Magazines + Newspapers

Harper’s BAZAAR

March 2011

Pages 284, 285, 286, 287


Uber-fan SIMON SCHAMA meets Blondie singer Debbie Harry in Manhattan as the iconic band launches its brilliant new album. They discuss dizzying career highs and harrowing lows, and how Harry’s sexy pop-rock attitude paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga.

So did you perform at high school? I asked the rock star.
‘God, no,’ she says, ‘painfully shy.’
‘That’s hard to believe.’ I say, thinking of the feline claws and purrs with which she launched Blondie’ remembering the little rasp in the voice of the stalker: ‘One way or another, I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha.’ We took a look at her lines, sharp and curvy at the same time and let the voice fall on us like a gladiator’s net.
‘Oh yeah,’ she comes back, ‘sometimes I still get the shys.’
But not in live performance, not in Australia and New Zealand where Blondie-Debbie, plus two of the original band, Chris Stein and the great drummer Clem Burke – recently co-headlined with the Pretenders, the dream tour for anyone who likes their women rock singers fierce and full-throated, loaded with carnal knowledge. Chrissie Hynde one minute, Debbie Harry the next; it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?
But here’s the dirty little secret about our favourite hard blonde: she is, in fact, a bit of a softie; easy-going, open, very smart, and no sweat to talk to. Debbie Harry is doing this interview in anticipation of the release of a brand new album, Panic of Girls. Sample some of the tracks from the web, especially ‘What I Heard’, and you know right away she and Chris Stein are back in a brilliant form: edgy but full-on pop musicality. But she’s also doing it because she has no problem talking about Blondie now and then. So she looks you straight in the eye; smiles, laughs that lightly smoked laugh; and gives off enough human warmth to light up a raw in Manhattan morning when the fall has got its talons into the dying year.
We are sitting in the restaurant of a Midtown hotel. Around the corner are suits chowing down on their breakfast eggs. Amidst this dull brassiness, Debbie Harry’s genuine good nature burns bright. The cat-eyes still shine; the mouth that snarled ‘Rip Her to Shreds’, crooned ‘Denis… un grand baiser d’eternite and moaned ‘Picture This’ still does its lip magic. She’s wearing a fine-spun loose thread white cotton sweater thrown over a dark T-shirt with just the carelessness that permanently beautiful women can effortlessly pull off.
Revisiting her classics, above all Parallel Lines, I’m struck by the range of her voice. So much has been noted and written about the Blondie-affect – its urban hipness; the sharp threads; the metallic sleekness of the sound – that you forget what an amazing voice it is that could open ‘Heart of Glass’ at the top of the register and dive into downtown chanteuse in ‘Rip Her to Shreds’. ‘I always approached singing as an actor,’ she says, and while the persona she acted was all of a piece, she could make it sound brittle, voluptuous and most everything in between. Which is maybe why she occasionally flirts torchily with old-time standards. A version she did with Iggy Pop of Cole Porter’s ‘Well, Did You Evah!’, written for Crosby and Sinatra, is – especially on video – an amazing performance. And I like a version ‘Stormy Weather’, even though Debbie herself doesn’t rate it.
‘Funny,’ she says, ‘I was singing that song, driving in from New Jersey this morning.’ I tell her it’s what the business programme on National Public Radio plays when the market goes south. She laughs, because whatever storms there were – and there have been plenty – seem distant. She was an adopted child and I ask her whether she was in contact with her birth mother. ‘Oh I hired a private detective… but…’ No dice. ‘Did it bother you?’ I ask, idiotically. ‘Of course it bothered me,’ she flares, ‘but I didn’t need a mother. I had a mother. One is enough.’
After the inevitable arts degree, and not yet bleached, she famously did a stint as a Playboy Bunny. ‘Fun and horror… like most things.’ Mistreatment? I ask, fishing. Only by women dates, she says; when they thought their men were hitting on the rabbits. She sang as a back-up in a folk band called Wind in the Willows, but she’d listened to rocking blues coming out of the radio in Newark: the Catman Hour and the great Cousin Brucie. Downtown beckoned in the early Seventies; Velvet Underground and waiting tables at Max’s Kansas City; the pre-CBGB cradle of punk. New York Dolls were primping and singing; a big Attitude Change was tuning up. One night, a friend asked her to front a band calling itself – what else? – Pure Garbage. ‘Gee that sounds good,’ she said, ‘better than Plain Garbage.’ But by the time she showed up for the gig, the band had already broken up. It was when she hooked up, personally and musically, with Chris Stein that Blondie came to be born and triumph. Though it’s obviously they worked together, Harry always gives Stein the lion’s share of credit for the lyrics of their strongest hits. But the perfect fit between how Harry looked, her body language; the attack voice dressed up in raw silk or brushed velvet; the super-smart – all that was, indivisibly, the work of a true partnership.
