Mean - August-September 2007 - Vol. 2 - Issue 13
Pages 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67
BLONDE ON BLONDE
ChloŽ Sevigny interviews Debbie Harry
"I'M SORT OF
[PREVIOUS PAGE: Photograph by Andy Warhol, ©Andy Warhol Foundation/CORBIS. RIGHT: Photograph of Debbie Harry from "Warhol's World: Photography & Television," photographed by Chris Jackson/Getty Images]
Necessary Evil is Debbie Harry's first solo record in 14 years. A disco-punk pinup for both boys and girls in the late '70s, when her band Blondie topped the charts, and an extremely influential style icon to this very day, Harry remains a stubbornly ageless beacon of cool. When we learned that she was going to hit the road this summer in support of her spirited new songs, we figured it would make sense to have actress, It girl and Blondie fan ChloŽ Sevigny depose her via telephone.
Though Harry grew up in New Jersey and Sevigny in Connecticut, they're both Manhattan residents and New York City girls through and through. Their herewith recorded conversation made us think of the easy banter of two friends hanging out in a Lower East Side diner in the early hours of the evening, right before they each go their own way to...
Anyway, read on.
ChloŽ Sevigny: Deborah?
Debbie Harry: Hi!
CS: This is my first interview ever, so I might be jumping around. I had to write my notes free hand because I don't really use the computer very much.
DH: Oh, OK. Are you Luddite?
CS: I'd say so. [Both laugh] I'm also like, the last generation, I think, that grew up without computers. When I was young, seeking out bands or pictures of bands or any information about bands was much more difficult than it is now. And I'm kind of glad that I had that rather than have everything at the touch of my fingertips.
DH: I resisted computers for such a long time; I resisted even a cell phone till the bitter end. But there was no way that I could avoid it anymore, so now I use a computer - for e-mail.
CS: Do you look up things, too? Do you Google stuff?
DH: Occasionally, yeah, I do. I find that useful.
CS: So I've been listening to Necessary Evil, and I really love it. One of my favorite songs on it is "Love With Vengeance."
DH: Oh really? That's one of my favorites, too.
CS: Did you write that one or co-write it?
DH: I wrote it. I wrote all the songs and worked them out musically. I would go in with a melody line or a hook or something like that, sing it, and then we would just develop it in the studio as we recorded it.
CS: Was there any one producer for all the songs?
DH: It was a production team - Barb Morrison and Charles Nieland. They work together and call themselves Super Buddha.
CS: I've heard of them. And did Miss Guy sing on one of the songs?
DH: Yeah, we did a duet called "Charm Redux." Guy used to have a night at the Marquee Club called Charm School, so I said, "We should really just do a song together," and so we wrote the song and recorded it.
CS: I remember seeing him out at the clubs all the time. Is it "him" or "her"?
CS: I know you've collaborated before with Iggy Pop and Joey Ramone. What's been your favorite collaboration?
CS: Or rather, who would you still like to collaborate with?
DH: I can't think of anyone off the top of my head. There's millions of people - or at least thousands - that I'd love to work with. Most recently, I almost had a chance to work with Perry Farrell on something but that fell through.
CS: Oh, both of your voices are so distinct. That would have been great!
DH: I think he's a genius. Actually, I'd love to do something with some of the rappers. Like, I love Ludacris.
CS: You should! Because on "Rapture," You were the first white girl, or boy, to ever rap.
DH: Well, not really. There were plenty of them rapping already. Except they weren't on any regular charts or labels. They were all on small indie labels and just sort of free-lance. There was the whole Sugarhill Gang bunch and then other ones that were with even smaller labels. But it existed - and that's where I picked up on it.
CS: Right. How about dance hall? Did you do anything with any dance hall artists?
DH: No, the closest I came to that was with Chris [Frantz] and Tina [Weymouth] from Talking Heads. They were really, really into dance hall and we had once talked about doing something like that.
CS: Have you heard any great Blondie mashups?
DH: Well, we did that one with the Doors song.
CS: Right, "Rapture Riders." It was "Rapture" versus the Doors' "Riders on the Storm." Did you like that?
"WELL, IT WAS A PRETTY
WILD AND SCARY
WORLD. IT REALLY WAS
LIKE LIVING IN BEIRUT."
