Daily Mail - Weekend Magazine - 22nd May 2004 - Pages 11-12

Born again
Blondie

Written by: Alan Jackson
Photographs by: Mick Rock & Brian Aris

At 58, DEBBIE HARRY, the high priestess of punk, is still a pop icon. Here, as Blondie embarks on a British tour, she talks to ALAN JACKSON about her regrets on being single and childless, and why she's still devoted to her former boyfriend Chris Stein.

She was punky and absurdly pretty, pop's chosen princess a whole generation before Britney was born. Today, still commanding the spotlight, she retains all her original star appeal, but has acquired a newly imperious, even regal air.

As make-up artists fuss around her, Deborah Harry stands accepting and deflecting the compliments with practised ease. Her smile takes you back to the time when songs such as Heart Of Glass, Call Me and The Tide Is High were inescapable, and posters of her adorned a million walls. But that was nearly 25 years ago.

Until Blondie's recent reformation, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders was the best example of a woman of a certain age fronting a still-viable rock band. At 58, Harry, who is six years her senior, is proving commercially more successful (Maria, 1999's comeback single, was a UK number one). What she sees as our national obsession with dates of birth is clearly testing her patience, however.

'The passage of time, good or not-so-good looks, cosmetic surgery, Botox, blahblahblahblahblah!' she says, rolling her eyes theatrically to signal her boredom with it all. 'Basically, you have two options in this world - live, or die. And if you're going to live life crippled by fears of your own failings, or of your eventual and inevitable death, then tell me what exactly is the point?

'Some people I talk to in Britain, women in particular, won't let up on the topic, to the point where I want to scream, "Get over it! Lighten up! Change the record, won't you?'" Having narrowed her spider-lashed eyes, she suddenly laughs. Yes, she concedes, this wrinkle-monitoring obsession of ours (and she has admitted publicly to one facelift) is the recurring price for having been so universally acclaimed as an era-defining beauty. And yes, she can see that it's a compliment of sorts.

'But while I can understand the motivation, I can't help thinking it makes very gruesome sport. The art of growing old gracefully is not much championed in today's society, and most especially not in the entertainment industry. I find that really sad. But am I going to let it stop me getting on with my life? Very definitely, I am not. In areas other than pop, you continue to be valued for as long as you have inspiration and the ability,' she says. 'Longevity is actually prized, rather than seen as a liability. It's not all about being young and pretty, or the Next Big Thing.'

There is an actressy precision about her, which isn't surprising, for it was to film and theatre that she turned following Blondie's initial demise. Her four subsequent solo albums were critically well received, but sold poorly. 'So I have to accept that commercially, within the recording industry, I have less currency as an individual than I do as the face and voice of this band,' she says. 'But upwards and onwards. I'm enjoying our being together again.'

Is work the only thing in her life these days?

'I have a lot of great friendships at this point, and some people I see regularly, but I don't have another monogamous relationship yet.' Meaning that she would like to? She smiles, conceding, 'I say "yet" because, yes, to have one is a lovely thing, and I do aspire to it in a way. But it's not like I'm crying out, or am in any way desperate.

'I have a complete life. I honestly don't feel the lack of anything. And maybe that makes me too self-sufficient now for it ever to happen to me again. I hope not, but I really don't know.'

Adopted at three months by Richard and Catherine Harry (she was born in Hawaii to a concert pianist mother), Harry has never had children of her own, and admits that this has sometimes been an issue for her. 'Of course, I have all sorts of regrets. Doesn't everyone? And, from time to time, I'm caught off guard by that particular one. But when I was younger, I had no ambition to be a parent. I was just too busy and, anyway, I wasn't sure I'd have made a very good one. Now that I think I could handle it, I'm no longer in a position to be a mother naturally. And I don't really want to go the adoptive route myself and be a single parent. You don't get everything you want in this life, and I consider myself very lucky to have so many other interesting and wonderful things with which to fill my time.'

Sitting alongside her as she speaks is Blondie co-founder and her former partner, Chris Stein. Both creatively and romantically, theirs has been one of the great, golden relationships of rock. She was the girl whose personality and ambition were too big for the suburban New Jersey of her upbringing, and who fled across the river to Manhattan, seeking fame and fortune, pausing only to become a Playboy Bunny along the way. He was the art school graduate and friend of beatnik writer William Burroughs who had all of the street cred and romantic bohemian connections that she craved.

