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Debbie Harry on Writing Her New Memoir, Blondie’s Old Days in NYC and Her View of the World (The Interview)
Debbie Harry is a certifiable pop culture icon.
As the frontperson for Blondie, the chart-topping New Wave group that grew out of New York City’s fabled CBGBs-fueled punk scene, she became known worldwide as not just one of the premier fashion and style symbol of her era, but one of the most arresting lead singers of late-1970s and early-80s, and certainly the premiere female artist of the fertile, post-punk musical landscape.
Her new memoir, the no-holds-barred Face It, is both a love letter to her early days fighting for attention amongst the litany of bands trying to make it on the New York punk scene, a life lived in the extreme, and a how-to (and how not to) for aspiring musicians and artists.
With Blondie’s 2017 album Pollinator proving that the group — and especially her collaborative partnership with guitarist Chris Stein — is still as fertile as ever, and in the midst of a grueling promotional tour for Face It – also available in fantastic audiobook form, narrated by Harry herself, and with original music by Stein – Rock Cellar caught up with Harry, to talk about the old days, why she wanted to write a memoir, and the state of the music scene and the world at large, as she sees it.
Rock Cellar: The response to the book has been great. Tell me, how’s the book tour going, from your perspective?
Debbie Harry: It’s been going really, really well. It was a little bit hectic over in Germany, and in the U.K., because I was covering a lot of ground in a short period of time. But it’s been good. So far, knock wood.
Rock Cellar: Have things in the book resonated with fans, or even critics, that you didn’t expect? Were there surprises, from your point of view?
Debbie Harry: Well … no, not especially. I’m used to people having opinions. It’s something that we deal with. Everybody sure has their opinion, and even more so today, because everybody has a voice and a place to express themselves. So, you know … I appreciate people’s opinions and comments, at least to some degree. [Laughter.]
I think we all have learned that we’re entitled to express ourselves. That’s one of the basic concepts of our form of democracy; that we have a freedom of speech. And it comes very naturally to us. But I think one of the things that really stands out for me is that people say that they can really hear me, and that it’s not a contrived voice.
So I really like that. That makes me very happy.
Rock Cellar: That’s the one thing you absolutely want as an author, after you spend all this time, for your own personality to come out. It’s interesting, though, that you say that. The last time we spoke, the Washington Post review had just come out, and the response, especially from your fans, was pretty vehement, that the author had treated you like an object, yet again.
It’s not that you’re blasé, but you write in the book about seeing David Bowie’s dick, and being raped, and other pretty awful things that happened to you, almost as just things that you lived through and dealt with. How do you relate to the #MeToo movement, and do you understand the vehemence? And how do you see it in relation to what you lived through, back in the day?
Debbie Harry: I think we all survived in our own way. Fortunately, for me, I had a really good partner who did not condescend or discriminate against me after some of these things happened. Very supportive.
I also had a really indestructible interest in doing music, and I’m so driven, that my values were in my favor. To go through any kind of trauma is awful, but I sort of felt like it was part of the game, in a way. I think I also have in my personality a great deal of tenacity and stubbornness, though I don’t express it in a real sort of stubborn way. I’m flexible, and I’ve learned to appreciate working in an ensemble situation, which is really valuable.
But nevertheless, I try to keep it going, and that’s given me sort of a backbone or something to fall back on. It has been heartbreaking, and it has been difficult, but I guess I’m a fighter. So I’ve got some things in my personality that are really in my favor. I’ve got some things in my personality that are totally not in my favor, too, of course. But I think maybe the music thing has really been the biggest thing, that I get this real incredible satisfaction from.
Deep, deep, deep satisfaction. I’ve been able to do it my whole life. And I didn’t really expect that. I knew that I loved music and I knew that it did something for me in a very important way, but now I know for sure that it’s really played an important part in my life.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned this, but you clearly had, in Chris and others close to you, a network of people who were really supportive. And you had within yourself a reserve of self-reliance. There’s a gang mentality in a band. Social media, in some ways, has taken that away from people. They tend to vent their anger, or they look for acknowledgement of their ills and pains and whatever, in the world at large, rather than seeking help from their partner or somebody close to them. Their network. Do you agree with that? Do you see that, and world we live in now, as having that as a downside, compared to what you went through? Because clearly things could have turned out differently had you not had Chris and that gang to help you through?
