13th February 2005
Struck by her presence
When Blondie burst on the scene in the late 1970s, they had something unique - a feisty, smart and sexy female lead singer. Peter Ross speaks to Deborah Harry and her bandmates on the eve of their Melbourne show.
Deborah Harry lives in the Manhattan apartment block on which Alfred Hitchcock based Rear Window. She likes to watch the people opposite making love.
"I don't know if that's weird," she sniggers, "but it's a very sexy building".
What an enjoyably ironic image that is: Harry, one of the 20th century's eternal objects of desire, gazing enraptured at horny New Yorkers with eyes only for each other.
It's also highly appropriate. Harry's band, Blondie, formed back in the days when she was still calling herself Debbie, has always been about voyeurism. Their lyrics veered from creepily awestruck ("Oh, your hair is beautiful", on Atomic) to sneering ("Yeah, she's so dull/Come on, rip her to shreds", from Rip Her To Shreds) to wistfully lustful ("I will give you my finest hour/The one I spend watching you shower", from Picture This). The band itself was a visual phenomenon, mostly because of Harry's pin-up status, but also because the other members had a strong collective image, a punkish update on mod that the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand have clearly studied.
Blondie formed in 1974 and split in 1982, having notched up number-one singles in Australia, Britain and their native America. They got back together in 1998 ("For the money," says drummer Clem Burke), scored a further UK number one with Maria and have released two more albums, No Exit and The Curse Of Blondie. One of the greatest singles bands ever, they have a gilt-edged back catalogue, making them a worldwide live draw. On February 26, they will headline the Melbourne International Music Festival.
Talking to Harry is a little intimidating. She's not just the archetype of a certain form of pop-star glamour, she's also pretty clever. In Cathy Che's biography of Harry, Platinum Blonde, Michael Schmidt, who designs the singer's clothes, says: "Debbie is so smart she borders on genius level. Chris too. They are like aliens, people from another world."
Chris is Chris Stein, Blondie's guitarist and chief songwriter. Throughout the band's glory years, he and Harry were a couple and, although they split in the mid-1980s, they remain close friends and collaborators. "She is like my closest relative," says Stein. They have always shared a love of the avant-garde and esoteric, which continues to this day. So while Harry turns up at awards ceremonies in dresses decorated with razor blades and sings songs alluding to old Vincent Price movies, Stein is into UFOs and plays a guitar designed by H.R. Giger, the German artist responsible for the look of the Alien movies. Back in the old days, Harry befriended Andy Warhol, while Stein hung out with William Burroughs. They are Blondie's arty edge.
"It was all very fast-moving back then," says Harry, when asked to describe what it was like to have a creative relationship with her lover. "we took a lot of things for granted, although we were of course forced to analyse ourselves in the press. So we did figure out that we really complemented each other and were the kind of people who could work as a team. There are solo artists who couldn't possibly work in conjuction with another person, but Chris and I were natural collaborators. It was a joy for us and still is."
According to Stein, "romantic relationships tend to become competitive, so I think it's for the best when you are both working on something together. It was always a positive thing for us."
Did it feel like they had each found in the other an intellectual equal? "Yeah, yeah, sure," Stein says. "I've always been accused of being Debbie's mentor or Svengali or some shit like that. It came from people who obviously weren't seeing what was going on. Debbie was a powerful force by herself. She was pushing me, too."
Stein first clapped eyes on Harry when he saw her performing with a band called the Stilettoes at The Boburn Tavern, New York, in 1974. She had short brown hair and a long personal history. She'd been a waitress at legendary venue Max's Kansas City, a Playboy Bunny, a hippy chick and a junkie - all by the time she was 29 years old. "I was flabbergasted," says Stein of that first sighting. "I was impressed and knocked out by her."
He joined the band and got the girl. When The Stilettoes split, Stein and Harry formed Blondie.
Clem Burke, then aged 19, was recruited via an ad in the Village Voice. "The first time I met Debbie I was completely drawn to her charisma," he recalls. "She was undoubtedly a star, a diamond in the rough, a tremendously charismatic person. I had already liked girl group stuff, Shangri-Las, Ronettes; I was already tuned into that. And for me she was of that ilk. I had always been searching for my Mick Jagger or my Marc Bolan, the front person who would allow me to go forward with what I wanted to do with a band. So Debbie fit the bill. She was just great from day one."
