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Debbie Harry: Blondie Ambition

Nina Myskow / 26 October 2022

Punk icon Debbie Harry chats about the challenges of touring at 77, her closeness to her Blondie co-founder and ex-boyfriend Chris Stein, and the time she was flashed by Bowie.

Debbie Harry is not about to abdicate her role as punk queen and pop goddess any time soon. The Blondie legend with the killer cheekbones and the string of hits has neither chucked out her peroxide bottle nor abandoned her microphone. At the age of 77, and just back from a US tour – there was a UK tour with the band earlier this year – there’s no chance of this epitome of New York cool fading to grey.

Being on stage with the band was fun, we were loving it,’ she tells me via Zoom from her New Jersey home and laughs. ‘We’re a bunch of old-timers, let’s face it.’

Hanging in there? ‘Yeah, goddammit! I think it’s important to keep on working. I feel I’m good at what I do, I just don’t wanna stop.’

Despite having been a star since 1978 when the Blondie single Denis broke through in the UK – ‘We embraced the British music scene and were embraced by it’ – Debbie doesn’t take herself too seriously. And she admits she finds touring exhausting: ‘People think, “Oh, I want to go on tour,” but maybe for five days you’d like it. It’s hard physically to be trooping around, moving your things in and out of hotels and going through airports. It’s not a joke. It’s a lot of effort.’

You’d never know it from the way Debbie looks today. She is wearing no make-up – this can surely only come from the confidence of the truly beautiful – but she looks fresh. Her heart-shaped face is still luminous and compelling. ‘I got home a couple of days ago and yesterday I went for some acupuncture and just crashed last night,’ she says.

However, the gruelling nature of touring as she describes it explains why guitarist Chris Stein, 72, her co-writer and founder of the band – and famously her ex-boyfriend – has not been on stage with her this year.

‘He’s been very public about his health,’ says Debbie, who was with Chris for 14 years in the Seventies and Eighties. ‘He has a heart arrhythmia, so his participation is limited.’ And then she adds, protectively, ‘But we just finished recording a whole album. He has a great state of mind and he’s not one to wallow.’ This brand-new Blondie material will be released next year. And Chris will be on stage with Debbie for their upcoming In Conversation UK tour where they will be discussing five decades of Blondie and their creative partnership. ‘Old Mr Smarty Pants is wonderful at these things,’ she laughs. ‘He’s got that sly wit, he charms audiences, I tell you. He’s a natural. We have a lot of fun with it.’

When I first met Debbie and Chris in the late Seventies, they were very much a couple: two bohemians from the edgy New York art scene conquering the world of pop with hits such as Hanging on the Telephone, Heart of Glass, Atomic and Rapture. I remind her that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of their first encounter: ‘Fifty years? Disgusting, isn’t it?’ She laughs and marvels at the passing of time, fondly recalling her first impression: ‘It was his eyes, and his sort of glow.’ His sense of humour? ‘Oh yeah, wonderful, but I didn’t get it right away. It was just the presence.’

Back then she had no idea of their longevity. ‘I never would have guessed it in a million years,’ she says. ‘But I think Chris and I had a meeting of minds. I don’t know if I understood him as well as he understood me.’ She laughs. ‘He’s a very generous guy.’

'I hope I've done as much for Chris as he's done for me. He's made my life everything I dreamed it would be'.

Their history takes them from scrabbling for success in seedy dives to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. It’s a period covered in their Blondie: Against The Odds 1974-1982 box set, a remastered treasure trove of 124 tracks. ‘I hear those tracks and hear the person I was then,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of drive, and there was a great deal of madness in me.’

The tapes have a history of their own. ‘Our studio used to flood and we’d have to go down there to rescue this material,’ she recounts. ‘When Chris finally moved out of New York to Woodstock everything got dried out and put into his garage.’ The tapes lay untouched for 20 years.

Despite selling more than 40 million albums, financially they were ripped off – bad deals and tax bills – and lost pretty much everything. Chris was diagnosed with a life-threatening auto-immune disease and for four years Debbie took time to help him recover. The band had split up in 1982 and then, in 1987, so did they, coincidentally, on the day Andy Warhol died (he immortalised Debbie in an iconic painting – ‘A great, great honour,’ she calls it).

