Details - August 1987
Written by: Stephen Saban
Photographed by: Chris Stein
Clothes by: Stephen Sprouse
"Where do you want to do this?" I asked Debbie Harry over the phone, referring to this. "I know you're busy and I don't want to tie you up."
"Oooh, that sounds great," she cooed, not referring to this. "Come by today."
Debbie once told me that, although she'd been "well trained," she wasn't terrifically domestic. She said that in the apartment she shares with music man Chris Stein it was, "like, piled-up stuff with little traffic lanes." And it turned out she wasn't kidding.
The ex-Stillettos, ex-Blondie, X-Offender, exquisite Debbie Harry answered the door to her Chelsea crib in a black sweatshirt, old jeans and interesting black shoes with tiny toe holes. She hadn't combed her hair (I hope) and she hadn't put on makeup. It was Memorial Day, and this was definitely Debbie At Home. She led me up some carpeted stairs that hadn't experienced a vacuum cleaner in a while and into the apartment that was an experience. An assault. It was all clean, but frighteningly disorganized. Exactly like my house, but a lot more interesting. Everywhere, everything. Stacks, piles, heaps of clutter. In the sea of debris, there were a few neat arrangements: a cabinet of human skulls, Nazi paraphernalia, swords, masks, things made of bones. Chris Stein, in overalls, stood at a large table, looking for something, sifting through mounds of papers and objects. "It's your fault, all this," he grumbled to me, "and your magazine's. All these invitations from the Palladium." I had no idea what he was talking about. He went upstairs and Debbie offered me a cup of instant coffee. The refrigerator in the kitchen was covered with fingerprints and Keith Haring magnetic puffy-stickers. "Why are these here?" I said. "Because it was a blank surface," she said. And a refrigerator tradition.
"Let's sit here," Debbie said after the coffee had dissolved, and took me into a front room that had comfortable seating in its center, away from the things piled against the walls. Actually on the walls were large Andy Warhol paintings of electric chairs that Andy - a longtime friend - had given Chris. There were other Warhols that had been given to them both, and some they had bought. There was a Warhol of guns against a wall, and a giant framed portrait of Debbie with spikes through her face, painted by sci-fi illustrator H.R. Giger and used for the cover of Koo Koo, her first solo album.
We sat facing each other. I felt uncomfortable but at home in the messy surroundings. "Um," I said, revealing only the tip of my intelligent iceberg. We both laughed.
"Well, the last rock 'n' roll show I went to, I got a monstrous headache," Debbie said out of nowhere. "I went to see the Butthole Surfers. It was kind of Sixties, they had all this conceptual art, you know, videotapes and a naked green go-go dancer who was very interesting, and two drummers. But it was painfully boring and horrible. But I think I got a headache from the other two bands."
Debbie, a New Jersey girl, talks with a little flat accent that gets stronger and lighter at times, but is always adorable. (I'm Always Touched By Her) Presence, Dear, and often find that I'm breathing incorrectly (if at all) in her company. If she were a stranger and I didn't feel this way, I could have asked her a number of probing personal questions. Questions like the ones the Japanese press asked her during a Blondie world tour: How many times a day do you fuck? Do you have a climax on stage?
"Do you still go to concerts?" I probed instead.
"Not really. I mentioned that because it's so rare that I do that. I felt so proud of myself."
"I hate concerts usually," I said. "I'd rather listen to records. But I went to Blondie shows constantly." Constantly was overstating it just slightly.
"But you were probably going to see a lot of bands in those days. It seemed to be more in full swing. And we were younger."
"Is that it?"
"Oh, absolutely," Debbie said. "I mean, my God. You can still have a good time doing that stuff, but your interests must change a bit."
"My mother loves rock 'n' roll," I said.
"And why not? I love it. I just can't keep up with it. I think you get sated with things, and you go off onto something else for a while. That's natural, it doesn't bother me. Except when people question me about what I'm listening to and what I like."
"What are you listening to?" I said. "What do you like?"
"You dirty rat!" Debbie said, her face becoming a playground for her mouth and eyes. "I just listen to the radio. There are a few good shows. There's an interesting station - eighty-nine point nine or something - that plays African pop music on Thursday nights, called 'The Nigerian Hour.' It's really great. Very musical, a lot of heavy counter-rhythms, really comfortable melodies."
(Actually, it is WKCR 89.9 FM, but it's called "The African Show.")
Debbie is a great believer in musical blends, what she calls "cocktails." And influences, which is what she likes about the Eighties.
"There seems to be a real Latin influence in the music now," she said, "which is understandable, especially in New York. The chord changes and the beats have a distinctive Latin kind of feel. The Spanish population in this country is enormous. And they've really been absorbed into the culture.
