Q Magazine - August 1993
Written by: Tom Hibbert
She started out as a hippy chick with a middle parting
and a suspect folk troupe; then, almost without warning,
she became The Most Famous Woman In the World, The New
Monroe, The Punk Garbo and sang power pop tunes with a
bunch of blokes in skinny ties. And now Debbie Harry is
48 and... well, completely deranged. "I've written a
letter to Daddy," she informs Tom Hibbert. "His
address is heaven above."
DATELINE: MAY 28, 1977. THERE SHE stood, growling,
upon the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon with her
skinny-tied boys around her. She was all got up in a
black mini-shirt and black tights and black stiletto
ankle boots. She was cool as mustard. We'd never seen
anything like that before. She was, as she delicately
puts it, "hot to go". And when she sang, with
that chilly delivery, we might have conjured up a thought
like, "This bird's a bloody star, mates!" had
our brains not been racing away on amphetamines...
years later, the world's a different place. In 1977,
there were only two McDonald's in the whole of England.
Now there are 487. In 1977, there was scarcely such a
thing as a Rock Femme; we'd had the sozzled reprobates -
Janis Joplin and Grace Slick - and all the drear and
flitty Girls Next Door. We'd even had "balls-bustin"
Fanny, but they were useless. We'd never had anything
like her - the one all the journalists would slaver over.
She was The New Monroe, The Punk Garbo.
Now there are 488 Rock Femmes. Madonna is one of them,
Wendy James is another and it's all her fault. Debbie
Harry changed the face of civilisation and popular
culture and music and everything else as we know it.
Debbie Harry is now 48. When you get to that sort of
age, you have the inclination to spurn the diminutives.
Debbie Harry is Deborah Harry to you, now, mister.
DATELINE: THE PRESENT. SOMETHING STRANGE is happening.
The once pop star, nay Pop Goddess - she was the most
famous woman in the world if you didn't count Margaret
Hilda Thatcher - has picked up a wig from the un-made bed
in her London hotel room and she has popped it on her
head. With wig, a long mass of curls, dark red, she comes
towards me, arms outstretched and pleading queerly, knees
buckling, mad in the face. "Har har!" she goes,
cackling like a loon. And then she sings. "I've
written a letter to Daddy, his address is heaven above,
I've written a letter to Daddy, saying I love you... Yes,
Debbie Harry has turned into Bette Davis (in Whatever
Happened To Baby Jane). And I, seated, transfixed, am
called upon to play the part of Joan Crawford. "Oh,
Jane, if I weren't in this wheelchair, you wouldn't be so
cruel." "Yes, but chyoo are," hisses
And then she tries to place the wig on my head for a
spot of role-transference mischief. Call me a spoilsport,
but I'm not having that! Debbie Harry calls me a
spoilsport. She is jolly. "I'm in such a good mood
today. Tra la la!" She is deranged. She wants to
chatter about nothing very much at all. Discussing one's
music and one's
career is such a bored when one's in one's middle years.
"Do you know what I saw in London yesterday, which
was really funny? There was this guy in his mid-sixties
and he was carrying a skateboard! I was wondering if he
really used it."
Born in 1945, she is almost as old as Mick Jagger,
though she certainly doesn't look it. There's a certain
ripeness of the cheeks but Deborah Harry remains
beautiful. Even in the wayward outfit she has chosen to
wear this day - an extremely off grey and black jogging
ensemble suitable for fitness persons, one supposes, but
hardly becoming - she is a vision of no uncertain
loveliness. She is hardly a "blondie" any
longer, more of a "mousie", but what's the
awful difference when you've got a face like that?
She is in Blighty "flogging" (her term:
she's quick to pick up on English slang terminology and
her Cockney accent pours shame upon Dick Van Dyke) a new
LP, Debravation. This is a thing stuffed with good and
proper pop tunes and that voice. It is the best thing she
has done since Blondie passed away. She seems genuinely
"You like it? That's shocking! I'm happy to hear
that." The display of modesty seems unphoney.
There's a song on Debravation called Communion, on
which Harry tells the listener to drink her blood and eat
her flesh - as if she has turned into Jesus Christ or
something. This observation sets the woman off into a
long barking crow of ecstatic amusement. "Ahahahahaha!"
SHE WAS BORN IN MIAMI, FLORIDA, AND HAS never known
who her natural - and presumably very handsome - parents
were. She was adopted by Richard and Catherine Harry and
grew up in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She did all the things
that good girls from New Jersey suburbia are supposed to
do. Like she wore a little majorette's outfit with little
tassled boots and a stupid hat and diligently twirled the
"I wasn't very good at twirling, actually,"
she tells me. "I'd get very nervous and I would
always drop it. But I think that's why they chose me.
