NME - 19th November 1983 - pages 32-33-34
a girl called harry
Debbie Harry was the face of the '70s, but not even she could stop Blondie from breaking up, or prevent her Broadway stage debut from closing almost as soon as it opened. It took patience and determination for Debbie to really break away: with a performance in Cronenberg's Videodrome that steals the film
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY CYNTHIA ROSE
PHOTOGRAPHY: JOE STEVENS
He's on the level... If he's inclined;
A son of the devil, he wants mine
Ooh he's a high high climber, not just a
He made the grande he made
His marks for Senor
And guess who's keepin' score?
D. Harry 1983
THOSE SENTIMENTS have been punching themselves into my head for almost an hour now - with the aid of a ripely confident, breezily erotic voice which stretches itself langourously, whispers emphases in Spanish, warns and warms at the same time.
The familiar tones belong to Debbie Harry, and she's never sounded more relaxed or sophisticated.
A chanel for today's channels
The song is 'Rush Rush', scored by Giorgio Moroder (with Harry's lyrics) for Al Pacino's forthcoming film Scarface. It is an update of the classic rise and fall of a gangster reset in the '70s coke-dealing milieu of Miami.
But 'Rush Rush' could easily serve as a sort of comment on fame itself.
After all, with the exception of Marilyn and Jackie O, few modern women have found themselves as squarely at the centre of that hurricane as Debbie Harry.
Not that you'd know it to see her again. While New York squelches in a record downpour, Debbie politely stashes her anonymous khaki raincoat in my borrowed bathroom and shakes stray droplets off a hooded red sweatshirt I remember from four years ago.
Her face is flushed a dusky rose from a heavy cold which echoes through Manhattan every time she blows her nose. But she looks... well, charming. No longer the starved, blue-spotlit, stagebound Blondie who accepted the total capitulation of the UK rock audiences. More her spiky, smiling, sharp-witted predecessor, first spotted in England bouncing and growling out an entree for Television.
This Debbie flops down obligingly on the far side of a sagging queensize bed and proceeds to chat with prescience, wit and perspective about the best dreams that money can buy - and how they imperil the human heart.
It takes me right back to a Pizza Hut in the Kings Road, circa 1977, where Robert Fripp is saying: "Of course the thing most people don't want to admit is that Debbie and Chris are genuinely nice people. Debbie, in particular, has a unique sense of what it means to be a 'popular icon'. It will probably get rough for her but she won't be swallowed up by it. Just wait and see."
WELL, I'VE seen and you're waiting, so tune in.
"Listen," Debbie is saying, "One night my garbage disappeared from in front of my house and I thought, Oh God, what if it's that guy who goes around picking people's secrets out of their trash? So there I was - tearing up and down the road, lookin' for my garbage, and... I found this bum, just rooting through it for something to eat.
"It was like, Oh SHIT (laughs) and I had to say to him, Listen, you picked a good night here cause I just happen to have thrown out some food today."
Like everything Debbie says, this is related in her native Hawthorne, New Jersey accent rather than the sultry screen tones of Videodrome's Nicki.
What do you think of Nicki's creator, director David Cronenberg?
Actually I was real surprised - because he's so conservative. He's conservative-looking, soft-spoken, a real preppie. I mean, he's married and he seems to have a very set-up like except (laughs) for the fact that he's a maniac. Which you'd never know.
We got along fine, though, because the way David speaks is very direct, he always makes himself understood. It's that direct quality I liked in his writing when I first saw the script.
How much did you like the finished film?
Well, I liked the script a lot and the ending differed in a major way from that. He has a lot of problems with endings; he's famous for that. But that was the trouble with the whole thing - the ending just wasn't there.
See, originally Nicki was a much meaner, more clearly evil character. And that changed, she became more of a dream figure... now, in effect, you don't know if she actually exists or if she's just figment of something they planted in his mind. But in the first script she was definitely a part of the conspiracy to set Max up. She didn't give a damn, she was out to experience and grab and become a media image. And then she ended up having a complete change of heart because she falls in love with Max.
