Lear's - March 1994
ROCK

of  AGES

Written By: Pamela Des Barres

Photography By: Michael Thompson

With well-received new albums, rockers Deborah Harry, Cyndi Lauper, and Patti Scialfa have proved that it's not just girls who want to have fun.

When I was 19, a dream I never even knew I had came true. It was 1969. Flower power bloomed in my rock and roll heart, and I watered the buds with music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix. I danced with a supremely wacky bunch of girls at clubs all over Hollywood, flailing in abandon with feathers and bare feet, as close to the magic beat of the music as I could get. After we'd had a few frenzied onstage dancing sessions with the Mothers of Invention, their brilliant, zany leader, the late Frank Zappa, asked if we would like to become a rock group, maybe even record our own album! The seven of us became Girls Together Outrageously - the GTOs - the very first all-girl rock group. We wrote a bunch of timely ditties about hitchhiking, pop-star adoration, and teen-life traumas on the Sunset Strip, and went into the recording studio. I was a girl musician.

The GTOs were a short-lived enterprise. After our record, Permanent Damage, was released, our teen egos flared and the seven of us scattered. I became the girlfriend of rock gods; instead of being in the band, I was with the band. But just a few years later, other dauntless dolls decided they could plug in and play rock and roll, taking the deep, daring plunge into the boys' club - not just getting a foot in the door but blasting the door off its hinges. I spoke with three fearless females, all of whom, brandishing new albums, are still working. Deborah Harry, Cyndi Lauper, and Patti Scialfa grew up in rock and roll. What's the secret to their staying power?

Deborah Harry

On her fourth solo album, Debravation, Deborah Harry plays from her strengths while breaking new ground. With her sultry voice and deadpan irony, Harry, now 48, predated Madonna as a model of female nerve and defiance. In the late '70s and early '80s she fronted Blondie with her trademark blend of girl-group theatrics, funky rhythm, and punk ferocity. An orphan raised in Hawthorne, New Jersey, Harry was a Playboy bunny in the late '60s and later a fixture at Max's Kansas City, the night spot for the Warhol era Manhattan demimonde. Harry met her collaborator and longtime lover, Chris Stein, in 1973; the two formed a band that in 1974 became Blondie, whose successes included the disco smash "Heart of Glass" and "Rapture," possibly the first rap hit by a white band. Debravation finds the singer back on rock and dance-club terrain but also venturing into jazz and R&B. Throughout, Harry remains an archetypal rocker: blunt, provocative, a little decadent, a little dangerous, nobody's fool. - Andy Webster

The Devil's Music

Deborah Harry, the tongue-in-cheek glamour-bomb lead singer of Blondie, which she founded with her then-boyfriend Chris Stein, was one of the first women to front an otherwise all-male rock band. Blondie started out on the New York CBGB punk circuit and went on to score a batch of hits during the late '70s and early '80s. Harry has cut four solo albums - her latest is called Debravation - and has appeared in several films, including John Waters's Hairspray and David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Since I know Harry is a health-conscious gal, we meet up for lunch in a tres chic vegetarian eatery and order a lot of green stuff.

There are a lot of mixed bands now, but when you started, there weren't very many front-girls. "Yeah, it was really minimal. I was told to go back home, all kinds of things like 'Women can't play bass, they don't have balls!' I remember musician boyfriends being very condescending - they really did not want the competition within the relationship. That's why my relationship with Chris was so special. He was so encouraging, really interested in working with me."

Pretty evolved fellow! "Yes. Up until then, most of the guys were very competitive and did not want women in the field, onstage, or anywhere around them - except in bed."

Where did your desire to rock come from? "It had to do with having a voice, somehow expressing myself, sharing affection publicly, being loved. Actually, I really had an obsession; I knew I had to do music."

Did you find industry acceptance difficult? "Rock wasn't an industry then. It was sort of clandestine; it wasn't even considered an occupation. It was a fluke, evil almost. The Devil was involved. It was much more fun - all that forbiddenness was really attractive. I got sucked right in."

What did you do that hadn't been done before? "I was a singer, and what was different was that I worked in an all-male band, and I brought the film image of women into music. I always wanted to be a movie star."

It must have bothered the boys in the band that you got most of the media attention. "Oh, yeah, very much so. But there was really no reason for anybody to be insecure, because I was happy as pie having my little army around me."

Will the day ever come when you might feel too old to make music? "No, because my music is changing as I change. I've accepted becomming an adult."

But are women allowed to grow old in rock? "That remains to be seen. The prejudices do exist. But statistics show that our age group is where the power lies - and I think it will be reflected in the appreciation and value of age."

You look so radiant and timeless. Is it all attitude? "It's genetics as well. But we've had extraordinary lives. Lives that make you want more."

