Blonde beauty: Debbie Harry talks looks, music, and lacking that maternal instinct ahead of the Picnic tonight
Debbie Harry talks to William Leith about looks, music and lacking that maternal instinct
I'm aware that I shouldn't be judging Debbie Harry on her looks, that, for good or ill, she's spent a lifetime being judged on her looks. Blondie have got back together again, for the fourth - or is it fifth? - time. There's a new album, Ghosts of Download. It's dreamy and experimental. But really, I know you want to know what she looks like. Well, she's 68. She's had work done ("getting rid of sags"). She looks somehow other-worldly. "I'm all prettied up," she says.
When Debbie was four, her parents, Catherine and Richard Harry, told her she was adopted. For a time, in her teens, she fantasised that she was the lost daughter of Marilyn Monroe. "They explained it to me in a really nice way," says Harry. "It made me feel quite special somehow. I sometimes attribute my, uh, adventurous nature to that... I have an open mind about things. It didn't present me with any borders. Like I'm just like my mother, and I'm going to be like her. I always felt like I really was a different person, and I didn't feel that was the most comfortable place for me to be."
"That" - her parents' world - was a suburban house in Hawthorne, New Jersey. Richard was a salesman of woven labels, Catherine a housewife. She was conventional, always trying to get her daughter to wear modest clothes and subscribe to her suburban ideal.
"That was what she knew," says Harry. "She thought it was safe." Catherine wanted Harry to find a man, settle down, have a family. Harry wanted to wear black. She liked looking "tough". She was rebellious, an early adopter of sex, had lots of flings.
Born in 1945, she wanted to join the family of refuseniks that was forming all over America, particularly in New York. "The dream was to be a performer," she says. "An artist of some sort. Basically, what I wanted was to be a part of... to lead an artistic life. I didn't want to stay in a small town."
She didn't. After high school, Harry went to Centenary College, a small liberal arts school in Hackettstown, New Jersey, then headed for New York after she graduated. She was 20.
Now, she thought, she had a chance to hit the folk scene, to find her creative self, maybe as a painter or a singer. And it might have worked. But it didn't. I ask her about that time.
"I guess it was pretty... free," she says, taking her time over the answer. "I had a lot of jobs. Getting my shit together, as it were. I lived in the East Village. I had a nice little apartment, $75 a month. I managed to pay the rent, hung out with my friends, went to see bands, had boyfriends."
Harry went to Woodstock. She also worked as a waitress in Max's Kansas City, where a lot of creative types washed up, including artists Willem De Kooning and Andy Warhol, poet Allen Ginsberg, musician Lou Reed and a very camp band called the New York Dolls, whose lead singer, David Johansen, was Harry's boyfriend. But oh, the drugs! "Well, the whole period was very druggy," she says. "I think the 60s were very druggy, don't you?" I was too young, I say.
"Well, I'm sure that, historically, you're aware of that," she says.
Different from now? "Yes. Primarily because nobody really knew exactly how toxic these drugs were. And how dangerous they were. I don't even know if people really understood about alcoholism, what addictions were."
Was she addicted?
"I think I had an addiction, but I don't think I had a major addiction."
This was heroin?
"You name it. Drugs were social. So there you go; I was a social person. I guess I was a part of that world. I don't know. Um. I don't know. I never really had enough money to become seriously addicted. I mean, we [recently] lost a fantastic actor [Philip Seymour Hoffman] to heroin. So tragic. What a brilliant guy. Now, see, that's an addiction. I was never shooting up then."
Back to 1969, the first crazy period. She worked as a bunny girl at the Playboy mansion. She did drugs. Then she went back to her parents' house in the suburbs to clean up. Months later, she headed back to New York, where she sang in a not very successful girl band called the Stilettos. Still she pressed on, into her late 20s.
One night, a slightly nerdy Jewish guy with long hair and eye make-up turned up to see her band. This was Chris Stein. The son of two political activists from Brooklyn, he really was a beatnik. They became friends, then lovers. They formed a band, Angel and the Snake. Then they formed another band, which they called Blondie, because guys used to shout, "Hey, Blondie!" at Harry in the street.
Blondie, the band, weren't taken seriously at first. Then they had some hits in the late 70s, and a few mega-hits in the early 80s. It was Harry and Stein, drummer Clem Burke and usually two other guys who kept changing. There was a lot of tension in the band, because everybody wanted to be a serious musician, but the world at large was only interested in Harry.
From the beginning, it was about Harry, and how gorgeous she was. Stein took a publicity shot of her in 1976 for Punk magazine. She was "Punkmate of the month". She was naked apart from a guitar. That was the start. She was always at the front. It was always about her face - in the magazines, on the album covers. Andy Warhol made one of his famous screen prints of Harry's face.
"Certainly," she has said, "fifty per cent of my success is based on my looks. Maybe more."
"Some days," she says now, "I look at myself and think, 'Huh, don't look, don't look, give it up.' As I get older, I sort of think, 'Oh God, you know, you've been relying on your looks now for a while. And you have to make sure that there's something else.'" Did she rely on her looks? "I think to some degree, sure, because it's part of showbiz. It's part of what I do. Obviously, I use what I've got."
Looking like she does is, she says, "very advantageous. But sometimes it can be a detriment. I think down through history, when women were considered property, beauty was a commodity. Men are judged on power. And women are usually discriminated against in the area of having any brains at all".
She never found her birth parents in the end, but she did try. "I found out a small bit of information," she says. "I don't know how much of it is credible. Today, it's much better. You get to know exactly who your parents were, what they were like, medical history. After a certain point, you have to let it go. What's the point?
"I looked into reaching out to my mother, but it didn't work out. It wasn't possible."
She found out that her biological father had died. Which must have been a shock, I say. Harry says it wasn't. She hadn't known him. She can be very frank.
"It was like hearing that, you know, you read an obituary in a paper of some person, and you say, 'Oh well'. You know. It's just like that. And I didn't even have a name."
Thinking about this, she says: "I think there was a physical cloud left when I was parted from my mother. I was with her for three months, something like that. So, I think that, as an infant, that must have been very traumatic. I think that I've dealt with that… there was some kind of core thing that was in my mind that I, as a child, you can't articulate any of this."
Did she never want children herself?
"I don't know what the term for it is, but I don't think I ever really had the yearning that a lot of women have to have children. I think I might have been a good mother. But I might have been a terrible mother, too."
And now she must carry on with what she does: making records, performing all the old hits - 'Heart of Glass', 'Atomic', 'Call Me' - being the woman who paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga, standing still while people bounce light off her cheekbones.
Blondie play Electric Picnic on Friday August 29th