THE SUNDAY TIMES culture - Sunday 14th October 2007
Pages 8 & 9
Just wild about Harry
A comeback album wasn’t enough for the original rock’n’roll blonde. But Debbie Harry writing for the stage? TIM COOPER meets a punk who can still shake her ass
Debbie Harry is sprawled on a double bed before me. Oh, how I would love to have been writing that sentence when she was punk’s number-one pin-up – well, only pin-up – in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Still, it says a lot for her continued allure, at the age of 62, that this situation still elicits envy and jealousy from my male friends.
In her glorious, glacial heyday, singing Heart of Glass and Atomic and Denis and Sunday Girl, Debbie Harry had a provocative pout that, when coupled with a sneer, created an effect once memorably described as “come-hither-and-drop-dead”. Her chilly froideur may have long melted, but Debbie – or is it Deborah? “Those are moot points,” she warns mysteriously. “We can’t discuss those” – still puts the sex into sexagenarian.
She’s delighted to learn that we’ve met before, when I was a teenager. “Did I frighten you?” she inquires hopefully. Today, the most frightening thing about Harry is that, thanks to fine bone structure and a little help from her friends in the nip/tuck business, her face remains a facsimile of the one that launched 30m record sales. The pout, perhaps recreated by the surgeon’s hand, is perfectly intact; the pale eyes are still a hazy shade of blue. Spread-eagled in sex-kitten pose on the bed, she is wearing a baggy black T-shirt with the punkish slogan “Suicide in Hollywood”, a pair of grey pedal pushers and plimsolls in matching monochrome. While we talk, she regularly runs a hand through short, spiky hair in various hues of bottle blonde, constantly repositioning its punky tufts.
Previous interviews have made Harry sound like hard work, detached and reluctant to engage on a personal level, but today she seems relaxed, easy-going and open. There’s a twinkle in those pale blue eyes, and she’s happy to discuss everything from punk to parenthood and household pets.
She is in London for promotion: “Necessary Evil,” she explains, which is most artistes’ opinion of promotion, but also the title of her sixth solo album, matching the number Blondie managed between their 1976 debut and their split in 1982. She is also in town to launch a new West End musical based on the film Desperately Seeking Susan, featuring the greatest hits of Blondie in a supporting role. The 1985 film co-starred Madonna as the elusive Susan, a free-spirited girl-about-town being chased around New York by Rosanna Arquette’s suburban housewife and just about everyone else. It brought Madonna her first UK chart-topper, with Into the Groove, launched her acting career and pioneered her oft-copied mix’n’match fashion style. There’s no Madonna in the stage version, though, not even on the soundtrack, for which Harry and her co-composer, Chris Stein, have written a new song.
Harry, who has not always been Madonna’s biggest fan, recalls that when she first saw the film, “It was much better than I thought it would be.” She adds: “I have always loved Rosanna Arquette, and she was totally sweet and wonderful.” She pauses. “And Madonna was her usual self.” There has always been friction between these two icons of blondedom: Harry has, in the past, claimed that she “launched Madonna’s career”, though the truth is that they both took their cue from Marilyn Monroe and added a contemporary twist for their time.
If Harry adapted Monroe’s look and style for the 1970s, Madonna simply gave it a materialist makeover for the 1980s, before Gwen Stefani took it into the 1990s.
Harry claims to be bemused by the interest in her contribution to the new show. “I’m so minimally involved, but people keep coming up and saying they can’t wait to see me,” she laughs, before adding her plug: “We’re very excited that the Blondie music is all in. And it’s a cute cast, and they are working hard and dancing their asses off.”
Harry herself still enjoys dancing her ass off, and does so on a regular basis. “I love to dance,” she says. “It’s easy for me to go to clubs in New York and be anonymous and have a nice time. I listen to music and dance a few dances.” Her many DJ friends keep her up to date with the latest music – to prove it, she rummages around in her huge handbag to show off her latest listening. Having just lost her iPod, she has burnt a bunch of homemade CDs and brought handwritten track lists to remind her what’s on them (the deeply fashionable choices include MIA, CSS and Justice), complete with explanatory notes.
She supplements her dancing with regular workouts, but admits that the passing years don’t make it any easier to stay in shape. “It’s difficult to keep weight down,” she confesses. “I have a trainer, and I work my ass off to have a nice ass – and to show it off and wave it in people’s faces. It’s my job, it’s what I do.” As, apparently, is using any means necessary to stay in shape. According to recent reports, she was an early adopter of both HGH (human growth hormone) treatment and a bizarre-sounding procedure involving injections of cells from the embryo of a black sheep. Yet, while she’s willing to admit having had “work” done at the hands of a plastic surgeon, it’s clearly not her favourite subject. “People assume that I have had masses of surgery, and every time I come here [to the UK], people are hung up about it. I’m like, ‘Get over it, so what?’,” she bleats (must be the effect of those injections), adding: “I didn’t look bad before I had the surgery – honestly.”
