Elizabeth Hand, a much-acclaimed novelist and essayist, offers an appraisal of Debbie Harry’s new memoir and discovers that the Blondie icon is really ’the girl next door’ who just happened to influence a legion of musical progeny. Hand also suggests other rock memoirs to read in tandem with Face It, to further flesh out the life and times of this fascinating woman.
By Elizabeth Hand
Early in her new memoir—Face It, written in collaboration with Sylvie Simmons—Debbie Harry recounts an anecdote from her childhood: “One visit, when I was a baby, my doctor gave me a lingering look. And then he turned in his white coat, grinned at my parents, and said, ‘Watch out for that one, she has bedroom eyes’.”
Today that remark would cause parents to run screaming to the AMA’s ethics board, also the local constabulary. Still, gazing at any one of the thousands of photos and videos of Harry from the 1970s and 1980s, you have to concede the guy had a point. The images depict a kind of timeless beauty that goes beyond Harry’s platinum candy-floss hair and Cupid’s-bow mouth. It’s a face that might as easily adorn a mid-century Playboy cover as an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus — archetypes Harry has played throughout her career, from the heavy-lidded bombshell in Mick Rock’s 1978 portrait to H.R. Giger’s artwork for her 1981 solo album KooKoo, and beyond.
“Backfired”, the first single from KooKoo, video by H.R. Giger:
One of Giger’s videos for the album depicted her emerging from a grey-scale sarcophagus, equal parts alien and sphinx; his album cover showed her perfect facial features pierced by four long spikes. He claims the inspiration was an acupuncturist friend, and that “She [Harry] was very pleased but, I think some people thought it was like voodoo, when you stick needles into a doll and make magic, but that’s not what I meant by it.”
“It’s a face that might as easily adorn a mid-century Playboy cover as an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.”
Whatever Giger meant by it, Harry’s embrace of his design underscores her innate understanding that some people respond to great beauty with the urge to destroy it. The opening track of Blondie’s first album was the brilliant girl group sendup “Rip Her to Shreds.” KooKoo’s poster ad campaign featuring the skewered singer was banned in the London Underground: no one wanted to actually see Debbie Harry being ripped to shreds.
If you think this is a lot of column space devoted to Debbie Harry’s appearance, bear in mind that she leads with her chin: Her memoir’s titled Face It. As an artist, of course she’s much more than her looks, even if the latter are what gave Blondie its name. And, as the 1970s ad campaign reminded the buying public, Blondie is a group, not a woman.
Yet it’s impossible to extricate Harry’s image from the band she fronted, impossible to imagine her crystalline voice emerging from anyone else. In some early live videos and recordings, you can see and hear a rougher version: Harry’s moves are awkwardly constrained, her voice strong but occasionally off-key. Sometimes she seems uneasy onstage, gaze shifting sideways as though looking for the quickest way out of the room. Studio alchemy turned her cut-glass voice into crystal, but the eyes that stare out from Blondie’s cover art retain a certain wariness.
For good reason, maybe. Reading Face It, you get a sense that, despite her success, Debbie Harry remains a bit of an outlier. The fact that she’s survived and thrived this long in an industry that eats its young underscores that impression. Still a suicide blonde at 74, she comes across as healthy, active in environmental and LGBTQ causes, and still performing. She’s close to her former professional and romantic partner, Chris Stein, and mostly (one might say relentlessly) upbeat in her account of a career that’s within shouting distance of the half-century mark.
“I am a love child,” she writes. Born Angela Tribble in 1945, Harry describes her birth parents as childhood sweethearts wrested apart by circumstance. They reconnected years later, but her mother didn’t learn her lover was married until she was pregnant, and three month-old infant Angela was adopted by a childless couple in New Jersey.
Harry’s childhood sounds like a middle class idyll, growing up under the benign parental neglect that allowed suburban children to roam the woods and abandoned shacks where hobos holed up, and “play with a few sticks, dig a hole, poke at an anthill, make something or roller skate.” New York City, where her father worked, was “another kind of enchanted forest,” one that she explored with her parents and, when she was older, on her own. She adored movies, fashion, TV, science fiction, radio, listening to big band music and enthralled by the drum-and-bugle corps that rehearsed within earshot of her house, playing the same song (“Valencia”) for hours. “I’ve had a very, very lucky life,” she writes. “But I felt different; I was always trying to fit in. And there was a time, there was a time when I was always, always afraid.”
