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20th March 2011

Heart of

She’s older, she’s smarter, she’s lost none of her attitude. Lynn Barber meets the ultimate punk-rock chick and blonde icon Debbie Harry. Portraits: Julian Broad

I seem to have spend half my life playing Blondie records, but I’d never seen Debbie Harry on stage till recently. It was a charity bash at the Hammersmith Apollo for a new sort of cancer treatment, and the audience was a confusing mix of cancer patients, medical staff and elderly hard rock fans. The headline act was the Who but they wisely didn’t sing “Hope I die before I get old” because that would have wiped out not only the band, but most of the audience. Before the Who, Jeff Beck thrashed away at his guitar for several millennia until an elderly lady in sunglasses and an ill-judged leather miniskirt wandered on and started singing Heart of Glass, but without any of the high notes that constitute most of the melody. I wouldn’t even have recognised the song if the audience hadn’t joined in. I was thinking: “Oh dear, I wish I’d never seen Debbie Harry.” But then she sang Hanging on the Telephone, which was great, and One Way or Another, which was brilliant. Her voice is much darker, huskier these days, more of a jazz voice – she is 65, after all – but in some ways even better than in Blondie’s heyday. And she still has that effortless take-it-or-leave-it attitude that led the photographer David LaChapelle to call her “the definition of cool”.

I met her the next day at the Savoy where she was doing a photoshoot for this article. She looked like a nice plump granny in a white bathrobe having her hair done while lots of beautiful young things fluttered around her – photographer, photographer’s assistant, picture editor, hairstylist, make-up artist, clothes stylist, PR.
Meanwhile, the one who looked like a star was this very tall beanpole woman in tangled blonde hair, grey leggings, huge earrings and red plastic boots who was introduced as “Kerry the Friend”. She said she’d known Debbie “for ever” (since the 1980s anyway) and Debbie had very kindly suggested that she accompany her to London because she’d just been through the most horrendous cancer treatment. I was hoping Kerry the Friend would give me lots of insights into Debbie Harry, but instead she told me her own very complicated life story, which involved working as a model, briefly marrying an Italian, living all over the world, and adopting a son, to whom Debbie is godmother. She also said, improbably, that she was “a social worker at heart”.
Debbie Harry meanwhile smiles serenely, the still centre of this circus. The word I keep wanting to use about her is motherly – which is odd given that she is not a mother. But there’s a sort of teapot warmth to her: you feel you’d quite like to confide in her and she would give you sensible advice. She is absolutely not starry. Everyone who has ever worked with her says that she is willing to muck in, is friendly to everyone, never throws tantrums. She is kind to her fans – she worries about them standing outside in the rain, and asks if they’ve got a bed for the night. She says there’s no harm in being cordial to fans, or listening to them, because most people don’t get listened to enough. I notice that when the photo session ends, she goes round thanking, not just the photographer and picture editor, but all the assistants individually. Finally the circus departs, even Kerry the Friend, and we settle down to talk.
But, I soon learn, interviewing Debbie Harry is not easy. Not because she is defensive, but because she is so laconic. She never gushes, and is often happy with one-word answers. Thus, a typical exchange goes as follows. Me: “According yo Wikipedia, you’ve had intimate relationships with men and women. Which predominated?” Debbie Harry: “Men.” That’s it. You ask a question, she answers it, what more do you want? She apologises at one point for being “so blunt” and I says no, no, blunt is fine, I like blunt, but I wish she could be less terse, more garrulous. She is the opposite of those actors who can talk seamless waffle for hours.
