Debbie Harry, quite possibly the most iconic woman in music, doesn’t know she’s an icon.
It must have been twenty-five years ago when I spotted Debbie Harry floating down an Alphabet City street in Manhattan, clutching not a purse but a small dog, her signature blonde lob glowing like a crown of light. Years later I saw her in the 2000 Axis Theatre production of Sarah Kane’s play Crave, a brilliant beacon in an ensemble cast. That was definitely after she starred with one of my exes in an indie short film, and also after, I think, I was lunching with an acquaintance who casually mentioned that Debbie was in the audience of her friend’s Lower East Side play, and brought her dog along to that, too.
When you live in New York, star sightings are somewhat rote, and amidst the churning hustle and bustle, you rarely even have time to report. Debbie Harry isn’t someone who’s seen in New York, Debbie is New York, and while the Statue of Liberty undoubtedly governs Liberty Bay, Debbie takes Manhattan, her platinum torch lighting the way for all who wander with creative purpose below 14th Street.
Even more, everyone “knows” Debbie. Or, at least, thinks they do. “Oh, yeah, I know Debbie!” you’ll hear every other person say, and they all mean it. This is the punk/sans-glam side of Debbie, the one that considers herself inarguably human in spite of her accidental iconic status.
The word “icon” describes Debbie Harry perfectly, you could draw her image with your eyes closed. In fact, when flipping through her 2019 memoir Face It, it’s peppered with loving fan art, all attempting to capture the idea of Debbie: her Blondie-signature mop, her heart-shaped pout, her flawless face. There’s a reason so many can’t help but try to recreate her. It’s the same with all things astoundingly beautiful. It’s tempting to try to ensnare them into your net.
But it’ll never entrap their true essence.
There are rock stars, there are musicians and then there are artists: These are the various descriptors for those in the music industry. The latter has lost its true meaning, as it’s used for, well, every-fucking-one. But an artist, a true artist, lives, breathes and believes in art, not just the art they create, but the understanding that they are a part of something deeply cultural, and lasting. Debbie Harry is a believer. She’s an artist.
“I just thought it’s preposterous,” she says, about the first time she heard herself referred to as an icon. “I was having business problems, I was having money problems, I was having every type of problem that everybody else has. I was eking, scratching along, trying to keep interest in my music business going.” These trials, and so many more, are bravely laid out in her memoir. “I guess I could say eking because this career has not been a big float on a boat of success. It’s been up and down, up and down. I guess you have to learn to live with that, that you’re determined and if this is what you do and who you are, maybe that is what makes you an icon.”
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By the time I catch up with Debbie, I’d heard from several unreliable sources she was living in London. “I would like to be, but…” she laughs. “I’m in New Jersey,” she says, of the state she was raised in. “I switch back and forth between Jersey and the city and, so far, I’ve avoided the plague.” She’d recently announced her 2021 tour with Garbage, something hopeful for us all to grasp onto. Debbie and Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson have known each other since Shirley’s pre-Garbage days, and they’ve maintained a genuine friendship. When Shirley inducted Blondie into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, she categorized Blondie’s sound as “keeping one eye fixed on the past, and another focused on the future.” This may be the best mantra to describe Blondie’s remarkable staying power, but Shirley’s description of Debbie—“mind-blowing beauty with her punk spirit and gladiator heart”—may very well sum her up perfectly.
For evidence, read her book. Know her story. Debbie openly far-from-denies the tough aspects of her past—how horrendous they were— and her willingness to move forward. It’s rare that anyone lays out their life in such raw detail the way Debbie has.
“I didn’t have any high hopes or expectations,” she says, of writing her life’s story. Though, if she could do anything differently, she would have gone a bit deeper into certain details. “I think maybe I would have gone a little deeper within myself because I tend to, as they say, move on,” she says. ”I’m sensitive, but yet I’m tough. I want to live through things and move on.”
In sharing the grizzliest parts of her past, Debbie created a powerful and healing resource for her readers, in essence saying: “You—yes, you!—I’ve come through this tough shit and you can do the same.”
