JUKE - January 13th 1990
AUSTRALIA'S MUSIC WEEKLY
Pages 6 & 7
Starstruck CHRIS ROBERTS sees himself as the ultimate Deborah Harry fan. He worships the very ground she walks on. He thinks she's the ultimate pop icon. Can you imagine what happened when he caught up with her in New York to talk about magic, marriage and mirrors?
When I met you in the restaurant... you ordered an iced tea and the staff all asked for your autograph.
You're an inspiration.
"I just, uh... it makes me wonder. It's... sweet. It's like when you're looking at a drawing and you just put your imagination on it and say, 'Oh, this is this.' It's like believing in a saint or something; to me it's like mythology. You envision: 'Oh God, it must be so wonderful to be like them.' And you have no idea what the person is really like and what their life is like, so it has nothing to do with reality.
"I'm a... schleper, y'know? I'm just like doggin' around like everybody else, it's like the same f...in' deal. Ha! So, y'know, that's it. I just wanna... entertain people. For whatever, an hour, an hour and a half, that's really about it."
Debbie Harry entertains me for an hour and a half. I think she's God. She thinks I'm weird.
"I don't really enjoy that phase that people go through when they're insecure and unsure of themselves as kids. I certainly went through that, and envisioned that these pop stars were the, like, ultimate people, and they had so many good things. Well come of them do and some of them don't. Some people make good decisions and some bad, whatever business they're in. If you're entertained by something, it takes you away and makes you feel good, that's really what counts, that's what it's for, right? That's so deep, ha! Let's go onto something else! How about... baseball?"
You've got me there. Mythology I can handle.
"Well - I took up weightlifting."
"Bodybuilding, yeah. I've been doing it for a year and a half. It's my latest... kick. It can be fun! It can! You don't think about the fact that you're dying... uuggghhh... it's laughable that here you are reduced to this shrivelling, quivering mess of fflllchh... and at the end you feel fabulous. I guess it's very narcissistic. People are always saying bodybuilders go to the extreme, look so ooogghh... but it's quite wonderful that your body can do that. It takes a very special kind of person to take it all the way. Real champions. I can really appreciate star athletes now and what they do. It's amazing. I'm totally in awe of these people now."
Which is more important then - the body or the brain?
"It's all the same; it all goes together."
But you get great athletes who are really stupid.
"But they have other powers, powers of focus and mental attitudes that make them champions which us mortals will never have..."
She thinks she's mortal.
"I mean they really are yogic in their minds. They have this concentration that can elevate them above pain, above anything. They're extremely... alpha. Whatever state of mind that is, y'know? That's very... high. They might not be great intellects, but they have this ability to focus the will."
But do you also admire mental giants? Like, just say as a random example, writers?
"Well of course, I mean this is like what you were saying before about my being a part of a pop generation thing, and being shaped by different periods and events in your life - I can appreciate all of that, all the possibilities that we have. And all the possibilities that we are. Y'know, so you're askin' me all these deep things, man! What's goin' on?"
For me this experience is akin to Warhol's 100 Marilyns all moving their lips at once and demanding to know what I'm staring at. With a zen calm beyond the self I respond: Why not?
"I don't know anything, I'm an idiot, y'know? All I do is walk around thinking: 'Woah, my God!'"
She means, who do you think I am? It's a big question. Who do I think she is? Oh, the queen of the world. A deer. A crystal. A satellite. Pretty much everything else. Certainly the reason I started doing this job, on the off-chance I'd get to meet her. Which reminds me: I'm a consummate professional. The kind who says, "But I've seen things you said in the past which were, like, twice as deep as this!"
"Maybe you have, but I was bluffing then! Ha!"
Every laugh breaks enough ice to free several whales. Hers is surprisingly throaty and gutteral, unsurprisingly irresistible.
You once said: "I don't mind being dull as long as I don't come across as stupid."
"Oh, mmm, yeah. Ha Ha! Semantics, right? You liked that? That's okay."
Enough cosmic stuff then.
"Yeah, let's get back to Earth now!"
Pop, as such, had three golden ages. Motown, T. Rex and Blondie. Blondie were a group. Debbie Harry is a pop star. Debbie Harry is the pop star.
