HerWords: A series examining the women behind punk; anti-establishment, anarchic, opposed to convention and trends. All have made forged their own way, warriors of personal freedom.
‘Attitude is important.’
Debbie’s rebelliousness, honesty, and refusal to conform to expectations are as strong today as they were in 1970s, when she tore up the rules for women in music. She might be a septuagenarian, but she’s still a punk.
Debbie was born on July 1, 1945 in Florida. Adopted at 3 months she grew up in suburban Jersey with her gift-shop owning parents, Catherine and Richard Harry.
“They explained it to me in a really nice way,” says Harry. “It made me feel quite special somehow. I sometimes attribute my, uh, adventurous nature to that… I have an open mind about things. It didn’t present me with any borders. Like I’m just like my mother, and I’m going to be like her. I always felt like I really was a different person, and I didn’t feel that was the most comfortable place for me to be.”
“I didn’t get along perfectly with my mother or my father. They had a more conservative sense of being. But I certainly lucked out on a survival level. My God, I was well cared for, doted on and loved. How can I complain? I wanna complain, but I can’t.”
“They did not want me to venture forth – they wanted me to stay right there. They never really accepted my career. Well, I’d say that they probably had to accept it, because it was done, but they would always have preferred me to lead a “normal” life. I mean, they were very old-fashioned. I think they were proud, but it was all so foreign to them that they wondered who I was… as I wondered who they were.
Debbie tracked down her birth mother in the late 80s. “She didn’t wanna meet me, so I’ve never met her. It’s like auditioning for parts. You face rejection and it’s harsh.” In 2014 she was more sanguine, telling an interviewer: “I was an adult, already well along the road with Blondie, and I had a life. If I was a lost person, that would have been different”
Debbie started singing in choir and was even a cheerleader in high school. She claims not to have been a very good one, and recalls being “very anxious.” She states, “They had me twirling and dropping the baton for the bending over aspect. I was there for the pervert fathers. Looking at my underpants!”
In high school, Harry experimented with makeup, often leaving her ostracized as a child claiming that “an oval face was considered beautiful, not a broad round blob like mine, which earned me the nickname Moon.”
When she was 11, her family was on vacation in Cape Cod. A young Harry would put on lipstick with her cousin and go out about town—without her parents knowing. One day they successfully picked up two gentlemen who walked them home and offered to pick them up later for a drink. At 11 p.m. that night our mothers had put us in pajamas and told us to go to bed, when these two guys came knocking at the door. We went down and opened it and you should have seen the faces of these two guys when they saw these two little kids there, without lipstick. It turned out that they were both very famous musicians. They gave us both autographed pictures and stuff. But my parents were really shocked.”
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. “The dream was to be a performer…An artist of some sort. Basically, what I wanted was to be a part of… to lead an artistic life. I didn’t want to stay in a small town.”
“I guess it was pretty… free. I had a lot of jobs. Getting my shit together, as it were. I lived in the East Village. I had a nice little apartment, $75 a month. I managed to pay the rent, hung out with my friends, went to see bands, had boyfriends.”
She became a barmaid at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan where she met Andy Warhol and his crowd, 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 Chris Stein saw 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.
The band emerged from the downtown New York punk scene, along with The Ramones and Talking Heads, but it would take four years for Blondie to make their international breakthrough with the album Parallel Lines, with hits including Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl and Hanging On The Telephone.
Fame didn’t hit me all at once,’ she says. ‘It crept up on me. It was only when we first toured the UK in 1977 that I realised something was stirring.
‘We were supporting Squeeze, who then had Jools Holland on keyboards. The first town we played was Bournemouth.
‘I’d never travelled abroad, so that little seaside town seemed impossibly exotic to me. We had no idea we had any kind of following in the UK, so we were totally unprepared for the crazed reception we got.
‘The energy coming from that crowd was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was beyond my wildest imaginings.’
Was there a downside to being in a punk band?
‘Well, I could have done without the spitting at gigs. It was meant to be a compliment but I didn’t like it.
