Splash - February 1989
Written By: Thomas Beller
Photography By: Robert Mapplethorpe
Makeup: Bonnie Maller
Hair: Rodney Groves
It's one thing to be sexy and know it, and it's another thing to be sexy and at the same time make fun of the pursuit of sexiness. Debbie Harry is sexy, and in her career with Blondie she mastered the subtle taunt; an inflection she seemed to trot out at will, as if to remind everyone that she was winning at a game whose rules she wasn't even obeying. It was audacious, and part of its impact came from the sheer irony of its commercial success. But Blondie was a finite quantity, its dissolution owing to the most common causes that young, fast and successful bands stop being all the above. In the absence of Blondie, Harry lost her primary vehicle for the expression of her special sarcasm, her genuine mixture of savvy and incredulity. But it has managed to come across anyway, in films, and in more muted forms, her recent music. But the distinction between being challenging and being daunting is fine. The obvious question then, as she prepares to get her musical career revved into gear after a long hiatus, is how much of the quintessential Debbie are we going to taste in the new mixture.
THOMAS BELLER: What is the difference between being a pop star now and being one ten years ago when Blondie first took off?
DEBORAH HARRY: I don't know if I'm really a pop star now. I guess I might be, but I'm not really selling that many records. I'm just starting again.
TB: What point do you consider to be the restarting point of your pop music career?
DH: I guess Rockbird was really the official start of my solo career.
TB: What are your plans with making music?
DH: I've cut an album [tentatively entitled "Deaf, Dumb and Blonde"]. We're going to start touring again. Chris and I are still working together. Chrysalis International put out a dance mix record in England of all these old Blondie songs. The single was a dance mix of "Denis," which is moving up the British charts very fast. It's sort of surprising and funny how well it is doing.
TB: It is surprising, but then again your image seems to have a lot of resilience. You've become a pop icon, an image that transcends the music. Do you ever wonder why that happened?
DH: I do wonder, although I don't know if I'm an icon. It's sort of funny because even now, when I've had a low profile period of time when I wasn't doing anything, I go places and people seem to know me. I feel like I should go into politics. I think my face is kind of unusual and I've been photographed a lot. Visual memories are very strong. Also I was doing something at a time when there was no competition.
TB: What were you doing?
DH: Well, there were like five other girl singers doing what I was doing - making records and fronting a band. There weren't that many girl singers doing it. And many of the ones that were doing it, like Siouxsie, from Siouxsie and the Banshees, were English. So I think people really remember me for that. Also there is this whole part of the music world composed of kids who aren't into the mainstream stuff, kids that pick up on rare records, alternative radio, college kids - those are the people who seem to stay interested.
TB: How do you envision your... I was going to say comeback, but is that a bad word?
DH: Whatever. I don't care what you call it.
TB: I'll call it a return. What are your expectations for your new record in terms of commercial success and otherwise?
DH: I don't know. When you're in the business you have to try to sell your product, so having a hit record would be fabulous. When it happens it's like, Oh God, and you get there and run with it and have a great time.
TB: Do you consider yourself more of an actress or pop musician?
DH: I've had a little bit of experience now with acting. I consider myself a performer. That's really what I'm good at. I can sell a song, I can sell an idea, I can sell a character. Those are things I've really done. And that's probably what I'll do some more of.
TB: What do you mean "sell"?
DH: Make people understand it, make people like it. Sell.
TB: Tell me a little bit about the end of Blondie. It struck me as somewhat messy.
DH: I guess it was sort of the usual self-destruct mechanism, industry-destruct mechanism.
TB: Do you feel the band was somehow screwed over by the record industry?
DH: See, what happens in the industry is that people... Have you ever worked in the theater? You know how difficult it is to keep a cast of people together without fighting and little bits of ego getting in the way. It's difficult, understandably difficult. And you have this situation with the added influence and destructive element that money can put on your head. Imagine what happens when you're out there and there are lots of people that are making money off of you. All kinds of things happen. People get weird ideas and paranoia. This is what I mean by this thing that happens in the industry. It happens to bands all the time - it's very hard to keep groups of young people together and motivated. Let's face it, everybody was in their twenties. The thing that gets me about it was that I was Blondie. But the group was called Blondie. Now for all the mistakes and all the things that happened within the band, I'm where the buck stops, that's it. Whether it was my fault or not. Whether it was my decision or not.