Here as in other accounts of 1970s NYC punk, all roads eventually lead to the Dolls.
If she was ever truly afraid, Harry hides it well. I read her memoir looking for traces of the poisoned apple and serpents in the garden but, for the most part, Harry seems to have been inoculated against the former and able to charm the latter. Readers hoping for dirt dished and axes honed or buried won’t find much here. Despite her insistence that “it’s hard for me to find the fun” in Blondie’s success, Debbie Harry comes across as one of those rare people who has found not just a happy ending but a happy beginning and middle, too. Or, as she admits, “Maybe it’s like the King of Comedy said, ‘you just take all the terribly serious and dreadful stories and make them funny’.”
There are some good stories here, though you may have heard a few of them before. Drawing on a series of exclusive interviews with longtime music critic Sylvie Simmons, Face It covers much of the same ground as Cathay Che’s 1998 Deborah Harry: The Biography, a book based on interviews Harry did with Che in the 1990s. Che’s bio includes more detailed accounts of recording sessions, film appearances, and the 1970s downtown scene, along with some of the same anecdotes that crop up in Face It.
Still, Harry’s narrative voice remains engaging in the new book, upbeat and upfront, with few regrets (describing some shenanigans between a coke-fueled David Johansen and Iggy Pop, she does confide that “I had to wonder why Iggy didn’t let me have a closer look at his dick.”) She’s forthright about her own sexual charisma, owning it and using it without apology. From an early age she identified with Marilyn Monroe. “I sensed a vulnerability and a particular kind of femaleness that I felt we shared … That was long before I discovered that Marilyn had been a foster child.” Monroe’s aura suited the teenage Harry. Voted Best-Looking Girl in her high school, she was sexually precocious and unashamed of it in an era where slut-shaming was the norm.
She recalls, “I really loved sex. I think I might have been oversexed, but I didn’t have a problem with that; I felt it was totally natural. But in my town in those days, sexual energy was very repressed, or at least clandestine. The expectation for a girl was that you would date, get engaged, remain a virgin, marry, and have children. The idea of being tied to that kind of traditional suburban life terrified me.”
She’d catch a ride with a girlfriend and the two would cruise a strip known as Cunt Alley, then go dancing. ”I loved dancing. I still do.” There seem few things Harry didn’t love. To crib a line from the late novelist Laurie Colwin, she was The More Life Kid, sucking up experiences the way other kids were downing root beer floats. Her fear of being trapped in the Jersey suburbs spurred her to move, at twenty, into an apartment on St. Mark’s Place (four rooms, $67 a month). Before that, there was junior college, where her boyfriend’s psychoanalyst mother arranged for the young couple to drop acid with Timothy Leary on the Upper East Side. After that, there were jobs at a Fifth Avenue wholesaler, the BBC, and NYC’s first head shop, right around the corner from her apartment.
She’s forthright about her own sexual charisma, owning it and using it without apology.
Harry writes memorably of the eccentrics who flourished outside the city’s mainstream in the late 1960s, people like Moondog, the legendary composer who was a fixture at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty Third, wearing his Viking helmet and cape; or the creepier Scientologists and members of the Process Church of the Final Judgment. She went to shows by the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman; engaged in happenings where she chanted and played “anti-music music” with the First National Uniphrenic Church and Bank; got involved with a performance art hustler who, in the midst of extended foreplay, stopped the proceedings to let a stranger film her.
“I felt shocked, furious, betrayed, and disrespected, but I was also very turned on. I wanted to knock his teeth in and fuck him at the same time. I finally climbed onto a small pedestal and posed like a statue,” she writes.
The incident captures an essential strength, Harry’s instinct to grab power from men who try to exploit her. She doesn’t subvert the male gaze: she returns it, often with a grin that shows that she’s not just in on the joke but its perpetrator.
In 1968, she signed on as backup singer in a baroque folk band, The Wind in the Willows, started by a high school friend and her husband. “I knew I wanted to be a performer — I was still vague on what kind, but at least I knew that.” The band’s eponymous debut tanked. She left the Willows and moved in with one of its drummers, who introduced her to heroin. On the upside, he encouraged her to get a job waiting tables at Max’s Kansas City.