‘I’d shout into the crowd, “Hey that stuff doesn’t go with my dress” and they’d stop. They may have been punks but they had manners.’
“I got noticed, famous,” she says, “when things changed from the hippie years and glam rock to that punk, shredded, minimalist, deconstructed, mod look.”
“Certainly,” she has said, “fifty per cent of my success is based on my looks. Maybe more.”
“Actually, I think my being considered a fashion icon is something of a mistake. It’s all in the timing.”
“I pretty much like to wear the same things. When you find out what makes you feel comfortable, beautiful, sexy—I always admire people who know from a young age, but for me it was a discovery, peeling the layers down.”
‘It was the early Seventies, maybe 72. I was trying to get across town to a party. It was two or three o’clock in the morning and I was staggering around on huge platform shoes.
‘This car kept circling around and some guy was offering me a ride. I kept refusing, but finally I took the ride because I couldn’t get a cab.
‘I got in the car and the windows were all rolled up, except for a tiny crack. And this guy had an incredibly bad smell to him.
‘I looked down at the door to crank open the window, and there were no door handles and no cranks. Then I started scanning the inside of the car and there was absolutely nothing.
‘The inside of the car was completely stripped and the hair on the back of my neck just stood up.
‘I wiggled my arm out the window and opened the door from the outside. I don’t know how I did it but I got out.
‘He tried to stop me by stepping on the gas and spinning the car but it sort of helped me fling myself out. I fell out and nearly got run over by a cab.
‘Afterwards I saw him on the news. Ted Bundy: responsible for at least 30 homicides. I could so easily have been one his earliest victims.’
“We hit it off from the get-go,” Harry says of Stein. “He’s a person I trust. We have an easy kind of communication, we understand each other’s language. When people speak to one another, there’s always a hidden meaning, some kind of emotional content. For some reason we have always understood each other on many different levels.”
Blondie initially called it quits in 1982 after Stein was rushed to hospital when he collapsed at a show. Eventually he was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris — a rare, sometimes fatal autoimmune disease of the skin. Harry pretty much disappeared from view from 1983 to 1986 and nursed Stein back to health. The disease left him with blisters all over his body and inside his mouth and throat. He couldn’t swallow solid food and it took four years for him to recover fully. He went on to produce Harry’s solo records, while she also took on movie roles, most notably in David Cronenberg’s 1983 psychedelic sci-fi film Videodrome.
Harry and Stein’s relationship eventually ended in 1989. Stein wanted to settle down and have kids, Harry did not.
“There came a point in my life where I had to make a decision,” she says. “I was always haunted with the desire to do music. I felt I would have had a nervous breakdown by the time I was 40 if I followed the life my mother and father expected me to have — to raise a family, to live close to them. Music happened for me easily. I uprooted myself to the city and it was a simple transition.”
‘He remains my best friend,’ she says. ‘He’s the most creative person I know, the most astute and the bravest. Nobody makes me laugh as much as Chris.’
Harry has admitted that during the late 1980s, she and Stein, were drug addicts. Both later overcame their addictions following stints in rehab.
‘I was absolutely a drug addict for a couple of years. It was a depressing time. Everything fell apart and I fell apart along with it.’
‘Drugs were a social thing at that time and I was a social person. I guess I was a part of that world.”
“I’m glad I’ve had all the radical experiences in life. Am I still imbibing? No, I’ve run the gamut. For me it turned into not so much fun, it just wears thin. I was one of those idiots who thought they were going to live forever.”
Harry doesn’t like being called an icon (“I used to be a sex symbol, now I am an icon,” she said recently)
‘I find it strange to be considered any kind of role model,’
‘I certainly wasn’t the first female singer to have an attitude and do my own thing. But there was definitely a shift around the time of punk and I was part of that shift.
‘Along with Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux, I was changing the way women in bands were perceived. It was a whole new era and we were like warriors.
‘I wasn’t going to be told by my record company how to look. I didn’t have a stylist advising me what outfit would make an impact.
