TRIAD - May 1977 - Pages 5, 6, 7, 8,
9, 10, 64, 73
BLONDIE ON BLONDIE
BY BETH SEGAL
"Hey, look what I bought!" Deborah Harry holds aloft a copy of Doris Day's autobiography as she steps out of the Holiday Inn Drugstore. For a second, you could mistake the scrubbed-clean blonde in the fluffy pink sweater and high ponytail for Lady Day herself, or for a coed debutante 20 years out of touch with time.
So much for the first impressions, because this lady isn't anybody's sorority sweetheart. Two hours later, after the make-up is on and costume changed, Deborah Harry is Our Favorite Femme Fatale, the lead vocalist, the songwriter and The Blonde of Blondie, the band that has more fun.
"I love reading autobiographies, especially of show business people," says Debbie, back to the reading matter at hand. Right now, she's in the middle of A Book by Desi Arnez. "A really great man. All this stuff that's happened to him, and he's kept going. He's got this attitude of positive thinking that I've tried to adopt. Otherwise, the whole thing gets to you. This business is self-destructive, you've really got to keep your head clear." Earlier, she had cited Janis Joplin as an example "... she had to sacrifice herself. Every time she went out on stage, she had to bleed for her audience."
Earlier in her career, you would have guessed that Debbie was a likely candidate to inherit Joplin's place. She was born in Miami and grew up in New Jersey. Her musical debut was with the Hawthorne church choir when she was 8 years old. That career ended four years later, when she dropped out of choir to pursue more secular thrills.
Her next engagement was with a late '60s hippie band, Wind in the Willows. Debbie, then a brunette, played finger cymbals and sang back-up vocals. When the band broke up in 1968, Debbie herself had a breakdown of sorts. She was staying in New York, making money waiting on tables at Max's Kansas City - then the semi-official Andy Warhol club house - and getting by on drugs.
"I was crazy. I was completely out of my mind. I was really fucked up," she once reminisced. "For a long time, I tried to blank blocks of my life out... I like the high, there's nothing better, but I couldn't stand the scene. You have to deal with the extortionists." So she quit it all, drugs, scene and New York and went back to the folks in Hawthorne.
But music became an obsession with her, and after a stint at a health spa in Paramus as an exercise instructor, and some time as a Playboy bunny, "pretty
disgusting work," she went back to New York to try it again.
That was when the tide turned for her. Drugs had gotten her through a rough time and she'd survived. "I was ready to go on as a person without any help, assured of what I was."
1972 was the year of the New York Dolls in the Big Apple. Debbie joined the troop of followers and started hanging around the Mercer Art Center, the Dolls' center of operations. There, she ran into some of the old Warhol crowd and heard about a quasi-girl group called Pure Garbage, featuring Holly Woodlawn and specializing in kitsch-rock, that had just disbanded. A few words in proper directions, and when one of the girls put the group back together, Debbie found herself back onstage.
But the band did less singing than arguing about what kind of stage image they wanted. Their producer wanted class, some of the girls wanted tack and "it was all so ridiculous that I said I wanted to do my own thing again and I left."
When she did, she took the band with her: Chris Stein on lead guitar, Fred Smith on bass and Billy O'Connor on drums. They took the name Blondie when two back-up blondes, Jackie and Julie, joined up, because it seemed to fit. The name proved to be a temporary nemesis when, just before their first gig, Jackie decided to go brunette.
That was the beginning of a spate of bad luck. Ivan Kral, who joined when Jackie and Julie left, transferred to the Patti Smith group. Two more vocalists came and went, Billy went crazy and finally Fred Smith decamped to join Television.
In retrospect, Debbie understands that era a little better. "It was the nonperiod of rock. TV, the Ramones and us were just playing around, but there was no publicity, no attention focused on anyone." It was an empty time for New York rock and everybody drifted around just from boredom.
But as Blondie got its current personnel together with Debbie and Chris joined by Clemment Burke on drums, Gary Valentine on bass and Jimmy Destri on the Farfisa organ, the New York scene began picking up momentum. Patti Smith was the first to call attention to the N.Y. punk rock generation in general, and to the CBGB-Max's Kansas City bands in particular.
As Patti's fame increased, Television, the Ramones and Blondie were picked up by the press as the next wave in punk, following in Patti's footsteps with their free musical approach and studied street-punk manners.
The punk connection is one that Blondie backs away from, fast. "We're not a punk rock band," Chris insists. Punk, he went on to explain, is basically a visual concept with music. Blondie is primarily concerned with doing good songs and letting the show take its own natural course."
Debbie qualified, "There's some punk in us, sure. But there's so much else more."
"We're more of a synthesis of everything that's happened," added Clem.