Does she know how powerful sharing her story was for her readers? “Well, sure I do because these are things that I’ve read from other artists,” she says. “For a while not recently, but years ago, I used to always read biographies and autobiographies in particular. I remember one in particular with Doris Day. Here you think of this mega star, movie star, big band singer, Hollywood, and she had her ass kicked and she kept performing. The story was so moving and it is inspiring. I know I was definitely inspired by that.
“That’s really what life is about,” she continues. “It’s not just about women having this kind of problem or life, but it’s everyone. I think that you have to have a really strong identity or sense of values with what you’re doing and regardless of what happens…the stuff that feeds you has to come from your work, and that somehow that has to make it all worthwhile.”
Because that’s what true stars do. They come out of the darkness, shining bright.
And so, approaching her 76th year, she is looking forward. The pandemic has halted their plans to record, though they’re still working on their 12th studio album. “We’ve been putting a bunch of tracks together,” she says. “We’ve been hoping and talking with John Congleton again producing. We took a lot of outside material the last time, and this time, it’s going to be totally band-focused internal material. I’m looking forward to really the sooner the better.”
Forty-five years after the release of their self-titled debut album, what inspires her musically these days?
“Oh… Well, I don’t know what inspires. It just seems like it’s a habit, a nasty habit.”
When I laugh, heartily, she reinforces the sentiment.
“Yes, that’s what I feel we’re there for. That’s what we do and that’s the lucky part, that’s the good part.”
True to form, she’s staying optimistic—and fully aware that the beat goes on. Blondie’s “Rapture” became the first rap song to reach No. 1, and when asked about her view on rap today, instead of singing her own praises, she notes the importance of progress.
“Well, I think it’s good that it matured,” she says. “The stuff that we did was so primitive, it’s clunky actually. I think that there’s better examples of hip hop, earlier on. I think ‘Rapture’ did what it was supposed to do in terms of the form, and making it available and maybe helping bring it to light a little bit sooner. It was hot when we first presented it. Record company people were just appalled and said, ‘Oh, this is never going to happen.’ It happened.”
For her, in terms of the new music, there needs to be a certain amount of quirkiness—fearlessness—in order to create new and interesting material. “We’re all trying to survive and then there has to be a certain amount of madness in that,” she says. “That’s where new directions come from obviously. There’s a lot of great shit out there.”
When asked about the future of today’s small music scene and its disappearing clubs, she takes a positive approach: “Clubs come and go…” she says. “I’m optimistic about it because musicians are always going to want to play. It just happens. That was what happened for us, back in the really dark ages,” she laughs.
“Or almost before electricity,” she laughs again. “We would just go to a regular bar and say if you have a slow night, during the weekend, and we come in and we’ll take the door and you keep the bar, let us play for a few hours and we’ll invite people. That was one of the ways that we did it. That’s always a possibility. As long as you’re allowed to gather and restaurants or bars are allowed to be open, there is that possibility. There really is always a slow night of the week.”
“Humble” truly may be the best word to describe Debbie herself, though a better one, no matter how overused: Nice. She’s nice. She’s cordial, she’s kind, she’s polite. There’s an innate sweetness and loveliness to her. And maybe, after a lifetime of inspiring others with her brave style and spirit, Debbie’s beautiful character will be the measure for all other icons who come after her.
After all, this is a woman who sang a heartfelt duet with Kermit the Frog.
“Well, my thoughts on it was…I didn’t mention it in the book…I thought it was a joke. I thought it was too nice for me to be involved,” she says, clearly yet again exercising her humility. “Then I turned it on one day and Dizzy Gillespie was playing and I go, ‘Oh my God, Dizzy is on The Muppet Show! I want to go. I want to do it.’ It was Dizzy Gillespie who got me involved with the Muppets.”
And how does it feel to know that many of us first met her singing alongside Muppets?
“Well, it had an impact on me too,” she says, sincerely. “Fair is fair. It was a great experience. Jim Henson and Frank Oz, absolute geniuses and all the puppeteers that worked on that show. One of the most fascinating things was watching them speak without puppets on their hands, but using their hands. I’m telling you, it was fascinating. It was like this weird kind of ballet and it was beautiful.”