Attitude Magazine - September 2003

LEGALLYBLONDE

Written By: Simon Gage

As Blondie gear up for phase two of their stellar comeback, Simon Gage meets up with icon, superstar and survivor Debbie Harry.

"I'm probably like Dorian Gray," laughs Debbie Harry, showing off some very young-looking, white-looking teeth as she throws back her head. We're talking about how some people live the life and get off scott free and, more precisely, how come the whole drinking/smoking/partying hard lifestyle thing she was such a glorious part of back in the day hasn't turned her into monkey lady. Line her up to macrobiotic yoga-loving fitness freak Madonna, a good thirteen years Debbie's junior, and you'll be ordering up another vodka and tonic with something cheeky and uplifting on the side and never mind the damn Kaballah. Even her hands are in better nick.

Looking a good two, if not three decades younger than her 58 years, Debbie (and, sorry, we're not having any truck with the whole "Deborah" thing) is cool and casual and totally appropriate in an outfit that wouldn't look out of place on Beyoncé: a clingy see-thru hooded top (nice body!), with a T-shirt saying Crave underneath, calf-length combats and trainers. It's no wonder straight boys half her age totally lost it for her in the early 80s, when she was number one pin-up of the world. But it's Debbie's face that's most amazing. Sitting in an unforgiving white marble room in London's fancy St. Martin's Hotel, with hardly any make-up and a hyper-critical gay eye all over her, there are just a couple of almost imperceptible lines around that famous mouth while the rest is all sculpted and youthful and tight enough to bounce pennies off. How does Debbie do it?

"Good surgery," she says, as bullshit-free as ever, looking at me like I'm mad, with one eyebrow way up to here. "I haven't had that much but I've had the right stuff at the right time."

But then Debbie has always known the importance of the right stuff at the right time. One of the few pop stars, sorry, pop icons, that truly worked across generations (and we're not talking the granny-friendly new crop), Debbie was every dad's dirty secret in just a white T-shirt and no trousers on Top Of The Pops, while kids breathed a sigh of relief that thank god punk didn't have to be about ugly, dirty-looking (in a bad way!) girls with ridiculous hair and mouths like sewers. Thank god we could be rebellious and glamorous all at the same time, quoting clever writers, hanging out with clever artists and not just pissing it all up a wall and killing ourselves in scuzzy New York rooms. Rocker Patti Smith - owner of the finest moustache in the music business - once told Debbie to get the hell out of rock 'n' roll for being too sexy, never mind that Debbie was the most perfectly created pop star we'd had since Elvis went supersize.

"I thought it was absurd," says Debbie of the whole "too sexy" thing (she doesn't remember the Smith attack, but Chris Stein - one-time partner and fellow Blondie-mate - swears it happened). "I was doing nothing. It was all so tame. It was in the mind. I had underthings on! I guess she didn't want any competition." Which is really quite funny, if you think about it.

For gay boys, the fact that Blondie's first number one, Heart of Glass, was disco - an all-but-outlawed form of music back in the "Disco Sucks" late 70s - was like manna from Heaven: the nightclub, not the afterlife thing. Having come up the proper way - actually being into music, writing songs, joining bands (she was in folky outfit Wind in the Willows before Blondie), playing to audiences more interested in the catering than the act - Debbie was actually in her 30s by the time the nights at New York's CBGB's started to pay off and Denis became Blondie's first hit (shame it was a cover, but they would more than make up for that in the years to come). The fact she was sometimes twice the age of the other acts on Top Of The Pops is probably why there was always a bit more to Debbie than your basic Smash Hits interviewee.

"In a way I guess I felt older," she says now that she looks like their younger sister. "I was always told I was a late bloomer. I just sort of emerged fully formed at some point in my life. I totally admire people that have the strength and composure to do what they do at that age because I was completely scattered and could never have been that organised."

Mind you, when you mention the talent-show route of becoming a pop star that has brought so many "organised" stars into our lives she laughs.

"It's very entertaining really. And I mean that in the most vicious way. I feel sorry for the contestants. Maybe they just don't have the confidence or the imagination to do it any other way. To me it was hard work and it was scary and chancy but also thrilling and wonderful and perfectly in line with being a 'starving artist' or a bohemian of some sort."

Because Debbie really did have that Desperately Seeking Susan kind of Lower East Side life. Having worked as a Playboy Bunny ("That was really a job. There was a lot of training involved"), lived in rat-infested apartments and written for three hours a day sitting in a car to avoid paying parking, she met Chris (it was eyes across a room while Debbie was on stage), formed The Stillettoes, an art-house six-piece, started hanging out with the likes of The Ramones and Television and - begging bits and bobs of cash from Chris's mum to buy food - invented Blondie, named after a cartoon strip. "The initial idea was to be desirable, feminine and vulnerable, but a resilient, tenacious wit at the same time rather than a poor female sapped of her strength by heartthrob and unrequited love. Apart from the relationship to comic books, Blondie always thought pop."

Not pop off the conveyor belt for mums and pre-teens and Comic Relief as we've come to know it today, but clever pop, with intelligent lyrics and a commercial sound. "Producing something commercial is probably one of the easiest things to do," Debbie reckons. "Producing something that's exciting to you and that turns out to be exciting to other people and commercial too is the hard part." But when you talk about how boringly clean-living today's Mickey Mouse Club pop stars are, how safe and devoid of the sort of danger that pop stars used to represent, Debbie's not sure who's got it right, whether the drugs and the dodginess that gave it the edge were a good or a bad idea.

