The Observer REVIEW - Sunday 22nd July 2007
Pages 8 & 9
She came to pop stardom late - in her early thirties - and enraptured us all as the lead singer of Blondie. Even when she lost top billing to Madonna and many of her friends to drugs, she never lost her cool. Now 62, she holds a new generation in awe. Tim Adams meets her.
There is a before and after to Deborah Harry. The before is the one I meet in the dressing rooms of the Hammersmith Apollo, sinking into the corner of a knackered leather sofa, avoiding her reflection in the Hollywood-bulb mirror: 62 years old, slightly brittle, wearing a loose black T-shirt and leggings, half made-up eyes tired from an overnight trip from 'someplace in Holland', trying to hide her impatience at being asked dumb questions again, distractedly mussing her peroxided hair as if it contained somewhere in its tufts all the answers about her anyone could ever want.
The after is the one I see on stage with Blondie a couple of hours later: in some ways a more mesmerising presence than ever, triumphantly corseted and thrusting, face-lifted back to her old perfection in the spotlights, her voice just occasionally shifting from the dreamy falsetto of 'Heart of Glass' and 'Sunday Girl' to hint at the pathos of its years.
In her dressing room Harry suggests that, in fact, it was always like this. Even back in the 'dark ages', Blondie's heyday in the late 1979s, she always thought of herself above all as 'an actress playing a rock singer', borrowing her moves from screen idols, Monroe in particular, and giving them a pink edge, now virginal, now trashy.
Harry came to the business of stardom late, in her early thirties, having already been schooled in the art of image by the master, Andy Warhol. From the early days in New York's CBGBs club, she worked hard on what she calls that 'age-old tantalising persona of innocence and sexuality, the one that has always grabbed people. Basically I guess what that image is saying is that, at heart, we are all paedophiles...' She lets this hang a moment, then collapses it. 'I'm kidding,' she says.
She won't admit it, but the Blondie stage presence was a useful defence mechanism, too; a way of protecting her private self behind a fantasy. She has always had an instinctive way of controlling any room. Before I met Harry, I read a back catalogue of interviews of the last 30 years and came away from it knowing hardly more about her than what I remember from the soft focus of Top of the Pops of the album sleeve of Parallel Lines.
Interviewers came and went. William Burroughs was one. Harry deflected and stared down and never gave too much away. Within a minute or two of her answering my questions, in her precise, vaguely amused way, I realise she's not about to start now.
If anything, she's more confident in the image than ever. There was a time, she says, when a couple of hours before a show, as she is now, she would be 'stupefied and throwing up'. These days she just 'puts on the make-up and plugs in'.
She loves it all more than ever. 'Artists grow,' she offers at one point. 'Or else what is the point? I give perhaps 30 or 40 or 50 times more to my work now than I did back then. I feel I am really a much better singer, a much better writer, and a much better performer.' This sounds a lot like wishful thinking, until I see her on stage and begin to see her point.
Blondie split up for the first time in 1982. When they re-formed in 1999 they made albums entitled No Exit (which produced the worldwide number one 'Maria') and The Curse of Blondie, which sounded like direct responses to being trapped in the myth of their own making. Now, it seems, they are happy to be known for the songs that they made. 'I don't feel I am fighting against the past any more,' Harry says. 'But that is also why I do solo work.'
Harry has made five solo albums away from the band. Her latest, Necessary Evil, out in September, is mostly a throwback to the pure pop she knows best, but with some defiant strength about it: one track has me thinking of Prince, the next of Edith Piaf. For a while after Blondie, Harry sang in a more bluesy style, with an experimental band called the Jazz Passengers. Some of that shows in her voice now, which is a bit more world-weary, huskier. 'I did want to get away from that cute girlish sound,' she says, 'get to something that is more aggressive, has a darker feeling. I've always had the low register; I just never used it before.'
I suggest that Warhol would have loved the place she has got to now, still on the road, still vamping. What did she learn from her fellow blonde?
'Oh,' she says, 'in the Seventies he and I became friends, or I was always on his invitation list at least. He did a portrait. The thing is, he was a terrific listener, that was his genius, really. He just sucked it all in, and made a point of never saying too much. That's a skill,' she says and, to prove the point, stops and smiles.
Harry has lived alone for a while now, though she admits to 'some intimacies'. For a long time her Blondie co-founder Chris Stein was her soul mate and lover; after the band split up she nursed him through a potentially fatal skin disease for three years. But Stein, who wanders in and out of the dressing room in his shades, with photographs to sign, is long since married with two daughters to whom Harry is godmother. I wonder if she is happiest alone?
'I've tried most things, most ways,' she says. 'I can certainly live with people; it just depends on who the person is.'
Independence suits her spirit, though. In New York she gets up early, paints sometimes, portraits mostly, or works on her slowly evolving autobiography. She is trying to do it episodically, in the manner of Bob Dylan's chronicles, but admits she does not have his extraordinary recall. Harry was adopted as a baby, grew up in New Jersey. I wonder how much the book will reveal of that story?
'Well,' she says, 'I never met my mother. I heard very little about her. My adoptive parents were lovely, normal conservative. I became aware of my adoption when I was very young.' Was that knowledge a factor in wanting to create her fantasy self? 'Not that I know of.' But her parents' conservatism made her restless? 'I suppose I always wondered why my family never moved around. I used to envy those army brats, you know, always on the move. We always lived in New Jersey. I felt so anchored. I was looking for a gypsy life.'
Touring has answered that desire. She hardly stops. Before she came to Europe she was on the road with Cyndi Lauper ('as crazy as ever') in the States. After tonight's show the tour bus will take the band to Edinburgh before they start to make their way back down for a festival or two.
