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Afloat with StaticJenny Turner
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Vol. 41 No. 24 · 19 December 2019

Afloat with Static

Jenny Turner

3896 words
Face It 
by Debbie Harry.
HarperCollins, 352 pp., £20, October 2019, 978 0 00 822942 9
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Asa child, Debbie Harry was always searching for ‘the perfect taste’. She couldn’t describe it, but knew she’d know it if she found it. ‘Sometimes, I got a hint of it in peanut butter. Other times … when I drank milk. It was maddening because I was driven to have it.’ She never ate anything, she writes, without wondering if she was at last about to get ‘the flavour of complete satisfaction’.

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry, Paris, 1978

She grew up and the search was mostly forgotten, though she struggled in secret with bingeing and with worries about getting fat. She’s always been open about the heroin she’s done, over the years, and about how much she enjoyed it: ‘It was so delicious and delightful. For those times when I wanted to blank out parts of my life or when I was dealing with some depression, there was nothing better than heroin. Nothing.’ Now she’s in her seventies, she has ‘a protein and vitamin powder’ that she mixes with coconut water and that tastes ‘satisfyingly familiar’. She blends one up most days. With a careless flip of that flossy halo, the perfect insouciance of her perfect little slotted snarl, she makes the ‘ghostly’ link:

I know that my birth mother kept me for three months. I reason that during this time she breast-fed me and this was the perfect taste. My birth mother kept me and fed me for as long as she could, then she sent me out into the world of choices. The world of flavours. The world. Now, finally, thanks to my maturing, my searching, and my magical shake, I have regained the ability to feel full, to feel hunger, and to enjoy filling up and ending the hunger. True satiation. It seems so simple. Probably as simple as infinity and the universe.

Unlike Patti Smith, her fellow New York rocker and ancient rival, Harry doesn’t do hallucinatory chats with dead lovers and a motel sign (‘Thank you, Dream Motel, I said … It’s the Dream Inn! the sign exclaimed’), or stud her text with dingy photos of chairs and boots. Unlike Viv Albertine, the former Slits guitarist and the author, so far, of two marvellously frank memoirs, she’s not an especially wild or gifted raconteuse. She hit the big time in the 1970s and has never been remotely precious about her stories, which means she’s told most of them loads of times already, most notably in Lester Bangs’s Blondie (1980) and in Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (1982), an autobiography ghosted by Victor Bockris but written, supposedly, by Harry herself, in collaboration with her guitarist and then lover, Chris Stein.

This new memoir is also ghosted, by Sylvie Simmons, and is packaged more as a fan book than a piece of writing, with pics and graphics on glossy paper, and a great deal of padding. But there’s lots in it that’s lovely, such as a picture, on page 152, of a tea party Harry gave in London in the late 1970s with X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, the Selecter’s Pauline Black, Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, Albertine and Siouxsie Sioux. I was at school in Scotland doing my O-Grades back in those days, when Top of the Pops started filling up with these oddly dressed and raucous women, and I’ve long since learned just to be glad for it, to forgive Patti for having been such an awful old hippie, the Slits for being a tuneless shambles. But no one need forgive Harry anything, because she didn’t overreach: she just knew herself, and was herself, and if it wasn’t enough for you, too bad. And she was so, so beautiful, and her songs were so modern and New Yorky: she was, I think, the only singer at the time, apart from Poly and maybe Fay Fife of the Rezillos, really to get it about phones and plastic and pocket computers, that in the coming world you were going to need them for your love songs, as well as for everything else.

Between ‘Denis’ (1978) and ‘Rapture’ (1981), Harry’s band had 11 Top Ten singles in Britain, and four US Billboard Number Ones, including ‘Heart of Glass’ (1979) and ‘Call Me’ (1980). They broke in the UK first, because UK fans were more open to what was being called New Wave, but had already charted in 1976 in Australia with their very first single, after a DJ played ‘In the Flesh’, the B-side, by mistake, instead of the faster, rattier ‘X-Offender’, about a prostitute and her arresting officer.