Harry never married, unlike her former beau and band-mate Chris Stein, whom she nursed through a life-threatening disease in the early 1980s, and to whose two children she is godmother. She currently lives in New York’s art district, Chelsea, with a cat called Peach and a dog called Kisuki. “She’s a Japanese chin and her name means good-time party girl,” laughs Harry, adding, in a loving tone: “I make sure I give her a good kick every day.” She used to have two dogs, but the other one died in July. “They don’t last long,” she explains, “especially if you kick them every day.” Clearly, the punk spirit is alive and well in Harry’s domestic circumstances.
Like her fellow punk pioneer Patti Smith, Harry came to New York from suburban New Jersey in the mid-1960s and found her calling in the downtown art and music scene. After various odd jobs, most famously as a Playboy Bunny, she fell in with Warhol’s crowd while waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, the club where the Velvet Underground played their last show. For a while, she sang backing vocals in a folk-rock group, Wind in the Willows, before replacing the Warhol “superstar” Holly Woodlawn in a girl group (I use the term loosely: Holly, as listeners to Walk on the Wild Side will recall, “Shaved her legs and then he was a she”) called first Pure Garbage, then, on her arrival, the Stilettos. “It was very cabaret,”Harry says.
When Stein joined the group on guitar, the other girls left, Harry dyed her hair and the new band mutated into Blondie. “When we were starting out in 1974, we had a much more punk sound,” she says, recalling that record companies did not want to know about a female-fronted group who put attitude ahead of musical virtuosity. There was, therefore, a certain irony when Blondie were belatedly inducted into America’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Personally, I really don’t care about that kind of thing,” Harry says, “considering that we were not embraced initially by the music industry.
“The punk scene was not much to do with the music until later,” she adds. “It took on a sound, but originally it didn’t. It was about angst – which we all had plenty of. In terms of angst, I was a punk, and in terms of being one of the few women in rock, I was definitely a punk. I was repeatedly told I was not cut out for rock’n’roll just because I was a woman. I remember one executive from a label saying that if punk ever happened, he would quit the business. I wonder what happened to him?”
Harry recalls Blondie’s early gigs at CBGB, where the owner, Hilly Kristal (who died this year, just after the club closed its doors for good), first championed the new underground-music scene. “We would play for whoever was in the bar – which was just a handful of bums and bikers at the start – and Hilly’s wife would tell everyone to turn it down.”
As well as working on an autobiography, Harry is the keeper of a vast collection of Blondie artefacts, accumulated over the years and stored at various locations across New York. “I have a huge archive, which at one time I considered a ball and chain,” she says. It includes costumes from the 1970s to the present day, as well as artwork submitted by fans, which Harry plans to photograph for posterity. Pop fans, it seems, give odd presents to their idols. “I had a doormat that a beautiful blond boy gave me,” she announces proudly. “Instead of ‘Home Sweet Home’, it said ‘Blonde Sweet Blonde’.”
Although she never had children, Harry has often considered adopting – she was adopted at three months old – but, curiously, in view of her age, appears to feel she’s not yet ready. “It’s something I’ve always considered, but I would like to be a little bit more of a homebody before I did that,” she says. It is, of course, too late for her to have her own biological children. “Sometimes I regretted not having children, of course I did, and sometimes I am glad,” she confesses. “I suppose there will come a time when I really regret it, but I don’t know if I was especially well suited to motherhood.”
She proudly recalls that her own (adoptive) parents remained married all their lives – “55 or 60 years together” – but says the nearest she ever came was when she and Stein “incorporated”. “Marriage is a business arrangement,” she says, countering her cynicism by going on to show her vulnerable side. “I was in love millions of times – or at least twice.” She laughs. “And I always felt that being independent was really important for me, and somehow the two didn’t meet.
“But there’s still time,” she adds. “I’m not dead yet.”
For a review of Debbie Harry's latest album, visit timesonline.co.uk/music
Pages 10 & 11
A Madonna movie on stage, with Blondie songs? Pure cynicism or a dream come true, asks JASPER REES
Shows based on movies or on pop groups' back catalogues have become mainstays of the theatrical economy. So the latest musical to open in the West End has the whiff of boardroom cynicism. What happens when you randomly select a famous film and an iconic songbook, yoke them together and shove them out in front of the footlights? You get Desperately Seeking Susan, a 1985 film starring a chubby-cheeked Madonna, but featuring the greatest hits of Blondie.
In fact, the idea has the humblest of origins, and was anything but cynical in inspiration. Four years ago, two men sat in a Manhattan bar lamenting the lack of Broadway shows they still wished to see. They idly wondered which acts might benefit from the jukebox treatment.