- DEBBIE HARRY, ON NEW YORK IN THE '70S
[RIGHT: Harry forces Andy Kaufman to the canvas during rehearsals for Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap. Photograph by Ezio Peterson, © Bettmann/CORBIS
DH: Yeah, actually; it came out pretty well. Do you know [promoter] Michael Schmidt?
CS: I don't know if I know him.
DH: You might know him by sight. Anyway, he did that little club called Squeezebox down at Don Hill's, and he did some really cool mashups. I'll try to get copies for you, they're really interesting.
CS: How do you feel about covers of Blondie songs? Have there been any good ones?
DH: Yes! You know, this guy whose name, I'm really sorry to say it, I can't momentarily remember, actually sent me a bunch. He put them all on a CD for me and, um, I don't have the names with me but there are some really beautiful ones there. He covered "Heart of Glass," and [his version] is really pretty. And another group did "Dreaming" - they made it real moody and much slower. It's beautiful.
CS: That is such a beautiful song. I actually know a boy in a band that has a line in one of his songs that goes "Dreaming... Dreaming is free." And I'm like, "Dude, that's from Blondie! Aren't you ripping it off?" And he's like, "Yeah. But it's more of an homage than a ripoff."
DH: Well, OK. Then I'm not gonna come after him.
CS: Who are you touring with now?
DH: I'm touring with Tommy Brislin, Mark Malone and J.P. Doherty.
CS: No girls?
DH: No girls on this trip! I've had lots of girls that I've worked with in my other solo [backup] bands, but this time I don't. I had to work kind of quickly, and I hired Tommy Brislin to be the musical director. He did all the programming. I relied on a lot of programming this time 'cause I wanted to go out with a small band. Tommy picked J.P. and I had used Mark on the album - so I ended up going on the road with a three-piece male band.
CS: Do you ever bring along a girlfriend when you tour?
DH: Occasionally, but not really.
CS: Do you do your own makeup and stuff before you go on stage?
CS: I gotta ask about your famous two-tone bottle-blonde look - the blonde in the front with the dark in the back - which myself and a lot of my girlfriends tried to emulate and could never pull off quite as well as you. How did you come up with that?
DH: I came up with that out of necessity. I couldn't see the back of my head and then I just didn't bother. I'm sort of sloppy-neat. Or neat-sloppy, I guess.
CS: I read somewhere that you collaborated with Stephen Sprouse on a lot of your stage looks. How did that come about?
DH: We used to live together in the same house on the Bowery - that was a long time ago, in the '70s. And he used to marvel at how bad I looked.
CS: Did you dress like a tomboy, or...?
DH: No, I just dressed thrift-shop - you know, disorganized. I would wear like a '40s dress with cowboy boots.
CS: That's a great look!
DH: I thought so. But he thought it was beastly, or ghastly or whatever. And since the guys in Blondie were going for sort of a mod thing that was part-and-parcel of the punk revolution - the skinny pants and skinny ties and all that...
CS: It was much easier for the boys -
DH: ...He would tell me, "You've got to wear a little black mini and boots and this and that."
CS: He would make you samples and then just give 'em to you?
DH: Actually, he would just make me something to wear and I would wear it. Or else he would tell me, "Buy this!" or "Get that!" and it was easy. He always did rather minimal things - which I think is always a really reliable, good suggestion for anybody: If you want to pull it together nicely and look really cool, keep it minimal.
CS: So he was kind of like your stylist?
DH: Yes! And so I would just throw all that stuff on a bag and that was it. Now I simply pick out a color scheme. The tour before this I wore a DayGlo yellow color - the kind that policemen and traffic cops wear.
CS: That's very Stephen Sprouse - the bright colors.
DH: Yeah, I still go for that stuff. But on this tour, I decided I would so silver and black and white.
CS: Do you ever wear reflective things, like the old stars - Marlene Dietrich - would do?
DH: I don't exactly know what you mean.
CS: She would always wear stuff that gathered light around her face. She would wear rhinestones or something that would reflect the light onto her face.
DH: Ah, I see. I had a costume once that was covered with mirrors, and I held rear-view mirrors - truck rear-view mirrors - in my hand. So that was very reflective.
CS: Wow, that's nice. It sounds like some kind of crazy Thierry Mugler thing. Let's talk about film projects. Are you doing anything new?
DH: Um, I did do something recently, and I was really so happy to do it. But I'll tell you, I haven't done very much.
CS: You don't have [your agent] Jason [Weinberg] out there combing the streets?
DH: Yeah, I guess. Although there's not much to comb for, in my age bracket, especially. The competition in my age bracket is pretty fierce.