Isn't she getting a bit, well, old for all this? 'The difference is these days I'm not about to go looking for something every night after a show as I once might have. I'm not that much of a kid. And I know too that the rock'n'roll lifestyle would really fuck me up if I attempted it now.'
I wonder if she still has constantly to feed the restlessness and she insists that need is not as great as it was. 'People who are out every night are looking for something; I must say I feel I found most things doing that a while back.'
She looks after herself the best she can, without being too obsessive. 'In our business we are basically putting a monetary value on a person's energy. That is toxic thinking. I don't have as much bounce-back as I once did, but then I am not as much of a substance abuser as I once was. I feel in good shape.'
She works out, she says, pumps iron, to which observation I make the mistake of adding 'like Madonna...', a phrase which is greeted with a look of studied contempt: 'Does Madonna pump iron?' Harry asks. 'I have to say I don't know much about Madonna...'
In the past Harry has suggested that she 'launched Madonna's career', that the younger woman 'took the Marilyn Monroe thing and worked it to death'. The pair of them were on the same record label, and Harry was quickly made aware of where the priorities lay. 'Suddenly I was really on their B-list and that hurt me a lot. It hurt me in business and it hurt me in other ways. I felt sort of worthless.'
She is quietly redressing the balance. Where Madonna has always been careerist, Harry has always been cool. A younger generation of female leads is increasingly likely to attest to Harry's influence. Her new friend Lily Allen, with whom she has shared a stage a couple of times, always includes a Blondie in her set. Gwen Stefani constantly concedes the debt. There is a nice irony in that the Blondie songbook will provide the music for the forthcoming Old Vic stage version of Desperately Seeking Susan, the movie that made Madonna famous. 'I just thought it would be a smart way to look at the songs again,' Harry says.
I wonder if those songs - the revved-up lust of 'Call Me', or 'Picture This' - mean different things to her as she gets older? 'Oh,' she says, 'you mean the sex? I have no problem with the sexuality of them, but they are pretty much as they are for me. Mostly they are non-specific pop-fodder. But I think a song like "Rapture", say, really holds up.'
I remember one of her early interviewers asking her if she could imagine doing this, singing about teenage crushes, when she was 40. She replied that it depended on whether she still had the legs for it. What makes her want to do it now?
'The thing is, I always admired people who had longevity. It is in some ways the most valuable asset in any of the arts. That dust, you know, that collects around you, it's your most valuable resource.'
The other great thing about the present, she says, is that it is no longer a question simply of 'day by day survival. The combination of music and commerce is a wicked thing sometimes. You are only ever as good as your last performance. And I had more than my fair share of exposure to that.'
She doesn't see too many old faces. 'Iggy [Pop] now lives in Florida. I see him rarely. I went to say hello to Bowie the other week. Unfortunately a lot of the old gang is dead now. I come from an era when people were taking a lot of drugs and there wasn't much knowledge about them; I would say at least 60 per cent of the people I came up with in New York are dead. Johnny Thunders, Jerry [Nolan] from [New York] Dolls. And then a lot of the people who surrounded the bands are gone. I have,' she says, 'been to a lot of funerals.'
Does she feel she has escaped her fate? 'Well, if it was going to get me it would probably have got me by now.'
Does it feel terribly strange to be 62? 'I don't know if those numbers mean quite the same as they used to. It's certainly easier now to be whoever you want. I don't have a sense of mortality yet, but I probably will. What I fear, having witnessed it with both my parents, is a loss of independence. I couldn't bear that. The loss of freedom and physical control. My plan when the time comes is to take as many
anti-depressants as I possibly can, and hope that they will have discovered some really good new ones by then.'
In the meantime, she has access to what looks like a perfect psychological cure-all: the ability to have a crowd of all ages hang on her every word. Blondie originally split up because the rest of the band grew jealous of the attention afforded Harry, as if she were the only thing that mattered. She is more than ever aware of that, but there is not much she can do. In the 'after' part of her performance there are several moments when she wanders off to the dark stage wings to allow the spotlight to fall on Stein and his fellow bandmates doing tight guitar solos.
When she does this I turn to watch the faces in the crowd. All the eyes of the audience simply follow her to the shadows, desperately anxious to watch her doing nothing. That's star quality, I guess; Harry proves the point that you never lose it.
Necessary Evil is out on Universal on 17 September
Photo caption - Going strong:
Deborah Harry photographed this year. Below left, in 1979, fronting Blondie. Main portrait by Joe Gaffney.
PICTURE THIS - The Debbie Harry file
1 July 1945 Born Deborah Ann Harry in Miami,
Florida. Adopted at three months by a family in Hawthorne, New
1968 Started musical career singing backing
vocals with folk group Wind in the Willows, releasing one album.
Worked as secretary at the BBC Radio New York office and as a
Playboy bunny .
1973 Met future lover, band member and
songwriting partner Chris Stein while they both were members of The
Stilettos. Stein and Harry formed new band, Angel and the Snake,
which morphed into Blondie in late 1975.
1981 Released her first solo album, Koo Koo.
Produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, it sold poorly.
London Underground refused to advertise HR Giger's album cover art
showing Harry's face sliced with pokers.
1994-1998 Was member of NY avant-garde group
The Jazz Passengers.
1999 Blondie's chart-topper 'Maria' made
Deborah, 53 at the time, the oldest female singer to have a UK
Notable film appearances David Cronenberg's
cult film Videodrome (1983) and John Waters's Hairspray (1988),
playing scheming parent Velma van Tussle.
2007 In June joined Cyndi Lauper's 15-city
True Colors Tour, benefiting the Human Rights Campaign, the US's
largest gay and lesbian equal rights organisation. Records Necessary
Evil, her first solo album in 14 years.