HIT PARADER - June 1981
IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE PLAY ON
Domestic Bliss with Debbie and Chris, or Not Tonight Dear I Have a Headache.
by Roy Trakin
According to the Bible, "Rapture" will occur when Jesus Christ returns to retrieve a third of the Earth's population for the Kingdom of Heaven, leaving the rest to rot with their sins. A few weeks ago, a caller phoned T.V. Party, the anarchic cable show cohosted by Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and resident bon vivant Glen O'Brien, announcing that the "Rapture" had already taken place.
"I told the guy that I hadn't noticed anyone missing," recalls Stein. "And he laughed, 'That's because you and all the people you hang out with are fucked!'"
On Blondie's fifth and most accomplished album, Autoamerican, Rapture is a hilarious Deborah Harry hip-hoppin' rap about a man from Mars who eats cars, bars and ultimately guitars as the band hammers yet another nail into rock and roll's coffin. While Rapture climbs the r&b charts, the rest of Autoamerican (produced by Mike Chapman out in Los Angeles), represents a breezy cross-section of native musical forms - from the '30s Depression-era swing of Here's Looking At You, to the sudsy pseudocountry honky-tonk of Go Through It, from the fake-classical movie soundtrack flourish that opens the record (Europa) to the hopelessly sentimental, but yearning Tin Pan Alley of Camelot's Follow Me. In short, Blondie hangs out with a distinctly higher class musical crowd these days, including L.A. jazzer Tom Scott, veteran orchestra conductor Jimmy Haskell, stand-up bassist Ray Brown and funk guitarist Wa Wa Watson, all of whom appear on the new LP.
Autoamerican not only marks a return to traditional musical values, but also represents an affirmation of classical human virtues like respect, commitment, trust and love. The album may be packaged like Blondie product for the MOR masses, but the group's chilly cynicism has given way to a surprisingly warm and generous humanity. It's a deceptively long road from having a love that was a "gas, but soon turned out to be a pain in the ass," to "You know it's so passe/To sleep without you every day" (Live It Up). The difference is this time the heart is flesh and blood, not glass.
We're in the living room of Chris and Debbie's modest New York midtown penthouse. Stein sits on the sofa amidst a burgeoning pile of fan letters, photographs, party invitations, business letters, gold records, paintings, drawings and electronic toys, meticulously cleaning some of his killer homegrown, the first signs of a healthy pot-belly creasing his middle. Phones ring and the stereo blasts as photographer William Coupon parades through the apartment with a wall-sized blow up of Debbie for Chris' approval. The lady herself is in the kitchen hollowing out pumpkins. A day in the life of America's favorite punk couple, the N.Y. underground's King and Queen.
"I'm disturbed by the narrowness of rock and roll fans and what they want to listen to," Stein replies to my observation on Autoamerican's old-fashioned appeal. "It's sad that a lot of these older types of music will get lost. The world of rock is always being sold as a socially relevant commodity, when it's just show biz like anything else. I'm more versed in a general form of pop music rather than any specifics. I think the tragedy is that all these tastes get broken down with everybody retreating to his own little camp. The most successful acts are the ones that constantly create their own frame of reference, avoiding the mold."
The point is not to judge Blondie's forays into assorted musical genres against the real thing. Obviously, the boozy, lilting The Tide Is High has more to do with Jamaica Queens than the island itself. Of course, Live It Up is a jokey, cocktail lounge version of Bad Girls. Sure, Faces is to cabaret what Betty Boop is to Edith Piaf. Just remember, Blondie was a cartoon long before it became a group. Still, Autoamerican's "songs for the new depression" ambience is a trifle smug, no?
"It remains to be seen what effect the record will have," says Stein. "We wanted to make music that would cross over. I would like to see the record help resolve racial tensions by bringing different audiences together. When the new wave kids and the rappers get together, that'll be something. Eventually, they'll all meet in the middle, where you'll have a strong race of young people that won't be divided by stupid racial issues."
You can be sure the hard-core rock critics aren't going to like Autoamerican very much.
"Whatever you do, reviewers are always divided in thirds. They either like it, hate it or have mixed feelings about it. It doesn't have anything to do with quality. It has more to do with selling advertising," Stein observes. "The press has always tried to write Debbie off by calling me her Svengali. It's just another snidely sexist attitude. We've always helped each other out. It's never been a manipulative-type situation."
So, your relationship is not like either Roger Smith and Ann Margret or John and Bo Derek, then?
"No, it's more like Steve and Cyndi Garvey; both sides have their say. I call it the Ike Turner syndrome. Everyone thought he had her tied up in the shower before the show, when it was really the other way around."
Meanwhile a casually attired Deborah Harry emerges from the kitchen, where she's been hard at work making pumpkin pie from scratch. As a couple, Chris and Debbie almost resemble the drab pair in Union City, the movie in which Harry starred. She cooks while he devises a fool-proof method to figure out who's been stealing his milk delivery every morning. It's that mundane.
"When we were getting to know each other, we had a lot of disagreements," recalls Debbie, "but, after being together for a long time, we really see things much the same way now."
"We're definitely partners," affirms Chris.
"I think I have a better understanding of the business world than he does," boasts Debbie. "Chris has a better sense of time and logic. How things will actually happen."
"Our roles are hard to nail down because we flip-flop and take opposite sides as well. We have a very fluid relationship that can adapt to just about anything," says Chris.
"Sometimes I can't bear to answer the phone, so Chris will do all the business that day. And then, the next day, I will do it. We support each other," insists Debbie.