"Not completely," I said.
"Not completely. But I guess things happen faster and faster." She paused for a moment and said, "I keep getting slower and slower."
We both laughed because I was about to say that. "Maybe things only seem to go faster as we get older," I said, or words to that effect.
"I don't know if I'm going slower, but I know that I'm more economical about what I do. I make better choices. Maybe I'm just trying to cool myself out." She laughed again.
She loves comedian Emo Philips. "He looks like a medieval inquisitor," she said. "The way he looks is just wonderful, and I love the way he uses language." She's not bad with the language herself. Almost Emo-like, when I ask her if she thought she had paved the way for Madonna, she said, "Yeah, I was out there on the street patching holes with asphalt!"
But, "I don't know," she said. "I guess, in terms of the business, I did. It was something that had to happen."
"Don't you feel like a pioneer?"
She passed up the covered wagon opportunity. "No, not quite," she said. "Because I certainly copied off people, too. I think it was just a matter of time."
"Come on," I said to the bleach-blonde boy-toy female rock vocalist sex symbol.
"Iconoclastic behavior is not really a good idea," Debbie Harry said with controlled delight. "Be real. I always felt that it was just a matter of time. Because, in terms of marketing, where could they go with guys with guitars? They had done it. Female lead singers was the only thing that hadn't been exploited yet."
"What about girl groups?" I suggested.
"Not the same. They weren't presented in an aggressive way."
"Do you think you were aggressive?"
"Comparatively. I wasn't an aggressive, frightening person, but I was certainly more aggressive that Linda Ronstadt."
"You weren't exactly a biker chick," I said.
"No, not like Wendy O. No, it's just the position is threatening."
"Is Madonna aggressive?"
"Yes, she's an aggressive person to achieve anything like she's achieved. Her lyrics are not 'Hit me again, I love it.' They're more 'Come here, baby, this is it.' They're aggressive in that way. She's very timely, she's right on time."
"Something about her gets on my nerves." There. I said it.
"Nothing is ever revealed about her, possibly because it doesn't exist. That might be what annoys you. You sense that there's something missing and perhaps you feel you're being tricked."
She doesn't seem to have any soft edges," I said.
Debbie's so nice. "You're so nice," I said.
"Oh, you always say that."
By the way, I was chewing gum like crazy. I never chew gum. It was my way of taking my mind off my breathing. It worked.
How many times a day do you fuck? I mean, "What's going on with you now? What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to be an actress," said the girl who's already appeared in a number of movies, including Videodrome and Forever Lulu. Plus the perfect Sara Lee French bread TV commercial. "I was just in South Carolina over the weekend to do a thing they're calling Sweet Little Rock & Rollers with Justine Bateman and Liam Neeson, an Aaron Spelling production. I just breezed in and breezed out. It was very smooth. I play the Other Woman, the older other woman. I upset the applecart in the film."
"And what about this John Waters film? What's it called?"
"Hairspray," she said, and we laughed. "Can you imagine? It's so funny. It's so sick. There are two teenage girls in the leads. Tracey's a fifteen-year-old fat girl who dances her ass off, her tits off, really outrageous. And her mother is Divine. And Amber, the glamourous, tootsie-tootsie Barbie-doll teenager is my daughter. I'm a stage mother. Grrr. I get to be the bad lady. That should be a lot of fun.
"After Hairspray, we're gonna work on a record, me and Chris. I'm gonna write a new record and we're gonna record it in Los Angeles, I guess."
"How do you write a new record?" I asked, with only the simple need to know in mind.
"OH, NOOO!" she wailed, as if I'd accidentally poked out her eye. "I don't know! I wrote the last one [Rockbird], and I never wrote so much in my life. I never wrote so much in my life. I sat at the typewriter and I felt like I had Krazy Glue on my fingers - I couldn't take them off the keys."
"How do you come up with your lyrics?" I inched.
"They come from the mood of the music," she said. "Sometimes I write down ideas if I get in a... what do you call it, an alpha state. I keep notes and long lists of ideas, scattered things. Then I select ideas when I hear the music. Once in a while I write a poem."
"How'd you come up with this idea for your hair?" I said.
"What idea?" she said blankly. "You mean the blonde shit?"
"And the dark part left in the back."
"Because I couldn't see the back, Stephen."
I didn't believe it.
"No, it's absolutely true. It's a practical thing."
"Don't you just put the junk everywhere?"
"No, because when it grows in, if you put it everywhere every time, you end up with no hair. You only do the roots." She was making this simple for me. "So I did it myself and I could only see the front. My hair's really your color." I let her in on a secret. "Well, it's better than having to wear a wig," Debbie said.
