Genre - July/August 1996
THE TIDE IS HIGH, SHE'S MOVING ON
By Peter McQuaid
Photography by Greg Gorman
Debbie Harry need not worry
about ever being called a press whore. You see, when
it comes to interviewing just about any celebrity, by
the time the negotiations are struck and the meeting
is consummated, the reporter invariably finds himself
faced with either a subject who falls all over himself
in an attempt to charm the interviewer, or a
recalcitrant, resentful child who is surprised and
dismayed to discover that fame has a price. Harry is
neither. The former lead singer of Blondie (one of the
seminal bands of the '70s), Harry is fairly easy to
get to, but in fact very hard to get into.
Polite and professional once
she's pinned down, this jersey-girl-turned-pop-icon is
in no mood to sit and have her head examined. On our
first date, she politely begged off, complaining of a
headache; the second session ended abruptly when her
cat walked into her bedroom with a bird, scattering
blood and feathers everywhere. By the third session
however, Harry seemed resigned to her fate, answering
the sticky questions as cordially as the easy ones.
Curiously, unlike many famous
people who seem to have canned answers for just about
everything in their lives (leading one to wonder if
they have time for anything but self-analysis), Harry
seems most at sea when asked to reflect on herself and
her career. Ask her for an opinion on current events
though, and as you'll see, she has no shortage of
fresh insights. These insights may, at first glance,
seem a bit out of left field, but on further
inspection seem very well-considered.
Unlike so many of her
contemporaries from the punk years, Harry, it was
widely felt, had superstar potential. Fashion designer
Anna Sui recalls: "Debbie became the punks
scene symbol of the most beautiful girl in the world -
in the same way that Marianne Faithfull or Nico were
for their scenes. In everyone's mind she is the icon
of that time."
But for all her beauty and
talent, for all her being the "It"
girl, Harry's fame flickered. At the height of
Debbie-mania, Chris Stein, Harry's lover at the time
(and still occasional collaborator), became ill with a
mysterious disease, and Harry dropped out of sight to
nurse him back to health. By the time Stein regained
his health, Harry's shot at megastardom had passed.
Interestingly, Harry seems to
regard her mid-level fame as an artistic choice. And
in fact, it has served her well. While mega-artists
such as Madonna find themselves in something of a
gilded cage, balancing the demands of fans with their
need for artistic growth, Harry has had the freedom to
eat to her own beat.
But even as she slipped in
and out of the limelight, Harry has never really gone
away - only mutated: into a solo artist (Koo Koo,
Rockbird, and most recently, Debravation); a Broadway
actress (Teaneck Tanzy and the Venus Flytrap with Andy
Kauffman); a movie star (a housewife in Union City, an
on-air shrink in Videodrome. The Old Woman in the Shoe
in Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater, a pushy
mother in JOhn Waters's Hairspray); a jazz singer
(with the Jazz Passengers); and a CD-ROM presence as
the proprietor of an Egyptian-themed hotel. Yet,
despite all her artistic wanderings, her core group
has never left her. Indeed, she gathers new followers
with each artistic foray.
One group that has loved
Harry in each and every re-incarnation is the gay
community, who has held her up as some kind of icon.
Extra Fancy's openly gay lead singer Brian Grillo
explains the phenomenon like this: "There are
very few rock performers who can hold a whole room's
attention without jumping around - she is one of
them," he says. "There is a statue
of four goddesses at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard
and La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. And you know what?
They should just have four Debbie Harrys. She is the
But the very essence of
Harry's enduring appeal extends well beyond the gay
community, and the reason why is perhaps best captured
by music historian and pop culture writer Gerri
Hirshey. "Her face is the only image from the
'70s that makes you smile instead of wince,"
quips the respected journalist whose work appears in
Vanity Fair and GQ. "She's a game American
dame, willing to try anything from cabaret to CD-ROM
games as long as they pique her interest and keep her
laughing. Hanging out with her is like spending time
with Claudette Colbert in Lycra and leather."
Designer Sui adds, "You
know? When people look at Debbie they still see the
most beautiful girl in the world."
