1st October 2019
Pages 28 & 29
BLONDIE ON BLONDIE: DEBBIE HARRY TELLS OF AGONISING ‘DOWNFALL’
We’d sold 40m records but we were broke. We got taken by showbiz wolves
BY 1981 Blondie, fronted by Debbie Harry, were one of the biggest bands in the world.
Their album Parallel Lines had sold 20million copies while singles Call Me and Heart Of Glass had topped the charts in multiple countries.
The band took a brief break before returning to record their sixth album, The Hunter.
But the 1982 tour to promote that ill-fated record would ultimately result in splitting the band, their financial ruin and the near-death of Blondie guitarist and Debbie’s boyfriend Chris Stein.
Here, in extracts from her new book, Debbie reveals the dramatic events that led to the collapse of Blondie.
THAT f***ing tour. We never should have gone.
Chris was sick. Very sick. I have pictures of him where he was emaciated and weighed 110 pounds. That tour nearly killed Chris.
I can’t say exactly when the problem started, and I think that Chris has succeeded in putting it out of his mind, but he was unable to eat.
He was having a terrible time swallowing anything, which is why he was getting so thin.
We thought it was strep, Chris thought he had AIDS, or cancer, or he was dying – and none of the doctors could give him an answer.
We were doing drugs during that tour because it was the only way we could handle the stress or have enough energy to perform.
Our designated gofer, “Bernie,” would go out and score the smack for us.
Theres were times on the road, of course, when he couldn’t connect, and that would be really rough. Hell.
And Chris kept getting sicker and sicker. We were in the US touring with Duran Duran in stadiums at the time, with a UK and Europe tour to follow.
Chris was wasting away. More than once, he collapsed.
We managed to get through the last night of the Duran Duran tour in August 1982. There was no way we could go to Europe.
And that was it. It was over. Not just the tour, but Blondie. The band officially broke up a few months later.
Mike Chapman, our producer, said he could tell things had changed during the recording of The Hunter. He could feel something ending, and he was right. We went back to New York, to our new home on the Upper East Side. It was a huge town house with five floors on East Seventy-Second Street. A symbol of our success. Money had started coming in at last and it was our accountant’s idea that we should buy this place. The house was so big it had an elevator. Chris had his own studio down on the garden level, and on the top two floors there was a separate duplex apartment that we never went up to.
About all Chris and I did at that point was to go from doctor to doctor, all of them saying: “We don’t know what it is.”
I would try and make something he could eat. The only thing he could swallow, we finally worked out, was Tofutti, an ice cream made from tofu that was soothing and would just slide down his blistered throat.
He was living on Tofutti, although there was really no nourishment in it, so he continued to shrink away before my eyes. We felt so desperate and so isolated from hiding his strange illness from the world and imagining the the worst. We were terrified. Then one morning, I woke up and Chris looked horrific – his legs were swollen. “I’ve had it,” I said. “THat’s it!”. And called up a young doctor we’d met, asking him to come over to the house, which he generously did.
One look at Chris and he said, “This is real trouble – he can’t stay at home like this”. So he got us into the emergency room at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Chris was shrinking away before my eyes
After a couple of weeks, a doctor correctly diagnosed the disease – pemphigus vulgaris, a rare and complex disorder of the autoimmune system.
Until not so long ago, pemphigus would kill more than 90 per cent of victims. The throat is the first part of the body to display its characteristic blistering and broken skin.
Then it keeps spreading and spreading externally if left untreated. Now that they knew what the disease was, they started Chris on steroids.
They gave him a cream used for second-degree burns for external use, because his flesh was raw and open, much as if it had been burned. I’d spread it all over the bedsheet.
That Silvadene cream gave him some comfort because without it he couldn’t lie down. Chris stayed in Lenox Hill Hospital for three months. I stayed with him most of the time.
The Press were trying to portray me as the second coming of Mother Teresa, but that’s ridiculous. Chris and I were a team. We were partners.
Of course I would look after him and he would have done the same for me.
People would say how difficult it was for me, and it was difficult — but it was life-threatening for Chris.
For the first month, he was spaced out on heavy steroids, having weird hallucinations. I kept him supplied with heroin. He was on heroin the entire time he was in the hospital.
I think the doctors and nurses knew that he was high all the time but turned a blind eye because it kept him relatively pain-free and mentally less tortured. The heroin was a great consolation. Desperate times, desperate measures, as the cliché goes.
I would head out in the middle of the night and score by myself. Fortunately, at that time in downtown New York, it was a chic drug.
