Once More Unto The Bleach: Debbie Harry Interviewed
, July 12th, 2011 08:56
In a feature that originally appeared in The Stool Pigeon, John Doran talks to Debbie Harry about the history of Blondie, heroin, reggae and New York City. Debbie Harry photographed by Rebecca Miller
Unusually for a bona fide pop icon, Debbie Harry was already 33 when Blondie released their UK breakthrough album Parallel Lines in 1978, and had even turned 34 when 'Heart Of Glass' was a colossal debut hit in the US a year later. In pop terms, the dynamic core of the group — Harry and her then boyfriend, the guitarist Chris Stein — were already neighing skittishly in the shadow of the glue factory when they hit paydirt. And this ascent to fame goes from being improbable to downright astonishing when you cast your eye over Harry's full CV. It seems unlikely that anyone attempting to tread in her footsteps would have any kind of life left to live by their mid-thirties.
Born on July 1, 1945 in Florida to parents who gave her up for adoption, Debbie Harry grew up in suburban Jersey, where she spent her time formulating plans of escape and daydreaming that Marilyn Monroe was her biological mother. In 1965 she moved to New York City, clicking naturally with the bohemian set, and joined the whimsical folk rock group The Wind In The Willows. Their one album on Capitol, released in 1968, was produced by Artie Kornfeld, who was determined to earn some of that hippy dollar. The year after the record flopped, he got his wish, becoming the musical booker for Woodstock. Harry, meanwhile, became a barmaid at Max's Kansas City in Manhattan where she met Andy Warhol and his retinue, served drinks to Janis Joplin and had sex with glam rocker Eric Emerson in a phone booth.
As the 60s began to sour, so did her experiences. She got hooked on heroin. She married a millionaire but left him a few months later. She became a Playboy Bunny. She moved into a Harlem drug den with a dealer and his armed gang. She eventually crawled out of New York, her life in shreds, only to get lured back by the advent of glam rock. Inspired by hanging out with the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center she ended up forming her own group, The Stilettos, in 1972. A year later Stein watched the group and was so impressed he ended up joining. Although they never made it, this band were essentially part of New York punk's first wave along with other CBGB's house acts Television, Suicide and Wayne County. In 1974 Harry and Stein quit to start afresh and what was originally Angel And The Snakes became Blondie; the nomenclature derived from the name that lascivious New York drivers yelled out of their car windows at her.
They were not overnight sensations. Many rough edges needed to be sanded off before they became household names. By the time they released their first single in June 1976, the live song 'Sex Offender' became the 7" 'X Offender', for example. But Blondie were never going to fit into the narrow punk orthodoxy. Like The Clash, they were part of rock'n'roll's lineage, reflected by their nods to 50s culture and their dalliances with multiple new and classic forms of pop music, unconcerned if it made them look like dilettantes or not. And the rest of their music? Well, they barely released a bad single during their original seven-year existence, from the serrated punk of 'Rip Her To Shreds' and the clipped new wave of 'Denis' to the downtown disco hip hop of 'Rapture' and the shiny calypso reggae of 'The Tide Is High' via the unimpeachable pop statements of 'Union City Blue' and 'Atomic'.
Despite clearly possessing pop genius, the group were often dismissed as 'mere' teeny boppers and have never really garnered the kind of critical plaudits that might have been theirs had they looked like dough-faced brewers from Carlisle and sung about signing on. Harry, in particular, was always at pains to point out in interviews that Blondie were a group, rather than just her with a backing band, and after finding out that they shared a name with the favourite pet of the 20th Century's most reviled dictator, they threatened to change their name to Adolf Hitler's Dog by means of protest.
Toward the tail end of the group, heroin reared its ugly head again and the band fizzled out in 1982. Then, the following year, Stein was laid up by the life-threatening and rare autoimmune disease pemphigus. Blondie gave way to make room for his recuperation and Harry's solo career.
Although no longer a couple, Harry and Stein still share an intense bond — she is godmother to his two daughters — and they still work together continuously. This year the Blondie name has been revived once again for the pair (along with original drummer Clem Burke and newer recruits) to release their ninth album, Panic Of Girls. We join her for lunch to talk heroin, New York and why we should be taught about death at an early age.
I've enjoyed listening to the three songs I've heard from the new album and I was blown away by how modern it sounds. But then I guess Blondie has always had a very close relationship with current trends in dance music.
Debbie Harry: Yeah, we've always been very urban.
Is a Panic Of Girls a collective noun — you know, like a pride of lions?
DH: [laughs] A panic. Yeah. I hadn't thought of that.
What does the title refer to, joking aside?
DH: It's a line from one of the songs, which is about a street person who is predicting the end of the world. It's something that came out as just a rhyming line but, I don't know, it just seemed great when I said it.
The character of the mother doesn't really crop up in rock & roll that much but she seems to appear in your songs quite a lot.
DH: Really? You think so?
