By her own admission, NME Godlike Genius Debbie Harry has lived "a hell of a life" - and now she's laying it all out in the table in Face It, an often jaw-dropping biography. In a candid interview, she tells Gary Ryan about her extraordinary life, Bowie's penis, and modern femininity.
‘When I met you in the restaurant/You could tell I was no debutante” sang Debbie Harry on Blondie’s imperious 1979 single ‘Dreaming’. In her ’30s when fame struck, she always had the knowing air of someone who had seen in all before. Now her new autobiography reveals the – sometimes jaw-dropping – extent to which that was true.
Watch our video interview with Debbie Harry above
Face It is a rollicking, riotous read, taking in Blondie’s ascent from gritty downtown New York to pop superstars to the band’s nosedive of heroin addiction, bankruptcy and break-up, and phoenix-like return to the top of the charts in 1999.
But it’s frequently bracing in its matter-of-fact frankness. Experiences that would span chapters in other tomes are nonchalantly brushed aside like lint off a jacket. She is stalked by a crazed ex who breaks into her bedroom with a gun – an experience she’d channel into the song ‘One Way or Another’. There’s the time her apartment burns down because the biker gang leader living in the flat above her has been tied-up, tortured and set on fire. Add in a kidnap attempt by serial killer Ted Bundy, Phil Spector pulling a firearm on her, and David Bowie exposing himself, and it’s fair to say it’s a real page-turner.
We meet in an upscale room in London’s Savoy hotel. Last night, she caught up with her friend Iggy Pop – who once memorably described her as ‘Barbarella on speed’ – at an awards ceremony (“He seemed in very good form,” she beams). Even at 74 – with signature blonde hair, wearing leather trousers and a chic hoodie – she looks eerily identical to her Warhol screen-print: which means that even though she’s warm and kind (“Have you got a cushion? I love your T-shirt!”) you can never shake the surreal feeling that you’re talking to the most influential frontwoman in music; an ambulatory archive of New York cool.
As leader of Blondie, Harry has always been someone who forges forward – they were the first punk band to embrace disco in 1979 with ‘Heart of Glass’ and scored the first number one rap song in the US with ‘Rapture’ in 1981 – refusing to bow to nostalgia, so she admits that looking in life’s rear-view mirror did not come easy to her.
“At first, it was absolutely hateful,” she says of the process of reflecting on her life. “I’m not the type that likes wandering down memory lane a lot. Overall, I feel pretty good about it and I tried to bring some serious aspects to it and also a bit of humour and I didn’t really want to offend a whole of people – though I’m sure some people will be a little bit offended!”
“Some people are lucky and find themselves in their late ’20s, but it took me a little bit longer.”
Face It is illustrated by fan art she’s collected from over her 40-plus year career. What’s the most unusual thing a fan’s ever given her? “A guy sent me his ponytail – we call it a freak-flag – because he was going to jail,” she remembers. “It was creepy, sad and sweet. It hit me in a lot of different ways!” She notes that fans subconsciously, subtly include references to their own face when drawing her. It may be that she’s easy to project an image onto because in a world of oversharing, she’s often referred to as something of a sphinx.
Her story begins in 1945. Born Angela Trimble, she was adopted and writes how being separated from her birth mother after three months left its mark: even now, when her band go their separate ways at the airport, she gets “a gut reaction of fear and abandonment.” As a teenager in New Jersey, she felt different and was always trying to fit in. “I’ve been fortunate in the respect that I did find my way,” she says. “Some people are lucky and find themselves in their late ’20s, but it took me a little bit longer.”
She paints an evocative image of her teenage years, riding to a street nicknamed Cunt Mile – where she’d walk around looking “as hot and trashy” as possible, waiting for guys to cruise her, which sounds like Tinder before Tinder existed.
“I suppose, yeah!” she laughs. “It was a little more street-action. So it amounts to the same thing, I think – you know, fooling around, and trying to find friends who are boyfriends or whatever. For me, it was pretty much all fun and kind of naughty – which was great!”