‘In the Flesh’ wasn’t much politer, but it was slower and more soulful, with a fuller, more Ronettes-ish sound to it, and actually featured Ellie Greenwich, the great 1960s girl-group songwriter, on backing vocals. This was often the way it went with a Blondie song: you could hear it as sweet, you could hear it as sarcastic, or you could just get lost in the glittering surfaces of what Bangs called ‘a perfectly constructed concave system’ until ‘at the end, instead of a picture, you get a perfect blank.’ That ‘blank’ Bangs read, ‘of course’, as Harry’s face – his critique is far from free of the gruesome misogyny you often get from men on the subject of beautiful women. I don’t agree with him. What I see is a disco ball, dark streets, Studio 54 and the Twin Towers, like the beginning of the promo the band made for ‘Heart of Glass’.

Blondie’s first two albums did OK, but the next three, Parallel Lines (1978), Eat to the Beat (1979) and Autoamerican (1980) went platinum everywhere. I found a great BBC film on YouTube that explained how Mike Chapman, the Australian pop supremo behind Mud, the Sweet and other top acts of the glitter era of the mid-1970s, had basically taken the band’s cheerfully ragged, two-guitars-and-a-cheapo-organ garage-punk sound and dismantled it into dozens of elements, each of which he made them rehearse and repeat, over and over, before rebuilding it on his mixing desk: the result, as Bangs wrote, was ‘a pristinely layered piece of product’, bionic Blondie, the six-million-dollar band.

But Chapman, the film made clear, also got the point of the band: Clem Burke, a big man and an enormous drummer; Jimmy Destri on Farfisa keyboard; Nigel Harrison on bass, Frank Infante and Stein on guitar. Only Burke, Chapman thought, had much proficiency as a musician; but the actual songs, he quickly saw, were ‘great’. ‘Sunday Girl’ was the work of Stein alone, but most of the others had music written by Stein with other band members, and lyrics by Harry, including what I think must be my favourite, the glorious ‘Picture This’: ‘The lyric to this day to me is elusive and beautiful,’ Chapman said. ‘And it all came from this amazing girl.’

Top of the Pops was exciting anyway in the late 1970s, but Blondie lit it up. Every song they did was a small, neat fusion of glam and beat and 1960s girl groups, but with a slightly dark and sinister edge. The words were androgynous, and angled to the more desirous and devouring end of the love-song spectrum – there would be no pleading or self-abasement, and if you didn’t answer the bloody phone she would just ring it off the wall. Harry’s voice was not big, not powerful, but she taught herself to use it with tremendous precision: Chapman hadn’t realised, he said, that she’d planned to do a little-girl lullaby number on ‘Heart of Glass’. A voice like that, in the 1970s, rhyming ‘it was a gas’ with ‘pain in the ass’, just after teatime on the BBC!

One great thing about Harry in Blondie was exactly this tension: she could look and sound so sweet and doll-like, but she was obviously and unapologetically a woman with a past. Another was the dynamic she had, so pale and starry, with her dark-haired, bridge-and-tunnelly band. Her outfits helped too, weird shapes and garish colours in nasty synthetic fabrics that looked like they came – and from what the book says, probably did – from a bargain bin in the Bowery: the big shirt that kept falling off the shoulder, what with all the awkward dancing; the harsh turquoise suit and shirt and tie; the ripply grey one-armed chiffon, worn with mules and thick black tights. The hair kept changing, though it was always blonde and afloat with static, stripped and dyed within an inch of its life. Sometimes it was big and thick and exhausting-looking. Sometimes it was shorter and lighter, in a bob. Usually you saw roots, a thick black skunk-stripe even. ‘Being a bleached blonde for so many years,’ Harry writes, ‘has made me acutely aware of what healthy hair looks like.’ There’s a picture in the book of a family Christmas in New Jersey, with her hair in its undyed colour, a plain, flat brown.

