‘I didn’t feel joy un­til my fifties’

Blondie brought Deb­bie Harry mil­lions of fans, but hap­pi­ness came a lot later, she tells Neil McCormick

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Music -

‘You need cos­metic surgery to stay in the game’

Deb­bie Harry is surely the most glamorous 71-yearold in mu­sic. On a bright spring af­ter­noon, the Blondie front­woman and punk sex sym­bol ar­rives at a Lon­don ho­tel dressed in sporty lay­ers of grey and beige, her bot­tle­blonde hair art­fully un­kempt, her heavy eyes and cu­pid bow lips im­mac­u­lately made up. The ef­fect is icily cool un­til she laughs – which is of­ten – and her heart-shaped face lights up with de­light, as if she is sur­prised by her own ca­pac­ity for amuse­ment.

She looks so fan­tas­tic that I can’t re­sist telling her so. “Thank you,” she says, beam­ing. “I like com­pli­ments. I have an ego. You know, I’ve got­ten kind of vain over the years with ev­ery­body com­ment­ing on my be­ing such a beauty!”

Harry has never been coy about the se­cret be­hind her ap­par­ently eter­nal youth, freely ad­mit­ting that she’s no stranger to cos­metic surgery. “I’m care­ful about it, but you need it to stay in the game,” she says, adding that a pun­ish­ing fit­ness regime, in­volv­ing thrice-weekly ses­sions of “di­a­bol­i­cal twist­ing and stretch­ing”, is her other chief weapon in the bat­tle against time.

“In some ways I feel bet­ter about my­self now, more com­fort­able in my own skin. But it’s a tricky busi­ness. You start to think about the value of beauty as you’re grow­ing older. It’s dou­bleedged for sure.”

Sit­ting be­side Harry is Blondie gui­tarist Chris Stein. At 67, he’s slouchy, sil­ver-haired, un­shaven, with a sham­bling, book­ish de­meanour. I apol­o­gise for not also com­pli­ment­ing him on his ap­pear­ance. “I’m used to it,” he shrugs. “I’d be quite con­tent to be a brain in a bot­tle.”

Blondie first emerged on to a Sev­en­ties New York punk scene that em­braced pro­gres­sive, fem­i­nist val­ues – yet Harry’s pin-up ap­peal was al­ways cen­tral to their mar­ket­ing. “The mu­sic scene was a boys’ club. We saw that early on,” says Stein. “Mick Jag­ger could come out at Madi­son Square Gar­den rid­ing on a giant c---,” he adds, re­fer­ring to the no­to­ri­ous in­flat­able phal­lus that fea­tured in the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour of Amer­ica. “If Deb­bie came out on a giant pussy, ev­ery­body would have been run­ning for the ex­its.”

Harry hoots with laugh­ter at this im­age. “Right from the be­gin­ning, I def­i­nitely wanted to take a po­si­tion of strength and not vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Philo­soph­i­cally that was al­ways my stance and I was quite stub­born about it.”

“I don’t know if we recog­nised the fem­i­nist as­pects of Blondie at the time,” says Stein. “But Deb­bie had her own style and it made men ner­vous. The same peo­ple cheer­ing Mick Jag­ger and Iggy Pop could be very crit­i­cal of Deb­bie’s overt sex­u­al­ity”

Stein and Harry were lovers when they founded Blondie in 1974, along with bassist Fred Smith and drum­mer Billy O’Connnor, both from Harry’s pre­vi­ous band, the Stilet­tos. Within a year, they had evolved into a five-piece, with Jimmy Destri join­ing on key­boards, Smith re­placed by Gary Valen­tine

and O’Con­nor by Clem Burke, who re­mains the band’s drum­mer to­day.

Their puls­ing elec­tro beats, teamed with Harry’s ice-cool vo­cals, saw the band ride the first wave of Amer­i­can punk in 1976. They went on to have hits like Heart of Glass, Call Me and Atomic, be­fore break­ing up in 1982 when Stein con­tracted a rare au­toim­mune dis­ease. Harry took time off to nurse him back to health and, though the cou­ple sep­a­rated in 1989, they re­main close friends as well as band­mates.

