Debbie Harry and Edinburgh were made for each other. Like the city, she is iconic with a certain arctic hauteur and a tendency today towards a venerable cragginess. And like its Morningside inhabitants, she has also been known to parade about with no knickers.
Despite a number one hit with “Maria”‘s jangly pop a few years ago, most of Harry’s fans braving the Hogmanay hoar will be in their thirties and forties, a generation who still remember Harry’s late-70s heyday as sex on a record; the result of some weird chemical experiment involving Nico, Michelle Pfeiffer and a big bottle of bleach. More knowing than Marianne Faithful, less self-exploitative than Madonna, she was in her thirties when Blondie had hits with “Denis” and “Sunday Girl”. Surrounded by the gaucheness of punk, and possessing cheekbones you could hang coats on, the age factor added to her alluring image of mature sexuality. Her habit of wearing skirts with no beginning probably helped too.
An adopted child who grew up in New Jersey dreaming that her real mother was Marilyn Monroe, Harry has said that when she first started singing in groups, she would sometimes wonder if her birth parents were out in the audience, watching her. Yet she never tried to trace them. Instead she threw her energy into gaining wider attention: “In those early days, I was obsessed with fame and fortune. I really wanted to be noticed and adored. It was a big motivating factor and it got me through a lot of bullshit I would never have stood for otherwise.”
As an adventurous teenager in New Jersey in the Fifties, she listened to the liberating rhythm and blues of Fats Domino and Bo Diddley. “I had a boyfriend who was hip. We’d go to the Village to see bands. Back then, there was that sense that everything was up for grabs. Kind of like punk later on.”
She moved to Manhattan and worked as, among other things, a waitress and a Playboy Bunny girl. She sang in bands; rumour has it she became a groupie, hanging out on the New York punk scene with the Ramones and Iggy Pop and dabbling with narcotics from heroin to LSD and cocaine.
A former cohort of Andy Warhol, Harry was singing with an all-girl trio called The Stilettos when she met Chris Stein. They became inseparable, forming a group together called Angel and the Snake which later became Blondie.
“Every night you just had to watch where you walked,” she recalls of their journeys home from gigs in the early days. “And all you’d get was a couple of beers for playing. We had been playing there for six months with the bikers shouting: “Hey, Blondie”. One night it clicked. I thought: “That’s it – let’s call the band Blondie.”
Blondie’s first hit, “Denis”, a pop-punk remake of the 1963 original, made it to number two in the British charts in 1978. That same year, the band’s album, Parallel Lines, became a million-seller. From then until the mid-Eighties, Blondie were a bombshell to be reckoned with, and far more musically ambitious than they needed to be. Although nobody thanked them for it at the time, Harry was the first to introduce rap music to a mainstream, white audience with their 1980 hit “Rapture” “and then you’re in the man from Mars, you go out at night eating cars…”).
But of course a large part of Blondie’s commercial success was centred on Harry’s sexiness, as was much of the criticism that followed. Long before Madonna’s more hard-nosed hard-sell sexuality, Harry was going on stage without any knickers, acting out the part of an assertive blonde bombshell. She attracted condemnation even for a jokey picture where she pretended to lick a record.
After a long series of Blondie hits, however, she took a break at 38 to care for Stein, her lover and guitarist, who had been afflicted with pemphigus, a rare and often fatal skin disorder. Stein slowly recovered, but at the expense of their relationship and Harry’s career. “At that point, I never thought I would have a viable pop career again,” she noted later. “I thought I was finished. I was tired and disillusioned, burnt out.”
She was also physically falling apart; in her forties and early fifties she hit her “ice-cream years” and had her widely discussed weight problems. Then after two decades of peroxide, she went bald in her forties, so she gamely got a crop and a selection of wigs for outdoor wear. “Now that I am a middle-aged woman,” she said bravely, “I have become like Cher.” Cher, however, had not recorded now-ironic hits such as “Eat To The Beat” and “Die Young, Stay Pretty”. And yet Harry has weathered the years better than, say, Mick Jagger or Ronnie Wood, and at 59 is now back in shape thanks to diet and surgery.
Harry is still on the road at venues such as the Edinburgh Hogmanay bash because Blondie made her famous but not rich; the band being one of the last of that foolish breed of rockers who apparently signed recording contracts without consulting lawyers. Consequently their 25 million sales went largely to the record company. It says something about Harry’s strength of character that she refuses to whine about this, or the other disappointments she has had along the way.
When she went solo she changed her name to Deborah, but found the fans only wanted Blondie. Despite a hopeful hit, her record company had also lost interest. “French Kissing” was a massive success, but my relationship with Warners was over by then. They were too busy pushing some other blonde. I felt overshadowed by their commitment to Madonna, and this feeling that I was being viewed as some sort of competitive thing that they couldn’t devote much time or energy to. Those songs sort of happened on their own.”
She claims not to feel any real resentment towards Madonna, despite the fact that the younger woman effectively stole and coarsened her act. “But she did it so well,” she says, without bitterness. “She’s a very smart woman, actually. I really respect her.”
However, even Harry could not dig up a generous response to Atomic Kitten, who covered her hit “The Tide is High”.
A film career Harry hoped might blossom, obstinately refused to germinate beyond bit parts in Hairspray and Videodrome. And while Stein has gone on to marry, twice, and have a child, Harry is unmarried and alone. “I don’t feel frustrated,” she has said. “If I want to have children I can always adopt. Or I can go out and steal them.”
Old pop stars never really fade out, they simply re-release. The onward journey may not carry much dignity but there’s no mistaking Harry’s determination and willpower in pulling herself back to life so many time, professionally and personally. “In some ways it’s pretty preposterous that anybody my age is doing what I do but I don’t feel bad doing it,” she said recently, “and I feel like I’m doing a good job.” Debbie Harry may have outgrown her sex kitten stylings, but she has matured into a woman altogether more substantial and formidable.
source : MadonnaNation / scotsman.com