NY Talk - January 1987
BLONDE ON BLONDE
ON ACTING, LIFE AFTER BLONDIE AND HER NEW ALBUM ROCKBIRD.
BY BARBARA O'DAIR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HANS NELEMAN
Debbie Harry pads quietly into the conference room of Stanley Arkin Law and Management, dressed in a casual white pullover, black vest, black pants, and white, open-laced sneakers. In this getup, the rock chantooze is pure B-girl. Even without makeup, her remarkable face is clear and her features pop - especially her lips, in that perfect permanent pucker that beckoned from the nearly every magazine cover in the country - was it almost 10 years ago?
Watching her now, looking completely down-to-earth and direct, soft but no-nonsense, with a yup-this-is-me attitude, I can't help but think back to CBGB, where Blondie first rose to prominence in 1977. Watching Harry onstage I was perplexed and amused; she was a cartoon blonde bombshell with dark roots and great legs, stomping and sashaying in stilettoes, cool but touchingly awkward amid a swirl of cheesy Farfisa. She sang songs that swung from surf-pop to sci-fi, with lyrics that borrowed more from the late-night TV and comics than from romance and angst.
For the next five years, Blondie traced a quirky trail upward, finally achieving international acclaim with Parallel Lines. At that time, it appeared the sky was the limit for the quirky band fronted by, as designer Betsey Johnson put it, (that) "pure, punk Barbie Doll."
The sky fell in 1982: Blondie's last album, The Hunter, was released and promptly sank into oblivion. Koo Koo, Harry's first solo album, fared almost as poorly. Then, Blondie founder, ideologue and Harry's boyfriend, Chris Stein, fell ill with a rare, debilitating disease. Blondie disbanded and Harry stepped out of the rock limelight to look after Stein.
She was gone, but not forgotten, in the ensuing five years. Harry made several notable forays into the film world: a lead in David
Cronenberg's sci-fi thriller Videodrome, a starring role in Mark Reichert's Union City, and roles in Amos Poe's The Foreigner and Unmade Beds.
Last year, Harry tested the pop waters with "Feel the Spin" a single she recorded for rap movie Krush Groove. This year, Harry's taken the plunge, with an album, Rockbird, and a single "French Kissin'". It's been ten years since the deadbeat debutante named Debbie arrived on the scene. Who is she today?
NY TALK: In a general sense, what do you hope to accomplish with Rockbird?
Deborah Harry: Well, I think I've already accomplished it. What I set out to do in making the record is really my job. I'm not in charge of merchandising. They have an investment in it. They gave me money to make the record and now they have to sell the record to make it back.
NYT: Seth Justman from J. Geils is your producer and arranger this time around, and you co-wrote songs with Chris (Stein) and Seth, and one with Nile Rogers.
DH: The record is a real combination of things. The only thing that it doesn't do is anything radical, which I sort of was...
NYT: You mean experimental?
DH: Yeah, like when we did "Rapture." That was radical at the time. There isn't anything like that on the record this time.
NYT: Was that a conscious choice on your part?
DH: Well, I mean, other than what Paul Simon's done, there's nothing you can do now that's radical. I mean, there's always something that can be radical, but it's all in terms of blends and combinations. I'm glad there's such a fusion, or meltdown, or crossover of urban styles. That's sort of inevitable.
NYT: Maybe you can't get much more radical with music technology right now. Maybe what's radical now is in intention and ideas and collaborations than in dabbling with equipment. Do you think that's true?
DH: Yeah, and I also think that I would like to do a record that's music but not done with instruments, just like sounds...
DH: No, not necessarily. Just beating on cans and things, stuff like that.
NYT: Why was the smooth and dreamy, almost wistful song, "French Kissin'", chosen to be the single?
DH: It seemed sort of obvious, actually, most accessible and radio-like. I used to get very upset and worried about these choices, but this time I said 'this is marketing, no calling up the record company, just let the guys do their job...'
NYT: Yeah, make it easy on yourself. You've done your job, now they can do theirs. I guess there's a certain amount of control you have to give up after a while just because it's sensible.
DH: Yeah, plus I've been out of touch with the business for a while, so I really have no business making statements about what I think will sell.
NYT: That's a less aggressive stance than most solo pop music artists might take.
DH: I guess it all comes down to ego, battle of wits, battle of egos. I mean, I feel strongly about what I do but...
NYT: Do you (not) have an enormous ego?
DH: I think you have to, to be an independent person and make a statement about yourself. I think you have to have a big ego.
NYT: But you know when it's better for you not to interfere?