She said she enjoyed doing last night’s concert, meeting Jeff Beck for the first time and seeing the Who again. “Everybody was on really good behaviour – they’re all such pros and they’ve been through it all, so there’s no surprises. It was good, it was nice.” But now she’s going back home to Chelsea, New York (she lives in the giant apartment block that was the setting for Rear Window) to write some more songs for Blondie. “Chris [Stein] had given me a whole bunch of tracks and I think I have a few good ideas. When I get into a writing groove, I’ll be turning out stuff and I think that’s probably what I’m going to do. It’s fun.”
She writes most of Blondie’s lyrics, Chris Stein most of the music, though the other musicians contribute bits. I ask which song she was proudest of – I hoped she might say Rip Her to Shreds, but she named a new one called Mother.
“It’s so succinct. It’s just two little verses and then the chorus, which is very simple – ‘Mother, mother, in the night, where are you, where are you, where are you tonight?’ It’s not haiku because it’s too long, but it’s really condensed.” She says it’s on the new Blondie CD, Panic of Girls, which they are putting out themselves because no record company has signed them.
“The industry has changed so much,” she sighs. “We always did a certain amount of touring, but usually it was to promote an album and now it’s just to go out and work. In a way it’s simpler because there’s no real press to do. You have to do meet’n’greet, which is basically fans. And a lot of the casinos that we play are tribal [owned by Native Americans, to get round the anti-gaming laws], so we always have to meet the chiefs.”
Does she regret the way the music industry has collapsed? “No. I feel like, in a way, they’ve got their comeuppance.”
She has said that she’s far more famous than she is successful, and it’s true. But then she has never seemed desperate for success, unlike, say (just to pluck a name at random from the air), Madonna. Blondie the group was commercial (and sold over 40m records) but Harry thinks of herself as an artist and doesn’t measure success in audience numbers or record sales. Thus she was happy to sing for several years with an obscure avant-garde jazz group called the Jazz Passengers, travelling in their van and flying economy. And she has often done one-off gigs with younger artists – Kelly Osbourne, Lily Allen – just for the fun of it.
She has said for years that she is writing her autobiography, but when I ask how it’s coming along, she laughs and shakes her head. “I started, you know, but I never kept diaries so I’d sit there and go, ‘Well what really happened?’ What it basically comes down to is that so much happened; how could anyone actually remember everything? Chris has a better memory than I do, but I don’t think I was even particularly interested in remembering everything.” And although various biopics have been mooted (including one with Kirsten Dunst playing her) they have never materialised. The novelist Emma Forrest recently said that she was working on a script about Harry, but Harry says it’s news to her.
It will be a pity, though, if her life story goes unrecorded. There is a fans’ biography called Platinum Blonde by Cathay Che, but it only goes up to 1999. However, Che did find out some valuable stuff about Harry’s early life and adoption. She was born in Miami in 1945 and adopted at three months by Catherine and Richard Harry, who owned a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey.

