On Tour With Debbie Harry: Still Cool, Still Beautiful
As I sit in the Blondie tour bus in Toronto, I can’t believe the volume of the crowd of fans hanging around the back door of the theatre. Then, I hear, “Will you take a photo with me? Thank you, you’re a goddess!” The stunningly beautiful 72-year-old pop star climbs the bus and lies down in the bottom right bunk closest to the front. Chris Stein has his bunk directly across from hers, on the left side. Clem Burke, the band’s drummer, is above him. This is the way they’ve slept in tour buses since the ‘70s. Creatures of habit.
Blondie are on a short tour along the East Coast of America and then up to Toronto. They stopped at Niagara Falls, and New Jersey and, of course, New York City. At the Canadian border, we were stopped by officers. Chris and Debbie poked their white-haired heads out of their bunks at the same time to see what was going on. It made me giggle inside a little bit. It blows my mind that they are still so cool after all these years. Even more than that, they have continued to produce catchy hits forty-plus years later, such as “Long Time,” off their last album, Pollinator.
When I was younger, I thought that cool was something people grew out of over time. In the ‘60s, my dad was a drummer of a garage rock band, called The Blue Bus, and my mother was a beautiful and stylish teen groupie. Then one day my dad was wearing Dockers and speaking in a Donald Duck accent to make us laugh in the car and my mother was listening to Lionel Richie on the easy-listening station. What the hell happened?! Do aliens come down at age 40 and zap all the cool out of you?
Well the UFO’s obviously couldn’t catch the members of Blondie. For senior citizens, they blow their millennial fans out of the water style-wise. Chris has the slickness and constant ease of a 1920’s jazz musician, his black shades complimenting his perfectly cut icy mop. Debbie reminds me of a really cool young gay man. If you don’t understand this reference, then you’ve never seen her wearing her oversized sweatshirt with the Nagel-esque graffiti on it, electric purple cat-eye frames, and puffy sneakers. At other times, she reminds me of a stealth, femme fatale in a ‘40s noir film, her stunning looks emphasized by a fire behind the eyes. The juxtaposition can be found in her sweet voice. Her song “Sound A-Sleep” off Eat To The Beat is a beautiful lullaby that I’ve always held close to my heart. I bet she would have been an excellent mother. That is one of her only regrets. Many women choose a career over family. And vice versa. Honestly, I would rather have Debbie Harry’s life than a brood.
“I could be a housewife… I guess. I’ve vacuumed a couple of times.” – Debbie Harry
Having masculine energy in a feminine body is the crux of why Debbie Harry was always just one of the guys to the other members of the band. With cute as pie dimples and a charming smile, she delivers girl-next-door cuteness one minute and smoldering pinup the next—almost like a blonde Bettie Page. As Mick Rock has said, “You just can’t take a bad picture of Debbie.”
I love how bluntly honest she is, the trait of a real New Yorker. Open about her facelifts, she looks flawless up close. A plastic surgeon’s wet dream, her bone structure can handle it perfectly. On stage, she would really get down. I couldn’t help but take videos of her smooth dance moves. Backstage, she would always ask catering for soup. It’s important not to eat heavy before a gig, but I also think it’s a generational thing. The Warhol alum and others in the 1970s were always having ‘the soup.’ Maybe that’s why everyone was so skinny back then.
“The only person I believe in is me.” – Debbie Harry
Debbie Harry was actually named Angela Tremble when she came into this world. Her Floridian birth mother was unwed, and in 1945 that wasn’t acceptable. Luckily, Richard and Catherine Harry scooped her up and took her home to New Jersey where she had a loving, middle-class life. Even so, being abandoned as a baby does leave a primal wound. In the late ‘80s, she located her birth mother, who didn’t want anything to do with her. As a teenager, Debbie had fantasized that Marilyn Monroe was her mother. When asked about this in an interview, she said, “A lot of young girls fixate on an image or an idea.” Funny enough that’s what every girl is doing with her. What goes around comes around. Ironically, for me, Debbie was my fantasy mother as a teen.
It’s rare to find a naturally cool, stylish lead singer with a great voice. Not to mention one who looks like a supermodel. It’s no wonder every woman under age 40 is constantly posting photos of this iconic blonde all over their Instagram and Facebook profiles. Female DJ’s in particular seem to like to promote with sexy photos of Debbie in red, vinyl thigh high boots.
“I suppose I have a bit more anonymity than Madonna, or Gaga. They’re super up-there. I’m more of a cult figure.” -Debbie Harry
Debbie moved to New York City in the late 1960s, landing a job as a secretary at BBC radio. After that, she waitressed at the legendary club Max’s Kansas City, delivering chickpeas to tables of aspiring artists.
“Everyone came to Max’s. I served food to the Jefferson Airplane,” she said.