'It's 30 years now since we first met, and we've been closer than close ever since,' Stein says. 'I honestly don't know how to explain our connection. It's so deep that I sometimes think we must have been linked in a former life. And despite all that we've been through, separately and together, it continues to go from strength to strength. It's almost like we're telepathic. We know what each other is thinking, even without asking. It's quicker for me to read Debbie's body language, and she mine, than it is for us to speak.'

Now a slightly shambolic 53-year-old, Stein's path first collided with Harry's in New York in the mid-1970s. They fell in love and together founded Blondie, creating a pop legacy that remains alive to this day on the world's radio airwaves. Three decades on, and they interact with the casual verbal shorthand of a long-married couple - except, of course, that they're not. He, heavy-set and amiable, is now someone else's husband and has recently become a father for the first time. As a result, domestic life has been turned upside down.

'The pregnancy was a tense time for me, as well as for my wife [actress Barbara Sicuranza], because of all the drugs I've done over the years. You can't help but wonder what effect that might have. Blessedly, though, our baby is absolutely fine, and very alert and bright. To have a first child at my age is like a gift from above. Suddenly, you find yourself looking forwards rather than back. It's given me a whole new lease of life. And that we should have a little girl is just the icing on the cake. The world needs all the female energy it can get.'

Money, or the relative lack of it, has long been an issue for the two. Between February 1979 and November 1980, Blondie racked up five UK number-one hits - a success that was repeated worldwide. With better business advice, its members would have ended up multimillionaires. As it was, restrictive contracts signed in naive ignorance meant that most of the money they generated ended up in other people's bank accounts - a fact that, unsurprisingly, rankles to this day. 'One of the great misconceptions about Blondie is that we're fabulously rich - sadly we're not,' is all that Harry will say.

Stein, though, is more trenchant. 'When you see yourself producing these huge sums for other people, it's hard sometimes not to feel bitter,' he admits. 'I just can't cut off my emotions and not be upset.'

The looks that the two exchange between such comments are undeniably fond. Clearly, they remain special to each other, even now, nearly two decades after their affair came to its end. The greatest test of their relationship came in 1983, when Stein was hospitalised with the potentially life-threatening disease pemphigus, which causes severe and painful blistering and skin loss.

Harry responded by dropping out of the public eye to nurse him devotedly. 'She was there for me totally and unswervingly when things were at their very worst,' he says of the long and debilitating period of illness that followed. 'When I was loaded up with steroids, and who knows what other kinds of strange chemicals, my mood swings could be intense. Debbie was constant, though. Other people would have found me impossible to handle, but not her. She was amazing at coping with me, and did so in a way that was above and beyond any possible call of friendship or duty.'

But has this continuing closeness between them ever been a problem for subsequent partners? 'We've been a hard act to follow,' Stein acknowledges. 'It's always been tough for the women I've been involved with after Debbie, but Barbara and I have worked all of that out. My wife's a great woman, really talented and smart, and I enjoy her company immensely. I think we're very good for each other.'

So will Harry be godmother to nine-month-old Akira?

Stein responds with an emphatic 'Yes, of course!', but Harry is shaking her head, saying, 'Oh, I don't think so. I've done the godmother thing so many times now, and the truth is that I really don't think I'm very well-equipped for the role. Sure, I'm nice and fun, and I hope I'd always be an inspiring presence in a child's life, but I'm really quite a forgetful person. My mind isn't always on the job. In this instance, it would be an extra-special honour, naturally, but...' As her voice trails off, Stein's determind look suggests he will not be taking 'no' for an answer.

Akira was born during the Australian leg of Blondie's current world tour, and it was decided that Stein should fly home to be with his wife and child. Then, as Harry and long-time collaborators Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke continued with the concert dates, there came news that her adoptive father had died at home. It was a heavy blow.

'Dad had been pretty sick for a while, which was very hard to watch,' she says quietly. 'I imagine I had the same mixed feelings anyone experiences in such circumstances. You hate to lose someone you love, but it's awful to see them suffer. Although we didn't always have a meeting of minds, we'd achieved a real closeness in recent years. It's going to take me a while to deal with the emotional fallout.'

Stein looks at her with obvious tenderness. 'Both of Debbie's parents have passed away now, and my mother is currently in a pretty bad way,' he notes sadly. 'But then this is the stuff that happens to everyone as they get older. It's the path that all of us are going to have to tread at some time.'

'And I truly believe that what we're doing now is better than anything we've ever done before,' Harry says briskly, as if to save Stein from the sombre mood now threatening to overtake him. 'Look at us, still here! Practice makes perfect, I guess.'

Blondie's UK tour begins on June 3 at the Brighton Centre. For tickets, tel: 0870 735 5000 or visit www.bookingsdirect.com


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