THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN Magazine
30th November - 1st December 2002
In the flesh
Her early success with Blondie was marred by paranoia and chaos. But at 57, the once media-shy Deborah Harry is enraptured to be singing with the band again.
STORY - PHILIP NORMAN
PORTRAIT - SACHA WALDMAN
Deborah Harry was the first utterly, bewitchingly beautiful person to become a pop superstar. Your Presley's, Jaggers and Chers had to wait a while for the public's vision to adjust to their new standard - most, indeed, at some time or another, were condemned as "ugly". But when Harry first appeared in the late 1970s, fronting her band, Blondie, with her tumbling gold hair, oval eyes, flawless skin and cheekbones that Michelle Pfeiffer would kill for, there was no argument; just a unanimous worldwide cry of "Phwoar!"
However, those were the dog days of punk, when good looks and grace counted as a handicap rather than a help. So pop's one stunning beauty had to make herself into a parody of beauty. The bottle-blonde hair had to be tousled and misshapen as if by a force-nine gale. The blackened eyes and glossy red lips had to carry a subtext of irony. The froufrou stage frocks and little-girlie gestures were understood to be no less a political statement than the butchest crew cut and dungarees. The silky voice had to be edged with the raucousness of a street urchin. Harry's songs, too, were couched in language that had nothing to do with dumb blondes, but pre-figured the emancipated, forthright woman of today - the blueprints for Madonna, Britney and that whole crowd: "Roll me in designer sheets, I never get enough"; "I remember my hour... was the one I spent watching you shower" (Call Me).
I first interviewed Debbie Harry in February 1981. Blondie at the time had already had a string of hit singles including Denis, Call Me, Hanging on the Telephone, Sunday Girl, Atomic and Heart of Glass (later that year the band would release mega-smash hits The Tide is High and Rapture, from Autoamerican, their last and biggest album, before splitting in 1982). New York was still reeling from the assassination of John Lennon three months previously - as everyone thought, the most hideously unbelievable thing that could ever happen there.
My first meeting with Harry reflected that new mood of fear and paranoia. I answered a faint tap at my hotel room door to find two people in the hallway. One was Chris Stein, her boyfriend and the band's musical eminence grise; the other was an unrecognisable, shapeless figure swaddled in black scarves and
woolen leg-warmers, with a black balaclava and outsize sunglasses. "This is Debbie," Stein said, as if he could hardly believe it himself. In the room, a protracted striptease was necessary before the vision fully revealed itself. I particularly remember the moment when, after a struggle, she succeeded in dragging the balaclava off and her hair sprang forth in all directions like a glossy, gold sea anemone.
There can be a defensiveness about extreme good looks; a weariness from being too much ogled. But Harry seemed refreshingly free of the hang-ups of beauty, in their way as restrictive as those of plainness. She was unpretentious and self-mocking, as when she twisted a golden lock of her hair around one finger and reminded it sternly that it was only "external protein".
In a two-hour conversation, we ranged over the many surprising aspects of her life. How she was born in Florida to a concert-pianist mother but given up for adoption to a couple named Harry, living in New Jersey. How her decision to go bottle-blonde arose from a childhood daydream that Marilyn Monroe was her mother. How she crept away from her suburban milieu to become a Greenwich Village beatnik. How her first job was as an office secretary in New York. How she did a stint as a Playboy Club Bunny in
fishnet tights and powder-puff tail, steeling herself to smile brightly even when her customers' jealous female companions stubbed out cigarettes on her exposed thigh. How, finally and transfiguringly, she became a waitress at Max's Kansas City, the bar where American punk was first shaped by performers such as Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and the Ramones.
Now, 22 years later, I am to interview Harry again. The reason is a resurgence of interest in Blondie that has been steadily building for the past four years and seen them receive their belated crown as "the Abba of punk". They reformed in 1998, Harry and Stein joining fellow original members Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke. Leading up to Christmas, in company with INXS and that band's new singer, Jon Stevens, Blondie will tour Britain.
I can't say I'm looking forward to this assignment. Stories about Harry in the 19 years of her solo career have been an almost unbroken lament for beauty not so much eroded by time as thrown away; a decline, rather like that of the late Greta Garbo, from lens-devouring loveliness to wilful plainness. Refusal to stay beautiful is a crime for any star, the more mystifying in a country where a woman can look more perfect at 55 than she did at 25. So, in the name of Monroe, what happened?
Harry and I rendezvous at a photographer's studio in downtown New York. Reports of her decline prove to have been much exaggerated. The woman who greets me is smaller than I remember, perhaps a little rounder, but still recognisably the vision who dragged off her balaclava with such difficulty in my hotel room. The almond eyes seem lined only by laughter, the perfect mouth quirked at its corners only by greater knowledge of the world. She wears a lime-green cardigan over a white T-shirt and black breeches tied at the knee and slashed down each thigh; the punk look's great-great-grandchildren. Her hair, now vaguely Mary Quant in shape, is platinum, with a badgerish dark streak up the back.
Bands who get back together tend to do so in a spirit of weary loathing, sustained only by the pots of money awaiting them. Harry does not go as far as claiming she and her Blondie colleagues greet each other with a joyous "whoopee!" But, she says, they still have great respect for each other as musicians and remain mutually protective, the way family members do however many fights they might have had. Nor is it a question of churning out their old hits with gritted teeth. "Our last tour was the most fun I ever had on the road," Harry says. "When we did it all first time around, there were always so many tensions and insecurities. Now we feel we can relax. Because we're more comfortable with each other and what we're doing, I think the band sounds better than it ever has."
