Feelings - June 1980
THE UNCENSORED EMOTIONAL OUTLET
The Marilyn Monroe
of Rock and Roll.
Written by Connie Berman and Susan Schneider
Her sensuous, Cupid's bow lips pose in a Barbie-doll pout. She performs in miniskirts and spike heels - which have brought her letters from a crowd of foot fetishists - that show off her well-tapered legs to advantage. Her exquisite breasts are never fettered by bras, but shake titillatingly as she pours her body and soul into her music. Her sultry eyes are a curious combination of little-girl innocence and I've-seen-it-all-and-done-it-all wantonness.
Debbie Harry, lead singer of the supremely popular and otherwise all-male group Blondie, is the premiere female sex object of the rock and roll world. In a milieu dominated by such priapic performers as Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, Debbie clearly holds her own in the sex appeal department. And she makes other contenders for the title of femme fatale of the music world, like Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt, pale by comparison.
Debbie, 34, has been called the punk Harlow and been likened to sex goddesses like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. Interestingly, she identifies with Monroe, despite the fact that the group has its roots in punk, rather than identifying with fellow female punker Patti Smith. And, importantly, it is the powerful, sexual Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot with whom Debbie identifies, rather than the pathetic ill-used and crushed victim of the Arthur Miller days.
Debbie is exceptionally pretty, as well as being sexy, which surely intensifies her appeal. She has the kind of face and bone structure that would have modeling agencies bidding madly for her if that were her wish - except that as founder of and composer for Blondie with her boyfriend, lead guitarist Chris Stein, it's art and music that make her thrive. The girl who was voted best-looking senior in her class in Hawthorne, New Jersey, has helped propel the six-year-old group to platinum success - an achievement even more remarkable in these days when record sales have gotten out of the bullish grooves and the industry is in its worst slump in 25 years. Blondie's disco-like Heart of Glass went platinum worldwide, and the LP Parallel Lines is pushing 3 million in sales.
The presence and the charisma - an overused word that's most applicable in Debbie's case - is something of which she's very much aware. Sometimes she speaks of it with knowing aplomb. After one photography session, the lensman remarked about her uncanny sense of self. "I've always learned how to turn it off and on," she says. "I can do it just like that. I'm getting better all the time."
But then, ever the unpredictable lady, she'll turn coy and say, almost helplessly, in a manner recalling Marilyn Monroe's fetching naivete, "I didn't create the situation. My face seems to sell. I can't help that. When you come to watch a group play, you normally watch the vocalist, unless you have a mad infatuation for the drummer."
But Blondie is a group (there are even lapel buttons stating this as a fact), and Debbie Harry states emphatically that she wouldn't have "continued working with the same people in the band for four years" if she'd wanted to do it any other way. Still, Blondie is a group that, despite its phenomenal success, is plagued with an image problem. At this point the group places the blame for this problem squarely on the shoulders of the press, who have zeroed in on Debbie Harry as superstar.
Debbie herself has to continually remind people that "my name's not Blondie. Blondie is a group. I'm just the singer."
Yet how can it be denied that this so-called "just the singer" is the focal point of the group? Take Debbie Harry, the magnetically appealing punk pinup out of the picture, and Blondie, the group, would be left without a center. Remaining would be a group of undeniably talented and competent songwriters and performers - but lacking its organic center, its very heart, if you will.
WHEN Blondie first broke into the commercial arena, there were, at once, problems within the group about the sort of image that was going to be projected. Private Stock, the small, independent company that was producing Blondie at the time, came up with a poster of Debbie wearing a see-through top. Understandably, the group felt that Debbie's sexiness was being packaged in order to sell the group, and there was a great deal of strong feeling against going for the "dirty-old-man" market. Debbie herself despises the poster, and before the uproar died down, Private Stock had to defend it by saying it was all a matter of simple and necessary promotion. After all, the company felt, the band did have to be sold.
Debbie may have objected to the poster but her views on sexuality are clearly commercial. She's astutely aware of the market value of sex.
