Debbie Harry: interview

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Debbie Harry in an east London park, with fine food and beverages close at hand: it doesn‘t get better than this weekend‘s Lovebox fest. Especially when you factor in her band‘s 30 years of hugely influential punk-pop hits. Just as well that at 62 she‘s finally comfortable with being the face that launched a thousand T-shirts.

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    Debbie Harry pictured at west London's Cobden Club, July 2007

    Thirty years. In the timescale of the natural world, it’s barely the blink of an eye. For a female Amazon parrot, the onset of her Bridget Jones period is still some way off. For a Galapagos land tortoise, 30 is barely even teenaged. And if a stalagmite grows at the rate of around one inch per century, it’s a singularly unimpressive pimple of calcium carbonate not yet deserving of the name. The music business, however, is a very unnatural world, which is why 30 years in it seems like a bloody ice age. If an artist lacks proper insulation, it’s long enough to see them frozen out – for good.

    Blondie, clearly, have very good insulation indeed. A barely believable 31 years since they fizz-bombed into earshot with their debut single, ‘X Offender’, and carved out a name for themselves in New York’s downtown punk scene at clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB – alongside the Ramones, Television, Suicide and New York Dolls – Blondie are still at it.

    Steered by both Debbie Harry’s distinctive, polished-glass voice, her model looks and calculated hauteur and the band’s collective interest in moving beyond punk’s narrow confines into new wave, pop, reggae, disco and hip hop, Blondie came to define the late ’70s and early ’80s, influencing artists from Madonna and Gwen Stefani, to the more current likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Rapture, The Gossip, CSS, New Young Pony Club and countless others. Blondie broke up in 1982 but reformed in 1999, which means they’ve now been together (minus guitarist Frank Infante and British bassist Nigel Harrison) longer than they were the first time around. Last year, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    If there is a secret to Blondie’s longevity, Debbie Harry can’t explain it. Now 62, she may be carrying more weight than in the band’s heyday and those famous cheekbones have softened, but the luminous, hooded eyes and perfect lip shape are unmistakeable and Harry still exudes the kind of cool that the passage of time will never change. How is it that Blondie are still here, kicking out the jams, when so many of their peers have kicked the bucket?

    ‘So many of them are dead,’ Harry agrees. ‘It’s really horrifying, so sad. Live fast, die young, right? I really don’t know what the key to our longevity is. It’s very nice, whatever it is! I guess we took some chances, musically, in the early days and we had a variety of interests, and that seemed to serve us well over the years.’

    Rock dinosaurs like the Stones, The Who and Genesis may still stalk the earth, but surely the very idea of longevity runs counter to the spirit of rock ’n’ roll? ‘As a young person, I couldn’t comprehend the idea of being older than 21!’ laughs Harry. ‘Then, when I passed 21, I thought I wouldn’t go past 30. After that, I thought: Well, anything could happen now! The idea of age being attractive is so foreign to most people, but I think we were lucky in that we kept working and people were interested in what we were doing and, more importantly, we were interested in what we were doing. I think you have a certain amount of energy in your life for climbing the ladder and then you get tired of trying. With Blondie, opportunity knocked at the right time, but it certainly wasn’t an over-the-top, super-stellar stardom. We’re sort of a cult band in many ways and always have been. We’re definitely not super-super A-list in the way that, say, U2 are, but we have credibility.’

    And how. Blondie, happily, had the good sense to quit just after their peak and before they did anything embarrassing, which means that when they reformed, their status had already been fixed, blemish-free, by the formaldehyde of history. But it’s not only Blondie’s peerless singles – ‘Denis’, ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’, ‘Picture This’, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, ‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Union City Blue’, ‘Atomic’, ‘Call Me’ and, perhaps most fabulously of all, ‘Rapture’ – all of which are imitated to this day, that make them loom so large in our pop-culture consciousness. It’s the image of Debbie Harry herself.

