Time Out - October 1st-8th 2003

NEW YORK SPECIAL

Written By: Elisabeth Vincentelli

Photography: Ophelia Wynne

'PEOPLE COME HERE TO BE ARTISTS'

DEBORAH HARRY

Singer, film star and drag-fest devotee Deborah Harry has come a long way from Blondie's Bowery roots. The enduring pop icon talks to Time Out about treading the boards, the group's new album, that city-wide smoking ban and why NYC was more fun when it was more dangerous.

Deborah Harry is posing on a wind-swept roof in Manhattan's meatpacking neighbourhood. Her hair is rock-star platinum and her legendary cheekbones are still so sharp that simply looking at them might well leave a bruise. She's enduring a photo shoot with the cool patience of someone for whom fame is both a calling and a job - and in this she's not unlike New York itself.

On the surface, it seems fitting that Harry, who emerged out of the '70s punk scene to become a pop star, would be overlooking one of New York's grimiest-turned-hippest neighbourhoods. For years, the Meatpacking District's days reeked with the smell of bloodied carcasses, and it's nights sheltered hustlers and drag queens. Now, models in Jimmy Choomules trip on cobblestoned streets en route to the Stella McCartney shop. But Harry, 58, is an odd New York celebrity, one who shuns nouveau trends and prefers the old Meatpacking District, the one with dodgy storefronts and louche discos. For her, New York has paid the price of fame. 'I moved here when I was about 19,' she says. 'It was much trashier then, there were muggings on the streets. The city had the reputation for many, many years of being too dangerous. It was a lot more fun' [laughs]. Indeed, Blondie's beginnings in the '70s were made possible by the city's economic disarray and the low rents that went with it. The singer remembers living in a huge loft on the Bowery 'for $100 a month. It had no heat, so it was very tough, but the liquor store was right downstairs, so that was a plus. But it's difficult to carry on the idea of New York and inner-city arts now, when the rents are sky-high. Gentrification has taken over, which is kind of disgusting.'

You can;t accuse Harry herself of indulging in the trappings of gentrification. She has been living a low-key life in Chelsea for a couple of decades and is more likely to show up at an outre' club party than behind the wheel of a Hummer. Between Blondie's break-up in 1982 and their reunion in 1999, she remained a presence in the downtown arts and performance scene. She appeared with avant-combo The Jazz Passengers and was a perennial participant in Wigstock, an annual drag fest in which she gleefully sent up her own persona. 'One year the Dueling Bankheads [a local drag act] did an insulting version of "Heart of Glass",' she says, 'so I ran on stage and we started fighting like wrestlers and rolling on the ground, and I tore their wigs off. People actually fell for it, which is really funny.'

Harry's presence on the outer fringes of the New York nightlife is so common that nobody really bats a mascara'd eyelash when she shows up at the latest decadent boite. Rob Roth, the organiser of the Click + Drag cyber-fetish soirees, explains that Harry 'loved coming because we had this intensely strict dress code and she loved dressing up for each theme, as well as watching the amazing outfits people put together. She's a real voyeur, like myself.' Roth and Harry hit it off so grandly that he's one of the back-up dancers in her goofy side act Debbie and the Fishsticks. He also art-directed Blondie's last two albums, 1999's 'No Exit' and the new 'The Curse of Blondie'. One of the images he came up with for the new CD is a stiletto heel crushing glass - as good a metaphor as any for Blondie's stylish take on sex and pop culture.

The band were among the most successful to come out of the CBGB-centred punk scene. They were among the first to fuse rock, pop and disco on tracks such as 1979's 'Heart of Glass'. Then they hand-delivered rap to the American masses with 'Rapture' back in 1981. At the time this was heresy to many doctrinal critics and even fellow musicians. According to Harry, 'a lot of rock people weren't thrilled about what we were doing and said we were selling out. But we've always tried to do interpretations or reinterpretations or regroupings of stuff.' In that respect, 'The Curse of Blondie' fits neatly in the band's canon. Recorded mostly over a six-month period in 2001, it's a wildly diverse offering that nevertheless flows smoothly from hip hop ('Shakedown') to muscular pop torpedo ('Last One in the World'). from the dancefloor anthem (the first single 'Good Boys') to smoky jazz number ('Desire Brings Me Back'). 'We've always aimed at making diverse albums,' Harry says, 'but I think that with this one we really achieved it, and in quite a strong way.'

