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Scotsman.com - 16th July 2007
Feeling right at home
DEBBIE Harry's roots are showing. No, not the infamous dark ones from her decades as the sexiest, most sardonic bottle-blonde in rock music, but her Scottish roots. For as Harry struts on to the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle, possessing the stage as if she owns it, few realise she has every right to feel at home in Scotland.
Before she performs with Blondie, the "Noo Joisey" girl who used peroxide as a powerful chemical weapon of mass attraction and whose geographic roots will always be in lower Manhattan, reveals for the first time that the names on her birth certificate are Scottish.
"The two names I've discovered are Trimble and MacKenzie," she says, languidly stretching like a curvaceous cat, albeit one attired in a silver hoodie and graffiti-embellished moccasins, on the window seat in her dressing-room in the castle.
"I haven't done any research into these names yet, although I may do in the future. Yeah, I will, because I've always been made so welcome here, from those amazing gigs Blondie did at the Apollo in Glasgow in the late Seventies, to Edinburgh's Hogmanay a few years ago. So, I guess I must have tartan blood; I hope that it's not just some fantasy of mine. Ha! Ha!" she laughs merrily.
In fact, despite the ice-cream-cool demeanour and the breathy siren voice that sounds like velvet would if it could purr, Harry laughs a lot.
Born on 1 July, 1945, in Miami, Florida, she was adopted at the age of three months by gift shop proprietors Catherine and Richard Harry. She grew up in suburbia, outside Patterson, New Jersey. It was a happy childhood, although she harboured fantasies that Marilyn Monroe was her mother.
For years, especially after she found global fame as the incandescently beautiful platinum-blonde singer for a pop-art rock band, Harry refused to talk about her biological parents, claiming she didn't want to find out who they were out of respect for her adoptive parents, both of whom are now dead.
In the early Nineties, though, she discovered that her father had died from heart problems at the age of 74. Her mother refused to meet her.
Harry was told her father was already married, with seven or eight children, when her young, unmarried mother fell pregnant.
"That's what I heard, but I don't believe any of it - it's those Scottish names that interest me," says Harry, deftly changing the subject. "I never ever do interviews just before a gig. This is my first for years. I don't like stirring up ancient memories because all this stuff could come flooding back when I'm on stage and ruin my performance." (Judging from her sensational set a couple of hours later, the interview had no adverse side-effects.)
I'd been warned that Debbie Harry - or should that be Deborah? "Whatever you feel comfortable with," she responds indolently - can be hard work to interview. And she is. It's not that she plays the diva, or is inarticulate. Far from it. Or that, like so many other vintage rock stars, the sex and drugs have taken their toll. Nonetheless, she confesses she did industrial quantities of hard drugs and had a "helluva" lot of sex. This is, after all, a woman who was hit on by everyone, from Iggy Pop to David Bowie - to no avail.
She's patently bright and intelligent, bored to tears with talking about herself and her life, sometimes drifting off dreamily mid-conversation.
However, when we discuss a mutual friend's new movie or global politics, she comes alive - her hooded, luminous blue eyes blaze above the Dietrich-esque cheekbones that you could, almost, still cut yourself on.
Toasting her cold hands on a cup of hot tea, she insists on making me one too, because I've been standing in driving rain watching her and the band do a half-hour sound check in the course of which she sang, with heavy irony, We're Having A Heatwave, but none of her new songs from Necessary Evil, her first solo album since 1993's Debravation, which comes out in September.
She's worked on it with a range of musical partners, from Jazz Passengers' Roy Nathanson and Bill Ware, to her longtime collaborator and erstwhile lover and soulmate, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, with whom she remains best friends. He's married now and the father of two daughters, aged four and two; Harry is their godmother. "I'll always love Chris," she says softly. "I love him very, very much - sick jokes and all. He has great talent, great humour."
I've heard a five-track sampler of Necessary Evil - terrific songs about "glamour, damage, seduction, p***-elegance and flirty little teasers". She yells: "You're a brave woman," adding that it's really "the same old angst".
New album aside, Harry and Blondie, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 in recognition of their 40 million album sales, are ubiquitous. Andy Warhol's legendary silkscreen portrait of her - she was his "favourite" pop star and they met when she waited tables at Max's Kansas City, where he and his Superstars hung out - is in next month's Scottish National Galleries exhibition. There's a one-woman show about Harry on the Fringe, Dye Young/Stay Pretty. "News to me," she sighs wearily. "No-one asked my permission, but then they never do."
Coming soon is the West End show Desperately Seeking Susan, which is being billed as Blondie, the musical. "It's not! It's the Madonna movie, word for word. Quite dark for a trippy-trippy-happy musical, although I'm not into musical theatre myself," Harry confides. It features all of Blondie's golden oldies. Meanwhile, Harry is in Elegy, an erotic film based on a Philip Roth novel, starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley.
