Blondie has just finished up a day in a Manhattan rehearsal studio preparing to record its as-yet-untitled fourth album. The atmosphere is chaotic; gofers and girlfriends wander around the room. Across the hall, there's a big roast beef and champagne bash for Carly Simon, who has just done a television commercial or something.
Nigel Harrison, Blondie's mop-haired English bass player, guides me to the champagne, then introduces me to keyboard player Jimmy Destri and lead singer Deborah Harry. I can tell the moment Debbie lays eyes on me that she hates my guts. Her icebreaker is: "Why didn't you do this three years ago?" I assume she means Rolling Stone; she's another press-hater.
Back in the studio, drummer Clem Burke and guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante are jamming. Stein segues into "Rock Lobster," a tune by the B-52's, the New Wave group from Georgia. Mike Chapman, their producer, volunteers to round everyone up. I ask him if it's a good time for an interview; he replies with a winning smile. "Leave it to me. They do whatever I say." Before we get down to business, Chapman takes over the guitar and does a loose medley of songs. He's pleased with himself, but the guitar ultimately gets the best of him. He rips off one last power chord, announces that the interview will begin, and then bows out.
Stein, who with his owlish specs (he rarely wears them in public) and prematurely graying hair looks like a young Allen Ginsberg, starts off with a message for everyone who has criticized the group for selling out: "Fuck you!" Debbie bursts into the room, wrings her hands and gives me pale, withering looks. "Why am I here at all?" she seems to be asking. Having cast her pall over the room, she rushes out again. Stein trots after her to see what's up.
The rest of us talk about the rock press. They all hate the rock press. We talk about the difficulty New Wave artists have had in getting airplay. Destri offers the opinion that the art-oriented media are just a backdrop to sell products.
Chapman walks back into the room and says, "I think the music business is full of shit." His smile has become a leer. He looks like he's been hitting the bubbly. He says he's never going to do another interview again. "My favorite color is zilch," he adds. "My favorite people are nobody. My favorite thing to do is to go out and do nothing. I don't like anybody. I don't like anything. I don't like doing interviews. I hate everything except I love rock & roll, and the people who work for me are the greatest people in the world."
Someone pipes up with, "What about sex?"
Chapman responds gravely, "I never have sex. Sex is one thing a rock & roller does not have room for in his life. They took my cock off at the age of four." I ask him if he swapped it for a Chuck Berry album. He replies with the utmost dignity, "It would not have fetched that high a price."
Debbie slouches back in, looking more tempest-tossed than ever. Her face is chalky with anxiety. Chapman tells her, "It's your turn. I've just said all the controversial things I can think of. Say something controversial, Debbie."
She sits down on the edge of the stage and emits a morose, "Yeah."
"Good," Chapman beams. "That was it. 'Yeah.'"
The problem is that she wasn't expecting an interview; all she had been told was that she was to meet this writer – me. There is a short discussion of whose fault this mess is. Debbie hates me, she hates Chris, right now she hates the world. She's just feeling rotten. I try to cheer her up, congratulate her for "Heart of Glass" being Number One.
This makes her even glummer. "Yeah. It's Number Two. It was Number One for a week. Now it's Number Two." She looks like Mimi wasting away in La Bohème.
"We got bumped by Peaches and Herb," says Stein, "and it's not even the real Peaches."
Now the storm breaks. Debbie hollers at me. Everyone looks down at the floor. I'm afraid she's either going to cry or pull a derringer out of her raincoat and shoot me. This is a roomful of miserable people. It's like a wake for somebody no one liked.
The second time I see Debbie, a week later, the atmosphere is much more copacetic, but then it's hard to go downhill from a debacle. We are at Power Station Recording Studios, which is in the middle of being renovated, so there are boards and nails and hammers everywhere. The room we are in seems to have no other raison d'ètre than to intervene between the hallway and the bathroom (sign on the bathroom door: HIT RECORDS MADE WHILE U-WAIT).
