – especially if the man on the boat is with his wife.” Unlike the woman with the man on the boat, Ms Harry never married.
“Is this a proposal?” she asks, her ice-blue eyes lighting up in laughter. Asked why she never married, the one-time Playboy Bunny answers that she thought the concept was “appalling, actually. The contract was not my cup of tea. I was never tempted. I think I was asked a few times.”
Having children never tempted her either. “I never really had time. I was so busy doing Blondie. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could tour and raise a family.”
Deborah Ann Harry (born July 1, 1945, in Miami, Florida) is not a woman you meet every day. And Deconstructing Harry is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
She puts considerable forethought into every question, even when analysis is hardly necessary. In Cathy Che’s biography of Harry, Platinum Blonde, designer Michael Schmidt said, “Debbie is so smart she borders on genius level.” She lives in the Manhattan apartment block on which Hitchcock based his classic Rear Window.
She allegedly enjoys watching the people having sex. “I don’t know if that’s weird,” she told the New York Times, “but it’s a very sexy building.” She has never written an autobiography, and doesn’t intend to.
“I am not really a writer,” she says. “I am supposedly working on a book…”
Speaking of supposedly, I read an interview with Kirsten Dunst in Marie Claire on the plane over to Holland where the movie star says she has agreed to play Debbie in the film of her life. Debbie laughs at this.
“Kirsten keeps saying this – so I guess she really wants to do it. She is obviously pitching herself for the role. There isn’t even a screenplay and I would definitely be involved.”
She tells me an extremely involved, and touching, story of having her heart broken.
“That was yesterday,” she says with a novelistic quality. “My dog died. Chi-chi passed. That was hard. I miss her.”
Chi-Chi apart, Deborah was in a relationship with Blondie band member Chris Stein for 11 years. It ended in 1985. He was, she says, the love of her life.
“It is as simple as that. He has married several times since we were together and now he has two children. He is a little gent, a ladies’ man,” she beams. She is reticent about whether she is in a relationship or not at present.
“If there is romance in my life at the moment,” she says, “I am not going to tell you about it. Just because. Because I am not that kind of girl.” And what kind of girl are you – the Greta Garbo of New York city?
“I wish!” she chuckles with her throaty frog voice. “I have a real private life. I like it that way. I marvel at how people can live their lives in the papers. Maybe it is because I am a writer and I cherish those things and I want to put them into a lyric or something.”
She also knew (and worked with) Andy Warhol, who befriended her and became for a time her mentor in the early 1980s. The late pop-art icon did Debbie’s portrait at that time – the potent image appeared on the cover of a seminal Phaidon book, Andy Warhol Portraits.
She says that Andy would have loved Paris Hilton. “Andy wasn’t judgemental, publicly at least,” she says.
“I think he was one of the most open-minded men I ever met. As with a lot of controversial people, I think he was a complete genius.”
The same has often been said of Debbie Harry (for me, she will always be Debbie Harry).
Between 1973 and 1982 she and her band Blondie released moment after moment of pop genius – Heart of Glass, Hanging on the Telephone, Denis, The Tide is High.
“To look back too much is totally artistic death,” she says. “People want to hear what they want to hear,” she says wearily, as if she wants to forget the past.
This is something I – and I’m sure many among you – cannot do so easily. Blondie, back in their pomp with Ms Harry dancing like a mighty Aphrodite in knee-high boots and purposefully laddered tights, were unforgetable in so many ways.
I wonder does this 62-year-old ever look back on that time and wonder who this bionic woman Debbie Harry was? “She was sort of a composite,” Deborah Harry says of Debbie Harry. “Blondie was a characterisation,” she opines, before adding, “Now I’m better at what I do. I have a more organised vision of it. There isn’t a label for the vision. I just try to communicate emotion and tell stories in music,” she says.
Did you see Madonna and some of the other blonde sextresses that followed you as having copied you?
“Yeah, but there are two different ways to look at that, obviously: homage or rip-off? There were a few incidences of direct… you know… lifts and others are just flattering references,” she laughs.
She remembers the coked-out excess (in the early Seventies Ms Harry kicked a fashionable drug habit) of nightclubs like Studio 54 in New York in the Seventies with Warhol, et al.
She wishes in hindsight that she was more organised in propelling her career into megastardom. Then she decides that it was fine just the way it was and in the end everything in the music business gets corrupted by Mammon anyway.
“Blondie started out with a uniqueness but as soon as it became commercial then it was a routine in a way. We couldn’t really escape it. The demand for the repetition of that same product was ungodly in a way. But I think that’s the problem with art and commerce really.”
Raised Protestant – “Roman Catholic without the Pop”, she laughs – Ms Harry says she always knew that the path of an artist was the one she would follow. She described her education growing up in North Jersey as “limited. It was a small industrial city, it was my ambition to get out. I didn’t have dreams. I just wanted to be part of the bigger world, I suppose”.
While there were lots of girls in New Jersey in the 1970s who just wanted to get married and pregnant, Deborah had no interest in that life – despite her mother’s hopes. “My mother wanted me to marry and have two children and be a grandmother,” she laughs.
I say that her mother must have been horrified when she became this punk temptress.
“Completely horrified, yes,” she laughs. “Worried. I don’t think she could really understand it at all. She cautioned me a lot. She was concerned. She grew up in a wealthy family before the big time crash of 1933. They lost everything. My grandfather had a bank. He kept putting his own money in the bank to keep it open and he also had a seat in the stock exchange. All his friends jumped out of windows and killed themselves. It was on my mother’s side.”
Debbie never once mentions that she was adopted as a three-month-old baby by Catherine and Richard Harry and that she never met her biological mother. Nor the fact she appeared to truly believe at one stage: that Marilyn Monroe was her natural mother. She once said that seeing Marilyn Monroe as her real mother is a fantasy a lot of adopted girls shared.
“And not knowing where I came from is a great stimulant to the imagination, and it has always meant I don’t take anything for granted.”
Not taking anything for granted, she is in Amsterdam today to talk up Necessary Evil, her first solo album in 14 years. It has more than its fair share of songs about romantic love.
“Love should be the big thing in our lives,” she says, adding that the subject that concentrated her mind in that regard more than anything was “suicide bombers who supposedly do what they do for love. I find this kind of mind-boggling. But who am I to say it is not legitimate?”
She says she cannot understand the mindset behind suicide bombing. She thinks it is “stupidity and ignorance”.
The song that stands out among all others is Deep End, about a leap of faith and “how people stay in their little conundrum of relationships rather than taking chances. I think people get settled.”
Why did you choose never to be settled? “I’m an artist,” she says, taking another tentative sip of ‘Lemsip’ broth, which she is now professing to like. “It is not my nature.”
She is hard not to like, though difficult at first to warm to. Returning again to Woody Allen, she recalls chatting to him at a party in New York a few years ago.
There is a rising laughter in her voice as she remembers how Allen’s young wife, Soon-Yi Previn (the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow, lest we forget) thundered over as if she was rescuing the weedy, bespectacled, neurotic from the predatory clutches of the sex symbol.
“I think Woody was safe with me that night, Soon-Yi,” Ms Harry says, as we both laugh so hard I almost fall into the canal.
Debbie Harry’s new album, ‘Necessary Evil’, is out on September 14 on Eleven Seven Music. The single ‘Two Times Blue’ is out on September 7.