AngelaTrimble was born on 1 July 1945 in Miami. Her mother and father had been ‘childhood sweethearts’, but had split up, then reunited many years later, by which time he was married with children and working as a boiler repairman. So the baby was put up for adoption, and Angela became Deborah, with parents called Cathy and Richard Harry, also known as Caggie and Dick. Caggie’s family had once owned a bank in Ridgewood, New Jersey; Dick worked as a salesman for Alkan Silk Woven Labels in Paterson. A sister, Martha, arrived six years later. ‘My little accidental family’ gets ‘a loving thank-you’ from Harry at the end of the book.

As a child growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey, Harry did OK, she says, at school, but was shy and ‘dreamy’, with ‘a real inexplicable core of fear’. Her parents were strict Episcopalians and ‘ran a tight ship’: Debbie attended Girl Scouts and the church choir, and majorettes. But ‘I knew even then that I wanted to be some kind of artist or bohemian’ and ‘to wear tight black pants and a big loose shirt or a back-to-front sweater’. She started experimenting with bleaching her hair at 14, partly to be like Marilyn Monroe: ‘I identified with her in ways I couldn’t easily articulate … long before I discovered that Marilyn had been a foster child.’

Looks, and being looked at, became an issue very early on. The first flasher of many revealed himself when she was eight, she thinks – ‘because of their frequency … these kinds of incidents started to feel almost normal’ – and she was followed home by Buddy Rich, ‘a very famous drummer’, when she was 11 or 12. It doesn’t take staggering beauty, ‘of course’, to open a woman to abuse and harassment, but looks can get a person noticed, and victimised, when a victim is what a bully requires. And Harry’s looks really did stand out, as you can see from childhood photos in this book, long before she became Best-Looking Girl in her high-school yearbook. The older she got, the more different she looked from the rest of her family, though sometimes, she says, she catches ‘the exact same expression [as] my mother or father’ in her face in the mirror. ‘I guess it’s imprinted somehow … through shared experience over time.’

On graduating from high school in 1963, she wanted to go to Rhode Island School of Design – where Talking Heads would meet in the early 1970s – but her parents couldn’t afford it. Instead, she went on a two-year course at a women-only Methodist college, then worked in a homewares warehouse in Fifth Avenue, then as a secretary at the BBC. ‘I had come to the city to be an artist, but I wasn’t painting much, if at all.’ In 1967 she decided the BBC job was ‘too time-consuming’ and took a job at New York’s first ever head shop instead.

One night, on the way home to her apartment in St Mark’s Place (four rooms for $67 a month!), she dropped by the Balloon Farm, where she witnessed the Velvet Underground performing its Exploding Plastic Inevitable with Nico on vocals, Gerard Malanga on whips and leathers, Andy Warhol doing lights. Friends of friends drew her into a hippie band, Wind in the Willows, for which she played ‘finger cymbals, tamboura and tambourine’ but was mostly ‘a decorative asset’. She quit, and moved in with the drummer, who got her into heroin and a job waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, where she served steaks and lamb chops to Jefferson Airplane, Miles Davis, Candy Darling, Janis Joplin. Among other things. ‘One night I did Eric Emerson, upstairs … in the phone booth. My one-hour stand with a master of the game.’ Another night, she met a rich man who took her to California, where he bought her Gucci dresses and put her up in the Hotel Bel-Air. She stuck it out for a month before running back to New York and taking a job as a Playboy bunny. ‘It felt like I had come to a dead end.’ Exhausted, penniless, depressed, she went back home to her parents, got a job in a health club and dated a painter and decorator she calls ‘Mr C’, later immortalised as the stalker in the Blondie song ‘One Way or Another’.

But she couldn’t keep away from ‘the downtown scene’ for long, and started driving in at weekends to see the New York Dolls. ‘They were so exciting to watch … Strutting, swaggering about in their tutus, leatherette, lipstick and high heels.’ She figures now, she writes, that she ‘wanted to be them,’ but she didn’t know how, so instead of that, she ‘made it’ once with David Johansen, the Dolls’ lead singer, and drove the band around, together with their girlfriends, in her father’s turquoise Buick.

