- Sunday Independent - November 9th 2003
Written by: Elisabeth Vincentelli
Deborah Harry was the leading female rock sex symbol of the Eighties. Now she's back, aged 58 and teaching the youngsters a thing or two. The enduring pop icon, who
plays in Dublin tonight, talks to Elisabeth Vincentelli about Blondie's return, drag queens and how her beloved New York was more fun when you could smoke.
Deborah is posing on a windswept roof in Manhattan's meatpacking neighbourhood. Her hair is rock-star platinum and her legendary cheekbones are still so sharp that simply looking at them might well leave a bruise. She's enduring a photoshoot with the cool patience of someone for whom fame is both a calling and a job - and in this she's not unlike New York City itself.
On the surface, it seems fitting that Harry, who emerged out of the Seventies punk scene to become a pop star, would be overlooking one of New York's grimiest-turned-hippest neighbourhood's. For years, the meatpacking district's days reeked with the smell of bloodied carcases, and its nights sheltered hustlers and drag queens. Now, models in Jimmy Choo mules trip on cobblestoned streets en route to the Stella McCartney shop. But Harry, 58, is an odd New York celebrity, one who shuns nouveau trends and prefers the old meatpacking district, the one with dodgy storefronts and louche discos. For her, New York has paid the price of fame. "I moved here when I was about 19," she says. "It was much trashier then, there were muggings on the streets. The city had the reputation for many, many years of being too dangerous. It was a lot more fun." She laughs. Indeed, Blondie's beginnings in the Seventies were made possible by the city's economic disarray and the low rents that went with it. The singer remembers living in a huge loft on the Bowery "for $100 a month. It had no heat, so it was very tough, but the liquor store was right downstairs, so that was a plus. But it's difficult to carry on the idea of New York and inner-city arts now, when the rents are sky-high. Gentrification has taken over, which is kind of disgusting."
You can't accuse Harry herself of indulging in the trappings of gentrification. She has been loving a low-key life in Chelsea for a couple of decades and is more likely to show up at an outre club party than behind the wheel of a Hummer. Between Blondie's break-up in 1982 and their reunion in 1999, she remained a presence in the downtown arts and performance scene. She appeared with avant-combo the Jazz Passengers and was a perennial participant in Wigstock, an annual drag fest in which she gleefully sent up her own persona. "One year the Dueling Bankheads [a local drag act] did an insulting version of Heart of Glass," she says, "so I ran on stage and we started fighting like wrestlers and rolling on the ground, and I tored their wigs off. People actually fell for it, which is really funny."
Harry's presence on the outer fringes of New York nightlife is so common that nobody really bats a mascara's eyelash when she shows up at the latest decadent boite. Rob Roth, the organiser of the Click+Drag cyber-fetish soirees, explains that Harry
"loved coming because we had this intensely strict dress code and she loved dressing up for each theme, as well as watching the amazing outfits people put together. She's a real voyeur, like myself."
Roth and Harry hit it off so grandly that he's one of the back-up dancers in her goofy side-act Debbie and the Fishsticks. He also art-directed Blondie's last two albums, 1999's No Exit amd the new The Curse of Blondie. One of the images he came up with for the new CD is a stiletto heel crushing glass - as good a metaphor as any for Blondie's stylish take on sex and pop culture.
The band were among the most successful to come out of the CBGB-centred punk scene. They wre among the first to fuse rock, pop and disco on tracks such as 1979's Heart of Glass. Then they hand-delivered rap to the American masses with Rapture in 1981.
At the time this was heresy to many doctrinal critics and even fellow musicians. According to Harry, "a lot of the rock people weren't thrilled about what we were doing and said we were selling out. But we've always tried to do interpretations or reinterpretations or regroupings of stuff." In that repect, The Curse of Blondie fits neatly in the band's canon. Recorded mostly over a six-month period in 2001, it's a wildly diverse offering that nevertheless flows smoothly from hip hop (Shakedown) to muscular pop torpedo (Last One in the World), from dancefloor anthem (the current single, Good Boys) to smoky jazz number (Desire Brings Me Back). "We've always aimed at making diverse albums," Harry says, "but I think that with this one we really achieved it, and in quite a strong way."
Over the past five years or so Harry has experienced a creative rebirth, showcasing a range that should surprise only those who missed her multifaceted performance in David Cronenberg's film Videodrome 20 years ago. More recently, she's turned small parts into memorable characters in films as varied as Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Jonas Akerlund's Spun and Isabel Coixet's My Life without Me, in which she plays Sarah Polley's harried mother.
Harry is also gung-ho about resuming a theatre career that almost died in 1983, when her Broadway debut,
Teaneck Tanzi (in which she co-starred with comedian Andy Kaufman), closed on opening night. She did better in 1999 when she appeared in the New York premiere of Sarah Kane's harrowing Crave, an experience she deems "one of the happiest moments of my life". She's adamant about not only auditioning but doing it well. "I really suck at auditions," she says with a dry laugh, "though I'm starting to get it more. I'm approaching it more as just a work ethic instead of a situation in which I'm being judged." Right now, though, auditions will have to wait. Promoting The Curse of Blondie is taking precedence over everything else, including fun and games - a situation that leaves Harry a bit frustrated when faced with the cornucopia of things to do in her home town: "There's so much going on here that it can make you feel breathless. How can you possibly keep up with it? You have to be unemployed or so filthy f***ing rich that you don't have to do anything except go out."