This summer finds Harry in
the studio cutting some new songs (including a duet
with Elvis Costello), as well as promoting her latest
on-screen effort, Heavy. The movie is director is
James Mangold's poetic look at middle-aged denizens of
an upstate New York bar as they struggle to come to
terms with life's disappointments and sort out their
dwindling options. By contrast, Harry seems
unconcerned with disappointments, and she eagerly
entertains a wealth of options.
PETER McQUAID: You're aware
that at this point in your life you're regarded as an
icon, particularly by gay men?
DEBBIE HARRY: Yes, but it's only by accident. I
mean, [sigh], it's never really something that I drove
myself to be. I never envisioned it, it just happened.
All the pieces fell together in the right way at the
PETER McQUAID: But by some strange circumstance,
you seem to have always stayed at a certain level
where you're well known and admired, but not rich and
famous with that superstar status...
DEBBIE HARRY: At the second stage, where I was
supposed to blast off, I just evaporated. I've just
stayed in the art world, and in that respect, it's
kind of lovely.
PETER McQUAID: A situation like that might
ultimately make a lot of people bitter, don't you
DEBBIE HARRY: But most of the time I really adore
my life. And now, doing this other kind of music -
jazz with the Jazz Passengers - and having a different
visual character, it's really nice. And I can become
Blondie at will [laughs].
PETER McQUAID: Do you ever look through pictures
and clippings from your Blondie days and want to
scream: "What was I thinking?"
DEBBIE HARRY: When I look through the pictures I
think, Oh my god! At the time though, I wasn't
thinking at all - to tell you the truth.
PETER McQUAID: Thinking or not, your musical
persona opened a lot of doors for you. You've already
done quite a bit of movie work, and now you're in this
movie, Heavy, with Shelley Winters as a domineering
mother, Pruitt Taylor Vince as her emasculated son,
Liv Tyler as a clueless Catskills ingenue, Evan Dando
as her self-obsessed boyfriend...
DEBBIE HARRY: It's a very sad, depressing kind of
story. Very real. It's not an entertainment thing,
PETER McQUAID: You're a barmaid named Delores in
the movie. What's her story?
DEBBIE HARRY: She's a former high school sweetheart
type, an older version of Liv. And like Liv's
character, Callie - who is also a waitress at the same
place - my character graduated and got confused and
started working. My character looks at Liv and is
pissed off at seeing someone else make the same
mistakes she did - and so she acts out.
PETER McQUAID: Did you have to research this
DEBBIE HARRY: It was pretty clearly written. I try
to keep things as simple and clear as possible. I felt
like with my own natural sense of depression coming
through, I couldn't lose [laughs].
PETER McQUAID: How did you find this project?
DEBBIE HARRY: I got involved through Bebe Buell,
Liv's mother and an old friend of mine from the
[legendary New York rock club] CBGB's days. Liv and
Bebe were excited about it because it was a sensitive
- not commercial - thing. Liv's very serious about
acting and doesn't want to be another flip of the
page. I met with [director] Jim Mangold, and he was
PETER McQUAID: So we know what Delores was like in
high school. What were you like in high school?
DEBBIE HARRY: I wasn't a class leader. I was kind
of quiet. Kind of a shy bohemian. I took art classes,
and I was a hair-hopper. I always dyed my hair
PETER McQUAID: You moved to New York and worked as
a waitress at Max's and you ended up falling in with
Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd. Was that part of a
plan? One of those high school, "I'm gonna
move to New York and become fabulous" things?
DEBBIE HARRY: It's funny, in high school I didn't
know anything about those people. But I always knew I
wanted to move to New York, and when I did, somebody
told me about this restaurant where you could make a
lot of money - that was Max's. That's how I got my
PETER McQUAID: What's the wildest thing you ever
DEBBIE HARRY: After seeing those people every day
and every night, month after month, nothing seemed
weird. But Candy Darling was stunning and beautiful;
you couldn't stop looking at her.
PETER McQUAID: You've been touring with the Jazz
Passengers, and you have a single on their last album.
Can we expect a record in the near future?
