Next Magazine - 26th March 2004
AN INTERVIEW WITH DEBBIE HARRY
Written By: Rob Roth
Photography: Rob Roth
Before Gwen Stefani. Before Courtney Love. Before Madonna. There was only one
blonde rock goddess, and for our money here at Next world headquarters, there's
still only one: Debbie Harry. Call us sentimental, call us romantics or even
nostalgic (yes, we all have our varied memories tied into Blondie standards like
"Heart of Glass," "The Tide Is High," "Rapture"
and "Call Me"), but Harry just personifies the glamour, grit and guts
of rock and roll - and New York City, for that matter. And that's because Harry
herself is still a fixture in what we like to call our New York. We see her at
Kiki & Herb shows, onstage at Joe's Pub, catching concerts at Webster
Hall... She's a part of our world. Our city is her city. And her music has been
the soundtrack of our lives.
Now, 30 years after an ex-folkie/ex-Max's Kansas City waitress/Playboy bunny
Harry joined forces with art student/guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem
Burke (keyboard player Jimmy Destri came on board in 1975), the foursome returns
with their seventh studio album, The Curse of Blondie (Sanctuary Records). It's
a raucous, melodic trip marked by a blistering batch of 14 new songs - slamming
party anthems ("Undone"), quirky bouncy upbeat tributes ("Hello
Joe" - a nod to Joey Ramone), moody rock ("Last One in the
World") and the slyly danceable electro diddy ("Good Boys") which
recalls vintage Blondie (and has already been climbing up the Billboard dance
chart). And yes, there's even a mad rap ode to New Jersey with
To celebrate the new disc's release in early April, Harry's friend, the
artist/photographer Rob Roth (who also comprises one half of the performance duo
the Fishsticks, which Harry has performed with) sat down with the superstar to
talk about rock, politics, gay marriage, Stephen Sprouse, art, driving, and New
- John Polly.
Rob Roth: There's a lot of talk about, like your new ACLU ad... Why did you
chose to do that?
Debbie Harry: I love the ACLU and I'm concerned now, especially when it comes to
our rights, with current politics and the religious community and the
Conservative majority or minority - I don't know who they are. It's just tragic
what's going on.
RR: To me, the gay marriage issue is exactly the same as the women's movement
and the civil rights movement. But because there's a religious element to it, it
seems to make it more complicated.
DH: It's very complicated. But, you know, the issues of humanity and what is
fair treatment and good treatment of a fellow human being should not really be
based on a personal sense of right and wrong or judgement. Morality should have
to do with killing people or hurting them or stealing from them, but when it
comes to adult choices, I don't see it. Basically, Europeans are laughing at us.
We're being laughed at around the world, and it's pathetic. Who are these people
[in charge] and why do they get to have their way?
RR: I like what you said on VH1, "Sex is great and love is great - so
what's the big deal?" What does gay marriage personally do to those people
who oppose it? Why does it matter to them? I can't believe people make an issue
out of something so simple.
DH: It sounds like a bunch of people who aren't very intelligent, and who don't
have any appreciation of art or literature or anything like that, and live very
small lives in a very small piece of the universe. In a teeny, tiny part of
it... [laughs] Basically, I'd like to see a President in office who cared about
unity and unifying people under traditions of value that go beyond politics and
religion, that are really based on...
DH: And issues that are deeply, deeply important. You know, that make us better
RR: [Laughs.] It's so sad. Anyway... On o something else. Because he just
recently died, I want to ask you about your friend Stephen Sprouse. He was such
a genius, and I never felt he got the credit from the fashion industry that he
DH: I feel like he was the under-pinnings of the entire world of Gap and Banana
Republic. I mean. his philosophy was that, in the future, everyone would be
wearing uniforms, and he wanted to make sure those uniforms...
RR: ...Were Day-Glo? [Laughs.]
DH: Day-Glo - or with the right lines. Good lines, nice collars, buttons or very
simple classic forms...
RR: He was ahead of his time.
DH: And he did something interesting by taking the idea of downtown and rock and
roll, and adding it to couture. That was really the first time that that had
happened. And everyone who came immediately after him stepped in line with that.