CS: Yeah, it is.
DH: I mean, it's fierce in any age group. But in mine, there are all these women that are so huge, you know? They're so powerful and so famous and so good.
CS: But I think you would fit in a specific niche - in something that is maybe edgier. Except I know there's not as much money in those films, because that's what I've been doing for my whole career.
DH: I love the films that you do.
CS: Well, thank you.
DH: I think you're really smart to know it's a great experience to try all kinds of different things, studio pictures versus independent ones or whatever. The movie I did recently is a very independent picture called Elegy.
CS: Do they make you audition?
DH: Sometimes, yeah.
CS: Ugh! I can't imagine that. Are you good at that? I'm terrible! I've never gotten a movie off an audition.
"IF YOU WANT TO PULL IT
TOGETHER NICELY AND
LOOK REALLY COOL,
KEEP IT MINIMAL."
[L-R - Punk rockers Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, David Johansen, Joey Ramone, and Mickey Leigh perform a fake wedding ceremony in the late '70s. Photograph by Merry Alpern, ©CORBIS]
DH: I got one - no, maybe two [parts] that way. I think I simply wanted to try auditioning. And the rest of the films I did they simply said, "We want you!" And if you want me, you've got me.
CS: "...But you've got to pay me!" Is it true that you did a play on Broadway with Andy Kaufman?
DH: Yes, I did. [Ed. Note: Harry starred with Kaufman in 1983's Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap.] It was a really cool little show.
CS: Was it off-Broadway or Broadway?
DH: It was Broadway although we started off-Broadway and then came up to Broadway. It was really funny because it was running in previews off-Broadway for, I don't know, quite a long time - at least three to six weeks - and then we brought it to Broadway for one night only. The critics just destroyed it.
CS: [Gasps] Oh no!
DH: They just stomped it into the ground! I think it was just ahead of its time, that's all.
CS: Would you go back to Broadway?
DH: Sure I would.
CS: I know you're friendly with [Broadway director, producer and performer] Scott Elliot, right? He's a friend of mine, too.
DH: Oh yeah, he's a real good friend and a real fan of yours.
CS: I love him; I've worked with him a couple of times off-Broadway. But speaking of him - I heard he was working on some sort of Debbie Harry biopic. How do you feel about that? Would you like to see one whole you're still around, or long after?
DH: I think - after.
CS: But if it were to happen, would you prefer it done the way they did the Johnny Cash one - with the actors singing themselves - or would you prefer lip-synching?
DH: You mean, would I prefer to have somebody lip-synching my material? Yeah, probably, since [my songs] are so well known... Off the top of my head I would say yes, lip-synching would be best, but then again - I think it might even be cool not to have someone actually do performances of the material but to just have the material referred to somehow. Like, have it on in the background and have somebody say, "Oh, she'll be out in a minute, she'll be out in a minute!" and then the actor comes out and the music goes off.
CS: That's interesting. I feel like they'd have to find some young, kind of unknown girl. That would be heard, because you're so beautiful and your voice is so distinct. And, I don't know, certain things - like your music - shouldn't be touched. They're just too precious.
DH: You're really being nice. Thank you.
CS: I know you live on the West Side in a famous building; I won't say which one. Do people yell your name in the street a lot?
DH: It depends. If I'm really active doing something and very visible, then some of that street noise happens; if I'm not working or doing publicity - then no. Although sometimes people just come up to me and say hello.
CS: I'm asking because I live in the East Village and I get a lot of people yelling "ChloŽ!" and I'm not sure if they're friends of mine or just weird random strangers. So I decided to just not turn my head - although I don't want to be rude. Do you think it's rude?
DH [Laughs]: I guess most of the time people that know you will just come up to you and say hi.
CS: Yeah, but what if they're across the street or riding bikes? Once someone yelled "ChloŽ!" and I wasn't sure if I knew 'em or not. I turned my head and I ran into somebody on my bike - basically, got into an accident 'cause I'd turned my head.
DH: Oh no! Oh God!
CS: Oh well...
DH: Does that mean you're riding a bike around the street? It's too dangerous. I get scared riding a bike in the city.
CS: I know...! Speaking of New York and how it seems to be not very dangerous anymore: What do you feel about, you know, the vibe on the streets these days?
DH: My intuition tells me that crime is going to go up; I have a feeling that it will. For a while I thought that it got so extremely safe, it didn't seem like we were even in New York. And now I just get this creepy feeling. It seems much more cold-hearted than it once was.