Again, there’s a parade of famous names who were habitués. Hendrix and Janis (“who was lovely and a big tipper”), and especially Warhol’s crowd — Edie, Holly, Jackie, Candy, Viva, Taylor Mead and Gerard Malanga. Warhol later immortalized Debbie Harry in a portrait, but the sweetly self-deprecating description of herself waiting on an imperious, silent Miles Davis gives a nice snapshot of an artist not quite ready for her closeup, “in my little black miniskirt, my black apron, and my T-shirt, with my long hippie hair au naturel — limping from a terribly infected foot injury.” She takes sitar lessons, quits Max’s, shacks up with a handsome older guy in LA until his girlfriend finds out, returns to the city, gets a job as a Playboy bunny for eight or nine months (throughout Face It, Harry is vague on exact dates). She’s been knocking around the city for almost five years, always on the sidelines, when she decides to move back to New Jersey.
“I got a job working at a health club and I started dating a guy who was a painting contractor. The normal life.”
Noooo! Run, Debbie, run!
Face It’s chronology grows fuzzy here. Che’s bio states she went to Beauty School, and in Face It Harry mentions working at a hair salon. But by 1972, Harry is making forays into the city, sans boyfriend, to catch the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. At some point there was a fling with David Johansen, and a friendship developed between Harry and the band, helped by the fact that she had a car and could ferry them around the city, “all so skinny, they were able to squeeze six across the backseat and four across the front.” The contractor turned out to be a controlling stalker, the inspiration for Blondie’s 1979 hit “One Way or Another.”
Blondie – “One Way or Another”, live in Asbury Park, in 1979:
Harry ditched him and began to home in on her own musical ambitions, inspired by the Dolls.
“… they were sexy and playful and so much fun,” she writes. “I figure now that what attracted me so much to their shows was that I wanted to be just like them. In fact, I wanted to be them. I just didn’t know exactly how to get it rolling.”
A chance encounter at Max’s with singer Elda Gentile, sometime partner of the Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain, led to her joining Gentile in the Stilettos, a trio “enamored of the Dolls,” which meant Harry was now in a campy girl group inspired by a group of guys who camped it up in makeup and glitter. It was after one of the Stiletttos’ shows that Harry met Chris Stein, a shadowy figure in the audience there with his girlfriend, who’d previously been involved with Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia. (Here as in other accounts of 1970s NYC punk, all roads eventually lead to the Dolls.)
Soon after, Stein became the Stilettos’ bass player, Harry’s friend and eventually her lover. The band played gigs at Club 82 (with David and Angie Bowie in the audience), followed by a stand opening for Television at CBGB. Harry says of this period that “My role in the group was to be the relatively reasonable one and to calm things down, which I guess showed up as ‘quiet’ onstage.” Whether or not she chafed at this, she and Stein left the band, along with two other band members. They performed first as Angel and the Snake, then Blondie and the Banzai Babies. Their original backup singers were soon replaced by Tish and Snooky Bellomo, who ran the legendary vintage shop Manic Panic and later fronted the Sick Fucks.
I read her memoir looking for traces of the poisoned apple and serpents in the garden but, for the most part, Harry seems to have been inoculated against the former and able to charm the latter.
Harry writes that few people in the mid-1970s were playing the kind of retro music they did, which may have been the case. The AM stations in the NYC Metro area promoted soft rock — brain-numbing earworms by Bread, America, Loggins and Messina — while WNEW-FM, the city’s flagship ‘underground’ station, went heavy on what was then called art rock (now prog) by the likes of Genesis, Yes, Renaissance, Gentle Giant.
But teenage listeners like myself knew that WNEW DJs like Vince Scelsa and Scott Muni could and did indulge their own eclectic tastes and obsessions. Jonathan Schwartz played Frank Sinatra; Alison Steele, the Nightbird, played Stephen Sondheim, Tonto’s Expanding Headband, Lothar and the Hand People, and Kraftwerk, whose 1974 album Autobahn opened the airways to what became disco and electronica, genres Blondie and Harry latched on to years later. The station helped break Bruce Springsteen, with The King Biscuit Flour Hour’s broadcast of a live concert of “Greetings from Asbury Park.” I also recall one of their afternoon DJs starting to play a new album — the Laughing Dogs? The Ramones?— then ripping it from the turntable to throw it across the studio on-air.
But that’s another story. The point is, even uptown and in the suburbs, the 1970s created a far more fertile musical playing field than often depicted, allowing for the cross-pollination that made a band like Blondie possible. In 1972, you could hear Lou Reed sing about Candy Darling giving head on AM radio. The same year, Lenny Kaye’s hugely influential two-record Nuggets anthology was released, and a year later, George Lucas’s groundbreaking movie American Graffiti spawned a hit soundtrack double album featuring classic 1950s/1960s rock and roll.
