New York Woman - June-July 1990
Vol. 4 - No. 9
Debbie Harry is wearing a melon shirred-gauze tank dress, $625, by Giorgio di Sant Angelo; available at Charivari, Martha International, Barneys New York, NYC. All makeup from Lancôme Accents de Provence collection: Le Crayon waterproof creme eye color in Lapis Lune; Maquiriche creme powder eye-color duets in Couleurs Rustique; Maquicils mascara in brown; Blush Majeur creme cheek color in Blushing Plum; Rouge à Levres Satin lip color in Le Red; Poudre Majeur loose powder in Matte Bronze; and Lacque clear nail polish. Styled by Jane Ross. Hair by Syd Curry for Visages Style, Los Angeles. Makeup by Francesca Tolot. Photo by Firooz
THE DEBBIE HARRY STORY - The downtown diva is on her way back up, with a hot new band and the same cool attitude. By Lawrence O'Toole - 84.
Pages 84, 85, 86, 87.
THE DEBBIE HARRY STORY
BENEATH THE COOL EXTERIOR LIES A TRULY COOL INDIVIDUAL.
BY LAWRENCE O'TOOLE
PHOTO: FIROOZ ZAHEDI/ONYX - HAIR BY SYD CURRY FOR VISAGES STYLE, LOS ANGELES; MAKEUP BY FRANCESCA TOLOT FOR CLOUTIER; STYLED BY JANE ROSS
Black Lycra underwire minidress by Norma Kamali. Sunglasses by Sanford Hutton for Colors in Optics. Angel with bow earring and angel with pearl earring by Gabriella Kiss at Artwear. Hammered-gold spiral bracelets by Herve Van Der Straeten at Showroom Seven.
At a time when most teenage girls were fixated on dating and personalized dermatology, the young Debbie Harry of Hawthorne, New Jersey, was busy cultivating a mystique, one that still serves her three decades later. Harris Wilder, a longtime friend who knew her when she was fourteen and best friends with his sister, Wendy, recalls a day when his family took Debbie for a drive in upstate New York. They stopped somewhere, to eat or stretch, and in the middle of an otherwise unmemorable exchange, Debbie turned to him and said, with great conviction in her Jersey twang, "Y'know, ya always gotta be cool."
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Debbie Harry, brazenly boasting the dark roots of her platinum blond hair, was the coolest of the cool. As the frontwoman for her band, Blondie, she was a bona fide new wave-gone-mainstream goddess. Between 1979 and 1981 the band had four Number One hits on the U.S. charts ("Call Me," "Heart of Glass," "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture") and was a worldwide sensation. Harry's face, with it's wide Slavic features and cherub lips that give her a perpetual sex-kitten pout, was sought after by the most celebrated photographers and the glossiest magazines.
Most people thought she was Blondie: the band even mounted a publicity campaign with the slogan "Blondie Is a Group." One of the first female lead singers to be overtly sexual on a rock & roll stage after the Sixties, Debbie Harry paved the way for a new kind of woman in pop music. Nobody had even heard of Madonna.
Blondie was a phenomenon - deadpan, mercurial, sexy, vibrant and very, very cool. As Harry recalls, the success seemed serendipitous. It was frenzied, dreamlike, panicked - a real rush. Then everything fell to pieces. Blondie took off for a world tour in 1982; Harry's longtime boyfriend and fellow band member, Chris Stein, collapsed; and then there was no more Blondie.
For three years, Harry nursed Stein through a disease that nearly killed him. The disease was pemphigus vulgaris, a rare and potentially fatal genetic disorder. "It was very, very frightening," says Harry. "Afterwards I really had to figure out what happened. Wow... what happened to me?"
During those years you'd often see her in the Village, dressed in her incognito basic black, overweight, unfashionably unkempt. Endless days were spent in the hospital, spoon-feeding Stein. There were no more songs or after-hours jaunts with the downtown set. No more screaming fans. No more moments of instant validation when she picked up a magazine or switched on a radio.
Today, Deborah Harry - singer, siren, survivor and forty-five years old - is back. It has been a long haul, and comeback can be one of the dirtiest words in the American language. But in February she was onstage at the 10,000-seat University of Illinois Pavilion in Chicago, fists shooting into the air past that mop of excitable hair (still platinum, still defiantly dark-rooted), black tunic showing off her black-stockinged legs, blowing kisses fit to raise the testosterone level of guys too young to know what Blondie was all about. At the end of the show she took off her tunic and threw it into the audience and was left standing in only a lacy black bra, tights, G-string and the audience's imagination. How's that for cool?
