NME - 23rd March 1991
Pages 18 & 19
ROCK OF AGES: CLASSIC NME INTERVIEWS
THIS WEEK: BLONDIE, 1978
PUNK'S NOT DEB
Last week saw the release of 'The Complete Picture', a huge compilation showcasing the perennial pop genius that was BLONDIE.
Masters of the 45, nowadays they are a lushly packaged momento; all formats, colour booklets, TV advertised. But back in 1978, they were in the vanguard of the CBGB's set - America's left-field answer to the snotty British punk battalions. Along with Television, The Ramones and Talking Heads, Blondie's street cool and three minute pop thrills were a revolutionary attack on American rock values.
As the new compilation proves, Blondie will be remembered as one of the great pop groups of our age. In the summer of '78, their second LP 'Plastic Letters' was about to be released. TONY PARSONS met DEBORAH HARRY, the undisputed sex icon of punk, and talked of 'sexist pigs' and the problems of being a rebel in the bourgeois world of corporate rock.
Excessive hypocritical bliss is the ultimate rock'n'roll lifestyle.
Sometimes you wonder if musicians wouldn't swallow a cess-pit if that's what it took to keep the royalty cheques pouring in.
Joe "White Mansion, I Wanna Mansion" Strummer rooms with lisping debs in accommodation suitable for cropped-heirs of the Habitat fortunes; John Lydon crooned Sid's 'Belsen Was A Gas' before Uncle Mal's verbal excrement became so profuse that even Lester Bangs wouldn't have been able to digest it; Bob "Credibility By Association" Geldof regards the inclusion of Tory-Rock classic 'Looking After Number One'
on K-Tel's 'Disco Explosion' album as (smirk) "ultimate subversion"...
And so it goes, so it goes, and where it's heading everyone knows; it is a numbered Swiss wank account.
Or as Fee Waybill of The Tubes defines it: "I'll do anything for our audience. I'll kiss their ass if only they'll buy our albums. Then when we've sold a million, I'll shit over everyone!'
You just gotta concede, when it comes to jaded cynicism - it's gotta be Hippy menopause.
And Debbie Harry (Blondie by any other name remains the same) traded integrity for ingratiating self-abuse at the tail-end of 1977 when headlining the pseudo-prestigious Finsbury Park Rainbow. The chauvinistic Boys Club toss-pots in the audience had been at Blondie's gigs in the UK right from her debut supporting Television back in the spring of '76, of course, but in those days Debbie treated the perennial locker-room jock-schlock syndrome with the contempt it deserves.
"Yeah, same problem here as everywhere else," she sneered at the buddy-buddy Man Must Have His Mate misogyny, her voice thick with vitriolic contempt, proud and feisty as she rejected the servile role expected from her gender. She blew Verlaine and co off stage and sent the Boys Club scurrying home with their macho talcum powder spilling out of their padded Y-fronts.
So different six months on from that gig when Blondie headlined at the Rainbow. When the putrid cat-calls came on that night, Debbie was content to swallow them smiling.
"Get 'em off!" bawled some pathetic shit-head and all Debbie could come back with was a coy curtsey (feminine movement of respect or salutation, made by placing one foot behind the other and bending the knees so that trunk is lowered), cute pinky-finger modestly placed under chin and bashful lowering of eyelashes. Then she purred, "I didn't have the nerve to say no," and went into the song of the same name. Less than half a year before she would have made them choke on it, now she could be warming up a Stranglers crowd, her demeanour sucking up to the dumb Johns for the length of nothing but the show, but that was more than enough to shatter to smithereens any initial illusions concerning the future of Debbie Blondie.
It was tragic. She could have given Cilla Black lessons in tugging forelocks... WHAT HAPPENED, DEBBIE???
"I'd sooner have hecklers than no reaction at all," Debbie smiles glibly over her Kensington hotel pea-soup and salad. "In New York they just sit at the tables and stare blankly at the stage. I hate that..."
Yeah, but you can't like the taste of that shit, and I ain't talking about your lettuce, Debbie.
The sweet, celluloid visage melts into grudging admission. She's become accustomed - too accustomed - to hacks coming over their carbon paper at the mention of her moniker, but she is refreshingly open when she doth suss that your humble hero has no intention using a Blondie feature to get his leg over his Imperial Good Companion typewriter.
