Mojo - December 2005
THE MOJO INTERVIEW
She served time as a hippy, Playboy bunny, and cabaret singer before fronting the greatest pop-punk band of all time. After 30 years as a pop icon, "I enjoy it now, more than ever," says Debbie Harry.
Interview by DAVID FRICKE
Portrait by SEBASTIAN MLYNARSKI
DEBORAH HARRY - THE VOICE AND FACE of New York's greatest punk-pop band, Blondie - turned 60 on July 1. She is not embarrassed by her age. She does not look it either. Her hair is now reddish brown streaked with blonde and blown back to showcase those famous moon-goddess cheekbones, while her eyes twinkle with light as she looks at you, answering each question without blinking - or flinching.
"As a kid in school, I wanted to be a painter," she says sitting in a lower Manhattan office. "The value of a painter or sculptor is in longevity, the work that goes through all those periods of development, emotion and style. I always thought of that as the ideal."
Born in Miami, Florida, adopted when she was three months old and raised by Richard and Catherine Harry of Hawthorne, New Jersey, Deborah was nearly 30, with a long and winding résumé on the fringes of stardom - recording with '60s folk-pop band Wind In The Willows; serving drinks at Max's Kansas City, then as a Playboy Bunny; singing with garage-cabaret trio The Stilettos - when she and guitarist-paramour Chris Stein formed Blondie in 1974. With a knockout combination of hot candy and pop-art vision, powered by the drumming of Clem Burke and iced with the peppermint-Kraftwerk keyboards of Jimmy Destri, Blondie were CBGB's first commercial-breakout band and early crossover innovators in electro-dance and hip hop. But with success came tensions, and the band broke up in late 1982. Harry spent the next few years caring for Stein, who was diagnosed with a rare near-fatal disease, pemphigus. She pursued a solo career - the highlight of which was H.R. Giger's cover for 1981's Koo Koo (an Amazon-android Harry, her face pierced with acupuncture needles) - but has been back with the reunited Blondie since 1998. A 2004 US release, Live By Request, has now been released in Britain, but the bigger news is that Blondie are among this year's nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Harry thinks it's about time. "On one hand, we were a bunch of jerks from the suburbs," she concedes, "but we also thought of ourselves as megastars. And a lot of the people we came up with [The Ramones, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello] are in there. We feel it's not so preposterous." And, Harry adds with a big disarming smile, "it would be really nice."
Q: In the Blondie autobiography, Making Tracks, you wrote that you hated school. How much?
A: I was always nervous at school. I liked being in the classroom, learning things. But I couldn't take the tension, having to pass a test. I was terrible at math, although I was quite good at geometry: ratios, envisioning the relationships of lines in space. English and art were my best subjects, but I had no idea of being a writer, or a songwriter, at that point.
Q: You were a marching-band majorette in high school.
A: I wasn't a very good one, although I liked strutting around. I was shy socially. But I had confidence about my looks, and I was careful about them. I always had a boyfriend. I didn't date a lot. I would have one boyfriend for awhile, then move on to another one. I always felt like there was a battle going on inside me. I grew up in a very conservative household. Yet I felt radical inside. I wasn't the juvenile-delinquent type, but I had to break out. I wanted to find my own path. It made me the perfect punk. When that scene came along, I knew I belonged: "Yes, I'm there!"
Q: Your vinyl debut, the 1968 album with New York band Wind In The Willows, is a record that many people have heard of but never heard - which may be a good thing.
A: I have no idea. I haven't listened to it in a long time. That record is very childlike to me. I didn't have a great deal of input. I was a back-up singer, doing high harmonies with the lead singer. It was his trip. He envisioned himself as this big-daddy folk guy with a teddy bear aspect. We did a second album that was a little more tasteful - for me, anyway - but it never came out. I have no idea what happened to it.
Q: As a '70s punk icon, did psychedelia and peace-and-love mean anything to you?
A: I liked the idea of it. I don't know if it did anything special for me. I went to the Be-Ins in Central Park. They were great - a lot of crazy people tripped out of their minds, dressed great. That was one thing I liked about hippy nation: everyone was always dressed up.
In a way, the '60s in New York were a larger version of what went on at CBGB in the early '70s. You had Sun Ra playing in the park. The Fugs were around town, The Velvet Underground were playing at the Balloon Farm. And it wasn't all peace and love. Racially and economically, there was a lot of separation. The Lower East Side was a dangerous place to live, although I liked it there. You had these great Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish restaurants, where you could eat well and cheaply.
Q: I've read that you were particularly taken with Janis Joplin when you saw her at the Fillmore East - and by Nico when you saw her live with the Velvets.