The more ambiguous idea evolved as we were shooting. I mean, that original script is sort of a traditional ending too, right? And I think that bothered David. Plus I think the way I played her might not have been mean enough for him.
What was your main concern with the part?
Well, from the first I just wanted to be reassured that she would end up on some kind of positive note. Because I find that I'm paranoid now about getting into acting categorised as the Bad Girl or the evil sex caricature or whatever. So, I'd have been prepared to do the part either way - as long as she was somehow left off the hook.
But the film itself doesn't seem to take any final stance, so it seems facile about the extent of Max's 'moral crisis' - we don't know how real that is.
That's partly because David does raise an awful lot of questions then gets bogged down by them. I think that was one of the problems, he became so involved in it, he just wanted to work and work and work on it. But he was also saddled with this Christmas deadline and there was a rush to meet that.
If Nicki had been left 'real' that change of heart would at least have given the movie a clearer dynamic.
Actually, that's why I wanted it to happen. Plus it was going to be her decision entirely. First she's just a taker, who knows they're using Max; but that's cool because that's what she does too, right? Then she realises they are actually out to destroy him.
Either way, it is a fascinating idea that something essentially passive - whether it's a media image or the media itself - can be more destructive than active weaponry.
Yes. You've touched on something else there too - which is that though the message in Cronenberg's films are never subtle, a lot of those things which build up to them often are.
OF COURSE the thing about Nicki you're going to be deluged with questions about is the S&M thing - but I thought that was in there to emphasise the passivity of the media itself... as a sort of a danger signal.
Oh, exactly. It wasn't so much actual sex. As you say, it's more a version of sex the media can call up, orchestrate in one's fantasies. The ear-piercing thing, for instance, was totally to hook you into realising that... It has very little to do with real sex or real S&M. What David actually wanted to use it for was outrage; he just wanted to get people crazy.
What about the snuff torture sequences?
I think there he tried to use the quality of the grainy video to re-outrage the audience... since people are now blase about seeing insides get blown out, and that's all. Oh, how did they do that one? now. It's also how he does it, of course: just with one shot, one frame caught. And that - shooting like that - is a real Warhol ripoff.
You know, though, that people really want to read pages of copy from you on the sex in the film; on sex - in quotes. To me that's as literary illogical an approach as taking a happy nuclear family film at face value in this day and age. But at least the issue of media propagating myth is present in Videodrome.
Well, the sex thing... Sex isn't usually the most relevant approach to the entirety of any work of art. Often it's not even really a relevant approach. It just remains the easiest.
That's why I've always tried to approach things - including sex - through humour. Because it does take some knowledge and some experience to decode all the deceptions of the media, you know?
Like... way back when I was a beautician in New Jersey, I used to get up at 6:30 am to drive to work by like seven. And one morning I heard a quarter-to-seven news flash about a robbery. How these guys used an acetylene tank to cut into a safe, but just as they got an inch away from cutting through to this huge fortune in gems or cash or whatever, they ran out of acetylene so they had to abandon it.
Not ten or 15 mins later I was still driving and the news came on - and it said that the men had been apprehended midway through a robbery attempt by these particularly brave guards. Just like that, they changed the news! They changed the story! That was the first time that sort of thing really came home to me outfront in such bald terms.
But once you realise the rules by which the commercial game is played you know you can't really approach it from a serious point of view. For one thing, you'd never make any artistic progress because you'd get too bogged down, depressed and debilitated.
Well, it certainly seems to me that today the big artistic risk to be taken is one of affirmation - of achieving some sort of new affirmation rather than just reflecting
disillusion and dissolution.
I agree. I don't mean to keep dwelling on this, but most people today don't even know what humour is anymore. So it's hard for anything subversive to happen. Ask yourself, whatever happened to political satire? Real, sophisticated political satire has just ceased to exist.
BUT ONE of the most important, and winning things about the beginnings of Blondie was those humourous principles of Pop art which you guys extended into pop music.