When I first met Harry, in a Manhattan sound studio, I found her in the glass booth looping screams to Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Forgetting for a moment she could be heard, she wondered out loud whether the man on the other side of the glass was the writer (me). "Gee, I don't know if that's him," she said nervously. (Excuse me? Deborah Harry's anxious about meeting me?)
As part of our interview, Harry agreed to let me visit her apartment in the Village sometime on the weekend. The weekend came and so did a call from her publicist saying that Harry was too busy. We arranged to speak on the phone while she was on tour. The appointed time arrived, but not the call. After the Chicago concert we planned to meet backstage, but a gorilla barred my way: The star wasn't feeling well.
All Harry's friends will tell you that this kind of behavior is the result, not haughtiness, but of extraordinary shyness, and they seem to be right. When Andy Warhol threw her a party at Studio 54 during the height of Blondie's fame, she fled early. "Did I flee?" she asks rhetorically. "Maybe I did. It was hectic, sort of a madhouse. Unless you had someone to dance with - you know what 54 was like - the music was so incredibly loud you couldn't talk to anybody. All you could do was sort of sit there with hundreds of people staring."
In person, Harry comes across as cordial but extremely distanced. But nobody can resist that rare sunburst smile of hers. In her black leotard, her body language is defensive - the shoulders and head pulled back a safe, comfortable distance. But despite the Warholian reserve, she has a poignant look on her face that seems to greet each question with the words What do you want from me now?
From her right ear hangs a remarkable skull earring (she and Stein shared a skull collection when they lived together; when they parted he got the skulls), its eyes glittering with either rhinestones or zircons - "the good stones are at home, ha-ha" - Harry looks like a little girls dressed up.
Nobody who knows her has a mean word to say about her. "She's so sincere," says Paige Powell, the advertising director at Interview (who met Harry through Warhol and artist/designer Stephen Sprouse), as if sincerity is something you can only pick up at better stores on Saturn.
The one thing she's never seemed is ambitious. But when someone displays the tenacity Harry has, it's hard not to think that, some time ago, way back, she made a secret pact with herself not only to remain cool but to become famous as well. To sit back and let it come to her. "I think Deb found out that her natural shyness could work in her favor," says Harris Wilder. "It didn't have to be a disadvantage for her."
When she first came to New York in 1965, at the age of twenty, she hung out in the Village, of course, where she was given the moniker Highly Unlikely (a downtown Holly Golightly?) by musician Walter DeMaria. As part of Highly Unlikely and the Way Out, she participated in a few Sixties "happenings" before going on to sing backup in a folkie group called Wind in the Willows. "She looked as bad as a beautiful woman can look," says Harris Wilder, who was also in the group.
Harry worked as a waitress at the legendary Max's Kansas City, where she slung hash to Andy Warhol and his Factory friends and to the members of the Jefferson Airplane the night before they decamped upstate to Woodstock. Her memory of Max's isn't a particularly happy one: She calls that time "frenetic." Drifting in and out of the rock scene, she eventually sang with a girl trio called the Stillettoes.
One night in 1972 the Stillettoes performed at a funky, now-defunct saloon called the Boburn Tavern. "It was our second gig," says Harry. "I was terror-struck, numb with fear. There's this guy in the audience and I just felt really drawn to him. It was Chris." A year or so later Blondie (sometimes called Blondie and the Banzai Babies) was playing at CBGB's, along with such bands as the Ramones and Talking Heads.
"It seemed like they really didn't have any drive, but obviously they did," Tish Bellomo (who sang backup for Blondie and the Banzai Babies) told the late rock critic Lester Bangs in his none-too-complimentary book on the band, Blondie. "It seemed like the whole time [I was] in the band they didn't have any idea what they were doing." The myth of the time was that Stein was Debbie's Svengali, but the more likely scenario is that Stein's outward aggression was the perfect complement to Harry's passivity. They have been together, as the Blondie song says, one way or another, ever since.
Next to Stein, Stephen Sprouse is probably the other person from the old days who knows Harry best. They met in 1975, when they were living in the same building on the Bowery, sharing a hot plate and a bathroom on Debbie's floor. "I had all these stray cats that'd come up onto my floor," says Sprouse. "I'd wake up in the morning and there I'd see Deb, a few feet away from me, giving cat food to these strays. And that's essentially how we met. She's a really supportive friend. She'd really do anything for you."
