Category Archives: Music

in the flesh

I interviewed my queen, Debbie Harry, and her Blondie bandmates for NME and cried on the sidewalk after. Here’s the story.

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Blondie singer Debbie Harry’s laughter is more eloquent than many people’s spoken vocabularies. She modulates it in the same self-sure way she does the famously varied range of her singing voice, and uses different species of it to communicate disparate levels of her enthusiasm about any given topic: A slow hiccup of laughter signifies indifference, as I hear when I ask her a tired question about women and sexuality, and she expels a strongly annunciated “HEE HEE HEE” through a grin when she’s genuinely taken with something, like when I nearly fall over when she tells me how much she loves Pitbull. “Mr. Worldwide?!” I sputter. “HEE HEE HEE,” she answers, apparently pleased at having shocked me, before going on to sing the bridge of the Wanted single “I’m Glad You Came,” another current listen of the band’s. My universe will never be the same.

“That’s a total reggaeton song, but sung in English,” opines guitarist Chris Stein, whose globe-encompassing appreciation for musical genres of all stripes has most recently included what he calls “Latin electronica,” the newest in an encyclopedia of sounds the band has explored over the past 40 years, including punk, new wave, disco (most notably on the international smash “Heart of Glass”), saccharine 1960s-style pop, reggae, and, unforgettably, hip-hop, which they helped break to radio audiences in 1980 with “Rapture,” which features Harry performing spoken word in lieu of singing. “Rap wasn’t everywhere [back then] like it is now,” she remembers—not even in New York City. “It was in neighborhoods like the Bronx, Harlem, and Newark, New Jersey.”

“You had to seek it out,” continues drummer Clem Burke. “Debbie and Chris had a couple of friends who pointed the way, like Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.” These downtown bedfellows speak to how Blondie, one of the key bands to come out of the legendary rock club CBGB, is utterly of New York—for music fans, one cannot mentally exist without the other. But the band applied what it absorbed creatively in its ancestral homeland to an audience far larger than one metropolis, continuing to expand their sonic reach as they did. “We were one of the first bands to bring in synthesizers and work with electronic sounds versus acoustic or guitar sounds,” Harry says by way of describing Blondie’s freewheeling incorporation of styles over the years. “It’s been a path. I’m always inspired by new technology—I think it’s really exciting and wonderful.”

That adventurousness, Harry says, is inherent to the band’s existence, despite the pressure to stay in line with the visions other people had for them. “I don’t know how many times we were told, ‘Do another song like “Heart of Glass!” It’s impossible to really do that. I’ve seen artists come out with a second song after they’ve had a big hit, and then they try to replicate it with a follow-up song, and it usually just falls flat. I think it’s more of a challenge to be creative and do something that you like instead of taking the easy way out and doing another ‘Heart of Glass!'” Record labels weren’t always pleased with this stylistic game of hopscotch, but, Harry maintains, “You have to take a stand. It’s a toss-up between being in a business, and being an artist. Sometimes you have to hold your ground and refuse to do what’s expected of you, even if it could make you money.”

According to Stein, they didn’t care much about their finances either way: “When we were starting out with this shit, we just wanted to play basements. That was my idea of being a rock star.” When I mention that this doesn’t exactly jibe with the image that wry fox Harry has maintained over the course of the band’s career—in the past, she’s maintained that her singlemost goal as a young artist was to be famous (to what degree of facetiousness is uncertain). Now, she clarifies that her idea of notoriety  only applied within certain circles: “My idea of fame was to be a beatnik—maybe not mega-stardom,” as if someone with her charisma, talent, and beauty could have ever tamped it down. In every movement, she is a spotlight perpetually turned on herself.

“It was the antithesis!” Stein interjects, prompting Harry to snort-laugh her staunch agreement: “Shit, yeah! I think my use of language may have been at fault there. I wanted to make a discovery about myself more than having other people discover who I was. I’m really only concerned with letting people have a certain amount of me—not all of me,” says Harry, a person whose likeness has probably graced hundreds of thousands of T-shirts and posters—not to mention artworks by her friends Andy Warhol and Steven Sprouse—over the last four decades. Excepting a certain 1950s actress, she’s got perhaps the most famous peroxide job in history. Her visage is recognizable not only to beatniks, but every other boy and girl on Avenue A and the whole world beyond it.