Those two albums reacquainted a generation of listeners to songs they’d heard and loved as kids — I was one of them — while providing what we’d now term a curated experience of classic garage, proto-punk and rock and roll music. Motown could still bring people flocking to the dance floor in high school gymnasiums. Add T. Rex, Ziggy Stardust, and Transformer to the mix, and you had a heady musical cocktail for young listeners to imbibe (and bear in mind the legal drinking age then was 18). Thus the New York Dolls, Magic Tramps, and, eventually, Blondie.
Harry’s account of Blondie’s golden years is impressionistic, gliding over material that’s been covered in more depth elsewhere, and there aren’t that many photos (it does feature some cute pictures of Debbie Harry as a child). There’s some interesting stuff about her film work, including the tantalizing fact (mentioned twice) that she was offered a part in Blade Runner (the record company made her turn it down). But anyone hoping for a clue as to how Harry, Stein, and their bandmates created the string of hits that began with “Sex Offender” and continued with “In the Flesh,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” “Dreaming,” “Atomic,” on through the genre-busting ‘Heart of Glass,” “Rapture,” and “The Tide is High” will be out of luck.
Recent years have brought a wealth of memoirs from women who served pivotal roles in the creation of punk and its descendants: Patti Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Viv Albertine, Linda Yablonsky, Chrissie Hynde, Alice Bag, as well as associated works like Sarah Marcus’s Girls to the Front and Vivien Goldman’s Revenge of the She-Punks.
So what’s the takeaway from Face It? Read in tandem with Che’s biography, Face It fills in more of Harry’s childhood. It also includes reproductions of some of Harry’s collection of fan art sent to her over the years — paintings and drawings inspired by her album covers and the like, sweet, often touching work that confirms her iconicity even as it demonstrates the down-to-earth qualities that make Harry seem so accessible, the former girl next door you’d like to have as the attractive old woman in the retirement condo adjoining yours. It would have been nice to see a picture of the Debbie Harry Barbie doll she mentions, and more (any) photos of her in 2019. But if you’re looking for the face in Face It, and those of anyone else connected with the band or the NYC 1970s downtown scene, check out Roberta Bayley’s Blondie: Unseen 1976-1980, or Chris Stein’s fabulous Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, which showcases Stein’s remarkable, too often overlooked talent as a photographer. And New York Rocker, the memoir penned by former Blondie bassist Gary Valentine, has funnier and far more detailed accounts of the band’s early years. But I’m still waiting for an account of the romantic and professional relationship between Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, one of the most successful and intriguing artistic collaborations of the last forty-odd years.
The “terribly serious and dreadful stories” Harry mentions — a terrifying rape; heroin addiction (hers and Stein’s); the horrific, debilitating autoimmune disorder that consumed Stein for three years — are dealt with swiftly and in no great detail. Which is understandable and perhaps an admirable example of restraint — do we need another account of a rock star’s substance abuse and recovery? — but leaves a huge lacuna in Harry’s story. Harry’s refusal to linger on the trauma of sexual assault may be more of a generational thing: in the 1970s, women who were raped (I was one of them, too) were advised not to fight and, afterwards, to try to forget it ever happened. If you can’t make the terrible stories funny, don’t dwell on them.
Ultimately, Debbie Harry comes across as an impressively talented and genuinely nice human being, also a happy one — a rare combo in life and even more so in the music business. “I’m still here,” she says. “I have had one fuck of an interesting life and I plan to go on having one.” It’s telling that that she lets someone else — her manager — bring up her legacy (on the book’s second-to-last page): “He told me, ‘I hope that you say something about how you broke ground as a female artist in a business that was a man’s world, and how difficult it was as a woman to do what you’ve done.’”
Harry’s response is typically modest: “I just got on with it. As much as possible, I found a way to do what I had to do.”
In The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus writes, “The more singular a celebrity, the easier they are to replicate.” The ultimate proof of Debbie Harry’s singular influence can be seen in her musical progeny, who are legion. Madonna, Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill, Shonen Knife, Sleater Kinney, Pussy Riot, Angel Olsen and countless others didn’t need to mail Debbie Harry examples of their fan art. All they had to do was open their mouths, and sing.