She laughs. “Tinder! You know, I have friends who do that regularly – I haven’t tried it.” Yet this is pre-the sexual revolution and the signs of the period’s different mores and attitudes are always lurking underneath: a friend says she’s going on holiday to Florida – it turns out she secretly headed to Puerto Rico for an abortion, shrouded in silence and shame. No-one says anything.
Perhaps the most shocking moment for the post-Yewtree era reader arrives when she’s holidaying with her cousin in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They head into town. “I don’t know exactly how old we were,” she says. “I know we weren’t teenagers yet. We’d wander up and down the strip and put on make-up and lipstick and be real dangerous. And that’s how we met Buddy!”
‘Buddy’ is Buddy Rich – famous for being Frank Sinatra’s drummer – who was one of a group of men in their late-30s who asked the pre-teens out. They secretly followed them home, rapping on the front-door at around 11pm – Harry’s parents found it “hilarious”, and led them upstairs to see the two of them safe in bed, faces cleanly-scrubbed and very clearly children. Two weeks later, a signed photo of Buddy arrives through their letterbox.
Harry is still amused by this life-snippet; a reaction which you might not expect.
“You know, we were flirting and I don’t mean to indicate that he was some kind of predator or anything like that. He was with a friend and you know we were being – not bad girls, but trying to be sophisticated in our own, silly way. He must have known we were quite young and it was all very funny actually.”
With dreams of becoming an artist, she followed the bright, beckoning lights to New York City, working at a waitress at legendary rock venue Max’s Kansas City – where James Rado and Gerome Ragni would beaver away in the backroom writing the musical Hair – and Andy Warhol (who would later paint her) and “big tipper” Janis Joplin were regulars.
After a stint in a folk-collective The Wind in the Willows, her music career properly kicked off when she joined The Stilettos – a campy all-girl trio with a male back-up band – and collided with guitarist Chris Stein. They played famous drag bar Club 82 – David Bowie once turned up to watch a performance years before inviting Blondie to support him on tour in 1977 – and friends tell Harry: “You’re definitely a drag queen”. She’s pleased at having seen drag go from being an underground subculture to the point where she was a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2016. “It’s wonderful that it’s become a thing of its own and its recognised,” she applauds.
Becoming romantic partners, Harry and Stein broke away and formed Blondie in 1974, marking the start of a prolific and creatively-fecund writing relationship that continues to this day. Inspired by Marilyn Monroe, Harry created the character she played in Blondie as a “cartoon fantasy”. In Face It, she writes: ‘More and more lately, I’ve been thinking that I was portraying some kind of transsexual creature.’
“Tinder! You know, I have friends who do that regularly – I haven’t tried it.”
Does she think if terms like genderqueer and non-binary had been around then, she would have identified with them?
“Perhaps,” she says, chewing over the thought like gum. “I don’t know if I made myself as clear as I possibly could with that because I always felt that lyrically with these songs, I was trying to represent the guys in the band as well as myself. I was trying to speak for all of us.
“And I always felt that since all my life, I was always called ‘Debbie’ or ‘Harry’ – so I embodied this myself and it’s just the way it was. It probably still is!” She laughs. “Yeah, so I don’t know – I never really had any problems with that and I’m always surprised when people have a fear or frustration about their combination of sexualities – I think we do better recognising both within ourselves.”
Despite being a pioneer – she was playing up to the idea of being a highly feminine woman fronting a male rock band in a highly phallocentric industry – she swerves taking much credit for breaking new ground.
“By the time CGBGs came around, there were more girls involved – and over here as well in the UK,” she considers. “It was the beginning of female intervention -“ she laughs dryly – “or whatever you want to call it. I think there was more resistance to having girls in bands towards the end of the ‘60s – Cherry Vanilla and Ruby Lynn were very active early on. They probably had it much harder than I did. Though it just seemed like it was part of evolution as far as I could see. I also felt that way about the gay guys fronting bands and it being very apparent – I think they had it a lot harder than me.”
