Steppin' Out - Wednesday 12th September 2007
S O - M A G . C O M
Pages 14, 48, 49, 50, 51, 90
Interview by Chauncé Hayden
Photography by Joe Gaffney
A living legend and pop culture superstar, Debbie Harry needs no introduction. However, she's going to get one anyway.
The striking face and seductive voice behind Blondie since the late '70s, Harry remains to this day the ultimate blonde diva.
Born in the summer of 1945, Harry was adopted and raised in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She spent most of her teen years working various jobs. In the late '60s Harry joined a folk-rock act Wind in the Willows. The group put out only one album before Harry began her stint as a Playboy Bunny followed by a waitressing gig at Manhattan's live music Mecca, Max's Kansas City. The gig eventually led her to the punk rock band underworld taking over New York City during the '70s.
In 1973, while performing with the all-girl group, The Stilettos, Harry met Chris Stein. Within a year, Harry left the band and formed Angel & the Snake with Stein.
By 1974, they'd christened themselves Blondie. With drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri, Blondie spent the next decade creating timeless music with their ultra-new wave sound. Singles "Heart of Glass," "The Tide Is High," and "Call Me" were worldwide hits, while Blondie's third album, Parallel Lines, sold 20 million copies worldwide.
Harry eventually went solo, to mixed reviews, but was forced to give up music after Stein had fallen ill with a rare and fatal genetic disease called pemphigus. Harry stepped out of the spotlight to nurse her partner back to health. It would be five years until she'd sing again.
In the mid-'80s, Harry started to record again and pursued acting as well. Going by the name Deborah Harry, she appeared in several television shows and films, most notably "Videodrome" (1982), "Hairspray" (1988), and the black comedy "Six Ways to Sunday" (1997). She released a third album, the Euro-dance inflected Def, Dumb & Blonde. Her fourth solo album, Debravation, appeared four years later.
A Blondie reunion was official in 1999 when the four original members released their first album, No Exit, in 17 years.
Fast forward to 2007. These days Harry is gearing up for the October 9 release of her fifth solo album, Necessary Evil. There's also rumor that a movie - based on the life of Harry and starring Kirsten Dunst - may be in the works.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Debbie Harry about her remarkable career, the rumors about a bio film, and how she really feels about the closing of CBGB's and the recent death of it's owner, Hilly Crystal.
Chauncé Hayden: What was the motivation behind your new album, Necessary Evil? The title sounds kind of dark and mysterious.
Debbie Harry: It was supposed to be taken lightly, really. It's about love and relationships and how you was the person, and yet you don't want them at the same time. (Laughs) Know what I mean?
At this point in your music career, do you care about sales and radio play?
I want people to enjoy it. If that makes it do well, then I guess that's the answer. Why else would I put myself in a public position with my music, if I didn't want some kind of acceptance or success?
Are your solo projects more important to you these days than working with Blondie?
No, not at all. This is just something that developed by having a lot of ideas and wanting to record them. It was a situation that was easy for me and just sort of happened. That's about it.
After four decades, how do you maintain your passion for performing?
I don't think it's much of a problem. I just really enjoy doing it. The response seems to be good, and that always makes it easier.
The response to your music is amazing. Does it surprise you that after all these years your music remains so popular as well as contemporary?
We did take a long break in between those years (referring to the five years she took off in the early 1980s to care for Chris Stein during his serious illness), so maybe that's why people didn't get sick of us! (Laughs)
You kid, but "Heart of Glass," "One Way or Another," "Rush, Rush," "Call Me" and "Rapture" are as popular today as they were in the '70s and '80s. I hate to use the word "timeless" but...
Yeah, I think some of those songs really are timeless. Chris [Stein] took some chances with his ideas and his writing. I think a lot of those songs' popularity is really due to a lot of his ideas. He's really responsible for "Rapture" and for the sound of "The Tide Is High."
Both you and Chris have had a very close relationship both professionally and personally. How would you describe that relationship today?
We still get along great. He's my buddy. He's my best friend. I don't get to see him enough, so it's really great that we get to tour and work together. I always look forward to that.
If I had told you in 1978 that "Heart of Glass" would still be popular in 2007, would you have thought I was insane?
Probably! No offense.
Yet, here we are.
I always admired artists whose songs had longevity, so I'm happy it's happening to me. But you also have to realize that Rock and Roll is coming of age, as it were. It's just a natural progression, I suppose. People grew up to that music, and they really don't have much choice, I suppose. As for me, I will always be an artist, whether I do music or some other form of it.
What did it mean for you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
It was quite an honor, really. It made me feel very legitimate and part of history. It really makes you feel like maybe you actually did do something. It's just so public. I think it made people who aren't in the business and who never really paid much attention to Blondie sit up and take notice.
You're 62 years old now. Are you afraid of getting old?
