STILL A PUNK AT 71

DEB­BIE HARRY’S DE­FI­ANCE AND RE­FUSAL TO CON­FORM HAS NOT DIMMED SINCE THE ’70S, WHEN SHE FIRST TORE HER STILETTO-BOOT HEEL THROUGH THE RULES

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy RUS­SELL JAMES Cre­ative Di­rec­tion and Styling ALEK­SAN­DRA BEARE Words JOR­DAN BAKER

With a new Blondie al­bum and world tour set to be­gin, singer-song­writer Deb­bie Harry con­tin­ues to be a trail­blazer for women in mu­sic.

Deb­bie Harry looks me straight in the eye and lets rip. “If this is the hook to sell this story and all of these pic­tures, it’s in­sult­ing to me,” she says. We are sit­ting in the lounge room of a Brook­lyn apart­ment, as stylists and pho­tog­ra­phers pack up af­ter Stel­lar’s photo shoot. Harry speaks qui­etly, but the dark eye­shadow and tou­sled hair make her look fierce – and more than a lit­tle in­tim­i­dat­ing.

I have been ask­ing – try­ing to ask – whether Harry thinks there’s a dou­ble stan­dard when com­men­ta­tors crit­i­cise Madonna, 58, for be­ing too old for the mu­sic busi­ness, while few peo­ple seem to have a prob­lem with 73-year-old Mick Jag­ger. Harry, 71, is re­leas­ing an­other Blondie al­bum, Pol­li­na­tor, and is about to em­bark on a world tour that in­cludes Aus­tralia, so it seems likely she has an opin­ion. “You are go­ing on about this [age ques­tion],” she says. “You put

it in peo­ple’s brains, and it be­comes an is­sue, you know? That’s what you’re do­ing, you are cre­at­ing an is­sue.”

She is right. But I don’t in­tend it as an in­sult. Harry has been a trail­blazer for women in mu­sic on many fronts, and now she’s pi­o­neer­ing an­other: longevity. In the ’80s, peo­ple were amazed that Harry was still go­ing strong at 40. She’s been hav­ing the last laugh for 30 years.

A Deb­bie Harry in­ter­view is un­like any other. She doesn’t want to talk about her­self. She doesn’t like look­ing back­wards, or in­wards. She hates be­ing called an icon. And she doesn’t play nice if she doesn’t want to. While Madonna care­fully crafts her im­age, Harry doesn’t give a damn.

Her re­bel­lious­ness, her hon­esty, and her re­fusal to con­form to ex­pec­ta­tions are as strong to­day as they were in the ’70s, when she tore her stiletto-boot heel through the rules for women in mu­sic. She might be 71, but she’s still a punk.

DEB­BIE HARRY CLIMBS onto a bed sur­rounded by Blondie posters, a con­cept dreamed up by Stel­lar’s edi­torin-chief to il­lus­trate the evo­lu­tion of the once quin­tes­sen­tial pin-up girl of pop to the mu­sic vet­eran she is to­day.

“This is weird,” she says, but ever the pro­fes­sional she shifts word­lessly into char­ac­ter for the pho­tog­ra­pher. She runs her fin­gers through her hair. Twists her face into a sul­try snarl. Stares de­fi­antly at the cam­era. Af­ter 40-odd years in front of the lens, Harry needs no in­struc­tion in how to project punk sex god­dess.

The pic­tures, col­lated by Stel­lar’s cre­ative di­rec­tor and flown over from Aus­tralia for the shoot, are a col­lage from her early ca­reer – there’s the thigh-high booted, “Rip Her To Shreds” Harry, the play­ful “Call Me” Harry, and the sexy “Heart Of Glass” Harry. They were taken half a life­time ago, when the 30-some­thing bleach blonde was stick­ing her tongue out at an in­dus­try run by and for men, show­ing them that a sex sym­bol could also be mouthy and smart.

“I guess I am proud of [the pho­tos] and they are fun and in­ter­est­ing,” she tells me later. “Some­times I look at them and think, ‘Gosh, you used to be so cute.’ But most of the time it’s a quick pan, it’s not like I’m stand­ing there star­ing at them.”

Harry looks 20 years younger than her age on pa­per, even without make-up. Per­haps it’s be­cause of her cliff-like cheek­bones and all those years hid­den from the sun in dark bars. Her dress sense de­fies con­ven­tion, too; she’d ar­rived at the shoot in black leg­gings, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and over­sized ap­ple-green glasses.

Get­ting older isn’t a wholly taboo sub­ject for the singer – it had been my per­sis­tence that an­noyed her. She ad­mits to the “same fears and trep­i­da­tions all women have about los­ing their looks and los­ing their value”.