DH: Well, we'll soon find out... (laughter) (Adopts a stern voice) 'Alright, you guys...'
NYT: Do you like KooKoo, you first solo record (produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic in 1981)?
DH: I really like that record. I still think it stands up today. Except for probably a little bit of remixing, it's really good material. I was really surprised that it never did anything.
NYT: Why was that, do you think? Because people couldn't understand the transition from Blondie to solo and there was a gap...?
DH: No, it was mostly the record company. They didn't want me to go solo. They didn't want to lose Blondie. Just my opinion, of course, but I have pretty good grounds for my opinion.
NYT: Will you be supporting Rockbird with a video? Last time I heard, you were considering avoiding making videos altogether.
DH: We'll make one, but I'm still not wild about videos. MTV has been sloppily controversial. they haven't really gone out and done it. They have so much money, supposedly, they could be doing a lot more interesting programing. And I think this reflects in the kind of videos you get. When you think of a visual performance on film or on tape, you're gonna look at it and you want the most and you want the best. You don't always get it, you get the relatively simple thing of showing you how the music is performed and it's prettied up a little bit, colors and stuff. Some videos are great, though, of course, some are well thought-out.
NYT: How do you feel about the word comeback?
DH: It's an old-fashioned term, so I find re-entry is a preferable term. I feel like I've been in outer space, so I might as well say that, right? (Laughs) I've been in my own space, so reentry into my air space, my radio space...
NYT: So the time you took away, two, three years...
DH: Well, I did a few sporadic things in the time, my Broadway musical (with Andy Kaufman) that closed after one night, a single for Scarface, a movie which didn't do what people thought it would do, and "Feel the Spin," with Jellybean Benitez producing, for the movie Krush Groove in '85.
NYT: So it's not like you've been totally out of commission?
DH: I've been doing little projects here and there. And I did radically rearrange my whole business world. Stanley Arkin is now my manager, and I hadn't met him till '84...
NYT: Is it a tougher music business to you these days?
DH: Everything seems so conservative, doesn't it? And so controlled.
NYT: Is it harder for you now than in 1976 (the release year of Blondie's first LP)? What's your take on what you're reentering? Where do you want to see yourself in the scheme of things?
DH: I see that there's a scene happening, and I talk to a lot of people. But I don't see much of a counter-scene. Maybe it's not to happen in New York. It doesn't have to be here. It could be in the Midwest. Perhaps in the South. Maybe music is supposed to be kind of level right now. Maybe the action is in wrestling (laughs) I don't know that, that's just a guess.
NYT: Another form of pop culture, in other words?
DH: It seems to be in the drama happening between other people. The transition from glitter to punk to new wave was really visible. It was really happening right on the surface. I don't know if it's conservative politics in this country, and the similar trends and tastes.
NYT: But you think there's a chance for a subculture to develop and eventually emerge again?
DH: Yeah, it might just take a little longer.
NYT: We're still in the middle of the lull.
DH: It used to be marked by decades, now it's no longer every 10 years, maybe more now, twelve, thirteen...
NYT: Who do you listen to? Who do you care about?
DH: Well, this is a problem. I think there's a lot of people doing good stuff. But I haven't really been paying attention. The most current thing that I really loved was Prince's record.
NYT: Do you consider him a kindred spirit?
DH: I don't know if he's a kindred spirit, but I think he's really great. I went to his show at the Garden and really enjoyed it. Very talented, and he's hot.
Oh, I was at CBGBs last Sunday. First time I'd been there for a while.
NYT: How'd it feel to you?
DH: It was different, arranged better, it was hipper. The stage is still a piece of shit. The sound system is much better, the lights are okay. They were having a hardcore matinee so we went down there for that. I like the hardcore bands; they're really fun. They're a combination between punk and heavy metal.
NYT: Can you imagine being in a hardcore band?
DH: Oh yeah, I mean, in the early days everything was just so raw, anyway, it's sort of the same...
NYT: What's your connection to that past, the culture?
DH: I really loved that period. We weren't making any money but we were having our great experiment. It was terrific. It was a little bit late. I guess 1976 was the best year... because the record companies hadn't really signed anybody yet except Patti Smith, and everybody was a bit looser, the pressure wasn't on, less competitive, well, it was a healthy competition.
NYT: It wasn't at a crazy level yet?
DH: Well, at any time that that business thing comes around, people get a little bit nuts.
NYT: Are you in touch with, for example, the Ramones these days?
DH: I see them every once in a while, in odd places. We never really socialized that much with them anyway, they were always on tour, but we were friends...
NYT: Did you change you orientation quite significantly when Blondie was at its height?