"Blondie was the first band we thought of," says Peter Marino, a dancer who had risen no higher up the theatrical ladder than banging dustbin lids in Stomp. "We realised that in a lot of their songs, the characters have a strong need, which is really important in musicals. So, much of their music is open to interpretation."
Would the musical tell the story of Blondie, in the style of the long-running Buddy and Broadway's ill-fated Lennon? "No. Their story is interesting, but, thankfully, not tragic enough. Nobody dies. So then we started talking about basing it on a popular film. I honestly can say, at the same time, we thought of Desperately Seeking Susan."
For New Yorkers who came of age in the 1980s, the film is a snapshot of the era's bohemian dance-club chic, more so than yuppies-go-underground movies from the period, such as Something Wild or After Hours. "It was the movie that made me want to move from Long Island to New York," Marino says. Still, that ought to be have been that. Securing the stage rights to one major property is hard enough, but two?
They reconvened a few days later, with the film and a Blondie compilation, and began looking for coalescence. The opening sequence establishes the disparity between the lives of the two heroines - Roberta, a romantically, unfulfilled suburban New Jersey housewife, and Susan, a sassy city girl who communicates with her long-distance boyfriend via the personals, while sleeping with (and stealing from) anyone who'll put her up. When Roberta assumes Susan's identity, she is unwittingly entangled in the chase for some priceless ancient Egyptian earrings.
"The first song on the CD was Dreaming, and the opening shot is Roberta getting her hair done, hoping she's going to find this ad for Susan. I thought, 'Okay, that's a good sign.' The next scene is Susan in the hotel room, just getting done with her trick, so we thought, Call Me. My friend is not a writer, he's got a regular job. He said, 'Go ahead, have fun with it.' So I did."
Marino spent the next nine months absorbing Blondie's music, tracking down the first draft of the script and constructing a treatment. His big surgical intervention was to wrench the setting back from the mid-1980s to 1979. "I just didn't think Blondie's music really supported the glossy world of 1985. The show is about the collision of the suburbs and the pre-gentrification Lower East Side. Kids who were dressing up and teasing their hair and wearing mascara in 1985 were from the suburbs. But in 1979, punks lived in the city. To have a collision of two worlds, they had to be very different."
He presented the resulting document to the producer of Stomp, whom he'd met once, and they were soon pitching to Debbie Harry. "Debbie Harry said, 'I read the treatment, and I'm all for it.' That was it."
Doors miraculously swung open at MGM, which owned the stage rights. "Both parties told us they'd been approached at least five times to turn either the movie or the music into a musical, but neither of them had liked what was being proposed."
The decision was taken to create the show in this country, which embraced Blondie earlier than the band's native New York. (We also have a higher tolerance for jukebox musicals.) Angus Jackson was hired as a director to steer the production through three workshops and into the West End. To him fell the task of achieving something no director has previously attempted: simultaneously to translate the staccato grammar of the film into theatrical language whole seamlessly crowbarring a much loved songbook into the tale.
In playing what Jackson calls "the game of luring the audience to a place where they're suddenly delighted by the appearance of a song that is both inevitable and surprising", he is helped by a tidy coincidence. Roberta's surname happens to be Glass, so, when she discovers her husband's infidelity, she can sing about her broken Heart of Glass with impunity. "Will people be surprised by that? Will it be inevitable? It's certainly very satisfying," he says.
Does it matter that, presumably like many audience members in their twenties, neither of the show's rising West End stars knew the film before auditioning? "I've stayed away from the film, because I didn't want to do a version of Madonna," says Emma Williams. "We're not trying to put the film on stage. My Susan has a lot more of an influence from Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson and Courtney Love, strong women in rock."
"I've watched the film once," says Kelly Price, who inherits Roberta from the memorably daffy Rosanna Arquette. "It was a great performance, but you then discard it and build your own bored New Jersey housewife."
For aficionados, Marino has ensured that the musical will alight on iconic moments from the film. "We want to see Susan blow-drying her armpits in a bathroom at the Port Authority bus station, Roberta circling the ad with lipstick, Susan sitting in a bathtub pulling a joint out of her boot." But it'll be the songs that sell the show. For contractual reasons, some haven't made the cut. Denis wasn't written by Harry and Chris Stein; X-Offender and (I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear were, but with ex-band member Gary Valentine, whose permission has not been forthcoming. But Harry has written a tailor-made song, Moment of Truth. The remaining numbers from a remarkable eclectic catalogue - Sunday Girl, Atomic, Hanging in the Telephone, Rapture, Picture This, One Way or Another - are part of the collective consciousness.
When Harry attends the West End premiere, it will complete an improbable four-year journey for an idea floated by two bored theatregoers in a bar. Should success take it all the way back to Broadway, does Marino's drinking companion have a stake?
"I did name one of the characters after him," he says. "He's very happy with that."
Desperately Seeking Susan is previewing at the Novello Theatre, WC2.