Greta Brinkman interview by Stephen Hill
The Debravation tour is a lost era in the career of pop legend Deborah Harry. Stephen Hill catches up with bassist
Greta Brinkman to find out more.
The Debravation tour is a lost era in the career of pop legend Deborah Harry. But, for Greta Brinkman, bassist in the DH band, it was also a very extraordinary one: ‘looking back, I think it was quite a unique and special time in Debbie’s career. The Blondie reunion was still a long way off, and Debbie was very free to pursue whatever she wanted’, recalls Greta. ‘I remember around the same time she acted in the movie ‘Heavy’ (she was brilliant!), flew to Rome to be in a fashion show and sang with the Jazz Passengers. She was covering a lot of different ground’.
Everybody is familiar with the music of Blondie. And, even if the pop kids of today are less sure about the woman who is Deborah Harry, her looks, attitude and style are familiar markers on the pop landscape. In the horizontal bazaar that is the pop music scene, not only is Miss Harry frequently hailed as one of pop music’s most influential and innovative performers, but the wave of public affection has also propelled Blondie MkII to commercial success and critical acclaim. In 2004 Deborah Harry is a renaissance woman: pop star, actress, fashion icon, jazz singer and downtown performer. However, it was not always thus…
1993: a break-up with Chrysalis Records and disappointing sales of her fourth solo album Debravation saw Deborah Harry at a cross-roads in her career. At 48 she no longer wanted to play the kittish vamp of yore, yet public perception and record company expectation were locked in a time warp. Time, it would seem, to churn out the hits. Not for Deborah Harry though, who, over a thirty year career, has somehow managed to stay true to an aesthetic rationale of exploration and change. Instead, in the face of adverse press and a dearth of advertising, Deborah Harry got on with a series of concerts that were to challenge audience perception of her as just the Blondie singer and which marked the beginning of a period of artistic reinvention. The Debravation tour was important not only because it was her first real attempt to break with the Blondie sound since 1981’s Koo Koo but because it also marked the beginning of period of new-found creative freedom. Unsigned to a major record label, as she was throughout the mid-90s, in the years that followed Deborah produced a diverse body of work that will probably never be properly compiled. And, almost certainly, without that time away from the spotlight she would not have been able to reclaim the moniker as pop’s First Blonde with the same degree of credibility. Deborah, it seemed, was ready to test herself.
Not only did the Debravation tour see Deborah Harry tackle a wild and offbeat selection of her own material, but also it included some inspired selections of other peoples songs. Out-takes from solo albums and obscure Blondie album tracks mingled brilliantly alongside the crowd pleaser Wild Horses and more offbeat selections from Iggy’s Zombie Birdhouse and a dubbed out reworking of Teddy Pendergrass’s ‘Love TKO’. ‘I want to be really dangerous with my next record’ Deborah had commented on the completion of her previous album Def, Dumb and Blonde (1989).. And, while the studio album Debravation may have been racked with compromise, “dangerous” is just what the live show was. ‘Fans walk out on Debbie’ reported the tabloids after the opening night in Cambridge. ‘Get your hits out’ was the by-line of more than one review. Eleven years on, a philosophical bass goddess, Greta Brinkman, who has since worked with artists as diverse as L7 and Moby, is ready to talk about her time in the DH band.
‘The reality is that you should never, ever, pay any attention to the British press’ she says. ‘They have a very long-standing policy of "Set 'em up, knock 'em down" which gets applied to every single artist. Basically, first they love you, then they hate you, then they love you again, and there is no connection whatsoever to the reality of anyone's career at any given moment. It was Deb's turn to be hated, so they told a bunch of lies, dug up the most unflattering pictures anyone could find, and even ran one picture of Debbie GIBSON. I saw the same exact pattern in place when I toured England with the Moby band, years later’.
She definitely has a point. Those middle years of an artist’s career are nearly always problematic. And, certainly the tide has turned in recent years and the press have been a lot kinder to Debbie Harry: having stayed the course she is at last getting the recognition not just for the groundbreaking work she did 20 years ago but her continuing integrity as a creative force. This is something Greta encounters quite often:
‘Without exception people are impressed’ says Greta Brinkman of the reaction of other musicians when they learn she has played with Debbie Harry: ‘They either want to know ‘What she’s REALLY like?’ or have a Debbie Harry experience that they want to share, like the time they met Debbie in Texas and she took time to chat even though she had to be somewhere, or something like that’.
