The Blondie star appears at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday, October 13
The face that launched a thousand hits
The Blondie singer recalls punk fame, a fortune won and lost – and indecent proposals, says Will Hodgkinson
In 1979 Blondie issued badges announcing: “Blondie is a group.” Maybe it was. The boys in the New York punk band looked cool in their black suits and Converse trainers, and it was a group effort to bring to life pop gems such as Hanging in the Telephone and Heart of Glass, but nobody was in any doubt about who the star was.
“For good or bad,” writes Debbie Harry in her memoir, Face It, “the buck stopped at me.” Although Blondie were indeed a group, and a democracy in which everyone shared in the profits, the magazines wanted to photograph her. Blondie got their name because wherever Harry walked in Manhattan in the early 1970s truck drivers and construction workers would shout: “Hey, Blondie.”
Her visual potency is also at the heart of this memoir. Portraits by fans who were trying to catch her high-cheeked beauty are reproduced in glossy glory – some are good, some bad, some touchingly awful. There are myriad photographs, including a 1978 shot depicting Harry as a rock’n’roll glamour goddess, a 1976 photo by her partner and fellow band member Chris Stein in which she exudes punk cool in studded belt and ripped T-shirt, and a photograph of her casually holding a flaming frying pan while wearing a dress once owned by Marilyn Monroe. As the book title shows, Harry is hardly in denial about the power of her face. “How could I know then that this face would help make Blondie into a highly recognisable rock band?” she asks at one point.
She was born Angela Trimble in 1945 – “I am a lovechild” – but was adopted at three months old by a lower-middle-class New Jersey couple. She became Deborah Harry and from childhood she fantasised about being a star. She also got a lot of unwanted attention. A doctor told her parents, “Watch out for that one, she has bedroom eyes,” when Harry was still a baby. She was eight when she experienced the first of many indecent exposures.
“Because of their frequency, over time these kinds of incidents started to feel almost normal.”
At 12 she was propositioned while on holiday in Cape Cod by a man who turned out to be the renowned jazz drummer Buddy Rich. In the early days of Blondie a burglar followed Harry and Stein into their Lower East Side loft and raped her at knifepoint. “Go clean yourself,” he commanded afterwards, before skulking off.
“In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape,” she says.
Despite all this, Harry decided to own her sex-symbol allure, bringing to her act an undertow of danger. As she says of her beloved Monroe: “Marilyn was an enormous star, but there was such a double standard. The fact that she was such a hot number meant that many middle-class women looked down on her as a slut.”
New York’s punk rock scene was male-dominated, but Harry presented herself as an ultra-feminine archetype in the way a drag queen would. “More and more lately, I’ve been thinking that I was probably portraying some kind of transsexual creature,” she muses. She adds that “my Blondie character was an inflatable doll, but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up yet I was very serious.”
Blondie arrived at a turbulent moment in New York history. In the mid-1970s the city was bankrupt, crime was out of control and a wild and free artistic life was available cheaply to those who dared to occupy no-go areas such as the Lower East Side. Harry was part of the bohemian scene, with stints as a Playboy bunny, as a waitress at the Manhattan nightclub Max’s Kansas City, where Andy Warhol held court in the back room, and a member of the hippy folk band Wind in the Willows.
Blondie formed in 1974 from the ashes of the female cabaret trio the Stilettos, after Harry and Stein broke off to do a rock take on disco songs. By the time the drummer Clem Burke joined in 1975, already sporting his trademark 1960s mod look, Blondie offered something unique on the New York punk scene. They were prettier than the Ramones, more fun than Television, less pretentious than Patti Smith. And they had a knack for writing solid-gold hits, from Picture This to Atomic.
There was no shortage of adventures. In 1977, just as Blondie were taking off, a visit to Phil Spector’s mansion ended when the famously eccentric producer stuck a gun into the top of Harry’s thigh-high leather boot and said: “Bang, bang.” While on tour with Iggy Pop and David Bowie later that year, Harry offered the pair her wrap of cocaine, for which Bowie thanked her by whipping out his penis. “David’s size was notorious, of course, and he loved to pull it out with both men and women,” she writes. “It was so adorable, funny and sexy.” In the fine line between abuse and charm, it all comes down to who is doing the flashing.
Having spent so much of her life chasing fame, Harry soon discovered she didn’t particularly like it. “Success was a paradox with no easy solution,” she writes. “When your face becomes that well known, you just have to get away from it.” Solace came in the form of heroin, followed by forced retirement in the early 1980s as Stein got increasingly sick, not from the Aids everyone thought he had, but a rare auto-immune disorder, pemphigus vulgaris.
Incredibly, despite selling more than 40 million record, Harry and Stein, who were together throughout the Blondie years, but never married, ended up broke. Owing millions in taxes, they lost their home. The IRS even cancelled Stein’s health insurance as he lay helpless in hospital, close to death. The couple stayed together until 1987, splitting up on the day of Warhol’s death.
All of this is regaled in an unfussy, dead-pan style, with some great evocations of a pre-gentrified New York. Harry’s description of the punk venue CBGB is particularly ripe. “There was an alley at the back full of rubbish, rats, pissed-on garbage, and shards of broken glass. Inside, the club had its own special reek – a pungent compound of stale beer, cigarette smoke, dog shit, and body odour.” Yum.
Harry is less illuminating on the people she meets along the way. She has clearly had serious problems with Patti Smith, but she restricts herself to recalling the time Smith turned up uninvited at an audition for a Blondie drummer and proceeded to throw her weight around. “What nerve, showing up at our auditions like that,” Harry simmers. “I guess she was just too curious to know what we were up to. You know, the competition.” Elsewhere we get flashes of Bowie (literally), William Burroughs and the singer Joan Jett, but little feeling for what they were like.
Still, this is Harry’s story and her straight talking – not to mention the wealth of photographs – makes this an appealing, celebratory memoir. “I could never put myself in the position of whining about being a woman,” she concludes. “I just got on with it. As much as it was possible, I found a way to do what I wanted to do.” Blondie may be a group, but it was Harry who turned them into a phenomenon.
by Debbie Harry
HarperCollins, 352pp; £20