A: When I saw Janis, I thought, "Wow, what courage!" She communicated who she was, what she was singing about. It wasn't just a technical experience for her, making notes come out and waving her arms around. She was doing with her body what she felt in those songs.
Q: She was hardly a conventional beauty. She had to fight to win people over.
A: That's the way she grew up, and I don't think she ever lost that. I wonder, what if she'd had a nose job? If she was around now, she could have any face she wanted. Nico could be very quiet. She would stand there, so cool. She would wear this chartreuse jacket, with her long, very blonde hair, standing completely still: (affects low Teutonic moan) "I'll be your mirror." She would just do that, with the rest of the Velvets behind her, so dark and menacing. Blondie once did a big festival in Barcelona, one of our earliest shows in front of a large audience, and we shared a little caravan with Nico. She was in there shooting up: "Wow, Nico shooting up! Cool!" Then she went out and played her songs on the harmonium. She was still gorgeous.
Q: Your infamous stint as a Playboy Bunny at the end of the '60s. What was it like wearing bunny ears for a living, when you cared so much about Janis and the Velvets?
A: I didn't consider it a profession. A lot of the women there believed that, though. They were into it for the huge income. Those girls made some dough. The drink prices were high, and the percentages were good for the Bunnys. I did OK. I only stayed there for seven or eight months. I was getting to the point where I was getting into the big showrooms, where the girls would clean up. In those days, you came away with $1,500 cash on a weekend.
Q: Was it fun waitressing at Max's Kansas City, even though the money wasn't as good?
A: The first incarnation of Max's was heavy duty. That's not a phrase I like to use, but it clearly defines what was going on. All Hollywood came. The photographers, sculptors and artists were all at the bar, in the front, while the back room was full of the Andy Warhol crowd, the late night people and musicians. Who did I serve? You name 'em. Who's the actor who was Our Man Flint? James Coburn! He was so gorgeous. Stevie Winwood, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix. Then there was Andy with all of his nutty superstars.
Q: Was he a good tipper?
A: (Smiles) He was OK. Max's was a perfect place to work. You were a fly on the wall. You could be as visible, or as invisible, as you wanted to be. I could meet people and talk to them - or not. I was just the waitress.
Q: What were your experiences with drugs in the '60s, and then in the mid-'70s, as heroin became a part of the New York punk scene?
A: I tried everything. Drugs were just a part of the social life. It was no big deal. Was there anything that enhanced my world? (Laughs) I went through different periods, various states of mind. After a time, drugs got in my way, especially habit-forming drugs that you can't control. Losing control has always been a drag for me. Heroin ruined things in New York. The amount of it that was around was insane. I was lucky - I wasn't terribly interested and didn't have a lot of money. I was happy with Chris, and he was a big pothead. I suppose if I'd gone out with Johnny Thunders, I would have been shooting up. (Laughs) Lucky break for me.
Q: You started experimenting with hair colour as a teenager. In high school, your hair was orange and, at one point, even green. What made you settle on platinum blonde?
A: I was working in a salon with one of the guys from my high school class. He had opened a place, and I got a job there. It was in New Jersey - I reverse-commuted. I lived on Thompson Street [in Greenwich Village] and drove out there. If you timed it right, there was no traffic. I had always tried different colours, but I liked blonde the best. It was exciting and bright. Some people don't respect blondes, especially bleached blonde. They think it's tacky. But for me, it was a real internal shift. I loved the whole idea of dangerous innocence. Have you ever coloured your hair? You should try it. See what happens, how different you feel. You could always try a wig. But that's not the same. A wig just feels like a hat.
Q: Which brings me to the exploding-hair wig you wore on the cover of Blondie's 1982 album The Hunter.
A: That was a great wig. It was a kabuki wig. It was on a helmet, and it was made of horsehair, I think. The hair was so thick and coarse that it stood out like that. For the cover, we were all going to look like animals. You know how the actors in the musical Cats all wore cat make-up? That's where the wig started. But the guys never went for it, so we ended up with this terribly bland, weird-looking cover. People saw it and went, "Ugh, what is that?"
Q: You performed at a rally to save CBGB. How much fun was it to play there? For décor and amenities, the place was and still is a dive.
A: The truth is that CBGB was like any other gig. Some nights were good. Some were not so good. The room is difficult to play. It's long, and the stage is small. But its ambience and reputation, the way people liked to go there - those are the things that made it happen. It wasn't a venue. It was a feeling. The real value of CBGB was that you were left alone. [Owner] Hilly Kristal left you free to play, to do what you wanted. CBGB was a place for freedom and creativity, experiment and experience. You did your own thing and brought your own audience.