There is, of course, the additional complication that she and Stein, the band's power axis, used to be in an intense long-term relationship. Appearing on stage with your ex-lover can be one of rock's more refined self-tortures, as Fleetwood Mac and Abba have learnt. But Harry insists it is not a problem for either Stein or her. Though Stein is on his second marriage since their break-up, they have kept in close contact, making occasional appearances together and speaking on the phone almost daily.
"We may not be a couple anymore, but Chris hasn't stopped being the dearest person in the world to me. He's still the person who best understands how to control my paranoia."
Even when I met them at the height of their success in 1981, Stein seemed a tormented figure, all too plainly marked by his admitted former experiments with LSD and sojourns in what he cheerfully described as "the nuthouse". Certainly, no other post-punk band featured a guitarist with prematurely greying hair. "Chris used to take the pressure for the whole band," Harry says. "We always felt we weren't being properly managed - and we weren't. And as well as all of that, he felt he had to protect me for 24 hours of each day."
She prefers not to be specific about the reasons for Blondie's break-up. Enough snippets emerge, however, to suggest a classic rock band horror story. Their recording contract called for a near impossible three albums per year. When they turned in work that failed to reproduce previous hits, it was rejected as "rubbish". There were huge problems with income tax, which they thought their management had been paying on their behalf. "We realised we were making fortunes for everyone except ourselves," she says. "And we were explosive people. There couldn't not be an explosion."
Then in the aftermath, Stein was stricken with a mysterious disease called pemphigus that causes water blisters all over the body and can ultimately attack the central nervous system.
"Until a few years ago, it was terminal," Harry says. "If he hadn't been
fairly young when he got it, it could still have killed him." The legend is that she gave up her career to nurse him, sacrificing her looks along with everything else. She shrugs off this Florence Nightingale aura, pointing out that for much of his three-year illness, Stein was under professional medical care. "But sure, I did look after him. What should I have done - thrown him out?"
Marianne Faithfull once told me how ruining her own looks - in her case by doing heroin and becoming a street derelict - was a symbolic way of quitting the pop world as well as ending her relationship with Mick Jagger. For Harry, if less deliberately, it was the same. "I realised I'd never got real attention for my work, but was only ever written about as being beautiful. My mother told me, 'Never rely on your looks', and at a certain point I realised that was the best advice I'd ever been given. I had to stop looking in the mirror. The way for me to get a reaction as a performer was not to wait for a reaction - the 'Oh, isn't she cute' moment. Just get in there and do it."
After a huge solo hit in 1986, French Kissin' in the USA, Harry's career diversified, with not always consistent success. She fronted a new band called Dirty Harry, appeared in movies such as David Cronenberg's Videodrome and John Waters' Hairspray, began a parallel singing career as a "chantootsie" with the Jazz Passengers, and made a much-praised Broadway debut in Crave, by the young British playwright Sarah Kane. There were also periods of being "totally f...ed up", when she resorted to therapy about her childhood and allowed her weight to balloon. "I'm a schizophrenic madwoman - at least I used to be. These days I can see things with a little more clarity, recognise what is and isn't important. But, god-dammit, I should be able to. I'm old."
Her "down" periods were not helped by watching the rise of Madonna using a stage persona sometimes uncannily like one Harry created in Blondie.
"Ah, those bitches!" she sighs, possibly referring to Madonna's multiple personality or to the numerous Harry clones among today's girl bands. "Most of the time, I can handle it pretty well. Some days I do get very pissed off, and think I'd like to tear certain people a new asshole. But I believe I'm recognised as the original; I get the creds for what I did." She says she was always too much of an old hippie at heart to embrace the showbiz milieu the way Madonna did, and so reap the millions that have been that singer's reward. "I think I have the best of both worlds. I have a decent income, and I can still go on maintaining the illusion that I'm an artist."
She lives in downtown New York, alone but for two miniature dogs, dividing her non-public time between songwriting, dog-walking, painting and reading. "I'm just reading Thomas Wolfe's book Look Homeward Angel. It was published in 1929. It's just great. Some of the ideas... Oh, god."
Other than Stein, her associates from the punk era are growing ever fewer, culled by the long-term effects of drugs and excess. One good friend, she reveals, was Nancy Spungen, who died in an apparent suicide pact with Sid Vicious in 1979. Though history has portrayed Spungen as a moronic succubus, Harry remembers her "fine mind" and that she was once, surprisingly, the owner of a health food shop.
"God, I wish I'd kept a diary..." What about her early-1980s autobiography, Making Tracks? "You're kidding. That was so cleaned up."
Is she lonely? "Mmm, I've thought about that sometimes, but actually I'm not. I certainly was back there for a while, in a kind of down period for me when there wasn't much work around. But now I've no reason to feel lonely. I've had wonderful relationships. I have great friends and some intimacies, you know, with certain guys. I don't have a special one person in my life. As Cher says, women our age are not considered hot properties by men - even though I'm completely fabulous. But I'm not ruling it out."
Deborah Harry bends low to my tape recorder and laughs, looking, as she said, completely fabulous. "Send all offers to..."