TB: What is going on with Chris Stein? Are you breaking up as a couple?
DH: No. Still working together as partners.
TB: But are you going to stay married?
DH: We were never married. Our relationship is very unique.
TB: Do you want to elaborate on that?
DH: Not really.
TB: I think you really impressed a lot of people when you took time off from your career to help Chris get over this illness he had.
DH: It was a combination of things. Partially Chris getting sick, partially re-thinking whether or not I was going to do music. Getting new management. I'm not a saint and I certainly don't feel like I did anything that unusual. That interpretation sort of bothers me a little bit.
DH: Because I'm not looking for any credit for doing that. It doesn't sound too real to me. I was certainly concerned about Chris getting better, but it was a weird combination of events. It doesn't seem really true to me. You know, onward. Onward!
TB: What is it like to go mainstream very quickly?
DH: It didn't seem like it was that quick. Blondie was around for five years before we ever got near it. When it happened it was pretty wild, we were working all the time. We suffered a lot from having bad management. Had we had really great management the band would probably still be together.
TB: When you made Parallel Lines, the music you were making wasn't anything close to disco, yet the song that eventually broke you was a disco single. Was "Heart of Glass" a producer's idea or yours?
DH: It was Chris's idea. We always called it "the disco song" in rehearsal. Clem [the Blondie drummer] used to have a heart attack and be forced to play it. It was so funny, him having to sit there and play dugadugaduga. But it worked! Because it was so hokey and so disgusting that it really wasn't a disco record. But it was what it was. Actually the original version of "Heart of Glass" was a funk song. That's how we played it live. Then we made the record and we decided to throw it in there, and it was our first number one in the States.
TB: What were you trying to achieve when you made Koo Koo, towards the end of Blondie, with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards?
DH: The musical fascination or the musical place of Chic and the musical place of Blondie were, in a way, coming towards a unified position. And it was sort of odd because Chic was this real urban sound, and it was real black. But yet it was R&B, disco, and rock. And we were like this rock group that was doing weird crossover stuff into dance areas. And at that time, that was unheard of. It was like, God forbid you should be a rock and roll dance group! You should have your legs cut off! Or any other body part for that matter. So we had met Nile and Bernard at Power Station when we were working there. This was their first or second outside production. On my re-mix album that just came out there are two songs from that record, "Backfired" and "The Jam Was Moving," that have been re-done. What I would really like to do, besides getting music back on the road, is get some parts, do more acting.
TB: Do you have any parts that have been shot but not yet released?
DH: I have a little appearance in something Martin Scorsese did. It was his segment for the New York Stories, which is composed of shorts by three New York directors. I met him a long time ago when they were casting Raging Bull.
TB: In some ways I think the two of you have something in common. It is a certain sensibility. A streety, New York sensibility.
DH: Oh, I'd love to work from him. Are you kidding? That would be Nirvana! So, Martin, what do you say?
TB: I think my favorite movie of yours is Videodrome. What do you think of it?
DH: I liked it.
TB: Did you know it was going to be that weird?
DH: Yeah. I knew David Cronenberg's work, and I knew it had to be weird. But I knew he was going to try and make a more commercial film because it had a bigger budget. At that point he was still this weird independent guy from Canada who had this collection of odd little movies that he had made. Just the whole idea of biomorphic cassette machine stomachs. I thought, Oh Gee. Then there was all that Marshall McLuhan business coming in. That was really interesting. It was thrilling work with all those people, especially working with an actor like Jimmy Woods. He was so incredible.
TB: Do you have anything lined up now?
DH: I don't have anything lined up now. I wish I did. Sometimes I think I ought to be more aggressive.
TB: Do you think people are forgetting right now?
TB: But aren't you talking about doing a lot of touring soon?
DH: Yeah. Plus I'm sending out a lot of pictures. No no, just kidding.
TB: What's the new record like? Is it closer to Eat to The Beat or Rockbird?
DH: A lot of stuff was written by Chris. His style of songs is very much his own. We cover a lot of ground. We have a couple of really hardcore rock songs. And we have a samba. Then there's this rap/dance song that's really cool called "Get Your Way." Then another sort of really pretty, elegant song called "He is So." Then there is this smokey kind of Dr. John song called "Love Light," and Ian from The Cult singing on that. Then "Liar Liar," which Jonathan Demme got for his picture, Married to the Mob, which has Gary Valentine on it, who was the original bass player for Blondie. I also recorded a couple of songs with the Thompson Twins.
