Debbie Harry: “Ageing's scary. Women survive on their looks”

Debbie Harry

The Blondie bombshell, 67, on the New York scene, how to work an audience, and the controversial start to her career

 
I was a typical 16-year-old: interested in the opposite sex, going to dances, gabbing on the phone to girlfriends. I was experimenting with different hair colours from an early age – around 13 – so I probably already had my bleached hair by 16. I don’t think I had it in mind to do anything outrageous but I wanted to look cool and sharp. I loved the movie stars, the sirens of the screen – Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Brigitte Bardot and, of course, Marilyn.

If I met my young self now I’d think she was pretty quiet. I was quite shy but I had a nice gang of girlfriends and I had boyfriends, too. I think I was a fairly decent girlfriend. I didn’t go around stomping on boys’ hearts. I was always living half in my imagination and half in the real world. I had constant fantasies about the future. They didn’t particularly involve being a pop singer but I wanted to be a star.

I have a lot of questions that I wish my younger self had asked my parents, questions only they could answer. I do have the feeling that, wow, that was a really big miss. They came from a very different world, they weren’t really part of modern culture. My mother loved opera. They were conservative people and they were very surprised by what I did.

It wasn’t till I partnered up with Chris [Stein, her musical and, for 20 years, romantic partner] that I really began to believe something big could happen. I thought our combination of talents was unbeatable. We were at the bottom of the barrel in the clubs in New York but we inched our way up in a very zig-zag way, which may not have been the best way to do business but it worked for us.

Being female gave me an edge in the CBGB [the New York club where Blondie made their name] scene. There wasn’t a lot of female competition, though I knew it was going to come. I was criticised for being overtly feminine and exploiting my sexuality. To me that sounds like a weird paranoia because sexuality and rock’n’roll is the norm, it’s always been that way.

At the time I was a little surprised about the attention I got in Blondie. I think it made other people in the band… well, you’d have to ask them. We had to learn how the music business worked as we went along but sometimes it made it very awkward.

I’d tell my younger self that you need to make the first move with the audience. At the beginning I would go out onstage and expect the audience to respond. But gradually I figured out that I had to make it happen myself. There are a few instant prodigies, and they’re wonderful, but the rest of us have to practise, practise, practise to get good. I don’t think I was ultimately a career person. I wanted to be an artist.

I took a lot of inspiration from the other bands in New York, watching how they put their shows together. Everyone had a very different approach. Us, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, we were miles and miles apart. I loved all the bands but I really loved The Ramones. They were so much fun and had such great songs. I knew them for a long time, since they were just starting, and they’re still one of my all-time favourites. There are people I miss, too. Chris and I have often said it would have been wonderful to see what Johnny Thunders [of American rock band New York Dolls] evolved in to.

I certainly have moments when it hits me I’m not young any more. It was shocking and scary to age. So much of my notoriety was based on my looks. So to deal with that and try to look good… I’ve always tried – I think most women do. We survive on our looks.

In 1961, the year Debbie Harry turns 16… Sierra Leone becomes independent from Great Britain... Audrey Hepburn stars in Breakfast at Tiffany’s... John F Kennedy is sworn in as the 35th president of the USA... The death penalty for murder is abolished in New Zealand...

Blondie’s UK tour starts on June 14. Go to www.blondie.net for more information

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The Big Issue no 1120
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