ONLY LIVE TWICE
WHAT'S A 53-YEAR-OLD EX-JUNKIE AND FORMER PLAYBOY
BUNNY DOING AT THE TOP OF THE POP CHARTS? TINA JACKSON MEETS
DEBBIE HARRY AND BLONDIE.
I hated Debbie Harry. Blondie, post-punk's biggest pop
group, used to soundtrack those
teenage parties which are fortunately a blur in my
memory, apart from snatches of lyrics
like "Ooh Denis ooh-bi-doo" and the
"ooh-ooh-woah" refrain from Heart Of Glass
someone was banging on the lav door just as you'd passed
out, yelling, "We've got to
get in, Tony's going to be sick." The fact that
every post-pubescent boy present fancied
the pants off Debbie Harry, and would drop their best
girl to lick her spiked-heeled boots
if they got half a chance, was a defining factor of
sexual jealousy for me and just about
every other teenage girl at that time.
She wasn't like today's brand of homely-cute pop
geezer-bird. She was an ironic
American blonde, with perfect, glacial beauty. She'd been
a Playboy bunny, a junkie and
part of New York's infamous punk scene. The fact that
she'd done everything in her
power to trash it only gave her glamour more of an edge.
She was dirty and dangerous,
she looked as if she didn't give a toss about anything,
and between 1979 and 1982, with
the band's street-smart pretty boys, made some of the
most perfect pop records ever.
I tell Debbie Harry what I used to think of her, which
she accepts with perfect grace,
because I definitively stop hating her when she arrives
for our photo-shoot. She is, at 53,
shorter than you'd expect, broad in the beam and still so
extravagantly beautiful she
appears unreal. The studio is heavily populated with
ever-so-trendy hair, make-up and
styling people who introduce themselves by their trade
immediately the voluptuous ultra-
diva arrives. "I'm make-up," says Make-up.
"I already did my make-up," she replies, eyes
narrowing a film-noirish fraction, like a rock'
n'roll Lauren Bacall. Make-up floats off to sulk,
along with Hair, Styling and Hangers-About. "I'm not
getting changed," Harry says firmly. Having ignored
the stylist's 1999 update on the punk look in favour of
her own baggy jumper and trousers.
Deborah 'Debbie' Harry begins to explain what it felt
like when Blondie decided to reunite after a near-fatal
illness, drugs, acrimony, therapy and a 16-year gap, and
found themselves as much the flavour of the month as they
ever were. Maria, the first single from their comeback
album No Exit went straight in at number one. "Too
old? Just fuck off," she laughs.
She does camp, and sassy, and slightly bonkers, but
mostly she does nice and thoughtful,
which is a surprise. "I do a lot of things I feel
too old for. I used to wonder about putting on
the Blondie character. I'm less innocent and naive
Her eyes narrow again, archly, as I murmer that these
weren't the immediate qualities
associated with Blondie's knowing persona. "It's
nice to have this outline of a character to
stand behind. But this record has more depth and
sincerity. It's more mature. And we're all," she
pauses for emphasis, "... more mature."
"I'm surprised it was such a commercial
success," she continues. "I get alot of
satisfaction from writing songs and performing and
singing. I really enjoy those things and I've gotten
really good at it. But it's even more personal now, so I
can focus on the music."
No Exit, flawed and emotional, sounds as if Blondie's
impersonal heart of glass has turned
flesh. It's as if adult humans, older but wiser, have
replaced pop's prettiest automations.
"We left our reputation hanging in the air,"
she says. "I'm really proud that we could pull it
back and still be credible."
This isn't quite the same Blondie, though. The years in
between have taken their toll on
various band members, and it shows in the songs.
"Music is very emotional, it conveys meaning,"
says Harry. Some of the songs are light-
hearted, but some are more moody, and layered with
meaning. Records used to be like a
little journey for me, and this one's like that."
It's hard to imagine Harry's blank, brittile former
blonde ambition persona saying that.
When Harry was in a glam-trash band, pre-Blondie, called
The Stilettoes, they covered the
Shangri-Las' Out On The Streets. It's reprised on No Exit
in a poignant, world-weary version.
"We thought it was topical because in the States
gang activity takes the place of love or
personal relationships. It's like being in the army,
giving up civilian life, and people can't
grow out of it," says Harry sadly.