Q: How did you put up with that notorious dressing room?
A: What dressing room? (Laughs) I lived just down the street. I would get ready there, then come over. A lot of nights, I would end up with grime all over me, from the walls. I never liked the dirtiness of it. It was a pretty disgusting environment. I don't think the venue itself is worth saving. I said that at the rally, but maybe I was misunderstood. If I had been the owner I would have moved, found another place and made something of it. But the value of CBGB was that freedom. Maybe having a better venue would mean you'd have to run it with more control, but bands would be less experimental.
Q: I saw a lot of Blondie shows in the late '70s and early '80s. Most of the time, your stage presence amounted to simply singing at the mike, looking radiant. As the band's centre of attention, you didn't move much.
A: There was a lot going on around me. In the early days, some of the stages were very small. I didn't have a lot of room to move. When we went out with Iggy Pop [in 1977], opening for him, that was the first time I could go back and forth without bumping into the bass player. Iggy had a fucking great band on that tour. He had the Sales brothers [drummer Hunt and bassist Tony], and he was happy that David Bowie was there, playing with him. I only saw Iggy throw one hamburger the whole time. He's a pretty intense fellow, but he was very sweet-natured with me. He hung out more with the other guys in Blondie, though. I was with Chris. We were a couple, and we were happy. We loved music and doing shows. Sometimes we'd go out afterwards. A lot of times we didn't. We'd go back to the hotel and fuck a lot. (Laughs) We were lucky.
Q: The constant promo theme was "Blondie is a group". But you and Chris were the primary creative engine. Was Blondie yours and Chris's group?
A: That was a problem our manager created for us. Chris and I were in charge. We were managing the band before this guy came along. But his way of getting control was to create situations that put everybody off kilter, made them paranoid and on edge, made them doubtful about where they stood. If was unfortunate, because it carried on for years.
Q: What control did you have over the selling of Blondie - and the use of you as a sex object?
A: I felt divided about it. There were times when I thought it was terrifically unfair to the guys. We tried to make things more equal, like dividing up interviews. But I knew sex was part of the mechanics of promotion. And it was working. I always wondered if anybody was actually listening to what we were doing musically.
Q: Do you think Blondie gets its fair share of credit now for introducing mainstream white audiences to rap and electronic dance music, with Rapture and Heart Of Glass?
A: Rapture is not truly rap. It was an homage, dedicated to the form. We were hanging out with Fab Five Freddy. He would come down to CBGB. Some of the taggers [graffiti artists] would too. We met Grandmaster Flash and some of the Sugarhill Gang. They were all so cute. I remember Chris and I were laying in bed one day. He was smoking a joint, going "We (makes inhaling noise) should do a song (inhales) called Rapture." [Producer] Mike Chapman pulled Heart Of Glass together. We had done most of Parallel Lines. He said, "Have you got anything else?" We said, Yeah, we have this old song. It's pretty. We've tried it a lot of different ways. We played it for him, and he immediately loved it. He said, "Let's do this to it. Let's do that." Chris and Mike were fooling around with the technology that had just come out - drum machines, these little keyboards - and suddenly the song became this crossover dance thing. It was frustrating, though, to know that what we were doing in that area was legitimate, when so many people treated the record as a gimmick.
Q: I remember seeing Blondie at an arena in New Jersey on The Hunter tour, and feeling there was so little life in the band or the music. I thought, "This is the beginning of the end."
A: Chris was sick by then. He weighed about 120lbs. It was difficult for him physically and total stress time for all of us. We didn't know what was wrong with him yet. It was horrifying. And there were so many fractures within the band. They kept getting bigger. Management wasn't interested and eventually just walked away.
Q: Do you think the pressures of Chris's illness, and everything you did to help him get through it, had a lot to do with your subsequent break-up as a couple?
A: Yeah, I do. It wasn't that on its own. But my life was completely changed. We had been going along like this (makes straight line with hand). All of a sudden, we were going like this (hand makes sharp left turn), and I didn't have any guidance. I wasn't in therapy. Maybe I should have been. That might have helped me. Suddenly, there was no band. I had been popped out of something, into a vacuum: Where am I? What's going on? Everything around me, all that I knew, was gone.
Q: Did you feel forced into a solo career before you were ready for it or wanted one?
A: I wanted to make those records. I think they were good. But I didn't get a fair shake. Some of the problems I had were with Warner Bros. Records, because Madonna and I were with the same company. There was an obvious similarity, and she was so far ahead. They put all of their focus on her, and I ended up low on the totem pole.
Q: Did you ever imagine, when Blondie started, that you would still be singing those hits on stage, at the age of 60?