CS: You do hear about these random brutal acts of violence that are frightening. But I can't imagine what it was like in the '70s!
DH: Well, it was pretty wild and scary. Econimically, it was just a whole different world. It really was like living in Beirut.
CS: Did you grow up listening to any of the girl groups, like the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las?
DH: Oh, totally. Absolutely. I listened to all that. I think somewhere in my mishmash of belongings, I still have a box of their 45s.
CS: [Gasps] My goodness! Do you still have some of your Stephen Sprouse pieces?
DH: Yeah, a little section in my closet is just Sprouse stuff and it's very wonderful hanging there. Actually, here's a sad story: There was a time when Steve went bankrupt. This happens to a lot of designers, and it seems to be part of the rag business. So he got a whole bunch of clothes out of the storeroom and stored them at my place because otherwise, you know, they would have seized it. Then, little by little, he took some of that back. I still have a lot of it, although it's stuff that was never intended for me. It's all size 4, sample sizes.
CS: Do you think you'd ever have some sort of auction of some of these old pieces?
DH: I don't know. I feel like I don't really need the money, and I love having the collection. I guess at some point in my life, when I will have decided to divest myself of worldly goods, perhaps I will.
CS: Is it true you were nominated for a Golden Globe?
DH: I don't think so. [Ed. note: in 1981, Harry actually did share a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song with Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote "Call Me" with her for the soundtrack of American Gigolo.]
CS: How about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Has Blondie been inducted yet?
DH: We got in the year before last, I guess.
CS: And then Patti [Smith] got in a year after you?!
DH: Yeah, that was kind of cool. And what is your favorite award?
CS: My favorite award? Well, I was nominated for an Oscar once and -
CS: When you get an Oscar nomination it's like thousands of your peers or colleagues are acknowledging your work. So I think, as far as an acting award goes, that would probably be my favorite, even though it seems like it has no significance anymore because of all the campaigning that goes on.
DH: But what's the other one called? The indie one?
CS: The Independent Spirit Awards. Yeah, I got one of those.
DH: ...I like watching those because everybody's so much more real.
CS: Oh my God! Everybody's boozing it up, that's why!
CS: Boozing it up at the beach! One of my first times I went to Los Angeles, I went to those awards. And I sat next to Sean Penn, and I got to meet Gena Rowlands, who was, like, my favorite actress.
DH: Isn't she great?
CS: ...And I got my picture taken next to her and my boyfriend at the time, and we're both kind of flanking her on either side, and somehow the light hit her so she has this huge halo around her head and we're both back in the shadows. It's this amazing, amazing photograph... Can I ask, what did you think of Please Kill Me [Legs McNeil's and Gillian McCain's 1997 Uncensored Oral History of Punk] and its portrayal of Blondie?
DH: I didn't even read the book. I thought it was kind of sensational that [the authors] had crammed years' worth of things into a short period of time and made it seem like it was very much different than it actually was.
CS: I know that Mary Harron was thinking then of adapting it into a film and that she wanted to cast big stars as the different musicians. I read an early draft of the script and, to me, you know - that was one of my favorite periods in music and the people involved are so iconic that I just thought it was a bad idea.
DH: I think doing musicians in movies has always been sort of, um, difficult.
CS: Well, actors are never as cool as musicians. Unless you're Johnny Depp - but that's about it.
DH: It's so difficult to actually make it real. Because music is of the moment - and to really convey that in a drama is very difficult.
CS: What about doing, like, a Broadway musical? Like what they did with Mamma Mia?
DH: Well, actually there is something happening with that. They're doing a show in London and it's gonna be with all Blondie music and it's gonna be opening up this fall.
CS: Did you have any creative input in it?
DH: I did. I was involved in writing a theme song, a title song and in some very, very small instances, I had to adapt a lyric to a specific character to make it fit just a tiny bit better. But for the most part it's just the material, the songs, straight-ahead.
CS: I'll have to go over there to check it out. I bet it'll come to New York; you guys are such a New York band - or were. What's the musical called? Can you say?
DH: They're gonna call it Desperate.
CS: That's like the X song, "We're Desperate." I like that song! Well, I guess that's all I really have.
DH: I hope I get to bump into you one of these days. I won't yell out your name.
CS: Oh no! I might not turn. [Both laugh] I might just ignore you and keep walking.