It's no surprise that Harry is fond of orphans. When she was three months old she was adopted from an agency in Miami by Catherine and Richard Harry of Hawthorne, New Jersey. And, in some way, the fact that she's adopted seems to have given her the impetus to make herself a star as well as the resiliency to cope with the bad times.
"In a way it was good for me to have to think a lot about who I was," Harry says, sitting in her Chicago hotel room a few hours before she goes out onstage, "because, even though I have a very practical nature, I could also be a very dreamy person. Fantasyland is fine for me," and her eyes gaze out into a Rorschach-blot of clouds outside the window. "But being forced to think and find out who I was and who I wanted to be and not having it handed to me was better. It just kicked my ass a little bit.
"Being brought up by people who were much different temperamentally from me gave me a larger sense of acceptance, ultimately. It was difficult at times, but I can look back at it now and see that it gave me a lot more."
Inevitably, Harry had her rebellious period, which involved dressing up outrageously and spiking her hair with a spectrum of color (we're talking mid-Sixties here) bright enough to blind Cyndi Lauper. During this phase she and her parents "didn't always" get along, but they do now.
The most miserable period of her life was during high school and college, when, Harry says, she lived with a permanent knot in her stomach. As can be the case with an adopted child, feeling like she belonged was a problem: "I guess I really had to discover myself, and this took a little while. I knew that I wanted to perform, step out. I was always creative, always wanted to paint or write or something. It just took a little bit of finding to do this."
Today, although she concedes that the adoption laws protect both sides, she still feels that adoptees are "left in the dark about things and it's crippling. Emotionally crippling. You can't help but wonder and want to know things, yet you have to wait and come of age before you're entitled to see a small amount of information, really." Harry says she's come into contact with many adopted people over the years; some have written to her with touching stories. "One woman wrote to me and thought I was her sister," she says pensively. "Most of the people who are looking for relatives are looking for siblings rather than parents, y'know."
Whatever the subject, sorrow or contentment, Harry almost never loses a "very soft-spoken" quality, as Paige Powell describes it, that's unnerving. This soft-spokenness might explain her attraction to Warhol, who himself was shy and certainly quiet when he chose to be. And Warhol was also a collector of orphans; the Factory was like an ongoing festival of foundlings. Although Harry didn't consider herself a close friend of Warhol's, she was crazy about him. "I guess," she says dreamily, "I was really in love with him. I ...just loved being around him."
Asked about painful subjects, Harry becomes particularly reticent. She will not talk much about the nightmare of Chris Stein's illness, but there are plenty of people who tell of her daily visits to the hospital and the drudgery of hausfrauing it for months on end. One acquaintance, who used to phone up and hear Harry say she had to get off the phone because the doctor was coming or she had to head for the hospital, says, "It was all so incredibly bizarre I didn't really believe her at the time. I thought she was doing drugs or something. Now of course I feel awful for even daring to think such thoughts."
What Harry says is that the most frightening aspect of that time was not knowing what was wrong. It took doctors nearly a year to figure out what the disease was, and to begin the steroid treatment that eventually, slowly, arrested it. "As far as what people are going through today [with AIDS], I think in a way they're more fortunate in that there are a lot of support groups around."
For the first and only time during our interview, her low, quiet voice becomes fired with passion: "My feeling about that is take the support, use the system, get the support, feel it all around you as much as you can. Just get in there. That kind of support didn't exist for me." Still, she never went into private therapy: "I don't know why. I never really could trust anyone enough and I've always been fortunate in that I've had people - friends - to talk with."
After Stein's recovery, Harry found herself back in a jungle of competition. Madonna had captured the music world's attention; singers such as Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox of Eurythmics had taken the style Harry had introduced and run riot with it. Blondie was a thing of the past, say, the Pleistocene epoch. Videos, new when Blondie made them, had become as old-fashioned as turntables. Even Harry's 1986 solo album, Rockbird, went the way of the dodo.
Harry eased out of her professional funk when Baltimore auteur John Waters gave her a good and funny role, not to mention what looked like the world's tallest Carvel-scooped champagne-blond wig, in Hairspray in 1988. Her other acting credits have ranged from several episodes of Wiseguy (where she appeared, rather nervily, as a washed-up rock singer) to Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, playing a housewife with some extraordinarily bizarre cooking tips. It's arguable whether she's more of a presence than an actress in such films as Union City (1980) and Videodrome (1983), but she has something that much more skilled actresses don't, and perhaps won't ever, have. Harry feels she's gone enough distance emotionally to bring some depth to her acting, which she wants to pursue.