"I think that the highest appreciation that anyone has is usually sexual," she says, her face composed in a languid but erotic pose. "That is the important thing. It really is. Because sex is the biggest seller - it sells more magazines, more clothes, more everything. Sex is it in rock and roll. It's sex and sass. What else sells?"
And she has purveyed her sexuality in more places than just the music business. For a while she fulfilled a long-held fantasy of working as a Playboy Bunny. An older man, whom Debbie had a crush on as a teen-ager and whom she found virile and exciting, had been a Playboy subscriber and would enthuse about the clubs. Even back then, Debbie was accommodating herself to men's sexual fantasies, playing out sexual personas.
She liked the money, which was sometimes as much as three to five hundred dollars a night in tips. But she quit when she became bored and angry, feeling cloistered by the strict rules. As a woman whose hair often comes out tiedyed orange, Debbie felt hemmed in by the fact that her hair and make-up had to be a particular style. It just wasn't the kind of individualistic sexuality that is Debbie's terrain.
No matter what she happens to be doing on stage - pouting innocently or engaging in an awkward, sexy, self-mocking striptease - all eyes are riveted on her. It's her own distinctive, erotic body language. When Blondie performs, all protestations
aside, Blondie is Debbie Harry.
Her glamor-queen, punk-pinup, star quality has made Debbie much sought after by both Mick Jagger and Carlo Ponti for movie roles. So far she's held them at bay. But she has already appeared in a film called Union City, in which she plays a New Jersey housewife, a role she's familiar with. She is also singing as herself in Roadie, shot on location in Texas, a boogie-rock movie starring Meat Loaf.
And while the talent of the male members of the group cannot be denied, it's obviously Debbie's magnetism that made Blondie the first group to be contracted to perform an entire LP - Eat to the Beat - for videotape cassettes.
Simply stated, Debbie Harry's time has come. Finally, the world is ready for a female rock singer who projects an un-abashed sexuality, rather than the desperate quality of Joplin, or the neurotic, bruised and dumped-on vulnerability of Ronstadt. Debbie is a rock star who's just as willing to talk about sex as any of the men are. In a recent Playboy interview she declared, when asked about exercise: "I like swimming. And fucking." And she confessed that she was twice caught fucking. "Once in a phone booth and once when I was fucking in my house. My father caught me."
Even her performances urge the audience on to wild displays of
behavior - often bizarrely erotic. During one recent concert, a teen-ager was moaning with what can only be described as orgasmic pleasure, and another male spectator was punching his groin in frenzied frustration. There's often the scent of raw sex in the air at a Blondie performance.
SHAPED by the political and sexual upheavals of the sixties, Debbie's history is similar to the stories of countless young people who gravitated either to New York City or San Francisco during that time, with a yearning for "experience" stemming from a deep disaffection from mainstream culture. Says Debbie, "It was always my dream to live the bohemian life in New York and have my own apartment and do things. I didn't like suburbia [she grew up in New Jersey]. I always had my own secret, private ideas." And, apparently, those secret yearnings all involved being precisely what Debbie is now - a star.
It was a long, hard road for a girl who feels that she is basically shy and on the outside of whatever world she happens to be drawn to. After she made the big move to New York, she worked successively as a beautician, a secretary, a barmaid and then as the Bunny, although she claims she was never good enough at it to work prime-time Friday and Saturday nights. Shortly after this stint, Debbie sang for a hippie group that recorded just one album before it sank into oblivion.
Then, suddenly, in 1968, things fell apart for her, and her love of music became obscured in a haze of drugs and depression. Her boyfriend, Gil, died of an overdose. It wasn't until
several years later, in 1973, that her life began taking shape again. At that time she was singing in an all-girl group called the Stilettos, and was noticed by a young guitarist named Chris Stein. After the Stilettos broke up, Harry and Stein formed a new group and named it Blondie, after the "Hey, Blondie!" salutation Debbie was so accustomed to hearing whenever she walked through the city streets.