They had me there twirling and dropping the baton for the
bending over aspect. I was there for the pervert fathers.
Looking at my underpants!"
And, in a way, you went on to make a career out of
people wanting to look at your underpants, didn't you?
"Ooh! Thank you. You're such a sweet
But, of course, as with most really famous personages,
she says that she remembers always knowing that she
needed, was destined for, that fame, for something more
important than marriage to the owner of the local
shoe-store. So Debbie was experimenting with make-up at
an early age.
"I used to come into school covered in beauty
marks. I looked like I was splattered in mud so the other
girls thought I was a little bit weird. And I used to
come home for lunch and if my mother wasn't home, I'd
whip into her room and start applying stuff all over me.
But I was really young. This was pre-teen. As a teenager
everything became acceptable."
One time in her parents' yard, she had a psychic
experience. She heard voices coming from a brick
fireplace; the voices were telling her complex
mathematical information. What on earth could it all
"I really have no idea..."
She hated school. "I hate school," she
hisses in the demonic tones of the girl in The Exorcist.
She bleached her hair for the first time in 1959.
"There was no colour I didn't try, including
green." In her twenties, in the '60s, she moved to
New York. She got a job at Gift Mart, she auditioned for
Broadway musicals and failed miserably. In 1967 she
joined a folk-rock troupe called Wind In The Willows -
and you could see how awful they were just by looking at
their album cover; almost everybody has a moustache/beard
composition and Harry's hair is centre-parted in Laura
Ashley mode. There's lots of painted flowers and painted
stars on it, too.
offers no apologies for this musical mishap though,
despite the fact that she spent the early years of
Blondie trying to pretend that Wind In The Willows had
never existed. Now from a distance of a quarter of a
decade she looks back upon it all with a certain
"I was a chirpy, cheery soprano in that group
singing back-up and going, Oooooooo. Actually, I loved
doing the music, because all I wanted to do was sing, to
paint music, you know, but I was just really a sideman in
that group and I found it very frustrating and I just
lost interest. I haven't listened to the Wind In The
Willows album for 20 years, but I do actually remember
some of the words. I do. Isn't that funny? I actually
remember those sappy lyrics."
Go on then, give us a burst of that long-forgotten
"No! Please! No, no, no! If I recited any of
those lyrics, I'd have long hair by the end of the day
and I'd have grown a beard and I'd have bell bottoms. The
bell bottoms wouldn't be too bad, I suppose, or the long
hair, but the beard... Hmmm, actually, I'd quite like a
beard. You guys are so clever! You can grow beards! How
do you do that?"
She has a way with flippancy, this woman, that's quite
charming, though when you come to think about it, you
realise that all she's saying here, avoiding saying here,
is, yes, Wind In The Willows was crap; what a foolish
young thing once I was.
The hippies bust up and Harry, loose in the naked
city, got into drugs.
"I had my drug experience, yeah. That was
OK," she says with a knowing, conspiratorial sort of
smile, lying back upon the hotel sofa and toying with the
Baby Jane wig. "I was doing heroin. I was taking a
serious addictive substance. Actually, I should say, was
taking several serious addictive substances. Plural. But,
you know, at that time it was part of the scene.
Everything was like, Hey, man, this is the latest drug
and this is the newest drug and here comes the next drug
and you really ought to try this! So I tried it. Whatever
These were the days of the Velvet Underground and
tiresome movies by Andy Warhol that went on for eight
hours. Of course, one had to take drugs. The rest of
America was in blissed-out, Woodstock
don't-touch-the-brown-acid haze, but New York was
"art" and "deviant".
(Interesting fact: as a waitress at Max's Kansas City,
Debbie Harry served Jefferson Airplane their dinner the
night before they went to Woodstock. "I was quite
impressed to be waiting on Jefferson Airplane. But not
that impressed." Were they good tippers? "Hmmm.
Now you come to mention it, I don't think they were!
Let's go and kill them!")
"Drugs was chic," continues Harry.
"Everybody in New York was fooling around with
drugs. That's just what the scene was like. It wasn't
like today where everybody knows what the implications
are and what the results are. It was just a very small,
elitist art world. Up in a loft. Look at my pictures!
Aren't they neat? Yeah? OK, let's do some drugs to
celebrate, then. It was just a fashionable situation. The
stockbrokers weren't doing cocaine, only we were doing
cocaine. It was just for freaks, and the quantities that
are available now weren't available then. It was the
Did you enjoy taking drugs, Modom?
"Taking drugs? Most of the time, yeah."
Did you ever take LSD?
Was that lovely?
