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
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