Debbie refuses to be interviewed without Stein, 29, but he keeps wandering off to fiddle with dials. The couple never seem to be separated for very long. Even those in their inner circle say they don't really understand the relationship. One insider told me, "She can't do anything without him. It's kind of spooky." Debbie is curled up in a dusty alcove. The window is boarded up rather clumsily, so a single bar of sunlight streaks across her. I ask about her image as a fashion plate.
"I don't do the campy stuff anymore," she replies. "I've eliminated all that, the secondhand store look. I've outgrown it, you know? I can afford to buy clothes and to have them made, so now it's more what I would specifically choose to wear." Her voice is very soft. "What I do now is more of an image. It sticks in people's minds." Which isn't to say that she doesn't look funky nowadays. Today she's wearing red tights, red high heels and a childish, embroidered smock that she is continually tugging on and smoothing out.
The daughter of a salesman in Manhattan's fashion district, Deborah Ann Harry was born in Miami and raised in New Jersey. She has one younger sister, Martha, and a cousin, Bill, now in college, who has lived with the family since his early teens. When Debbie left home and moved to Manhattan, her first apartment was on St. Marks Place in the East Village, down the street from poet W. H. Auden's residence. Her initial stab at a musical career, a brief and ill-starred effort, was with a Mamas-and-Papas-esque group called Wind in the Willows.
Next came a long stretch as a New York survivor. She kept her artistic credentials alive by hanging out on the periphery of the Warhol crowd, writing and painting while supporting herself with a succession of jobs – as a beautician, Playboy Bunny and barmaid at Max's Kansas City, the rock bistro where she would eventually be a headliner. There was a flirtation with heroin. Then she found her milieu with a campy glitter band called the Stilettoes. Chris Stein joined the band shortly after her first club gig with them.
The Stilettoes went down with everybody else in the Great Glitter Crash that began in the early Seventies. By then, Debbie and Chris were a team, romantically as well as musically, and together they founded Blondie.
Looking back on her career, does it fit together, or was it something more experimental, a case of trial and error? "A lot of people think that everything you do is, like, preconceived," she offers blandly. "Yeah, it's been good, because it's been very inspired – whatever happened was it. Our biggest consideration was just to survive, so, like . . . all art forms are frivolous. That's what 'stay hungry' is all about.
"Now we're sort of at an in-between stage, commercially and artistically. We're at a stage where we are what we are, and we've been clearly defined, and there is a market for us, right? So we're taking steps in our direction, you know. We're moving on, we're doing things, but we're doing things that people can identify. We're not taking a total turn from what we've been classified as. But, like, the next things that we do, we could very well do a total turnaround."
I, for one, find her statements difficult to follow. She alights from the alcove and wanders about restively. She picks up a can of two-penny nails, takes a handful and fretfully stabs them at things. I ask her about something Clem Burke told me the night before at Max's: "We want to be one of the great bands, not like the Grateful Dead." Debbie frowns thoughtfully. "The things we've done to stay together as a group and all are pretty amazing, so I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be one of the greatest rock groups. I mean, to be a rock group, to do what we do and stay together without any, like, real dictatorial leadership, it's pretty strong. It's very strong. It's like, if we weren't musicians, then maybe we'd all be at the track every day, and we'd always be in hock, because we'd be heavy gamblers. It's the same kind of drive, I guess."
Debbie Harry is elusive; if you look at her too intently, she turns vaporous on you, like a Cheshire cat. I've noticed that she never looks the same in any two photos. In person, she looks like none of them. She is pretty, but she doesn't look like she feels pretty. Rather, she looks tired, spent.
"It smells like a dentist's office in here, doesn't it?" she asks. A cigarette butt is smoking in the ashtray, so she fills it up with water from the tap, which doesn't do much for the room's smell. Stein is back. Suddenly we're talking about the Sixties. As usual, Chris is trying to work in one of his radical-alarmist conspiracy theories, while Debbie responds on a personal level. "That's like the pathetic thing," she says. "People have really been dictated to a lot in the past couple of years, tastewise. I mean, eccentricity has been really frowned upon. Really, it's very frightening. You know, it makes you feel really endangered by being any kind of weirdo in this country."
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