DEBBIE HARRY - An Early Encounter

New York, 1974: Every time Bob Gruen called me he’d open the conversation with “What’s happening, man?” Of course it was me who should have been posing the question to him, for Bob always knew what was happening more than anyone else I knew in New York, but you won’t catch an Englishman asking “What’s happening, man”, not even in New York. It’s just not in our vocabulary. Streetwise Bob was the city’s hardest working rock photographer and he always knew how to get into situations where he could get the best picture. It was instinct with him. He drove a beat-up old VW Beetle, always wore a black leather jacket, t-shirt and jeans and almost always had a tiny spliff clamped between his lips. He was also as laid-back as they come, as calm when his lens was focused on his friend John Lennon as he was taking a picture of a pigeon in St Mark’s Square.
         So Bob became my photographer of choice, accompanying me to interviews and shows where I needed a picture to illustrate my story. We cut a deal that suited both of us. Any picture he took where access was enabled by me belonged to Melody Maker for one month. After that it was Bob’s. We saw a lot of rock together and in later years he made a packet selling these pictures again and again.
         “Hey Chris, what’s happening, man?” This call from Bob in April of 1974 was to propose we head down to a basement bar on the Lower East Side called Club 82. He knew I was interested in checking out some rock’n’roll action amongst unsigned acts downtown and there was a band on that night called The Stilettos that he thought I might like. “There’s this singer, a blonde girl, looks just like Marilyn Monroe,” he said on the phone. “Check her out man, you won’t believe it.”
         Club 82 was an old style dyke bar with mirrors everywhere, famous in its day as an all-female gay hangout but now fallen on hard times, and the girls who worked it, all of them of a certain age with short crops and dressed in dark men’s suits with buttoned-up shirts and ties, figured that a bit of rock’n’roll might keep the creditors at bay. For a while it was a sort of sister club to CBGBs, never as well known but fun all the same, brighter too with more of a party atmosphere. So on this night I paid my $3 on the door and went inside, bought a beer and found Bob by the stage, camera at the ready. 
         The Stilettos turned out to be a trio, backed by a four piece, who took their cue from the girl-groups of the pre-Beatles Sixties. There was a black girl, a redhead and a blonde who was the leader, and Bob was right. She wore a clingy, low-cut, full-length, satin Fifties ball gown in all gold that flattered her figure, and she was a dead-ringer for Marilyn, with platinum hair, a cute smile and strawberry lips. Their set was under-rehearsed and short – everybody’s was down there – and afterwards Bob took me backstage to meet her.
         This girl shimmered, her eyes sparkled and when she smiled I just melted before her, a beauty queen without the dumbness of the species. She was cool, committed and she knew her pop. I was certainly intimidated by the vision before me but I tried not to show it and somehow managed to talk to her about this and that while Bob took some more pictures. She told me she wanted to be a full-time singer but she had a daytime job in a New Jersey beauty parlour right now. She hoped some day to get into the music business full time. I told her I’d stay in touch and she gave me her phone number. Bob took some more pictures, and I went away and in a week or two included my interview with her in a generic piece I wrote about several New York bands like The Stilettos, Television, The Harlettes of 42nd Street and a few more. I’d sent over Bob’s pix and, naturally enough since she was a dream of loveliness, the subs desk in London chose to illustrate the feature with one of Bob’s big picture of the Stilettos’ lead singer taken on the night of my interview.
         So I called her up at the beauty parlour where she worked and told her that her picture was in Melody Maker and she was very excited about this. It was evidently the first time she’d ever had her picture in a magazine, or so she told me, and she seemed desperate to get her hands on a copy. A night or two later she drove up to my apartment on East 78th Street in an old green banger with bench seats and I gave her three copies of the magazine and we went out and had a Japanese meal together, her first ever, on the West Side. Over sushi and tempura and sake she told me that The Stilettos were breaking up and she was forming a new band with her boyfriend, Chris Stein, their guitarist. I took note of this and mentioned it in my next New York news column and when she dropped me off at my place after midnight I pulled her towards me across the bench seat, kissed her on the lips and invited her inside, but it was too late – she’d already met another Chris.
         My romantic dreams may have been shattered but I stayed in touch and in June that year took her to see The Who at Madison Square Garden. Backstage after the show Roger Daltrey tried to put the make on her – “Fuckin’ ‘ell Chris, that bird looks just like fuckin’ Marilyn Monroe” – as did Keith Moon, equally unsubtly. She didn’t respond to either of their advances, I’m pleased to say, which didn’t please Roger whose strike rate in this department was always very high. She spent the rest of the evening with me, taking in an after-show party at a roller-dome where we danced a lot and Bob Gruen, ever on my trail, took more photographs, including several of us together. (One is above, another on my fb page.)
         Not long after that she and Chris called me at home and asked me to meet them at Max’s Kansas City. Upstairs in the bar they told me more about their plans for the new band, and asked me whether I’d be interested in managing them. I was astounded, incredibly flattered, but I declined. I knew very little about management in those days and didn’t think I was up to the job. In any case, I was having far too much fun being Melody Maker’s man in America. I think they thought it would be cool to have a British music writer as their manager, and they were probably right, but I wasn’t the right one. I did recommend some managers I knew but as far as I am aware none of them took them up on it, fools that they were.
         Over the next few years that band became one of the biggest on the planet, with hits in the US and all across Europe. The singer became an iconic figure, her picture on the front of a thousand magazine covers, her poster on a thousand bedroom walls, her lovely face the fantasy of a million adolescent dreams, and I lost touch with her…
         … until one day in 1998 when for some reason I copped a pair of tickets to see a reunion show at Brixton Academy in London, together with a backstage pass. My wife Lisa and I saw the show together, enjoyed the hits and headed for the backstage bar when it was all over. We were leaning against the bar when the singer came in, as lovely and blonde as ever, and she came straight over to me, ignoring a bunch of heavyweight looking record company suits with outstretched hands. And she kissed and hugged me too, right in front of everybody, and hardly anyone there even knew who I was.
         “This guy,” said Debbie Harry to everyone who’d gathered round, “was the first man ever to put my picture in a magazine.”


Anonymous said...

Great story! She was actually pictured in several mags in the late 60s as part of Wind In The Willows, but has steadfastly attempted to sidestep that part of her history...

Chris said...

Blondie were support to Television on their 1st UK tour ,I saw them at Birmingham Odeon and I think it was the first time I saw people coming out of the bar just to look at a support group.

Chris Charlesworth said...

I thought she would have been photographed with WITW. Maybe it would be more accurate to say 'in a British magazine'.

johnny said...

love these stories, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Club 82 was not ever a "lesbian bar"! Do your homework. It was a mafia owned drag club in the 60s visited by slumming celebrities but turned into a disco in the early 70s and got put on the map when Bowie stopped by. They featured bands like the Stillettos, Wayne and the New York Dolls. The women who ran the club were butch dykes who let all the cute girls in for free, but that was not the clientele. Just sayin'.