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Independent.ie - 13th July 2008

Debbie's not the kind of girl who gives up just like that, even at 63
She may be getting on in age, but punk goddess Debbie Harry still gives Barry Egan the serious CBGBs

By Barry Egan

Sunday July 13 2008

F Scott Fitzgerald introduces a character in The Great Gatsby as having an "immediately perceptible vitality about her, as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering". That description goes double for Debbie Harry. I met her in Amsterdam last summer for lunch. She was feisty and full of cheek -- still beautiful after all these years. 

You could see why her late friend, artist Andy Warhol, saw her as such an icon of pop art (she appeared on the cover of a seminal Andy Warhol book, Portraits). Mighty Aphrodite in knee-high boots, she personified the Seventies as much as Saturday Night Fever or Studio 54 did. Lest we forget, that decade belonged to Debbie Harry just as the Eighties did to Madonna and the Nineties to Britney.

I asked her did she see Madonna and some of the other blonde, streamlined sextresses that followed her in the late Eighties as having copied and plagiarised her.

"Yeah, but there are two different ways to look at that, obviously: homage or rip-off? There were a few incidences of direct, you know, lifts, and others are just flattering references," she laughed, adding that her group Blondie "started out with a uniqueness, but as soon as it became commercial then it was a routine in a way. We couldn't really escape it. The demand for the repetition of that same product was ungodly in a way. But I think that's the problem with art and commerce really."

Looking back on the past, the then 62-year old told me that "Debbie Harry was sort of a composite. Blondie was a characterisation. Now I'm better at what I do. I have a more organised vision of it. There isn't a label for the vision. I just try to communicate emotion and tell stories in music."

Defiantly flamboyant and somewhat above the careerism of both rock bands and manufactured pop stars, Debbie Harry was the punk Monroe, the alt.princess of new wave. She came with her own unique sense of style: the plaid shirt and too-tight jeans she wore on the back cover of Blondie in 1976 or that white dress and heels she vaunted on Parallel Lines.

The dewy-eyed sex kitten may have been purring contentedly, but her claws were razor sharp. She made her mark with those claws too. Like Madonna, she was clued in and street-smart clever. In Cathy Che's biography of Harry, Platinum Blonde, designer Michael Schmidt said: "Debbie is so smart she borders on genius level." 

Forming Blondie in New York City in August of 1974, Debbie took a bite out of the imagination of the Big Apple. And then the world. It wasn't long before classics like Call Me, Denis, Heart of Glass, Hanging On the Telephone and The Tide Is High were part of the culture. It wasn't long before Debbie Harry was straddling the world with those legs.

With her knowing sexualised image and general maverick twist on feminine imagery -- she appeared in Penthouse without revealing much -- dirty Harry acted more like a disaffected Fifties movie star than a rock star. 

The sense of disaffection, or disconnection, possibly came from her early childhood. (Stop me before I turn into Dr Freud.) Adopted as a three-month-old baby by Catherine and Richard Harry (she never met her biological mother), she once said Marilyn Monroe was her natural mother, adding that Marilyn Monroe as a mother was a fantasy a lot of adopted girls shared. "And not knowing where I came from is a great stimulant to the imagination and it has always meant I don't take anything for granted," she told me that afternoon in Holland.

Born Deborah Ann Harry on July 1, 1945, in Miami, Florida, she was raised Protestant -- "Roman Catholic without the Pope", she laughed. "My mother wanted me to marry and have two children and be a grandmother." Her mother must have been horrified when her daughter became this punk temptress in ripped tights singing about fellatio and existentialism.

"Completely horrified, yes," Debbie laughed. "Worried. I don't think she could really understand it at all. She cautioned me a lot. She was concerned. She grew up in a wealthy family before the big crash of 1929. They lost everything. My grandfather had a bank. He kept putting his own money in the bank to keep it open and he also had a seat in the stock exchange. It was on my mother's side. All his friends jumped out of windows and killed themselves." 

In the early Seventies, she almost had a brush with death herself, on the Lower East Side, when one of the most infamous serial killers in US history stopped by the kerb late one summer's evening and offered her a lift. "I got into his car late at night," she remembered. "I was trying to get across town and I had on these wicked platform shoes. He kept circling and coming back and saying : 'I'll give you a ride! I'll give you a ride!'"

Once inside, she shot a quick glance at the door to roll the windows down. There were no door handles. Hello.

"I knew there was something, terribly, terribly, terribly wrong," she recalled.

How did you sense that? I asked her.

"He smelled really bad," she said. "The hackles on the back of my neck just went. I was completely alarmed." 

She squeezed her skinny arm out of the little space in the door and got out by opening the door from the outside. He sped out into the night, looking for some other poor woman to kill. 

Ted Bundy was executed on 24 January, 1989, at 7am in the electric chair at Starke state prison, Florida. 

Blondie play Galway Arts Festival on July 24, and Dublin's Vicar's Street on July 25 at 9pm. Tickets for the Parallel Lines 30th Anniversary tour are priced 49.20, on sale now through Ticketmaster and other usual outlets nationwide. Booking Line: 0818 719 390. www.aikenpromotions.com

- Barry Egan

Link: Independent.ie - 13th July 2008

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