Debbie Harry: Well, in particular, yes, as far as Chris goes. I think that I definitely would not have done the whole band thing without Chris.
I think in terms of the Internet, and people’s isolation, there’s this very real isolation. It’s odd, isn’t it? Isolationism in today’s world, and the world of politics and economy and culture, it just doesn’t work.
It’s over. Isolationism is an old, old story. And cooperation and interaction is the true value; it holds the biggest value. Often, of course, it’s the most difficult to achieve. But the thing that strikes me about it is that people want to have a voice. They want to be heard. They’ve been ignored, or they haven’t been heard, so it’s very exciting and they get to vent and do all this stuff that gets them heard. But what you’re saying is true: After you do that, then to go over and try to be part of a team. That is really a huge challenge.
But everybody likes sports. Everybody likes teams. But the principal players on a team are nothing compared to the manager or the coach. That’s my experience.
I don’t think I would have Blondie today if it wasn’t for my management team.
Rock Cellar: So while it’s good to be able to vent, true collaboration is really the thing that’s ultimately the most satisfying, and that will save us? I know you follow politics, so let’s put it in political terms: The resistance and the relentlessness of that resistance is what has led us to this impeachment moment. So it’s not just in the arts. It’s not just in business, for that matter. It sounds like you’re saying that true collaboration is the thing that will save us, ultimately.
Debbie Harry: Yeah. Totally, totally, totally. I’m sure that when I was younger, I didn’t really think of it like that in any way, because I was just trying to get ahead, trying to find myself and find what I was capable of. So I think athletes really get it right, for the most part. They really learn how important that is early. Because having a physicality that is reliant on other people is a real mind fuck, you know?
Rock Cellar: Sure. But in a good sense. I get a sense of a lost New York from the book, and yet you don’t seem to over-glamorize it, or even maybe miss it. What does New York City mean to you in its current state? It’s very different now than when you were first making music, in the early days.
Debbie Harry: Well, I miss my youth. [Laughter.] I think that that was the excitement of it all. We were all of a certain age, and trying very hard to have a band, and be part of the music scene. But it was intimate. It was a small scene, basically. Everybody was sort of turned on by everybody else and what they were doing.
We all helped each other, in terms of inspiration. I think it still exists today, but it’s probably a little bit more sophisticated. And also, the value has changed. The monetary values have changed.
Back then, we weren’t expected to make any money, and everybody was just shuffling along. Everybody wanted to make money, everybody wanted to have a career or a profession, but it sort of didn’t happen immediately, and we all knew it wasn’t going to happen immediately, so we just sort of kept on going anyway, and kept fighting for it.
In a way, I think you’re right about it being over-glamorized. The past always looks a little bit rosier than perhaps it really was. For example, there’s so many of those great musicians and artists and performers that are dead. That didn’t happen because it was so dire. Well, I guess a lot of it was drugs. [Laughter.] But some of it was the illness, too. It was just a pressure cooker.
Rock Cellar: Paul Weller always jokes to me that he’s only become a legend because he’s alive.
Debbie Harry: But he’s right! If you can live, you keep on going. That’s something!
Rock Cellar: It’s a lot of the game, isn’t it?
Debbie Harry: It’s a lot, yeah.
Rock Cellar: John Doe and Chris did an event here at City Winery a couple of months ago. I was talking with Chris, and it amazed me how he was really into a lot of current music that I would not have expected. I mean, of course he is, because that’s his thing, and that’s what he’s always been known for, but it made me curious: What do you listen to? Do you listen to music these days? What piques your interest, or do you just listen to playlists from growing up, or the seventies and eighties?
Debbie Harry: Actually, I’ve been on a grunge kick for a while. It’s been sort of like my re-education or something.
But I’m starting to branch out again. Chris and I have always been different on this point. I don’t play music in the house. I tend to watch movies. I don’t know. I listen to a lot of music. I love music. But mostly I listen to it in the car. I really like being in, like, a sound booth, because I’m always analyzing everything. I went to see an artist last night, Steven Sayeed. He’s working with Hal Willner. Our keyboard player, Matt Katz-Bohen, was backing him up, so I went out to see them.
So I don’t know. It’s just a part of my routine. It’s what I do. I go out, I see music. I like live music. I like going on the road. I like going to festivals and seeing bands.