But their musical partnership survived and Blondie was rekindled at the end of the Nineties, spawning the huge hit Maria. Their bond has endured through his subsequent marriage and Debbie is even godmother to his two teenage daughters – ‘I get to have fun with them,’ she smiles. All of this and more – being adopted as a baby, drug addiction, a terrifying stalker, an abduction attempt by serial killer Ted Bundy, a rape at knifepoint, being flashed by David Bowie – is covered in her memoir Face It, now released in paperback. It’s a definitive rock ’n’ roll saga that paints a vivid picture of someone who is very much a survivor and pragmatic with it. ‘I was lucky,’ she says of her escape from Ted Bundy’s car in 1972. ‘I was such a jerk, an idiot, to get in the car in the first place.’

More controversially she uses the same word, ‘lucky’, in talking about her rape when she and Chris were tied up in their New York apartment in their early days by a drug addict looking for cash. ‘I think I was lucky,’ she says plainly. ‘I wasn’t beaten or hurt in any physical way, most of the hurt was mental. Nobody punched me in the eye or cut off a finger. I certainly have experienced date rape back in the day and yes, I guess I am pragmatic.’ She laughs ruefully.

‘I think sexual abuse to children, of an innocent, is much more serious than to a person like me. If someone is physically abused or beaten, I am horrified. In those situations, I came out practically unscathed. Except I was really pissed off and wanted to kill that man.’

And her attitude to being flashed by David Bowie (in a dressing room after she had shared her cocaine with him and Iggy Pop when they were all on the road during Blondie’s first US tour) will certainly offend the MeToo sensibility.

‘Woohoo!’ she says in delight at the memory and raises her arms in a triumphant gesture. ‘Outraged?’ She laughs. ‘Absolutely not. I was totally captivated. Are you kidding? We all adore Bowie and it was one of those moments. These guys, you know. It’s just rock ’n’ roll.’

Her New Jersey surroundings today look far removed from that wild world – I spy lush suburban greenery in the windows behind her. ‘I’ve lived in Manhattan for more than 40 years,’ says Debbie, who still has an apartment there. ‘But I think having a little alternative universe is very good for writing. The shock of being surrounded by leaves and trees, the smell of it, is intoxicating. I garden, not very successfully. I think I’m better at house plants. I’m not really down on my knees digging in the dirt, I sort of kick it with my foot.’

She looks relaxed and her hair is casual but happily still blonde. ‘I started doing it when I was a teenager. It’s a habit,’ she says. ‘I guess I did let it go when I wasn’t working and doing Blondie and everything went to hell. But I think it does something for me, it gives me a lift and it’s always been fun.’

Keeping in shape is hard work. ‘I have a certain amount of vanity and I just hate the feeling of carrying around extra weight,’ she says. ‘Part of my success is that I can be very focused, so I have a lovely trainer I’ve been working with since 2006 on a regular basis. I stretch and use weights and one of the keys is getting the heart rate up.’

And walking her two Japanese Chin dogs keeps her fit: ‘I also have a pet minder, so they are spoiled rotten. Sadly, I lost two other dogs this past year, but they had good lives.’ She is disciplined with her diet, too. ‘Portion control is important – and being able to walk away.’

Although there is nobody special in her life right now, Debbie, who has never married or had children, would love to meet someone. ‘Are you going to introduce me?’ she laughs. ‘I have many relationships and many friends, but I don’t have a live-in boyfriend. Still, it’s not like I’ve been closeted for years. I’ve had different relationships on and off. I like flirting, I like entertaining people, I like being liked.’

Although she’s had more than her fair share of heartache and trauma she is now in a happy place. ‘My God, I’d be a complete fool if I wasn’t. I’m a performer, an artist, a musician, a writer. I never thought any of that would happen and I can’t put a value on that. Except I know how lucky I am.’

And she is profoundly grateful to Chris, too. ‘He’s been such an inspiration to me, I feel very fortunate that we got to know each other and work together,’ she says. Theirs has been the most consistent relationship in her life. ‘I hope I’ve done as much for him as he’s done for me. Because he’s made my life everything that I dreamed it would be.’

Blondie: Against the Odds 1974-1982 archival box set is out now. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s In Conversation tour starts on 1 November at the London Palladium.

Debbie Harry’s memoir Face It (HarperCollins) is available in paperback. Her KooKoo album reissue and Chris’ H.R. Giger: Debbie Harry Metamorphosis book are both out now.

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