It was while she was following the Dolls around that Harry met Elda Gentile, who had the idea of forming a band called Pure Garbage with the Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn. But Pure Garbage didn’t happen, so Harry and Gentile formed the Stilettos instead (top tunes: ‘Wednesday Panties’; ‘Dracula, What Did You Do to My Mother?’). Stein joined to play bass, Stein and Harry fell in love, the Stilettos broke up, and Harry and Stein went through a few more iterations before Blondie, as we know it, began.

The name came from Harry’s experience of being shouted at by men on the street: ‘Hey, Blondie!’ It was ironic, and to do with voyeurism and harassment, from the start. ‘My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side,’ as Harry put it. ‘A lot of my drag-queen friends have said to me, Oh, you were definitely a drag queen … Girl drag, not boy drag, [which] was then an act of transgression.’ She was, she writes, ‘furious’ when the band’s record label advertised ‘In the Flesh’ with a picture of her without the others, the focus very much on her ‘little nipples’: ‘Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that, but on my terms, not some executive’s.’ The band’s next single, ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ – clearly camp, clearly about groupies – was advertised with a poster inviting the viewer to rip Harry to shreds if they liked.

One​ reason Harry managed to cope with such nonsense for as long as she did was her relationship with Stein, who took a lot of her favourite Blondie photographs himself.

I knew I looked OK, I had a good face, but I was always unsure about my body. Chris made me look better. He had these voyeuristic leanings, staring at me fixedly for hours in the heat of the lights, as I posed as sexily as I could to get him going … [and] eventually the peeping, secretive, naughty aspect of it made being photographed all right.

The zebra-stripe mini-dress she wears in a famous early pin-up had started as a cushion cover, found in the trash during the New York garbage workers’ strike of 1975. The leather bikini bottoms in another were on loan from ‘Benton, our landlord’. The broken dolls in yet another were more trash, left out on the kerb: landlords would dump ‘the contents of a whole apartment’ if a tenant couldn’t pay the rent.

Those days, Harry thinks, were probably her happiest: ‘when we were struggling artists, scuttling around the Lower East Side just trying to get something going, walking home from work before dawn through the dark, dusty, sweet-dirt smell of the city … We felt like pioneers.’ On one such night, she and Stein were followed into their apartment by a man with a knife and pinpoint pupils. He demanded drugs, tied Stein to the bed with ‘a pair of old pantyhose’, raped her, then left with Stein’s guitars. ‘I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear.’

‘A loving person’, ‘Mensa material’, ‘I can’t say enough good things about him, obviously’: Stein and Harry were together for 13 years, the entirety of Blondie and then some, and remain friends and colleagues. Both lay claim to ‘psychic’ experiences, moments of mysterious connection. Harry thinks in her case it’s probably to do with early memories, with having been adopted. Stein thinks it may have to do with all the drugs.

David Bowie, Harry says, ‘described the music business as a mental hospital: you’d only be allowed out to promote something or make another record – then back in you’d go.’ In 1977, he invited them to support Iggy Pop (Bowie was playing keyboards in Pop’s band) on the US leg of the tour promoting The Idiot: ‘We were overjoyed.’ The joy extended to an incident in which Bowie and Iggy mooched Harry’s entire cocaine stash, after which Bowie produced his penis, ‘as if I were the official cock checker’. (‘Funny, adorable and sexy’, in Harry’s opinion. Not mine.) The excitement dulled, however, as the band were sent out on the road again and again. ‘Some kind of control you’ve got, when you’ve signed your life away on so many dotted lines and they’ve strapped you to the head of a rocket.’