“I have thought about this a lot, ob­vi­ously, be­cause this is part of my pro­fes­sion,” she says. “I think it stems from some­thing very ancient, and it has to do with bear­ing chil­dren, and it’s very, very old fash­ioned, and very in­grained in our DNA, you know.

“I don’t think men have any con­trol over their in­stincts and nei­ther do we, but I think we have a lot more to of­fer than just bear­ing chil­dren – ob­vi­ously, I think we have proven that.

“There was a time when re­ally old fee­ble peo­ple were left out to die. The value that’s placed on a hu­man be­ing for the ca­pac­ity sim­ply of pro­cre­ation is an an­i­mal instinct. You can’t get rid of that, but you have to know it’s there, you have to be rea­son­able about it and move for­ward in your life.”

In the taxi on her way to the shoot, Harry lis­tened to a ra­dio fea­ture on Fats Domino. “Do you know who he is?” she asks me. “He is a great mu­si­cian, from the late ’50s, early ’60s. [He just] turned 89.” Harry looks at me. “How old are you?” she asks. “Forty,” I re­ply. “I re­mem­ber be­ing 40,” she says, smil­ing. “It’s nice.”

When Harry was 45, in 1990, she was in­ter­viewed for an Aus­tralian mag­a­zine af­ter the re­lease of her solo al­bum Def, Dumb & Blonde. Even then, at an age that would now be con­sid­ered mid-ca­reer, her life­span in the mu­sic in­dus­try was be­ing ques­tioned. The writer won­dered how long Harry would be pre­pared to keep work­ing, given that “15 years more and she will have reached re­tir­ing age”.

I am not game to go there again, so I re­frame the ques­tion. Harry has just spent three years on Blondie’s lat­est al­bum, Pol­li­na­tor. She will be tour­ing for the next two. Even in their early years, the band com­plained about the ex­haust­ing na­ture of tour­ing. Why does she keep do­ing it? “What else would I do?”

Harry says. “That’s pretty much it. What else would I do? Go into real es­tate prob­a­bly. Per­haps I would take time off and re­ally travel – see the world be­fore it gets blown up.”

SIR JOH BJELKE-PETERSEN, the for­mer long­stand­ing premier of Queens­land, didn’t like punk mu­sic, which made the punks in Bris­bane even more pas­sion­ate. Dur­ing Blondie’s first trip to the city in 1977, there was a small, but highly-pub­li­cised “riot” when a show was can­celled be­cause Harry was ill.

Not every­one was as en­thu­si­as­tic. “We were like mes­sen­gers from the devil in a lot of ways,” Harry says of the deep con­ser­vatism the band en­coun­tered dur­ing its first tour.

Blondie was used to play­ing at CBGB, the tiny biker bar in New York that had be­come the dark, de­bauched in­cu­ba­tor of bands such as the Ra­mones, Talk­ing Heads and Tele­vi­sion. But in Aus­tralia, the band had a bus from the 1950s. The women in their au­di­ence wore floor­length flo­ral skirts. They strug­gled to kit out their tour be­cause there was only one of each piece of equip­ment in the coun­try, and much of it was al­ready be­ing used by John Den­ver, who was tour­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Yet Aus­tralia does hold a spe­cial place in Blondie’s heart, as it was the source of its first hit sin­gle. As the story goes, Molly Mel­drum mis­tak­enly played the B-side of their sin­gle “X Of­fender” on Count­down, and “In The Flesh” rock­eted to num­ber two on the charts. Ex­cept Harry doesn’t think it was an ac­ci­dent. “We rea­soned he didn’t like the A-side, and for his au­di­ence, the B-side was bet­ter,” she says. “And bless his lit­tle heart.”

Billy Miller was front­man for The Fer­rets, who toured with Blondie that year. He said the au­di­ences came to see the band be­cause of Count­down, which was a pop show. “Blondie might have been ex­pect­ing more their type of crowd, but they got pop fans,” he says.

Harry and her then boyfriend, Chris Stein, had formed Blondie in 1974. (Blondie was the word con­struc­tion work­ers used to yell at Harry as she walked down the street.) Their cre­ative re­la­tion­ship was at the heart of the band and has con­tin­ued ever since, well

``we were like mes­sen­gers from the devil in a lot of ways´´

DEB­BIE WEARS Ellery dress, ellery.com; Wheels & Doll­baby pants, wheel­sand­doll­baby.com; Acne Stu­dios shoes (worn through­out), ac­nes­tu­dios.com; her own Vivi­enne West­wood jew­ellery (worn through­out)

DEB­BIE WEARS Wheels & Doll­baby jacket, wheel­sand­doll­baby.com; (op­po­site) Wheels & Doll­baby knit, as be­fore; Le­vante stock­ings, david­jones. com.au; Sheri­dan bed linen, sheri­dan.com.au

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