In 'Hanging On The Telephone'. In 'Golden Rod'. In 'Mother' on this album…
DH: Oh, mother, right. Well, Jack Lee [of The Nerves] wrote that ['Hanging On The Telephone'], so we can't be held responsible. Mother used to be a club in New York that I loved going to. It was the kind of place where they would have a theme and you would have to dress accordingly or you wouldn't get in. It was a really great fun night for me on a Tuesday. It was mainly people from the city — it wouldn't be like a Bridge and Tunnel thing. There was a good bar that you could drink in, another room with a dancefloor and stage where they put on shows… I performed in some of them. It was an off-the-wall kind of joint. There was also a basement with other music and video screens that had these loops playing that [visual artist] Rob Roth used to make up. When they closed I was sort of, 'Wow! What am I going to do on a Tuesday night now?'
Do you still live in New York?
DH: Uh huh.
When I think of New York in the late 70s and early 80s, I think of Blondie as being a quintessential band for the time and place; that you would have fitted in, in all the different New York strata — uptown, downtown, rich, poor, arty, punk rock, disco, hip hop.
DH: Uh huh. [Her nouvelle cuisine-sized meal arrives. She eyes the waiter sternly.] That's it? [sighs] Do you want some of this?
No, I'm good thanks. When you first moved to New York around the time you first started working in Max's, what was the city like?
DH: I guess it was not as crowded as it is now; not so many new apartment buildings in it, and a lot of old buildings. The rents were low. The city government was bankrupt. There were always strikes. It was kind of great — chaotic and dangerous.
Did it feel like the artistic spirit of New York was very accessible? Because didn't you meet Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd quite easily?
DH: It was a small world, basically. It was an enclave. The Downtown world really meant something. I think it's always going to be like that because it's such a small area. Everyone in New York is forced to know each other. There are new apartment buildings that have increased the population and a lot of people that would normally have moved to a nicer area at one time can now live downtown and be comfortable in a nice apartment, whereas it used to be just flats and brownstones and tenements. So that nature of it has all changed.
Do you think that 'zero tolerance' changed the musical spirit of the city?
DH: 'Zero tolerance'?
When I first went to New York, it was in 1992 and I didn't go back for over 10 years. In the intervening time, something happened — the city felt safer but it had also changed in negative ways as well. I can only speak as a tourist.
DH: It felt like Cleveland or Cincinnati, right? You know, I feel the same way about it.
Can I ask why you chose to cover Sophia George's 'Girlie Girlie' for the album?
DH: It's a great song. I don't think it was ever played in the States. But it was a big hit in the UK, right?
I must admit, until I heard your version I'd always presumed that the Sophia George was criticising a male suitor for being too camp: “Young man, you're too girlie girlie." I didn't listen very carefully.
Obviously given this and 'The Tide Is High', you're no stranger to reggae. Did you ever go to Jamaica?
DH: No! I hate the Caribbean! I like the music but I hate the islands. I just don't like them.
Too hot? Too girlie girlie?
DH: There are a couple of reasons. I don't really like being on an island that's that small and I don't really like the separation between the people who live there and the people who go there. That really disturbs me.
You're advised to stay within the compound of your hotel and not go wandering around Trenchtown, or wherever, on your own, right?
DH: Yeah. Part of the reason I would want to visit a place like that would be the religion and the churches — the local culture. As you say, you're not really encouraged to move beyond your boundaries.
What was your introduction to reggae like? Where did it come from?
DH: Hmmmm, I don't know exactly. I think I'd been hearing it for a long time. But I know that Chris came to London when there was a big reggae scene. I think it was in 1972 and when he came back he was really high on this reggae groove… Do you want some of this salad?
No thanks. On 'Girlie Girlie', I love the fact that there's a diss on there to a woman who sells cigarettes on a roundabout. Amazing. But talking of the song's wayward ways, are you a monogamist and have you always been?
DH: A monogamist? Mmm. Ha ha ha! I guess I have been. Dating is such a drag, don't you think? It gets really horrible and complicated. I have gone out with different guys at the same time but that was a long time ago. But now I just have friends so it's not quite the same, but it gets really complicated. Doesn't it?
I guess you could say that Blondie have a very street-wise glamour but they're also a band for romantics. Are you a romantic person at heart?
DH: Personally? Hmmmm. I don't know. I probably have a good imagination but I don't know if I'm a true romantic. But I do like romance. I don't know, it's a word that's been so mistreated. I mean, what is romance?
As I've only heard three of the songs off the album I had to make some guesses about the other tracks based on title alone. Does 'D-Day' stand for 'Debbie-Day'?
DH: YES! [punches air] But I really wrote it because I thought, if I play it over here it will be like [blows air through lips] … you know… it'll go down really well.
And there's 'The End, The End'. Now I'm kind of hoping this isn't The Doors song played twice in a row.
DH: That was a collaborative effort with this guy Ben Phillips and he had this idea about finding someone that you wanted to be with until the very end. So I guess that is a very romantic idea. He gave me this idea of what it was about and then we fleshed out the lyrics.