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Never before Blondie had a band spawned in the downtown punk scene—or any well-known band, really—so nonchalantly (but explosively) subverted the narrative of where women fit into contemporary pop music—especially if they also liked to be sexy. On songs like “X Offender” and “One Way or Another,” Harry made female desire sound predatory and vicious, perhaps drawing inspiration from the catcallers who inspired her band’s name. “I was determined not to be portrayed, or portray myself, as a victim, which I felt had been the standard for women when they were singing—it was always that your heart was broken, BLUH BLUH BLUH, you’re all ripped up…”

She breathes a less-than-enchanted, staccato Blondie-laugh, a polite conclusion that lets Stein know she’s over this topic and it’s his turn to talk. “Janis Joplin was such a strong presence, but her lyrics were all ‘Ball and Chain,’ women are losers, ‘Down on Me.’ They’re all about wanting to be submissive.” The band didn’t share in this wish, which, Burke says, some listeners were less than thrilled about: “One of the reasons we got so much criticism about Debbie’s overt sexuality was because it was scary to the male-dominated rock world, and especially the media guys. It was really a boy’s club—as much as the band scene was a boy’s club, the fuckin’ male rock-crit establishment was worse.” Expressionless, Harry picks at an unknown something on the leathern pair of pants she’s wearing.

Ghosts of Download, the band’s forthcoming album, continues to play with similar dynamics of sexual power—its songs have names like “Sugar on the Side,” in which Harry’s narrator, annoyed by her lover, tells him their relationship will be all right as long as she vengefully bones someone else, and “I Want to Drag You Around,” which is a sweeter sentiment than it sounds like, but not by much. It also incorporates the futurism its title implies, including not only Stein’s newly beloved Latin electronica, but all manner of aural meditations on the internet. “I wonder what is to become of the fact that everybody is now connected to somebody else all the time, 24/7,” Stein says. “As William Gibson said, the body language of how people used to smoking cigarettes has now become cell phone manipulation. It makes for a whole culture that is less centered, maybe, where’s there’s no place that people are drawn to because they’re always connected to somebody else. With that said, I’m always on the fucking phone!”

While most of us mortals can relate to Stein’s sense of tension between our digital and tangible worlds, Harry is less conflicted. “I’ve always fought very hard for a certain amount of anonymity and privacy. I don’t participate as much as Chris does—I’m very selective, and it’s very minimal for me. People are looking for public notice without actually being in showbiz. Everyone thinks they’re in showbiz online! If I choose to send something out, or write something to a friend, that’s one thing, but I’m not looking for that kind of attention. I have another kind.” I think she might mean the type where the subject of your sexuality has been so thoroughly parsed by outsiders that picking at trouser lint is a more interesting use of your minute. Burke counters that it’s unavoidable to be a public figure without being subjected to all the newfound intimacy of the internet: “There’s a lot more candid stuff now, like people bringing their cell phones into gym changing rooms and things like that.” Harry coos, “Ooh! I think we should all just wear raincoats,” and pretends to whip hers open and flash us.

She goes on: “I also think that there will be some kind of Luddite backlash. People in general will just all of a sudden unhook themselves. It’s such a waste of time.” To Harry, it seems “ghosts of download,” however grammatically confusing a phrase, foretells a real future in which we, en masse, will say RIP, MP3. Burke disagrees: “Bowie did the complete polar opposite [with The Next Day] and just kept quiet, with no advance content or anything.” I start to mention Beyoncé’s similar surprise attack, but before I even reach the acute accent on that é, Harry is slyly saying, “Oh, we knew about that six months before December! We’re in the industry.” When I make a joke about their actually being close friends, Harry pantomimes a telephone with her hand, cannily saying, “Bee?” into it and ruining my heart for anybody else on this Earth in the process. You can call her any-anytime, Mrs. Knowles-Carter.

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Truly, the band has a bit of a fascination with newer artists: At different points in our conversation, Burke jumps at the chance to expound upon Lorde’s PR strategies, or Stein mentions in passing that he’s a fan of the rapper Iggy Azalea. In reflecting on Blondie’s legacy, Stein says, “When we were starting out, there wasn’t anybody in the rock or pop world who were in their fifties and sixties, since it’s such a new genre. It remains to be seen who’s going to be around from this generation in 40 years. I think Gaga will.” Burke proposes Jack White as his personal Fantasy League pick.