Over the past five years or so Harry has experienced a creative rebirth, showcasing a range that should surprise only those who missed her multifaceted performance in David Cronenberg's 'Videodrome' 20 years ago. More recently, she's turned small parts into memorable characters in films as varied as Peter Greenaway's 'The Tulse Luper Suitcases', Jonas Akerlund's 'Spun' and Isabel Coixet's 'My Life Without Me', in which she plays Sarah Polley's harried mother. Harry is also gung-ho about resuming a theatre career that almost died in 1983, when her Broadway debut, 'Teaneck Tanzi' (in which she co-starred with comedian Andy Kaufman), closed on opening night. She did better in 1999 when she appeared in the New York premiere of Sarah Kane's harrowing 'Crave', an experience she deems 'one of the happiest moments of my life'. She's adamant about not only auditioning but doing it well. 'I really suck at auditions,' she says with a dry laugh, 'though I'm starting to get it more. I'm approaching it more as just a work ethic instead of a situation in which I'm being judged.'

Right now, though, auditions will have to wait. Promoting 'The Curse of Blondie' is taking precedence over everything else, including fun and games - a situation that leaves Harry a bit frustrated when faced with the cornucopia of things to do in her home town: 'There's so much going on here that it can make you feel breathless. How can you possibly keep up with it? You have to be unemployed or so filthy fucking rich that you don't have to do anything except go out.'

The unemployed and the filthy fucking rich now share space on Harry's old Bowery stomping ground. CBGB is still there, as is the neighbouring old homeless shelter, but there's a hip bar across the street and a boutique hotel is being built. Harry's glare is impenetrable behind her Ray-Bans, but there's no mistaking the twitch of her mouth as she spots the NO SMOKING sign taped to the door of the club. 'Why do they have to ban smoking entirely in the city? They should just have smoking sections so you can go and have a glass of champagne and a cigarette.' Standing there, Harry is poised on the faultline between then and now, the embodiment of a city's knack for endurance and reinvention. 'People come here to be artists and I've always aspired to that,' she says. 'That's what makes Blondie so enduring: it's not just a commercial enterprise, there's a sensibility to it. Amd if you can tap into it, you can tap into something great.'

Blondie's new album 'The Curse of Blondie' is out on Oct 6. 'My Life Without Me' is released on Nov 7. 'Spun' is released on Nov 21. 'The Tulse Luper Suitcases' is due to be released in 2004.

ALBUM REVIEW

BLONDIE

'The Curse Of Blondie' Epic

Written By: Paul Burston

Pop's original ambitious blonde is back. It's 20 years since Blondie first imploded. Overshadowed by Madonna during the '80s, Debbie Harry floundered for a few years before changing her name to Deborah, expanding her repertoire as featured vocalist with The Jazz Passengers and finally storming up the charts with the reformed Blondie and 'Maria'. At 58, Harry still looks every bit the pop goddess. And on the evidence of this, Blondie's eighth studio album, her vocal chords have never been in better shape.

Proving that 'Maria' wasn't simply a fluke, 'The Curse Of Blondie' sounds like the sort of album Blondie used to make in their heyday, before the pressure got to them and they lost their way with 'The Island Of Lost Souls'. Opening track 'Shakedown' even sounds like an out-take from 'Autoamerican' - all grinding guitars and snarling rap vocals - before Harry's silky tones seduce you with current single. the gorgeous 'Good Boys'. 'Undone' proves that anything Girls Aloud can do, Blondie can do better, while the downtown artiness and readiness to experiment that produced classics such as 'Rapture' pops up again on tracks like 'Magic (Asadoya Yunta)' and 'The Tingler'.

It isn't all thrills and chills. Joking aside, the curse of Blondie is that, sometimes, they don't know when to stop. Of the 14 tracks contained here, a handful soon outstay their welcome. Still, there's enough of the old magic to keep the fans happy, at least until the next Blondie reunion.


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