RR: I also loved that he wasn't only about fashion. He did textiles and
paintings and photography, he was into graphic design - he could do all of that.
DH: And, he was totally devoted to Andy.
RR: Were they similar, he and Andy Warhol?
DH: Andy was much more outgoing. Steve was friendly, but very shy. And - I'm not
sure if a lot of people knew this, but Steve was very psychic. Extremely
psychic. Like freaky psychic. He'd call you up and start talking about something
you'd just been thinking about; it was really freaky. The day that he died I
just happen to go to my closet and I took out this Stephen Sprouse coat that I'd
never worn. I'm wearing it around the house and I decided, "I'm going to go
take this coat to the dry cleaners and see if they can reset the sleeves."
And they did! And it was that same day that he died. I was a little spooked by
that, because I know how psychic he is.
RR: That is the kind of stuff that gives me faith, that there's more to life
than we think. I'll let that lead me to talk about that album, and "the
curse." The album title is The Curse of Blondie, and you used to tell me
about that all the time. But I didn't really believe it...
DH: About our curse... [laughs]
RR: I think it's almost a blessing to be cursed; you learn so much more when
things go wrong.
DH: You certainly learn a lot more. A hell of a lot more.
RR: Have you learned the harder times you've been through?
DH: Yeah. People always say, "What are your regrets?" And I always
say, "I have a lot of regrets, but I'm not going to think about them as
regrets." Because, number one, that's a waste of time; and number two, I've
had a fucking interesting life so far.
RR: I never regret anything I did; what I don't want to regret are the things
I didn't do.
DH: That was the impetus for me to do music or art, because I knew if I didn't
try when I was young, then I would get to be in my 40's and I'd be really
unhappy that I hadn't. And that's all I knew. And I wasn't convinced that I was
the most talented person in the world.
RR: But that's just insecurity, and everybody has that as an artist.
DH: Some do, some don't. There are some people who are so convinced of
themselves. And I admire that; anybody who knows who they are and feels so
self-confident and just moves ahead. I feel like some of the great authors, like
Dylan Thomas and Truman Capote have been like that. Capote wrote every day. He
said that's the only way, you have to sit down every day and do it.
RR: Do you feel like that about music? You couldn't live without it, could
DH: I do know the effect that music still has on me - I'm completely vulnerable
to it. I'm seduced by it.
RR: Well, I love that you seem to be able to sing so many different kinds of
songs - from screaming rock anthems to a beautiful ballad, and it works.
DH: Thank you. I don't know if it actually works, but I love it all. I'm a pig.
And I want to do it all, I want to eat it all, I want to taste it all. I'm a
culture vulture, and I just want to experience it all.
RR: Regarding the scene in New York... That's how we met, and you've always
been part of it. For me, it's where I get my influences and my creative energy.
DH: Yes, it's wonderful. Walking into the Bowery Ballroom last night [for the
Courtney Love show] the first thing that came out of my mouth was "God - I
love rock and roll; I just love it. Look at this!" It's just great. It's
like food for me.
RR: In London, back when we did that show in front of two or three thousand
people, it was the most liberating experience. There's a real energy there, a
give and take thing, that is so wild to feel.
DH: Yes, it's like some gigantic animal, this roaring thing - it's like a tribal
sharing. Lately I've been believing that music predates speech. We probably, as
primitive people, made music before we actually had a language, and that's where
language comes from.
RR: So music speaks to the oldest part of ourselves...
DH: It soothes the savage beast.
RR: It's the thing that really got me through life when I was younger and
really fucked-up. Like the Ramones and Blondie - there were so many songs that I
used to listen to.
DH: I did that, too. We all do that. Music is wonderful. Especially if there's
some kind of content to it. If there's a little surprise to it...
RR: That's what I loved about Blondie. It's like there was a song for every
mood. You could have your hard thrashy stuff, or have a song like "Fade
Away and Radiate" which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
And even on the new album there's a wide variety.