Blondie were sort of punk, and then they weren't and then they had lots of zillion-sellers like most of the tracks from "Plastic Letters", "Parallel Lines", "Eat To The Beat" and "Auto-American". Arduously researched his torical fact: these records make you tingle. I wouldn't say they teach you how to fly. They just sort of chuck you through the window and tell you to get on with it.
Debbie Harry, who denies being a pioneer, was a pioneer. Her rap is that the element of satire in Blondie was never properly appreciated. I reckon Swift and Pope would have given their arms and legs to have had the grace and implicit power to have created something as intangibly triumphant as "Picture This", "Union City Blue", "Rapture" and so on and so on.
Debbie Harry got into movies (Union City, Videodrome, more recently Hairspray) and made solo records on and off, mostly off. There was a half-hearted "comeback" in the big-hearted French Kissin' In The USA. Now, to see of the Eighties, there's a comeback which splays light like Florence Nightingale doing the polka. Def, Dumb and Blonde, implicitly laced with an awareness of absurdity, not to mention bags of hits, is the dream lost Blondie album. It's sassy, stylishly tacky and ultimately so gorgeous that my cats have gone to stay at their sister's for a while.
Debbie Harry is back.
This time it's personal.
"No, go ahead. Oh, you did already. Hey, I just realised I have my glasses on."
The shades have tortoiseshell frames and mirror lenses. It was quite unnerving, I say when she takes them off and I have to say something to those eyes, I could see two reflections of me and I was having to talk to them.
"It's all right in here, it's sorta dark."
Moonstruck (we're in a cafe of this name on West 23rd and 9th, in New York's Chelsea area, near where she lives, near where she's rehearsing her new band, and where 50 yards down the street bumped into Telly Savalas and where Debbie Harry arrived at 17 minutes past four, those 17 minutes being minutes in which I faced the crux of existence in a formica table top, and came through... I know, I was there... is such a nice game.
"Yeah, I thought it was sorta cool we should come here. Moonstruck."
Did you like the movie? (I don't miss a beat.)
"I actually did, I liked some of the philosophy in it, y'know when Nicolas Cage said that business about, y'know, love is a really horrible thing? Y'know I thought this is kinda profound, I actually like this."
I miss a beat.
Do you think magic is involved in day-to-day life?
"Well, I don't know what you consider magic. I mean, whadda you consider magic?"
Something you can never describe adequately. Which kinda defeats the question!
"Yeah, it's like - if you asked Jeremy Irons 'How do you do it Jeremy?' He's probably say, 'Bluuh bluh bluh.' The magic is sorta like something that only one person can do, and that's their interpretation of what they see and how they feel something. They embody that and make it come to life. That's magic."
There's art and there's love. There are things which transcend the norm and seem indefinable... except artists often do have elaborate theories to back up what they do.
"Yeah, I guess somehow they're forced to articulate. They have to have some kind of statement. But it probably just floats around that somehow, and that's maybe just some bar, some energy bar that lodges in the middle. Ripples, you know. The ring in the water. It must be that."
So tell us about the video for the new single "I Want That Man", Debbie. (The things we say!)
"Oh the video, right, yeah. Well - it looks really great, Mary Lambert directed it and she's famous for lots of Madonna videos. It's a little story about me as a vampire waking up from the crypt by the sound of the music. Like, you know, the Ann Rice books? The music sorta wakes me up. And then I want all these things. I want that man and I want the pink shoes and I want to be alive... I wanna be turned on. And that's what happens. So I dance around and bite people and stuff."
A blonde vampire?
You don't see many of those.
"No, so - it's cute. It looks quite beautiful, really incredibly beautiful. I've never looked so pretty on film before. I mean, I've always looked nice, but this one is really sensational."
Are you vain?
"Huh? Oh sure. Well I'd better be. I think it's under control in that I'm not scalping people or doing weird things. Sure, I mean if I wasn't vain why would I wanna take care of myself? And exercise? I guess everyone has different degrees of interest in it. But it's good for me, it works for me. Anonymity is a nice thing but I mean it's not my job."
This "Def, Dumb And Blonde" title - is there a little irony in there perhaps?