TB: Are you still in touch with the guys in Blondie, or even people you used to hang out with during that period?
DH: Yeah. Richard Hell is doing this poetry magazine. I saw him recently. I saw Nigel recently. I saw Clem at a Duran Duran concert. I still see the Ramones sometimes. I think my best friends are Stephen [Sprouse] and Chris and some other people. We sort of go to a lot of things together.
TB: I know you went to see this band called Big Fat Love once with Stephen.
DH: Oh yeah, yeah!
TB: Did you like Big Fat Love?
DH: They weren't there! I wanted to see them and they weren't there! We went up there and something weird happened because we split. That was a weird club up there, a strange place. I think it was called Drums. I did get a chance to see Jeffrey Lee Pierce from the Gun Club play there once. The acoustics are very difficult in that place.
TB: It's closed now and become something along the lines of a health club disco.
DH: Thank God. Because playing there is like playing in a swamp. I'm not kidding.
TB: Speaking of playing small clubs, The Tom Tom Club recently went back to CBGB's and did a three week gig. Have you ever thought of going back there?
DH: I did an encore with them. I played a little syn drum and sang the backups. It was great. It was on Hilly's birthday. So it was sort of nice, you know, to go back there and stand on that funny little stage.
TB: Which you had stood on quite a bit in the past.
DH: It's definitely close quarters.
TB: Who have been your influences musically?
DH: I don't know. I've been asked that question a lot, and I think I was influenced by so many things, much more than I could list. It just goes on and on. I suppose I could just say contemporary music. I've just been influenced by what's going on.
TB: Do you listen to radio a lot?
DH: No. I listen to it, but not much because they keep playing the same things over and over again. They've got these play lists and it gets on my nerves. I understand why they do it, but I think alternative radio is a lot more to my liking.
TB: How about things you've read?
DH: I read your interview with Grace Jones. She's so fun, so nice. We're not close friends, but we've known each other over the years. I think she's incredible.
TB: It was difficult to interview Grace. It was easy to talk to her, but there is a certain quality that is very essential to who she is, but that doesn't express itself verbally. Something along the lines of fabulosity. It's very body language.
DH: She's very animal. I think Q&A is the best format though, even if it would have been easier to just say something about her in an article, it's better to just get it across.
TB: What do you like about a Q&A interview?
DH: There's something very honest about it. I've always enjoyed those most, because interviewers are freer in a way. They don't get left alone to mull it over. They don't sit there alone and think, "oh yes, well what really did happen?" And then there's this other little voice inside of you that starts talking. This is what always happens when you go home and think about something you've just done, or some event that just happened. This little voice sort of second guesses and starts revising what you thought really happened. It's like first impressions.
TB: It's like when you take a test they tell you to stick with your first answer. Is there stuff you have done recently that's not going to be on the new record?
DH: I have a little rap song that I wrote. I wrote it with John Beauvoir. He was in the Plasmatics. We wrote a rap song together called "Do It Yourself." It's like a little kid song, like "Sally Go Round The Roses." He had this idea that he put on tape for me and then I came up with some stuff and a little melody line that goes with it. I'm really looking forward to touring again. We've just been playing benefits recently with a thrown-together band.
TB: It's been a while since you've toured.
DH: It's been a real long time since I actually had a firm band and gone out and done organized shows. It's been so long I don't want to say! I think the last tour was in the late summer of '82. This time around I want to do some club dates. I want to play clubs in New York like The Ritz and the The World and The Cat Club.
TB: You've always struck me as very authentically from New York. You didn't decide to go live in L.A. or anything... Why are you making that face?
DH: I'm allergic to L.A. I like it out there, I have a good time, but every time I get out there I have an allergic reaction.
TB: To the culture or to some flower?
DH: I don't know. Perhaps the bushes. They have good clubs out there. I was recently at the Palace and then I was in this biker bar. Actually, I met Julian Lennon there.
TB: I guess it wasn't that much of a hard-core biker scene.
DH: It was a nice mix. It's truly L.A.
