Interview - March 2004
WITH THE MUSIC INDUSTRY DESPERATELY IN NEED OF A SHOT OF ADRENALINE, ROCK'N'ROLL'S FIRST PLATINUM PUNKS ARE BACK TO PROVE, ONCE AGAIN, THAT FOR MUSIC TO BE POPULAR, IT NEED NOT BE PREDICTABLE
BY TIM BLANKS PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAH LEN
While there is an air of elegance to the name "Deborah," to everyone who experienced an awakening of sorts when Blondie first hit the global stage back in 1978, the blonde in one of punk-rock era's most influential bands will always be "Debbie." With the release of Blondie's eighth studio album, provocatively titled The Curse of Blondie (Sanctuary), and a fresh rash of Fleetwood Macish rumors to face down, Interview spoke with three of the group's original members, guitarist Chris Stein, drummer Clem Burke, and the inimitable singer, Deborah Harry.
TIM BLANKS: Hi, Deborah. How are you?
DEBORAH HARRY: I'm okay. Fighting a cold. It's just so annoying, you know? I remember being sick as a kid and getting through it semiconscious. But as an adult, it's annoying.
TB: Well, you can't let it get worse because there's a really toxic brand of laryngitis going around, which in your profession could be a curse - and which is the perfect segue into talking about your new album. [Harry laughs] Given Blondie's tumultuous history, there are people who might think the record's title isn't particularly ironic.
DH: Yeah, maybe there are. [laughs] But, for me, the title refers to an idea in that Martin Scorsese movie, The King of Comedy . Robert De Niro's character, Rupert Pupkin, felt that if you took all the bad things that happened to you and turned them into something funny or ironic, then that's life, really. [laughs]
TB: But for you, in particular, there is also the curse of the blonde, like Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield. You have toyed with that lineage in the past.
DH: Well, I guess so. When we were starting out I was searching for an identity, and that idea was much more part of my everyday thinking. As a kid, I always found blondes fascinating; that element of drama and tragedy was very attractive. Blondie was a smaller band, and we really did approach it like a conceptual performance piece. At one point, sometime around 1981, I had this revelation that I might become a victim of the image. I clearly remember having a real moment where I thought it would ruin my life. But now it's all much more personal - I don't know if it's acceptance or just divine providence. [both laughs]
TB: The Curse of Blondie is kind of a compendium of New York musical styles. Was that a conscious thing?
DH: Well, Blondie records have always had an assortment of styles. For example, there was a song on Plastic Letters  called "Cautious Lip" that explored our appreciation of the late '60s jam bands. The song "Desire Brings Me Back," on our new record, is like that. I really like the pulsing agony of it. It's so driven, really alive with some funk. You find that kind of thing in the jazz world, where you hear all the rough edges. But in pop music, the complexion of things is very smooth and finished. Everything is so perfect.
TB: There has always been a legend about the contentiousness within Blondie. Do you think everyone is just older and wiser now?
DH: It's difficult to work in a group. Theater groups have the same problem. You're with the same people for a long time, working together to make some sort of artistic expression, and it becomes very frustrating if you feel stifled, or frightened, or things get out of hand. When we were starting out, I certainly felt extremely vulnerable - all of a sudden jumping into stardom. I was not prepared. My goals in life back then were different: I was looking for an art form to exorcise my demons, and becoming a rock star was not my primary goal. But in Blondie, we have three
strong-minded, strong-willed writers, and everybody wants to make their own statement. So the band is like an octopus - this central brain that reaches out and expands.
TB: In the mid-1970s, when you were first coming up, there was a crop of other strong, iconic women, like Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and Chrissie Hynde. When you look at today's menagerie of pop tarts, do you ever feel like things have gone horribly wrong?
DH: [laughs] Yes, I do sometimes. Somewhere there's a cookie-cutter machine that's stamping out acceptable behavior for girl singers. I know there's some variety, and some people out there are approaching things in a really unique way - but Patti Smith compared to any of them? I mean, Patti Smith is so radical. She's on another planet that these girls. Actually, it's like we're on another planet and Patti Smith is where we should be. [laughs] But that element of pop music certainly makes my punkness come to life, I feel like, "All right, motherfuckers." [laughs] What's the point of being an artist if somebody's going to tell you how to do it?
TB: Back in 1979, in the pages of this magazine, you said, "It takes you until you're about 50 years old before anyone notices you're doing anything at all." Did you ever think that pop music would be a pensionable career?