'Wipe Off My Sweat' sounds rather saucy…
DH: That's because it is [laughs]. It's in Spanish: 'Kiss me, kiss me, she has a tattoo on her skin where only he can see it…' And then when they're dancing she says: 'Kiss me, wipe off my sweat, don't stop, don't stop for anything.' It's simple and direct.
I'm also intrigued by the idea of 'China Shoes'.
DH: That's a ballad. Mid-tempo. It starts off, 'Cheap china shoes, tie on my feet, all man-made fabric worn out and beat, from pacing the floor, from walking the street. You fly over Brooklyn, back in a week.' So it's about someone leaving and you want them to come back. And then the chorus is, 'I left a note in the back page of your book, volumes away but it's worth a good look. Remember me, remember that you're mine, remember me when you get to the last line.'
You are a romantic! When I think of Blondie, I think of a pop group who had equals and contemporaries in the worlds of art, writing, photography, etc. I wonder if that's something that's missing from today's pop scene? How important was it for you to know people like William Burroughs and Andy Warhol?
DH: Really important. They were such great influences. It might be a little bit different in New York, because of the area — because everything is located so closely together and it's very easy to jump into the art world, to jump into the music scene, into the photography scene. It's all compacted together. Maybe that's why it happens. It seems kind of natural.
Do you think this concentration of people and ideas causes a continuum? When I think of The Velvet Underground I can see that there are clear lines through to Television, Suicide, Blondie, Sonic Youth…
DH: Yeah. Oh yeah. Well, I hope so…
Were The Velvet Underground still playing when you moved to New York?
DH: They were. Actually, the first time I saw them was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I didn't have a clue who they were. I used to go to this place — a big room called The Balloon Farm… [laughs] Well, it was the psychedelic period, right? So we went in this place, which was like a former Ukrainian nursing home, and it was The Velvet Underground playing live with Nico. The stage set and colours were designed by Andy Warhol who was also doing the lights. It was beautiful. And you know, Moe Tucker on drums was fucking great. And you could just wander in and watch them.
In a way you got the whole drug thing out of your system before you started Blondie. I was wondering how you got into heroin — was it just that there was a lot of it about?
DH: It was the time. It was all over the place. At first we felt that it might have been political [to take heroin]. Yeah, I know… [giggles and shakes head] It was everywhere and it really had a lot to do with the end of Vietnam and the fallout from that. What's that airline they talk about bringing everything in on? Air America. That's how the junk came in. It was very noticeable; it was everywhere.
A hundred and fifty years before Blondie, the popular perception of anyone female singing for their supper would have been that she was a prostitute. Do you think the music industry has ever got past seeing its female talent in terms different to commodities that could be sold or traded with?
DH: We are all commodities and I don't think it's necessarily just women. That was the game, you know? It outlived itself, didn't it?
Do you feel more in control now that the music industry is shrinking rapidly and is pretty much crippled in comparison to the monolithic thing that it used to be?
DH: No. No. Not necessarily. I mean, commerce and art have always had difficulties co-existing from the very beginning. I'm sure there were problems back when they were building the pyramids. I feel, perhaps, under the same amount of pressure to write another 'Heart Of Glass'. We're more in control of the creative end, yes, but it's not really fair for us because we've been around for a while and I think we have our thing figured out. And if we make a Blondie album we make a Blondie album. You know what that is. We've done our experimentation, basically. We've set up a framework that has a broad field of reference musically and we play with that. That is what our format is. The industry makes it hard to get a record out. It's like that for everyone. I mean, how many big artists are there? There are 10 or 20 major artists out there now and those are the ones who have big record deals.
You've said that the Plastic Letters album was about death. I was wondering how you dealing with Chris's illness in 1983 affected your view of your own mortality?
DH: I think that, up until that time, I had a lot of what you would call 'childish ways' and then the idea of taking complete responsibility for my life and not seeing it as just sheer fate or luck really hit home. Then, BAM! I knew death. I knew it right then. And I think everyone should know it. Everyone should know it, because we aren't really taught that, are we? We're not taught it and it's the total truth. I don't really want to talk about Chris getting ill today, but there are a few pictures of the last tour we did [in 1982] that I saw recently. I hadn't really seen them for a long, long time and I was so shocked. He must have gone down to 120lbs. It was just… horrible.
I guess you must get asked this quite a lot, but I'm interested in knowing what you put the bond between you and Chris down to. Because it is a very strong bond that transcends physical relationships. It goes beyond that.
DH: Yeah, it does. I think we just had a meeting of the minds…. Maybe it's because we've both got such accepting natures and we have a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of people and different dispositions and things like that. We both have a temper, though.
What do you think would have happened if you had changed the band's name to Adolf Hitler's Dog?
DH: The label would have dropped us. I loved that name, though. It's really funny, isn't it? Do you want to help me finish this salad?
Blondie play London's Somerset House tomorrow, July 13th. This article originally appeared in The Stool Pigeon. For all things Pigeon, go here