In its incarnation, Blondie played in the East Village, and in Soho bars and lofts, hardly places that were conductive to reaching a mass audience. But with the release of its first single, Blondie, unlike any of its peers, proved to be a group that did indeed have widespread popular appeal. Now, they have come a long way from those grimy lofts and dives, and most of all, the grinding poverty, of lower Manhattan. About Blondie's commercial success, Clem Burke says that Blondie was never considered punk enough in punk's heyday. "We weren't intellectual enough because we liked the Bay City Rollers and that wasn't very chic. Now, because we did play CBGB's, people call us a punk band when all we're doing is making good pop records."
It was at CBGB's, early in 1976, that Blondie was unearthed at this prime, New York City punk palace, by producer Richard Gottehrer, who then brought Larry Uttal, president of Private Stock, down to the Bowery to see them. Uttal was immediately impressed with Debbie's singing style, sensing in her a fifties, girl-group sort of appeal, which set Blondie off from any other punk band playing down town. Uttal knew there was something decidedly out of the ordinary there: No one could say, even way back then, that Debbie Harry was anything but unique - on the Bowery or anywhere else for that matter. Blondie was signed by Richard Gottehrer in August of 1976, and the band's first single, "Sex Offender/In The Sun," was recorded in September. The record didn't sell particularly well, but received enough notice and airplay for Private Stock to sign Blondie to do its first album, Blondie.
THE important point is that from the beginning, the group's unique projection of sexuality - unlike the asexual image assumed by most bands - was what helped Blondie, and of course, Debbie Harry, up the ladder of success.
And yet, Debbie is a reluctant sex symbol. Like Marilyn Monroe, Debbie takes herself seriously as an artist. Also like Monroe, Debbie wants to be a star and finds herself in the classic predicament of the female performer - she (and the band) are packaged and sold on the strength of her considerable sexuality. Still, Harry admits that she wishes she "had invented sex. Sex is everything. It's number one." And herein lies the fascination of Debbie Harry - her awareness of herself as a sex symbol coupled with the intelligence that allows her to scoff at it and mock it, and to keep a firm grasp on her vocation as an artist. She won't be "just" a star. She loves rock'n'roll - always has - and she loves being a star. But on her own terms - that's the key. If she happens to feel like exploiting her sexuality, she'll damn well do it; if she chooses to flaunt it, well, it's hers to flaunt. She has come under attack for doing so, however. A columnist in England's New Musical Express once berated her for doing a picture sleeve wherein she is shown licking the side of a record. Debbie was enraged by this: "Tell him he can take me on," she said. "He can come on stage and sing a damned song, and I'll write his damned column for him." Now Debbie feels somewhat resigned to this sort of critical wrist-slapping, and feels that "the only good thing that will come out of it is the satisfaction I get for myself."
The group's latest album, Eat To The Beat, reveals Blondie as a great group - not just Debbie Harry, superstar. They've managed, this time, to fuse soul, reggae and old-time sixties teen pop, showing they are songwriters and performers all, and adhering to their original steadfast determination to make it as a group, with a distinctive taste and style all its own. It's a breakthrough album, from a group unafraid of incorporating influences from the past, unafraid to grow and evolve, and fortunate enough to have Debbie Harry at the forefront - a blonde in the great tradition of blondes, a star and sex symbol with a difference. For most of all, Blondie's lead singer is intelligent (perhaps too intelligent to ever be a truly great Playboy Bunny), but as far as becoming a great rock star, it's beginning to seem inevitable. She hasn't had an easy time of it: She's spent most of her life searching for answers and rejected the easy ones before finally reaching the point of knowing who she is and what she wants. She knows she can "do her own thing" with Blondie; she is serious about music without being "artsy" ("Rock is a medium, not an art"); and she is shrewd about her own powerful appeal: "Looks have been one of the most saleable things ever. When I woke up to that, mine helped like mad."
Looking back on her life, she has reason to be satisfied. "I kept changing. I was always experimenting. I wanted to see what the big wide world was all about. And it really was everything it was cracked up to be. I had a good time. I still do."
But perhaps the best insight into Debbie Harry's character comes from this succinct summing-up: "I'm an escape artist."