A Conversation with Debbie Harry: The Complete Interview
Photo by Scott Schafer
Years before Madonna and decades before Lady Gaga made headlines with their sexually charged songs, racy costumes, and outrageous onstage antics, Debbie Harry reigned supreme as the lead singer of Blondie, an edgy band that came straight out of the mid- to late-‘70s CBGB/Bowery punk scene and skyrocketed to stardom with an unlikely hit, the disco-infused New Wave anthem, “Heart of Glass.” But it was Harry’s tough-yet-fragile beauty and sassy Bowery-chick attitude combined with the band’s gritty, streetwise, sometimes angst-ridden lyrics set to impossibly catchy pop that turned Blondie into a hit-making machine, selling more than 40 million records. Harry not only sang the songs—infused with elements of punk, rock, pop, disco, rap, reggae, and even calypso—but wrote or co-wrote most of them with her former long-time love and musical partner (they still work together), Chris Stein. Blondie continues to record new music (A Panic of Girls is their latest album), and their original catalog has found a young, new audience, due in part to the film Bridesmaids, whose opening song is Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds” (a live version of the song appears during the closing credits).
Last month, I caught up with Harry, now 67, who takes the stage with Blondie at the Capitol Theatre on October 7. I found her genuinely amiable, funny, forthcoming, candid—and yes, cool.
Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a ‘Jersey girl,’ but to many people, you’re almost as synonymous with New York as Woody Allen, only in music instead of film. So do you think of yourself as a Jersey girl or a New Yorker?
A: I think of myself primarily as a New Yorker. I’ve lived in New York for…centuries. Actually, I’ve lived her since the late sixties. I know it really, really well, and I love it. I used to live in Jersey—I grew up in Jersey, and I do spend a fair amount of time across the River. At this stage of the game, I’m pretty much fifty/fifty between the two. My friends, my best friends, are in New York and I guess I call it home.
Q: Do you ever come to Westchester, or is it like a foreign country, as some New Yorkers seem to believe?
A: Well, I think I have some friends who live up there. Is Tarrytown in Westchester?
Q: Ha ha—yes.
A: Yes, I do have friends who live there and I’ve been up there quite a bit. I’m not a regular, but I am coming up for a show, actually, before I do my show at the Capitol Theatre. I’m planning to see the Bob Dylan show [Dylan played the Capitol’s inaugural show on September 4].
Photo by Scott Schafer
Q: So you’re a Dylan fan?
A: Oh, absolutely. I’m in awe, just in awe of him.
Q: Hmm…good to know that you’re in awe of someone.
A: Sure! Oh my God. You know, you have to be a fan to appreciate when someone says that to you. I mean, we all have periods in our lives when we’re fourteen years old and diggin’ it.
Q: You changed so much in rock and pop music. You were the first female rock singer who was not only beautiful, but extremely talented and incredibly cool. In earlier eras, there was sort of an unwritten ‘rule’ that physical beauty and artistic talent were mutually exclusive—or at least, one would ‘dilute’ the other. You wrote and performed your own songs, led a group of men, and managed to bring a punk sensibility onto the mainstream radar at the height of disco. How did you do it?
A: Wow…I don’t know. It sounds kind of impossible! I guess I was lucky in a lot of ways and in the right time and the right place. Plus, I was really determined. It was something I felt very strong about doing. I had a great partner in Chris [Stein, Debbie’s longtime collaborator and former significant other]. We worked as a partnership for such a long time.
Q: You guys seem to have a relationship that just transcends nearly everything.
A: Argh! [laughs] I don’t know if I’d go that far. He’s a great person and I love working with him and we’re just fortunate that it was successful. I think a lot of times, couples have problems with money and it puts a lot of stress on relationships. So we were lucky that we met with some success. I guess it was difficult in the early days, but we really loved it and we had each other and…it was one of those situations. We were young and determined…sounds very romantic.
Q: Your first two albums [Blondie and Plastic Letters] were raw and punky, yet poppy, too, but under the radar. Then ‘Heart of Glass’ hit the airwaves. Blondie was one of the first true ‘crossover’ bands, long before that term was bandied about, with this convergence of punk, pop, rock, and disco. What was your role in that big whirlwind?
A: We were part of the punk scene. What happened is that punk, later on, became identified with a certain style of music because of the Ramones and, originally, the punk scene was about a sensibility, about a point of view, about an attitude. So we fell into that, definitely, because a lot of our songs were sort of anti-social and different political stance, especially for women. So, in that respect, we were definitely of the punk sensibility.
Q: But you were actually with a folk group long before Blondie, the Wind in the Willows in 1968.
A: Right, that was a ‘baroque folk’ kind of thing with a small orchestra and weird instrumentation.
Q: Then you were in another group—the Stilletos. Did you go straight from folk to punk?
A: I took a break for a while. Then I started hanging around the [New York] Dolls and some of the other local bands in the early seventies, and I sort of felt that maybe I should give music another try. And I’m glad I did!
Q: Would you personally put Blondie into a genre or say that it’s crossover?