By this time Harry had grown her hair and died it platinum blonde. They started gigging notably at CBGBs, the venue in New York's Bowery that also served as a crucible for Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones. But had there been a yearbook, Blondie would have been voted least likely to succeed; they weren't taken seriously among their peers, which may have had something to do with the way Harry looked. Punk was about ugliness and tension; Blondie - Marilyn Monroe and four Jack Lemmons - didn't seem to have that going on at all.
In fact, the starlet look was chosen quite deliberately by Harry. "Those were the images that were really exciting to me and I could relate to," she recalls. "I felt like that's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a movie star, that incandescent, iridescent creature, glowing with that lightness of being. I always wanted to be that, but since it never worked out that I became a movie star, it was just the obvious thing for me to carry it through and do it in front of a band."
Harry was adopted as a three-month-old baby by Catherine and Richard Harry, and it is often said that she believed Marilyn Monroe was her natural mother. She denies this now, but admits to taking certain aspects of her Blondie image from the actress. "She had this wonderful vulnerability about her, and femininity and strength all at the same time. And also seemingly a sense of humour. I thought those were all very powerful things."
It is often not appreciated, especially in the soft focus of nostalgia, that Harry was playing a role in her public appearances. Just as her friends David Bowie and Jimmy Osterberg had the personae of Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop, so Deborah Harry had Blondie, a trashier, flashier, sexed-up version of herself. With a drug addiction and two failed bands behind her, she was insecure and paranoid, and the notion of singing-as-acting helped.
"It made me feel comfortable at the time," she says. "With my affection for those actresses, and that screen persona that was so attractive to me, I thought that other people might be excited by that as well. That was the strongest choice I could make at the time. I felt it was a good starting point for me and it really worked. It got me going in a strong direction, and from there, little by little, I made it become much more personal."
Now, when she sings with Blondie, Harry isn't hiding behind a mask; she's being herself, a 59-year-old who has lived a life. "That was just a veneer, a thin coating. All the substance behind that had to come from somewhere else."
It was generally thought by the New York punkoscenti that Tom Verlaine's band Television - hip, pretentious, serious musicians - would be the CBGBs band to break into the mainstream. But, like in some Disney movie, it turned out to be those runts of the litter, Blondie, who cracked the big league. Following a surprise hit in Australia with X-Offender, they went to number two in the UK with Denis, the first of 13 top 20 singles between 1978 and 1982. Heart Of Glass went to number one in just about everywhere in 1979, and Debbie Harry became the fantasy of horny teens on at least three continents. Did Stein feel threatened by the level of lust for his girlfriend?
"Not really," he says. "I think it probably helped my interest."
Blondie do not deny that they used Harry's looks as a way of softening up the public before hitting them with the combination punches of Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Dreaming et al. There was an almost tangible eroticism to Blondie that had not been present before in a popular female-fronted band. Harry could talk dirty, too. In the late '70s, she wrote an essay titled "I Wish I'd Invented Sex", and 20 years later gave an interview in which she recalled that as a teenager in New Jersey she would go to a nearby town and walk up and down a certain notorious street until she was picked up by guys in cars. She was over-sexed, and it is hardly surprising that her libidinous side found expression on stage.
"I didn't have a problem with it, and I felt that it was totally natural, that one should just be who you were," she says. "That's what all the guys (in rock) were doing. There was a double standard. I did get a lot of criticism for being too overtly sexual and trying to use my sexuality, which was absurd. We all express ourselves sexually. It's one of the primary objectives of the human race."
Did she ever resent the focus the public and media put on her beauty? "In some ways, yes. Because other things were overlooked. I was working very hard to be a good performer, a good singer and to write interesting things. To have that overshadowed by one's looks can be a little bit damaging. But I never paid much attention to criticism unless it was constructive and I could put it to good use. Why would I want to listen to someone else's opinion when I knew what I wanted to do?"
