The Globe and Mail - Weekend Magazine
Saturday October 6th 1979
Pages 4 + 5 + 6 + 7
BAD GIRL MAKES GOOD
BY NORMAN SNIDER
First there was punk, but punk didn't sell. What the recording industry needed was not only something more commercial and easier on the ears but music that looked as good as it sounded. Enter Deborah Harry and Blondie, who are now perched triumphantly on the crest of New Wave.
"GEEZ," THE LADY FROM THE record company said to me. "Don't call Debbie 'Blondie' like that; she just hates it."
We were sitting in the coffee shop of the Hotel Plaza II in Toronto, waiting for the man from the newsmagazine to conclude his interview. There are those who think of endless sex, glamor and money when rock'n'roll springs to mind - I think of hotel coffee shops from coast to coast, all decorated, like this one, in day-glo colors best suited to a nursery. I thought I had made what was only a natural slip, referring to Deborah Harry as Blondie, since she was in fact the blonde lead singer and most visible personality in the band in question, but I let it pass. "OK," I said, "I'll try to remember."
Going into the road manager's hotel room, I saw the man from the newsmagazine. He looked as if he had gone head-to-head for 60 minutes with the entire defensive unit of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"How did it go?" I wanted to know.
"Uh, uh, all right," he stammered. And then he fled.
Inside, the room displayed the unmistakable signs of the touring life: the remains of last night's party, from overflowing ashtrays to empty champagne bottles, discarded clothes, leftovers of room service meals, an unmade bed - unlimited chaos. There was no evidence of Harry or any other member of the band. Bruce Patron, the road manager, was simultaneously fighting off a nosebleed and hassling the photographer from the newsmagazine about how many photos he could take and what kind. Deborah Harry would not have her photo taken separately from the band; nor would she have more than one photo taken that night while she was performing, because she didn't want some local papparazzi building a catalogue of unauthorized shots. Harry had a ferocious reputation when it came to the press; a recent cover story in Rolling Stone had portrayed her as Bitch Queen of the New Wave, a 40-carat press hater.
The photographer explained that his magazine was going to need a selection of photos to choose from. Patron remained adamant.
"Where's the band?" I asked.
"Oh," said Patron, stanching his blood. "They're having a meeting."
PATRON LEFT, THE PHOTOGRAPHER left. The room was empty except for one or two stray visitors, chatting sporadically. There was nothing to do except look out the window and wonder whether you were getting bored with the whole gig. After writing about rock for a while, you found that the entertainers weren't necessarily more thrilling offstage than someone you might have met at a supermarket check-out counter. What's more, if you were in your 30s and still looked to some self-adoring geek in a sequinned jumpsuit for profound revelation, you were in deep trouble.
Could it possibly be that pop music was losing its appeal? No matter how outrageous the content of music, or performance, or offstage behavior, pop had gone from being a world in which, in the early '60s, every detail, no matter how minor, was of fresh interest, to one in which everything was a predictable, stylized ritual of personalities, record albums and tours. As for the musicians themselves, they were so embalmed by the music industry, so trapped by the parameters of limos, room service, fans and roadies, you had the impression that they seldom passed a word with a human individual not in some way connected to the business. You often felt, talking to pop music personalities, that they knew curiously little about the world outside the realm of show business. There was this huge, complacent indifference to everything but the record and the charts, the successful tour, the gossip about other musicians. Record sales had dropped, attendance at concerts was down. Where music once spoke to its audience in a fairly direct and moving way, it spoke now to almost no one's condition, nore presumed to, but contented itself with the self-proclaimed status of entertainment or recreation. As a result, I had come to the glum conclusion that an evening spent listening to rock, with a few exceptions, was rarely likely to be more compelling than one spent in front of the television.
DURING THE LAST COUPLE of decades, pop music had gone from being an intentionally crude expression of disaffected teenagers to a hybrid quasi art form (capable of the odd brilliant moment) to the homogenized, contrived product of superstars bigger than anything Hollywood had produced in the heyday of the studio system. For a while there, in the mid-'70s, things were beginning to look pretty bleak for all the 'intellectual' critics of rock, the Greil Marcuses and the Jonathan Cotts. It was becoming harder and harder to compare the latest rock'n'roll stud of the month to Faulkner or Renoir or indeed to anything remotely artistic.
