In addition to the cool demeanor she keeps in her songs and onstage as the titular frontwoman of Blondie, Debbie Harry has always played it even cooler in her personal life. She’s stayed sane despite business and money woes, harassment, rape, her lover’s auto-immune illness and near death, heroin addiction, and David Bowie dropping trou.
It’s not as if Harry, now seventy-four, is unemotional about all this—but there’s been a definitive laissez-faire elegance to the manner in which she’s always taken and given. That’s the vibe behind Harry’s first ever memoir, Face It (a second one is in the planning stages), and the upcoming audio-visual tour with ex-lover and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein that’s coming to your city soon.
Looking at the trajectory of your life, with Blondie and without, what made you want to release this memoir now?
I don’t know if there’s a great, particular answer to that. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years. I just organized it. There’s no timing to it, or a scheduled event. I think I’ve just been busy doing typical Blondie stuff and it rolled out this way.
This is the best time in a long time for women topping the charts. Still, for all the diversity and progress, there seems to be a distinct lack of edge—the thing that made even your most successful work sparkle. Did writing a memoir have anything to do with giving artists a clue as to how it’s done?
Oh, no [laughs]. I wouldn’t want anybody to do anything the way I’ve done it. I would not encourage that at all. That would be the very last thing I’d want. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. The industry has changed, you’re right—and for the better. I’m glad. What has happened, though, is that its competitive nature is more fierce than ever before. You have to realize that when I first started in Blondie, there were so few of us women trying to be in a band.
You also talk about band problems and Chris’ illness. What was the most challenging thing to write down and relive?
It was when Chris was so sick. That was rough to write about. I really did not want to offend him in any way, and cleared every line with him. I asked him repeatedly, gave him the text, and he was cool with what I ended up with. You would have had to have been pretty unemotional and insensitive to not get the picture of his distress from what I wrote.
Did you know from the beginning that what Blondie was doing would be relevant beyond punk’s first gleaming, or did you think, as most bands do, that it’d be a two to four year cycle, and then poof?
I can’t speak for anybody but myself and Chris, but we were in it. We wanted to be artists, always. Now, I don’t think we had secure knowledge as to our longevity. It was a day-to-day kind of thing. Every time we moved up the ladder, there was always insecurity to go with it, but never regarding who we were as artists. It was a certain obsession, I guess, that drove us.
Obsession is a good way of putting it. You were built more for art than for fame?
There’s two things there, right? Anybody who starts a band, or joins a band automatically, sees themselves as big and famous. That’s part of the deal. You’re there because you’re there for the big time. But as an artist, you don’t have a choice in what you’re doing. Chris started out from the School of Visual Arts. I wanted to be a painter—that’s one of the reasons I came to New York City in the first place. Because I wanted to be an artist, I did what I had to.
You mean music.
I fell into a music scene, and I liked it a lot. It all seemed very natural to me. Even though I had a lot to learn…
Which makes up some of the more harrowing parts of the book, I might add, without giving anything anyway. Are you pleased to have done it all without the looming shadow of the internet hanging over you?
“I did like clandestine aspects of what we were doing. I liked the idea of the underground. I liked the idea of creating surprises—all of which is gone now.”
Very good point. I did like clandestine aspects of what we were doing. I liked the idea of the underground. I liked the idea of creating surprises—all of which is gone now. Surprises now are few and far between and sadly short lived if they exist at all. That was a very enticing aspect of what we did back then. Like wow, when you discover something—physically, like going out and seeing a band you knew nothing about—it’s everything. It involves your body. Your sense of smell. All senses. Hot. Cold. You get all of that shit, all of that juice. Now, you just get an electronic version. And it’s less. You get more information, and less real visual and feel.
Would you have been less cautious about your actions, or more cautious?
I don’t know. We were pretty stupid, so I think we would have done just the same. I should say, though, that the musicians that have grown up with the internet are great. Their playing level has gone way up,
Did you keep a journal coming up, or did the book all come from your memory?
Primarily from memory. I mean, consider that I’ve been doing interviews for years. Once you’ve assembled your thoughts like that, it is like a journal. Not something I wrote, but something somebody else wrote. I just told the story. That’s actually what I attribute to remembering a lot of stuff. And believe me, there is a lot that I haven’t remembered. That’s where the challenge of a follow-up second volume comes in, because I know there are so many more anecdotes that I want to tell. So far, I think my second volume is going to start with the relationships I have had.
Chris is with you on Face It’s upcoming book tour, like a high school A/V director showing slides and home movies. Why is that?
We’ve been together for so long, and he’s also got his own book—his second book—so again, we’re living in parallel lines. We’re walking the same roads that talk to and about each other. So, that was an obvious reason to tour together this way, as well as it just being more fun. We’ve worked together all these years, and are conversational people. It makes a better presentation. At least, it was a good idea at the time.
When you dropped the last period after the last word in the last sentence of the book, was there catharsis? Or was catharsis never the point?
Ha. It doesn’t hurt. A little catharsis goes a long way. I do feel that having to explain myself endlessly has been a little bit tricky. I’m not one to take a long look down memory lane. My challenge is to write or do something for today or tomorrow. But it will be a cathartic thing inevitably. And it’s given me a fresh energy about doing new things. I’m looking forward to perhaps doing another solo project. And when we just finished this recent tour with Elvis Costello, I really wanted to keep playing. I didn’t want to stop. FL