DH: When that was, we were working, really curtails your social life living in and out of the suitcase...
NYT: If Chris hadn't fallen ill in 1982, during the tour, would the reported dissension in the band have dissolved the group anyway?
DH: It's hard to say. I think we had sort of done what was to be done with that, and everybody had sort of grown up over what, seven years of it, and it was inevitable. It's remarkable to me that bands last longer than five years.
NYT: Do you speak with any of the old crew?
DH: Yes, Clem (Burke, ex-Blondie drummer) was in town with the Eurythmics when they played the Pier here. I saw their new video and he looks great. Annie's wonderful, I love her voice. And Jimmy, he's married, has a baby daughter, and lives in Brooklyn. Chris is doing soundtracks and writing. And he has a band project in mind.
NYT: Can you say what it is?
DH: I better not.
I'm glad Talking Heads worked out their things, they sort of had a bumpy period. (As we'd discussed leader of Devo Mark Mothersbaugh's current art projects earlier), Is Devo definitely kaput?
NYT: They tell me they're getting back together to make a record.
DH: That's a good idea, before they get ripped off by some other idiots. Somebody's gonna come and say 'hey, wow, that's really commercial...' 'Cause it really is. They were really clever.
And who was that big guy from Ohio, another band, so fucking good...?
NYT: David Thomas? From Pere Ubu?
DH: God, what a great singer.
NYT: What about your several years' break, when Chris was ill and you were doing small spot projects, can you tell me about that time?
DH: There's not much to tell really.
NYT: It was mostly a quiet time at home?
DH: Yeah, vegetating. Yeah, you can call it what you want. After working so much, I was catching my breath, taking a good look at things. I guess when things like that happen so fast like that it takes some time to figure out what it all means. We sort of felt we were at the front of some sort of projectile (Debbie leans forward impersonating a missile, laughs). Everything sort of catches up and pushes through you and goes around you, and then you can feel everything. I guess if you go along not feeling anything, well, it just didn't work that way...
NYT: Not to belittle, of course, the enormous financial, emotional and physical strain of the ordeal, but was it maybe time to call it quits anyway?
DH: Yeah, I think so. Chris and I had talked about taking a year off. He was working very hard with his label Animal Records, and he'd produced Zombie Birdhouse and the first record of the Gun Club, plus with the Blondie pile-up and responsibilities, it all got to be too much...
NYT: But you two stuck it out together?
DH: Uh huh. I don't know. What sort of has surprised us, or me, is I never really expected to have a working relationship with somebody. It's an odd thing. I think Chris could collaborate with anyone. Now after doing this record, I feel that I can collaborate with lots of different kinds. I feel more confident with musicians and writers, more so than I have ever before. But I think Chris has always had that confidence. I guess we're also both pretty level-headed.
NYT: Not prone to histrionics?
DH: I think we both went through our histrionic period when the pressures were minimal and there was no money involved. When we started having success, I mean, that was like the gravy. That sort of made the relationship very easy. I think most relationships break up over money problems, and like you say, over ego problems, so we had gone through our ego phase, cause I was getting a lot of attention in the early days in the press, a lot of pictures and stuff.
NYT: It seems like a real double-headed kind of thing because a lot of people thought, well, there's Blondie, that's Debbie Harry, and then she's got her band, and then the "Blondie is a Group" phase tries to counteract that impression. From time to time, the claim would crop up that Chris was your Svengali and you were some kind of puppet
DH: Yeah, that got to be... Phhhh. It just comes down to human nature and personalities. Astrologically (Debbie cops a hoity-toity tone for fun) we're completely the opposite, he's January 5, I'm July 1. So it's like we're a really good balance. Capricorn and Cancer, it's working. We've had different charts done... But I don't think I could call my astrologer and ask him what am I supposed to do today. But phases of the planet switching, you can definitely notice stuff like that.
NYT: Ever think of marriage?
DH: No, no way, never, not for me.
NYT: What were you doing around the house during the time of your inwardness? Were you taking care of Chris?
DH: Well, he had really good medical care. I wasn't really taking care of him other than what people do for each other when they live together. He had good doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital and then transferred to a doctor at New York Hospital.
NYT: It Chris all better now?
DH: Yeah. I don't have an overall perspective on that whole time. I needed some time off and I took it. I've been reading - I always read. I don't think I did anything different than what I always do, except for that I wasn't in public, I wasn't performing.
NYT: Did you lose a lot of money during this hiatus that you'd made with Blondie when you were at the height of your success?
