Dazed & Confused - December 1998
TEXT RACHEL NEWSOME PHOTOGRAPHY
STYLING ALISTER MACKIE
YOU'RE MAKING ME
Someone has thrown a red rose onto the stage. Debbie Harry kneels to pick it up. Without looking she delicately slides the bud into her mouth and wrenches the head off. Petals scatter as she spits it back into the audience. Not '78, or even '88, this is Copenhagen 1998. After 16 years the original Blondie line-up are back.
The crowd go ecstatic, they expect nothing less from the cleavage-revealing, crotch-flashing prototype for (bottled) blonde ambition. Having spent the better part of the last two decades being Deborah-Harry-the-solo-artist, somehow it seems that this current persona and her former one as Blondie-the-icon are irrevocably, fatalistically inextricable.
The three men in a recently stripped-down, re-formed Blondie are sitting down to post jet-lag morning coffee and talking about Joe Pesci's recently stripped-down, reformed cover of "Rapture". It is, admits Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, pretty good: "You know, it keeps the Blondie beat but with Joe Pesci rapping Italian gangster style over it instead of Debbie." Guitarist Chris Stein and a dark glasses-wearing drummer Clem Burke agree (note: Clem will keep his shades on throughout the interview). Then of course there was Foxy Brown and her salacious cover of "Rapture" - "I'll Be" on "Ill Na Na". (Debbie thinks she's heard the track but she can definitely say she's a big fan of Foxy's counterpart, Lil' Kim.)
The missing link between a female rapper best known as booty-shaking for America and an Italian actor best known for crushing people's eyes out in Scorsese movies; Andy Warhol's favourite pop group; cohorts of David, Iggy, Patti, The Ramones, The New York Dolls, the list is endless, Blondie's trajectory connects more famous faces than a Studio 54 guestlist and arcs the three most significant cultural movements to exit New York in the last three decades; punk, disco and rap. Which brings us back to "Rapture", released in 1981 it was the first white rap record and is currently the subject under discussion in a West London bistro on a windy autumn morning in 1998.
"We were always into the Sugar Hill gang and that sort of stuff," remembers Chris. "Debbie and me went along to this athletic club thing in the Bronx and we were the only white people there."
Sure they knew Malcolm McLaren at that time. "Yeah," remembers Clem, "one time we were at the Whiskey A Go Go in LA and The Ramones were playing and Malcolm was in the dressing room muttering things about Tommy (Ramone) under his breath and Johnny heard him and chased him out swinging a blue guitar over his head."
Up until this point Debbie Harry has been silent other than rummaging in her handbag for lipstick ("Damn, I lost it. Nightmare!") only to produce a lacey black bra instead ("Oops!"). But at this juncture she opens that wide mouth so far you could drive a stretch limo through it and glares at the mere suggestion of "Buffalo Girls" being the genesis of hip hop.
"Ooooohohoooo!" she tosses her just-showered hair. "Malcolm said that? He must be joking, right? I know what corner to drop him off on!"
Nor is Jean Michel Basquiat - who appears scratching records in the "Rapture" video - immune to Debbie's gale-force emissions.
"We knew him when he was Samo," politely conjectures Clem.
"Huuuh!" snorts Debbie. "We knew him when he was a jerk!"
And Julian Schnabel's movie, Basquiat?
"They made him too nice, there was a whole dark side to him," Debbie purses her lips and considers other films that have been made about her friends. "And it was the same with I Shot Andy Warhol. The way David (Bowie) played Andy..." she huffs, "Andy really didn't act like a fag, not at all."
A close friend of Debbie's, Warhol was never quite sure whether to introduce Debbie Harry to his circle as Blondie or Debbie. Indeed, to form a band named after the colour you dye your hair makes it clear that Blondie and Debbie, Debbie and Blondie are innately interchangeable personae. Where the glossy-lipped, autonomous automatic atomic sex appeal of Blondie-the-alter-ego began, and Debbie-the-ex-Bunny-Girl ended, became almost indistinguishable.
