Melody Maker - June 27th 1981
Pages 14 & 16
First lady of Chic
Amateur gumshoe Adam Sweeting grills DEBBIE HARRY in New York
A WARM Saturday afternoon in New York, and the trail led uptown. A random mess of telephone calls and a radical change of plan every few hours had finally produced a time and a place. A few doubts still lingered.
Yes, Debbie Harry will do an interview. Yes, Debbie will do an interview and Chris Stein would like to do one too. Well, Chris is really keen to do it but Debbie might not turn up... It began to look like an assault course in private detection.
But show a little faith, there's magic in the air. Taxis crash over the heaving tarmac of steamy, seamy New York, tourists grin and gibber in the back of the mangy Central Park horse-drawn carriages, Public Image have just tried to destroy the Ritz and every third person stops you for money.
Relax. It's a normal day and everything will be fine.
Contact is made finally in the large anonymous block of apartments which is home for the First Family of Pop. The doorman looks blank as I ask for the apartment number as instructed.
As he points me in the wrong direction, the dishevelled figure of Chris Stein appears at the top of the stairs, beckons at me and disappears. I look around furtively. I don't think I was followed.
At the far end of a messy and dimly lit apartment, Chris Stein is slumped across the bed watching wrestling on TV. Saturdays must be the same everywhere, I muse.
The apartment belongs to a friend. Deborah is still upstairs in the Stein/Harry homestead, penning lyrics for the album currently under construction in tandem with Chic. We're on neutral ground.
Stein, a keen horticulturist, tears himself away from the heaving, interlocking bulks which are filling the screen with sweating pink flesh and rattles methodically through a list of ongoing Stein/Harry projects.
There's the album with the Chicsters, a soundtrack for a film by John Waters called "Polyester" which the pair are writing, plus two and a half songs for a full-length Canadian cartoon also featuring contributions from Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick. "Lou Reed is the villain," Chris explains.
Finally, Chris and Deb are writing a book of reminiscences about themselves and Blondie which probably won't appear for ages.
All this pales into insignificance as the doorbell rings. "Maybe that's Debbie," Stein mutters, stumbling out of the room to open the door. It is. Christ, I feel nervous.
DEBBIE enters the room and sits down against the far wall. It's very gloomy because the curtains are drawn, but there's enough light to reveal that she looks as little like the
publicly-owned figure known as "Debbie Harry" as is possible for someone with the same name.
She's wearing what look like baggy Chinese pyjamas, with her hair hidden under a black beret.
Stein grabs my tape recorder and thrusts it towards her. "So Debbie," he asks with a lascivious smirk, "how does it feel being a sex symbol?"
Deborah gives an awkward grin. "I gave it up for Lent. I just couldn't take it."
I don't buy the popular theory that Chris Stein is the brains behind Debbie Harry's body. Debbie has a brain as well as a body.
If she's comfortable letting Chris tackle a lot of the talking, that's because he loves to talk and theorise while she prefers to comment on specific topics thrown up in the conversation.
Unless the topic is Ireland, when the two of them contradict each other dogmatically for several minutes, these centre on film.
I'd been surprised by Harry's movie debut in Mark Reichert's "Union City". Having read several reviews which suggested the film was too long and finally empty, it was a pleasant surprise to find it a quirky, low-key mystery story not afraid of its limitations.
Harry herself had made a shrewd choice of role. As the frustrated, long-suffering wife of a terminally nine-to-five husband who's being wound slowly to breaking point, she turned in a quietly mature performance which suggested depth through its measured passivity.
"People were surprised, I think," she begins. "They probably expected something more obvious." How do you mean? "Well, more glamour and more rock'n'roll, or more pop or... something like that."
INEVITABLY, she'd been buried under heaps of scripts calling for her to play female pop stars. "We decided a long time ago that that would be kind of silly to do. I've never really liked the way rock'n'roll's been portrayed in any movie, except the fun films like 'Quadrophenia' or the Beatles things and stuff like that.
"But when they try to portray the business it's so disgusting, y'know? Even the punk films have this phony thing about it."
She doesn't have any more film parts lined up at the moment. There are whole lists of problems involved with working in independently budgeted and produced films, as "Union City" proved.
"The director was really at a disadvantage," Debbie begins. "Everyone took him for a ride in a way because they didn't trust his vision. And it was such a small budget...
"The budget they say they put into that film was not the shooting budget. I don't think they even reached $100,000 with it - it was like so cheap."
The film was based on a short story called "The Victim's Tuxedo", from which director Reichert wrote the screenplay.
"He was telling me his vision, and he started out as a painter," Deborah reveals. "The colours in the film are totally his colour sense and what his paintings are, so that was real exciting, but they just ran into problem after problem.
"It started out as a non-union production and we shot for about ten days non-union, and then the Teamsters found out about it and we had to go union.
"It sucked up all the budget, quadrupled the budget, so that money should have gone into footage and shooting the scenes and covering the story from all directions paid for drivers and men that sat around on the set doing nothing most of the day."
I ask Debbie if she could see herself taking a part in a big-budget Hollywood movie. "No. I can't imagine that they would want me." But if they did - would you prefer to stick with independent film makers?