“What about you?” I ask Harry, who wittily answers with her tongue lodged high in the flying buttresses of her cheekbones: “Will I still be around? I’ve been around! I don’t know if I can go around much more, but I’ll keep trying!” I protest—No, for real. “It’s hard to predict, because it’s a matter of whether you love it that much,” Harry says, as if challenging the very possibility that someone else out there might like the job she’s done so innovatively for the past 40 years more than she does. When one considers the thoughtfulness and straight-up glee with which she talks about her work, it does seem a little hard to believe: “I think [each one of us] is dedicated to being a musician. Obviously, if Clem wasn’t in Blondie, he’d be playing music elsewhere—that’s it. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chris would be playing with someone else. For some reason, fortunately, we’ve come together with some of the same life-force and desire to keep doing it. It never feels forced in any way for us. If you’re consumed with making something that’s going to be valued by other people, instead of thinking about the value it holds for yourself, it gets in the way of your thinking.”

Our meeting ends as the band hustles off to practice for a pre–Super Bowl performance they’re giving the next day in Times Square, one of many live shows they’ll play this year. This particular concert will be outdoors, and, to keep warm, Harry tells me she’s going to wear “a feather jacket and silk underwear, like a down comforter.” Of course she is. I’m not sure what my face is doing; I hope I’m properly stifling my joy. “Well, nice knowing you,” Harry says, and laughs her special laugh-language contentedly because she knows that, despite my best efforts, I am only walking away with a certain amount of her. Even after four decades of performing with Blondie, Debbie Harry still belongs staunchly to herself.

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i wanted you to hear that thud

I interviewed Kathleen Hanna for NME and it fucking kicked ass. Here’s the story.

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Kathleen Hanna didn’t grow up dreaming of achieving the legendary status she’s attained over the past two decades. Instead, as she tells me in the office where I met her to discuss the new record she’s made with her band, the Julie Ruin, she wanted to become a backup singer. “Being the frontperson is awesome. People remember your name. But the downside is, anything that happens with your band, it’s your responsibility. It reflects on you forever.” If anyone can attest to this, it’s Hanna, although she’s far from a martyr —rather, she’s lionized by both musical and political communities. As the frontwoman for the band Bikini Kill, she became the poster child for the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s because of the radical feminist perspectives in her lyrics and fanzines, which called for “girls to the front” and “revolution, girl-style, now.” Because of the ideological sonic booms her efforts produced, she became the subject of a 2011 Bikini Kill documentary, The Punk Singer, and her collection of fanzines and other work was recently acquired by New York University’s Fales Library. She has since gone on to release solo music as Julie Ruin, a name she’s adapted for her current project, and with the electro outfit Le Tigre. Now Hanna is stepping into a creative role where, she says, “I haven’t played music in almost 10 years, so I’m re-figuring out who I am. I want to see what it’s like just being a person in a band!” The Julie Ruin allows her to share some of the responsibilities she’s long shouldered alone with her longtime collaborator Kathi Wilcox, who also played bass in Bikini Kill, along with guitarist Sara Landeau, drummer Carmine Covelli, and keyboardist Kenny Mellman. Despite her egalitarian insistence on being “just a band member,” Hanna is also consciously avoiding making music specifically for others. “I’m more interested in being myself than ever. I’m not just trying to tow the party line anymore because I’m older. I know how short life is.”

44 might seem a bit young to be concerned with one’s mortality. But for Hanna, considerations of not only archiving the past, as with the Fales collection and documentary, but also of parsing how to make the absolute most of the present, became a necessity when she became ill with Lyme disease three years ago, just as she started recording the forthcoming album. “I was like, ‘Is this it? I’m just going downhill? What does this mean?’ That’s why it took three years— we were practicing once a week and recording whenever I was well.” There were protracted periods when the illness became so severe that she had to forego not only music, but also almost everything else in her life. At times, she wasn’t able to speak because of the disease’s neurological effects, or would become so fatigued that she was bedridden for weeks at a stretch. But her sickness, she says, transformed her approach to the world entirely. “You start to be honest about what people want from you, and what you want to give them,” she says. And what Hanna does give people, personality-wise, is boundless enthusiasm for seemingly every topic of conversation thrown her way — at one point, we spend a solid five minutes exalting the glories of muumuus (“You should get a mini one that shows off your legs!” she gushes, gesturing animatedly at where the hemline might fall). Hanna’s Lyme is in remission now, but, she says, “I’m still dealing with it. I have bad days.” Swiveling in a boss-lady office chair in platform sneakers, she seems to radiate vitality; it’s tough to imagine her in a state where all she was capable of was, as she puts it, “watching shitty Netflix things about the pyramids.”

