Next Magazine - 26th March 2004

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY

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 "Shakedown."

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 York City.

- 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...

RR: Equality?

DH: And issues that are deeply, deeply important. You know, that make us better than cockroaches...

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 was due.

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 you?

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 "Undone."

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 always...

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 think so?

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 radio...

DH: Yeah...

RR: I guess that's because you're so experimental and unafraid of it; that's your strength.

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.

VISUAL STIMULI

Beyond photography, video and theatre, visual wunderkind Rob Roth's artworks trancend mediums.

"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 and Opaline.

"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

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