"Well, the corporate films are usually super-safe ones. I mean, unless it was a classic like 'Cannery Row' I wouldn't be interested in it. It's probably very mutual," she adds with an ironic laugh. "I don't think it would happen." I wouldn't be too sure.
Stein: "Hollywood is even more backward than the record industry. There's more room for experimentation in the record industry than there is in Hollywood. Something like 'Elephant Man' happens once in a lifetime."
Harry: "I thought that Warhol's films were just so great. I think they're very entertaining and really modern and everything, and they don't get anywhere. He can't even make movies any more, he can't afford to. And they've always been really great.
"And look at Nick Roeg ('Don't Look Now', 'Man Who Fell to Earth', 'Bad Timing'.) There is a director who should be working much, much more."
GLOOM and despondency aside, Debbie feels she learned a lot from "Union City", and enjoyed the opportunity to work in a new medium under the guidance of more experienced operators. Being Debbie Harry, Sex Queen of Rock, has subjected her to pressures she doesn't always enjoy.
Still, it was surprising to find that in her "Union City" role she spoke specifically about her girlhood fantasies of Marilyn Monroe, a parallel I thought she wanted to steer clear of.
"Yeah. It was in the script," she says simply. "I mean, the reason I took the part was because I thought I could definitely do it. I don't think that... in the truest sense that I, ah, was as inhibited as a woman from that era (the Thirties) would have been. In a lot of ways I think that my movements might not have been right, but... it worked out."
Co-star Dennis Lipscomb, who played Harry's twitchily obsessive husband, lent her a guiding hand. "Dennis was terrific. He's a very good actor, he's had a lot of training, and he was really generous. A lot of times there was a real competitive thing going on and he was just helping me a lot. He studied acting in London, and he was in
'Elephant Man' on the road, too."
Do you feel that a technical training is important to acting, or would it just make you a different type of
actress? "I think anything you do is just practice, practice, practice" (this way for Carnegie Hall). "Repetition is the best thing. A certain amount of technique is important.
"I mean, you can't be so, uh, unprepared as to not use lighting or something like that. Those kind of techniques are important. Sort of like movement, I guess, making everything sort of intense and not too flamboyant.
"That's probably one of the major reasons why rock'n'roll on film doesn't really happen, cos it's so big in movement. And they always shoot it tight, you know? They come in with the camera all the time, and they miss the tits or they miss the guitar player doing the important thing, and they should be framing it."
HARRY doesn't view her acting career as a replacement for her rock persona, just as a different field to be explored. She and Stein are both hooked on the idea of performing with Blondie, but the band's Abba-like status makes it increasingly difficult to keep gigging within manageable limits.
They don't want to do giant tours again.
Both confidently predict more Blondie albums, but the inevitable fragmentation which comes when groups reach outsize proportions makes the prospect look distant.
Jimmy Destri is working on a solo album, Nigel Harrison and Clem Burke have been gigging with the dreadful Michael Des Barres, and Clem has also been producing sessions for New York groups the Speedies and the Colors.
"The Ritz in New York is like a favourite kind of place to play, for me," says Deborah. "But if we tried to play in a place like that in London, we'd have to stay there for a long time, I should think, we'd have to play a lotta nights cos it's only a coupla thousand people.
"Now, it's sorta got to the point where if we don't do some kind of technically aggressive show, I don't know... is it cool to just play music? I think it's probably cooler to do that in England than here."
The duo reached a compromise of sorts recently when they played a gig in New York with Chicmen Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, plus guest spots from James Chance and Jimmy Destri.
It ended with a "rapathon" to "Good Times", with the likes of J. Walter Negro from the Funky Four helping out. It was an unrehearsed one-off, but Stein insists it was a success.
As for the collaboration album with Chic, surprises can be expected. Stein and Harry wrote five songs between them, as did Rodgers and Edwards. Two more tracks are collaborations between all four.
"It's hard-edged R&B rock-funk," Stein encapsulates. "Nile and Bernard didn't want to produce Blondie because I think the one or two experiences they had producing other musicians, they didn't like as much as when they did it themselves, y'know.
"They're trying to sound like Debbie and Debbie's trying to sound like them, so it's pretty interesting." Stein is amazed at how little credit Chic have received from the white rock community. He's constantly bugged by what he sees as the strong undercurrent of racism in American music.
DEBORAH herself is keeping tight-lipped about the album for the moment, volunteering only that "it should be very... uh... different. It's fun doing something like this with just Chris."
The cover artwork is by Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, who was responsible for the hideous feats of imagination in Ridley Scott's space-horror classic "Alien". "I guarantee it's gonna cause more comment than any album cover in a long time," says Stein with a mysterious chuckle. "You have my word on that."
It's a long way from "Denis".
Debbie Harry asks rhetorically: "Why should one be accused of selling out when one's music becomes popular? Because it's just like everything changes, and what's in is out and it just keeps going on."
The face that shipped a million units takes her leave. There's work to do even on this limpid Saturday evening.
Stein and I watch a few minutes of a videocassette of "Rude Boy", then he too calls it a day. He goes upstairs to watch some more TV.