- 01 Feb 21
41 years ago today, Blondie released their iconic hit single 'Call Me'. To celebrate, we're revisiting Stuart Clark's classic interview with Debbie Harry – originally published in Hot Press in 2007.
Of all the things I’ve boasted about, I don’t think anything can beat informing you that last night I shared a bed with Deborah Harry.
We were sat on it fully clothed doing an interview but, hey, let’s not spoil a good story.
The reason part of my most vivid adolescent fantasy has been fulfilled is that Ms. Harry is in town to plug her new solo album, Necessary Evil.
She may have turned 62 in July – how many people can you describe as an icon, sex symbol and old age pensioner, and be right on all three counts? – but the promo schedule is a punishing one, which includes her first ever Irish instore in HMV Grafton Street. Along with the expected gaggle of paunchy middle-aged men (Enough about yourself Clark - Editor), the aisles are packed with teenage girls who were minus-years-old when Parallel Lines came out, but consider her just as big a heroine as Karen O and Beth Ditto. Both of who get a big Harry-ian ‘thumbs up’.
“The Yeah Yeah Yeahs remind me of Blondie when we were starting out in ‘75, ‘76 and Beth Ditto is just amazing,” she enthuses. “I look at The Gossip and think, ‘I’m so glad you three kids found each other.’ Too many bands nowadays start out in a boardroom rather than a garage, but soon as I met those guys I knew they were for real. Standing up and being yourself in New York is one thing, but living in Arkansas it takes real guts.”
Deborah and The Gossip did a lot of meeting in June this year when they joined Cyndi Lauper, Erasure, Rufus Wainwright, The Dresden Dolls, The MisShapes and The Cliks on the True Colors bill that toured round the States promoting gay rights.
“I don’t know if they’ve caught on here yet, but The Dresden Dolls were dynamite as well. The show ended with us all on stage singing Abba’s ‘Take A Chance On Me’, which I’ve done before at parties but never in public! Something I didn’t know until I was told it the other day is that the Sex Pistols based the ‘Pretty Vacant’ intro on Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ Which makes Abba as big an influence on UK punk as Iggy and the Dolls!”
Bizarre but 100% true. Although a fan of the Pistols – “I don’t think any band’s got so far up people’s noses since” – it was The Clash who impressed her most when Blondie arrived in London at the start of 1977. Indeed, in a recent interview Harry spoke of her love for Joe and how, if things had worked out differently, she might have been Mrs. Strummer.
“I think the ‘Mrs. Strummer’ part was either me joking or being misquoted but, yeah, I did love Joe,” she smiles wistfully. “He was everything you wanted him to be – a gentleman, a true rock ‘n’ roller and so passionate about music. The first time I got to meet him was when The Clash’s original drummer, Terry, invited us to a showcase they were doing in this tiny room. We walked in and there was Joe the grasshopper, Paul the giraffe and the other two maniacs going crazy. I don’t know how it happened, but halfway through Joey took a tumble and ended up in a heap on the steps leading to the stage with his mike stand. Blondie had this ‘whatever’ attitude, but they’d get so pissed off if something went wrong. They were the archetypal angry young men, which was very attractive!”
Another close pal who Harry lost recently is CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal. What’s her favourite memory of 315 Bowery at Bleeker?
“I had so many wonderful, wonderful nights there that it’s impossible to pick just one. Living a block away, I was able to see my friends play every night and get the reassurance that comes from knowing you’re not the only band out there who doesn’t want to be Journey, although I guess their stock’s up thanks to The Sopranos. (‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ soundtracked Tony & and the family’s last supper) It’s human nature to romanticise things that maybe weren’t so great, but the early days of CBGB’s really were magical.”
Returning to the here and now, Necessary Evil finds Ms. Harry working with her usual coterie of hipsters (Rufus Wainwright and Scissor Sisters producers Super Buddha) and mavericks (New York tranny du jour Miss Guy).
“Guy’s another diehard rock ‘n’ roller who had a band called The Toilet Boys for many years,” Deborah enthuses. “He used to be a make-up artist, but now he DJs and makes records like ‘New York Groove’, which I sung on last year and is on his MySpace if you want to check it out.”
We do, have and it’s fab. That wasn’t the only bigging up of the Big Apple Harry did in ’06, with Moby getting her to guest on the Top 40-infiltrating ‘New York New York’.
“It’s got more difficult because of the gentrification of New York City, but the underground scene’s healthier now than it has been in a long time,” she proffers. “I guess Moby’s more overground these days, but he’s a sweet, tolerant guy who didn’t get upset when I gave him a hard time over ‘New York New York’ in its original form sounding like a Madonna track. I told him, ‘It’s got to be more rock ‘n’ roll if you want me on it’, and he obliged by adding loads of guitars. He’s definitely somebody I’d like at my next party.”
Who else would be on the invite-list?
“Oh God, what have I started!” she laughs. “Mmm… Robin Williams is hysterical to be around. Ben Kingsley was great when I did a movie with him recently – so charmingly English. Jeez, who else? Miss Guy and another drag friend of mine Lady Bunny would have to be there along with Naomi Watts and Jennifer Jason Leigh who’s an excellent conversationalist. And to complete the social experiment, 50 Cent!”
Now that’s a soiree I'd love to be at! The big screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s Elegy that she’s appearing in alongside Sir Ben Kingsley, Dennis Hopper and Penelopé Cruz is one of three movies that Harry has coming out soon – the other two being a Henry Miller-directed thriller, Anamorph, that stars Willem Dafoe, and House Of Boys in which she gets to swap lines with Stephen Fry, Udo Kier and Marianne Faithfull.
“It’s a very safe position for me to walk into these little parts in films knowing that I’m not the one who’s going to have the critics peeling back the layers,” she laughs again. “I’ve had some great experiences, like working with the Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley who’s a dynamo. She did that picture with Julie Christie about Alzheimer’s, Away From Me, which is in my all-time top 10.”
What was Mr. Hopper like?
“Oh, keeping a great sense of humour and easing his way through things. A lot of actors behave the way they think you want them to behave, but Dennis is always Dennis. On screen or in life, he’s true to himself, which is a wonderful way to be.
“Another person I worked with briefly and learned a lot from was James Rousseau, who’s kind of a madman in that he’s always totally ‘on’ and thinking, ‘What next?’ There’s a way of acting, which he has, where you take it in a different direction every time. You don’t have to be so iron-clad in your interpretations.”
While I have Deborah on the duvet with me, I have to get her to either confirm or deny one of the great cinematic rumours, which is that Daryl Hannah’s part in Blade Runner was meant for her?
“It was, and my management company – the bastards – didn’t want me to do it. They said it was because Ridley Scott was difficult to work with, but now I realise they just wanted to have total control over my life. Blondie’s thing was so screwed up in that we were always under pressure from either management or the record labels, who wanted to know why the new album was taking an extra month to record. I wish I’d had the time back then to have a family life, but it didn’t seem the right environment to bring children into and then, well, time ran out.”
Does she regret not settling down?
“You say that, but I spent 15 years with Chris (Stein), which was more like 30 or 40 years in that we spent every minute of that time together. There was no, ‘Bye honey, I’m off to work’. What matters to me most is that we had that relationship, not that it’s over.”
So where does she see herself in another 15 years?
“Sitting in a wheelchair singing songs to the other residents of my old folk’s home,” she deadpans. “I’ve no idea, but whatever it is, it’ll be fun and done on my own terms.”