voyager - November 2005
IN THIS ISSUE
16 COVER STAR:
Blondie's bleached bombshell was the sex symbol of the punk generation. In our exclusive interview, she talks about style, single life - and turning sixty.
Pages 16, 17, 18
THE BLONDE WHO HAD MORE FUN
words bill dunn
photography daniela frederici/corbis outline
AS BLONDIE'S FOXY LEAD SINGER, SHE WAS A PIN-UP FOR THE PUNK GENERATION. STILL TOURING AT 60, DEBBIE HARRY TALKS ABOUT SURVIVING HER 70S HEYDAY, HANGING WITH IGGY POP, AND BEING SINGLE IN NEW YORK.
"Hu-hu-hurgh!" Picture this: it's 9:30 in the morning and Debbie Harry is chuckling in her New York apartment, in the block on which Hitchcock based his film Rear Window. I'm telling her how, at the age of 11, I sent off £1.99 for a poster of her from the back on the NME which turned out to be enormous and very revealing, and completely shocked my parents. Then there was the time my mum came into my room while I was miming to the bassline from 'Kidnapper' with headphones on, playing a hockey stick.
"Hu-hu-hurgh!" she breaks into a gentle cough. She admits to enjoying a cigarette and a glass of wine still, although "smoking doesn't really thrill me any more." Whatever, Debbie Harry has the sexiest laugh - a dirty chuckle that evokes gritty, smoky nights at the infamous New York live music club CBGBs. It was here that she reigned in the mid-70s as the original, pre-Madonna primadonna; a bleach-blonde punk diva with her band Blondie, rubbing shoulders with East Coast punk legends like The Ramones and Johnny Thunders, all of them looking sharp in thrown-together squat chic. Today's New York punk pretenders - bands like The Strokes and The Bravery - would sell their souls for just a fraction of her cool.
Now, aged 60, she's one of the scene's survivors. "Yeah, most of the people I grew up with are dead now," she says in her quiet, thoughtful New Jersey accent. "There was a relatively high attrition rate." But Debbie herself is not just alive, but positively kicking. Blondie have a new album out, Live By Request, and Debbie is ready for a 24-date British tour with the boys - well, middle-aged men - from the band. 24 gigs at 60! What were you thinking of, Debbie?
"Well, that's the usual isn't it?" she says, deadpan. "British fans are rotten to the core! No, seriously, we've always been embraced by the Brits - they've been fantastic. And now we've got a good team, good management. It's a lot easier... a lot less stressful."
Unlike today's malleable teenage pop stars, Debbie was thirtysomething when she had her first success, so she was better able to cope with fame. And she needed a level head: Blondie's first major tour was supporting wildman Iggy Pop, with David Bowie in his most decadent phase - on keyboards. Hardly the kindly uncles you'd leave your daughter with.
"Iggy was sweet madness," she says. "We just stood in the wings with our mouths open watching these legends. They took everything in their stride, as experienced people do. They were social animals: they wouldn't just disappear into their hotel rooms. And unlike smaller bands, there was no competitiveness - they really wanted to help us do a good show so that the energy of the crowd would be there for when they came on."
Blondie were primarily a live rock band, but from their raw punkish roots emerged a canny pop sensibility which meant that, in the three years from 1978, Blondie had five UK number one singles. By 1981 she was even on The Muppet Show, knocking out a version of 'Call Me' and dressed as a Girl Guide. Does she think she'd have been able to handle the rollercoaster of fame in her teens or 20s? "I really do wonder about that! I guess I was just lucky. It was a reckless time: people were discovering drugs, and then there was AIDS, but somehow I managed to wriggle through it all. I guess it helped having Chris - on the road we weren't as lonely and freaked as some of the other members of the band were."
Chris Stein was Debbie's partner both musically and spiritually. They formed Blondie in 1974: "My collaboration with Chris Stein worked out wonderfully well - neither of us would have been able to do anything without the other. We were just too... abstracted to be on our own. It wasn't at all claustrophobic, because everything was happening so fast. Unlike a lot of partnerships, it wasn't at all competitive. Whenever I was falling apart, he was standing up, taking care of business, and vice versa."
Disaster struck in the early 80s, when Chris developed a rare disease, Pemphigus vulgaris, where the proteins that bind your skin break down. Blondie fell apart, and Debbie nursed him. "It was a very scary period all around," remembers Debbie. Chris recovered, but by 1986 the couple had split up. Chris married and had kids, Debbie never really found that special someone again.
"I am single!" she says now, stridently, but with a certain amount of humour. "I'm disgusted with dating! I mean, I like going to parties and meeting people, but I hate singles bars. Anyway, what am I gonna do? I'm too well known."
It must be odd, being 60 and single and famous for being sexy. I ask her how old she actually feels right now. "It's interesting," she says, "everyone I know says the same thing - they all feel like they're 18. I guess it's a blessing we have: our brains stay the same, although there's a realisation that the body is not as limitless as it once was. But I don't walk around feeling I have to act a certain way... like a 60-year-old."
So what about the young people today? If today's pensioners were punks, then how can the young rebel? "There's still a certain amount of rebellion. That attitude of: 'I'm going to support my generation and pooh-pooh the rest." But maybe the fact they don't rebel is nice - all that world consciousness, and the internet."
Debbie was a punk even before punk existed. Born in 1945, and adopted, she must have been a handfull. She was dyeing her hair as a teenager in the 60s, which was pretty radical when you consider that most kids were happy with a pair of flares and a centre parting up until about 1976. "Reactions to how I looked varied. Some people were horrified, and some people were smitten. I was always experimenting; always costuming, creating characters. Most of the things I came up with were out of expedience - I was limited by what I could get my hands on. It wasn't a time when stylists were a dime a dozen; it was more hit and miss." So, I ask, were you familiar with the phrase, 'You're not going out like that!'? "Absolutely!" she chuckles. "Even before that, it was, like, 'You're not going to school like that!'" She chuckles and adds... "Uhh, I was really into colour."
So if you could go back in time, Debbie, and give your 20-year-old dyed head a bit of advice, what would it be? "I see people today and they're very focused. They know from the get-go what they want to do. And I marvel at it. In my late teens, early 20s, if I'd made a decision like that, I think I'd have benefited. But I've no regrets. I've got a broad overview, and that helps with my writing."
Debbie still keeps up: "I listen to the radio. I try to keep informed about stuff that's current. And then up-and-coming bands give me CDs." Do you ever listen to the radio and think, 'That sounds like Blondie!' "Yes I do!" she says, "but then, that's the nature of pop music. It tends to feed off itself."
So when you're not touring, what do you do? "I take care of the business end of Blondie. I go to galleries, and shows, live music."
It sounds sad, somehow. I come away feeling that I want to hug the woman that once adorned my bedroom wall and take her out for a glass of wine and a ciggy. Maybe check out an exhibition... have a Perfect Day in New York.
But I expect Blondie rock on tour.
Blondie's latest album, Live By Request, is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Their UK tour starts on 15 November. Check out the schedule at www.blondie.net