"I think we have a normal relationship," concludes Chris.
"I don't think there's any way to describe my existence except it's mine. There's no such thing as a domestic existence. Everybody lives their life the way they want," says Debbie. "I do everything in my life."
"She gets her own glasses of water," adds Chris. "She carries her own bags."
Did Deborah like to cook?
"I gotta eat, Roy. I can't send out to Wolf's Deli every day."
"The maid cooks," exclaims Stein.
"He's just trying to get you to tell him about Beulah, the Eye-talian maid."
Harry picks up the thread. "Bring the spaghetti, Beluah, he knows you're in there."
"I don't like to eat in restaurants," complains Chris. "I was traumatized by having to eat in the high school lunchroom. We've just spent half our royalties from the last two albums buying mammoth steaks imported from Siberia. $157.50 a pound."
How closely did Debbie identify with the mousey, sexually repressed housewife she portrayed in Union City?
"That's the way it was in the '50s. When I was growing up in those days, I had hints about what it was like. My life was directed just like hers was. I wasn't encouraged to become a nuclear physicist. I was naturally thought of as becoming a housewife and mother. You weren't supposed to wear clothes that were too tight, stuff like that."
How did Stein feel now about sharing his girlfriend's sexually provocative image with the public? Judging from some choice pieces of fan mail as well as the foul mouthed callers on T.V. Party, I'd say he's encouraging some pretty perverse fantasies out there.
"As far as T.V. Party goes, that's the same three guys who call back all the time," claims Stein. "I've always been attracted to pictures of girls, especially Debbie. Our fan mail is not that bad. We don't get Polaroid snapshots of guys with hard-ons, really. At least it doesn't filter through to us. The most we get are requests for underwear and shoes."
Certainly, most criticism of Blondie's blatant marketing of Deborah's sexual persona ignores her lyrical contributions. The band's recent chart-topping Call Me success depended as much on Debbie's ear-catching "Roll me in designer sheets" as it did producer Giorgio Moroder's propelling guitar/keyboard riff. In addition, Deborah created the music and copy for her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans ad, a potentially irritating commercial hook if I ever heard one.
"When I started working on Autoamerican," explains Harry, "my whole idea was to be earth bound and realistic. Street level."
Aren't those street people precisely the ones who are going to be screaming "sell-out" the loudest?
"This LP's aimed at the real street people. The hip-hoppers and the rappers," counters Stein. "The new wave is plastic. They're just our next generation of computer programmers."
"It's a very confusing record to listen to because you have to have varied tastes," suggests Debbie.
How did she respond to the traditional criticism of her singing, like it was off-key or out-of-tune?
"I am off-key sometimes."
But don't you use that for a purpose?
"Do I really? Gee, thanks Roy."
Chris comes to the defense. "In each of our records, Debbie's pitch has been pretty consistent."
"I can point out songs where I sound slightly off, but people say no," says Debbie. "It's like a fuzz box or a wah-wah pedal. You can get all these different qualities and attitudes in your voice by just changing the tone. It's like the same notes with a different style."
Autoamerican showcases Harry's versatility as a singer more than the trashy garage-rock of the first album, the metallic glitter of Plastic Letters, the Eurodisco pop of Parallel Lines or the high-techno flash of Eat to the Beat. On practically every track she assumes a different character.
"I think it's much more obvious this time. We tried for that versatility on earlier records, but I don't think we pulled it off until now. My voice hasn't changed, but I know I've improved as a singer and recording artist. I also believe my attitude and my ability to express moods has really gotten better."
Did they see how Autoamerican might suggest a cultural return to more conservative, repressed, tradition-bound lifestyles?
"I think people are concerned because of the conservative take over in government," agrees Debbie. "But once you've established a lifestyle and made progress in it, it's much harder to go backward than forward. People in this country are still used to the acquisition of comfort. Americans are so spoiled and ignorant about the rest of the world. We're so rich and our lifestyles are so comparatively high, it's appalling. Give me a break."
But there are still a lot of people around here who are struggling to make ends meet.
"Yeah, like all our friends," sighs Chris.
"One of the worst things I've seen is the way certain talented people I know, who were leaders back in the C.B.G.B. days, haven't been able to achieve the stardom they should have," says Debbie. "It takes more talent than just being able to get onstage and sing."
Would Blondie have made it if Heart of Glass hadn't hit precisely when it did?
"That's a major fallacy," insists Stein, "because everyone thinks having a Number One record in America and breaking through here is such a big deal. All along I realized we could easily be happy just having hits in Europe and England."
Doesn't cracking the American market, though, take you from earning $30,000 a year to over $100,000?
"Probably," admits Stein.
"It's a lot more in taxes, too," adds Debbie.
Chris suddenly hits upon a pleasant thought. "Maybe Reagan will save us after all. Just as we're starting to make real money, he'll be ready to cut taxes, won't he?"
Once again, Blondie manages to be in the right place at the right time. You've got to hand it to Stein, Harry and their cohorts, Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke, Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante. They've created a concept so marketable that, at this very moment, obscure Jersey cover bands ply their trade performing nothing but Blondie material with Debbie Harry-cloned lead singers. Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and didn't Blondie themselves start that way? Wouldn't Deborah be curious to check out such a band one night?
"No way!" she sneers. "They're only doing it for the money! You've gotta have heart."
In Autoamerican's carnival mirror image of America's pop music roots, a wistful, but never nostalgic, Blondie finally prove they're just as concerned with true romance as foolproof economics.