How do you deal with all the intense ups and downs of show biz? "It takes a certain whiplash personality to go through such a rocky experience. I've just really been lucky. Sometimes I worry about the future and think, Oh, my God, if this record doesn't sell, I'm going out on the street with a shopping cart! But those are, like, my bad moments."

Are you always in the mirror, like I am, noticing every itsy-bitsy new wrinkle? "I notice when I get little lines, but I feel I'm now being brave. I have grey hair and I'm letting it grow out natural. I think if my health was bad, if I didn't have interesting things going on in my life, aging would be a big drag, but it's certainly not the first thing on my mind every day. I try to look good and feel good. My idea is to keep busy, to be really active. Whatever I do, I try to do a lot of it!"

What's your take on aging rockers, like Mick and Rod? "Oh, those old queens - who wants to talk about them?"

Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper's most recent effort, Hat Full of Stars, delivers both the raucous exuberance and the most almost waifish vulnerability that we expect from her, but its complexity testifies to Lauper's artistic maturity. Now 40, Lauper exploded on the charts in 1984, though the New York-bred singer had spent some time in the Manhattan pop group Blue Angel refining her sound and image. With her secondhand-store attire and spray-painted hair, Lauper looked as brash as her debut album sounded. She's So Unusual featured four Top Five hits, including "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (written by Robert Hazard), which turned a chauvinistic sentiment into a celebration of female self-determination, and "She Bop," perhaps the first hit song about masturbation. The title track to True Colours (1986) shot to the top of the charts, but her next album, A Night to Remember (1989), got a cool reception from both critics and fans. With Hat Full of Stars Lauper regains her stride. Though comparatively muted, it amply demonstrates her intelligence, versatility, and formidable passion.-A.W.

A Dangerous Woman

In the early '80s, Cyndi Lauper arrived with a flagrant finesse and fabulous flounces, proudly displaying peacock hair and under-garments as outerwear, reminding everybody that girls just want to have fun. Her first album, She's So Unusual, sold 4 million copies and won her the Best New Artist Grammy in 1985. I met up with the outspoken platinum blonde at an all-night deli during her tour in support of her latest album, Hat Full of Stars, where I had to pull her away from cavorting with her band.

Since you came after Blondie, was it easier for you? "I knew I was infiltrating a man's world. The first thing somebody said to me when I was in my first band was, 'Well, we got Deborah Harry, we got Pat Benatar. I don't think we're going to sign any more women; we've got our quota.' So in that respect, I had a problem, but then in the eighties, thank God, a few of us popped through and opened doors."

Where did your outrageous "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" persona come from? "I've always been attracted to the wild nature of women; that's why the wild hair, the crinoline, the rag around my head. I also put off a lot of people. It's disconcerting to look at someone like that."

Isn't it because you're perceived as being a bit dangerous, which is so important in rock and roll? "Yeah, and I've been feeling like putting the war paint back on. I just got a tattoo on my ankle. I want to fight and go to battle."

Is there a standard of beauty in rock and roll? "Yes, and I've always tried to break it. Rock and roll is countercultural, and they keep taking these bullshit rules and regulations and trying to put them where they do not belong. I was born to break the rules. I try to remain honest. I've never lied about my age, for instance. I feel like I'm coming into my own. Actually, I go back and forth about how I feel. I think I've always felt like I was ugly, so it never seemed to matter how old I was, even though people have told me I'm very fetching. Most of the time I dress like a guy with red lipstick."

What was it like after your first record came out to such acclaim? "I felt almost eaten up and spit out in my early success. Everybody took everything from me. The clothes, the hair, the corsets. That wasn't what it meant to me. I wore the corset to undo the power of the binding of women. I think women are so disenfranchised, and it starts with the language. It should be change. I'm a radical. I'm a bra-burnin' woman; I burned my training bra. I don't know any other way. I want freedom and civil rights for all women."

Has Madonna been good for women? "Just the fact that she's successful and a woman is a great thing. She's done things that inspired people, and she has balls. The Pope wanted an audience with her, and she told him to go buy a ticket!"

What about Sinéad O' Conner? "She acts like an emotionally disturbed child. I understand that she's angry, but there are a lot of other ways to handle it. I went up to her recently and she backed away like I was going to attack her or something. What did she think I was gonna do? If people are booing you, you stand up there and keep singing. Don't shy away like a delicate, frail thing. You go to battle. I opened for the Kinks once, and not only did everyone boo me, they threw lit cigarettes and quarters at me. I kept singing and singing and singing. I'm fierce that way. I don't have kids, but I feel that kind of ferocity sometimes over an issue, over my art."