Andy Warhol's diary entry for Saturday June 16 1979 records his confusion:
"Blondie - Debbie - was sweet, her hair was fixed up and you'd never believe she's in her 30s - no wrinkles and so pretty. She spends all her money on make up. She must not have been pretty all these years, though, or I would have noticed her. She must have tried to look bad or something. But I guess some people look better, actually when they get a little older. I didn't know what to call her. I guess I call her Debbie. But when I introduce her, I call her Blondie. But Blondie is the name of the whole group, so..."
This year, Debbie Harry was 53. She still possesses those sleepy blue eyes, those glacial cheek bones and that serene mouth. What Barthes calls a "face-object", it was these looks that turned her into an iconic pin-up for children of the sexual revolution.
"My ambition if I were to really go and have a facelift and everything would be to come out like Debbie," noted Warhol in his diary on Sunday December 28 1986.
Of course at 53, you wonder how Warhol would critique her now. Of course at 53, Debbie still cares how she looks; she tries to work out most days, she says. From Photoshop svelte to curvy mellifluence, these days Debbie has a soft belly and deep tanned cleavage which she displays with royal poise.
But for five UK number ones, five acclaimed Blondie albums and international pop star status, Debbie has Dolores - the perpetually frustrated aging waitress she plays in Heavy - as her nemesis. Certainly, out of all her ventures into acting (an ashtray in Cronenberg's Videodrome, a psychotic mother in Hairspray) Dolores is Debbie's most convincing acting achievement. The Blondie fairytale being that Debbie Harry was determined to make sure she made her dreams come true. The Blondie fairytale being a motif for female ambition in a man's man's world.
"I guess I lived in some sort of dream world," she considers. "I don't think I had a firm idea of what it meant to be in showbusiness. I just wanted to be a star. Then you grow up and wake up and realise that reality is a better trip than fantasy. Living in a dream world as a kid was great. It probably saved me from being this dissatisfied
middle-aged floozy. Like Dolores? Yeah, exactly. Trapped!"
Of course at 53, whether she cares what others think about how she looks or whether she ever did is quite another matter. The shot of Debbie in the previous days Sun shows her arriving at Heathrow in an outfit which bears a close resemblance to a tent. The caption reads: "Look lads... it's Drabby Harry."
Today Debbie is wearing the same outfit which turns out to be a pixie-cap and jacket both with the same torn up "leaves" stitched into the fabric. It is one of her favourite outfits right now, pants, jacket, hat - $99. And "I have wrestling shoes on, so if you want to wrestle with me later..." she friendishly intimates.
Just the other week, Debbie made an appearance at Wiggstock, ("gay Woodstock") sheathed in a white body suit with fig leaves covering the appropriate body parts and a blonde wig down to her knees. At an award ceremony where Blondie will be acknowledged for their lifetime achievement, Debbie will cut her hands on a skin tight black jersey dress that's armour-plated with razor blades. ("Of course fashion is worth the price of pain.") A creation of her designer friend Michael Schmidt who lives in the same apartment block as Debbie in New York, he was also responsible for Cher's equally terrible chain mail-suit. While in her time Debbie Harry has worn amongst other things a leopard-print jumpsuit, a bondage dress made out of red gaffertape and pre-McQueen single-shoulder shifts. These days, says the woman who has seen it all before, "I just wanna see everyone naked." Nothing it seems can shock. Not the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the nude. "I've seen them naked," she giggles. Not Madonna. "Debbie was doing it first," say the guys. And certainly not Marilyn Manson.
"This androgyny for me personally is old hat and the same for that LA pimp look," Debbie avers. "I liked him wrapped in bandages best. I liked his hospital S&M version. I thought that was more threatening. That his body or his life might be in danger meant something to me. That's part of the thrill."
The ephemeralism of fashion played no small part in Blondie's progress. In particular, shoes. It was the snakeskin boots Clem wore to his audition which got him a place in the band in the first place. While Debbie was previously in a girl trio called The Stilettos. And it was by virtue of her own stiletto boots that a very early Blondie won their first gig.
"These people who lived uptown came down to meet us at this bar called Monty Pythons and they offered us a gig at one of their townhouses," rattles off Clem. "They said, 'Just make sure the singer wears those boots.' They liked Debbie's boots."