Oh, it was supposed to be totally humorous, real satire. I was really amazed at how many people took that so seriously. And, really, just as amazed that a lot of people failed to get the idea it was all humorous. Boy, that went fast; that vanished with the first of success really. People got so straight-faced and some of 'em got scared. (pause) I mean, there were so many people who were scared of me.
Well, there are still plenty of diehards who think Blondie should have gone on and on just as you had started.
I know. It could have; it could have gone on and on and on - and on. But the changes as well as the humour in what I thought the 'new wave' - or whatever you call what we all were, which was totally varied - just froze in the end. It's frightening. And disgusting, too; I'm thoroughly disillusioned with that, particularly the number of copy groups who are still around.
I mean, we were a copy band in the beginning and for a long while. Let's face it, we were just a new blend for the times. But people still copy us to the letter! Of course it's happened to plenty of other people. That's what happened to The Velvet Underground, and God knows it happened to Iggy. Doesn't happen to
Bowie, though... I think he went just a little bit further than most other people personally could.
Also you and Chris between you...
We're a lot easier to swallow... yeah. Also we've been more patient. Being older than other artists has to be considered, too. I mean, a lot of people don't want to think about that. In my band, nobody wanted to really account for that - having done stuff, been around. And when I was younger I didn't really want to acknowledge that either. But it boils down to the fact that somebody could actually save you some time or some problems through experience they already have.
It's just hard to acknowledge those things when you're a real fired-up, independent kind of person. (laughs) Like myself; it was always (growl), I'll learn the hard way.
What about the reactions of the outside world?
Like, you and Chris have always combined music and visuals, but a film score by him or a movie role by you still seems to be looked upon as somehow outre.
Well - you know, I can appreciate being driven or devoted or whatever you want to call it to your art in any field, because you'll never get anywhere without that. But this whole intellectual thing of having to feel your art form is 'better' really pisses me off. I guess maybe that comes from rock being judged at the bottom of the heap, but really...
Doesn't it also come from being a female star in rock?
Yes it does. One of the things I was most criticised for, for instance, was doing all those pin-ups with Chris. But we wanted to do those, it was a whole separate project for us. And just because the band became so successful, I really don't think it was ever taken in a proper perspective. Or saying that I wished I'd invented sex... No one took that as a Warhol aphorism; it was just me being sexist. Or being exploited. Not being funny.
Cindy Sherman photographs herself in a succession of exploratory female images very like what you did with Chris and that's now high art.
I have seen some of her stuff, yeah. But, oh... (she rolls her eyes and laughs)... we really had so much fun with our own early conceptual things.
Conceptual is probably not as good a word as comic, but stuff like the wedding gown thing. (Referring to a legendary early appearance where Debbie sported a full white wedding rig onstage and deadpanned, "This is the only dress my mother ever wanted me to wear... we could never agree on clothes", before ripping it off while belting out 'Rip Her to Shreds'). We just had so much fun with that stuff. And you know, I got an incredible amount of criticism for wearing such and such a thing, once we were well known. Whereas now The Go Gos can go on the cover of Rolling Stone in their underwear. It seems a little bizarre.
More bizarre maybe that Rolling Stone immediately got a lot of letters saying, If you're gonna put girls in Fruit of the Loom on your cover at least get girls with great bodies. There seems to be very little humour in men's and women's relationships to one another these days... I don't know what that means.
Mmmmmm, I don't either. But I know that's one of the main reasons I was attracted to Chris... because he's got such a great sense of humour. It sometimes surprises people, they often never expect it. But it has led to some funny situations. We've done several TV shows where the host has actually asked Chris back because he was so funny it became useful.
WHY DO you think you and Chris make such a solid team?
Partly because we're total opposites. Astrological opposities almost to the very day. Chris gives me a lot of support, though. I mean, take someone like Janis Joplin...
She was a horrible tragedy, really, because she came at a time when she couldn't have survived, no matter what. She just had too much female energy for that era. She took the rap for it but, boy, she staggered with that. The weight of what she bore psychologically is undeniable. It's horrible that people have forgotten so much of what women like her accomplished for those of us who followed them in music.