"Yeah! A-heh-heh... yes." That smile. But, um, aren't you setting yourself up for criticism with that?
"It seems you get it anyway, so what's the difference? Um, I though it was funny. Humorous. If I can't poke fun at myself, then who can?"
Haven't you spent much time previously demonstrating that Blonde doesn't necessarily equate with dumb?
"Aw, that's such an old adage, I mean my God - I can hardly believe that anyone really takes that seriously, it's sort of preposterous. It's like... a dream. I think people would prefer it that way."
"Yeah, y'know, it's sorta like this movie image created by this dentist, y'know? A ha ha ha ha!"
Do any of these names register? Transvision Vamp, The Primitives, The Darling Buds.
"Yeah, I've seen the first two you mentioned. What's interesting to me about it is that each person has captured different vestiges of the Blondie 'performance'. But none of them has, like, done it all. It's like this is the age of specialisation. 'Cos Blondie was such an amalgam of pop styles.
"One of them seems to be more just sorta the pretty stuff and one of them more the 'Rip Her To Shreds' stuff, y'know? Not the whole deal. What's the other one - The Darling Birds? Buds? Hmm, I actually like the two I saw - I mean it's very flattering, how can you hate that?"
Were you always trying to be tough in the Blondie days? Or were you tough?
"No, I was probably pretending a lot. Well, I mean it was a funny thing being a girl singer at that time, during the punk era. It was an odd position to take. I mean The Slits were this bizarre weird thing; nothing like that's happened since. But since I was a front for a bunch of guys it was like some of their perspective came through me, so I couldn't be 'real cute'. I was cute, but I had to be tough too. So that helped me in a way. It made me become... uh... schizophrenic. Ha! Yeah, that's it!"
A kind of seven-minute epic poem closes Def, Dumb And Blonde and make me cry on tube trains. It's called "The End Of The Run" and among many glorious lines, Debbie wistfully understates, "I don't like flashbacks in movies, I like the story to proceed, I don't like talking about the old days, except if it tells me where the future will lead..."
"Well I think nostalgia is kinda boring, y'know? It's interesting for so long but it's not like I wanna hang on to it. Living in the past isn't healthy. Colouration is terrific, but you have to be present."
Although this record frequently returns to the Blondie style...
"I think it sort of lunges forward from that point."
Does it lunge knowingly or leap in the dark?
"Yes, fumbling, yes, I don't know - it's not blind, it's definitely blonde, so it has some knowledge. I'm feeling my way in some respects. Oh, I'm going to try to adopt some attitude of... reckless savoir faire. Ha! We'll see what happens."
The album's production involved Mike Chapman, Chris Stein and The Thompson Twins. The rap track "Get Your Way" boasts, "I'm self-contained, I use my brain, I keep the people entertained". Does that sum you up?
"Yeah, pretty much. That's pretty accurate. And real pop. I don;t think there's anything more of a single burning heart to it. To get back into the music business and complete the record, to get it released having switched labels and changed managers midway, was enough of a challenge."
Do you follow current trends in music?
"I'm not the one to ask, not really. I hear things on the radio or when I'm out... oh, The Butthole Surfers? That was ages ago. But it wasn't their fault I got a headache. It was the PA system at The Ritz. They're what they are. Oh you got a headache too? Oh that makes two of us then. I like GWAR. They're fabulous, crazy, like the next stage up from Kiss. And I wanted to see Disneyland After Dark last week but the listings were wrong..."
Is the 21st century going to be "much better for a girl" like you?
"One would hope so. I guess it's getting better. Women seem to have a bit more wherewithal, and personal strengths. As people, as a species, we're getting a little bit smarter."
A little bit closer to destroying ourselves.
"Yeah, that too. Whaddya think of that rainforest project, that record I was involved in? Oh God, yeah... I shouldn't say anything, it was for a good cause. More important than anything, the corporate world has to wake up and take some responsibility for all this stuff instead of just chopping and chewing and burning and pillaging. They're the greatest pirates of all time."
Look, you've made me go all boring since you said the questions were too "deep"...
"Oh I only... who am I to answer questions like that? It's like - my God, save me from this, I'll go down as the biggest fool of all time."
