Telegraph Sunday Magazine - 6th August 1978
ROCK MUSIC'S BEAUTY
The name of the pop group is Blondie, but everyone who follows the fabulous though often flickering fortunes of rock music knows its essential star is Deborah Harry. In this interview George Feifer tells the full story of the girl whose fey mixture of sweetness and punk chic mirrors the triumphs and tragedies of the American pop music market. All the photographs were taken by Martyn Goddard.
Deborah Harry, the vocalist of a soaring pop-rock group called Blondie, is breakfasting at four in the afternoon. The celebrations following Blondie's Manhattan concert the previous evening lasted until morning, and Blondie's lead singer Ms Harry has trouble keeping her eyes open. When she succeeds, admirers seem to crowd the otherwise empty hotel dining room.
Although devotees argue whether her slightly awkward stage manner is intentional - "just the right amount of kitsch", as one advanced - or the result of a deficiency of confidence and grace, such questions dissolve alongside her alluring loveliness. It is hard to keep from staring at her mouth. Only such an inviting one - a finer version of Brigitte Bardot's, naturally lifted into a sensuous pout - could steal attention from her elegant cheekbones and the intriguingly jaded eyes.
"Have your looks helped your singing career, or do people dismiss your music by reacting to you only as a beautiful woman?"
"Are you kidding? Looks have been one of the most saleable things ever. When I woke up to that, mine helped like mad."
The "sexpot", "sex queen", "sex symbol/supersex symbol" and "sex droplet" - who encourages these epithets by posing for publicity in tacky hot pants and leather - answers all questions in a cadence that might belong to a frank woman in a singles bar. As her unmade-up face is more attractive than the professional and the photographed one, so is her faintly hoarse voice sexier than the sex cliches imply.
She is neither condescending nor eager to please. She wants "to do her own thing" with Blondie, without pretending that her songs have any eternal value ("just to survive in this unbelievably cut-throat business is success"). One expects the insufferable from "the perpetual sex kitten of the New York City underground scene"; Ms Harry's straightforward manner surprises.
"Blondie makes no pretence to being arty, or... what's the 'e' word that the French writer - Sartre? - always uses? That's right, existential. What I want to do is entertain people, turn them on, make them feel good. With this approach, our act turns out entirely existential."
Before the formation of Blondie, Deborah Harry was a Playboy bunny. Commenting last year about her bad-but-good-girl image, a rock magazine said that, true to her bunny background, she "exudes a sexuality that is both clean and mischievous." But mental vacuum has always appeared essential to Playboy girls, whereas Deborah Harry enjoys a strong sense of humour and self-irony. Her tongue seems in her cheek while she fumbles with her (calculatedly?) inept striptease gestures and falls to the floor in mock passion. Remarkably cogent about the supposedly anti-intellectual medium she adores, her conversation tends to confirm that she knows exactly what she is doing.
"Some critics promise to make rock an art form by 1980, but I couldn't care less. Rock is a medium, not an art. It is people's tribal need to hear a throbbing beat, lose themselves in ritual and loud noises. The audience don't know what they're involved in, they just need it and do it."
A year ago, any such carnestness about her work would have produced guffaws. The wags called Blondie "Blandie"; the group's eager press agent admits that the group was an amateurish laughing stock. British and American critics now agree that it is one of the most improved groups in the fiercely competitive world of rock music; and one of the few with a fair chance to propel itself from quasi-punk - which some called "power pop" - to wide commercial success on the charts of both countries.
"It staggers me to think just how far this group has come in the space of just a few short months," one cognoscente said. "From a tenth-rate bar band with a femme up front, they've become one of the most interesting bands anywhere, with an extremely capable knack for producing top-flight pop rock and roll."
Blondie's startling improvement, like Blondie's surging fame, has in fact been Deborah Harry's. For all her attempts to extend publicity to the five male instrumentalists - and all her mock-testy reprovals that the six together, not she alone, is Blondie - everyone who buys tickets and albums knows what every professional observer makes clear: that the group's appeal lies almost exclusively in her. "Miss Harry has continued to grow as a stage focus," wrote The New York Times critic John Rockwell. "She can still look awkward and sing flat, but she makes her limitations work for her better than ever." Her attraction lies largely in her combination of childlike innocence and sweetness, and the vast sophistication of having lived through America's political and sexual upheavals of the 1960s, during which she experimented every kind of deviation from sweetness and innocence.
"My life is like a late-night re-run," she has offered - and it is true that her peregrination to low-life, notoriety and fame has the makings of the kind of B movie that her songs evoke (In the Flesh, Sex Offender, Little Girl Lies, I didn't Have the Nerve to Say No, Kung Fu Girls and Rip Her to Shreds are among the numbers she has written or co-written for Blondie). It would be a film about the casting adrift of her generation from middle America - and about its reconciliation. Her parents - archetypal small-town churchgoers who now run a gift shop - gleamed throughout her concert while the smell of marijuana wafted among the mods, toughs, gentles and exotic New York youth and seekers of youth whom Ms Harry and her jerky gyrations turn on.