"We got pissed drunk, man!" Debbie interjects. "It was a great part and then the police turned up because it was too loud. The cops had never come to this house before and these guys were so intrigued by the fact the police had turned up. You know we were naughty! Naughty!" she shrieks.
Blondie fashion was anti-fashion. While the '70s trail-blazed wide flares, flapping collars, unruly afros, hippies and psychedelia, Blondie stood out as reformed modernists: slick, glossy and above all, tight fitting - including the men. While Debbie became the muse of young designer, Stephen Sprouse, it was the pipe-legged trousers, skinny ties and trim suits of Chris, Clem, Jimmy (also Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison who were band members at the time) who initiated their own micro style revolution. Blondie single-handedly changed the face of fashion in LA, they explain.
"There's a place in LA called the Rainbow Bar & Grill, which is the first place our press agent took us to play," recalls Clem.
"And it was so funny because we walked in with our sunglasses and our black suits and everyone thought we were from Mars. So we thought, 'This is perfect'. We stood out so much - let alone Debbie with her hair."
Jimmy: "I hated all those big collars, they were so obnoxious. But like Debbie said, if anything, we wanted to be the antithesis of what was going on."
Chris: "I used to wear eye make-up everyday and I'd have people looking at me and completely freaking out. I mean, I thought that was my role in life - to make people crazy on the subway. It's part of the psychology of wanting to be different. Something I realised recently is that people who are in showbiz are able to make this connection without having any emotional commitment. That's part of the dysfunctionality of the whole thing; I'm not that great at relating to people in the world at large so when I get recognised, I don't have to worry about that."
And then there was the question of Debbie's notorious zebra dress.
Debbie: "We would buy what we could afford. I made that dress out of a pillowcase. Our landlord came down one day and said, 'Here, make something out of this'. So there wasn't much to make out of a pillow case except a little dress..."
Blondie's New York experience in the mid to late '70s was a thrift-store existence. The deteriorating 1920s apartments of New York's lower-east side became a centrifugal point for the city's nascent low-on-cash, high-on-drugs/ambition alternative population. Debbie and Chris had fallen in love and were sharing a room in a neighbourhood called the Bowery.
In their kitchen right by the door was a bathtub with a heavy wooden lid that doubled up as a kitchen work top. "You'd knock on the door of their flat and the first thing you'd see would be Chris in the bathtub washing his hair!" laughs Clem.
Everyone would go down to the now legendary club CBGB's
"They would do these grilled tomato things and there would be comedy acts. It was a very fun, sick place with a weird crew of people," says Debbie.
One of few alternative music venues in New York, the owner Hilly would let the New York Dolls, The Ramones, Television and later, Blondie perform just because they'd guarantee the chink of bar tills. In their dreams, everyone at CBGB's was a pop star. In broad daylight, they were skint, skinny beatniks. No one though it could really happen to them. And especially not to Blondie.
"CBGB's was such a grass roots thing involving such a small number of people, it was very hard to see beyond that point," offers Clem. "My ambition was to make a record and see it end up in a record store bargain bin."
Only blocks away, the inner city decay of CBGB's was world's apart from the decadence of Warhol's Factory where the band would eventually get invited round for lunch.
"We were in the library and he had these big stuffed dogs," recalls Jimmy. "And you'd be there eating a baloney sandwich with Andy Warhol. But it's ironic that in the Diaries, he's almost trying to convince himself how well off he is. He's always dropping names as if he weren't sure of his elevated status."
"The thing about Andy," Clem continues, "was that he always made parties or events a special thing. And when he died, you sensed that the events became much less. One time we went to see David Bowie in about 1972 at the Carnegie Hall and just before David comes on stage, in waltzes Andy with this whole entourage and you'd know it was a special event. You miss that now in New York. He was like a barometer, a godfather to the whole scene."
"Debbie actually was the first Madonna," noted Andy Warhol in his diaries on Thursday October 24 1984. Without Parallel Lines would there be an Erotica? Debbie shrivels up her nose. "I somehow think that Madonna would have managed on her own no matter what. If she'd been born in Yugoslavia in the middle of the fucking was she still would have done what she did."