Then, just when everything was looking hopeless, across the sea from London, from which so many other musical trends had issued, came Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols and all the thrilling violence of punk. The rock writers from Rolling Stone and Village Voice jumped on the first flight to the United Kingdom to get in on the new movement. Unlike the laid-back music coming out of the Los Angeles studios, it was "alienated," and every rock theorist took as his first principle, "If it's alienated it must be Art." There is nothing like your basic, semiliterate, south-of-the-Thames school-leaver when it comes to alienation.
Of course, the theorists, veterans of the counterculture one and all, weren't satisfied with just good boogie music; they had to have angry social significance as well. The Sex Pistols, with "Anarchy in the U.K." and their version of "God Save the Queen," were simply festering with social relevance. Pretty soon there seemed to be a whole new trend taking over. The theorists jammed the magazines with essays on the Pistols, the Clash and such American counterparts as the Ramones, as well as on the socio-politico-cultural import of dog collars and safety pins and the self-mutilation of their fans.
THERE WERE JUST A COUPLE of problems. First of all, punk was a commercial disaster in the United States: the playing was ugly, loud and inept. And then there was this: the punks meant it. Simple fellows, they couldn't understand that violence and anger went over very well in performance and on record just so long as one obeyed the dictates both of society and the music business offstage. Unfortunately, the late Sid Vicious couldn't quite seize the notion that the punk routine was just another showbiz act - the result was the murder of his girlfriend and his own suicide. Nevertheless, the new movement had been announced, and nothing would stop its coming. The record industry recognized a fresh untapped market when it saw one. Punk began to fade as a descriptive label, and New Wave began to take its place. New Wave was more commercially feasible than punk, and if Johnny Rotten hadn't worked out as the avatar, then Elvis Costello could take his place. Costello's songs were more musical than those of the Pistols, his lyrics more intelligent, but he had precisely the same sense of twisted anger, the obligatory rock aura of unjustly denied youth. Sure enough, he made the commercial breakthrough. (Apparently insufficiently to satisfy Costello. One began to wonder about him when the source of his much-publicized social anger was revealed to stem from nothing so deep as his failure to put a top 10 LP on the U.S. charts.)
DEBBIE HARRY WAS A SELF-described ex-groupie, ex-junkie, ex-model, ex-waitress, ex-folk rocker. In 1973, with a former art student, Chris Stein, she formed a group called the Stilettos that in 1975 became Blondie, performing at the New York nightclub home of punk, CBGB's. Their first album, released in 1976, and possibly their best to date, was a throwback to the music of the bad-girl groups of the early '60s, the Crystals and the Ronettes, with an overlay of Warhol-style high camp-whimsical perversity. In songs like "X Offender," the band's first single, Harry impersonated a sex offender who falls in love with an entrapping vice cop; it was hilarious and deliberately provocative and erotic all at once. Although their first record won the band a kind of cult following, it had no large-scale impact and the band was forced to do most of its touring in Britain and Europe, where New Wave had a larger audience. The followup album, Plastic Letters, was less impressive than their debut, immersed as it was in a kind of violent, tabloid reality, awash in kidnapers and hijackers and songs about the Bermuda Triangle. A third LP, Parallel Lines, influenced by the more upbeat approach of such New Wavers as Nick Lowe, became a bestseller, as did a single, "Heart of Glass," which Chris Stein had originally written as a kind of James Brown soul number in the early '70s but which had been re-worked into a disco hit.
At a certain point, it would probably have been much easier for Harry and Stein to have cut the band loose and continued on as a single act starring Harry, directed by Stein - a kind of white Ike and Tina Turner, minus R&B. Instead, Harry had shown a commendable loyalty to her musicians, insisting on deflecting the media spotlight from herself, and onto the band. While it was true that Jimmy Destri co-wrote a great deal of the band's material and that Harrison, Infante and Burke were a pretty hot rhythm section, the mainline media, non-specialists in music, were interested only in the blonde bombshell. Harry's attempts to shift attention to the group were thus futile. Although the resulting resentment in the band was directed at the media rather than at Harry, it was a situation that showed no signs of
disappearing, and one wondered how long Blondie could endure it.
