NME - 21st February 1987
Pages 3, 14, 26, 27.
REVIEWED BY MAT SNOW
SAFE SEX BY ART WOMAN OF BLOOMSBURY
DEBBIE HARRY: Free To Fall
In which Debbie's gorgeous sincerity is rather fussed up by a production which is grungy where it should be glassy. The song is OK, but no 'French Kissin".
Pages 26 & 27
"I feel like a disposable lighter"
WILLIAM LEITH meets one of the world's great blondes. They touch. They talk... about fame, punk, tabloids, gambling, and "piston-wristed fantasy". DEBBIE HARRY Photographed by ANTON CORBIJN.
Her hand moves towards me. I take it gratefully, perhaps $10 worth of high-tab nail-tone on each fingertip, marginally moist palm, a demure little grip. The handshake tells me she's a woman of spirit though prone to bouts of self-doubt. For a moment it looks like the person controlling her facial expression has jammed the gears; she is caught in a strange rictus between smile and scowl. She turns, and I see that her hair-bleach strategy is based on the fact that, given the choice, people will always photograph her from the front. The back, therefore, is a tangled foliage of mid-brown and mouse. Clever.
Debbie Harry. Standing there, without benefit of a filter lens or cheekbone-lacerating studio-lights or a comprehensive set of Ardell all/weather lash-grip, she looks fine. Considering that she's about two-thirds of the way through the life of a suburban middle-class woman who moves to New York, becomes a junkie, hangs around clubs until she's in her thirties, tours the world for a decade as a rock'n'roll singer and then spends years trying to break into acting, she looks absolutely marvellous. In the circumstances, not falling to pieces would have been a triumph. But she positively glows.
True, she has the benefit of her peculiar cheekbones to stretch the skin tighter around her skull; true, she has her upper-lip overbite to smooth the creases between nose and mouth. And there's also something quite strange about her which I haven't quite worked out yet. Something, that is, beyond the vaguely reptilian cast of her solarium-tan, beyond the baby-blue denim twinset which she wears. I wonder what it is?
She sits down on the sofa. The decor of the hotel-room is restrained to an extent which is almost vicious. The television is on with the volume down.
"What's happening in London?" she asks, as if my opinion might make any difference to her behaviour. "I haven't been in the scene at all. Got here Thursday. Friday I slept. Last night we went for dinner at Langan's. What's on at the moment?"
I tell her to go and see Salvador, a film about what happens when Americans go around the world behaving as if they owned it.
"Seen it", she purrs.
Debbie talks to me as if she were a press-officer talking about Debbie Harry. She is brilliant at low-key self-advertisement. It is almost as if she is talking about herself in the third person. This, though, is not what is strange about her; I still can't work that out. When I talk about films she has made, or directors she would like to work with, she is quite capable of describing every one as if she had just been given an award; Cronenberg is "fantastic", he has a "unique vision", she was "so lucky to work with him", and so forth.
Acting is what she really wants to talk about. At first, leading questions are dismissed swiftly, professionally:
Problems? "No, not really."
Fears? "Nothing much."
New album not exactly a radical departure? "Right."
Clearly she needs some reassurance. "Aha" I say, "you're used to all those nasty tabloids."
"All that SHIT" she says. She's coming alive at last. "The dailies over here are really obscene. We get filth like that in New York, sure. But not six of them. My God. HA HA HA. And the way they cover the Royals. If I was a Royal I think I'd go nuts because... well, you'd think they'd get something out of it, having to act like such a... a pill all your life. They get nothing. They have no fun. They never get to be sleazy."
At this point Chris Stein, who has knocked on the door and walked across the room towards us, sits down next to Debbie and begins to machine-gun me with words. He is waving a newspaper around. "Guy blows his brains out on TV" he says, excited. "They showed the whole thing. 20 or 30 times. The whole thing 20 or 30 times. In the same day."
Debbie: "Now that's really journalism."
Chris: "I hope that this starts a trend in politics and that more politicians follow the lead."