There was a third in the mix to make Parallel Lines the commercial as well as critical knockout it was: Mike Chapman, the Australian-born producer who, she says, had the pop-aesthetic they needed to go from downtown New Wavers into the mainstream. Plenty of DJs had checked out what Blondie had to offer and didn’t like it. Chapman changed all that and for a decent run, they never looked back. The genius designer Stephen Sprouse dressed her counter-intuitively; the more boyish she got with pencil lines, little suits and ties, scan-lines from a television printed on the fabric, the higher the sex-voltage.
This reinvention of the Blonde was waiting to happen. ‘It was already in people’s heads’, she says, from the movies: cocktail sipping, hard-talking spirited give-no-quarter blondes in fitted pencil skits like Eva Marie Saint ‘luring men to their doom’ as an excited Cary Grant put it in North by Northwest. Warhol’s Factory was stocked with bleach jobs but Nico sounds fey next to Blondie. ‘I felt women in the Seventies always sung songs about being victims.’ Even the ones with the piled-up hair like Dusty Springfield, or the teary version of Marianna Faithfull. ‘They just stood there.’ Not Blondie. She made the moves. ‘When you met me in the restaurant/You knew I was no debutante.’ The sappy pop opening line was the fake smoochy come on, before the flick of the scarlet fingernail dug just where it counted. ‘I will give you my finest hour/The one I spent watching you shower.’
It wasn’t much of a stretch to wire up all kinds of pop currents to downtown punk and New Wave. Stein had been to London and come back full of reggae – cue ‘The Tide Is High’. ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Picture This’ could not have been poppier. But then, a lot of what her friends the Ramones did might have come straight from the Beach Boys – ‘Rock ‘n’Roll Radio’ or ‘Rockaway Beach’ – only much much louder and much much faster. All the same, Blondie’s accessibility provoked inevitable accusations of selling out from old comrades of the CBGB era – Johnny Ramone (‘always frowning’) and Joan Jett (‘one of the most vehement’). Harry bears no ill-will about this. ‘She [Joan] was true to her colour… everybody was afraid of disco taking over.’
It was only four years from the release of Parallel Lines to the break-up of Blondie in 1982. Maybe they were running out of creative steam; there were the usual management feuds, but it was a frightening, rare and initially undiagnosed auto-immune disease attacking Chris Stein’s skin and eating into the rest of his body that ultimately made it impossible to go on. In their last concerts, she says, looking down, suddenly shadowed by the memory ‘he was 120 pounds’ (less than nine stone). Harry devoted a lot of her time to seeing him through a terrifying ordeal, which, though labelled pemphigus, still seems to defy most clinical analysis.
So it’s good to report a happy ending. After recording some solo albums (‘not spectacular’ she insists, rebuffing a compliment), Blondie reformed with four originals including Stein, and Harry is unapologetically proud of the rarity of a band staying close, enduring through nearly four decades, and powering up their distinctive music again. Ultimately, this jubilant survival seems most important to her than any monster fame, the kind in which everything gets sunk into Brand. She knows well enough how a whole line of tough-cookie out-there rock chicks – Madonna, Lady Gaga – all too Blondie-ishness where Debbie Harry wouldn’t or couldn’t go. She concedes this without any wistfulness or envy. ‘I admire the completeness of their decision. It becomes a force, and we are all entertained by it. Even if we degrade it by gossip, we’re still in awe of it.’
But if ‘it’ isn’t for Blondie, what is, after all this time? If you weren’t at the Isle of Wight Festival or Sydney last year, just check out YouTube and you’ll see a fine, precious thing: a hard-driving band (Stein now silvery-haired but with all his rocking engine intact); and Debbie herself, prowling the stage, tough and tunicked-up, heavy metal (and sometimes a dagger) at her belt; gorgeously dangerous, but actually when she sings ‘I’m not frightened by love’ doing nothing more than celebrating, artfully, what men and women can get up to. If they damned well try, anyway.

Blondie’s new album, ‘Panic of Girls’, will be released later this year.

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