DEBBIE HARRY: I'm gonna be working on a couple of
new songs with Chris [Stein]; and the Passengers and I
are going to record a couple of tracks next week. I'm
also going to do a duet with Elvis Costello. That'll
PETER McQUAID: But now you're singing jazz?
DEBBIE HARRY: It's kind of like fake jazz, really.
PETER McQUAID: Years ago, Blondie recorded "Heart
of Glass" and "Call Me" and
pulled off the ultimate musical transgression by
crossing over from rock to disco and back again. To
this day, there is a great deal of animosity between
the rock camp and the disco camp. What do you think
DEBBIE HARRY: I thought it pretty funny. People
were furious. People were like, [hissing] "Death
to disco! How could you do that?"
PETER McQUAID: One thing in particular about the
punk scene was the sense of propriety everyone had.
Every band started out with a small, fanatical
following, yours included, and as they got more and
more popular, the core group would end up becoming
DEBBIE HARRY: We started on a very small level in
the clubs, and then it became bigger, and the
audiences who had supported us from the beginning
became pissed off when other people started coming
around. But you know, I was like that with The Dolls.
PETER McQUAID: The original drag queen rockers,
except all the boys in it were straight...
DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, boy was I mad when other people
started coming around to like them. They were mine.
PETER McQUAID: Are there any scenes around in the
'90s that remind you at all of the punk scene in the
'70s - that kind of energy, the outlawness, the sense
of sexual, artistic, intellectual, and social
DEBBIE HARRY: There was a sense of discovery and
excitement that's missing now. Everything's become so
corporate. I mean, the only thing that has any sense
of clandestine to it is those people from the far
right, the survivalists - and I would touch that with
a ten-foot pole.
PETER McQUAID: How old are you now?
DEBBIE HARRY: Do you really want to print that?
People will hate me when they find out.
PETER McQUAID: They got over "Heart of
Glass," they will get over this.
DEBBIE HARRY: I'll be 51 this year.
PETER McQUAID: Growing up in an era that you first
came to notoriety in, nobody seemed to envision
themselves living past 30 - much less making it to 40
or 50. Did you ever think you'd live this long?
DEBBIE HARRY: Yeah, but I'm still the same asshole
I ever was [laughs].
PETER McQUAID: Are there any artists coming up now
that you hear or look at and go, "Oh, God,
DEBBIE HARRY: Not especially. People have
proclaimed themselves to be based on Blondie, but in
fact we took our references from other things too.
PETER McQUAID: Are there any artists from the
original scene that you run into or keep in touch
DEBBIE HARRY: Once in awhile I see Richard Hell,
who I absolutely adore, and who has a book coming out.
Who else? Gee... A lot of them are gone. But I still
see Joey Ramone a lot, and Johnny, from the Ramones -
they're winding down from their farewell tour.
PETER McQUAID: Who are you listening to now?
DEBBIE HARRY: The last band I went to see was
Coyote Shivers. I saw a really hot show of Iggy Pop's
- the band was real crunchy, abd Iggy looked so great.
Saw the last Ramones show. Love Morphine. I like to
see bands live.
PETER McQUAID: Besides appearing with the
Passengers, you've been appearing live solo
DEBBIE HARRY: I did the Long Beach Gay Pride
Festival - it was quite a thing. I did another gay
party at the end of last summer in Provincetown, and I
did the New York/Boston AIDS Ride. I guess I'm in the
swing of the whole gay thing now.
PETER McQUAID: Are gay rights and AIDS issues of
particular importance to you?
DEBBIE HARRY: Yeah, I mean the AIDS thing is a lot
like being in a war and I'm angry about it. People are
so bigoted and prejudice. These politicians go on
about destruction of the American family and morals.
So what? Maybe we'll go on to something new. I mean,
get a grip, times do change. It's such a shortsighted
approach to human progress.
PETER McQUAID: Years ago, you did an interview with
Chris Stein in which you both talked about what came
to be known as the harmonic convergence, where all the
planets in our solar system formed a line. There was a
school of thought that this occurrence would spark a
new, heightened awareness of some sort. In retrospect,
do you feel this event fulfilled its presumed promise?