“In order to survive, I could never put myself in the position of whining about being a woman. I just got on with it. “
Written down, it might seem like false modesty: but there’s a part of her book which gives an insight into her worldview: “In order to survive, I could never put myself in the position of whining about being a woman. I just got on with it. As much as it was possible, I found a way to do what I wanted to do.”
Even so, she faced rampant sexism. To promote Blondie’s eponymous debut album, her record company plastered posters of her solo in a see-through blouse around Times Square.
“At the time, I was shocked and I was told something different,” she reflects. “I think that’s really what the problem was – that I was reassured that the photo would be cropped and that it wouldn’t be used below a certain point.”
“The frustration for me was that I hadn’t been treated fairly – they hadn’t said: ‘Oh well, we’re going to use the full shot’ – they said: ‘We’re going to crop it’, and then they didn’t, so that was the rub more than the fact you could see my breasts.”
Rightly, she asked the label executive: ‘Well, how would you like it if it was your balls that were exposed?’ “That did not get a good response!” she laughs.
Over the last decade, Blondie have collaborated with the likes of Gossip‘s Beth Ditto and recorded tracks written by Charli XCX and Sia. In June, Harry was among a retinue of big-names appearing in Halsey’s ‘Nightmare’ video. Witnessing younger artists she paved the way for, does she still see any double standards in the industry?
“I think it’s opened up so much that I don’t know if I really have any complaints,” she dismisses. “I mean, it can be frustrating. I don’t think that’s particularly about sex so much as that it’s such a competitive industry.”
On Patti Smith: “I can’t really describe her as being masculine, but I think she definitely embodied a strength that was intellectual.”
You might readily assume assume someone like Patti Smith be a kindred spirit in understanding the challenges Harry faced; yet there seemed little solidarity there. Instead, she aggressively gatecrashes Blondie’s auditions for a drummer and hawkishly tries to steal Clem Burke.
“I still don’t to this day know what was going on there,” laughs Harry. “But it was funny and Patti was Patti, you know – I can’t really describe her as being masculine, but I think she definitely embodied a strength that was intellectual, [and both] feminine and masculine – as we all did to survive in that particular period.”
“I can’t imagine Halsey coming off that way. I think the girls that come out now are pretty overtly women or feminine. St Vincent is one of my favourites. She’s such a talent and so beautiful, but the sophistication that’s come down now is that everybody really has their own sense of balance in their own sexual skin – but I really can’t say that it has anything to do with me,” she demurs.
“It really has to do with our understanding, and the way that people speak out about who they are and what they are – the standards have changed, and that’s perfectly right as far as I’m concerned.”
A month after our interview comes a jolting cattle-prod of perhaps how little has changed: when a US newspaper tweets its review of Face It with the backhanded-compliment, reductive, casually sexist sell: ‘In her memoir, Debbie Harry proves she’s more than just a pretty blonde in tight pants’.
Never mind the six UK number one singles she racked up fronting Blondie, her five solo albums, the countless collaborations (with artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand, The Jazz Passengers and Future Islands), or acting career with roles in cult classics such as John Waters’s Hairspray and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – as one Twitter response succinctly put it, it’s the equivalent of saying: ‘In her memoir, Marie Curie proves she’s more than just a slut with some beakers.’
“I think the girls that come out now are pretty overtly women or feminine. St Vincent is one of my favourites.”
Her account of the early days of Blondie is wild. During their initial LA gigs, Phil Spector invites them to his mansion, makes Harry sing Ronettes songs and, at one point, sticks his gun in the top of her thigh length boot and says ‘Bang, bang’.
“That was sort of I guess his fascination,” says Harry. “It’s tragic the way things turned out for him. And I honestly wish it didn’t happen – he obviously made a terrible mistake.” She’s referring to the 19 years to life Spector is serving for shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. Could she have predicted it would end that way for him? “No. I think he obviously had a wild side to him and a reputation. I think it was sort of like a game for him. And sometimes games turn out badly.”