‘I’d grown up with a fascination for movie stars like Bardot and Monroe, whose sexuality wasn’t manufactured in any way. That naturalness was appealing to me. And it worked. Even at the time I could see that the way I looked was crucial to the appeal of Blondie.
‘I think it’s great what the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are doing. They take a lot of flak about how they present their sexuality – but we should cherish them, not criticise them.
‘Nothing much has changed since the Seventies. These women need to shrug off the criticisms, as I did back in the day.
‘The whole point of rock music is the forbidden fruit and the clandestine — that’s what excites youngsters, who want to express themselves and their sexuality. Sometimes they’re not allowed to.
‘But these women are strong and ambitious. They have something to say. They’re willing to challenge conformity. They’ll learn what I had to learn – that you need to risk some sort of emotional exposure and embarrassment if you put yourself on the line.’
When asked if she was sorry that she did not have children of her own, she said: “Sometimes, sometimes. I guess it never struck me as being part of survival and for many people it is, it’s a way of surviving.”
“I hear women talking about getting some real physical urge, this yearning to have a child. I never had that. So there you go.’
“Sometimes. I’ve thought of adoption, which I think I’d be really good at. Now that this terrible [earthquake] has happened in Japan, there will be a lot of children needing homes. I spread myself around a lot of causes,” she goes on. “I’m concerned about the environment and clean water, and being carbon-free. I also support diabetes [research].”
She is godmother to Chris Stein’s two daughters. ‘I see them all the time,’ she says. ‘They’re wild, they won’t leave me alone, but they’re in school and very busy. When we’re on the road, though, they come out too, and I put make-up all over them. Fun stuff. I get to have fun with them.’
Harry has admitted that she had a face lift years ago;
‘Everybody knows that I’ve had plastic surgery. I did it for business reasons. You photograph better, and looks are a key part of being an entertainer, so I felt it was something I had to do.’
“Regardless of what I say about trying to be better at what I do, I rely on looks a lot. Women’s calling cards, unfortunately, are based on their looks. “As far as ageing goes, it’s rough. I’m trying my best now. I’m healthy and I exercise like a fiend and do all that stuff that recovered drug addicts do.”
She admits to the “same fears and trepidations all women have about losing their looks and losing their value”.
“I have thought about this a lot, obviously, because this is part of my profession. I think it stems from something very ancient, and it has to do with bearing children, and it’s very, very old fashioned, and very ingrained in our DNA, you know.
“I don’t think men have any control over their instincts and neither do we, but I think we have a lot more to offer than just bearing children – obviously, I think we have proven that.
“Anybody who survives in the arts has to be insanely obsessed with doing it, and they have to not mind working hard. It’s never a ‘gift’—it’s never ‘given’ to you—it’s inching and crawling into your situation.”
Harry says all artists learn from their predecessors. For her, it was Diana Ross, Cher and Dusty Springfield. “I think that in turn, what I have laid out and put out in the music world has trickled down into other people’s work. All artists, we all study one another.”
“I’ve certainly had my fair share of ups and downs – being popular and unpopular. But I’ve always been convinced about what I liked and didn’t like and what I wanted to do. And I know the things that I like best.”
She likes painting in the mornings and is often found pounding the streets of Manhattan, unfazed by her fame. “Some people are surprised to see me walking around. Others are completely horrified,” she laughs. A keen lyricist, she always jots down ideas for songs, but isn’t forthcoming about inspirations: “Y’know, listening to other music, going to movies, hanging out with people,” she offers, loosely.
“I thought I’d live to a ripe old age, because I always felt there was a lot to do. I had a driven feeling. I always thought in the present.”
My biggest dream as a kid was to carve out a niche for myself in some interesting, creative way.
‘Growing up, that often seemed like a far-fetched fantasy. Through all the ups and all the downs, I maintained my sense of adventure.
‘I never allowed life to become boring’
‘If you’re active mentally and interested, that’s the key to it. You keep on learning.’
‘I feel like I’ve had a great time of it, for good or bad, and I’m not giving up yet. I’m not dead yet.’
Done anything punk recently?
Featured Image: Still from “Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk” by Chris Stein