Chris: "I knew Madonna was going to be successful when I was on the subway one day and I saw graffiti that said 'Madonna can suck my dick' and I thought, 'wow, she's really gonna make it.'"
But if there's a subtext to the Blondie story, it's that it is a tale of sexual liberation. Somehow Debbie's former all girl trio The Stilettos were too cliched, predictable. Just another stereotype of girl as victim/sex kitten with little to show other than three pairs of three inch heels. Debbie had a lot more to show.
"(Going on stage as Blondie) I sort of lost consciousness a lot. I'd get so worked up and my life was so fucked up and crazy that going on stage was a tremendous release. I'd be in 'no-man's land'. I don't think I ever planned on flashing beaver, however flashing tits was another story," she confessed to Glen O'Brien in a Big interview earlier this year.
Sure she went on stage with no underwear. Sure she thought men walked all over women. And no way was she going to act like a casualty of social prejudice. Stubborn, spontaneous and sexually charged, there was no masterplan other than to be accepted as Debbie Harry on Debbie Harry's terms. To do it the Blondie way. Fascinated by Marilyn Monroe as an adopted child growing up in New Jersey, and a feisty prequel to Madonna's later sex-ploits, Debbie really was in 'no-man's land'. Everyone wanted to sleep with her... But still. On Blondie's first UK tour as support to Television, she was ostracised by the NME for being "too sexy". While music critic Lester Bangs devoted a whole chapter of his Blondie fan biography to discussing the ramifications of Debbie displaying her underwear.
"I felt hopeless and sometimes perhaps hapless but I never felt intimidated. People would come up to me and say, 'You know you should join a cover band and work out in Jersey' and they would insult the shit out of me. But I stuck with my own thing. I had Chris, actually. Chris was terrific."
The only other prominent women on the New York scene at the time were Anja Phillips and Nancy Spungeon, both close friends of Debbie's. But unlike Nancy whose notoriety was based on her relationship with Sid Vicious, Debbie was not simply a rock chick. Both certainly indulged in cocaine and other substances, both dated band members. But unlike Nancy, Debbie had found a mode of expression beyond indulgence - as Blondie. Unlike Nancy, nothing - not drugs, not sex - was going to come between Debbie and her aspirations.
"We had to fight for acceptance and therefore, I felt, 'By God, I won!' and that was empowering. It didn't surprise me or sweep me off my feet. It was you know, you work, you work, you work... I have this really nasty side to me which I cloak," she goes on. "I'm stubborn and there comes a point when I say, 'wait a minute' and..." makes a vicious growling noise. "Reuuuurghh! I go. I just go!"
The ebullient Jimmy suddenly becomes conscious that Blondie have a reputation to defend all the same.
"We invented drugs!" he pronounces. "Certain combinations, certain mixtures, we made them up."
His favourite excess story and one which he will recount twice, is the time Blondie supported David Bowie and Iggy Pop on their Lust For Life tour. Late for an aftershow party following one of the gigs, nobody on the door was going to let them in. Not for Blondie, not for no one. There was only one thing for it. Jimmy lunged a bin through the glass doors and saved the day; the party had to go on. Still, he shrugs, Bowie offered to pay for the glass door replacement, anyway.
Debbie: "Drugs were an escapist thing. It just created an alternative universe. I don't think it produces a new kind of sensitivity; I think it actually dulls your sensations. It doesn't help you in the long run because of all the complications you have to deal with and it can kill you (pauses) but it does alleviate. It's a form of medication. If you survive it, it's a learning experience."
Chris: "Right now, I mostly just take pot. I only really did hard drugs towards the end of that thing and that's what helped make me ill."
Drugs, excess and Chris' illness - in the form of an unusual wasting disease - combined to result in Blondie's 1982 denouement.
As Debbie-the-sex-symbol, Debbie-the-driven-diva, the world was hers for the taking. But as Debbie-love-of-Chris, she volunteered to put her career into hiatus so she would be able to take care of him through his recuperation.