Interviewing Greta one is reminded just how lacking in pretension Debbie’s choice of collaborators always are: from Andy Warhol to the Ramones, John Waters to the Jazz Passengers; what unifies Deborah Harry’s career has been zero-attitude and free-thinking individualism. In music scene which, historically, has marginalized women, the notion of sisterhood has often stood in uneasy relation to the old boys network of male rock performers. And, while some self-styled Riot Girls have been uncomfortable with the Blondie legacy – the superficial glamour, the fetishisation of Debbie as a woman fronting a band – Greta’s relationship with Debbie was refreshingly agenda free.
‘Speak up Greta’, Debbie once commanded during a Radio One interview. ‘I’m having a wonderful time on this tour’ gasped Greta, ‘Debbie did my roots today and she’s a professional I can tell you’. What followed was a cute story about a peroxide hungry Debbie, purportedly insatiable for the smell of chemicals and insistent on bleaching the bassist’s roots herself. However, when asked about the music 10 years on Greta is more thoughtful: ‘Well, things were different from night to night, and some nights, certain songs went better; other nights, other songs really stood out’. Yet, she is also quick to bat it back to Debbie: ‘I always enjoyed playing “Rain” (written by Leigh Foxx, I believe), because I got to sing with the great Debbie Harry!’ seemingly unsure, after all these years, of her own position - fan, friend or contemporary? - Perhaps all three.
The tension between cult following and popular appeal is certainly what made the Debravation tour so mesmerising for serious fans. Facing commercial oblivion; to an outsider Debbie seemed determined to go down in style. Even today there is huge demand for bootleg recordings of the show and wishful talk of a one-day maybe live album. But asking Greta about the ‘musical rationale’ for the tour draws a blank: ‘There wasn’t any particular approach or treatment that anyone was looking for. Mainly Chris and Debbie let each musician play as they felt’.
The way Greta remembers it the sound of the band was not a reaction to the ongoing record company pressure to recreate the Blondie sound but just the sound of five musicians having fun: ‘Basically, any music that any band makes is just a sum of all the parts (musicians) involved. The personal styles of each musician came together in the DH band to create the sound of that particular line-up, and it wasn't deliberately intended to be any specific sound or make a specific statement’. But then, perhaps, with Greta they knew what they were getting: a fluid and inventive bass player, un-reliant on cliché and willing to explore different genres.
Brinkman had known Stein, Debbie’s one-time partner and musical director of the tour for some time prior to working with them: ‘The band I was in around 1985 and 86, Unseen Force, toured the States in 1986, that’s when I met Chris for the first time, which ultimately led to me moving to NYC and playing in the D.H. band and all the rest of it’. And while the sound of Unseen Force might seem far removed from the super-pop of Blondie, Greta claims she was extremely aware of Debbie and Chris’s the music: ‘I do have a point, and that point is, I remember driving across America singing along to the “Parallel Lines” album on cassette (when the rest of the band was asleep, of course!)… I was beyond thrilled to actually meet and make friends with Chris and later Debbie’.
Nervous as she was to find herself in Chris Stein’s basement practising with ‘real, professional musicians’ it was not long before Greta found herself on the plane to England playing 2000 capacity venues of Blondie fans. Billed as the ‘Best of Deborah Harry and Blondie’ there was conjecture amongst some concert goers as to whether they were actually getting what they paid for. ‘I wasn't aware of it at all’ says Greta, ‘Being new to the band, I was just kind of overwhelmed at actually being on stage with Debbie Harry!’ A fair point: in a show with more than a few nods to the past and a strong brace of new material in some ways the Debravation tour was less radical than it seemed at the time; especially when one thinks of the self-indulgences of some mid-career male contemporaries. However, such is the storm that Deborah Harry has had to weather to continue as a commercial entity.
Without record company funding there was certainly a need to keep over-heads to a minimum for the Debravation tour. The DH band, Deborah included, not only toured the country in the back of a Chevrolet van but a pretty ropey one at that. Greta recalls with glee the occasion when they failed to appear on Mark Radcliffe’s evening show because the van had broken down at Stone Henge: ‘Stone Henge! Where the demons dwell, Where the banshees live, And they do live well…’. She exclaims. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t resist a little “Spinal Tap” reference! I actually had an amazing time at Stone Henge. Chris, who is very interested in Ley lines and all that kind of stuff, immediately made friends with the curators there and they showed him some things that weren’t on view to the general public. Meanwhile, it was a very foggy day, so foggy that you could not even see the roadway which is just a few meters away, and it gave the illusion that these great monoliths were just looming up out of the ether. I took a pic of Debbie standing in front of the thing, in her little hat and coat, and that pic ended up on her refrigerator, it was so cute’.