TB: Where did you grow up?
DH: North Jersey.
TB: And what did you do, commute in to the Bowery?
DH: When I began to get fascinated with New York there wasn't even a Bowery to speak of. When I was a little kid my mother and father used to take me to do the traditional kid things. Radio City shows, the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. So New York was always the big fascination and the big mecca for entertainment, anything that was exotic. My father worked here for more than twentyfive years. I guess I sort of started taking bus trips to the city when I was in the eighth grade. I would come in to the Village and check out what was going on.
TB: What was the band that first made you go downtown and check it out? When was the first time you ever went to CBGB's and who did you see?
DH: The first time I went to CBGB's I guess was to see Television. But that was much later.
TB: So it wasn't like you made a bee line from New Jersey to CBGB's.
DH: When I first came to New York, it was the West Village where things were happening. I got to see Jimi Hendrix and Cream, The Doors, up close. They were nobodies then. Well, they weren't nobodies, but they were available. They hadn't reached "Icon Level."
TB: They were still eye level.
DH: What things do you like to do? You like to go to these odd interesting things, I mean you don't like commercial stuff.
TB: Well, it's been so long since I've been to a rock and roll extravaganza at Madison Square Garden that I kind of would like to do something like that.
DH: I guess that's sort of a transition I went through as well. You know you get burnt out doing stuff for a long, long period of time.
TB: Is that how you felt around '82-'83? Sort of burnt out?
DH: Oh yeah, absolutely! After being on the road for seven or eight years, forget it! Going around to all the club scenes, it gets tedious after a while. I have to be really in the mood to go around and try to discover something, or see where the new hipness is, or just check out something that's really got that vibe. That's fun too, though. That's why people come to New York, because they want to do that.
TB: Is Chris all better?
DH: Yeah, he's doing great. We're putting together this band now and I'm so looking forward to that. I'm going to have such a fresh perspective and so much energy for this.
TB: Being in movies and making records definitely have some things in common. I thought there was a certain kind of irony that was going down when you were in Blondie, that was spelled out more directly in Hairspray than it was in your last record Rockbird.
DH: Oh yeah. Rockbird is a little different.
TB: What do you mean by different?
DH: I didn't have that ironic content.
TB: How about the new stuff?
DH: I think there are only two songs... well, maybe three, but two songs definitely that are full of irony, and those are the sort of hardcore songs. One is called "Bike Boy," and the other one is called "Forced to Live."
TB: "Forced to Live"?
DH: Forced. So we're not taking any backseats on that one. And that was one of the most fun things to write. But in my position right now I feel that in a way I'm compelled-forced-to write things that are a little bit more commercial because I haven't been visible and the industry has changed. I have to reintroduce people to me and so on and so forth. So a lot of songs are "delicate," compared to "Forced to Live." But they're pretty.
TB: When you say the industry has changed, what do you mean?
DH: When you come right down to it, how many girls are really doing rock that is really delivering any kind of "fuck you" message. I mean not necessarily fuck you, but you know what I mean. A message, a pointed delivery. It's all kind of wimpy and girly and nnyngynggngng. So we got that for how many years?
TB: Forget about the fact that you had this tough smart voice as Blondie, but you're also older and more mature now than you were then, so how does this make you feel about some sixteen year old doing mall tours and doing techno-bubblegum music? How do you feel about Tiffany or Debby Gibson?
DH: I think Debby Gibson has some very good songs. Tiffany... what song does she do?
TB: What do you think about that kind of music?
DH: Well, I can't compete with that.
TB: But you don't want to, do you?
DH: In a way I have to, you know? I'm forced to do these things to sell records. To get an A&R department of a record company to back me, I had to do a song like "French Kissin." Which happens to be a good song, it's somehow a little more gutsy, but yet it can be commercial. They've made everything so cutesy from a girl point of view. There is no edge. And how many girl singers are around that are rock stars, or performers that are selling records, who can do that? I mean there is nobody like Janis Joplin selling records... I mean is there? Tell me who it is, I'll go out and buy it.
TB: There are no girl singers who are really difficult to swallow.
DH: They're not being political. All they're talking about is either having a broken heart or some guy that turns them on! And this is like, O.K. we've had five years of this, now girls buckle down because pretty soon some of your rights are going to be taken away so maybe you should say something about this.