    It’s not of her own doing, of course, but on a Saturday night in any vaguely hip, east London bar, half the girls will be togged out in retro, Harry-styled chic and very likely dancing to a Blondie single. When Beth Ditto came on stage at The Gossip’s Astoria gig back in February, she was wearing a black bin liner, an obvious homage to Harry’s most infamous punk ‘outfit’. Kate Moss’s ‘original’ look of micro shorts, boots and man’s waistcoat? Also copyright, Ms D Harry. As for those ubiquitous T-shirts, there’s no other word but ‘iconic’ to describe the face that gazes out from them – alongside repro images of Che Guevara, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain – though it’s one that clearly makes Harry feel uncomfortable.

    ‘Just before Blondie got back together,’ she recalls, ‘I started really noticing that attitude coming from people – the reverence for the image thing – and I was completely shocked by it. I hate that word “icon”. I don’t even know what that is, actually. I guess it’s a bit like a trademark so, in that respect, it’s successful marketing but, when it first started happening, it was really weird. At the time, I was struggling to feel better about what I was doing and dealing with my own little demons. I had enough to worry about without taking on that stuff too. I thought: Oh, my God, I can’t deal with this. Then I got over it and just thought it was… silly.’

    But they still print those T-shirts, bearing your picture from 30-odd years ago. ‘Yeah, good merch!’ she smiles. ‘I guess I’ll be selling T-shirts for a long time! I can fill up my station wagon and drive into any fucking supermarket parking lot, pull down the tailgate and say “Hey, here they are!” Seriously, I guess I’ve just always thought of that as part and parcel of what a pop star has to do and is supposed to be about. There was this image that was attractive and that people wanted to associate with. The music business deals in seduction.’

    Which raises the question of the perceived unseemliness of pursuing a musical career after a certain age, especially, it must be said, if you’re a woman. Why is an ‘artist’ allowed to age (think of Leonard Cohen, Yoko Ono, John Cale, Marianne Faithful and maybe David Bowie), but a pop star not? ‘Because you usually start out with subject matter that’s not very serious, but just really entertaining and of-the-moment, so there’s no prediction that it’s going to carry you through,’ she says. ‘But Blondie always attempted to infuse – and enthuse – our stuff with a variety of different subjects and influences. We always had a good sense of humour too, even if it was sometimes a bit dark or occasionally missed. If you think about blues artists, it was expected of them that they would become old and gnarly and be deeply loved for just doing their thing. The pop world is about being young and cute, so where do you go with that, unless you have music that makes sense and that people love?’

    Is it rock ’n’ roll’s duty to always strike out for the future, or does nostalgia have its place? ‘Only in the sense that you have influences and naturally learn from your predecessors – or at least are inspired by them. That’s a very important building process but it happens in all the arts, not just music. How else could you create?’

    Nostalgia, however – and this is something Blondie must be aware of as their fan base ages with them – affixes itself to music in a way that it doesn’t to, say, sculpture or literature. Very few people bang on about how no decent books have been written since Charles Dickens knocked out ‘Great Expectations’, but plenty are resistant to change in music. ‘That happens to people’s lives and spirit,’ declares Harry, ‘and it has something to do with the idea of longevity, because excitement about life and moving on and allowing fresh things to turn you on is crucial. Some people just give up. I don’t know if it’s a matter of training or whether it’s depression, but some people want to close off to a certain degree. They find a level of success or happiness and that’s it; they live there by choice.’

    So, what drives Debbie Harry – who is touring with Blondie and has a solo album, ‘Necessary Evil’, due in September – forward? Youthfulness of spirit? Energy? The habits of a workaholic? ‘I have a terrible ego problem!’ she laughs. ‘Let’s face it: it’s spirit and ego, ego and spirit! I’m not afraid of it any more, but I used to think how awful it was to have this ego thing. Actually, it’s a good thing to have as long as you take care of it; as long as you know how to manage it and not be an asshole. Seriously, ego’s got to be part of it. I’m absolutely certain that the love that comes back at you from an audience is one of the things that keeps you going – totally. But you can always play music, irrespective of your age or the size of your audience. So, ten people might show up, but… I could put together a combo and play in a small club and be very happy with that. Really, I could.’

    Blondie play the Time Out Lovebox Weekender’s Main Stage on Saturday night.

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