A: I admired the longevity of blues and R&B singers, and how they always had an attachment to what they were singing about. I looked at that and thought, "I love this. It's possible."
But it's one thing for a guy to carry on that way, at that age. Keith Richards has looked like an old blues pirate for the last 20 years. But a woman has to deal with tougher ideals: beauty, figure, style.
And desirability. It's hard mentally, more than physically. Because in today's world, there are so many things to help a woman look good. Fashions are comfortable. You can wear things that are flattering to your figure. Make-up has improved. And with cosmetic surgery, you can make yourself look the way you feel.
I just saw pictures of ['50s B-movie bombshell] Mamie Van Doren. Oh, Jesus! She looks sensational. I don't know how old she is, but she is hot! I was hanging with some of my friends, and our chins were on the floor, looking at this woman. She's petite and zoftig [buxom], wearing leather, with bleached hair. And her face is fabulous. It's great. (Laughs) Showbiz is wonderful.
Q: On Blondie's first reunion tour [in 1999], were you worried that people would be disappointed that you didn't look exactly as you did in 1977?
A: I actually enjoy what I do now more than ever. It's odd, because the pressure is on. Yet the pressure is off. I'm pretty sane about it. I want to harken back, to give people a sense of what we were like in the past. But I like to be comfortable on-stage, to forget about everything except the music.
I do all that other stuff - style, make-up - beforehand. That's what saves me. Then I can go out and forget about it. In the '80s, I had the lucky break of working with [designer] Stephen Sprouse. Stephen schooled me in being prepared, in getting my look together, so I could focus on the important stuff.
Q: Do you feel awkward singing any of the old Blondie hits now? Have you outgrown a song like Rip Her To Shreds?
A: The song makes me laugh. Rip Her To Shreds was always tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating. It was nasty fun: "Nyah, nyah!" I'm still like that.
Q: How would you characterise your relationship with Chris today, outside of the reunited Blondie?
A: He's one of my best friends. He's a terrific person, and I love him very much. I love his family - he's got great kids and a great wife.
I don't know if I would have been able to make it in music to the degree that I did, without Chris. He was so nonchalant, while I was like this (makes a face like a deer frozen in headlights).
I never expected anything like this. I was never one to read fan magazines. I didn't know what the music business was about. I just had this vague idea that I wanted to express myself. And I did it. (Pauses) Weird, huh?
We're not WORTHY
"One of the coolest ever," says Franz Ferdinand.
"Blondie were one of the best bands of all time. It seemed their only concern was to write the best pop music ever. They were never shy to embrace other forms, like disco, but did it with panache and still ended up sounding like Blondie. Debbie Harry's an icon, one of the coolest people ever."
Paul Thomson, Franz Ferdinand.
A life in PICTURES
Deb's delight: Ms Harry's hairy life.
1. Badger, Mole, Ratty... Young Deborah (third from right) with late '60s folkies Wind In The Willows.
2. Classic Blondie (from left) Clem Burke, Nigel Harrison, Frank Infante, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Jimmy Destri.
3. Bunny for money. Debs in her Playboy ears, '69.
4. Well did you evah? With good friend Iggy Pop, '77.
5. Answered prayers, Deborah Harry danced with a post facelift Truman Capote as Andy Warhol looks on, 1979.
6. Dibdibdib. Debbie as a scout with Kermit and the gang on The Muppet Show, February, 1981.
7. Rockin'! Deborah in all her punk-pop glory in Holland, 1980.
How to BUY...
The best of Blondie. By David Fricke.
THE PUNK ONE
Blondie **** Private Stock, 1976
Together, Blondie's debut and The Ramones' first album, issued within months of each other, captured the sweet and sledgehammer sides of New York '70s punk. Harry's girl-group coo is strong enough to ride the urban surf-rock of X Offender and Rip Her To Shreds, but the real surprise is the deep hurt and menace she brings to the ladies-choice noir of In The Flesh.
THE POP-PUNK ONE
Parallel Lines ***** Chrysalis, 1978
Heart Of Glass was mainstream America's introduction to the modern dance. But Blondie's third album is a greatest-hits joy all the way through. One Way Or Another, Sunday Girl and the cover of The Nerves' Hanging On The Telephone are honed to powerpop perfection, thanks to crack-the-whip production by ex-Sweet/Suzi Quatro magician Mike Chapman.
THE POP ONE
Autoamerican *** Chrysalis, 1980
The pop isn't as sharp and hard, but Blondie's streetwise instincts paid off with a sunny US Number 1 cover of The Paragons' sweet-reggae classic The Tide Is High and another Stateside topper in Rapture, a very white but loving tribute to the hip hop underground that was about to take over the world.