But, as she sing on the opening cut of her new 'Plastic Letters' album "I sold my one vision for a piece of the cake/I haven't ate in days..."
"The difference in the media's attitude to a boy or a girl on stage infuriates me," she seethes. "If a band full of men is on stage and an audience of girls are screaming at them then everything is as it should be... but if it's a girl on stage, then suddenly everything is cheap. Reaction to me has to be cheap because I'm a girl and they're not used to that. If it was the Bay City Rollers up there then everything would be cool."
Debbie hisses through capped Ultrabrite dentures. "The attitude to women in rock is totally sexist," she affirms, and then shrugs with revealing finality, faintly resentful, white-flag resignation.
"I might not like it when a crowd shouts at me," she asserts, "but I certainly thrive on it, I accept that it's something that is always gonna be there..."
Because you didn't have the nerve to say no?
Is it any wonder, then, that your record company posts ads in the rock trade papers with nudge-nudge say-no-more corny innuendos, like the most recent one with the caption "Wouldn't You Like To Rip Her To Shreds?"
"I was furious when I saw that!"
Like, The Youth/Rock Culture (hah-hah-hah!) is as obviously willing to bow in subordination to the massive Team Game closet market as any other grey-flannel industry lusting for the quick buck. And the current Boys Night Out atmosphere purveying the gig-circuit changing rooms - Sham 69 dating 'The Lewisham Boys', The Stranglers going steady with 'The Hell's Angels' and sometimes 'The Finchley Boys', etcetera, one can most effortlessly gauge the considerable, uh, units such a reactionary element of the lumpenprole explosion could consume. But to come on with this "Wouldn't You Like To Rip Her To Shreds?" bullshit, ain't your motives oh so pretty blatant?£?£?£???
"Listen, I was furious when I saw that f---in' ad! I told them not to f---in' put it out anymore - and they didn't!"
Debbie says that the thing that cuts deepest is when she hurts her parents.
"When I first started getting interviewed and talked about being a junkie and a groupie - which is the truth, right? - when my Mom and Dad saw it in print it really hurt them and I hated that more than anything." Debbie sighs. "But it was the truth." She looks up from the pea soup hopefully. "Do you like Donna Summer? It's commercial, but it's good, it says something... 'I Feel Love'... that's the kind of stuff that I want to do."
The inflatable doll seems to smile, like it's constantly saying "cheese". Never mind the dignity. Three and a half decades in the USA is gonna erode any starlet's self-esteem.
"I manage to remain looking so young because I'm mentally retarded," Debbie quips lamely, her insecurity caused by the steadily advancing years and the knowledge that a pretty face may last a year or two but blonde bombshells in their 30s wake up one day to the realisation that sooner or later they won't be able to promote themselves forever through the luxury of their looks.
"I'm mentally retarded... actually, I think the reason that I don't look as old as I really am is because of the junk and the yoga. There's something about junk that seems to kinda freeze the way you look, but, of course, it's only applicable if you've got some degree of physical fitness - which I got through yoga and, say, Johnny Thunders got through being a pro baseball player before he got involved in rock'n'roll."
But every junkie's like a setting sun... the glorification of smack in rock'n'roll strikes me as the same self-pitying martyrdom that Lenny Bruce defined in an astounding display of verbal-wanking as "I'll die young but it's like kissing God." If you hadn't been strung out on junk, Debbie, you might have been at this stage of your career when you were 15 years younger.
"Sure," she nods. "The only reason I'm doing all this at a much older age than most people is simply because for so many years I was just so totally f---ed up... I knew that this was what I always wanted to do but I was just too much of a physical and mental wreck to get it together..."
Were there any times when you thought you'd never manage to overcome all those self-induced problems?
"Plenty," she says. The cost of the pre-Blondie years has left Debbie Harry with the tendancy to compromise that made the Rainbow show such an anti-climax after the stunning Hammersmith debuts earlier last year... from the fervent soul-shoes of a Peppermint Lounge suffragette to inanimate, photogenic, lip-smacking victim.
"I didn't dance at all at the Rainbow because I thought the English kids would consider that to be too... frivolous."