By 1981, when they did KooKoo, Harry’s first solo album, with Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards from Chic, Stein and Harry were beginning to explore the possibilities that come with bigger budgets: the single ‘Rapture’ from Autoamerican, for example, considered by many to be a ludicrous appropriation of early rap culture (though I’ve always liked it, and given that Grandmaster Flash sampled it straight back on his own ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’, I see it more as one of those special memories you get scattered across the history of pop culture, of the happier future that never came). Then out the band went on the road again. ‘I was being run ragged.’ The final Blondie album, The Hunter, was released in May 1982 and followed by a US tour that played to half-empty venues. ‘We were fried.’

Also, Stein was ill. He couldn’t swallow and was getting thinner and thinner. People thought he had Aids, or maybe cancer, but he didn’t, and just got thinner and thinner still. Harry would ‘pulverise’ a chicken for him, but he couldn’t eat it. All he could manage was ice cream made of tofu. Eventually he was diagnosed with pemphigus, an autoimmune disease with a mortality rate then of more than 90 per cent. He was in hospital for three months, with Harry bringing in heroin for him then going out to score more for herself. The hospital staff, she reckons, ‘knew that [Chris] was high all the time but cast a blind eye’; she doesn’t think she ‘could have coped any other way’.

He was still in hospital when it started becoming clear that Blondie were broke. The band’s accountant hadn’t paid their taxes, so the IRS wanted ‘everything’: the house, the car, Harry’s coats, Stein’s health insurance. So Harry rented an apartment in Chelsea, put Stein in it to recover, and took whatever jobs she could get. The couple split in 1987, on the day of Warhol’s death: ‘It was unfortunate that we were put through the wringer so much. Marriages and partnerships break up under financial pressures alone, and with us there was so much more going on.’

‘Debbie blinked for two minutes when she was looking after Chris,’ the filmmaker John Waters has said, ‘and Madonna stole her career.’ Which is funny, because Harry’s appearance in Waters’s Hairspray (1988), playing a monstrous stage mother with a galleon hairdo opposite a properly lovely mother, played by Divine, was to me one of her greatest triumphs. How cool does a woman have to be, I remember the young me thinking in the 1980s, to chuck in the sex-symbol stuff to look after her sick boyfriend, then come back as a musical-comedy pantomime dame? But I didn’t know about the split, or the tax bills, and now I wonder. ‘I just got on with it,’ Harry writes. ‘As much as it was possible, I found a way to do what I wanted to do.’

Morethan a hundred of Face It’s 350 pages are pictures, and of those, nearly half are amateur portraits of Harry, sent in over the years by fans. Harry has hung on to this collection over ten or eleven house moves, and a lengthy sojourn in Stein’s Tribeca basement. One of them gives her creepy teeth and a deathly pallor, like an extra on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Another shows her in middle age, face and hair curiously similar to that of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, backed by astrology charts and holding a King Charles spaniel. One just has a drum-kit that says Blondie on it and a guitar like a horse’s neck, with veins. Harry says she had noticed in her own drawings and paintings ‘some subtle reference to my own face when I was drawing someone else. I have noticed the same phenomenon with my fan art … I can see little bits of the artist drawn into their attempts to reproduce my face that they don’t even know are there.’ It’s like Garbo laughing, or the abyss that stares right into you. The eternally peeped-at finally peeps back.

With her shakes, Harry likes her coffee ‘French press, French roast and espresso combo, half decaf, half regular’. She’s devoted to her ‘doggies’, and took up smoking in her sixties, but never has more than ‘a few’. She’s godmother to the two girls Stein has with his wife, Barbara Sicuranza, but has never had her own children. For a long time, she knew she’d be no good at it, though she thinks she can now see how it’s done. She was devastated by 9/11, and by Stein and Sicuranza’s decision, shortly after, to take their girls to live upstate. But one day she was riding her bike along the Hudson when ‘I “saw” my sadness and it spoke to me,’ and shortly after, she wrote a poem, which you can read on page 308 of her book. ‘I feel the flutter, an electric tingle, not unpleasant/And I know I have felt the rush of souls.’

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