How do you see your career evolving? "All I want to do is the music. Money, it comes and goes. You're high in the dough or you're low in the dough. You're big on the charts or you're not on the charts. The experience of the music and being in the moment, that's what God made us for."

Was there anyone beofre you who inspired you? "I have to credit Rickie Lee Jones. All of those women - Marianne Faithfull, Bette Midler, Tina Turner - when they make it, they open doors for us. Even men are in a feminine position when they become artists. They become vulnerable. I'm a persistent bastard. I'm always there. I used to say I was a bad penny who always turned up, but now I say I'm a good-luck penny."

Patti Scialfa

Rumble Doll, the first solo outing of Patti Scialfa, 40, is anything but the work of a newcomer. With quiet authority, it charts one woman's journey from teenage dreams to an embrace of adult responsibilities, and displays the kind of scope that results from a lifetime devoted to music. The daughter of a TV salesman in Oakhurst, New Jersey, and the granddaughter of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Scialfa studied music at the University of Miami and New York University, and by 1984 had sung professionally for years, fronting bar bands and singing backup in studio sessions. But try telling that to those who know her only as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. When Columbia signed her, on the strength of a demo she recorded in 1987, she and Springsteen weren't yet an item, though she had sung backup for his E Street Band on the Born in the U.S.A. tour. Work on Rumble Doll was delayed by two subsequent tours with Springsteen (only on the second did their romance catch fire). Though the album shares Springsteen's affinity for early '60s pop - Scialfa's voice subtly recalls Ronnie Spector's - Rumble Doll's gentle grandeur is all its own.-A.W.

Rock and Roll Mum

Patti Scialfa might seem like a novice alongside Cyndi Lauper or Deborah Harry, dramatically bursting into the spotlight from her role as background vocalist with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band to center stage as a solo artist and as his wife. But even though Rumble Doll is her first solo record, Scialfa is a rock-doll veteran, having fronted her own band and recorded and toured as a background vocalist with Southside Johnny, David Johansen, the Rolling Stones, and several others. Since she is close to giving birth to her third child, I have to settle for a long, chatty phone call with Scialfa from the East Coast.

I've been watching your video for "Lucky Girl," a straight-ahead, up-tempo, confessional love tune. Do you feel truly lucky, or has destiny played its part? "It's a combination. I feel real fortunate, but you work real hard, too. I've been making music for a long time. I've been in bands since I was fifteen. I think you're lucky when you have something that you love to do. It's the only thing I knew how to do. So I was just glad that I had a passion. That was my survival kit, my music. I was taking demo tapes around when I was nineteen."

And what came out of that bravery? "I remember one guy threw a Billboard magazine at me and said, 'Tell me how many women you see in the Top Twenty.' There weren't that many."

Do you think it's any easier for women these days? "It might sound pretentious for me to talk about it, since this is my first record, but it looks to me like there's a lot more leeway and a lot more freedom to present yourself the way you want to, and it's not as pigeonholed. There are a lot more women coming out in radical veins."

Is it harder for women to grow older in rock? "I think it's difficult for both sexs, really. I didn't put out my record until late, when I was thirty-nine. It's tougher, but I think it's tough for men at that age, too."

Does physical appearance play too big a part? "Beauty for men or women has always been a compelling percentage of the package. Elvis was very pretty; so was Mick Jagger."

And then there's Meat Loaf. "Ha, ha, ha! If somebody has the whole package, it's a very striking force, but I don't think it means anything."

How have you handled that facet of the business? "I don't think that's why people get into rock and roll. I didn't even wear any makeup until I was thirty. People would say, 'Why don't you fix up or something?' I think working with Bruce on the Tunnel of Love tour was the first time I really started getting into makeup, and that was fun."

Do you have any problems juggling your home life and career? "I try and juggle! I'm going to make another record, and I've been writing it, but it's hard. I have two little kids and I'm expecting another one, and trying to carve that time....I don't ever feel like I'm doing it correctly! Sometimes I think, Wow, now I'm being the kind of mom that I want to be, spending a lot of consistent time, but I'm not being the musician that I'd like to be. Finally, you say, 'Look, I'm not going to do any of this perfectly. I'm just going to do the best I can.'"

But somehow you're finding the time to write your second album. "Yeah. It's funny, the other morning I got up and made the kids breakfast and thought, Now I can sneak off for a moment. I snuck my guitar down, right? I sat close enough so that I could see the kids, but as soon as I started playing, they ran in and said, 'No, Mommy, don't do that, come sit with us!' They must see it as something that takes me away from them; they see too much emotion going into something that isn't them."

Perhaps they sense your love of music? "Yes, it's a lifeline, a sanctuary. You're lucky if you can have something you feel that way about, feeling that connection to something. That's a great thing. I love watching people play. That's what it is, play. It's a bunch of people making music and enjoying it."


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