Of course, the focus on Harry as a sex symbol not only overshadowed her musical chops but also the rest of Blondie. Clem Burke recalls a rumour that they were all on $50 a week to be her backing band, and at one point they actually resorted to having badges made asserting Blondie Is A Group. "We were a bunch of kids whose life's dream this was, and we were just being pushed aside," Burke.
This sort of resentment contributed to the split in 1982, as did Chris Stein's illness. He developed a potentially fatal skin disease, and Harry took a few years off to nurse him back to health. This is often interpreted as her sacrificing her solo career. Does she regard it as such? "No, I don't," she says. "Not at all."
In the 16 years between the split and the reunion, Harry appeared in films and had a sporadic solo career, Stein worked on her records and on getting his mind and body back together, and Burke went off to play drums for Bob Dylan and the Eurythmics. All three are now back in the band, as is keyboardist Jimmy Destri (along with Burke, Destri represents Blondie's pop axis, perfectly balancing Stein and Harry's bohemian tendencies).
As well as filthy lucre, one of the reasons for the reunion was that the various members of Blondie could see they had become a big influence on a whole new generation of bands. The Scissor Sisters, friends of Harry's and one of the major discoveries of 2004, are among them. And like them, Blondie make you want to party. Despite their punk origins, they are one of the very few all-time classic bands whose music is upbeat rather than rooted in darkness.
"We've always tried to be positive," agrees Stein. "It's our way of being political. The world is f---ed up, so in lieu of actually making political statements we just try to make people feel better. That's a good job."
Blondie play the Melbourne International Music Festival (Feb 26-27) on Feb 26. All proceeds from Feb 27 will go to Plan Australia tsunami relief programs. Details and bookings: melbournemusicfestival.com or 136 100
HEART OF STEIN
Chris Stein may object to being called Debbie Harry's mentor, but that's the word Harry herself has used to describe the dynamic of their 11-year relationship, and to explain how that relationship came to an end in 1985.
Three years before their break-up, Stein contracted pemphigus vulgaris, a rare and sometimes fatal skin disease, and Harry famously sacrificed a burgeoning solo career to nurse her bedridden partner back to health, spending long years away from the spotlight while Stein convalesced.
Maintaining a romantic relationship under these circumstances eventually proved too difficult. "He had always been the mentor, the funny, positive one," Harry later revealed. "Suddenly, it was not so light-hearted. Suddenly I was holding everything together."
"We were really close during the time I was sick," Stein says now in an interview with Preview. "But the relationship just sort of ran its course."
Pemphigus is a virulent and disfiguring disease, with unexplained sores and blisters that first appear in the mouth before quickly spreading to the rest of the body. "It's when the proteins that bind your skin together break down, and you just sort of dissolve," Stein says. "You get a lot of sores - I still have the scars." Luckily, Stein contracted only a mild form of the disease, and was able to control it with a program of steroids.
He believes now that his disease was stress-induced. "At the time I was doing a lot of drugs and being crazy, and also being on the road for five years with very little rest." He and Harry often speak unapologetically of their late '70s dalliances with drugs, with Harry telling the UK's Daily Mirror in 2003, "The drug experience was edifying and illuminating, but the other side of that is that it was habitual and destroyed brain cells".
Although the disintergration of Blondie and the onset of Stein's disease occured almost simultaneously in 1982, Stein does not closely connect the two. For him, the end of Blondie's first incarnation was more a result of crippling financial mismanagement. "It's just that we were being fleeced so badly. The first two years we made a lot of money, and this accountant that we had just didn't pay our tax bills. Everyone went on these horrendous back taxes for years and years, all because this accountant screwed up."
More than 20 years later, with their tax bills all paid off and a fruitful second phase of the Blondie saga well under way, Stein and Harry's affection for each other is as strong as ever. "Our relationship is still very close," Stein says. "It's just that we don't have the same sort of romantic situation that we did before."
Does he ever feel any of the old twinges of attraction for his ex-lover? "No, it's not like that; I'm married with kids now," Stein says carefully. But then he has a sudden burst of frankness. "I have a bad habit... I guess it's the male condition... the fact that she is idealised by so many people kind of keeps me interested."