"We write our own music without any conscious reference to any one specific thing," said Jimmy. "It's whatever we think of that sounds good and is fun to do. And then, one day, listening to an old album, or watching the late show, all of a sudden you realize, yeah, that's where I got it. It all comes from listening to music through the '50s and '60s and then switching over to TV around 1969."
The ultimate result of this media glut is a conglomeration of primal pre-Beatles rock music and post-Ed Sullivan sensibilities, with a strong emphasis on the Shangri-Las and Japanese science-fiction. Everybody writes material, resulting in such disparate offerings as Debbie and Gary's "X-Offender" about a street walker who falls for her arresting officer, Jimmy's paean to Leonard Bernstein and the Crystals, "Shark in Jet's Clothing," and Chris' monster-movie rhumba, "Attack of the Giant Ants."
Somehow, it all comes out sounding pure Blondie, which is a pretty fine way to sound. Their debut album, Blondie, on Private Stock, is as entertaining as any first album I've heard. But to really appreciate them, one has to see them live. When the boys are onstage dishing out their stripped-down-for-action sound and Debbie steps out in her black and white micro-dress, thigh-high black leather boots and shades, and belts into song with her tough-New-York-adenoids voice they're in their element.
Onstage, she's an improbable person out of another time, wearing her mini, or a very-bare leopard-skin or a wedding dress that happens to get ripped up to shreds by the end of the show. But she's always got the same glamorous ethereal pout that makes the little boys cheer without really knowing why.
In a way, she reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in "Bus Stop," except that Debbie sings on-key. There's the same sensual innocence and natural exuberance of being a "chanteuse" - with all those people out there in the audience listening to her.
She's been compared to a lot of people. Someone out there described her as "Candice Bergen playing Annette Funicello in Sam Peckinpah's remake of Beach Blanket Bingo."
But above all, it's more than an act. "It's really me up there," she insists. "I wouldn't do anything onstage that I wouldn't do off. It's funny, I couldn't imagine what it would be like singing onstage. The only way to know was to do it and so we did. And it's really fun. That's pretty much how we're different. Whatever we have fun doing, we keep. It's not a preconceived intellectual sort of thing with us, but what just comes naturally."
In one corner of the rock arena stands Iggy, stark, staring and distraught. In the opposite corner stands nearly everyone else.
Next to the Beatles, Iggy has been rock's most conspicuous absentee, eons from his stance as "the world's forgotten boy." Out of sight but not out of mind, Iggy's choleric cult gathered its threadbare copies of Raw Power (unexcelled as the most savage rock album ever) as fuel to survive the four years Iggy chose to spend in reclusion. The lack of a new Iggy album tied with the disco craze and concert ticket prices as "Bummer of the Year" in successive Creem pop polls.
It was under such conditions that the closet Igthyologists of the Windy City gathered on a rainy Sunday for the first in-the-flesh encounter in years with the most wasted boy alive. Speculation ran amok-one rumor had Iggy touring with an all-black disco band, another saw the one-time sovereign of shake appeal decked out in a ruffled Gingiss with La Bowie.
Either way, the audience wasn't gonna take it. "One false move from Bowie," we heard from the back rows, "and you guys will have to restrain me from assault." By the same token, many came to the show incurious to the Ig, purely because word was out that Bowie would appear.
Still another faction was present: Chicago's New York punks, who came in ratty T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, hopeful that this was the punk-a-rama they'd read about in Lisa Robinson's columns. Not exactly the Woodstock Nation in the pews of the Riviera but the energy level was formidable.
Shouts of "Search & Destroy" seemed helpless against the background tapes of Genesis. But the show began soon enough, kicked off with a Wink Dinkerson-variety jockatron from the station that plays the long versions of all the songs.
Blondie, the CBGB-bred, press-fostered cycle slut of rock's new wave, was first up. Lacking Patti Smith's calculated fervor, Blondie (otherwise known as Deborah Harry) seemed 1977's pastdue answer to the Angels, Ronnettes and Chiffons. (Phil Spector, take note! This girl suffers from wallflower production and could be the one-hit wonder of the decade if properly handled.) Yet while her attack emanates from rock's baser sensibilities, Deborah Harry's visage has no character development, because she has no character. "I Never Said No," she sings. Good, let's hear about the times she said yes. But let's get something from her besides a pair of pouty lips and enough mascara to print New York Rocker.
If Debbie is nowhere as flagrant a performer as Patti, she has something Patti does not: hit potential. With Patti ensconced in her arty resignation to rock'n'roll, Debbie makes no such pretense. Call her the long-awaited pop princess in a way Patti can never be, for she sharply contrasts Patti's angular construction and harsh outlook. And her band, four neo-mods dressed in black suits and the dreaded narrow ties, is the down-the-line vision of the '70s pop band. Granted, the Greg Shaw esthetic pf pop consciousness embraces a dozen faceless Spector groups, half the British Invasion and the stateside punk-bluesers. But Blondie could join the ranks. Primal and gutteral, she combines the seamier side of urban America with time-honored pop nuance, the effect being something not unlike "Leader of Pack" seen through 1977 eyes.