I went to the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn. It was so fabulous. It was great. I got to see some artists that I hadn’t seen in a while. Santigold was there, people like that. So I think really what I enjoy is live stuff. When I listen to recorded music, it’s always because I’m listening to how it’s done, and what the sounds they used are.
I’ve turned into one of those people who watches movies and thinks about how it was shot, except with music. Some people listen to music and they go off into the mood of it. That’s a different kind of listening. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m in, I suppose. But to answer your question, I like Chopin, and I like some of the classics. Occasionally I’ll listen to some of the arias, some operas that I really like. Sometimes I listen to jazz.
I don’t have real leash.
— Chris Stein (@chrissteinplays) October 29, 2019
Rock Cellar: What did you remember in working on the book that surprised you? Was there a memory or a moment or a period, even, that you hadn’t thought about in a long time, that in preparing the book, you had to really think about and dig into that surprised you how much it resonated with you?
Debbie Harry: I can tell you what happened. I write in the book that I went last year to the opening of the Grand Opera at Lincoln Center. I went to get a drink of water from the little water fountain, and it was dedicated to this opera singer, Enrico Caruso. It made me remember a time that my mother took me to my first movie, in which Mario Lanza plays him, when I was a little girl.
And it was so endearing. It was such a wonderful, sweet memory. I included it in the book. Because it was shocking. Here I was, doing something that I don’t usually do, but I was really into it. And then I looked up and I saw that this fountain was dedicated to this wonderful tenor, Enrico Caruso, and it just flooded me with this wonderful memory of walking up the street holding my mother’s hand. It was very sweet. It brought together this whole series of events in my childhood, when I used to laugh at my mother, because she listened to opera on the radio and she would sing along. But she was tone-deaf! [Laughter.] I’m serious. Seriously tone deaf! Seriously! Really, really, seriously tone deaf! And she would sing along. Even at that age, I would marvel at the fact that she could not hear what was going on. It’s very funny. But it was sweet. A sweet little memory.
Rock Cellar: I saw you with Blondie this summer with Elvis Costello, and the audience was full of these characters from old New York. It was touching to me that it’s almost as though you’re now the conduit to those times for a lot of people. From the inside looking out, do you feel that? Or are you too busy being Debbie Harry?
Debbie Harry: I don’t know. It’s always nice to run into people from the old days. We share that, and those experiences, so we’re sort of better friends now. It seems like an automatic understanding of who we are. I guess we appreciate doing what we do and having had that, and also the fragility of life, because we’ve lost so many people to drugs and whatever. We really did lose a lot of great people.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot of humor in the book. Again, this might not be something you’re self-aware of, but there’s a wryness to it that I appreciated. A lot of these memoirs are really just perpetuating the legend. But I didn’t get that from you. Steve Jones has a great memoir where he just kind of puts it all out there. And you as the reader get to make of it what you will. Was that almost conversational approach conscious, or was that just the way it turned out for you?
Debbie Harry: I think that’s just the way that I think. I don’t like a lot of bullshit and I have a good sense of humor.
Rock Cellar: Another one of the things I really liked was the fan art you included. I don’t think there’s another artist out there who would include that, certainly in color, with so much of it included in the audiobook, too. I went to your Facebook page, and I’ve seen this at your shows, too: The people who follow really you love you. They feel connected to you. That fan art is a reflection of that. Why is that fan art important to you?
Debbie Harry: I collect it. It was automatic. I was flattered. Beguiled. Intrigued. Fascinated. All of that stuff. I felt at an early stage that this was something special, and that it was, also, after all, some of it, given to me so long ago, before we had an interactive existence. So the future speaks of the past. Plus, I sort of imagined kids — or adults or whoever — listening to our music while they were painting, or after a show, or something like that, when it was fresh in their minds. All of these different scenarios came to me, and I thought, “Wow. This is really something. And it’s so beautiful.” I love art, so I wanted to include it. That’s all.
Rock Cellar: Well, you’ve always been a very generous supporter of other bands, and of artists. The story of you buying Basquiat’s first painting, these are all famous stories, and yet I get the sense from the way you just answered that, and also what you write in the book, that it’s kind of second nature to you. It’s not a conceit. It’s very much just you wanting to spread the love a little bit.
Debbie Harry: I guess. I guess that’s it. I don’t really think of it that way, except maybe now a little bit more. I have a finer appreciation of a lot of the dedicated fans. It is important. It’s what it’s all about. It’s really what it’s all about.
