It is a popular misconception that once they have tasted chart success and seen their faces in magazines, music stars like Debbie Harry enjoy a lifestyle of great comfort, sustained by sizeable royalty cheques from past endeavours and a limitless flow of substantial offers for future projects. Think again. “We were broke,” writes Harry in her newly published memoir, referring to the period in 1982 when Chris Stein’s ill-health brought about the cessation of Blondie. “What else could you be but broke when you’ve sold more than forty million records, you’re at the top of your career, and you’ve worked nonstop for seven years with no vacation…”
It’s a sobering moment in an autobiography with its fair share of sobering moments, a hard life lived to the full for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, the only compromises forced upon her by commercial decisions in which her opinion was neither sought nor acted upon. This may explain the rather detached and occasionally bitter tone in which Harry recounts many of her rock’n’roll experiences, of which she has a lorry load. When David Bowie shows her his dick while Iggy Pop watches on she expresses no alarm, merely wonders why Iggy didn’t do the same.
Born in 1945 and christened Angela Trimble, she was adopted as a baby and re-christened Deborah Harry by her new family. She grew up in New Jersey and became fascinated with the way she looked from an early age, experimenting with make-up and creating her own style by blending colourful thrift shop clothes in ways that made her stand out from the crowd. It didn’t take her long to escape to New York where she worked as a model, a secretary, a waitress at Max’s Kansas City and as a Playboy bunny. She is particularly good at evoking the scuzzy ambience of downtown NY where she lived in various seedy apartments in the late sixties, a street-life environment rich with drugs, promiscuity and physical danger. No stranger to all three, her survival instincts would stand her in good stead for decades to come.
Falling in with the artsy Bohemian crowd that patronised Max’s she decided her calling was in music and in 1974 joined a girl trio called The Stillettoes. Chris Stein, formerly a roadie and bassist with Eric Emerson’s Magic Tramps, contemporaries of The New York Dolls, became their guitarist and her lover, and the two soon paired off to form Blondie. Both enjoyed dabbling in heroin. “For those times when I wanted to blank out parts of my life or when I was dealing with some depression, there was nothing better than heroin,” she writes. “Nothing.”
As the group ascended the pop ladder there were inevitable contradictions in their identity. Was Debbie Harry ‘Blondie’ or was ‘Blondie’ a group – a conundrum that didn’t always sit well with the other members. “My character in Blondie was partly visual homage to Marilyn [Monroe] and partly a statement about the good old double standard,” she writes. “My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up yet I was very serious.”
Once the hits started coming the group found themselves on an album-tour-album-tour treadmill that did them no favours, and Harry blames the relentless schedule for the illness that debilitated Stein. Not only was he the musical lynchpin in the band, she points out, but as her partner he felt responsible for her welfare, a double burden of responsibility that eroded his well-being. Crowd disturbances on tour, wretched fatigue and the need for her, as figurehead, to do additional promotion work all begin to mount up in a way that suggests tragedy is just around the corner. Which, indeed, it was.
By 1981 Blondie were amongst the most popular groups on the planet but they had little to show for it. It was their misfortune to switch labels after one album and incur a $1 million ‘transfer fee’ debt against future earnings. Their first manager enriched himself at their expense, taxes went unpaid and when the IRS caught up with them they lost their house, her car and even some of her clothes. They even took away Stein’s health insurance. “Anything we could have done wrong business- and management-wise, we did it,” writes Harry. “We had terrible contracts and the people we paid to look after us were naturally more concerned with what was in it for them. We got taken.”
Harry debunks the myth that she was some kind of ‘Mother Theresa’ as she nursed Stein back to health. “We were partners. Of course, I would look after him,” she writes, adding that she kept him supplied with heroin while he was in hospital. “I think the doctors and nurses knew he was high all the time but cast a blind eye because it kept him relatively pain-free and mentally less tortured.”
Still, Harry’s friend the film director John Waters is not a million miles off the mark when he remarks: “Debbie blinked for two minutes while she was looking after Chris and Madonna stole her career.”
The final third of the book is devoted to many film roles that Harry undertook in the post-Blondie years, along with solo albums. By this time she and Stein had dissolved their romantic partnership but there is something very touching in the way she writes about their ongoing friendship, his marriage and becoming the father to two girls for whom Harry acts as godmother. Then Blondie reunite in circumstances far removed from the chaos of yore, an orderly, money-making institution in keeping with the business-like structure of the music industry as configured from the 1990s to the present day, none of which makes for reading as interesting as their disorderly, loss-making past.
Harry appears to feel the same way. Musing on a compilation album titled The Best Of Blondie, she writes: “I’ve been trying to think of what the best of Blondie was for me. I’ve come to the conclusion it was the early days of the band when we were struggling artists, scuttling around the Lower East Side just trying to get something going, walking home from work before dawn through the dark, dusty, sweet-dirt smell of the city. Everybody got by on no money. Nobody talked about mainstream success. Who wanted to be mainstream? What we were doing was so much better than that.”
Face It has been written in collaboration with Sylvie Simmons, the British-born, San Francisco-based music writer whose outstanding biography of Leonard Cohen is reviewed elsewhere on Just Backdated. I came away from the book with the feeling that Simmons’ job wasn’t easy; Harry seems a reluctant memoirist unwilling to let us dig too deeply into her soul. Though each chapter opens with some philosophical, occasionally whimsical, digression, by the turn of the page we’re into stories that are more about the people, places and events in Harry’s extraordinary life than about the life itself. Bearing that in mind, it would be interesting to know whether the book resulted from an approach by the publisher with a generous offer to Harry, or whether the book was her idea in the first place. I suspect the former but I’m still glad she got around to it.
Finally, Face It is magnificently illustrated throughout with hitherto unseen photographs, some from Harry’s childhood, and there are almost 50 pages of painted portraits sent to her by fans. The text is not lengthy, just succinct and mostly to the point, and the book is printed on coated stock that enables the many illustrations to be reproduced in four-colour. Far denser than the paper used in most books, it is therefore much heavier to carry (or mail) than similar books with 360 pages. There is no index.