She knew her beauty was marketable and became a go-go dancer in Union City, N.J. and soon after, a Playboy bunny. In 1974, she joined The Stilettos with Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones. Future boyfriend Chris Stein eventually joined the band. Chris had Johnny Thunders-length hair back then and was actually kicked out of high school and sent to the same school for wayward children where Thunders was already imprisoned.
Manic Panic sister creators, Tish and Snooky, collaborated with Debbie and Chris to form Angel And The Snake, which was changed to Blondie (thank god!), taking their name from what men hollered at Debbie on the street. When they auditioned Clem Burke in 1975, he played so well that Patti Smith (who was in the room) started to try and pick him up. Debbie shot her down by saying, “I’m working with this guy.” Giving her the angry mom stare that frightens even the biggest of thugs.
“How can one be a woman and not be a feminist? That’s my question.” – Debbie Harry
See, Debbie is tough. She is the babe in the cult film with the switchblade in her back pocket. Yet she’s very easy to talk to and does not act pretentious at all. Almost like she’s unaware of her fame or doesn’t give a crap about it because she’s highly evolved enough to know that’s not what really matters anyway. Many rock ‘n’ roll female singers feel that they have to sound too tough which comes off very cheesy and forced. Debbie has mentioned her love of singer Beth Ditto and is a huge supporter of female performers. Recently, Blondie toured with Garbage as their opener. The talented Shirley Manson gave amazing performances onstage.
“The only place left for rock to go is toward more girl stars. There’s nothing left for men to do. There’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new.” – Debbie Harry
In Paris, while Blondie were making an appearance on the pop culture TV show, Quotidien, Debbie asked me, “What do you think of my new shoes?” The sneaker/ pump hybrid was definitely not for me, but the blinging gemstone pink heels were cool. She went with those for the show, with a tight-fitting cocktail dress. We talked a lot about style together. How Marc Bolan was the only guy to really pull off the top hat. How fabulous Bill the Butcher’s threads were in Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Her pal, and Blondie’s visual artist, Rob Roth, and I were talking about Nick Cave one day over lunch. “Why do I keep hearing so much about this Nick Cave? What’s he like?” she asked. Rob answered, “Well, he’s just naturally cool.” I thought it was so cute that she didn’t know much about him, like someone who just arrived from a vacation on another planet. Nick Cave, and even more so, his son Earl, are fans of hers and the band as he told Clem over dinner in Dublin earlier this year.
In the car ride over to the Blondie gig at the Olympia in Paris, we chatted about DNA, as we both sent out for our details. She said, “It says I’m a mutt, a mix of French, English and other things, but who knows…” Obviously, she didn’t depend on the reliability of the new trend of ancestry sites.
One thing I admired about her is how she never had an assistant. Every gig she did her own make up and hair and purchased her own clothes. There wasn’t even a date hanging around. This isn’t the norm for stars of her stature. She knows what she wants and still has the DIY attitude that she was forced to have as a New Yorker living in a bankrupt city during the ‘70s. Clem once told me that he opened the cabinet at the Blondie loft off the Bowery to find a tidal wave of roaches pouring out. Eeew! She’s a survivor, once being picked up while hitchhiking by a psychopath (who she thinks) was the handsome serial killer, Ted Bundy. She realized the handle was ripped off the inside of her door, jumping out in a panic while he was driving.
“It was in the early 70s and I was trying to get across town at two or three o’clock in the morning. This little car kept coming around and offering me a ride. I kept saying no but finally I took the ride because I couldn’t get a cab. I got in the car and the windows were are rolled up, except for a tiny crack. This driver had an incredibly bad smell to him. I looked down and there were no door handles. The inside of the car was stripped. The hairs on the back of my neck just stood up. I wiggled my arm out of the window and pulled the door handle from the outside. I don’t know how I did it, but I got out. He tried to stop me by spinning the car but it sort of helped me fling myself out. Afterwards I saw him on the news. Ted Bundy.” – Debbie Harry
Harry once dated iconic actor Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas, Repo Man), after having written about him in her solo song from 1989, “I Want That Man.”
“I want to dance with Harry Dean
Drive through Texas in a black limousine
I want a piece of heaven ‘fore I die
I want a pair of pink high heels
That catch the lights up on the Ferris wheel
But what I really want I just can’t buy
Here comes the twenty first century
It’s gonna be much better for a girl like me
‘Cause I want everything I see
But most of all I want that man”
When Stanton was asked how Debbie was in the sack, he replied, “As good as you’d think!” Poor Harry Dean passed away on September 17, 2017. I saw Debbie soon after but didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything at all. She looked stoic.
“You always fall for the rascal or the guy who’s got a little bit of the devil in him. You can’t help it.” – Debbie Harry
The woman continues to amaze me and never slows down. A thrillseeker by nature, she went bungee jumping only a few years ago… topless. Living life to the fullest with grace. She’s our Queen Of New York.
You can visit her and Chris at the CBGB: The Age Of Punk party on May 17th at 7 pm at 116 Prince Street in NYC. Jimmy Webb will be outfitting her with clothing from his fab new store, I Need More.