I think it changes from day to day. Some days I feel like it doesn't matter and other days I feel like, "Oh shit." You might think that's an inconsistent answer, but that's the way it goes.
Are you aware that you're in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Oldest Female Singer to have a No. 1 single in the UK?
Oh, excellent! That's news to me, but there you go.
There's also talk of a movie being made about your life with Kirsten Dunst playing the lead role. Care to set the record straight?
Kirsten and I did talk about that. She's a really sweet, fun girl, and she expressed some interest, but we don't have anything really going. She mentioned it in an interview, and the press has been treating it like it's actually happening.
Do you want the film to be made?
Oh, sure. I generally don't really like biographical movies on music people. I think they're usually kind of bullshit and phony. So if a movie is made, I want to somehow be involved in it. I think I could make it a little bit more interesting.
In 2005, a video release, "Rapture," was combined with The Doors' "Riders on the Storm." What did you think of it?
I was really surprised how good that was. The video came later, but after I heard it, I thought, "Wow, this is really OK. This is really working." You would never think of putting those two songs together.
Yet, it works really well.
Yeah. I was impressed.
Not to change the subject, but one of the things I found interesting about you is that you once starred on Broadway opposite the late comic Andy Kaufman in the play, "Teaneck Tanzi." Unfortunately, the show opened and closed in one night. What went wrong?
(Laughs) I was really disappointed it closed after just one night. We had been doing the show for audiences downtown in a showcase kind of venue, and it was really popular. We did that for weeks, and it was doing great, but then the producers decided to take it to Broadway. However, I think if they left the show downtown, we would still be doing it. It was just too rough and tumble for Broadway, if that makes any sense, but it was great for downtown. It really worked. We had everyone in the audience cheering on different members of the cast. There was a lot of shouting and stuff going on. It was a little too funky for Broadway.
What was it like working with Kaufman?
Andy was a hard worker. He was also pretty quiet and agreeable. He just concentrated on doing the best job he could. At that point, he was macrobiotic. I don't know if he knew he had cancer at that point or not.
Of course, I couldn't let you go without asking you about growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey. What was that like for you?
It's probably a much bigger town now. I haven't been back there in a while. Every once in a while I'll run into somebody from there or an old friend or someone who knew my sister. It's really just a typical suburban commuter kind of town. I think when I was a little, tiny girl, there were actually farms there. When those farms went, that was the big change for me. All that land became housing developments. That was kind of shocking to me.
You were also voted "Best Looking Girl" in high school, so it wasn't like you went from being an ugly duckling to a blonde beauty.
Oh yeah! (Laughs)
And from there, you worked as a Playboy Bunny. What was it like to wear the rabbit ears?
I did that for almost a year, I think. I worked in the New York Playboy Club.
Never posed nude for the mag?
No. I was too thin at the time. I don't think I was Playboy magazine material. I mean, yeah, I looked cute. But they weren't looking for that. They wanted someone a little more sexual.
Many would argue that you've always oozed sexuality.
Thank you. Well, all I can say is Playboy missed the boat.
Like you, Madonna has kept her career going well into her 40s. What are your thoughts about her?
We've met, but we kind of travel in different worlds. She's such a big star. I really do like a lot of her music. I think she's had some great hits... some really great songs.
Recently, CBGB's owner, Hilly Crystal, passed away. It almost seems ironic that Hilly died right after the club was closed. Considering how passionate you were about trying to save the club, what thoughts does the passing of Hilly and the closing of the CBGB bring to mind?
I'm very sorry that Hilly is gone. He was a big help to Blondie and to the New York music scene for many years. His club was a part of New York lore and Rock and Roll history. I was also really sad the club closed. Performing at CBGB right before it closed was like a walk down memory lane. (Long pause) Gee, I don't know. I guess it's sad for New York that the club is gone. It was such a landmark. People from all over the world would go there. It was a great place for new talent to get a chance. There aren't really a lot of places like that anymore. Given that, clubs don't usually last as long as CBGB did, so it had a long run.
Is there anything in your life that you regret or wish you could do differently?
Yeah, I suppose there are. I try not to think about those things, actually. It just doesn't get you anywhere. Obviously, there are steps along the way you wish you could do differently. Hindsight and all that crap. You know? But I don't know if it does you any good. You just have to learn from those experiences and move on. However, thinking of things like that with regret can be poisonous.
Do you wish you had children?
(Laughs) I like them very much! They're very sweet and completely rotten at the same time. I don't really have any, although I have a lot of godchildren. I'm a terrific godmother.
Do you see yourself still performing ten years from now?
I don't know. It's hard to say. I hope I'm still doing music somehow, if not for myself, then writing for others. I would also like to travel just for the fun of it. I hope to be linked up with somebody and madly in love. That would be a lot of fun.
Are you in love now?
Not with one person in particular. Why, are you available?
Hmmm. Last question. At the end of the day, do blondes really have more fun?
(Laughs) I think we just try harder. That's all.