When she was well enough to record, Hanna’s illness became her creative tool. “I want you to hear something that’s alive, that has a heart beating in it,” she says. “I wanted to throw my whole body against the wall when I was singing, and I wanted you to hear that thud. I wanted the energy that was inside me that couldn’t come out when I was fatigued in bed to be there. I didn’t want to waste it.” And you can hear it in the album, which is vicious and rollicking. The Julie Ruin makes music that grabs you by the arm and yanks you forward into life. The opening track, “Oh Come On,” not only speaks to Hanna’s revitalization, but also to her frustrations about being expected to act as a mouthpiece for the entire feminist movement. “Represent, oh oh / every day is brand new,” she sings. “Everything is right now / everybody needs you.” She tells me that she’s through being a “feminist waitress.” “I’ve made a lot of work that was completely audience-based. I may as well have been asking people if they wanted cream in their coffee. I’m not saying that to be angry towards anybody. I’m thrilled that anybody gives a shit about anything I do. But it’s like the service industry, when you’re trying to provide people with the missing thing they need. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but it’s time for me to be selfish, and if that connects with people, I’m absolutely psyched.”

One of the striking things about the record is that in focusing on Hanna’s personal history, it actually allows her to convey a more dynamic understanding of how she came to care so deeply about feminism to begin with. “Run Fast” is a detailed account of the sexism she faced from her childhood (“we were called sluts from the time we were five”) to her nascent riot grrrl days (“we’d be told that we weren’t real punks / by boys in bands who acted like our dads when they were drunk”). Some lines are particularly jarring, as when she describes the threats of sexual violence that loomed over her youth. When I ask Hanna about that, it’s the only time she quits smiling during our conversation. Her tone becomes clipped as she tells me she cries every time she sings it. “That’s a tough song for me. It’s about being 13 and giving hand jobs because you might get raped and it’s better just to give the hand job.” She pauses, visibly angry. “That might sound harsh, but I have a feeling that will be people in the world who know what the fuck I’m talkin’ about.” We look away from each other as the last word catches in her throat, because, if you’re a woman, of course you know that feeling. She continues, “One of my friends put a lock on her bedroom door to keep one of her male relatives out. I helped her pick it with a butter knife. I know we weren’t the only ones who did that.” The personal and political, for Hanna, are often inextricable, and the more specific her lyrics, the more you understand just what the fuck she’s talkin’ about. “I started realizing that people want to hear my point of view,” she says. On this record, there’s absolutely no mistaking it.

The album is also intimate in that it celebrates Hanna’s adoration of her husband, Adam Horovitz of the seminal rap group the Beastie Boys. On “Just My Type,” she sings about wanting to “scream it from the mountains.” “It’s totally about him,” she grins. “I don’t want to feel like I can’t talk about him because I’m a woman in a band and it’s ‘gross’ to be attached to a male rock star. I don’t feel like I’m his adjunct or a Beastie Boy-ette. If other people feel that, they can go fuck themselves, because we’ve always treated each other as peers.” The song, she says, originally had a different title: “It was ‘Just My Size,’ which is a joke between us. When we met, we were like, ‘You’re just my size!’ because we’re exactly this perfect size for each other.” I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t read too much into that! You just always think famous people are taller than they are, and when I met him, I was like, ‘Aww, you’re this hot famous dude and you’re just my size!’ But I knew I couldn’t put it out like that.” She laughs, delighted with both the raunchy little aside and the thought of her beloved peer, whom, by the way, she’s been with for 17 years — as far as topics to sing about go, you can’t get much more personal than that. The two are currently writing a television show called “Bridget Drives a Bus,” which Hanna describes as “If John Waters filmed ‘I Love Lucy,'” and goes on to mention that she’s also working on a clothing line. Now that she’s back on her feet, Hanna can’t keep still for a second.