The band looked like a CBGB nightmare confirmed, particularly bassist Gary
Valentine, whose movements reminded one of Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen confined to a hopscotch grid.
But the audience knew whom they were there to see. Shouts of "Iggy is it" and "Death to disco" greeted the entrance. And we wondered, did Iggy want to be our dog (as we hoped) or The Idiot (not quite the followup to Raw Power we envisioned)? But when Iggy entered the stage, there was little doubt that four long years after his masterpiece, and even in the light of the disaster of his latest lp, the Ig is the Ig is the Ig. He proved it by kicking things off with "Raw Power." Bowie, dressed in a pedestrian workshirt and corduroys, sat stoically at the keyboards, calling no attention to himself whatsoever. Though the Stooges of yore have scattered to the four winds, the trio of Carlos Alomar and Hunt & Tony Sales proved adequate (if faceless) replacement for James Williamson and the Asheton brothers.
Ah, but over four years, Iggy has made the transformation from Stooge to Idiot. As a Stooge in '69, Iggy came to represent rock'n'roll animal assault, by default; he seemed the only one willing to play the role, and heaven knows it wasn't because of Elektra's vast publicity blitz. He lived his part and ultimately died it, spanning from the punk vision of the Shadows of Knight to that of Patti Smith, all at a time when the masses had turned to James Taylor for a breath of (neurotic) normalcy. At Iggy's most normal, he too is as neurotic as they come, but the equation of Iggy with normalcy is defeating. Had the show not taken place on a Sunday after a hopping weekend, the crowd might have torn the Riviera to shreds. Iggy does that to his audience.
Raw Power, which we hoped wasn't gone for good, was amply represented. He panted through "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell" and "I Need Somebody," but the standouts were "Gimme Danger" and "Search & Destroy." "Search" is the anthem of nouveau punkdom with its swagger-throated "I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/The runaway child of the nuclear A-bomb," and it was executed marvelously. One was moved to believe in him (whereas the MC5 could only evoke smirks when they cried "Kick out the jams!" in their fiasco 1975 reunion). In "Danger," Iggy came hauntingly close to comparison with Jim Morrison in a slow, seductive Cale-esque number that built to a frenetic release.
"1969" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" took the old-timers by surprise, the latter seeing Iggy on all fours, scarfing up the audience's approval like some forlorn canine lapping to please. Two tunes from The Idiot proved easier to fathom onstage than on record: "Funtime" and "Calling Sister Midnight." These, like the other tunes on the lp, are Iggy at his peak of languor, with alarming similarity to recent Lou Reed.
Iggy did two encores, encompassing three more Idiot tunes. After the final throe, Jam Productions miraculously cleared the house in seconds with "Carry On Wayward Son." Gotta hand it to them: they're not only pros but also psychologists.
We were afraid we'd lost Iggy, afraid because for the last four years, no one person personified rock's wild side quite like him. Shown his way outside Detroit city limits, the Ig has lost a few of his rough edges. But whenever he hands us the leash, we'll be happy to strap it to him.
"Does she or doesn't she?" Debby Harry does, and flaunts it. With good reason. Because if it wasn't for the bleached-blonde blonde, there wouldn't be a Blondie. And if there wasn't a Blondie, we would have been deprived of one of the most entertaining progressive pop-rock albums of the year.
Although Blondie grew up on the CBGB-Max's Kansas City circuit with Television, the Ramones and Patti Smith, they're not just another New York punk band.
There's some punk to them, but there's also some Shangri-Las, some Velvet Underground, some Jan and Dean, some Ronettes, some salsa, you name it. Blondie has their roots in almost every '60s rock'n'roll source, but somehow it all comes out sounding uniquely Blondie.
Take the single, "X-Offender" (shortened from Sex-Offender, though whom they'd offend with the S-E in this day and age is beyond me). It's the Ronettes meet the Cockettes, when a sister of the streets falls in love with her arresting officer in three-part harmony. Or the flip-side "In The Sun" in which the Ventures go to New York.
Anyway, you get the idea. Blondie has a '60s sound with a '70s soul. It's a mixture that goes down real well in a market that has produced so many hard-to-digest albums in the past few months.
Alot of it has to do with its musicians, who have been kicking around the New York musical zoo for years. Some of it has to do with Debbie Harry herself, who not only writes a mean song and kicks out some tough vocals, but also has a face that hooks you with one look. She's got more built-in glamor than Betty Weiss (of the immortal Shangri-Las) and a better blonde than Nice. Her picture on the cover is worth the price of the album alone.
Try putting on the Blondie album at your next party. It's a lot more fun than a lampshade.