New York Sunday News Magazine - 30th March 1980
Pages 1, 2, 18, 19, 20, 22
On the Cover
Deborah Harry grew up fast in New Jersey; no stranger to experimental lifestyles, she went through a spell on hard drugs before turning from junk to punk. With her Brooklyn-born boyfriend Chris Stein, she formed a band called Blondie, which enjoyed a cult following in the lower East Side clubs. Now, two years later, with their hit, "Call Me," and a movie due this summer, Blondie is the hottest rock and roll band in the world and Deborah Harry is being hailed as a sex symbol for the '80s. Page 18.
COVER PHOTO BY TOM ARMA.
Pages 18, 19, 20, 22
and now the hottest band in rock'n'roll...
by FRED SCHRUERS
Debbie Harry stares out the window of the chauffeured van as it zips down a back road in Manor Downs, Tex., population 540. Her sneaker-shod feet are chocked against the seat in front of her, shoelaces flopping untied, and she lets her eyes rest on the scrubby fields without really focusing on anything.
It's not quite 8 a.m. Harry wears a rumpled olive-drab parachutist's suit and not one daub of make-up. The performer's mask is off, but her outsized lips and eyes are even more startling without it. At this drowsy hour, we're headed out of Austin for the day's early call on a movie called "Roadie" in which Harry speaks a few lines and performs with her band, Blondie. The conversation is about the group's struggle in the business.
"See, there was a certain amount of desperation attached to the approach to business." Harry turns breathless and wags her hand in the air - "'Well, we've gotta sell the girl because nothing else is gonna work, ever.' That was so crazy, so shortsighted. But now we're one of the few groups that's really lasted in the 'New Wave', and you know, man, that's saying something. Despite all this pressure, all the hassles, all of our business problems, despite our lousy, crappy contract - despite everything, we're still together."
At the end of the dirt road, a drug-store cowboy in a black hat halts the van at the gate of Manor Downs Race Course (Rodeo This Weekend/Turkey Shoot Every Sunday). He swings the gate open on a dusty parking lot strewn with cables, trucks and trailers. The place is a glorified stable with a country bandstand. "Welcome to Texas," says the cowboy. "Get some stink on your shoes."
Harry heads into a ramshackle office building and sits down to make herself up: eyeliner, lipstick, a second skin of powder and grease. The story goes that she (and the band) found their name after truck drivers, catching sight of her peroxided mane as she walked down East Village streets, would yell, "Hey, Blondie." She has, however, kept reverse-chic roots and she would change her hair color if the right movie role came along.
"I'm getting to the point where we could call the group 'Blondie' and I could just have brown hair. But it's better to leave that, like - like some night when you really get drunk and cut off all your hair and shave your beard and moustache."
Still, the analogy is a little too lightweight for a multimillion-dollar sex symbol with a trademark face. Harry is reminded, practically every day, that the public thinks she is "Blondie." Debbie Harry letting her hair go brown would make as much sense as Liza Minnelli frowning at photographers and buying print dresses off dime-store racks.
But she just might do it, one finally thinks, as a station wagon bearing the rest of Blondie rips along the fenceposts and brakes in the parking lot in a swirl of dust. There is a long pause - these boys are dressed in jet black and not about to step into a cloud of mauve dust - and then they emerge, five bondage cowboys:
Chris Stein, 30, lead guitarist, leader of the band and Debbie's roommate in a funky penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, owlishly handsome behind thick-lensed shades; Frank Infante, a whippet-lean, second guitarist who is called "The Freak" because of his constant, spectral silence; drummer Clem Burke, who grew up near Frank in Jersey City and wears an orange tie, turquoise shirt and a Beatles-era black leather jacket (his entertainment credo - "When you're relating to an audience, first insult yourself. Then you can insult them as much as you want."); bassist Nigel Harrison, a bright, chipper Englishman; and Jimmy Destri, a Brooklyn native and master of the group's keyboards, dandyish in vanilla cowboy boots and pompadour.
This mix of glamour and grit has made Blondie a band with wide appeal. The biggest portion of its fans may well be teenyboppers. The other two camps are discophiles - snared by the disco hit "Heart of Glass" - and good old garden-variety rock and roll fans.