Her latest album, Def, Dumb and Blonde, a generous sixty-four minutes of eclectic music, has been slow to catch on in this country, but it's a huge success abroad. Harry has swallowed any suggestion of pride by having appeared on tour as an opening act - lots of Blondie material, but some good stuff of her own slipped in there, too - for Tears for Fears. The reviews have been raves; and, as word had it on the tour, Tears for Fears wasn't too happy having its thunder stolen.
Underrated as a lyricist (according to Chris Stein, who now plays lead guitar in Harry's new
band, she's always written "80 to 85 percent" of a song), she does some of her best work on the new album. She uses one song, "Forced to Live," to express her anger over the whole period of Stein's illness, which robbed her of so much time and sapped her energies. The words come out in a jumble of rage. She got the title from a New York Post headline over the photograph of a dying AIDS victim.
Another song, the autobiographical "End of the Run," which is about the good old days of CBGB's, is poignantly self-referential: "I don't like flashbacks in movies/I like the story to proceed/I don't like talking about the old days/Except if it tells where the future will lead." And yet almost within the same thought is a contrasting emotion: "That was the season/We made our dreams come true/There was no limit to what we could do/The end of the run/We almost won/The end of the run/We had our fun."
Having plunged from the very pinnacle of success and then watched people like Madonna take center stage, Harry might be expected to be bitter. She's certainly been asked about it often enough. Knowing she's not overly fond of "the Madonna question," which the publicist has strongly advised me not to ask, I venture forward gingerly. "I'm sure you think Madonna is a wonderful human being and a great artist -"
"She's a saint," says Harry with a self-conscious, blank stare.
"Did you ever feel cheated that she raked it in after you'd made that kind of image acceptable in pop music?"
Harry sighs. It's the sigh of an inalienable truth. "When I wasn't working I did feel cheated," she says. "You're right. I was chafing at the bit to be out there and doing it. But I don't feel cheated now. I don't think I could have done what Madonna does. I think she's incredible. I don't think I could have sacrificed - well, I'm not the same person - hers is a totally different motivation than mine. Yes," she concludes with another and different sigh, " she's a saint."
If she had it all to do over again, she says she'd do everything except be a Playboy bunny, which she was in 1969. ("That was some weird experiment"). Yet she visibly blanches at any question about the past. She wants to let it all rest. There was a druggy period, now over, which she says she got into "because at the time it was the thing to do. I don't think it's ever easy to stop doing drugs. It's physically tiring and scary." But she believes all her experiences (bunny-hopping aside) were creative and she values them.
"I see a certain calmness in her that's partially a function of age," says John Waters. "She's maturing well." Paige Powell says, "She's evolved so nicely." And the now-mellowed Chris Stein, once known for his edgy, acerbic and combative wit, says, "She still has an amazing innocence. What's our relationship? She's my closest family member. Debbie and my mother... I guess they're the two closest to me."
In a hotel room in Chicago, where she shows up in a stunning Issey Miyake (black, of course), she's handed a new script written by Steve Martin, who wants her to play his girlfriend. It's there, in the subdued afternoon light, that you can see her "moviestarism," as John Waters calls it. She has the most beautiful face in the world," declares the hardly objective Stephen Sprouse, although he's not the first to venture such an opinion. Not surprisingly, Garbo is her favorite actress. "She seems so still," Harry says. She was very still." And Deborah Harry owns the same alluring quality of inaccessibility.
As she sits there, composed, backlit by the light from Lake Michigan, I ask her if all of this change and turmoil has brought her close to a spiritual life. Then a knock comes at the door.
"There it is now," she says and then goes on to talk about the opportunity to explore different beliefs as a hippie ("It opened me up") and about the benefits of the long hiatus in her career. "I had been going through an introspective period in my own life," she says, "where I really had to be very centered - chilled-out and down to earth. But I began to see the possibility of being truly happy - getting older and having more perspective - having some success and satisfaction. All these things have built up into a philosophy or point of view I have. It's very difficult to hold on to that. We're all so emotional and so variable. I don't know if that's a spiritual life, but it's the closest I can come to one."
When she looks at her life now, she's pleased. "'How did this happen?' I sometimes ask myself. 'How did she do this?' Where there's a will there's a wat, I guess." She pauses and thinks. "'You do so much,' someone recently told me. And I thought, 'I do? I did?' It always seems I don't do enough."
And that may be why Highly Unlikely, who has always and only been racing against herself, quietly, shyly, is still very much in the running.
LAWRENCE O'TOOLE IS A FREELANCE WRITER WHO HAS WRITTEN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES, AMERICAN FILM AND INTERVIEW.