The interview is interrupted as the band are handed their latest press shots for inspection. Chris, Clem and Jimmy are all pretty pleased with how they look: tanned and in shape. Chris, especially likes the way his hair has been styled. "Hey Debbie! You look like Courtney Love!" he offers. Debbie sniffs. Later on, she confides that of course she can completely understand the need to succeed, which drives Courtney and which drove her. She is reluctant to judge but, she goes on, after having nursed Chris for so long through his illness, "there is something remiss about Courtney as a wife and the way she was with Kurt while he was sick," Debbie searches for the right words. "A lack of love."
Post-Blondie, Jimmy settled down to have children, Clem teamed up with Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox to become drummer with the Eurythmics, Debbie and Chris split up. Still friends, Chris continued to work with Debbie on her solo projects which were welcomed with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The exultant sexy ooze of "French Kissing In The USA" being a minor stroke of genius and a production collaboration with The Thompson Twins (on "I Want That Man") being a minor stroke of disaster. 16 years after the fact, the band insist that Blondie never really split up (although Frank and Nigel, who were not invited to this reunion are currently trying to contest their exclusion through the courts). It was more that it took this long to issue their seventh album, No Exit on RCA; a valid attempt to produce a sleek pop collection which codifies the band's early influences, it sounds like the album Blondie never made in 1983. It's "No Exit because despite solo projects and collaborations, despite personal differences, despite the best part of two decades, all four were ultimately destined to be forever Blondie. Yet when Chris suggested three years ago that Blondie should reform, Debbie wasn't sure.
"I didn't want to get back together. As usual Chris talked me into it. It involves people that basically I feel are vultures picking my bones," she explains slowly and sedately. "That's a very uncomfortable feeling and by then I was doing something that was more meaningful and I preferred to be left alone to do that. It's also a relief to just be involved in artistic thought and I find this very strengthening and rejuvenating for me."
These days, Debbie sees herself as something of an aesthete and her Jazz Passengers project accordingly focuses on music over image. ("It's a higher form of music, it's more intellectual and therefore has a limited audience.")
Was she pushed? Or did she fall? Could she ever be autonomous of her bleached alter ego? Are icons destined to be perpetually defined by the image that made them, no matter how many reniventions are undergone?
Back on stage at the Copenhagen gig, Debbie is headbanging to "Atomic", her faux blonde hair twisted into sweaty dreadlocks, sand safari top unbuttoned to display a slash of black bra. From a distance her strobe-slashed silhouette looks timeless as she flays under burning lights. Part pseudo drag queen snarling between deep vermilion lips, part coy Sunday girl sweetly synching in time to the beat. "I'm hot!" she pants to an eager audience. "You're making me hot." Everyone screams. In the refined comfort of her hotel bar after the gig, Debbie explains how a friend of her's pronounced that women over 40 really shouldn't wear their hair long.
"So I said, 'Right, I'm just gonna tear it up!' she snarls. "I can be such a nasty so-and-so."
"I'm a very jaded, been-around-the-horn individual," Jimmy joins in. "But every now and then she'll show up to rehearsal and she has the ability to shock even me. I think Debbie's still got a sense of fashion that goes beyond the norm."
"Thank you Jimmy," says Debbie, sweetly.
Sipping a fresh orange and clutching her mascot, Minkey The Monkey who today is dressed in fetish gear ("He has lots of different outfits"), Debbie is talking of how she still loves going to clubs. Her favourite is a strict dress-code place in New York called Mother. They do Goth nights and Fetish nights, but her favourite is the women-only event on Thursdays, The Clit Club. She's looking forward, she says, to playing a New Year's Eve extravaganza in New Zealand, one of her favourite places to tour, "It's so primordial." Relaxing in her post-gig leggings, sparkly black top and worn training shoes, eventually Debbie finishes her juice and disappears off to bed. At 53, still dreaming the Blondie dream.
HAIR MALCOLM EDWARDS @ UNTITLED* FOR TONI AND GUY
MAKE-UP JACKIE HAMILTON-SMITH @ UNTITLED* USING RUBY AND MILLIE
PHOTOGRAPHIC ASSISTANTS SIMON, JERMAINE AND GUY
STYLING ASSISTANT MARK JAMES