The teenyboppers are a lot of laughs, even for the band. They are the ones who call up a radio station while, say, Chris and Debbie are taking phone calls on the talk show, and collapse into tears or giggles. Sometimes they can't even speak, and you hear a kind of faint gasping. When they can talk, it's generally to croak "I can't believe I'm talking to you." Stein and Harry have considerable patience with these types; they even pen lively little notes for the fan club newsletter. When Clem Burke writes "Dear Boys and Girls; Well, well, well, time for another fan club communication...," you are prepared for such philosophical asides as "I hope my hair looks okay."
The disco fans are not so abashed as their pubescent counterparts. While punk does have its own chic (in evidence at the downtown Mudd Club), it tends to jar with the flash and glitter of disco. On a visit to the Harry-Stein penthouse, I saw Chris accidentally kick a small black box festooned with wires. "That's the box that made the synthesizer line for 'Heart of Glass'," he said in a half-interested tone. Stein has said that the big lesson he learned from Andy Warhol is "The media is there to be manipulated." And Stein himself is no mean schemer, having steered his band to radio, TV and even the discos.
But the straight rock fans are perhaps the group's best asset, the ones who might carry them across middle age into whatever cloudbank the rock and roll industry is headed for. This bunch is careful to talk about Blondie as an entity, a rock and roll band, but they are not above locker room discussions about Debbie Harry.
Because of Harry's appeal, the band has a weird, floating constituency, bolstered, for instance, by the occasional truck driver who might see them on a late-night rock show glimmering from the TV over some dark bar. There is no denying Harry's place in that Garbo-Dietrich-Monroe tradition that cuts across age and class divisions. Take a short afternoon walk with Harry (in her thigh-high black boots) across Central Park South. As she saunters past the steps of the New York Athletic Club, two tweedy young professionals get their signals so crossed that they collide, the taller one getting a painful poke in the groin from a jutting squash racket.
The female owner of an Austin bar, watching Harry jounce around onstage, puts it this way: "The rednecks like her because she looks like a waitress." Harry's approach to performing is succinctly expressed: "I just try to stay loose, stay inspired and see what happens." Surprisingly, perhaps, Harry is a fan of disco goddess Donna Summer. "She has this warm quality to her voice. I get a little bored with the subject matter, but she sounds sincere, whatever she sings. You can buy it."
Harry is wont to come on a bit heavier than your standard Vegas entertainer. Midway through an instrumental break in Austin, she looks over the tentatively boogieing audience: "Ah, you're more alone than when you're standing in a crowd." She is given to somewhat mystical pronouncements: "My life is like a late-night rerun."
It would be fair to say that Debbie Harry was one of those girls my New Jersey mother disdainfully referred to as "fast." Harry used to throw this moneymaking sex appeal away on the audiences watching Hawthorne High School's twirlers at various Jersey athletic events. She was born in Miami, and her parents are now shopkeepers in Cooperstown, N.Y., but Harry started feeling different quite early in high school. "I broke all tradition at 16," she says. She graduated high school, tried junior college for a spell, found it to be "a prison camp" and headed for the big city.
Now, at 34, Harry is not the ice queen that some of her press would make her out to be. She does have a willful, changeable temperament and a fair amount of hard bark on her. She fulfills the cliche of somebody who is so vulnerable that he or she has to act hard. But her earthiness, combined with Stein's filibustering affability, has kept the band together.
Shortly after the Blondies (as they're known on the Manhattan New Wave circuit) occupy their dressing rooms on the movie set, a crudely lettered poster appears on the door - probably the work of Clem and Jimmy: "Notice: all photographers will be shot upon entering Blondie-occupied sectors. But bring your girls and dealers." The night before, during an attempt to tape an interview with the group over a fancy dinner with the rest of the cast present, the band had raised hell for a solid hour. "Kill the Ayatollah Ptomainey," Destri had said, grabbing the tape recorder, and he went on to conduct mock interviews around the world with Harry. "This is Wolfgang Handshake of Bravo magazine. Please tell us, Debbie Blondie, what is favorite thing about Germany, and please don't mention the war."
The dinner continued in this vein, with the band making food sculptures and leaving two small fires. The next day, the film's musical director, a taciturn Hollywood veteran named Bones, would shake his head. "The people making this film are professionals who have made a lot of major motion pictures. They're not impressed by these kids." He probably hadn't realized that when you buy Blondie's services, their punk contrariness comes with the territory.
