By the time Debbie Harry started Blondie, she’d already seen a great deal of the world — or at least become plenty worldly. By 29, she’d played housewife to (though never married) a blue-collar worker in New Jersey, escaped to New York and stumbled upon the Velvet Underground playing a hole-in-the-wall show on St. Marks Place, sang in girl-group backup bands, worked as a Playboy Bunny, and served steak to Miles Davis at Max’s Kansas City. In the years since, she’s acted for John Cassavetes, sat for Andy Warhol, played a literal fairy godmother to Jean-Michel Basquiat, made an iconic dress out of a pillow case and some duct tape, and topped the charts with rap, disco, and, of course, punk.
It’s this eclecticism that’s defined her career — the way she’s embraced new musical styles and working methods, and even incorporated acting techniques to improve her stage performance. “Technology had a very, very strong effect on what we did,” she tells Rolling Stone of Blondie’s creative practice. “We were at the very beginning, on the very edge of the beginning of the digital era.” In the 1990s, in the midst of a slew of film and television roles, she and her band — including Chris Stein, her romantic partner turned close collaborator — reunited and began playing shows again. Last year, she decided to collect her many experiences into the thoughtful, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable memoir Face It. A few months later, she hopped on the phone to discuss her life, career, and what she learned from Iggy Pop.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From a manager that I had a long time ago. His favorite answer to a lot of things was, “Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I was very disappointed about that, because we were being taken out to lunch a lot, but I understand the underpinnings for that. And then the serious best advice that I got was to get good legal advice.
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How has that helped you over the years?
Well, I’m not a trained businesswoman, and there are some real complexities with authorship, and publishing, and recording, and the different ways that your recordings can be used or sold. So it’s not as simple as I imagined it would be at one time.
And did you learn that early in your career?
Not early enough!
In Blondie’s early days, Tony Ingrassia introduced you to the theory behind Method acting. What do you think you gained by using Method techniques to create the Blondie character, instead of being a more genuine version of yourself onstage?
Initially, it helped me to really bring strong emotional content to songs that I didn’t write. The hard part is — and it’s the same for actors as for singers — to make choices for yourself that are going to resonate within your life experience and your emotional world. When I started out, [the Method] gave me that overview kind of thing, where you’re looking down at yourself. This, to me, was a tremendous advantage.
Your fame came a bit later in life than for some musicians. How do you think it benefited you that you started Blondie in your late twenties?
Perhaps to have a little bit more flexibility with my ego.
Well, to realize that sometimes you hold strong on what your idea is and sometimes you step back and accept another person’s idea, and you know that nothing is so precious. A little bit of age gave me that.
You’ve compared New York in the 1970s to Paris in the 1920s. Do you think there’s a place that has that same kind of cultural importance now, or has that all moved online?
I don’t know. I mean, it could be diluted by the internet because everything is so available, but it could very well exist in spaces that I’ve never been. I would put my hope into the idea that it would have to happen, that there would have to be some kind of germ of growth by a group of people forced into a climate of chaos. Maybe in the Middle East, maybe in Asia, or India, or someplace where it hasn’t happened for a while. I mean, these are places that have very ancient ideas, and religions, and cultures that at one time were very powerful. So all of that I guess comes into play. I don’t know, I think religion makes a mess of everything. We don’t want to go there.
“I think religion makes a mess of everything. We don’t want to go there.”
You grew up idolizing Marilyn Monroe. What’s your favorite movie of hers and why?
I guess, off the top of my head, Some Like It Hot, because it’s so much fun and she’s so beautiful to look at. One of my favorite lines at the end of the movie is when Jack Lemmon reveals himself to Joe E. Brown. Joe E. asked [Lemmon] to marry [him], and Jack says, “I can’t,” and he pulls his wig off and says, “I’m a man.” And Joe E. Brown turns and says, “Nobody’s perfect.”
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
One of the first things that I bought that I considered indulgent at the time was something from [designer] Issey Miyake. I don’t know how you would describe it — it was sort of like a long, quilted, sleeveless, Japanese peasant-style jacket. It was very uniquely him, and I just went for it. I don’t know what else I would consider self-indulgent. Probably everything.
Your first tour with Blondie was opening for Iggy Pop and David Bowie. What did you learn from watching them perform?
There was a certain amount of improvisation in their performances. It wasn’t robotic, and the passion was there. Mr. Pop is passionate. It’s pretty obvious he’s kind of a wild guy, but he has standards; he has a controlled madness, and this is what it’s really all about.
Did you find yourself changing as a performer after that tour?
Probably. Experience is everything and I was sort of in an odd position as being a woman in a man’s band, and I tried not to be too coy or too cute — other than the fact that I was cute — but I tried to bring other elements into it. Whether I always achieved that is another story.
You do a lot of work for Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that works to protect New York’s waterways. Why is that an important fight for you?
Because I love the Hudson and I love New York. I’ve been invited to perform for different charities over the years, and have for many, and they are all really important. It’s very hard to make one more important than another, but finally it came to me that water was essential to life and that was where I wanted to be strong and to make a statement. And then more recently with [the Blondie album] Pollinator, the idea of food, people surviving, and plants surviving, and dedicating some time and some thought to protecting pollinators also became important to me. So there are very basic elements to survival, and I felt that that’s where I wanted to put my focus.
You’ve spoken before about your love for wrestling. Do you still watch WWE?
[Laughs] No, not so much. I think I’ve done my wrestling. I’ve wrestled with wrestling. It’s very entertaining, but I don’t follow it as I once did. I guess I just moved on.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t be cruel. That would be it. Whether it’s in thought or in action, just leave cruelty alone.