8th December 2019
Pages 10, 11 & 12
‘I’d have made a lot more money if I’d been a hooker’
The Blondie singer reveals how, despite selling millions of records, she was left with nothing…
INTERVIEW BY LOUISE GANNON
Musician or hooker?’ muses Debbie Harry as she fluffs up her peroxide hair in her London hotel room. ‘I would have definitely made a lot more money if I’d been a hooker, not a singer.’
Harry, the punk Marilyn who launched a million crushes when she hit the late Seventies music scene with the band Blondie, laughs as she speaks. Rather surprisingly for a bone fide icon, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She thinks it’s hilarious that word went round she was a lady of the night before she became a rock star. ‘There were always rumours about me like that. I was a woman in a man’s world. I was different. A girl in a band. Not everybody liked it so what do you expect? But for me it was always about the music. Still is. I’m still out there doing it.’
Harry might be 74 but she is still beautiful, her aquamarine eyes bright and mischievous. She is in good shape, too, thanks to regular sessions with a trainer and an intensive work schedule. And the there is her autobiography, Face It, which caused a storm of controversy upon its release.
It reveals that she was raped at kmifepoint in the mid-Seventies, escaped an abduction attempt by serial killer Ted Bundy, lost nearly all the money she’d earned from selling 40 million albums because of bad management deals and tax bills, hung out with Andy Warhol, was flashed by David Bowie and became, for a period of time, a heroin addict.
She has been roundly criticised for ‘brushing off’ any analysis of both her rape and heroin addiction. Of the rape she says in the book that she was most upset by the fact that the perpetrator stole all of the guitars she owned with her bandmate and then lover, Chris Stein. She reveals few details about their mutual drug addiction, except to say that she kept him supplied with heroin when he was in hospital suffering from pemphigus vulgaris, a rare auto-immune disease, in 1983.
Today Harry is more expansive. ‘It was a big decision for me to write the book because my mindset is very much “don’t look back”,’ she says. ‘Even when I was writing it I had several moments where I thought, no way, I’m not doing this. But Chris [Stein] encouraged me to do it. If I told him I was regretting it, he’d tell me I’d regret having a face tattoo more. I took a long time over it. Maybe I wish I’d edited it just one more time.’
At the time of the rape, Harry and Stein were part of the burgeoning New York punk scene. Harry, born Angela Trimble and adopted as a baby by suburban shop owners Richard and Catherine Harry, threw herself into life in the edge. The neighbourhood she lived in was rife with crime and junkies and, returning from a club with Stein one night, they were held at knifepoint by a drug addict looking for cash. He forced them into their apartment, tied them up and then raped the terrified Harry. ‘It was a bad experience,’ she says. ‘It was bad for me and it was bad for Chris, who was unable to do anything. We were both pretty broken by it but we supported each other through it. He was really supportive of me and we just moved on. I didn’t want to become a victim.’
She pauses. ‘It was a very different time back then. We did live on the edge. Drugs were part of the scene. I was never someone who liked a lot of alcohol – I still don’t – but yes, we used heroin. And I don’t regret it. We were coping with a lot of s*** back then and that was how we coped.
‘I wasn’t doing it to the point I couldn’t function. I was just numbing myself. We both were. And then there came a point where I was ready to come off it and so was Chris. It wasn’t overnight. It’s a process. You stop, you start, you stop and start and then you stop. There were a lot of casualties and I’m lucky I wasn’t a casualty.’
Harry was 33 when Blondie broke through with the release of their third album, Parallel Lines, in 1978. With her effortlessly sexy image, heart-shaped lips and perfect bone structure, she was an instant superstar. Over the next three years they had hit after hit, with Hanging On The Telephone, Picture This, Heart Of Glass, Call Me and Rapture, before arguments between band members led to the group breaking up in 1982.
Perhaps most extraordinary given their success was the parlous financial state of the individual members. They had signed a series of bad deals and, despite being awash with money for three years, they hadn’t paid any tax. Harry and Stein brought a five-storey house in Manhattan but then had everything – the house, paintings, studio equipment – taken away to pay the Internal Revenue Service.
‘We weren’t the first band to be ripped off and we won’t be the last,’ she says. ‘Musicians make easy pickings because no one wants to know the financials or the numbers, they just want to got out there and perform,’ she says. ‘But it’s pretty heartbreaking when you have worked seven years flat, taken no holidays, sold millions of albums and you are left with nothing. And then Chris got ill. He was my soulmate, my partner, the guy I set the band up with. They were dark times.’
Harry is, however, a survivor. She made a solo album, embarked on an acting career (she appeared in Hairspray and Videodrome) and in 1997 along with Stein put Blondie back together, releasing new albums with hits like Maria and in 2006 being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
‘Life is pretty good,’ she says. ‘I’ve done my complaining and you just have to keep moving on. I don’t stop writing, I don’t stop performing and that’s what keeps you going.’
She has never married and never had children, although she is godmother to Stein’s two teenage daughters. ‘When you are a woman in a band you make sacrifices,’ she says. ‘I don’t think I could ever have held down a marriage and I never wanted children. I was adopted and that gave me a different outlook. I always thought that there were too many children out there needing parents and so I was conflicted.’
How does she feel about Stein, now happily married with his own family? ‘He’s still very much in my life, he’s still my best friend and I was really happy for him when he met his wife,’ she says. ‘I never understand people who can’t deal with things like that. If you love someone you want the best for them.’
Is she a fan of today’s young female artists? ‘There are so many girls now,’ she says. ‘In my day it was rare to be a female singer but now there are hundreds of them. But I can’t think of any I can single out.’
In her book there is a mention of Madonna, when she quotes a friend who talks about the Material Girl stealing her career. ‘When I heard about Madonna I was so excited. I thought, this is perfect because she is going to subvert the ultimate female icon.’ I imagined she would have very dark hair, very white skin and this Madonna image, and then when I saw her she was a blonde and I thought, oh no, Madonna. You’ve really missed a trick.’ But I was a musician, a punk and Madonna was – and still is – showbiz. It’s a different thing altogether. Good luck to her, I say.’
Like Madonna, Harry is a pop icon, but she remains firmly anti-celebrity. ‘In the early days so much was focused on my face, my looks, what I wore, how I was. I’m not an idiot, I know sex sells, but I never wanted to be defined like that. When we came back I was consumed with making sure we had a Blondie sound, so that when you heard us on the radio you would unmistakably know who we were. Maybe we always had that but I was more aware of getting that right second time around.’
Harry still lives in New York. She is a big environmental activist and – during her recent spell in London – has been taking a big interest in Extinction Rebellion. ‘When I get back to America I’m thinking of joining Jane Fonda’s climate protest and getting arrested with her,’ she says. ‘You have to fight for what you believe in. I love Greta Thunberg. To me she is a modern-day Joan of Arc.’
What makes her happy? ‘My dogs. I have two puppies at home and I like hanging out with my girlfriends, sitting around talking, laughing and being a bit catty.’
Does she date? She laughs. ‘Yes. I do occasionally capture a victim who takes me out.’ in her 70s, Harry is still a pretty wild lady. ‘Do you think so?’ she says. ‘Sometimes I think I would like to settle down. There are lots of good men out there and maybe that’s what I’m missing right now.
‘But I still feel I have so much I want to do. My mother told me my problem is that I still think I’m 25. But maybe my problem is that I don’t actually think that’s a problem. In your head, you can be 25 forever. It’s not real but it’s a good place to be.’
‘Face It’ by Debbie Harry is published by HarperCollins, priced £20