DH: The artists and singers I've always loved have had very long careers. Look at Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone: All that force and all that meaning, all that continuity that makes up a life and is part of what your music is about - why would that be bad? As you get older, you know more - when to be flexible and when to be inflexible, when you should give way and when it's your turn to have your way. [laughs] Basically, you learn to say Fuck it" in a lot of different ways.
TB: It's enough to make you nostalgic.
DH: [laughs] How awful! Nostalgia is a drag. But it's also enough to make you want to fight for your individuality and make a statement that's not contained within the selling of a product. When we were coming up it was such an open period for art and music, and I was so lucky to have had that experience. It was wonderful to be in love, doing what I was doing. It was something that happens only once in a lifetime. It was my period of innocence, and just great to have had my freedom.
THE BOYS BESIDE THE BLONDE
CHRIS STEIN, STRUMMER
CLEM BURKE, DRUMMER
TIM BLANKS: What does the album's title, The Curse of Blondie, mean to you?
CHRIS STEIN: Everyone in the band has their own variant. As Clem always says, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre: "Hell is other people." [both laughs] But we keep stressing that part of the curse is we finally have achieved some kind of success in the record business, which is going through a drastic transformation now. I think this era of charts and rigidity is going to be over because of the internet. And part of our appeal is that our approach to making music is naturalistic. We do stuff on our own terms. Even doing a song like "Rapture" in rap was not so much about getting street credibility as it was being excited about rap when we first encountered it.
TB: But do you think success gave you the luxury of exploring those things?
CS: Yeah, certainly. Our success had a lot to do with the nature of the band, and Debbie being so fantastic-looking and having so much appeal. But it wasn't something we ever planned out. It was just always whatever felt right at the moment.
TB: In the early 1980s you became very ill with a rare genetic disease. A brush with death, like the one you had, definitely heightens your perceptions. Does it make you reevaluate?
CS: Yeah, I suppose. My illness was a slow, ongoing process. It wasn't like jumping out of the way of a speeding car or anything. It was more like doing lots of drugs. The illness thing is still fascinating.
TB: Are you conscious of your legacy now?
CS: Yeah, in some ways, you can't avoid it. I do have tons of stuff from those days. Just today, I was very excited because I found pictures I took years ago at the Tropicana [Resort & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey] of Anthony Kiedis [of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers] with his father, Blackie. Anthony was probably around 12 years old, and his father was this young swinger guy. They are really dramatic pictures. You know, we never got to have any Michael Jackson Neverland, Rolls Royce-type situations, so what we have now is not that far removed from what we had then. I still have a pretty funky life.
TB: Has being in Blondie been a different experience for you all?
CLEM BURKE: It's a weird paradox in a way: We've had more No. 1 records in the States than a lot of other bands, but we're not really in the mainstream. We've kept our artistic integrity while having some commercial success. It's a very Andy Warholish thing, having success the way we have. What Andy was doing in the art world was very influential for all of us. What does pop art mean? It's to create something within popular culture that's almost throwaway or trashy, which has a lot to do with the aesthetic of Blondie in the early days, especially when you think of B movies; when we were writing about giant ants from space and things like that, it was all tongue-in-cheek. But as we grew in popularity and the culture progressed, a lot of things we thought were private property became mainstream.
TB: But I suppose that one of the hangovers of pop is that we don't hang onto things.
CB: Yeah, disposability. It's interesting that cult bands almost have more longevity than one-hit wonders, so maybe we're lucky. But we had tremendous success, and I think that's the foundation for us being here today. My vision in the early days was to find someone like Debbie because as a drummer, I knew I would have to play with other people. I was looking for my Marc Bolan, my David Bowie, my Mick Jagger, and I was immediately taken with Debbie. All the admiration she's received from other people has been no surprise to me. This has all gone according to plan, if you will.
TB: Do you think the album's title means something different to each of you?
CB: That could be true. I might be the curse of Blondie to Chris, and Chris might be the curse of Blondie to me. [laughs] Part of the curse is being in the band, right? There's the camaraderie and the love, and there's also the backbiting. With our last record, No Exit , the title was taken from a Sartre play, which says there's no madness in individuals, it's all in group's. I think that's probably what all these reality TV shows are about. Maybe we were a reality TV show before there was reality TV.