Born in Florida, she soon moved with her "lower-class" parents to a New Jersey town some 20 miles from New York. Her first public singing began in the church choir, at the age of eight. Four years later, she dropped this and started dating.
"Did you believe in kissing on the first date?" a New York rock newspaper asked her recently.
"I was warned against it, but I did it because I really wanted to."
"Were you considered fast?"
"I was talked about."
When she graduated from the local high school, her parents sent her to "a reform school for debutantes": a two-year girls' college that was to have finished her off for the marriage for which she had been "produced and programmed". Having grown up under the potent influence of rock and roll, and films like James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause, she wanted something else. "I always loved music, always will. Whether performing or not, it takes me away from myself."
Years of false starts, odd jobs and odder love affairs followed. The number of years cannot easily be determined, for Deborah Harry (whom I later discover to be 32) will, without being coy about it, not talk about her age. "I could make one up for you, as I often do, but what's the point?"
Writers in the rock press attack her for being too old, she explains, "and if I was 15 - who needs it? - they'd say I was too young."
Living sometimes with her parents, but more often in New York, she worked as a beautician, a secretary for the BBC, a barmaid, as the Playboy bunny and at one time became a conductor of exercises for "flabby, unhappy women" in a health club. The very modest beginnings of a career - a then brunette Deborah Harry on finger cymbals and doing back-up vocals for a hippie group that recorded one album - was squeezed into this quicksand jumble.
It was the age of the flower generation, with thousands demonstrating their dedication to free love and fulfilment-through-dropping-out in Manhattan's East Village. Deborah says it was not good sense that kept her from fully belonging, but "me being so withdrawn - always the outsider who was happy just listening to music. Besides, I saw lots of goons doing hateful things under the guise of love." But her love of music led her to become a groupie. And when her own group broke up in 1968, she entered a long period of confusion, depression and drugs. Apart from a month with a California multi-millionaire, she was "really mixed up bad and into junk" in New York. "I was stoned lots of the time. I used to cry and cry. I wanted to blank out my mind, whole sections of my life."
Then as a waitress for eight months at Max's Kansas City, New York's most glittering rock showcase, she served steaks to the likes of legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, film director Roger Vadim and actress Jane Fonda, and rock group Jefferson Airplane. The most likeable member of the Andy Warhol crew, which also frequented Max's, was an actor and bon vivant named Eric Emmerson. "The only one I got friendly with was Eric, and he was friendly with everybody, especially girls," she told a local reporter.
A few years later, in 1973, Emmerson took his room-mate, a young guitarist named Chris Stein, to see one of his numerous "wives", who was singing in an all-girl group called the Stilettos. One of the two other vocalists was Deborah Harry, who had immersed herself ever deeper in New York's rock scene, and finally got her chance with the tenuous group. Stein had never seen anything like the look of her eyes across the smokey bar. He joined the Stilettos, and when it broke up shortly thereafter formed a new group with the dazzling girl. They named it after the "Hey, Blondie!" that truckdrivers were constantly shouting to Deborah.
Punk Blondie's inauspicious start was sporadic, "funky" appearances in the East Village and SoHo bars and lofts that the trade calls "garages". After its first record, in September 1976, and first tour outside New York several months later, the band's rise was meteoric, even by music business standards (its first, second and third English tours came within ten months, from May of last year to February of this). Blondie headlined at Max's in New York, where she used to wait in tables.
Three years ago Debbie Harry recalls that she was "really worrying about a dollar for dinner". Now she and all the members of the band earn $250 a week each before earnings from records. Blondie's hit Denis, number one in the charts earlier this year, sold over half a million copies in the UK and should net the group over £40,000 in royalties. Another hit followed, called (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. But like most new bands, Blondie is far from rich, though it hopes to be able to pay back its debts to Chrysalis, its recording company, after its second album.
Chris Stein, the son of a politically radical, artistic family, is more intellectual by nature than Deborah Harry and more articulate by his upbringing. Deborah appears to aspire to his wilder cultural interests, as he wants her drive. After five years together "day and night, in work and in play", the couple say they are growing closer and closer, and give no reason for an outsider to doubt this, despite the pressure of such a relationship. "I'm 28, in case you're interested," Stein offers. "And Debbie's as ageless as Nabokov's nymphet."
Guitarist, artist and author Stein suffered a nervous breakdown at 19. Why does a couple which has packed so much Angst into such short lives seem so normal and calm?
"I haven't been stabbed or shot," says Deborah, "but I have been through so many heavy experiences that I can hardly get rocked now." She points to a stack of urgent telephone messages. "And we're confronted with reality too often to live in a dream world."