We don’t have to walk around with our hearts on our sleeves, necessarily, but maybe it helps people survive difficult times, or whatever. I’ve been told that.
Music is a sanctuary.
Rock Cellar: You were making music and coming up in, ostensibly, the Reagan era. Many artists felt really bad about what was going on. This, today, is a whole other level of bad. At a book event for John Doe that Chris at City Winery a woman brought up some drawings to your manager. I talked to her, and that drawing, that art of you was her sanctuary from what’s going on in the Trump era. It’s like, people are finding ways to deal with the cacophony of noise. You’re clearly very outspoken about Trump. What is your sanctuary from all the noise?
Debbie Harry: [Sighing] I don’t know. I guess my friends. Having friendships and spending time with them. But inevitably, it filters into conversation. It’s very frightening, stupid, that we have to listen to this shit.
And I’m afraid. I’m afraid for the system that we’ve got. I’m afraid for the democracy.
My other question is, how many other senators have been put into office by these means, that are out of our control? I feel like this is The Manchurian Candidate. I’m just … wow. What the fuck? What happened to their brains? Do they have chips installed?
Really. Get that chip out of your brain!
Rock Cellar: You were involved in Rock Against Reagan, and Rock the Vote, and all the other things that artists used to do back in the day. But this is a whole other level of awful, that was almost inconceivable even just a few years ago.
Debbie Harry: Yes. It’s unbelievable. It’s incredible and unbelievable.
Rock Cellar: Let’s get back to the book. I loved Chris’s introduction. I love his music, by the way, too, in the audiobook. I thought that was incredibly special. It’s one of the through-lines in the book, this collaboration that you’ve had. Can you imagine a life without Chris Stein? How significant is that collaboration in everything you’ve done in the last 40-plus years?
Debbie Harry: It is remarkable that we’re still working together, and we still share a mind. I don’t know. I can’t say how lucky and how special our life together and our creative life has been.
I don’t think that I would’ve been able to do any, or very little of what I’ve done, without having had a collaboration with Chris.
I mean, he’s a genius. And I’m the dummy sitting on his knee, babe. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: I don’t know. I’ll take issue with that. He wouldn’t be Chris Stein without you. But that’s a whole other conversation. [Laughter.] What it reminded me of, in reading the book and putting on the music while I was remembering the early days of Blondie, was that there’s a lot of music that isn’t from that first blush of fame. There’s a lot of stuff in the nineties and more recently that stands up to anything you did in the early days. Did writing the book, and remembering those times, and remembering that collaboration, remind you of the stuff that wasn’t the big hits, but that fans love just as much?
Debbie Harry: That’s pretty complicated. I mean, it’s a different business now. So for us to have big hits like that, it’s not the same kind of marketing. And we’re certainly not the newbies. And the newbies always get that big push. I don’t know. I trust Chris pretty much implicitly. We’ve had our disagreements, but not usually on the creative end. I love the new material and I think people who don’t hear it are missing the boat.
We’ve had some good support from BMG more recently. But I don’t know. The charts are different. Everything is different. I’m just really proud and glad that we’re still making music and that we still have Blondie together. And we have a great group.
Rock Cellar: A lot of people who write these memoirs will deal with the fame and fortune and the first blush of fame, but then kind of skirt through the next 20, 30 years. I felt like you gave a lot of time and thought to the stuff that was important to you, but that maybe had been forgotten by the more casual fans. Was that conscious? Because it’s not just the first blush of fame, but the times when you’ve been working really hard, and grinding it out, feel just as important to you, in many ways.
Debbie Harry: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. For the kind of person that I am, I do better when there’s not so much acceptance. When I have to really get to it. When I have to bring people in. That sort of suits me better somehow. I don’t know why.
Rock Cellar: I passed a young woman on the street on the way to talk to you who had on a t-shirt with you face on it. Does that Mud Club-, Andy Warhol-era Debbie Harry still have a connection to you? Do you relate to that person? Is that person still part of you?
Debbie Harry: First of all, how cool! But I don’t know. We’re all facing this maturity. I’m very childlike sometimes, and I love that. I think that’s really important. I think the separation of ages has sort of changed a little bit. I guess it’s because of music and culture.
We have so much available and we’re not limited to what’s on Top 40 radio. We have so many choices! And sometimes that really works. Because all have different temperaments and time frames we enjoy and moods. So things are available. And I think that availability is of major importance.