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