Are you disappointed?
DEBBIE HARRY: Things like the harmonic convergence
have more of a long-term effect than an immediate one.
They put a chain reaction into place. And although
Chris would disagree with me, I don't think they
affect our lives that much. Our lives are determined
in other ways. Ask the Unabomber - he knows.
PETER McQUAID: The Unabomber?
DEBBIE HARRY: He went about it the wrong way, but
he does have some interesting points. He is looking
ahead. I saw some guy on TV who made the point that of
all the people to be concerned with the future of
mankind and the environment, he'll probably end up
being St. Theodore, along with Kevorkian.
PETER McQUAID: Back to you. Have you suffered any
major disappointments over the course of your career?
DEBBIE HARRY: I thought that the Broadway show I
did, Teaneck Tanzy and the Venus Flytrap was great, a
lot of fun. The audiences loved it, and then we opened
officially and the critics loved it. Andy Kauffman was
in it too, which in retrospect was kind of incredible,
but it closed almost instantly. I really wish that it
could have had a run. My other disappointment I guess
is about Blondie, I would have handled the whole thing
PETER McQUAID: Are there records you would burn if
DEBBIE HARRY: Nah, I'll leave everything the way it
PETER McQUAID: At one point in your life you worked
at an S&H Green Stamp redemption center in New
Jersey. Ever miss it?
DEBBIE HARRY: [Laughs] No.
PETER McQUAID: What about when you were a Playboy
DEBBIE HARRY: [More laughter] That was quite an
experience. Hard work, really. I think people's
fascination with that is, again, an icon image. It's
spurs the imagination. All those Bunny spurs. My Bunny
PETER McQUAID: How did you feel when you were
described as "The Marilyn Monroe of Rock"?
DEBBIE HARRY: [Laughs] Oh, God. Move over.
PETER McQUAID: Who's your best friend?
DEBBIE HARRY: My dog, Chichan.
PETER McQUAID: Have you slept with any famous rock
DEBBIE HARRY: Good God. I don't know!
PETER McQUAID: What do you look for in a man?
DEBBIE HARRY: It's chemical...it's an animal
response. If he chews gum well - that kind of stuff is
PETER McQUAID: Could you ever be with a man who
didn't like music?
DEBBIE HARRY: That would be very difficult.
PETER McQUAID: What's your favorite TV show?
DEBBIE HARRY: Geez, I don't know. I guess Twentieth
Century. I like investigative reports and stuff about
PETER McQUAID: What do you do about split ends?
DEBBIE HARRY: I cut them off.
PETER McQUAID: What do you do when you want to get
away from it all?
DEBBIE HARRY: I like to go to the beach. Any kind
PETER McQUAID: When you were starting out, a lot of
critics praised you for your ironic distance. What do
you think about that?
DEBBIE HARRY: I think Ironic Distance is a good
name for a racehorse.
PETER McQUAID: Do you have any addictions you'd
like to confess to, such as shopping? Computer chat
rooms? Chocolate? The music of Stevie Nicks?
DEBBIE HARRY: All of the above. Plus, I'm grossly
addicted to the telephone and TV.
PETER McQUAID: Do you still wear mules?
DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, yeah. Sure. And I'm just about to
go for a pedicure, a leg waxing, and, [laughs], if
they have time, a bikini wax.
PETER McQUAID: What do you love most about your
DEBBIE HARRY: I guess my eyes.
PETER McQUAID: What do you like least?
DEBBIE HARRY: I guess my midsection, although it's
not too bad. I'm mad at my stomach today, it's too
PETER McQUAID: What's your happiest memory?
DEBBIE HARRY: Sitting in a small van, driving
around New Zealand after my first bungee jump.
PETER McQUAID: What is your fondest wish?
DEBBIE HARRY: I guess to be in love.
PETER McQUAID: What's the first thing you do when
you get up?
DEBBIE HARRY: Pee.
PETER McQUAID: Do you have a motto? What is it?
DEBBIE HARRY: I'm not afraid.
McQuaid whose work appears in Harper's Bazaar and In
Style, is more of a brownie than a blondie.