DH: Well, back in the old days, albums were constructed like that. They were
like trips. And I guess we're still tripping. But that's really what it was
supposed to be: an arc, a journey. And living in a metropolitan area which is
ethnically diverse, our lives are very complicated, so our emotional experiences
are going to be varied like that.
RR: Before we finish you have to tell me about VH1 Divas Live, which you're
doing this year! What are you going to sing?
DH: "Good Boys," the new single. And I'd like to do
RR: "Undone" is my favourite on the new album because it's a total
driving song. And it reminds me of you because you love to drive. You're
DH: "Let's go!" [laughs]
RR: Right, let's go! Does it relax you, driving?
DH: Totally. It sort of saved me; it's how I got through high school. When
things would get too intense I would just get in a car...
RR: Lyrically, you've done some of your best work on this album. Don't you
DH: Yeah, I do actually. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. And I feel that since
other things in my life have become focused, that I've been able to focus
better. It's funny though because the other day I was thinking that Blondie was
sort of like a late bloomer, in terms of all the things that were happening back
when. Because we tried to cover a lot of ground and do a lot of different
styles, and none of us were really educated musicians. We were all self-taught,
so it took us a little longer to get all of that together. And most bands have
one particular style or sound that they do, and we have our own sound but we do
a lot of different styles.
RR: You did rap and reggae before anyone else - as far as a hit on the
RR: I guess that's because you're so experimental and unafraid of it; that's
DH: Yeah! [smiles].
The Curse of Blondie will be in record stores on April 6th. Harry will
perform on VH1's Divas Live on Sunday, April 18th at 9pm.
Beyond photography, video and theatre, visual wunderkind Rob Roth's artworks
"Growing up as a gay youth, or more specifically an artfag, to say I was
depressed/suicidal would be putting it mildly," says the New York-based
cross-media visual artist Rob Roth. "Tortured at school day after day, one
of the things that got me through was listening to bands like The Ramones,
B-52's, X-Ray Specs and of course, Blondie. And while all the bands were great
there was always something about Blondie that was special. And of course that
was Debbie Harry. Not only were the songs amazing, but the woman delivering them
was someone who actually seemed to be living the life she was representing. Call
it street cred if you will, or better yet, authenticity. Luckily for me, I have
been working with Debbie for years now and she still surprises me. I still
consider her one of the great New York icons, up there with the Empire State
Building and Andy Warhol, a representation of strength and glamour."
Blondie-worship aside, Roth himself has become some thing of a New York icon all
his own. A graduate of Pratt University, about a decade ago Roth began paying
his dues as a design director on music videos, feature films, TV, CD-roms,
websites and video games. His design for Netwits, a mulit-user games for
Microsoft garned him notice in Time Magazine's "Best of 1997" issue.
But queer New Yorkers perhaps know Roth best as the genius behind Click + Drag,
the Satuday night party that reigned at the Jackie 60 space, Mother throughout
the late 90s. A gleeful, fetishistic celebration of cyber technology and ribald
nightlife, Roth - along with his collaborators Chi Chi Valenti, designer Kitty
Boots, and editrix Abbey Ehmann - produced amazing theme parties which drew fans
as varied as the Spice Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, and most of downtown NYC. Roth
went on to produce and design the artwork for Blondie's 1999 reunion album, No
Exit, as well as the artwork for their latest, The Curse of Blondie. Today, Roth
continues to mount provocative video and photography projects for clients and
artists as varied as Richard Move and Big Art Group, and nightclubs like Crobar
"Most recently at Area 10009 at Opaline I've been projecting images on live
bodies, on boys," explains Roth. "I'll film the guy masturbating, and
then I'll show the video projected on his body at the club. It's like a virtual
striptease, it's sort of a comment on surrealism, and it makes go-go boys
jerking off legal in a club!" And Roth still performs along with fellow
artist, Garrett Domina, as the Fishsticks. "We're a performance duo,"
says Roth. "It's art driven in the tradition of incoherence and the
ridiculous. We use projections and audio and costumes. It encompasses a bit of
everything, which is what I do no matter what art form I'm working in. It's the
ultimate orgasm creatively!"
For more about Rob Roth and his work, visit online at www.clicknyc.com