Huddled around a low, narrow coffee table in a Chelsea rehearsal studio, four members of Blondie are discussing their first album in nearly two decades. "One of the reasons it's called No Exit," says drummer Clem Burke, "is because there's a play -- by Jean-Paul Sartre? That's basically what it's like to be in a band."
Hell is . . . other musicians?
"Yeah, exactly. Same as any group of people you're gonna be involved with."
Slouched improbably deep into a lumpy sofa, guitarist Chris Stein adds, "And the image of being trapped in a situation, but the door is open."
"I don't think the door is open in the play," Burke replies. "I really don't."
Keyboardist Jimmy Destri gets off the couch and stretches supine on the concrete floor. "Isn't it open throughout the play?" he asks wearily.
"It's not open," snaps Burke.
"They never try the door!" moans Stein. "That's the idea!"
"They try it," insists Burke.
Perched with one leg tucked under her on a folding plastic chair is Deborah Harry, the lead singer and Stein's ex-girlfriend. The windowless studio is chilly enough that she's wearing a coat; in lieu of comment, she wraps her hands more snugly around the paper cup of soup she's clutching. If her bandmates would let her get a word in, Harry might tell them that they're both right, sort of: Garcin and his fellow lost souls find the door to their own windowless pit locked at one point, open at another. But why bother? Like the endless conversational torment of Sartre's play, the old bandmates' bickering could never be brought to a pat resolution. Who wrote the melody to the new CD's jazzy "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" -- Harry or Burke? Is raising kids vegan a form of child abuse? Yuppies in TriBeCa: good or bad? Legitimate questions, all worthy of -- and receiving -- passionate debate.
Unlike Sartre's characters, Harry, Stein & co. actually escaped one another's company seventeen years ago, though not entirely voluntarily. Having got their start on the same mid-seventies CBGB-Max's Kansas City circuit as the Ramones and Talking Heads, Blondie achieved that rarest of music-world balances, credibility and commercial success. Harry was an original -- girl-group sweet and East Village tough. Between 1978 and 1982, Blondie's blend of punk, pop, and New Wave landed them four No. 1 singles.
But enough mishaps and infighting to fill a season's worth of Behind the Music episodes ended the band. "By the time we got to The Hunter," says ex-bassist Nigel Harrison, referring to their sixth album, which tanked, "it was one big nervous breakdown." Shortly after the group disbanded, a more serious problem arose: Stein's entire body broke out in sores as he grew thinner and thinner. What first appeared to be aids turned out to be pemphigus, a rare hereditary disease triggered by stress.
Lately, band members have attributed their breakup to the disease -- which eventually went into remission, as did Stein's relationship with Harry. In reality, Stein now concedes, things happened the other way around: The pemphigus was set off by "the band breaking up, and all the bad business deals, and spending five years straight on the road, and doing lots of drugs. I burned myself out." Stein married briefly; Harry stayed single, pursued a solo career, and has acted in a few films. Living comfortably if not lavishly off the still-healthy sales of Blondie's back catalogue, Burke, Destri, and Stein worked as session musicians and producers. Harrison spent eight years as an A&R executive at Interscope. All but Burke (who lives in L.A.) have stayed in New York.