Her role is "tiny" - indicated by a millimetre between her finger and thumb. "My scene's very, very tragic. I was thrilled to be asked, though, because I love acting," she says. Her off-Broadway role in the late Sarah Kane's play Crave ("You saw me in that! Thank you!") a couple of years ago remains one of the high spots of her career.
And what a career: serial rip-offs, spiralling drug excesses, hits and writs, personal feuds, potentially fatal illness and beautiful, brash, classic rock music.
Blondie had 13 hits between 1978 and 1982. They split when Stein fell ill with a rare skin disease. Harry nursed him back to health, while having a nervous breakdown herself. They parted and she came off hard drugs painfully slowly. "They're very destructive, very distracting, drugs," she says. "Addiction interferes with your life." She's been clean ever since.
After a 15-year gap Blondie reformed. Appropriately, Harry and Stein were one of the last acts to play amid the notorious squalor of the downtown club CBGBs before it closed last October. Blondie was born there. Harry mourns its passing. "Did you ever get to CBs?" she asks.
"Wasn't it scuzzy! So much fun!"
When I ask about her private life, she says it's off limits, then grins.
"What private life? Yeah, I have intimacies. I'm dating a couple of guys at present, although I hate dates." She lives alone in Manhattan, doting on her pets - her beloved 14-year-old pug, Chi-Chi, died a couple of weeks ago, while Harry was on the road. "I was devastated," she whispers.
What of the future? "I just wanna have more fun," she murmurs, arching her back and closing her eyes. "I don't take myself seriously. I like a quality of satire and parody." The dark roots, by the way, have faded to grey, although none of her potent glamour has faded. Harry chopped off her "Medusa's locks" of bleached blonde hair a couple of years ago.
"However, I woke up yesterday and thought, 'I'm gonna grow it again'," she says, running her fingers through her mop of frosty silver spikes.
I wish her a belated happy birthday for 1 July and ask whether a woman of 62 can still be a bad girl, because clearly she's hanging on to her babehood, thanks to a facelift and despite an ill-advised flirtation with Botox some years ago, of which there are no traces on her smooth, pale features and Cupid's-bow mouth.
"I hope I can go on being bad. I've had lots of sex, some good, some so-so, but I'm not done yet," she replies, with a dirty laugh.
"Of course I'd love to be in love and I'd have liked to have had children. Somehow, I never felt grown up enough.
"Nowadays I spend a lot of time working at staying fit and in shape, although it gets harder to keep the weight down, to survive with style.
"I'll certainly go on having plastic surgery - again and again and again - until there's a knot of flesh on top of my head. Then I'll tie a ribbon around it!"
• Harry's new single, Two Times Blue, is released on 10 September and her solo album, Necessary Evil, on 17 September (Eleven Seven Music).
'Harry in her heyday had a heart of glass, a poised distance...'
THE punk era was a good time to be lining up your teenage sexuality with your idea of what a beautiful woman could be. And no-one pushed her thumb into my clay with more clarity than Debbie Harry.
The thing about punk was that it allowed you to have it all: aggression, glamour, attitude, and the promise of sex. Though the combination of a wanton platinum blonde and four grimy guys from the New York art-rock scene doesn't seem impressive now, in 1978 it felt like all my young male dreams had come true.
Look at all her old videos on YouTube - none of them more imaginative than Harry wiggling about, the band shuffling behind her - and the appeal is perfectly obvious. Harry plays the pouting, come-and-get-me starlet with all the irony and self-awareness you'd expect from an habituée of the Manhattan underground.
Being well into her thirties when Blondie hit, after stints as a folk-rock singer, BBC employee and Playboy Bunny, Harry exuded a steely confidence about her sexual impact. There's a bit in the video of Hanging on the Telephone where she's laying on the warpaint, and she looks straight at you, mid-eyeshadow, as if to say: "Yes, this is how Blondie is constructed. And I'm doing it for you, rock fan. So what?"
The epitome of that attitude is Harry in the video for Heart of Glass. The Marilyn do has artfully fallen over, and she's in the funkiest of dresses: one strap across her shoulder, swirling silks around about her. Her iconic face shows flickers of interest, amidst the boredom and ennui of the song's lyrics. In the background, the band play around sardonically with glitter balls, almost taking the mickey out of their own disco fixation. Effortlessly cool.
Madonna wouldn't have been possible without Debbie Harry, setting down the pop template of stay-away/come-and-get-me sexuality. Though I'd say Harry was much more inspired by ice queens such as Nico and Garbo.Watching Harry in her heyday, she retains a heart of glass, a poised distance.
Punk wasn't just about anger and rebellion and gobbing: it was also about seeing women you could never have imagined existed. Like many late-1970s boys, I'm sure, I wanted a punk-ass Marilyn in my life. I'll be eternally grateful that Debbie Harry obliged me.
• Pat Kane is a musician and writer.
Scotsman.com - 16th July 2007