"Ye-e-e-e-e-s! I'm tripping! I'm tripping! But
drugs for me now, it's not always a pleasure. It's become
something that I'm not interested in. But at the time I
was very interested in drugs. It was an illusion."
Lots of drugs and a succession of rather awful day
jobs, that's what she had before she became famous by
To turn a buck, Deborah Harry served time as a Bunny
"Yeah, I hopped around as a Bunny. It was a great
way to make money. It was very lucrative."
Rather undignified, though, surely, what with the daft
ears a Bunny Girl had to strap to her head?
"I beg your pardon? You think the ears were
undignified? Did you ever see the little furry
Contrary to popular belief, being a Playboy Bunny was
not all discussions of a biological kind with rich
businessmen from nowhere. Not even kiss-ups for tips.
"No, we got treated very well. It was one of the
best jobs in terms of security that I ever had. It was
all very middleclass. You were considered an asset."
Not so at that other "notorious" New York
nightclub, Max's Kansas City, where Ms Harry also waited
"You were treated like a piece of spaghetti in
that place. You were totally expendable and you were like
a rat on a sinking ship. I was serving all these people
like Jane Fonda and James Coburn and the Andy Warhol
Factory crowd, but tottering around as I was with trays,
half asleep on drugs, I was in awe of all that but at the
same time it meant nothing."
FINALLY, IN 1972, SHE GOT TO SING IN A proper group,
The Stilettos, a camp girl trio with mad blokes on the
side. They sang to drunks in bars for pin money. "It
was such fun. The Stilettos were only ever watched by
drunks and low-life in sleazy bars and we made no money,
but it was fun. That whole early '70s period was fun.
Sometimes I miss those times. The New York Dolls were
fabulous fun. That whole period, I don't know, there were
just a bunch of nice bands then, elegant glitter bands
with big platform shoes and big everything. It was great.
And it was the same in England with, what's his name,
Bolton? No, you know, the guy who did Jeepster."
You must be referring to Marc Bolan.
"Yeah, Mike Bolan was doing his thing over here
and that was fabulous. I just used to fall off my
And what were The Stilettos like, in retrospect?
"Oh, we were just fooling around. We were campy.
We used to have a song called Narcissisma. (She proceeds
to sing in style that would not disgrace Bette Davis at
her most potty) 'Narcissisma, narcissisma, it's the bell
of Biloxi, Biloxi, Biloxi, Biloxi, says she looks like me
but she will look like you when I'm set free'. We did
Goldfinger, too. (Oh, dear, she's going to sing again) 'GoldFINGAH!
He's the man, the man, with the Midas touchhhhhh!' And
then we had a song called Rouge which was written by
Alice Ghostley who was a very odd comedienne - she was on
Bewitched and she was always the fucked-up, crazy witch
aunt. She wrote this song called Rouge and the lyrics
were fabulous. 'Back, oh no, I'm never going back, not
back again to Hackensack. My reputation there is black,
and it's all because of Fred, Fred Black, who made me see
red. Rouge, scarlet rouge, flaming rouge are the lips
he's no longer kiiiissssing!' Did you like that song?
Isn't it excellent? It was the funniest thing! You see
The Stilettos were just like this absurd girlish thing.
It was mostly the drunk perverts who liked it but, well,
I was used to that."
Then one night at a Stilettos show, eyes locked across
an uncrowded room. Chris Stein was in the audience and
Deborah was on the stage and it was love both ways at
They formed a band called Angel And The Snake and
Chris Stein wrote a song called Heart Of Glass. Then, in
1974, they changed their name to Blondie. The rest is,
"We didn't really know what we were doing when we
started. We did some Tina Turner songs and a few Rolling
Stones songs. We weren't that good. We were just
learning. All we wanted to do was songs that had a hook
in them, that were danceable, because up to that point
everybody was watching these long guitar solos and good
old boys singing about 'the road' and it didn't relate to
our urban experience at all. It was just middle America
music and we were sick of it."
Blondie were the first of the many, the famous and the
legendary (Television, Ramones, Talking Heads), to play
regularly at CBGBs. Reading reports, from across the
Atlantic, of the goings-on at CBGBs in those heady days
of musical drift, it all sounded so exciting. But CBGBs,
says Deborah Harry, was one hell of a hell-hole.
"It was horrible. It was real disgusting. Every
night you just had to watch where you walked. Dead dogs,
I expect you got paid quite a lot, though?
"Paid? Bite your tongue. You'd get a couple of
beers and then we'd owe them money. I'm serious. There
was no money involved. The CBGBs guys were just happy to
have somebody in there making some noise. It was a Hell's
So how, if you were playing in this scummy bar and
making absolutely no money, did you manage to survive?