I’m not putting this all on Chris. I was indulging too, staying as numb as possible. I don’t think I could have coped any other way. Drugs aren’t always about feeling good. Many times they’re about feeling less.
It took some time but the steroids finally took effect. Chris was released and allowed to come home and return to the clinic as an outpatient for monitoring. He was improving but still very weak. It took him two or three years to fully recover. I tell myself: “It’s not your fault”, but part of me blames the rest of me for adding to his stress.
He was already under a terrific amount as the leader of the band — and then there was me, the partner. He always took on the role of being my shield and bodyguard — a seriously tough gig for someone with his kind of sensitivities and sensibilities.
But now it was my turn to look after him — to be his shield and protector — as the world started to crumble around us. We had lost our band. We had lost our record deal. And we were about to lose our home. We were broke.
It turned out we had huge tax problems
What else could you be but broke when you’ve sold more than 40million records, you’re at the top of your career and you’ve worked non-stop for seven years with no vacation?
Because: Well, that’s showbiz — or at least the music biz.
Musicians are notoriously shambolic at taking care of business, which leaves the window open for wolves to come loping in. I guarantee that anything we could have done wrong, business and management-wise, we did it. We had terrible contracts and the people we paid to look after us were naturally more concerned with what was in it for them. We got taken. Cocaine at the time wasn’t considered addictive for the most part and in the industry it was used liberally and frequently.
Heroin was considered too dark and dangerous and there was a big divide in many people’s minds about using H.
Our relationship with Shep Gordon, our manager at the time, came to an abrupt end when he found out that Chris and I were doing heroin as well as coke. He had been to the house and then left and that was it. No calls, no messages, nothing.
And it turned out that we had huge tax problems. Because unbeknownst to us, our accountant hadn’t paid our taxes for two years — the two years when we were making the most money.
We didn’t just lose our house. The IRS took everything they could lay their claws on. They took my car. They even took my coats — which was bizarre. Chris and I didn’t split up until 1987. Thirteen years of deep intimacy and creativity with Chris was changing to a different dynamic.
We never really talked about our break-up to the Press. Some interviewers made their own assumptions. Not long ago, when Blondie was on a 2017 UK tour, Chris and I went on Johnnie Walker’s BBC radio show.
He started going into Chris falling ill and said: “And then you walked out on him.” I was completely taken aback.
I looked at Chris and he said nothing, so I let it go. And then he said it again, to Chris this time: “When Debbie walked out on you.”
I couldn’t believe he said it twice — I don’t know if he was looking for a fight. I think that somebody must have walked out on him.
I have never stopped loving Chris, or working with him, or caring about him, and I never will.
I mourned Warhol for two years
ANDY Warhol was one of Debbie’s most signficant influences.
They first met when she was a waitress at a New York nightclub, and he went on to create a famous portrait of her which she kept and “can’t imagine parting with”.
Speaking about the pioneer’s 1987 death during her interview with The Sun, Debbie said:
“I mourned Andy for two years, maybe longer.
“He was a genius. He was a leader in the art world and in experimental theatre/film and he helped launch The Velvet Underground. He was part of New York City’s downtown culture to such a degree… and he befriended me.
“I didn’t have a clue I would feel like it but I was bereft [when he died ].
“Through him, I’d been introduced to so many people.
“I loved his work and then to be a part of it all when he did my portrait . . .
“I don’t think many artists have the ability to be as sociable as Andy.
“The funny thing was he was conversational but also a very good listener.”
I’m happy…I’m still a New York punk
AFTER Blondie split, Debbie launched a solo career.
Meanwhile, a new generation of fans – including Garbage and No Doubt – were discovering Blondie, prompting record label bosses to put out several collections of the band’s greatest hits.
Then in 1997, Debbie and Chris Stein got the band back together. Their single Maria topped the UK charts in 1999 – exactly 20 years after their first chart topper, Heart Of Glass.
They have continued to release albums – the most recent, Pollinator, in 2017 – and have been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Reflecting on Blondie’s legacy, Debbie writes: “We were philosophers more than real musicians at the start.
“Even while learning how to play and perform, we still managed to entertain thousands of people and create a genre of music.”
Despite her wild times in the band, Miami-born Debbie reckons she actually “settled down” to write music.
Now aged 74, she says she’s never been more content. She writes: “People say that you’re happiest when you are young, but I’m happier now. I know who I am even if I am not more in control. But I’ll never forget those early days in New York.
“As a rock artist, to be coming out of New York City was the best thing in the world that could have happened to me. New York is my pulse. New York is my heart. I’m still a New York punk.”