No threats, ma babe, but she'd come up from worse than nowhere and was willing to play it straight with the dumb Johns if that's what she had to do to avoid going back to where she once belonged. The waste of initial potential was tempered with the bitter irony that, despite the sublime '70s AM Radio Pop classics on her first album, 'Blondie' Debbie possessed infinitely more street-life credentials than all those Art School punks still living at home with the folks put together.
Escaping from her cosy New Jersey silver-spoon college education background, the ex-cheerleader took off for the promise of bright-lights New York, first spending her nights with the avant-garde jazz musicians in St Mark's Place and later, in the summer of '67, dropping acid and clinking finger cymbals in a band of rancid hippies known as The Wind In The Willows.
After the band split she waited tables for the Warhol crowd at Max's Kansas City and says that the highlight of the job was getting laid in the tiny phone booth upstairs at Max's.
Leaving the streets of Babylon to become some old millionaire's sexual trophy in
Bel-Air, she pined for the junk of New York after just four weeks and was soon immersed once more in the heroin sub-strata, keeping her habit going in the customary junkie's evening job.
"I was stoned for most of the time and I wanted the money," she reflects. "It was pretty disgusting work. When I stopped doing junk I didn't need the money anymore..."
She went Cold Turkey at a Woodstock art commune and, in New York in the early '70s, she was hanging out at The Mercer Arts Centre where The New York Dolls were the resident house band.
"I was a groupie," Debbie states. "I lived the Dolls, knew them very well, and I was starting to think that it was about time that girls should do something in rock'n'roll... so me and my boyfriend Chris Stein - who I'm still with and who's the guitarist in the band now, right? - formed The Stilettos which later became Blondie."
Debbie reckons that the initial sense of community among the NYC bands to come out of the Max's/CBGB's breeding ground - Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Heartbreakers, Television, Blondie and others - has been totally lost as the lust for success over-ruled the early cameraderie and resulted in much bitching, jealousy and outright hostility.
"Hey, have you heard the latest gossip from New York?" she bubbles. "David Johansen and his wife have split up! They only just got married! She ripped up all David's clothes and ran off with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith! I think David's a great guy but her..."
Who made the decision to play Dingwall's, Debbie? Was it because the Rainbow was so disappointing and you wanted to get back to doing small gaffs?
"Yeah, it's the first small club that Blondie have played in three years. I think that maybe it was too small, and the sound was certainly terrible, wasn't it? We only did it because our record company told us that the press like going to Dingwall's... so that's why we did it."
The band seem much more into democracy these days - both live and on record, all of the members getting a turn in the limelight doing solos (yawn), the overall effect being to distract from the power that Debbie had wielded over her audience the first time I saw her. She agrees with this but asserts that she prefers it this way.
"The new album is much more... electronic."
She finds the new line-up of Blondie a lot happier than the version of the band that cut the first album, out of which only Chris Stein and Debbie herself remain. I ask her if it's much of a strain living with a member of her band.
"Not anymore, although me and Chris did used to fight all the time when we were in The Stilettos... but we have a great relationship now."
I can't help noticing just how camp the Blondie camp appears to be these days and wonder how much that's got to do with it.
"I'm very much into psychic exploration and psychic communication," reveals Debbie, anxious to shrug off the Dumb Blonde tag. "Once, in bed, Chris asked a question and I gave him the answer... in my sleep." I am suitably awed. "I'm rilly into psychic communication and psychic exploration."
As I'm leaving Debbie gives me a couple of Lenin badges that she picked up when Blondie stopped off at Moscow on their way back from their recent tour of the Far East.
"I'm not a Communist, I'm a Humanist," Debbie tells me. "That's what the attraction is to Lenin... once the FBI were tapping my phone because this left-wing film director who was making a movie about who really killed John F Kennedy was coming round to my apartment to smoke dope... you could hear that they were listening in every time you picked up the phone. It's funny, they don't care about Communism so much in England do they?"
When I get back to the office there's a copy of the new 'Rip Her To Shreds' single and enclosed with it is a personally autographed letter from Debbie Harry in Tokyo that was posted in Los Angeles and written in finest press-officer colloquialism meant to convey an atmosphere of warmth, friendship and understanding between the receiver and The Star. The letter was mass-produced, of course, and although the forged Debbie Harry signature was quite a good imitation, the Gift From Tokyo with an LA postmark was a commercially crass dead giveaway.
You're probably expected to keep it forever.