If Harry's original Blondie persona was a glorious
cartoon, the woman sitting here today is
infinitely more complex and a million times more likeable
than the image. "I really don't give a fuck what I
look like," she says. "I have a beautiful face,
and that's wonderful. But at times,
I feel a mess. That gift has nothing to do with what a
person is. If anything, it's made me work
harder." But the look was carefully created,
and as Harry talks, it's easy to see a schism between
woman and artist. Blondie had it's roots in New York's
low-rent lower east side scene, where everyone wanted to
be creative. If Brits only decided they liked artists
recently, when they started behaving like pop stars, then
New Yorkers could only stomach pop when it was rooted in
an artistic aesthetic. Art was a means of rebellion.
"There was a common element of us being underdogs,
and Blondie was a conceptual piece,"
says Harry, who has extended her artistic career into
acting and singing experimental jazz. Blondie were
friends with Andy Warhol. Their Svengali, guitarist and
Harry's erst-while long-term boyfriend, Chris Stein, was
an art student. The American punk scene fused art and
music; Blondie, who knew how to manipulate their look as
much as their music, were the scene's most meteoric
At this stage in the conversation, Stein arrives,
avant-garde black threads, shades and
entourage. "Chris is wonderful," Harry
says, several times, varying in emphasis between pride
and wistfulness. She admits the main reason she agreed to
the reunion was because Stein was so keen on it
happening. "I never thought we would get back
together," says Harry. "But
Chris thought we'd regret not doing it before we were too
The room fills with black leather, cuban heels, sharp
suits and feather haircuts which haven't been sighted
this side of the Atlantic for years. Harry abandons the
interview momentarily to advise Stein not to eat the
heads off his prawns. She sounds motherly; unsurprising
really. Stein nearly died of a wasting disease in the
mid-Eighties and Harry nursed him devotedly for three
She starts talking again, more personally this time.
"I do give myself a hard time," she says,
leaning forward. "I guess. I'd like to be
comfortable and cosy but there's this ...THING... [she
mimes a terrible struggle] which forces me to do these
other things. As a kid growing up in
the suburbs, I was horrified at the lack-adasical...
being part of the status quo. I always
thought the idea that I'd lapse into a routine way of
life was horryfying. I like shock. I like
stimulation. I like to be painfully aware. Like
Harry hasn't touched heroin since 1984, after Stein's
ilness (which he has admitted was
exacerbated by his hard-drug use) and the band's
implosion. Still, the band hung around
with famous deceased junkies like Sid Vicious and Johnny
Thunders, and did their fair share of the art-punk
scene's coke-and-smack drug combination of choice abd
what ever else was going; a track on 1978's Plastic
Letters was called I'm On E years before Ecstasy was
heard of over here. "It wasn't meant to be
that, it was 'I'm on Empty', although it was as
well," she says with a sly sideways smile. "But
I think the psychedelic thing is incompatible to the
environment in New York. In London, it's softer. I'n NY,
it's harsh, cement-filled. It's bleak. Psychedelics make
you open and softened and NY doesn't make you want to do
that." And yes, of course, she went looking
for a wild side to walk on as soon as she could. "I
had to go to New York. I had to see. It was very scary to
think, 'I'm going to be an artist'. But what a time it
She set out to be a star as surely as Madonna did. In
retrospect, Harry thinks it was a lazy
way of getting affection. "We wanted to be loved, to
be fancied," she says frankly. "It's a deep
need, to be sought out and admired, a way of being
popular without having relationships. You're off in the
distance and adored." The mature Harry is a single
woman who lives with a cat and a dog, and the legacy of
having influenced the (wet) dreams of a generation.
Because Harry has always been the band's focal point,
it's easy to attribute a certain anon-ymity to the
backing band. Not so in the flesh. Once drummer Clem
Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri, who wrote Maria
and their new single, arrive, the room's full of them,
looking worse for wear and better for it, as Harry gently
vanishes. The three men, elegant and courteous, talk at
machine-gun speed in a nasal New York drone, thoughts and
ideas twisting round each other as minds work faster than
speed of sound voices. Stein wears
inpenetrable back sunglasses indoors; he and Harry
haven't been an item since 1986.
Despite the sense of inevitability about the Eighties
comebacks, this one has a touch of
freshness. Blondie have kept their interestingly edgy
style and attitude. "We don't have any- thing to
prove," says Stein.
Clem Burke has the last word. "We opened doors that
other people in the industry walked
through. So now we're trying to reap some of the rewards.
We're like a dysfunctional family,
but I think we were always ahead of our time. What we're
doing is being appreciated now."
One small thing has changed. Twenty years on, I think
Debbie Harry is lovely.
Blondie's new single, 'Nothing Is Real But The Girl', is
out May 24 on RCA.