WHEN THE BAND AT LAST WALKED into the hotel room that afternoon, they radiated that glow of unmitigated wellbeing which onrushing good fortune always seems to bestow. Debbie Harry was diminutive and rounded, not plump but broad-boned. She wore a white blouse, denims and sneakers, a pink rose in the lapel of her blouse. After a wary greeting, she hurled herself across the unmade bed and commenced to pout. Shivering at the air conditioning, she pulled a blanket over her shoulders and buried herself in a copy of the lingerie catalogue of Frederick's of Hollywood from the years 1947 to 1973. In her mid-30s Harry projected an appealing mixture of diddy-bop toughness, haute couture elegance and hothouse fragility - a kind of cool sexiness that attracts and keeps firmly at a distance all at once. She seemed to have made a study of the iconography of blondes in American pop culture for the last half century, and as her moods changed one got a hint of Monroe, Harlow, Novak and Mansfield all chasing across her countenance. The comparison that returned most forcibly to mind was Monroe. There was the same demi-mondaine early career, the same exploitative pinup shots, the same reputation for difficulty. Just as Blondie's music recapitulates the pop genres of the early '60s, Debbie Harry's persona retrieved the earlier notion of the starlet, which had vanished from the movies and was present in television in only homogenized, android versions such as Jaclyn Smith and
Suzanne Somers. Deborah Harry was a sex symbol of the 1980s, the deliberately provocative bad girl.
CHRIS STEIN, ON THE OTHER hand, was the most unlikely looking rock'n'roller ever. With his pale skin, owlish glasses, slight stoop and short hair, he looked less like a lead guitar than a studious Jewish intern. If Harry was reminiscent of Monroe, Stein resembled the other half of that most unlikely couple of the 1950s, Arthur Miller.
"Hey," Stein said, settling into the chair beside mine. "What's happening?" I couldn't tell him what was really going on - a kind of updated medieval ordeal that occurred every time the band played a concert or made a record. Instead of ordeal by fire or water to establish guilt, anyone who presumed in the 20th century to live in the public eye was subjected to ordeal by journalism, whereby the seamlessness of the persona was tested in order to establish celebrity. It was a trial undergone by New Wave rock performers as much as by pro athletes and politicians, and Harry and Stein attempted to manipulate the media in the same way as Babbitt in a sharkskin suit running for office. Stein mistrusted the fact that a journalist had 100 percent control over what he wrote, and in the scuffling past Harry had done some pretty raunchy photo work, seminude shots, to promote the band, which perhaps explained their determination to exercise control now that Blondie had achieved artistic respectability. As a writer, you work with a general rule of thumb: the more secure a subject's celebrity, the less he needed you. So on assignment you had to extend the full resources of your personality to penetrate the prefab persona. Sometimes you had to be shy and retiring, other times you had to come on as loud as a circus barker. You had to pitch your temperament to match that of the subject, and there were times when you had no idea what would work and what would cause the subject to clam up and leave you without a story.
OF COURSE, I COULD SAY NONE of this to Stein. Instead, I mumbled something about hanging around for the rest of the day, if it was all right with him. In an elaborate display of democracy, he OKed the notion with Jimmy Destri the keyboardist; Frank Infante, the rhythm guitarist; and Clement Burke, the drummer. While Harry chatted long distance with Norman Seeff, a South African photographer much favored by the rock hierarchy, who was to take the photos for the band's next album, I talked to Stein about his film plans. Deborah Harry had already completed a film, Union City, directed by a painter called Mark Reichert. Stein intended to do a remake of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, starring the rock avantgardist, Robert Fripp.
"What does Godard think of the idea?" I asked him.
"He thinks we're outta our minds," Stein replied.
Shortly afterward, Burke and Infante were awaiting the arrival of the limos that would take the group to Ontario Place for a sound check. The two musicians were standing near the band's tour bus, parked in front of the hotel, when they were accosted by one of those barely ambulatory street crazies. This guy had his toothbrush in his pocket, all his earthly belongings in tow. Clem Burke in his mid-'60s drag-the leather jacket, the mod electric-blue shirt, the neo-Beatle haircut-drew the loony's attention as a bright ball of wool does that of a cat, and the man pounced. He wanted to find out what this puzzling person in front of him was, so he began picking at Burke's jacket with grubby fingers. For one hairy moment, it looked as if he were next going to start on the neo-Beatle hair. However, a veteran New Yorker like Burke could take such minor lunacy in stride. Shrugging the loony off, he ducked into one of the waiting limos.
