Graffiti - 1986 - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - Canadian Magazine
Pages 20 & 21
By Kris Needs
What makes a Rockbird fly? Apartment disasters, French kissing, green toast, Magic Dick and the lawnmower effect...
Fierce day-glo letters proclaim the return of Debbie Harry on the sleeve of Rockbird, her first album in four years. The troubled times which saw the breakup of Blondie, constant business wrangles and the near-fatal illness of longtime boyfriend and partner Chris Stein are finally behind her. Chris has recovered, Harry has a new record label in the U.S. (Geffen) and she now feels ready to ease her way back into the arena with her first true solo album.
That is why I'm perched in her New York manager's office one Monday morning with a pair of headphones clamped on my eager ears, waiting for Debbie to return from a radio interview. I nod away to the Debbiefied rock, pop and funk of the album. This one's aimed at the radio and the charts - no bland-out, just a down-the-line collection of what Debbie Harry does best.
As the last track chops out its closing strains, Debbie walks in wearing a radio station sweatshirt. At 42, she's still recognizable as the face that captured the punk and pop generations of the mid-'70s. The eyes are grey-blue and clear, while the hair (after a brief stint as natural brown) is blonde and loose. The years off the road have filled out any tour-diet emaciation, though she doesn't appear to have gained too much weight.
But where has she been for these past years?
"It really hasn't been as long as all that," Debbie says. "It just took time to straighten all that stuff out. Some people said, 'You've been gone for six years!' I did a couple of records ("Rush Rush" for the Scarface soundtrack in '83 and last year's "Feel the Spin") - they were only singles, but they were music! I've been keeping my hand in, but I haven't been hounding the old publicity trail."
WORK AS AN ELIXIR
Chris' illness - a rare genetic disorder called pemphigis - was the main reason for Debbie's hiatus. They spent the time secluded - resting and recuperating. "It was frustrating for Chris, and for me too," she says. "It's taking a while, the recuperation. But he's really back to his former self. His hair's greyer and he's got a little beard and moustache. He got really heavy for a while from the medication (steroids), but now he's back to his normal weight. He's also got terrific ideas, as usual. He's a very creative person. He never really stopped. One of the worst things about being sick is that your mind keeps going and you're so limited. I know that he hasn't stopped thinking about doing things, so now he's about to carry them out. And I really feel terrific since I've been working on the music again. It's really an... elixir. Heh heh heh!"
At least it must have been a relief to get away from the Blondie madness, I suggest.
"Everybody does the same thing. They reach a peak, go 'Enough!' and shut the door and cool out for a while," she says. "The way we had our band situation set up, it was very cumbersome, because everybody had a say in what was going on. Then there was all the touring, the interviews - it got so we couldn't really rest. We just kept running with nervous energy. It was like being luggage." She pauses for a second, and suddenly her face brightens. "But I'm looking forward to it again, so I must really be a glutton for punishment!"
Indeed, for the first time in her 10-year career, Debbie Harry has sorted out, and is happy with, her business setup. In February, 1985, she met lawyer Stanley Arkin, and became his first and only "star." She sold her old home, organized her finances and worked out a "contractual stalemate" with Chrysalis Records which left her free to pursue a new U.S. deal while remaining on Chrysalis in the rest of the world.
The resulting first album, Rockbird, was produced by Seth Justman, keyboard player and producer for the J. Geils Band. Chris contributed three songs - "In Love With Love" (the funky daughter of "Heart of Glass," slotted to be the next single), "Secret Life" and the title track. Why only three?
"It's just the way it broke down. Chris' music has a specific sound and style, and Seth just wanted to get a different variety of material, which we did. That's not to say I wouldn't have liked more of Chris' music on it. Perhaps the next one. I think he's a real trendsetter and a musical genius who hasn't really gotten total recognition for his work."
FRENCH KISSING AND HARDCORE
Next, I ask Debbie to give me a guided tour of some of the songs on the album, starting with "I Want You" - a hook-infested pop-punker blessed with a harp solo from J. Geils' Magic Dick. She feels it's important "because it's one of the few songs I wrote with another woman" - Toni C., who writes for Jellybean Benitez. "Our idea was 'Dare to be Dumb.' It's not really dumb, but it's based on early punk. The sequel will be 'Suddenly Stupid.' I'm not kidding!"
Then there's the single, "French Kissin'," a sensual swayer, partly in French to compound the smoulder, and featuring great backing vocals in what Seth calls "the lawnmower effect" (rolling syncopation). "Buckle Up" is a mean groove with meaty horns - "a very New York song." The title track, meanwhile, plays on words with many feathery references. "I just thought it was a singer, a rock singer, a rock bird, and then I started thinking about lyrics for a rockbird. It's supposed to be lighter and clowny - like how can a chunk of rock fly?"
Fans who remember Blondie from the early days will note that the tune "In The End" includes the line, 'I want you like a hardcore fan" - and, in fact, some Sunday afternoons find Chris and Debbie whooping it up at CBGB's hardcore matinees. "I like hardcore," Debbie says enthusiastically. "It reminds me of punk or maybe sort of a cross between punk and heavy metal."
"Secret Life," on the other hand, sees a lovely airy quality in Debbie's voice, which is laid over a sultry soundtrack atmosphere. She is surprised when I name it my favorite chip off the Rockbird.
"It's odd that you say that because that really has something to do with having a relationship with somebody. With me and Chris it's sort of like a third personality has developed. We don't have a child or anything, but it's like I'm one person and he's one person but with the two of us together it's like there's this other, third person. That's what I meant about this secret life that can't exist without two people... a sort of joint personality that comes out."
As far as "Free to Fall" goes, "This one's personal but not as personal at the same time. The chorus implies something about a relationship which you can't get out of. It really has a lot to do with... nothing, I guess. I don't know. It gets back to the old Blondie perspective of being like the observer, because a lot of songs I wrote then were done in the third person. This album has the most personal lyrics I've ever written. I think it's because of my personal involvement or maybe I'm more brave now."
The album ends with "Beyond The Limit," a classic Chic-vamp by Nile Rodgers that's a catalog of apartment disasters as the ceiling falls in and the toast turns green. "This past summer my landlord said they were going to do some renovations downstairs. Suddenly they're pounding away on our walls. I thought, 'Oh my God, what if the ceiling falls in?' That was the simple basis for that."
Besides Magic Dick, musicians on the album include guitarist Jimmy Ripp (ex-Kid Creole, Tom Verlaine, Yoko Ono Band), James White and Jocelyn Brown. Debbie says she would like to tour if she can get the right musicians together. "I don't want it to be just a bunch of back-up men doing the Debbie Harry show. They have to have some kind of identity to put together some sort of band."
In terms of personal habits and hobbies, Debbie now leads an early to bed, early to rise existence. "I can't really say I've been on a health kick," she says, "but I fall asleep at 9:30, wake up at midnight, and go 'What's happening?' Maybe this is good for New York, I don't know. Anyway, I still go out occasionally - I definitely plan to catch Motorhead next week!"
It seems that the dark clouds have lifted for Debbie Harry. I ask her how it feels to be once again in the music business.
"I don't expect it to be like it was with Blondie," she says. "I mean, we were a phenomenon. I don't expect it to happen like that ever again. But since I'm solo I can say, 'OK, I'm going to do this now,' then I can work on something else. From my experience, I'm probably more relaxed about everything - and smarter."