"Like Andy Warhol."
"Yeah. But he had a lot of different wigs, he had a lot of different looks. That must have been fun. They were different styles. And he had his hair dark in the back, too. I guess he couldn't see the back either!"
"What do you think about what happened to Andy?" I said. They were close.
"Horrible," Debbie said. "I think it's a crime. I think it's a crime."
"Are you angry? Do you want to see people punished?"
"I don't know if there is a punishment for that," she said. "The full weight of the responsibility of knowing that one has killed a great person in the history of the world... I mean, you'd have to be a pretty sick motherfucker to get off on that. You'd have to be a pretty fucking evil fucker, you know? Basically, the responsibility falls on more than one person. It falls on the medical... team.
"The nurse, if she's responsible, will not work as a private nurse again - in New York at least. See, they're lucky that [Interview publisher] Fred [Hughes] and [Warhol Enterprises'] Vincent [Fremont] are not sleazoids and going for the publicity, because they could really smear these people and publicly denounce them. I don't know who Andy's doctors were. Unfortunately, if I had a problem, I might end up with one of those doctors. I'd have to specifically say, 'Vincent, who are those assholes?' But they're looking not to cause a scandal, because of their own personal grief. And Andy isn't - wasn't - the kind of person who would like to stir up things about himself. That's how they're thinking." She took a breath. "But the REST of us...!"
"I know," I said. "I want us all to go to the hospital at night like angry townspeople with torches."
"Here we are," Debbie said, "left here without him, and it's really been boring, I must say. It hasn't been as much fun. Andy was really great fun."
It seemed as if Andy always wore black Stephen Sprouse clothes. Debbie does. "Isn't Stephen Sprouse your best friend?" I said.
"Steve? Yeah, he's a good friend. He's an old good friend. I guess he is my best friend. Besides Mr. Stein."
"How long have you been with Mr. Stein?"
"We met in 1973. So thirteen years."
Almost just then, Chris Stein came down the stairs and I thought I could detect him making instant coffee in the kitchen.
"Looking at all these skulls," I said, "makes me wonder if you'd mind if your skull ended up on someone's shelf."
"I'd mind if it ended up on a shelf in an ambiguous way. I think I would like to have my name on it." She laughed, and there were all those pretty features playing hopscotch on her face. "I think if my bones are gonna lay around, they should be my bones."
"Do you have a book to write?" She'd already written Making Tracks, about the rise of Blondie, with Chris and Victor Bockris.
"No," she said. "I started writing a porno book, but that got to be dull."
"Do you have any sex tips for our readers?"
"No. Do they have any for me?"
"How about some fashion tips."
"Well, Stephen Sprouse's store's gonna be opening in September on Wooster Street in Soho. That's a fashion tip. It's in the old Firehouse, where they used to have all those great dances and parties."
"Is there anything you wish you could do?"
"I wish I could fly a jet plane, a fighter jet. I'd really like to learn how to do that. It would be thrilling, a great feeling, to do all those tricks and dive around."
The chirps of birds were sounding from an open window, even though it was only late afternoon. "Don't you hate the sound of birds?" I said.
"No. You do only because you stay up late." She knew. "I was just wondering if maybe we should go out and jog for a while. Clear our brains."
Debbie laughed. "I thought I'd get a reaction!"
"Do you jog?"
"NO! Uggghh! No, I carry crystals and that's as far as I go."
"What do crystals do for you?"
"Nothing. I don't know. Somebody said it was okay to carry them. It might work, something might happen."
"Instead of jogging?"
"No, Stephen. Exercise is good for you. Jogging is not sane. Jogging is for idiots! All it does is mess up your knees."
"So what else is new?" I said.
"Well, the newest and biggest thing that's happening in this neighborhood is that all of a sudden this weekend there has been a series of attempted robberies of the houses. Right on this street."
I suggested she put some of those skulls around the door as a deterrent.
"Chris says we should just shoot some people," Debbie said, laughing, "and leave the bodies around. He thought that might discourage the robbers."
Suddenly, Chris called from upstairs. "DEBBIE!"
"COME UP HERE."
Debbie went upstairs, and in a minute I was called up. Chris and Debbie were in Chris' World War II/Nazi/computer room - next to a small recording studio - cluttered and almost too small for this group meeting. He was videotaping, digitalizing and printing out portraits of a stuffed bear ("Buzzy") sitting on a windowsill. In color. We watched for a while.
Later, on my way out, as I stepped over cables and the skull of Amelia Earhart, Debbie said that if she hadn't been interesting enough I could make things up. "I don't mind being dull, however," she said. "I mind being stupid."
On the way home, I wondered if she had ever had a climax on stage.