Down at Ontario Place, 3,000 fans had been waiting in the seats since early afternoon for a concert that was scheduled to start at 8:30. When Burke and bass player Nigel Harrison ambled out onto the circular stage of the Forum, expecting to test their instruments, the place exploded into wild cheers. Startled, they ran offstage, right into Deborah Harry, who had no idea how many people were waiting out front.
"We can't go out there," said Burke. An entire audience was out there, waiting, he explained.
"But you gotta check your equipment," said Harry. She was wearing a black motorcycle jacket with a silver skull in the lapel. "You just can't walk out there tonight."
"Well," said Burke, "you just go out there and give them a little wave and see what happens."
"They're not going to keep on shouting and screaming for a whole sound check."
"Yes they are."
"It would be like having 3,000 people come to your rehearsal," said Jimmy Destri.
"Geez," said Harry, "I don't know why you guys are so shy all of a sudden."
A COMPROMISE SOLUTION WAS reached. Stein and the other musicians could test their guitars without ever going onstage because of the wireless pickups the band used. Jimmy Destri put on one of the roadies' jackets and ventured out to tinker with his keyboards, unrecognized. In the meantime Bruce Patron's nose had started to bleed again. "Jesus," he said, "I'm going to check into a hospital."
"What happened to your nose anyway?" I asked.
Before he could respond, Destri, having returned backstage, volunteered the opinion that Patron had been having carnal relations with the devil and the bloody nose was the result.
After the improvised sound check, Stein and Harry went back to the hotel. Burke and Harrison and Infante weren't ready for anything so tame. Just across the way, at the Canadian National Exhibition, 40,000 screaming, mindless fans were getting off on the likes of such hard-rock bands as Aerosmith, Nazareth and Ted Nugent. Much earlier there had been a possibility of Blondie playing this gig instead of Ontario Place, and the rest of the band was curious to know whether Chris Stein had made the right move, especially since the New Wave Ramones were playing the CNE as well. Once past the mounted police, the stadium security, the massed ambulances (the unquestioned authority of a chauffeur-driven limo is truly amazing), Burke and Harrison checked out the crowd to note the progress of New Wave, but there was nothing. It was a sea of denim, no neo-sleaze, New Wave styles in sight.
"My God," said Burke, "everybody's wearing dungarees!"
Burke spotted a couple he had met the previous night and called them over. After handing out two passes to the Blondie concert for that evening he asked how the Ramones had done.
"Terrible, man," said the kid. "They lasted two numbers and three direct hits." Apparently the Ramones, unlike Blondie, were practitioners of the antimelodic New Wave style and had been hurried from the CNE stage with the aid of missiles hurled by the hard-rock crowd.
ON THE WAY BACK TO the hotel, Frankie Infante, who'd been dying for a burger for hours, directed the chauffeur to pull up to the Burger Shack. Not only did Infante crave a burger more than almost anything else, he craved a greasy burger. So anyone who happened along Church Street that afternoon was treated to the sight of a long, black, sleek limousine crawling up to a grungy burger stand and waiting there while Infante bought a burger and fries.
Later that evening, just before the band left the hotel for the gig itself, I decided that although the rhythm guitarists and bassists and drummers of Blondie were all swell guys, I wasn't necessarily doing a great job of staying with Deborah Harry. Accordingly, just as they left the hotel I hustled onto the jump seat in Harry's limo, uninvited. She was lurking inside, her feet up on the other jump seat, in her orange plastic jumpsuit and silver glitter high heels. I shot her what I intended to be a big, hearty, friendly grin - to encourage small talk and camaraderie. What came out instead was a sickly, twisted grimace that died on the instant from an absolute lack of encouragement. On the way to Ontario Place I rummaged about wildly for some straightforward journalistic question to ask, but Harry's general demeanor did not seem to welcome questions. Every time I came near, her conversation ceased; a general chill filled the air.
Just then a battered Volks pulled alongside the limo as it sped along the downtown streets, and a guy shoved the better part of himself out the window on the passenger side, his straggling, thin hair flapping wildly in the breeze. "Hey, Blondie!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, sticking his tongue out like some lust-maddened werewolf, "Hey, Blondie!" Deborah Harry gave him one quick, disgusted look, turned about three degrees colder, and shut him out with one dainty touch of her finger on the power window.