Debbie: I think I'd like to see some self-immolation."
Chris: "Gasoline, gun, anything. Any method as long as they do it. I think it's a real good idea. At the moment it's okay if you're Cambodian but if they wanna show a senator from Philadelphia blowing his brains out they have legal problems. And the very next story is like 12 dead Columbians in a riot. And that's okay, they can show the dead on the street but not this guy."
Debbie: "He's a Communist. He doesn't know anything. Don't listen to him."
Chris: "I'm not a Communist, for God's sake. Communism doesn't even exist."
Chris turns on me, reloads, and begins pumping another magazine into me to make sure I'm dead.
"The music business has changed so much, I'm quite amazed the way everything has wound up, I never really thought it could go to quite an extreme, it's sorta like before the Beatles, it reminds me of the, you know, early '60s - Frankie Valli, whatever; the record companies have realised they can sell anything - they weren't quite aware of that, they didn't quite realise their power. The scene we started out with, there was quite a lot of radical, political, I don't know, whatever you fucking wanna call it, a movement towards a pure ideal or whatever. It's so commercial now. I mean, they've stamped out Mohican haircuts."
Debbie: "I told you. He makes no sense. He's a Communist."
Chris: "Everything's gone back to like it was before we started."
Debbie: "There's no clandestine value to rock'n'roll music. No excitement. It's totally unrevolutionary. It's totally accepted and part of everything. It's totally pushed."
Chris: "It's all run by corporate interest. It's so obvious that Reagan's not making any of the decisions, that he's just some kind of... doddering puppet with barely a thought in his head; it should be so obvious to everybody that he has nothing to do with the decision-making in America, it's all the fucking corporate interest, you know, IT&T, AT&T or whatever, TT&T. Tits and ass. They're the ones who are making the decisions."
Debbie: "I should hope so. I should hope it would be tits and ass more than anything else."
After Chris has fired a few more bursts ("Is everybody in this country on dope? Or is it just a media thing?"; "That's just what I was saying! Crack is exactly like an ad-campaign"), there is a knock at the door and a young man comes in. He says "I might go to Scotland this afternoon. Or maybe France." Chris puts his scarf on and kisses Debbie. "See ya, honey", he says and the two men disappear.
"This movie's hysterical" Debbie says, "I just love it." It looks like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtree poncing around in Nazi uniform. Debbie laughs and curls up on the sofa.
I saw you on The Muppet Show, Debbie.
She is momentarily embarrassed. "Aw, that was ages ago."
I saw it recently.
"That was fun, though. That was a real good experience, working with those people. You can't make a fool of yourself. They're very clever, the way they write things. Henson is a genius."
Presumably you see your acting career as the main thing from now on.
"I don't know... well, I think at my age it's more practical to be... diversified. I don't think you can, er, live the strict rock'n'roll life of going out on the road for nine months a year with a band. It's sorta beyond me. Did I used to enjoy it? Only the performing. The rest is very trying."
What have you been doing recently?
"I did this show, Tales From The Dark Side. It's a thriller kind of show, like The Outer Limits. I play a witch who comes back in another body. It's called The Moth. It's... is it Lorimar? Yeah, I think it's Lorimar. Oh anyway, it doesn't matter. I did a crime story thing. It's a relatively new thing called Crime Story. I play a bimbette. You know, like a fancy hooker. I'm the comedy relief, so I got to do a bit of comedy, which was nice. And I did a thing called Forever Lulu."
But there are more important things to ask Debbie Harry. I'm sure there are. Here is a woman who has weathered the transition from punk to MOR in ten short years without changing her image. Here is a woman who, miniskirted, claimed she was striking a blow for the liberation of women. And perhaps she was. Here, for instance, is the woman who - with only perhaps one or two exceptions in the whole world - has fuelled more piston-wristed fantasy-sessions than anyone in history. How about that?
I'm beginning to realise why I thought there was something strange about her. What is it? She's not real, that's what. Or rather: if she is real, then the Debbie Harry I know must be somebody else.