A: I think we did do some crossover. The definition of ‘pop music’ or ‘rock and roll’ has changed. One of the things that shocked me the most was when Madonna was given the Grammy for Best New Rock Singer. At the time, rock and dance were very different and separate. When that happened, I thought it was kind of meaningful because she, in my estimation was not a rock singer.
Q: I remember the first time I heard ‘Rip Her to Shreds,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s someone cool enough to write this.’ It was such a ‘mean girls’ song, but it was refreshing. Those were your words?
A: Yeah, I wrote the lyric. [chuckles]
Q: And now, more than three decades later, you have a whole new audience because of Bridesmaids, which features two versions of the song.
A: I know! Isn’t that funny?
Photo by Scott Schafer
Q: The film uses two versions: the original studio version for the opening and a live version during the closing credits. Were you aware the song was going to be in the film?
A: They just licensed the song. I didn’t really know about it until afterwards. And we were very excited about it!
Q: My son’s fifteen, and it’s great to see that, perhaps because of the film—or cool parents—kids his age are listening to your music now.
A: Oh, that’s really great—thank you for telling me.
Q: Are you noticing a mix in your audiences? Is it Baby Boomers, young people, fans who just want to hear the hits?
A: Oh, it’s all of that. It’s always been a good, healthy combination of age groups for Blondie. I can’t explain it except that there’s probably a lot of strange, sick people in the world!
Q: On stage and in your songs, you used your sexuality in a way that almost parlayed it into an art form; it was sexual but not vulgar. How do you feel about some newer artists who feel that they have to ‘throw it all out there’?
A: Thank you very much; that’s a very nice compliment. Some of the stuff I find gratuitous and, as you say, over the top and not very interesting. Sometimes it’s fantastic—it really depends on the artist. The combination of really saying something that you mean and being connected to it, having a real point of view about what you’re singing about as well as being overtly sexual or slightly nasty with it—that makes all the difference.
Q: Is there any new artist that you really like—or dislike?
A: I went recently to see a band from South Africa, Die Antwoord. It means ‘the answer’ in Afrikaans, which is sort of a German-English. They were fantastic. They’re a rap group and they’re very kinky, but very entertaining. I think they have something to say. Another group I saw that’s very controversial is called the Zebra Katz—it’s almost scary.
Q: Not your typical top-40 bands.
A: I’ve always had strong tastes and I don’t think I’m particularly afraid of controversy. From my point of view, that’s what rock and roll is all about, coming from the age that I come from, when rock and roll was considered antisocial and clandestine and bad for you—that it was gonna ruin everything.
Q: I was one of those kids who wore a ‘Disco Sucks’ button in the late ‘70s...
A: Yay! Good girl!
Q: …But, at some point—and Blondie helped—I realized that disco didn’t all suck. There were some bright spots in it, right?
A: Yeah, there was some great music that came out of that.
Q: So let’s talk about ‘Rapture.’ It was released in January of ’81, and, though Sugarhill Gang did ‘Rappers Delight’ in ’79, Blondie is generally credited with bringing the genre to a mainstream audience. Did the song help do that?
A: I think so, yeah. We had the first number one…I put quotes around ‘rap,’ because it’s not strictly or truly a rap song; it’s an homage. We really loved what was going on. We were at a street level at the time, and we saw the kids doing what they did and what it meant, and I felt like, ‘This is really important stuff. This is giving a voice to a lot of kids.’ Up until then, the only outlet for black musicians was R&B, so this was major! In a way, I felt that maybe I was taking advantage of a situation. It was a gamble; we had no idea that it would go to number one. I’m proud of the fact that we did the first rap song that had its own music. At that time, rapping was all done to loops—they would take loops from Chic and from this and that, and they would make scratches and do all that with the turntables. So, it was a different animal. They called it hip-hop.
Q: You mentioned hip-hop, as opposed to rap. Hip-hop was more of a lifestyle, not just a musical genre. Is that right?
A: You know, it’s up for grabs, I think. It’s probably the same idea that happened with punk music. There was a time when it was all labeled one thing, and then it became a style, then it became something else. Punk became New Wave—there are gray areas about it. Stuff really overlaps. I don’t think there is ever a clear line of definition, because there are always little references to music that has influenced you. In our songs, there are some references to R&B, there’s some blues, reggae—and somehow we make it into our pop version of all of that.
Q: Tell me about your new music.
A: Our last album was A Panic of Girls. We toured all around the world and got some TV coverage and a little bit of chart action. It’s great. Making new material with the way that we think today—because we all do change with time—was very, very vital in having us continue on. I don’t think Chris or I would have been interested in just going out and doing a revue of old Blondie material.
Q: What was your biggest career disappointment?
A: I don’t know if there are any major career disappointments. I’m disappointed now that I can’t get my new music into the charts. I don’t know if it’s completely compatible with the way the charts are today. But, before I stop making music, I would like to have another hit song.
Q: And what was your proudest moment?
A: That would be [Blondie’s induction into] the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That really legitimized us and made people say, ‘Okay, those guys really have something.’