Ah, what is it about blondes? Not natural blondes, the nursery school teachers, wheat and honey types, but the blatantly dyed babes. Why is it that when a woman goes out and dyes her hair blonde she unavoidably rings a whole carillon of male pavlovian bells? Somehow, the blatantly artificial blonde lives in imagination as the scarlet woman, evocative of good, unwholesome, dirty sex. Deborah Harry had plugged into this particular sexual myth like no other rock performer of recent years, and she was still learning what it was like to live day to day with the fallout.
Backstage, waiting to go on, Harry relaxed for the first time, possibly because she was surrounded by about half a dozen blonde lookalikes in the dressing room. There were the four blonde B. Girls and the two blonde Time Twins, both aspiring all-girl bands. And there was an odd multiplying effect in the mirror-walled dressing room - one had the sensation of being encircled by an army of strapping blondes. It was also some what striking that, in the company of these girls who bore a remarkable resemblance to herself, Harry was the friendliest I had seen her all day. In the old days of Time magazine, it was said they had a casting technique when it came to profiles. If they wanted to interview John O'Hara, they would send along a recent Yale graduate who was trying to make his way in New York City; if it was Ernest Hemingway it would be an avid hunter and fisherman. I now began to see that I was not the ideal person, in casting terms, to write about Debbie Harry. What was needed was a blonde girl who bore New Wave fashions and was just trying to break into the music business.
Just as she ran onstage, Harry had a notion of just how big the crowd was, and a look of absolute terror passed through her. She recovered instantly as she settled in front of the microphone, blew the crowd a kiss and shouted, "You've been waiting so long, what you deserve is Blondie... Live!" And with that Burke kicked the band into a rapid fire, non-stop set of 14 tunes from the three LPs as the stage revolved like a merry-go-round.
There was a certain amount of irony at work here. Punk or New Wave, whatever you want to label it, emerged as a reaction to the slickness and professionalism of mainstream rock. Blondie and the other groups were taking New Wave to larger audiences by playing this deliberately stripped-down style of pop in a well rehearsed, smoothly professional manner. Blondie's music was consciously catchy, and accessible as ice cream. Their somewhat ironic reworkings of early '60s material were taken straight by the younger elements of their audience. (For instance, "Sunday Girl," which had been a no. 1 hit in Britain, was a virtual cop from the Seekers' hit of the mid-'60s, "Georgy Girl.")
Deborah Harry, though, was one of the most expressive performers in pop music. She didn't merely stand up there and sing but acted out each song as well, each phrase matched to a carefully nuanced expression. As the stage revolved and the crowd of 15,000 went crazy, she struck pinup poses, jumped like a cheerleader, blew more kisses and finally rolled rapturously around the stage. When the show was over, the audience lit matches en masse, demanding encore after encore. Afterward, in the dressing room, the band was in soaring high spirits.
"It was a great gig," Stein said, "one of my favorites. Are they still yelling out there?"
"Yeah," cracked Destri. "They're yellin' we want our money back."
"You feel guilty," said Stein, "if you leave 'em when they're still screaming like that, but you have to know when to pull out. Unless you're the Stones or something where you have 10 monster hits everyone knows which you fall back on."
Harry gave a merry laugh as she entered the room. "Aagh," she said. "The world's still spinning."
As the limo edged through the crowd leaving Ontario Place, Stein and Harry talked about the roadies, the next gigs, dressmakers in New York, who they're going to send to the radio station in Buffalo. (One can imagine the pleased reactions when Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison show up instead of Debbie Harry.) Suddenly the car was besieged by scores of kids. I was overwhelmed by the strange sensation of being inside a limo nosing its way through a tunnel of human flesh.
"Hey," said Jimmy Destri, startled. "This is serious."
"Get the window down," Patron ordered the chauffeur as the kids started hammering on the roof.
"Hey, Blondie!" they shouted. "We love you, Blondie! I love the way you move, Blondie!"
"Hey," said Jimmy Destri. "The Beatles! This is fabulous!"
AND HE WAS RIGHT. FOR ONE moment, it ceased to be just another night on the rock'n'roll beat and became something special, one of those rare instants where the myth and the reality of the music coincided. And for that one moment, when it really did feel like 1964 and the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, you were glad you were along, even as an ephemeral passenger. Finally, someone, a fan, got it right: "We love you Debbie! Come back soon!" Then the chauffeur saw an opening and began to pick up speed, and the shouts of the crowd receded behind us.