Debbie Harry: ‘I’ve Been Criticized for My Entire Career’
When Debbie Harry first told Rolling Stone about her memoir, Face It, earlier this year, she promised it would contain “an overview of the way [Blondie] carried on through all that time, from my sort of warped little perspective.” But when it came out, it turned out to be even more eye-opening than she had suggested.
In the book, she revealed that she had always viewed “Blondie” as a character she played. Adopted when she was only six months old, Harry questioned who she really was as she drifted from her hippie-ish first band, the Wind in the Willows, to CBGB’s greatest success story, Blondie. Along the way she took acid with Timothy Leary, watched Patti Smith try to steal her drummer, escaped serial killer Ted Bundy (even though she admits her story has been debunked), brought heroin to her then-boyfriend, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, in the hospital, vividly described David Bowie’s penis and quizzically dated magician Penn Jilette, among many other adventures. She wrote the book in a funny and conversational way that suggests there’s always a little more to the story than she’s sharing.
“I tried to make it interesting,” she tells Rolling Stone by phone from her home in New Jersey, in which she discusses how she views her life now, after writing the book. “I didn’t wanna make it about this tour or that tour or a list of people that I’ve met. I wanted to make it a little bit more personal and a little bit more oddball. And I think I did achieve some of that. And I settled some things in my own heart, too.”
What did you learn about yourself from writing the book?
I guess the emotional impact of it all has played its game, so these are stories or events that perhaps aren’t as charged within me as they once were. So it’s easier for me to talk about them. I must have done thousands of interviews by now, so just to get my version of these stories is a great sense of clarity for me.
Was there anything that you found difficult to write about?
No, not especially. I think that in some ways it gave me a bit of closure on some things, which I think that we all need some of that at times. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Chris says to me, “Well, it’s better than getting a face tattoo.”
Most things are, though.
[Laughs]. I know. So there you have it. I’m glad I did it.
One of the things that stood out to me in the book is you wrote about Blondie as a character, that the persona was androgynous. Do you feel your fans and critics caught on that it was a character?
I think they may have but without knowing exactly what was fascinating them or what attracted them. I think sexuality at this moment in time is pretty much an overt statement of what you are. I used to dress as a little boy a lot in Blondie, but in a way that sort of looked cute, you know? It looked like I was dressing like a little mod boy or something. And then at other times, I was flashing my whatever — whatever I could flash. So I think I went through stages and in a way, “Blondie” was a character for me but also a character using myself being the basis.
You were adopted. I recently read Liz Phair’s book, and she questioned whether the fact that she, too, was adopted had pushed her into a creative life. Do you feel it was that way for you?
Well, I didn’t read her book, but now I’m going to for sure. I definitely think so because it made me feel that I had to find out who I was and more about myself. And maybe being an artist gave me that sort of inclination or freedom to do that. Like, if I were to have gotten married and raised a family, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to flesh out different ideas and look in different weird directions. So perhaps she’s right.
You have met many fascinating people in your life. What did you learn from Andy Warhol?
The best thing that I learned from Andy was to be a good listener. That has really served me well. Also, he wasn’t quick to judge. As far as I know, he kept an open mind in a lot of cases. He had a great deal of curiosity and I think that’s a great life force. I wish I had had more time with him. I wasn’t really a friend of his; I was a good acquaintance.
You wrote about what inspired “Rapture” in the book, and on Blondie’s tour this past summer, you covered “Old Town Road.” What do you like about the Lil Nas X song?
That was Chris’ idea and, in retrospect, it was Chris’ idea to do “Rapture.” When we did rap then, it was controversial, because it was a new form and the way that we had done it was more or less an homage. It was a weird crossover. And “Old Town Road’ did the same thing because it is supposedly rap with country. So it seemed like the perfect kind of parallel.
One of the most surprising parts of the book is when you wrote about Chris’ illness, a debilitating skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris, and how you brought him heroin in the hospital when he was at his worst. How do you feel about giving him your own medication now?
I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown most of the time. We were under stress from the IRS, and our whole business situation was imploding. We were very, very stressed out, and I think that compounded Chris’ illness. I don’t know if bringing him heroin was the smartest thing to do, but it was what I did and that’s how we got through it. And I can say now that there was a time where I felt like drugs were a lot of fun, but in the end it wasn’t so much fun [laughs].
Did the hospital staff ever pick up on what you were doing?
I don’t know, but if they did, maybe they felt that it was all right. I mean, Chris’ illness was not easy. I think it was quite painful.
When was the last time you took drugs?
I don’t even know. I’d have to sit down and really think about that.
Yeah, I’m sure. Why do you think that you and Chris have continued to work so well together after the dissolution of the romantic relationship?