Harry’s solo ca­reer never quite took off and in the sub­se­quent years she drifted through a se­ries of film, theatre and mu­si­cal projects. Blondie re­united in 1997 and within two years were back at the top of the charts. In the two decades since, they have trod a fine line be­tween nos­tal­gia act and gen­uinely cre­ative force, adding five new al­bums to the six from Blondie’s orig­i­nal phase.

Blondie’s lat­est al­bum, Pol­li­na­tor, is as good as any­thing from their back cat­a­logue, a punchy, hook-crammed set cowrit­ten with a stel­lar line-up of con­tem­po­rary artists (in­clud­ing Charli XCX, Sia and Johnny Marr) that draws on mu­si­cal strands from their glory days. “We have to sat­isfy an ex­ist­ing au­di­ence, so there is a limit to how much spaced-out s--- you can get away with,” says Stein (who, one sus­pects, might be con­tent noodling away on the fringes of the avant-garde). “The point has al­ways been to be cre­ative.”

De­spite sell­ing over 40 mil­lion al­bums, Blondie in­sist they have been short-changed by the mu­sic busi­ness and are far from fi­nan­cially se­cure. “Within my own psy­che, I have al­ways felt like an artist,” says Harry. “If I wasn’t still doing mu­sic, what else would I do? There are times when you wish you didn’t have to work … but re­ally, it would be hor­ri­ble.”

Stein de­scribes the dy­namic within the band as be­ing like “a demo­cratic monar­chy” in which “Deb­bie is the queen”. “Of course, I am,” cack­les Harry. But it’s clear that both she and Blondie rely just as much on Stein. “This is an un­usual kind of cou­pling, I know,” ac­knowl­edges Harry. “Chris has a strong fem­i­nine na­ture. I have a strong mas­cu­line side. It was al­ways a good fit.”

Since 1999, Stein has been mar­ried to the ac­tress Barbara Si­cu­ranza; they live in New York with their two teenage daugh­ters. Harry lives alone in the city and has no chil­dren. “I was afraid of hav­ing a fam­ily of my own,” she says. “I didn’t think that I would be a good par­ent. I came out of such a stren­u­ous home life, the idea of be­ing tied into that was ter­ri­bly un­set­tling and made me very un­happy.”

Harry was born in Mi­ami, Florida, in 1945 and adopted by a New Jersey cou­ple when she was three years old. “I didn’t have blood rel­a­tives to see how they were age­ing and show me what I was go­ing to turn into,” she says. “So I’m age­ing my own way.” She left home in the mid-Six­ties, work­ing as a go-go dancer and wait­ress in Hugh Hefner’s Play­boy Club (com­plete with Bunny ears), while re­leas­ing one al­bum in 1968 with hippy col­lec­tive Wind in the Wil­lows. “I wasn’t go­ing to be the kind of wo­man who raises a fam­ily and lives in the sub­urbs,” she says. “I wanted to be my own per­son. That was a big trans­gres­sion. I guess that’s about as fem­i­nist as you can be.”

Of her cur­rent ro­man­tic life, she will only say “I have my mo­ments”. She has pre­vi­ously de­scribed her­self as bi­sex­ual but, in a re­cent in­ter­view, said those days were be­hind her. “As be­ings, our sex­u­al­ity is much more fluid than any­one would have thought,” she says now. “You could have an iden­tity on­line now that is no sex at all. No­body would know.”

On Blondie’s new sin­gle, Long Time, writ­ten by Harry with dig­i­tal whizz kid Dev Hynes (aka Light­speed Cham­pion), she re­peat­edly poses the ques­tion “Are you happy?”

“Big, big ques­tion, isn’t it?” says Harry. So is she? “Some­times, yes. I some­times even ex­pe­ri­ence joy, which I found to be mirac­u­lous the first time it hap­pened.” This epiphany oc­curred in 2000, while Harry was ap­pear­ing in an off-Broad­way pro­duc­tion of the late Bri­tish play­wright Sarah Kane’s Crave. “I have a very clear mem­ory of the mo­ment. I was walk­ing in the West Vil­lage, and I re­alised I am ex­actly where I want to be, doing ex­actly what I want to do, some­thing that I had longed for most of my child­hood and adult life. Oh God, was that great! I don’t ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence that all the time. But it makes you feel it’s all worth­while.”

‘I never wanted to live in the sub­urbs, rais­ing a fam­ily’

Fem­i­nine charm: Deb­bie Harry per­form­ing with Blondie in New York, 1978, left

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