Blondie on their historic Havana trip: “It could have been a disaster”

Debbie Harry remembers the NYC rockers' first ever Cuba gigs – and the new film that documents them

Nearly 50 years into a trailblazing career which has encompassed six UK Number One singles, eight Top 10 albums and untold influence on popular culture, you might assume that Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry would have few items left to tick off her bucket list. But in 2019, the NME Godlike Genius and exemplar of New York cool achieved an ambition by playing a special gig in sunny Havana, Cuba, as part of an official cultural exchange between the two cities.

Walking out at the fabled art deco theatre Teatro Mella was something of “a dream come true,” says Harry, via phone from her home in downtown NYC. “It was certainly something we’d always wanted to do, so to do it as part of a cultural exchange made it even better.”

“Playing Cuba was a dream come true”

Blondie’s Havana affair is captured in a short 18-minute film – Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, currently airing on the summer festival circuit and out later this year – which presents a dreamlike meditation on their four-day trip and two-night live performances. “It’s the first project I ever pitched to them,” says its director and the band’s longtime artistic collaborator, Rob Roth. “I had to document this because I knew it was never going to happen again.” He sees one of the subtexts of the heightened-reality short as being about life’s game of chance and the roll of fate’s dice. For Roth, they arrived in Cuba at both the perfect and worst time. It was during a thawing of relations between the US and Cuba: after Barack Obama re-established diplomatic ties with the communist island in 2014, but before his successor Donald Trump re-imposed strict travel bans. On the less fortuitous flip side however, the visit coincided with a period of ill-health for guitarist Chris Stein – Harry’s main songwriting partner and creative soulmate (the then-dating pair founded Blondie in 1974, split up as a romantic couple in 1987, but remained successful collaborators and friends; she’s even godmother to his daughters) – which prevented him from flying there.

“We lucked out in that we did get to Havana not only before it became blacklisted by the Trump administration, but also before COVID happened,” says Roth. “But it was crazy that Chris, who was the prime mover in wanting to go to Cuba for over 50 years, couldn’t go. I only found out he wasn’t going to be there on the way to the airport! On top of shooting in a communist country I’d never been to using real film, there was Chris being ill. I started to think: Is this going to be the greatest disaster of my career?!”

Blondie
CREDIT: Press

Did Stein’s heart problems mean it was a scary time? “For sure,” says Harry, who tends towards stoic understatement and treats hyperbole as if it is spyware requiring deletion. “It would have been a better experience if he had come – he’s the one who was talking about it the most.”

It’s easy to see why Blondie and Havana are such a natural fit. As cultural omnivores soaking up the melting pot of New York City, the band have always been inspired by Latin music. “Right from the start, we included some Latin feel in our songs. That’s continued right through to ‘Sugar On The Side’, our collaboration with [Colombian band] Systema Solar which I love,” says Harry. That 2013 team-up with the Santa Marta electro-rap group predated Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’-chaperoned Latin-pop explosion by six years. Fast forward to 2021 and the likes of Bad Bunny and J Balvin are topping most-steamed lists on Spotify. “Music goes beyond language,” notes Harry, sagely.

“Music goes beyond language”

Joining Blondie onstage at Teatro Mella, among others, were local musicians such as Cuban hall-of-famer Carlos Alfonso. Additionally, the resulting live six-track EP (out July 16) features vocalists Ele Valdés and María del Carmen Ávila of jazz-fusion group Síntesis digging into the original John Holt Caribbean rhythms of ‘The Tide Is High’ and offering new spins on ‘Rapture’ and their 2011 Spanish-language track ‘Wipe Off My Sweat’. “We only had one rehearsal with these different musicians and they were terrific,” praises Harry. “They were so talented and well-prepared. Of course, when you have a song that everybody knows, it’s a lot easier to put together than if you started from scratch.”

Given that ‘culturally subversive’ Western music was banned in Cuba on-and-off by former leader Fidel Castro (a decision that properly relaxed when Manic Street Preachers played Havana in 2001), you might wonder how well-known Blondie’s songs are there and whether classics like 1979’s transcendent ‘Dreaming’ – which features the lyric “dreaming is free” – takes on added salience in a country where freedoms, the media and internet usage is tightly controlled. “There was a particular moment in the concert when I looked into the balcony and an entire family – from grandparents down to great grandchildren – were singing the songs and that just answered any questions I had about how big Blondie are there,” recalls Roth. “But as Debbie says: ‘Music just goes through the air.’”

Rob Roth
Rob Roth, director of ‘Blondie: Vivir En La Habana’. CREDIT: Press

Shot partly in handheld vintage 16mm film (and at times annotated with eye-popping Keith Haring-style visual doodles), Roth’s snapshot film of the trip sometimes feels like footage from the promo to Blondie’s 1980 hit ‘Call Me’. “It has the feeling of fractured time,” he says. “You don’t see many people on phones, so there’s nothing to tell you what year you’re in. The cars are from the 1950s, some buildings are modern, others are dilapidated.” Harry agrees, saying that Havana’s resemblance to pre-gentrified New York made her feel like she’d “been there before”. “There’s so much beautiful architecture which has deteriorated due to the fact it’s a Caribbean island and salt air is disastrous to the edifices,” she observes. “They’re in a period of renewal and it made me think back fondly to the ‘70s and the crumbling decay of the Lower East Side.”

