Nylon - September 2007
Pages 150 & 151
Debbie Harry needs no introduction. By April Long. Photographed by Wendy Bevan.
"Never meet your heroes," the old adage goes, "they can only disappoint you." The first time I met Debbie Harry - she who had inspired countless one-shouldered outfits and two-tone dye jobs over the course of my life - that warning rang crushingly true: When we were introduced backstage after a Blondie concert during the band's first reunion tour in 1999, she uttered only a single sentence to me, and it was about lunchmeat (we were standing at the craft services table). Even worse, she did the talking through a monkey puppet she was holding. "I don't like turkey," she said in a weird, low voice, twisting her hand so that the stuffed simian appeared to frown in disappointment. Then she grinned distractedly and shuffled away. A meeting of the minds, it was not.
It is a tremendous relief, then, that when we talk again now, not only is there no puppet intermediary, she is not - as I had feared - crazy. As a matter of fact, she's everything I, or anyone who grew up fascinated by her deathlessly cool Blondie persona, could ever hope for: smart, funny, a little bit salty, and surprisingly self-deprecating. It's also refreshing that even at 62, Harry still possesses an undiminished creative drive and enthusiasm for with New York's downtown art and music scene ("I go out and see a lot of bands that are in their early stages," she reports with a smile, "and sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not"), even as her legacy towers over it.
When Blondie emerged in the mid '70s, female-fronted rock'n'roll bands barely existed (Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were among the few exceptions), so in the absence of role models, Harry did her own thing: She synthesized the Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde bombshell archetype with the attitude of a sneering punk-rock tigress. It was this duality that carved her image so indelibly in pop history: The way her face's stunning geometry - those broad, high cheekbones, those limpid, ice-blue eyes - was unexpectedly softened by dimples and a gummy, goofball smile, and the way she punctured her own studied, sublime poise by stepping onstage and breaking into a clumsy zombie dance that became as much her signature as her hair color.
"I just kind of fell into the whole thing," she says, with typical understatement, as if becoming a globally adored music icon was as accidental as tripping over a curb. "Music really turned me on, and it seemed like something I could do." Even though Blondie was initially tagged as a punk, and then later a New Wave band, they were incredibly eclectic - their albums incorporated everything from reggae to rap, punk to disco - and that's something which has marked Harry's work (she has collaborated with the Jazz Passengers, Iggy Pop, Andy Summers, and R.E.M., among others) since the band split in 1982.
And now, even with the Blondie reunion still going strong (the band just re-released 1979's Eat to the Beat, along with a DVD of the original video album that came with it - then the first of its kind), the restless singer has decided to strike out on her own again with Necessary Evil, her first solo album in 14 years. "I really needed to do it just for my own peace of mind or sense of sanity, or something," she says. "In a way I feel like the Blondie identity is kind of limited, and it was really important to me to do something more up-to-date."
It's a very cohesive, modern-sounding record - and, frankly, it's better than Blondie's last effort, possibly because Harry finds writing on her own so much more liberating. "It's a lot simpler when there aren't so many minds involved," she admits. "With Blondie, as far as the writing goes, it's sort of a many-headed hydra, because there are a lot of brains and ideas and sentiments going into it. But this was just little old me." The songs are linked together, she says, by a loose theme of "love and relationships," but they also reveal Harry's savvy inner pop-culture vulture. "Dirty and Deep" for example, was inspired by Lil' Kim's 2005 trial ("Even though she was sort of stupid in her testimony, I felt like she was put in a really terrible position"), while "School for Scandal," Harry explains, is about "contemporary media exploitation."
"I wrote that about the sort of fake scandals that sell papers," she says. "It's sort of a feeding frenzy, a bloodlust. And, I mean, I love reading tabloids, but I know that it's all manufactured. And I want to read real scandal, goddamit!"
Harry, of course, experienced her fair share of gossip-mongering scrutiny at the height of Blondie's fame ("Fortunately, for us, it was relatively brief. I don't know how some of these people actually live with it, but I guess there's a certain art to making it work for you") - and it's tempting to draw her out at greater length on the subject, as it is with all of the things she touches upon. Such as: the absurdity of the music industry (astonishingly, the gazillion-selling Parallel Lines was initially rejected by Blondie's record company because, as she recalls with a laugh, "they thought there were no singles on it"), the way Manhattan has changed since her days hanging around the Bowery and CBGBs in the '70s ("Those high-rises and hotels they're slapping up are just so thoughtless. You'd think that New Yorkers would really get on the bandwagon and say, 'Enough of this crap! You're turning the city into a penal colony!'"), her collection of Stephen Sprouse originals ("I have pieces that he asked me to store for him, so I have a lot of things that were never my size, not then... and definitely not now"), and her ongoing acting career (next up, she'll appear as Dennie Hopper's wife in Elegy, which also stars Penelope Cruz).
But time is short, and Debbie Harry has places to be. Although she may have seen it all, she still has a lot more to do: Unlike many aging stars, she doesn't seem to have any interest in reversing the clock - her motion is resolutely forward. Just as Blondie remain so vivid and inspiring to generation after generation of music lovers, Harry continues to follow whatever muse delights her most, even though she acknowledges that Necessary Evil probably won't change the world. "My solo projects never made as big an impression as I would have liked them to," she says, laughing, "but I did have some hits. MOstly, I just want to keep entertaining people." And, as Harry herself sang so long ago: she's not the kind of girl who gives up just like that.