"Oh, I was working. I was bar-tending. I was
selling pot - out of the trunk of my car. But every once
in a while the group would luck out and get to play at a
party. One time we played this party after a horse show.
It was a real rich person's show, after a show jumping
thing. So there were all these people from Uptown and we
went to this beautiful town house and they were all in
fancy dresses and asking us to play songs we didn't know.
Like Hotel California and Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and
old rock'n'roll stuff and Johnny Mathis. But we just kept
playing our same five songs all night. And they liked us.
We got paid!"
"We had absolutely no equipment when we started
out. We were terrible. It seems absurd that we ever made
it to be famous, you know. Chris had a little tiny amp
thing that was terribly noisy. The police radio never
stopped coming through. Everyone was responsible for
their own mix so it was all, Your amp is on 10 so mine's
going on 10, too, dammit! Let's watch the singer bleed,
I'm putting my amp on 11! See the singer bleed through
the nose! But, oh, God, seriously, those were fun days at
the beginning, before we got famous and all that shit. We
were just disreputable and funky and sleazy and smelly in
every way. We were jerks. We were the underdogs."
And then everything changed. In 1976, Blondie signed
to Private Stock records. In the spring of 1977, they
came to England to support Television on a tour. Despite
the irksome pre-publicity posters - "Wouldn't You
Like To Rip Her To Shreds?" ran the crass motto over
Debbie looking sultry (she wasn't altogether thrilled by
this) - despite some idiotic reviews (suggesting that
this blonde singer was no better than a prostitute
because she looked sexy) Blondie delighted the public and
went on to sell an awful lot of records.
Debbie Harry changed the world with her frocks. She
became the toast of the New York art set, rubbing
shoulders and lipstick with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote,
William Burroughs, the madcap lot.
Mention of Warhol causes Harry's eyes to go misty: she
misses him terribly. Mention of Burroughs causes her to
fall about laughing. "Oh, Bill, he's mad! I actually
had dinner with him recently and I have this little dog
now and she doesn't like to be touched on one spot on her
back and she doesn't like to be held like she's trapped.
She's tiny - she only weighs four or five pounds - so
Bill looked at the dog and said, Watch this, watch this
creature! and he picked her up and held the dog all the
way through dinner and the dog was biting him all over
his bony hands the whole night. Bill seemed to enjoy it!
But at that point, my dog hadn't had her rabies shots, so
I was a little concerned."
After five years of intense celebrity, Blondie split
up in 1982. "It was a madhouse. We didn't take any
vacations and that was the big mistake. Whenever we read
bad reviews, we'd have these tremendous fist fights and
everybody would be really freaked out and pissed off with
everybody else for being jerks. It was like punching up
your brothers, a family feud thing."
Chris Stein became ill with a rare wasting skin
disease called pemphigus - he wouldn't have fallen sick
if Blondie hadn't worked so frenetically, says Harry -
and Deborah spent years nursing him back to health,
although they are no longer together.
Meanwhile, she continued to make LPs. There was Koo
Koo (whose cover featured Deborah's head with nails
sticking into it; posters of the same were banned from
the London Underground: "They wouldn't hang it in
there because they thought it was a bad influence on
children. I mean, the cover has nails sticking in my head
so what are children going to do when they see that?
Obviously they are going to stick nails right through
their little heads. Mummy, Mummy, Debbie Harry did it, I
can do it, too! If only children were that susceptible.
Let's kill them all, harhar!") and there was
Rockbird and Def, Dumb And Blonde. None was awfully good
- until Debravation. And she appeared in some films that
were really quite absurd: in David Cronenberg's
Videodrome, she was this mad thing with a whip and an
out-sized perversion torturing poor James Woods. In
Hairspray, she was this mad thing with a bee-hive and a
handbag, married, poor chump, to Sonny Bono.
"The best thing about Sonny was that he had a
short fuse. He was a pretty nice guy but everywhere we
went, people would come up and go, Hey, Sonny, where's
Cher? And he'd go so frosty all his limbs would seize up
in anger and he'd go, If I hear that one more time... It
was like being haunted, poor guy. Hey, Sonny, where's
Cher? Hey, Sonny, where's Cher? If that happened to me,
I'd just tear my ears off."
"WASN'T THAT A NICE LITTLE WALK DOWN Memory
Lane?" coos Deborah as my audience draws to a close.
I ask her whether she has any further acting ambitions.
In reply, she plops the Baby Jane wig upon her head once
more and snarls, "I never speak to Joan Crawford!
She's a bitch!" And then she asks a question. It is
this: "Do you know where I can buy some weird kind
What a truly extraordinary woman she is.