It was in 1990s New York that Harry first collided with Roth, during a creatively-open period of “self-discovery” when she was in between her 1993 solo album ‘Debravation’ and Blondie’s 1999 reunion album ‘No Exit’. Roth was an in-house artist at the famous Jackie 60 night held weekly in the meatpacking district. It was immortalised in the 2011 Blondie single ‘Mother’, named after the night club in which it took place (previously called Bar Room 432). It was an outré fantasia: Harry once turned up dressed as Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting. “We had a lot of fun,” she says. “It was ahead of its time, downtown, very intimate but worldly at the same time. It was smart and challenging and when it ended, I was sort of bereft.”

“Havana reminded me of 1970s New York – they’re in a period of renewal”

To paint a picture of the place, Jake Shears once recounted first meeting Harry when he was a go-go dancer there (pre-Scissor Sisters) wearing nothing except a gas mask and camouflage G-string (“I was telling her that even with two cock rings, my dick wasn’t big enough to fill it!” he told NME). “That’s exactly that it was like,” laughs Roth. “To a lot of people who came to New York and found that night, it felt authentically like the mythical New York they had heard about. There were people sewing their own mouths shut and all kinds of shenanigans!”

The pair have collaborated together many times over the years, but Roth says his favourite Blondie moments always happen on the tour bus. “It’s the candid, casual stories that come out of nowhere,” he says. “All of a sudden, Chris will tell me: ‘Yeah, Kris Kristofferson and Jane Fonda came to the loft one day and we all got really stoned together.’ I’ll say: ‘What did you talk about?’ and Debbie responds: ‘I couldn’t speak – I was too stoned!’ Or she’ll just casually mention the time the apartment above her caught on fire because the Hell’s Angels tied somebody up and set them alight. You can never underestimate how much they’ve seen and experienced!”

Blondie
Debbie Harry live on stage with Blondie in Havana, 2019. CREDIT: Press

At 75, she’s worked, been friends with or encountered an array of towering cultural figures like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bowie and William S. Burroughs – all detailed in her revealing 2019 memoir, Face It, which nonchalantly drops rock ‘n’ roll stories like cigarette butts. We get a brief glimpse of her surreal viewed-it-all worldliness when NME mentions to Harry that her debut solo effort, ‘KooKoo’ is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month – an arguably ahead-of-its time raw funk record that saw her work with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, but is chiefly remembered for its distinctive HR Giger-painted imagery (the artist was fresh off winning an Oscar for his work on Ridley Scott’s Alien) – the cover of which featured Harry with giant needles skewered through her face. She and Stein stayed at Giger’s Zurich abode, where he offered her a boulder of opium. Surely the birthplace of the nightmarish Xenomorph would have been the worst place to get high?

“I don’t think me and Chris were doing a lot of drugs at the time, so that was more a situation for him,” she says. “His house was surprisingly quaint and leaned more towards the Aleister Crowley [notorious English occultist and artist] side of things than the Alien creature – although he did have a full-sized Alien creature which he’d forget about and would scare him in the dark as he walked past it. He also had a miniature train that you could actually ride on in his backyard, which he loved to turn on because it was very noisy and the neighbours didn’t like it.”

Apart from revisiting their Cuba crossover, 2021 sees Blondie tour the UK with their buddies Garbage, where they’re excited to play the hits. “After everyone, including us, has gone through this terrible, frightening drama and threat to life, perhaps even losing people, I feel like we should give the people what they want and dig out some stuff we haven’t played for a long time,” says Harry. They’re also preparing their 12th studio album, the followup to 2017’s ‘Pollinator’, which will again see them reunite with producer John Congleton. Unlike that project which was largely collaborative and saw Blondie record songs submitted by the likes of Sia, Charli XCX, Dev Hynes and Johnny Marr, the upcoming release will be more band-focused (save for perhaps another tune by Marr, Harry previously informed NME). “We’re in the process of setting up a period of time to lay down some tracks and rehearse,” she says. “We’re already looking at 10 – 12 songs, but it feels too early to talk about it.”

Added to that, they’re releasing their first ever authorised archival boxset, entitled ‘Blondie 1974–1982: Against The Odds’, and a graphic novel which will offer an imaginative take on the oral history of the band. On raiding the archives to include previously-unreleased early material, Harry says: “It’s been surprising re-discovering the things you move on and forget about. Those songs are maybe not great but they were certainly part of our development and have a valuable innocence to them. It’s not my nature to live in the past – I’m always looking for the next step.”

Cuba
The Cuban crowd at Blondie’s 2019 gig. CREDIT: Press

Stein once drew a parallel to Cuba and famed New York Club CGBG (where Blondie cut their teeth) in that it was isolated, steeped in poverty, and a distinctive scene developed largely free of outside influence. Harry feels it’s a crying shame that it’s now trickier  to return to Cuba, since Trump reclassified the country as a “state-sponsor of terrorism” this year, a move some feel was a parting gift to hardliners. “It’s a tragedy really and I just don’t understand it,” she sighs. “To be honest, I’m so sick of politics. I learned so much from Cuba – it made me feel empathetic towards their problems and ambitions.”

“I’m curious about the newer shades of Cuban culture because it has maintained a strong identity and independent style, and I just wish the blockade – if you want to call it that – was over so I could return and interact with the musicians and discover more.” Judging by the jubilant response of the crowds captured in Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, you expect the feeling is mutual. If life really is a throw of the dice, then Blondie, despite everything over the years, keep coming up with double sixes.

‘Blondie: Vivir En La Habana’ is due to be released later in 2021. The accompanying soundtrack EP arrives on July 16 via BMG