During Blondie’s first tour – supporting David Bowie and Iggy Pop in 1977 – she hooks them up with cocaine, and after they do the blow, Bowie flops out his apparently notoriously big dick. What went through her mind?
“Well, I was surprised and flattered actually and sort of ‘Oh!’. She laughs “I mean, who wouldn’t? This is like the perfect rock’n’roll story really. And if it’s David Bowie, what could be better? I thought it was a very gentlemanly gesture in a way. It wasn’t like he was jumping all over me. He was just like: ‘This is my penis’. Very nice!” One of Harry’s strengths seems to be that she always finds the humour – or absurdity – in any situation.
On David Bowie: “It wasn’t like he was jumping all over me. He was just like: ‘This is my penis’. Very nice! I thought it was a very gentlemanly gesture in a way.”
Blondie were post-genre before the term existed, coating whatever musical style they turned their hand to – punk, disco, reggae – in their own Midas bleach. The video to ‘Rapture’ featured Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy – who had taken Debbie and Chris to their first rap show in the Bronx back in 1977 and was namechecked in Harry’s flow.
“Many rappers, including members of Mobb Deep, said it was the first rap song they had ever heard,” she says. “I’m very flattered by that.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Blondie were covering Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ on tour. “I guess the parallel of that was that we had combined a rock-pop feel with a rap homage so obviously that [‘Old Town Road’] is the same thing, only it’s supposedly a country song.” Two years ago, Kanye West phoned her up to moot the possibility of working together. “We did speak to Kanye,” she confirms. “He was very sweet and nice and I forget the song that we were talking about of his that we really liked. Nothing ever came of it but it was a nice, friendly conversation and that was that.” Could the collaboration still happen? “Probably not,” she dismisses. “But how can you know?”
Harry says the most difficult period of the book to re-examine was “between the years 1982 and ’85 – that was a rough patch for all of us”: the band imploded, Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus (an autoimmune disease so rare, hospital nurses assumed he had AIDS and refused to go into his room) and both were numbing the pain – physical and emotional – with heroin.
Despite selling 40 million records, bad management meant they owed a huge bill in unpaid tax – and lost their house to the IRS. “I think when you look back on tough times, as a way to save yourself, your brain takes you to a safe place so you’re looking back on things that might have been particularly horrible at the time, but it’s made easier with a little bit of distance,” she says.
Although Harry and Stein split 1987 – on the day Andy Warhol died – they’ve remained close and she is godmother to his two teenage daughters (he married in 1999). And, when the core members of Blondie reformed in 1998, they returned to the top of the charts with ‘Maria’ – which would surely provide the climactic moment in a biopic. But despite the trend (and box-office smashes of Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody), she isn’t keen to see Blondie’s life immortalised on the big screen.
“I’m not so sure that I’m totally fond of them,” she says. “I think sometimes they really miss the mark.” She sees it as being a similar journey for every band: “you start out on one level, your music becomes popular, somebody dies – or keeps on living. You could pretty much take Elton out and put somebody else in and it’s the same story.”
When Blondie last toured the UK, Harry strode out in a cape emblazoned with: ‘STOP FUCKING THE PLANET’. She describes herself as pro-ecology and anti-Trump. She’s heartened by the rise of Extinction Rebellion. “It’s more on everyone’s consciousness and it’s something kids are growing up to do: talk about necessary evils! I love the Swedish girl who wouldn’t go to school [Greta Thunberg]. I sort of think: well, she probably hates school.” She laughs. “But no, it takes a lot of courage to do that and it’s the ultimate importance.”
“What can I say? We have to do it. If we don’t, we’re finished. So the sooner everyone gets on board if it’s not too late, we can save the planet. We can save ourselves.”
On protesting climate change: “We have to do it. If we don’t, we’re finished. So the sooner everyone gets on board if it’s not too late, we can save the planet.”
The band have seemingly become more overtly political in recent years, albeit with characteristic sly humour rather than tub-thumping. Most recently by covering Matt Monro’s Bond theme ‘From Russia With Love’ in front of a fake presidential seal.