Later, at her practice space, I observe this idea expressed physically. Hanna sets down a tote bag that reads “YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT FEMINIST ART” and produces a lyric sheet for “Right Home,” another song about engaging fully with life, albeit one which the neurological elements of Lyme affect her ability to remember the words to (hence the lyric sheet). She warns me, “Now you’re gonna see how I dance like my mom at practice.” Instead, I watch a comet of charisma underline each lyric with a perfectly-timed dance move, rip into her vocals with her whole body, and force everyone to hear the thud. To watch her is to understand that her childhood dream of singing backup vocals was never going to happen — her stage presence is just far too arresting. Although Hanna says she’s pushing back against being classified as an icon or frontperson, this only draws the enduring relevance of those roles to her identity into sharper relief. And she knows it, too: At the end of our conversation, she tells me, “I don’t act like I’m just a normal person. That’s the frustration of being a female artist. You have to diminish your accomplishments. Being part of a community made me say, ‘Look, I’m not the leader; the media made me the leader.’ Now I’m like, ‘I kinda was the leader!’ I did some rad shit! Why do I have to pretend I’ve never done anything?” Now, as I watch her confidently clown through sexy beach-party dance moves and scream her heart out to an audience of four, it’s clear why she’s always been the girl at the front. There’s no taking your eyes off of her, but her own vision is locked straight ahead. “I look real good, look how good I am,” Hanna yells, as if it weren’t obvious.

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get in the car and drive it all over me

Every day, I try a different writing exercise, to varying results. For a while I was using a website that replicates the Oblique Strategies cards. Unfortunately, while I love them, they’re imperfect for guidance in writing. Now I use this service called Figment, which is the project of two former New Yorker staffers. I’m not familiar with the actual website, but their mailing list offers daily creative prompts by email that I do like a lot. It can be tempting to ignore them along with the literally thousands of emails from overzealous PR people that are currently choking my inbox (please, please fuck off, you guys), but I’ve been trying to persevere. The one I chose today was the following:

“Make a list of 20 angry words — they can be words related to anger or words that just sound mad. Now write about something you love/cherish/revere using as many of these words as you can.”

And I did that, but only the first part. Not even the whole first part, either. I typed sixteen words out before I realized that I didn’t want to hitch them to the song above, which I was listening to at the time and do truly love, cherish, and revere. I thought it was a really good coincidence that it started playing right as I was straining to come up with “blister,” “scam,” “chain,” and thirteen other clumsy examples of what might get pulled alongside anger.

The exercise probably would have worked out really well if I had seen it through with this song in mind. But you know what? I’d prefer to apply those negative ideas to things that truly deserve them, like incessant messages from publicists. What I’d rather say about this song, and almost everything else that ever came out on Creation Records, is just that it’s really the best music I know. And, accordingly, that this also makes me really happy:

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in honor of when i was charlie brown for halloween at 15, and also of records.

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ca-ca-catch that elk

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three-song playlist: all the things i need

Are you the kind of person who can listen to the same song on repeat for long, long stretches of time? You must understand, then, how regular mixtapes can sometimes seem like a lot – they make me dissolve into a skip-button-abusing maniac, manually editing out nearly everything in trying to get to the same three things over and over. Tonight, I chose to simplify.

I’m feeling heavy songs that sound like portions of their music have been subtly, secretly reversed. I’m wearing a linen-and-lace romper the color of a living room wall and brushing my hair (I wish I could tell you I was counting the strokes. I’m not). I’m watching halves of Mommie Dearest and marveling at the eyebrows and horrible parenthood on display.

 

 

Almost funnily opposite my rabid, nearly militaristic ideas about how important the Utmost of Subjectivity is in poetry and prose is my need for the lyrics of love songs to be as universal and vague as possible. “Just wanna get next to you, boy.” This song is perfectly thirsty and sensual…and bizarrely unlike any other Chemical Brothers song I’ve ever heard, which is another thing I love: when good bands write one song that’s entirely different-sounding from their usual (like here, on the best hidden track of all time: skip to 3:35, this song is always so great that I think I just made this a four-song playlist).

 

 

William Basinski is a longtime favorite of mine, courtesy of walks in the woods that I would take with a good friend in high school. He was a DJ and had music on always, even there – we’d bring a small boom box into the forest and play the Disintegration Loops for a while while we leaned back onto the moss and made ink drawings. His were so much better than mine. Two days ago, the recordings turned a decade old along with a horrible tragedy. I spent some time listening to this and reflecting, and now I can’t seem to stop.

 

 

I’m convinced this song does to me what I think Adele must do to normal people. It’s also another clear case of delicately-delivered, super-simple lyrics driving me up the wall. The footage of Paz de la Huerta falling around everywhere is really poignant in this video somehow. I think Lana del Rey’s plastic surgery is really, freakishly beautiful, also, although I’m not sure if I can express to you just how much I hate that she goes by the canned-chanteuse name “Lana del Rey” and not her real one, which is Lizzy Grant.

 

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you’re far away from home, but never far away from me

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