Harry always knew she was adopted, but knew little about her birth parents until 1991 or 1992 when she hired a private detective to do some research. He found that her father was already dead, but he managed to track down her mother, who didn’t want to know. Her exact words were: “Please do not bother me again. I do not want to be disturbed.” Harry believes that her mother fell pregnant very young, then discovered that her so-called boyfriend was already married, with seven or eight children. In theory, she could try to track down her half-siblings, but she told me she won’t.
“I don’t see what purpose it would serve. How would I relate to them? I have a sister, Martha, from my parents [she means her adoptive parents], and she’s my little sister.”
But she admits that being adopted always bothered her, and was something she discussed in her many years of therapy. “I think it gave me some fear and some anger, and I didn’t know how to separate the two, because I think they are very closely related.” Anger with her mother for abandoning her? “I suppose – though it was never quite that. All I can tell you is that it was a core issue for me and it must have happened at a time when I was unable to put it into language, but it was something I had experienced as an infant. A trauma. So eventually I was able to identify that, and to say, ‘Oh, that’s what happened,’ and to take that by the hand.”
But she was adopted so young (three months); surely she can’t remember anything about it?
“No I don’t. But my [adoptive] mother established that I had a memory of a particular incident when I was adopted.”
This sounded so weird, I emailed Harry later to ask for clarification – was she talking recovered memory syndrome? She replies as follows, but it doesn’t clarify much: “The trauma answer is related to a lot of thought and counsel that I’ve had over the years. I think being separated from my mother at such a vulnerable age and it having been a pre-lingual age, I was left with a core of fear and vulnerability that I couldn’t identify. I was always having sense memories that I didn’t understand, but once I figured out why the unreasonable fear was there, I was able to deal with it.”
Anyway, she was raised by the Harrys (both now dead), who were good people, but strict – “controlling but loving” – and religious. This was fine when she was small – she sand in the church choir – but made for difficulties when, as a teenager, she became “really oversexed, hot to trot”. She was never “a big slut”, she told Che, but, “I was free-thinking and carried out my free thinking with certain people.” She didn’t buy into the idea of going steady and marrying Mr Right. As soon as she finished college, at 20, she moved to Manhattan, taking odd jobs as a waitress or beautician. She had no specific ambition, but she knew she wanted to get away from the suburbs. “I was looking, I was searching – it’s a terrible phrase, but ‘searching for myself’. I was an art student in school and then in college and I thought, ‘Oh, it would be fun to be a painter.’ I sort of scavenged around to see what was going on. Trying out different things.”
One of the things she tried was being a Playboy Bunny, but she laughs when I ask what it involved. “Everybody asks that question. I only did it for eight or nine months, and basically I was a very high-class, well-paid cocktail waitress.” A more interesting job was working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City where she got to know Andy Warhol and his crowd. (She still has a silkscreen portrait of herself by Warhol.)
After a brief stint with a folk group called Wind in the Willows, she joined a girl trio called the Stilettos, led by Holly Woodlawn’s flatmate, which performed in a pub called the Boburn Tavern. It was here, in 1973, that she met Chris Stein. She was 28 and he 23, still an art student. He asked if he could photograph her for Punk magazine, as “Punkmate of the Month”, and they became lovers. It was his idea that they should for a group and call it Blondie.
They released their first album in 1976, but it was their third album, Parallel Lines, that really took off, with Heart of Glass becoming their first No 1 single in 1979, followed by a string of other hits: Call Me, The Tide is High, One Way or Another, Sunday Girl, Union City Blue.
Musically, the group was always hard to define – a bit punk, a bit pop, a bit techno – but what made it special was Debbie Harry’s extraordinary beauty. Every man in the audience must have fantasised about what she might do with those amazing lips. She looked ethereal – but then there were the ripped clothes, the dark roots, that made her dangerous.
The popular idea at the time (or popular among men) was that Chris Stein invented her, that he was her Svengali, but he always said that was nonsense – “Debbie always told me what to do, and frequently still does.”
But he tended to handle business and artistic direction, while she was the ambassador for the group – she could charm the promoters and media, whereas he was always too blunt. But this led to certain tension with other musicians, who resented all the attention Harry was getting – they even took to wearing badges saying “Blondie is a group”. And the sheer pressure of nonstop touring and recording began to cause fractures in the band, even before Stein fell ill.
They were touring their sixth album, The Hunter, in 1982, when Stein collapsed after a show and was rushed into hospital. He had been losing weight steadily for months, dropping from 175lb to 145, and developing ugly skin blisters. He was eventually diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, an autoimmune disease that causes blistering, both outside and inside the mouth and throat. It used to be fatal before the invention of steroids, and, even with steroids, Stein was in hospital for months and didn’t fully recover for four years. Harry nursed him through it, even sleeping beside his hospital bed, but they both ridicule the idea that she “sacrificed” her career to do so – they were a couple, so of course she looked after him. And he would have done the same for her.