The unemployed and the filthy f***ing rich now share space on Harry's old Bowery stomping ground. CBGB is still there, as is the neighbouring old homeless shelter, but there's a hip bar across the street and a boutique hotel is being built. Harry's glare is impenetrable behind her Ray-Bans, but there's no mistaking the twitch of her mouth as she spots the NO SMOKING sign taped to the door of the club. "Why do they have to ban smoking entirely in the city? They should just have smoking sections so you can go and have a glass of champagne and a cigarette." Standing there, Harry is poised on the faultline between then and now, the embodiment of a city's knack for endurance and reinvention. "People come here to be artists and I've always aspired to that," she says. "That's what makes Blondie so enduring: it's not just a commercial enterprise, there's a sensibility to it. And if you can tap into it, you can tap into something great."
© Elisabeth Vincentelli/Time Out Planet Syndication
WILD ABOUT HARRY
She was one of the first rappers that was really popular... I don't think people realise that.
She's absolutely incredible, so she's definitely an icon.
Influential and iconic. With great confidence, Debbie Harry paved the way for female-led bands. I always believed they made great pop songs, which we have played on 2FM down through the years. I have no doubts that there will be a great turnout at Vicar Street tonight.
John Clarke, head of 2FM
She only had to move a tiny bit onstage, because the whole world was already watching.
Alex James, Blur
She was the first girl I fell in love with, when I was 12. I had her posters everywhere. She was utterly beautiful. She had a real softness to her, even though she was hard.
Justine Frischmann, ex-Elastica
I was 17 when I saw/met/heard Debbie Harry and it was like seeing an ambulatory archive of every great blonde legend in the world. Garbo's aloneness, Monroe's sweetness, Bardot's wantonness - and a whole new thing of her own... I still listen to that first album when I'm in my boyfriend's car and it always makes me feel like something brilliant is just around the corner. Which is just about the best thing pop music can do for us.
Julie Burchill, newspaper columnist
In a time of relative sartorial inelegance, Blondie were smart and savvy and dressed sharp. Out front, Debbie Harry had the blonde thing down real good. She was, at once, sexy and vulnerable, and the combination was a key factor in elevating her to iconic status. She may have been a wet dream for the boys, but the girls could relate to her as well. But Blondie also made great, instantly lovable records, which is why they've lasted - the pure pop thrill of Picture This, Denis, Heart of Glass or The Tide Is High is as fresh now as it was back in their heyday.
Niall Stokes, editor, Hot Press
Debbie Harry has a brilliant Brill Building pop voice and great presence, pouting the lips that launched a thousand wet dreams.
When I was starting out as a singer and songwriter I was hugely influence by Debbie Harry. I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe.
Doesn't every smart woman like Debbie Harry? There are so many who have followed in her footsteps that don't hold a candle to her. Debbie did it with style, grace and humour, and never took herself too seriously. That's what makes her stand out among the pretenders to her throne.
Shirley Manson, Garbage
She took the role of being a glamorous rock'n'roll singer, but always with a wink to let you know this was just a part she was playing. She let you know musically and physically that this was all kind of a game to her.
David Byrne, ex-Talking Heads
I'd be walking down the street with Debbie [during the late Seventies and early Eighties] and she'd just turn it on and everyone would recognise her. Then she'd just turn it off and they wouldn't recognise her at all. She'd have all these great ideas like wearing Jayne Mansfield high heels with the toes pointed up. And she's still so beautiful. No matter how beautiful another person can be, Debbie will always be the most remarkable beauty. She is a goddess: she has a heart of gold and she is never unkind to people. She has this wonderful sweetness too. She's really smart and she doesn't have to prove it to anybody.
Tina Weymouth, Tom Tom Club, ex-Talking Heads
Debbie Harry. She was a pre-Madonna. Oh! Prima donna! Get it? I loved Blondie. She'd take a garbage bag and put tape on it and wear it like a dress. Of course, she was so beautiful too.
Debbie Harry to me was God. That's who I wanted to be when I was in high school.
Denis was one of the first records I ever bought. She's a great, great performer and she has a wonderful voice. Obviously she was pretty as well. And she was quite unusual - she pulls quite a lot of weird faces when she performs. She's got amazing charisma.
I think there was a very obvious sexual energy to her work and to her persona, and speaking as an unapologetic feminist she was way ahead of the curve in terms of what was going to come later - certainly it was part of what Madonna seized on. Blondie were exploring music that wasn't at all modern and twisted it into songs that were innovative and clever. Also, I felt like they were just being themselves, Deborah Harry particularly. And in my definition of punk rock, that's as punk rock as you get.
Michael Stipe, REM
Debbie had the looks, the style, the attitude, the melodies and also the most underrated voice in Eighties pop.
Sharleen Spiteri, Texas
I thought she was fantastic. She was an icon. I loved seeing her on the Late Late Show recently, although I could have done without hearing from the fellows in the band.