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nytimes.com - 16th October 2007
Still Punk, Still Proud, Still Breaking the Rules
By MELENA RYZIK
About 20 years ago Debbie Harry was a regular on the Chelsea docks. Along with Chris Stein, Ms. Harry — the peroxide-blond frontwoman of Blondie, the pioneering punk-new wave group that she and Mr. Stein founded — would prowl the decrepit waterfront late at night.
“There were just a few old fishermen out there, and signs forbidding you to go out,” she recalled. “We used to always climb out on the piers. Enter at your own risk in New York style, you know. It was romantic.”
Now, of course, that area is home to the sports complexes of Chelsea Piers, jogger paths and gaping tourists. But Ms. Harry still comes by. “It’s great to meditate on the Hudson,” she said recently, looking at it from a bench behind Chelsea Piers just before sunset. “Sometimes at night if you come here and it’s really quiet, it’s just magnificent.”
Does that mean she’s still breaking the rules, sneaking in where’s she’s not supposed to be?
“I guess I am,” she said. “I didn’t notice anymore.”
Well, why would she? For more than 30 years Ms. Harry, 62, has carved a path of rebellious downtown cool, providing a template for countless female rockers who followed. Along with Patti Smith and David Byrne she is one of the few survivors of the 1970s New York punk scene, often eulogized after the closing of its locus, CBGB, last October, and the death of that club’s owner, Hilly Kristal, in August.
And at a time when some of her other remaining contemporaries are retro acts, she is still moving forward. Last week she released “Necessary Evil” (Eleven Seven Music), her first solo album in 14 years. A nationwide tour begins on Nov. 8 at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza.
“I never wanted to be in an oldies band; I just didn’t,” she said. “I was just ready to do something new, and I needed to be creative.”
Mr. Stein said Ms. Harry’s longevity was due in part to her downtown sensibility. “I think she wanted to do an independent, under-the-radar thing,” he said of the new album.
The 17 songs on “Necessary Evil” are mostly ’80s-tinged electro-pop, with a few full-voiced ballads; the title track is a homage to Jimi Hendrix, sung-spoken with a bit of a growl. Ms. Harry wrote the album over a year and a half, on breaks from Blondie’s world tours. She paid to record it herself, in a small studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood she rarely visits otherwise. (Sorry, hipsters.) Though she collaborated with, among others, the production team Super Buddha — Barbara Morrison and Charles Nieland, known for their work with the Scissor Sisters and Rufus Wainwright — a lot of the sound came from her.
“Much more than ever before I really would come in with a melody line or a hook line or a complete song sung out,” Ms. Harry said. That was a change from the Blondie songwriting format, in which she mostly contributed lyrics to Mr. Stein’s music.
So did she enjoy being the boss?
“Yes and no,” she said. “You know, I’ve been in a band for over 30 years. I’m good at bending.”
Though her romantic partnership with Mr. Stein ended long ago, they continue to work together. He produced several tracks on her album, and Ms. Harry said everyone in the band was interested in doing another Blondie record. (The group disbanded in 1982, but reunited in 1997 and has released two albums of new material since.) She is single now, but the “Necessary Evil” album doesn’t reflect that.
“Like most pop songs it’s about relationships, it’s about sex,” she said. “I’m in love with love — sometimes.”
For now she’s devoted to her little dog, Ki-Suki, a Japanese Chin in a leopard-print harness who panted under the bench. In slim black pants and a sleeveless Dresden Dolls T-shirt (she performed with that punk cabaret duo on Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour this summer), accessorized with red bra straps, a gold skull pendant, black wraparound sunglasses and her much-blonded hair, Ms. Harry still looks sexy-punk. Last year she was named a spokesmodel for MAC Cosmetics’ Viva Glam line of lipstick, proceeds from which go to charity.
And legions of downtown girls imitate her Blondie-era style, from the shaggy dyed hair and red lips to the vampy shredded dresses. “Those bitches!” she joked. But she follows her progeny, counting M.I.A., Lily Allen and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs among her current favorites.
“She just never stopped being cool,” said another descendant, Johanna Fateman of the post-riot-grrrl band Le Tigre.
Ms. Harry demurred. “It’s hard for me to think that Blondie was so completely original,” she said. “I don’t really think that I’m an icon. I think an icon is a statue, something that’s frozen, you know. I don’t feel like that.” And she added, “I don’t really love walking down memory lane.”
Though Ms. Harry is no longer climbing around the crumbling piers, she is still finding inspiration in the city, combing the galleries near her Chelsea home (she paints portraits) and going to rock shows (the Gossip, Justin Timberlake). And then there’s the river.
“Did you ever go on the Screamer?” she asked, referring to the thrill-ride harbor boat tour. “The Screamer’s fun. You just have to tell the guy who’s telling the story of New York that you know the story, that you don’t want to hear it. You just want to go fast.”
nytimes.com - 16th October 2007