DH: I don't think we need to get into that. I don't mean to be evasive, but let's just say that we faced some harsh realities and gained different perspectives.
NYT: So it was a rather emotionally wrenching time?
DH: No, I don't think so. I felt kind of quiet.
NYT: And that was fine? Did you watch a lot of TV?
DH: Yeah, I like to watch movies a lot.
NYT: I watched Videodrome recently, and admired your work quite a bit. I thought your acting was provocative and humorous. Maybe that's sick on my part...
DH: I think a lot of people would say that. (we laugh)
NYT: Videodrome is a movie that fools with its audience. Tell me what it was like to work with Cronenberg the director.
DH: Well, it was one of my first really strong directorial type of relationships. He knew what he wanted, but he's a mysterious sort of man. He expresses himself through the camera; he's low key, not vibrant but with a strong personality. He'd get you to do what he wanted. He would rehearse with you and get you to do it without forcing it on you. Jimmy Woods (Videodrome's lead) was a lot responsible for the attitude and climate on the set. He's a remarkable person, he's unbelievable as an actor. He can pull off a lot of things. One of the things that he did, I wasn't sure about him at first; we'd do a take, the movie was heavy and twisted, then right afterwards, he's completely different, a ham. There was a whole other little movie of Jimmy Woods doing a series of sick and funny takes. It made the tension stronger, and easier to deal with. Woods was so special in that way. I think he should do a movie in which he plays the, oh, who's the actor in Jaws, the sheriff, Roy Scheider, Woods should play his brother. They could do a funny thing together.
One things that Cronenberg said was that he wanted everything to be very subtle in the film, different from his work in Scanners. He wanted Videodrome to be as real as possible, underplayed. The whole concept of becoming a tape player... (the film's thematic in a nutshell) (Debbie makes like she's inserting a cassette into her solar plexus a la Woods' character and makes a graphic splusssing sound). It's very funny, he's always had that weird sort of bio-female thing in his films. I haven't seen The Fly yet but I want to.
NYT: Yeah, that's a messy movie. I liked it.
DH: I heard it was a case of love or hate.
NYT: Yeah, love or boredom. What kind of movies are you interested in doing now?
DH: I did a week's worth of work in Amos Kolleck's Forever Lulu in last spring that Hanna Schygulla stars in. She's remarkable, and I hardly got to see her work at all.
NYT: What a great pairing for a movie, two spunky blondes...
DH: Amos really played off that. I didn't see any rushes but when I first saw the first edit he really did a whole number on that. It worked out.
NYT: Do you think it's a good film.
DH: I don't know if it's a good film. Kolleck has got a strange sense of humor. It has nothing to do with anything that I'm related to.
NYT: You have a different kind of strange sense of humor.
DH: You know, he's an Israeli New Yorker... (cough, cough). I'm not choking from that (points to my billowing cigarette)...
NYT: Are you sure?
DH: Positive (cough, cough). I think I should get something to drink. (Takes a break for a soda and resumes) Kolleck has a dark, peculiar, dry sense of humor. This is what's funny to me. The film is a murder/adventure story, with detectives and mystery. I said to Hanna, well, why are you doing this picture? And she said (Debbie lowers her voice and intones darkly) "I vanted to do a comedy." Take it from there. I said, Oh. (laughs) But it is a comedy, a dark, funny little thing. And I recently did a week, after I finished Rockbird, shooting a segment for Tales From the Dark Side, which was sort of a meltdown for me from all that. We went over to see the producers; they were filming a show there with Jerry Stiller as the Devil, he goes through a whole makeup transformation. So I said, Gee if you come up with a show I'd love to do one. They'd finished that series, but nine months later they sent me a script for The Moth. We shot it in four days. It's the story of a mother and a daughter, who I play. (Sybil is a practicing witch who is murdered for adultery, and before she dies she coerces her mother to keep watch over a moth which will eventually induce the reanimation of Sybil's corpse...)
NYT: Hmmm, sounds interesting. Any other film projects in the works?
DH: Nothing happening right now. I got the script from Michael Nesmith who is producing Tapeheads, but I haven't read it yet. It's for a character in it called Samantha.
I'd really like to do the song "Inna Gadda Da Vida."
NYT: Do you see yourself as pursuing acting and music along parallel lines?
DH: Oh yes, I don't have a band so it's not the same situation anymore...
NYT: Do you want a band?
DH: I don't know. I don't want to tour with a bunch of studio musicians. If I do shows, I want a band that's part of everything. I don't want a techy invisible backup band.
NYT: You don't want a Blondie, though?
DH: I don't think that (Blondie) would be a good idea. I don't think thrashing up the past is a wonderful thing.