Marilyn Monroe also was just alone... she never had anyone strong enough to help her balance out. I mean, just me - I still have to fight a lot of things... and in surprising ways, too. The worst pressures come from places you wouldn't expect.
Chris is very concerned, very immersed in all the variables of creative activity and of politics. And very concerned with how to explain why things work the way they do. And of course, those things do give him absolute practical problems: establishing Animal (his label) was like that. Even as far back as
Blondie he had a problem with it, is it enough just to entertain people? And I always argued that it was; that to take people out of their own reality for five seconds or five minutes was enough.
But those "variables" are going to assert themselves in anything, even an attempt to just entertain.
Sure... I'm getting ready to start an album now and just the original idea for that - to do the visuals first, a film, and then score what I did... What problems! Consequently, I have started on the music first, although not far enough to tell you anything much about it.
But take the play I did, the Tanzi thing. (Debbie premiered an 'Americanised' version of Trafford Tanzi, rechristened Teaneck Tanzi, on Broadway - only to have it close precipitously).
The so-called feminist content in that play is really old-hat, right? But when I talked to the people about doing it, we were talking about a lot or rewrites. I had a lot of ideas about it but... pfffft! When the time came, they really just didn't intend to change more than a few words.
That wasn't gonna make it work... America and Britain have totally different realities where that subject matter is concerned. And oh, (groans) I was really sorry, because wrestling is so popular and it could have been so great...
The problem was I really tricked myself. I had it so rewritten in my mind, I was so into transforming it that - it rather sneaked up on me that they could be totally intransigent about changing it. About the basic orientation. But - it was still very good experience. Theatre is so rigid; it has its own hierarchies and discipline. And I had to go through it to find out.
Now I really appreciate rock and roll for how great the performance freedoms it offers are. And I really appreciate the stand we originally took with Blondie, for its humour. (Pause) I sort of think it's like hypnotism just now - everyone's hypnotised about who they are and what they can be. It would be nice if there could be a period of time - say six months - with no advertising. Just imagine... what it would be like if there were a six-month moratorium on advertising!
That's a movie right there.
Yeah, well a lot of people would go nuts! They wouldn't know what to do, how to think... I think these like clubs and movements would spring up (laughs) where you would have to go shopping with a group; it would be weird.
Guerilla shopping groups?
YEAH! Cause right now people don't know who they are and what they can do, they've been sold things which are useful to the merchandiser and bear little relation to their own human instincts. Or their real feelings for the
opposite sex. Yep, I WISH THERE WOULD BE NO ADVERTISING FOR SIX MONTHS! This is now my new thing; it happened tonight and it's your fault. (laughs) I'm gonna be thinking about that one for a long time now.
Make it your next movie. It's the inverse of Videodrome.
Yeah, it is. You wanna write it? Let's write it; Coppola said if I would write a film he'd direct it.
WHAT ABOUT rock and roll?
Well, like I said, I appreciate it a lot more now. And, you know, I've also learned that artists in the other performing arts really do envy rock and roll performers. It's not that they want the celebrity or that they wanna get up in front of a billion decibels of sound or whatever... It's the fact that there's just so much freedom in live rock performance. So much that it sometimes seems like there's comparatively none in other fields.
Debbie stops. She's sitting upright in a field of crumpled Kleenex. Her voice is faltering a bit between coughs and nose-blowings, but imminent pneumonia has lent her an almost luminous radiance. Her eyes sparkle like two less-than-worldly gems while, in the window behind her, the Empire State Building glows like a radioactive pineapple in its special Halloween lighting. Fay Wray and King Kong.
The Showgirl and the Spotlight.
"You know," she says, crumpling one final tissue, "working in rock is just so enjoyable. It's because when you get off on it everyone else does too... it's a very instinctive, deep, tribal thing."
Debbie grins broadly.
"It's like having one of those teddy bears with a heartbeat inside. That's what I think."