I don’t know. I couldn’t think of doing Blondie without Chris. We support each other in many ways. I feel like Chris is like my other hand in some ways. I trust him for some reason. I think he’s got a great mind; he’s a great person for me. I think we complement each other. And you know, [laughs] I don’t know if you believe in astrology but we are diametrically opposed astrologically. He’s a Capricorn, he’s January 6th, and I’m July 1st. So we are really a balancing act.
You’re pretty frank about drugs and sex throughout the book. Now that it’s out and people are reacting to it, is there anything that you wish you’d left out of the book?
Well, there are moments where I wish that I hadn’t done it at all [laughs]. But no, it gave me a sense of completion or closure in some cases. I don’t love going down memory lane, so maybe people will stop asking me those questions, ’cause I’ll just say, “Oh, read the book.” [Laughs].
A lot of the interviews you’ve done have focused on #MeToo, or your reaction to being sexually assaulted, where you said you were more upset about the guitars the assailant stole. Do you think the people that are asking these sorts of things have the questions all wrong?
Well, I put it in there. It’s a fairly short rendition of a life, you know? I have a lot more stories to tell. But I sort of felt that within an overall arc that these were sort of pivotal things that happened to me. And I had said, in interviews, about the sexual assault that I wasn’t beaten. I was humiliated and I was violated, but I wasn’t physically beaten. And I think that when women are beaten — or anybody, man or woman — it’s a whole different psychological reality. Good sex, bad sex, I guess we’ve all had our good ones and our bad ones. One of the most endearing things of that whole event was that, afterward, Chris was tender. He did not reject me; he consoled me. He was there for me as a friend and as a boyfriend. What more could you ask for?
Does it bother you that people are trying to tell you how to feel about these things?
Oh, never [laughs]. No, I’m much too stubborn or ornery for that. I mean, come on; I’m in a rock band [laughs]. I’ve been criticized for my entire career, which is quite long now. I mean, come on.
Some of the publications were adding their own commentary between your quotes. But isn’t it supposed to be your take on it?
Yeah, I mean what the hell? When something happens to you, you have a choice to fall under it or to avoid the residue and just get rid of it. I think that that’s something that I learned from a friend of mine, many, many years ago. She just casually threw it into a conversation about how something nasty happened to her and she said, “Well, I gave that 10 minutes and then I let it go.” And I thought, “My god, how could she do that? How could she feel all that and then just snap her fingers and let it go?” But we can.
We all are capable of doing that; it’s just really a matter of choice. An emotional response, a strong emotional response is as toxic and as addictive as any drug, because it is a drug. It’s a chemical response. And people live their lives suffering under this chemical response, and they do it to themselves over and over again. You can control it. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
I understand that it does help when you can try and move forward.
Sometimes when I’m doing an interview, I feel like it’s some kind of penny dreadful, you know, like The Perils of Pauline or some kind of survivalist guide to the modern woman. But in a way, it is kind of a survival guide. It’s how I survived. What can I say?
Speaking of, you wrote about how you felt you had been abducted by Ted Bundy and escaped, and you included that some people have debunked that it was Bundy who picked you up. Yet you said you don’t believe that. You have such a vivid memory of it, do you feel that it’s wrong for people to doubt that that happened?
I do, yeah. Well, I have no way to prove it, and they have no way to disprove it. They’re just saying they have a supposed idea of where he was at the time. The only fact that I had is that in more recent years, I read somewhere that a woman — she might’ve been in Nevada or Colorado — also escaped from him. So it is possible. The possibility, the plausibility of having escaped from this guy is very, very slim. But if it happened to me and it also happened to her, I guess it was confirmed that it is possible.
Well, I’m glad that you were able to get out of the situation, whatever it was.
Oh, thank you. You’re one of the few people who’s actually said that. Thank you so much.
No, I’m serious. Nobody says, “I’m glad you made it.” I’m glad, too. Thank you.
Since you’ve been thinking about your life for the book, and people have been weighing in on your experiences, do you feel like you’ve had a happy life, a sad life, or something in between?
Well, at this stage in the game I feel like I’ve had a really, really far out experience. And I’ve done a lot of really interesting things, and I’m very fortunate to make music. As Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like it Hot, “nobody’s perfect.” And nobody’s life is perfect, and as much as it may look like somebody else’s life is perfect from the outside, there’s always some crap to deal with on the inside.
So I don’t know, I’ve had great, happy times and I’ve had some confusion. I kept going somehow and I don’t know if that’s from stubbornness or stupidity, but both those words start with an “st” [laughs]. You know, I mean is anybody’s life all happy or all sad? It’s impossible. I don’t think it’s over yet. I feel like saying to everybody “Not dead yet! Not dead yet!”