NYT: Will you be touring?
DH: Not for this one. But that was all a lot of arranging to do.
NYT: Do you want to tour again?
DH: Yes, very much. I love playing. I don't know just how I'm going to work it. Just do some gigs, or just do some shows, locally or go and do another record right away. I don't know what I'm going to do.
NYT: Where would you play?
DH: In New York? I don't know. I'd like to do club dates, actually.
NYT: I think that would make a lot of people happy.
DH: That would be funny, right? It would be good for me. I don't know, the Beacon wouldn't be that bad. I don't know, where would you suggest? The Apollo 'How's that?' I would just like to do things that are a little bit off the beaten track of what one does when playing the metro area.
NYT: Would Chris play with you?
DH: If he wanted to, yeah. I would love him to play. There's a lot of little interesting theatres that aren't really being used. They just sort of exist.
NYT: I'd love to see you do some cabaret acts.
DH: Yeah, I haven't done that since the Stilettos, shit. It's so fun doing that.
NYT: It seems like several songs off the new record would be perfect for that kind of performance.
DH: Maybe there's a possibility. I was wondering if there was a way I could do "French Kissin" without backup singers. Just do it with a piano.
NYT: Speaking of chanteuses, have you seen Blue Velvet?
DH: No, but it's a funny thing. I got that script years ago. David Lynch wrote that a long time ago. He's a phenomena. I'd love to work with him. Shit. It'd be so great. I'd love that.
NYT: How do you keep yourself positive and healthy?
DH: I go through my ups and downs. I mean, everybody does. I think I should be positive when it's going to be printed. I have a regimen in my own peculiar way. You know, how I feel best, I've found that. I probably could do it a little bit better, if I was more scientific. I walk a lot and I walk fast.
NYT: Are you concerned about being recognized and hassled.
DH: No, people don't bother me at all, most people are really nice to me, and or else they don't notice me. I wear a hat or something.
NYT: You're not looking for attention?
DH: No, I'm not walking down the street posing (laughs).
NYT: What do you think about performers like Madonna?
DH: I don't think she ever came to any of our shows. I think she's great, she's really commercial, she really does what she does well, she has a nice voice, and I think some of her material are really great songs.
NYT: In terms of putting her sexuality out, and being completely unbashed and flying in the face of it all I think people secretly love that audacity even if they're critical.
DH: Oh, I don't think it's a secret, maybe they don't admit it but a lot of people really admire her for that.
NYT: Do you think you forged this path?
DH: In a way. I think that that's sort of like a timely thing. This is it, it's a time for that statement to happen, for that kind of woman exists now. It had nothing to do with any of us...
NYT: What kind of woman do you mean exactly?
DH: A woman that's brainy and sexual.
NYT: A good combination.
DH: Yeah, and that's sort of a rarity in history, it's definitely not the mass image coming through the '50s to the '60s.
NYT: I love to see the two things coming together. You've called yourself in the past the "new bad girl." It seems to me that we're talking here about bad girls.
DH: I mean, we wouldn't stand a chance in some of the Third World countries.
NYT: Even in countries not Third World.
DH: This problem came up in the punk thing. I was really shocked. What we did was really campy, or more cutesy, and not threatening but when I went on a radio tour in '78, a lot of them were afraid, they thought I'd come in and tell them where to get down and where to get off... I think everybody wanted that...
NYT: Do you feel that the image that you had of yourself and the one you projected to your audience has carried through? I mean, it was an act, but it was still, from my perspective, your roots, your identity, it was natural for you. Can you still relate to that image and role? Has it changed for you, over the ten-year period?
DH: Well, it's definitely a part of me, as I'm part of the culture and I reflect culture or I retell it through my experiences in life, it's definitely there, it's all kindred, or as you say, it pulls through. I don't know. I sort of feel like this record is maybe too mellow, or too nice, and not bitchin' or spunky or whatever as it could be, or maybe it as it should be. But, I'm coming out of a really quiet part of my life, been very involved with inner feelings, and the thing is very personal for me, it's just me. I'm not singing for five men, I'm singing for myself and I'm writing for myself. And that's what this record is. After I do some live shows, and after I get my ass kicked around by being in the business for a while and out in the real world, maybe I'll write something that's tougher, maybe I'll be tougher again. You know, I'm just a product of what everybody else is.
NYT: Yes. I think we can all say that. But being Deborah Harry...
DH: Well, I'm definitely going to put my stamp on it.
NYT: You're a great good bad girl, to this day, Debbie...
DH: Thanks. I'll try my best.