While he was ill, though, their career withered and died. Madonna joined their record label in 1983 and effortlessly stepped into Debbie Harry’s shoes. (Debbie Harry still looks sour at any mention of Madonna.) Meanwhile, Stein discovered they’d lost all their money. It took them years to make any, anyway, because they signed their first contract before they had a manager, then had to buy themselves out of it – to the tune of half a million dollars – before they could sign with Chrysalis. They were still in hock when Heart of Glass was No 1 round the world. But then, when they finally did start making a fortune, in the early 1980s, they invested in some dodgy tax-avoidance scheme that went bust, after which the Internal Revenue Service came calling and said they owed several million dollars. Stein and Harry were forced to sell their Manhattan mansion, and the other band members left with nothing.
The late 1980s were a sort of nadir. Harry calls them “the ice-cream years” when she let herself go. “It was depression, the culmination of the stuff I told you about. Our record company dropped us, our manager walked out, the IRS walked in, Chris was recovering. Everything fell apart and I fell apart with it. But ice cream was great!”
And of course there were drugs. Once asked what was her drug choice, she famously laughed: “I chose a lot of drugs!” She told me that she didn’t take drugs in Blondie’s heyday – “which was kind of fortunate because I didn’t make a total fool of myself” – but in those bad years after Stein fell ill. Did she actually become a junkie? “Absolutely. I guess for a couple of years.” She got off finally by going into rehab – “Chris did it at the same time, we did it together. I think we both decided that it was overdue.” Has she been tempted by drugs since then? “No. I think there was a short period when I did some coke, but I never got seriously involved since then.” Or with alcohol? “No. I don’t have the head for it. I don’t have the capacity. So, if I drink, it’s a short evening – very short and very cheap!”
But having gone through all that roller coaster together – success, failure, illness, drugs, rehab – she and Stein eventually split up. Why?
“I dunno. The intensity of the time we were together – we were together night and day for 15 years, our occupations were united, our love affair was united. And by the end I think we were both kind of exhausted and needed a break. We were under so many pressures and everything was going wrong. But I will always love him – I think he’s a wonderful person.” Was he the love of her life? “So far!” she says fervently.
She has never married. She thinks she would quite like to now, but when she was younger she equated marriage with servitude. She was initially upset when Stein married the actress Barbara Sicuranza in 1999. “I was sort of jealous in the beginning,” she says, “and had doubts and suspicions. ‘Who is this woman? Is she good enough for him?’ Stuff like that. But now I feel she’s great, she’s wonderful for him, and they have two great children [aged seven and five] and I’m the godmother so I’m involved.”
After splitting with Stein, she tried to build a solo career but never achieved the same success as with Blondie. She acted in over 30 films, though her only really memorable role was as the stage mother in John Waters’ Hairspray in 1988. (Waters recalls that when he told her he was desperate to get Sonny Bono to play her husband, she said immediately: “Just tell him I’ll blow him.”) She even made some television commercials including one for Sara Lee cake mix. She sang with the Jazz Passengers but was not exactly overburdened with work by the time a manager called Harry Sandler came calling, with a proposal that Blondie should reform.
It seemed impossible, given that sone of the other band members were still bitter about where the money went. But Sandler had a lot of experience in resurrecting dead bands and gradually talked them round.
Their first comeback CD was No Exit in 1999, which gave them a No 1 single, Maria. The group had to bury a lot of hatchets: “There was a residue. But we’ve been working at, you know, becoming functional. And we’re more mature, so we realise the value of what we do for each other. And we want to do it – this is what we love.”
She told Cathay Che back in 1998: My personal philosophy has always been to somehow endure… I’ve always envisioned some kind of longevity and a career that would last longer than five years.”
Well, she has certainly achieved that. But does she feel she’s made mistakes along the way?
“Thousands, thousands, and thousands!”
In her career or in her personal life?
“In everything. People used to ask me if I had regrets and I’d say, ‘Oh no, no, I don’t have regrets.’ But I do. I look at situations and think, ‘God, I wish I’d handled that differently!’ But it’s not like I sit there going boo hoo. And I do have wonderful friends.”

Blondie’s new album, Panic of Girls, is available to buy and download on May 30. For further details and summer 2011 tour dates visit:

See the Blondie singer talk about the state of the music industry.

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