It is an indelible, if sorta pervy, memory: going over to the Bowery loft a couple of doors down from William Burroughs’s place to talk to Blondie guitarist Chris Stein about Japanese monster movies and seeing Debbie Harry’s underwear spread out across the uneven wooden floor, half a dozen pairs of panties and maybe a bra or two.
“Debbie is always leaving this shit all around,” said Stein, Harry’s longtime boyfriend and collaborator, as he kicked a tangerine-hued brief with his foot before showing off his new, radioactive-breath-blowing Godzilla figurine.
This, of course, was a long time ago, maybe the winter of 1976, when the Bowery still had bums and Blondie was playing to, like, fourteen people a night at CBGB. But after 35 years, during which her band sold more than 40 million records and she became one of the most famous of all rock divas, Harry talks about the scene like it was yesterday.
“What about Chris’s underwear?” she demands to know. “How come you don’t remember Chris’s underwear?” Then, because the question is too ridiculous, Harry laughs. “Yeah,” she says, “we were messy little children back then.”
Even from the drunken fringes of the CBGB scene, you could tell Harry was a good sport. No one dared talk to Patti Smith, but Harry, from Jersey, sans that post-Kerouac beatnik cool, was always regular, a great gum-smacking babe in a near–totally male-dominated world, someone you could actually accompany for a swell night of transvestite-gawking at the Club 82. Back then, despite Harry’s formidable upper register and irresistible trashy Gidget appeal, there was no sense that Blondie would get anywhere. The Ramones and Talking Heads were the acknowledged CB geniuses, rulers of the respective Queens thug/slug and Rhode Island School of Design wings of Bowery punk. Blondie was a chick-fronted pop band, a cranked-up fun machine destined for little cultural traction. What was not understood was how dead-serious Harry and Stein (along with keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke) were about making it, the diligence of their DIY professionalism. Blondie emerged from the Bowery grime as a shiny mechaGodzilla, full of deceptive sheen and surface, popmeisters to rival their great contemporaries the Cars. The legacy is indisputable: “Call Me,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “In the Flesh,” and especially “Dreaming” live on as masterpiece blasts of post-Spector song craft.
The awesome news is that Harry, who just turned 66 (!), goes by Deborah now, and on this day appeared in pink pedal pushers, little black pumps, and a loose-fitting tee, is as cool-looking—and as good a sport—as ever. She’s never had a problem talking about the cosmetic “boosts” she’s submitted to over the years, declaring them “necessary business procedures,” especially since the return of Blondie as a touring band in the late nineties. A semi-matronly steel-gray ’do might have been okay during Harry’s underappreciated solo career and her chanteuse turn with the downtown Jazz Passengers. But Blondie is Blondie, so Harry “went back to the bleach” and has been happier ever since. She must have had “a million fucking hairdos” in her career, including “this mullet thing I once stuck on my head.” The basic, slightly blown-out latter-day-CBGB-era “blonde mess” remains a favorite.
So she’s held onto the blonde (though occasionally it’s a wig), but “the last thing I ever want to be is an oldies act, running through those same songs beat for beat,” Harry says. “We play the songs people want to hear, but we’re into the future. We’ve learned a lot of things over the years, about technology and everything else. I feel like I’m a better singer now. Outside of the insanely high stuff, I can still hit all the notes and I have more focus, lyrically.”
No doubt this is true (check out “Two Times Blue” off Harry’s last solo album, Necessary Evil), but Blondie’s newest album, Panic of Girls, doesn’t sound radically different from the stuff they did 30 years ago. Tunes like “Love Doesn’t Frighten Me”—with Harry’s plaintive teen vocal sitting on top of a mountain of synthesizers and Burke’s ever-flashy drum riffs—strike the ear like classic Blondie. Stick the tune on Eat to the Beat and maybe it’s a hit. This works both ways, since a song like 1979’s “Union City Blue” wouldn’t be particularly out of place on Panic. Still, none of it sounds dated, too early or too late. Three decades apart, the songs work in either time. This might be Blondie’s genius. The fact is Harry, Stein, and the others tapped into a rich alchemical vein during those years in the Bowery lab. They located pop’s sacred ground, the eternal now, and have remained there against all ravages of time.
Ask Harry if she’s a survivor and she sighs. Blondie has been lucky. They’re still alive, individually—“So many of the people we came up with have blown themselves away. I wake in the morning wondering, what would [Johnny] Thunders be into now?”—and as a band. Not that there haven’t been close calls. “In 1982, everything imploded,” Harry says. “Chris got really sick. Our record company folded. We had poor management. Mercenary management. Suddenly we were broke. The IRS took our house. I was famous. I’d hear myself on the radio, and it felt like the whole world collapsed around me. I didn’t sing for years.
“It’s crazy how relative things get. Big as we were, sometimes I am completely miserable about not becoming a giant megastar, like Beyoncé or someone. I tell myself my little art pretensions held me back, kept me at a certain level, like a cult figure, and how truly awful that is. Then I see myself in the mirror and just laugh because that stuff is just stupid, you know?”
Harry, who has no children (“By the time you think you’d make a good mom, it is too late”), does wonder about her legacy and how much longer she’ll keep doing this. “We just got off this tour. Eighteen dates in Europe and the U.K. I went out and sang, felt really terrific—as good as ever—but that’s kind of an illusion. Not so long ago, I was cleaning out one of my old backpacks and found this obituary of Breno Mello. He was in Black Orpheus, this Brazilian movie version of the Orpheus story I was crazy about when I was growing up. It had all this great music; I saw it over and over. So when Mello died, I cut out his obit and kept it. I forgot I had it until I cleaned out my backpack, and I thought, If Orpheus can die, it is all borrowed time.”
Panic of Girls