"I don't know how I feel about that," she says, putting her hand in hair which is every bit as blonde as in her heyday. "In a way, I think the whole drugs thing is a waste of time because it sort of takes hold of you. You don't control it, it controls you. On the other hand it does give you a bigger world experience, which is extremely valuable. I can't really say that I suffer any after-effects, but I think I regret wasting time. I think it may have affected some of my memory stuff..." And she laughs. "But I have an awful lot to remember. However, Chris has an incredibly good memory and he took a lot more drugs than I did so... Nowadays, the drugs you get are so polluted that they're really dangerous. You're not getting what's advertised. If someone says they have great cocaine, it's probably mostly speed. You'll be like [she gurns] this all night long. Not a great look." And Debbie may have been bigger than Britney in her day, but you sure can't imagine pseudo-virgin Britney discussing those sort of issues in today's pop climate.

As Blondie racked up top ten hit after top ten hit (back in the day when a top ten hit was actually a way to earn a living), and started moving in circles that included the likes of Andy Warhol and David Bowie, Debbie Harry became easily the biggest woman in pop. And as well as the music, there were the films: everything from arthouse horror like David Cronenberg's Videodrome, through bleak dramas like Union City to counter-culture comedies like John Pink Flamingos Waters' Hairspray, where she played opposite Divine, someone she knew from her days on the Bowery, New York's major hang-out for bums, drug addicts and general ne'er-do-wells.

"I really didn't adjust to it right away," she says when you bring up the fact that around 1980 she had arguably the most famous face in the world (this was Pre-Madonna and there just hadn't been anyone this sexy and beautiful and yet alternative in pop: it was Olivia Newton-John or Debbie Harry). "It wasn't how I imagined it to be. I think now I'd deal with it in a different way, as a game. I took it all very personally. I didn't consider myself to be "in showbiz" - I wanted to be an artist - but I started to like it and got to being good at it. I'm good at it now and I wish I'd handled it better, that I'd been more astute as a business person. If I have a regret, it's that I didn't have that information."

She's referring to a time before pop stars became brands, when you wrestled with managers who had their own best interests at heart and would put you in a motel while they checked in - on your money - to the finest hotels in town and gave you a hundred dollars a week pocket money to keep you quiet. Having gone through that - and losing a whole load of cash learning the lessons the hard way (well, that's what happens when you're concentrating on the music) - Debbie is philosophical about the whole thing: "We were sort of ripped off. But reality is that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose." Besides, she's okay with her fairly small apartment in New York. "I think I can be happy with that," she laughs, especially happy as she gets to stay in the nicest hotels in the world instead of having to check into unused apartments everywhere. "I don't really know how people have more than one home and why. It's so much work having a home. I feel almost like a maintenance woman."

These days she spends her time working with Jazz Passengers, a real life jazz outfit that gives her an outlet for showing off her voice; does pieces for publications like Interview, her old mate Andy Warhol's magazine; stars in interesting movies, like the upcoming Spun, just one of three in the can; and, every once in a while, goes back into the studio with her Blondie compadres and pulls out a bit of perfect, brilliantly conceived and executed pop just to remind you that, when she's with her boys, there really is no beating her. Maria, Blondie's comeback single, was a number one smash and one of the best records of its year, now the flawless Good Boys augers very well indeed for the new album The Curse of Blondie, the title a jokey reference to some of the mishaps along the way, with the single's Giorgio Moroder mix giving a wink to the glory days of Heart of Glass and Moroder's gay Donna Summer anthem, I Feel Love.

And she's also dating a bit, now that her fifteen-year relationship with Stein is over. "I sort of play it by ear," she laughs, describing the boots and sexy pants combo that constitutes her "shagging outfit".

"I have friends who are so systematic about picking up boys. I'm not that systematic. I don't feel I have to have somebody every single night but I do have friends who are like that, who go out every single night specifically to meet people and have sex. I'm a little bit careful about that. I think I have to be. I was a little bit like that when I was younger and sometimes it backfired on me. At this stage in my life, I think with the notoriety and the fame I have, it would be problematic."

All in all, a very satisfying life for a woman gearing up to celebrate the big Six-Oh. But you can't help thinking, that were it not for the curse of Blondie, Debbie could have been the hugest money-making proposition in pop. She could have been, literally, bigger than Madonna, who a lot of people accuse of stealing Debbie's schtick in the first place: the whole blonde thing, the sexy but alternative thing, the arty but commercial thing, the pure pop in a credible packaging thing. "Oh, no!" laughs Debbie when you put the idea that Madonna is some sort of Eve Carrington from All About Eve character, who came along, watched her every move, learnt her lessons, then took over.

"I knew she was happening back in the early 80s, a friend of mine had some romance with her, but it all happened when Chris was really sick so I was paying most of my attention to him." Chris had developed a rare and life-threatening disease and Debbie - with a solo career just taking off (remember Koo Koo album with that crazy spike-through-face cover produced by Nile "Chic" Rodgers, who later worked on Like A Virgin? Remember French Kissin in the USA?) ducked out of work to look after him. They'd spent almost every waking minute together, working together, living together, travelling together since they met, so it was natural for her to stick by him at that time.

"So I guess I didn't really catch onto Madonna until she was marching on up," continues Debbie, without a trace of wistfulness. "I do think she has some great songs and I think she's done something really interesting and powerful and wonderful, which is that she's broken down racial barriers," something Blondie weren't so bad at, bringing rap into the pop arena with Rapture, the first rap number one in America.

Now say something bad about Madonna.

She laughs and gives me a little slap on the arm. "No! I don't want to. It's so easy to slam Madonna, because she's the one on top, she's the target." And she laughs again. "Besides, it makes me sound like a cry baby."

Good Boys is out 22 Sept on Epic followed by the album The Curse of Blondie on 6 Oct.

 

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