Well Debbie. How do you feel about what you are doing now, this MOR? Surely it must feel quite different from the stuff you were doing ten years ago.
"Yeah, ten years ago the atmosphere was very radical. Much more radical, I would think. But we've been changing a little bit all the time. A constant state of flux, and I don't mind that so much. That's sort of interesting. It's better that way."
And what was your relationship with punk? Were you following something that had happened in England?
"Punk started in New York. I have like proof of that from punk magazines and the whole thing - and it's really not an argument, I really don't care where it started - I think things like that are simultaneous, whaddaya call it, spontaneous combustion, it just happens and it's time and that's what happens. I think that there were certain shared attitudes. I think if we were part of that it was that we were part of the musical ideal that wanted to go back to a more melodic kind of approach to pop music and get away from these long guitar-solos, these riff-things that were really predominant in those days and got to be quite boring and preposterous because some of these guitarists were lousy, you know, DANG DANG DANG DANG so what! An interesting melody would be nice to hear. That was sorta what we were battling against. Also technology changed. We were in the midst of a technological breakthrough with the synthesizer which Blondie was really part of at a very early stage. That was really nice."
So the ideology of punk was tacit, then, rather than explicit?
"Well, in Blondie's case I think it was. I don't think that we were overtly political. Only in the fact that I was part of a minority in that there were not many girls or women in music at that time. I don't think it's much of a statement now but I guess then it was."
And what is 'French Kisin' in The USA' about? Of course, I don't dare to ask - I know the answer anyway. It is about people in America putting their tongues into each other's mouths. Which, when you think about it, is not very much more fatuous than most other things that pop songs are about.
Debbie talks about the glamorous life, different cities she's been in, how they differ from each other - how Las Vegas, for instance, differs from New York (the gambling, basically) - and she says "gambling is like being a drug-addict. It's the addict's mentality. They get this thrill and excitement of being successful and winning and then they throw it all back and they lose it - two steps forward and one step back again and again until they have nothing left and then it's like, hhhuuurrhgh aaahuuuhg hhhhhhuuuuuh and then another rush of life hhuuuuaaah and then down again, permeating failure, it's disgusting..."
Now this is interesting. Are we, in the disguised form of 'gambling', really talking about drugs? For about ten minutes I plug her with every theory about gambling I can think of. We talk about 'gamblers' she has known. Is 'gambling' always addictive?
"I've only seen a couple of gamblers that were smart about it and they followed very strict rules. They never deviated. It wasn't like gambling. They would stop at exactly the right moment."
And what type of 'gambling' was this?
She settles more comfortably in the sofa, tucks one of her legs underneath her. So far she has done nothing to suggest she is mentally disturbed. Which is good going considering that for the last ten years or so there hasn't been a street in the western world she's been able to walk down unmolested. If I were her I'd be terrified. Just look at all those obscene fantasies about her in Fred and Judy Vermoral's Starlust. And, in terms of fame, she's got the worst part of it to come - traditionally, when a female star begins to decay men revel in it because she has been a fantasy, after all, that they have never fulfilled and therefore want to punish; women are glad because the object of their envy is being eroded. Is fame on this scale not vastly unpleasant?
"There are stages to it. The first thing that's not enjoyable is when you've been known for a while and you realise you've lost your anonymity. I remember being in that middle stage. But I guess you just have to make your choices."
But don't you find that after a while you have less and less control over things?
"You do have a choice. You can get away. You can say: either I'll stay here in a predictable world with everything controlled for me or I can close myself off from it."
Do you call that a choice? Being forced to hide? What kind of choice is that?
"These days it's not so difficult though. Things turn around much more quickly now. It's amazing how quickly people forget. You can have your anonymity back again. These days you don't have to wait that long. And anyway, there are ways of walking around the streets so you blend in with the crowd. But you have to try harder to be famous these days."
And how does that make you feel?
"I feel like a disposable lighter."