As it happened though Greta would spend more time with Debbie’s kitchen appliances than any of the other band members. Although, guitarist Pete Minn and drummer James Murphy had been in place long before she joined, it was Greta who ended up actually living in Debbie Harry’s apartment: ‘Oh, I still pinch myself about that, it is so unbelievable. I was totally new to NYC and didn’t know anyone, and in NYC you don’t get a job or an apartment without contacts. Debbie was so gracious to let me stay at her place, although I didn’t see too much of her as she was travelling to Rome and upstate New York and things. Later on I was couch-surfing, after I made some friends, and she still let me park my stuff at her place’.
While they might have been roommates sadly Greta’s creative union with Debbie was short-lived: ‘Debbie was, as always, quite busy with a number of other projects. So as it turned out, the D.H. band didn’t play together all that much. We did only about 2 weeks in England and two in the States, if I remember rightly. But Debbie was so kind to let me stay at her place even though we weren’t super-busy’. And, so began a period in Deborah Harry’s career that saw her expand her vocal range as a Jazz Passenger and complete a range of side projects, including the films Six Ways To Sunday and Heavy, and guest vocals on albums by The Heads, Groove Thing and Luscious Jackson. ‘Debbie is a fantastic actress, in my opinion’ says Greta. ‘I thought she was great in “Heavy”. And, I was very impressed by her work with the Jazz Passengers. I got to see them once and the songs were quite a bit more of a challenge vocally, and Debbie really did great’. But how did she feel when Blondie got back together? Was there not a sense that it negated all that the Debravation tour had been about? ‘No’ says Greta. ‘I think Blondie had a very special chemistry and after everyone in the band had a chance to get a little distance and pursue some other interests, it was only going to be a matter of time’.
A walk-on part though she might be in the career of Deborah Harry, the legacy of Greta Brinkman should not be underestimated. She has, of course, gone on to great things, working with a number of other legendary artists and earned herself an international reputation as a bass guitarist in her own right, which in the sexist climate of rock journalism is no mean feat. Bass Inside Magazine recently claimed that Brinkman had not only ‘managed to that level of credibility that few woman bass players have’ but conceded also that ‘through a long list of studio and live gigs over the 20 plus years she has been out there, sloughing away, she has built a reputation of dependability, talent, and personality that few male bassists have achieved’. A back handed compliment perhaps, but Greta is in good company.
1993, the circumstance that made the Debravation tour so special were as much about the insidious consequences of sexism in the music industry as the workman like myths of ‘reputation’ and ‘dependability’; myths, which have upheld supremacy of male artists for so long and put many women off becoming musicians. Of course, the irony may be that, while Debbie herself has been forced to pay her dues many times over, her contemporaries like Sting or Paul Weller have not done anything resembling ‘sloughing’ in years. Nevertheless, it is perhaps befitting that, as Greta moves towards the musical establishment, she is reminded of the part she played in one of the most turbulent times in Deborah Harry’s career. After all, without the enthusiasm of Greta and the other band members reminding them how to ‘slough’, one cannot help but wonder how Debbie (and Chris) would have got through the tour. Checking out her web site (bassgoddessgreta.com) though, you can see that she has no intention of allowing herself to be pigeonholed. Now in her 40th year, Miss Brinkman is spending her summer on back-to-back tours with rock/drag act Temptress and exiles from PiL, Killing Joke, Bile and Hate Dept in the collective Damage Manual. It will be fascinating to see which direction she takes next.
And so, with all the experience Greta Brinkman now has of the music industry, what would Greta do if she were given the opportunity to record an album with Debbie Harry in 2004? ‘Oh, that’s a tough one’ says Greta, stalling. ‘She is so versatile; she could do anything from hardcore punk to country to jazz. I can’t even imagine what I would ask her to do’. Put this indecision to one side though and you realise her open-minded attitude simply reflects the freedom she experienced in the DH band. And, her curiously intuitive understanding of the clandestine reaches of Deborah Harry’s talent suggests that Greta Brinkman is perhaps better qualified than anyone to do just that.