Harry herself has indeed led a kind of trashy but aboveground life, holding jobs as a Playboy bunny, beautician and staffer at a health spa. But she also had been a barmaid at Max's Kansas City, circa 1970, when stars and sycophants spread drugs across the tables, necked languorously and contemplated the end of the Warhol '60s in the back room. Harry underwent various addictions, including a period on heroin, in those days.
In 1970, Stein became a guitar player for the Stilletoes, a band Harry sang for, and gradually the group was transformed into Blondie. In August 1976 they cut their first single and later released their first album. Their record sales, especially in England, rose geometrically through three albums, and 1978's "Parallel Lines" went platinum behind their discofied "Heart of Glass" hit.
Even as they were establishing themselves as expert pop songwriters, Harry's image started to catch hold in the States in the same way it had taken over England, France, Australia, Europe and parts of Japan. The wide-eyed, high-cheekboned face, sitting atop an assiduously undressed frame, took on a poster-legend life of its own. A Variety reviewer could not resist noting that Harry's "slightly ratty neon Marilyn Monroe looks practically burn the screen."
Blondie, then, is a band with commercial clout. Combined with their reputation as enfants terrible, this clout tends to scare the hell out of people with tight production schedules. In the band's dressing room at Manor Downs, Denny Vosburgh (of the band's new management team) rubs one temple repeatedly while the band discusses what havoc they can wreck on a crucial number they're about to perform on film: Johnny Cash's country "Ring of Fire." Vosburgh turns in little circles and finally flings open the door in exasperation and heads off, yelling: "Go ahead, do anything you want. Take this rating from G to X and see how much money you make."
The band pretends to ignore that one, but the comment has a toehold. They file out, bondage cowboys and black-shirted Harry, and trot onto a stage where a willing band of some thousand spectators is clustered in the hot Texas sun. The band launches into "Ring of Fire" with a pummeling, New York-nightclub-at-3 a.m. beat that would tip Johnny Cash's Stetson back more than a few notches. The first reinterpretation of the lyric comes very early. "Tayyyyyyyy-ste!" hollers Harry, advancing with the mike, "My love is suh-wheet!" By the time a charged-up Harry demands "one more" refrain from the band, the crowd is hopping around, throwing fists in the air. "Debbie's gonna be running for president in 1984 against whoever wins this year," says Stein to the cheering crowd. "So save your ticket stubs and you can all be vice president...."
Drummer Clem Burke signals the start of their recent single, "Dreaming," with some martial tom-tomming. "When I met you in the restaurant/You could tell I was no debutante" goes the Stein-Harry composition, and she had said earlier that morning that it was at least partly autobiographical. "I actually did meet Chris in a restaurant - or a bar, anyhow. The Bobern Tavern on 28th St. That's where we played our first gig with the Stilletoes. But that line just sort of worked in the song - the idea of the pick-up, you know. But it's not a story line, really. It's just flashbacks, and how they relate to - to dreaming."
Part of the dream, of course, belongs to the audience. Harry finds that part of her appeal innocent enough. "It's like, to... fulfill something that isn't usually done... that there is a female there as a performer available for people to have some sort of a dream about." When she is pressed later to consider the notion that she's being sexually exploited, Chris Stein blows the whistle. "Debbie being asked about being exploited as a woman is a completely chauvinistic thing. Because nobody bothers asking Mick Jagger how he feels about being a sex symbol."
"I think it's more a physical thing than a mental thing," adds Harry. "There is mental exploitation in the fact that women are denied the use of their brains." But her shrug lets you know that Harry doesn't feel she's such a victim. With "Roadie" due out in June and a new Blondie album to record, the only thing Harry is likely to be denied is peace and quiet.
Onstage in Austin the band is playing "One Way or Another," their 1978 hit, and it's guitarist Frank Infante's birthday. As the song ends, they bring him a hefty, three-tiered chocolate cake. He shifts his guitar sideways to get his hands under the cake. The crowd is whooping it up, calling for another number, hooting to Debbie. Frank steps up and heaves the cake into the crowd. The pastry warhead splatters down on a dozen fans.
"We'd like to thank everyone who made this moment of destruction possible," says Stein. "We're gonna do one more song - what's it gonna be?" But Debbie is waving him off. "No, no," she says. "This is it, this is the end. Thank you very much. You're a chocolate-covered audience." And they rush off while a tape plays "Dreaming."
Fred Schruers is writing an unauthorized biography of Blondie.