I thought "Atomic" was very profound. I know "Make it tonight, oh, your hair is beautiful, oh, tonight, tonight" made me want to put an end to nuclear warfare single-handedly. And maybe sort out anything else that was bothering anyone, anywhere, at all.
"Ah. Well it is a political song. Actually. Yeah."
But also it's a song about hair, beautiful hair... do you see what I mean?
"Whoops! Ha ha ha!"
I don't know why she says "Whoops!" I don't think she does. Whatever, we're laughing like hyenas on helium. Is there an option?
Debbie Harry has written a song about AIDS terminal patients called "Forced To Live". She would like to learn to play the piano. I tell her that's boring because you have to stand still. She shows me how it would be possible to jig around at the same time. I concede the point.
This is how the world's most glamorous Emo Phillips fan sees her acting career going: "Most of the parts I've been given have been very campy, extreme characters. I'd like to play a very realistic straightaway part, either dramatic or light comedy. I don't know what'll happen - I'm really at a point where I can't be cast in too many places. I can't be a romantic lead in most pictures 'cos they're cast a lot younger than me."
She recently found Dangerous Liaisons incredible and also enjoys the critic sitcom, Married With Children.
"It'll put people off marriage though.
"Ha! I suppose. Most people are off it anyway, aren't they? Are you married?"
No! I mean, no.
"Do you wanna get married?"
Implausibly, I again answer in the negative. I may experience trouble coming to terms with that response for the rest of my life. Boy, what an idiot. At least I manage: You?
"Mm, no, I'm not looking to get married, although I can't say that I wouldn't ever do it."
(Apparently she and Chris Stein split up some time ago.) "Have to find out what the statistics are."
It's a very romantic idea.
"Yes, it's nice. I still think it's a nice thing. It's nice to have a ceremony, I think."
But the moment I was undoubtedly born for has passed. Did I spring upon it panther-like and guzzle its blood? Did I hell. I did a fair impression of a Rodin statue. Still, I give her a set of gingerbread-men fridge magnets and a postcard which says: "The point is not to put poetry at the disposal of the revolution but to put the revolution at the disposal of poetry."
I mean, I just know she'll understand.
Do you look in the bright side?
"I guess so. I try to. I have my moments. I have my dark side, too."
Well in that song ("Brite Side") there's the line "trapped by the inescapable". That's pretty heavy stuff Debbie! You can't say I'm asking daft questions when you're singing stuff like that!
I mean it's like Dostoevsky or something! (Heck, what can I lose?)
"Trapped by the inescapable, right. Everything is like - you get into these things and then there you are. I mean - you're held by yourself, y'know? You can never escape yourself. Maybe that's the inescapable I'm referring to. It's as simple as that."
But the magic can help you escape.
"Yeah, I suppose. Well, the only thing that can make you escape is your frame of mind, right?"
So why did you spell it wrong?
"Oh what - B-r-i-t-e? What? What's wrong with that? Ha ha ha ha."
It's January 1 and I have decided that that is a melancholy date.
"Yeah, well, what can you do?" (She does a mock weeping and wailing routine). "I don't know! A Martini, please, right away. Make it six! With long straws! What's your favourite drink? Uh-huh? I like vodka. Oh - I can't believe it, the time really went fast, didn't it? I have to go, we have our first rehearsal with the drummer. Do you think you have enough stuff?"
I guess so. I mean no. I mean basically I'm just keeping you here as long as I possibly can.
"All right. Okay. Well I have about 10 more minutes and then I should buzz off..."
Debbie Harry's favourite work of art is, surprisingly at first, but not once you've thought about it, Monet's "Water Lillies". She tells me what I should check out while I'm in town. But presence and charisma, those I've just done.
As we leave I adopt an attitude of reckless savoir faire and prevent her tripping over a dog. Possibly my finest hour.
She's been modestly playing down her associations with Warhol: "I don't know, our paths sorta crossed and we knew each other but we never really hung out and then we sorta hung round later on..."
But you were his favourite pop star!
Sure, it's a well-known aphorism.
"Yeah, I don't know..."
There's a hint of schoolgirl mischief as she reaches for her shades.
"I'm my favourite pop star!"
That makes three of us. And they say love is blonde.