Stein once recounted a story about how Trump met Harry at a party: and the future 45th president informed her she was too short for him. That’s not true, corrects Harry, setting the record straight. “No! He didn’t speak to me at all. And that’s fine.” She laughs. “I was going out with Penn Gillet from Penn and Teller and he was on The Apprentice. We met at a promotional event for one of the tasks. Our paths crossed ever so briefly – and he completely ignored me. We toured with Cyndi Lauper who did The Apprentice and she said he was constantly trying to get her to change her charity – because it was an LGBTQ charity.”
“So yeah…,” she purses her lips disdainfully. “He’s one of a kind. Thank God!”
Now, in 2019, it might seem outrageous that Creem magazine once “outed” Harry for being in her ’30s at the height of Blondie’s success. She’s still striding forward, and is set to record Blondie’s 12th studio album – their first since 2017’s ‘Pollinator’ – in December/January, with John Congleton tentatively lined up to produce again. Johnny Marr has written another track for them, she says – following on from ‘My Monster’, which he penned for ‘Pollinator’. Does she feel that ageism – which gained renewed salience this year when Madonna claimed she was “being punished for turning 60” – is the last barrier in pop to destroy?
“There’s always been a prejudice against age and ageing and that has to do with survival. It’s an animal instinct.”
“Yeah – I think we’ve come a long way,” she says. “If you’re a musician and you want to keep working, that’s really up to you. But I mean, there’s always been a prejudice against age and ageing and that has to do with survival. It’s an animal instinct, I think. But our ideas of vitality and age are changing with everything else, because we’re living better, we’re living longer.”
Harry once said that when she started writing songs, she was “ sick and tired” of tracks by girl-groups “who were victimised by love… I didn’t want to portray myself or women as victims”: hence we ended up with classics like their debut single ‘X Offender’ which rebooted the Shangri Las ’60s pop-pulpy drama with more streetwise, empowered lyrics about a cop who falls in love with a sex worker. That theme of not being a victim seems to extent to her own narrative – no more so than when she describes a brutal attack at knifepoint in the early ‘70s when she and Stein are trailed home by a man who ties up Stein, then rapes Harry. He then steals their cameras and guitars.
“I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear,” she writes. “I’m very glad this happened pre-AIDS or I might have freaked. In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape.”
It’s a paragraph that punches in the solar plexus – precisely because it’s dealt with so abruptly and in a straightforward tone; any aftershocks aren’t discussed.
“Well I think it did affect me,” she says. “I think I have a bit of a stubborn will to survive – for good or for bad. I mean, it could have turned out badly but it didn’t so I think one has to have a sense of relativity,” she says. “I think you can really hurt yourself by carrying around a lot of fear and I realised early on that fear is destructive.”
“What do I know? This is what works for me and what I’ve learned to live with – or live around – and move on.”
Harry mentions in her memoir that she thinks she’s “psychic”: which has come to her in flashes like when her fireplace starts talking to her as a child. As one of the last survivors of her era – the book is filled with anecdotes about now-departed friends and colleagues like The Ramones, Bowie, Malcolm McLaren, Warhol, Basquiat, Harry Dean Stanton – has she ever felt any of their presences? “It’s nothing like that,” she dismisses. “For me, it’s more about knowing what things are likely to happen so whether it’s a sense of logic or whether it’s wishful thinking – I’m sure that’s a lot of it. Chris and I went to see a psychic years ago – her name was Ethel Myers – and she had premonitions. Then when her husband died, she became psychic and had that contact. I don’t have anything like that, but I do think there are a lot of things the brain can do that we just don’t know yet.”
Having blazed a trail for artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Madonna, does she have anything else she wants to achieve? ““I don’t know if I can see anything I haven’t really done except interstellar space travel. And little things like driving a race car or parachuting from a plane – that kind of exciting, adrenaline junkie thing.”
After all, she concludes: “It’s been a hell of life – and I’m lucky and fortunate it’s turned out like this”
Face It is published by Harper Collins.