Photography BARRY MCKINLEY
Published April 10, 2017
Deborah Harry is the singer in a band called Blondie. In recent weeks one of their songs, “Heart of Glass” has been the number one hit in America. It’s been a hit in the discos, too. Although, as Debbie points out, it’s not a disco song but “crossover,” and few songs have crossed over so far, so pleasantly. Right now the group is in the studio recording their fourth album with producer Mike Chapman breaking more genre barriers. The big dance cut so far is more funk than “disco” “Eat to the Beat.”
Aside from having a number one single here, Blondie has been going gold and platinum all over the world for some time. In fact, America’s been about the last place to catch on. Most of the teenagers in the world know that Blondie is Debbie, guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante, keyboard player Jimmy Destri, bass player Nigel Harrison and drummer Clement Burke. Chris Stein is also Debbie’s roommate and songwriting partner.
Debbie has also been getting more and more involved with movies lately. She’s had two singing cameos in films by Amos Poe, and recently completed work on a major role in Union City, a film by Mark Reichert, which should be coming soon to a theater near you.
I interviewed Ms. Harry at her penthouse apartment, high above Manhattan’s Fashion Avenue, and then at the recording studio where she’s working on the latest Blondie album.
GLENN O’BRIEN: I’ve seen a lot of posters of you lately.
DEBORAH HARRY: Yeah, a lot of them are bootleg. So if any of the people who made them are reading, we’re starting to sue you, so get ready. You can’t take pictures of me and then sell them without paying me. So get it straight. We know who you are. We have your address. Our lawyer knows how to reach you and you will be gotten to, believe you me!
O’BRIEN: I think Farrah Fawcett made a lot of money suing people who put out unauthorized posters.
HARRY: I think she won over a million dollars actually. Aaaah!
O’BRIEN: Do you have any fantasies of things you’d like to buy if you got really rich? Aside from a home in Virginia Beach.
HARRY: Well, I do have fantasies of buying a helicopter and a lot of machine guns, but I don’t know if I can do that. I’d like to have a lot of weapons, grenades and things. And I want to have a solar energy machine. And I want to have a sunken garden with a glass roof. I guess that’s about it for now. I have a few other wants but I can’t remember them now. Chris wants to get a car, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea with the gas crisis.
O’BRIEN: I don’t think you have to worry about it. If Americans can’t get enough gas they’ll overthrow the government. If they couldn’t run their cars and boats they’d revolt for gasoline.
HARRY: It’s not only that, it’s everything. There would be no heat, no electricity, no plastic records. I mean, I’d be out of business, too. Oil makes plastic.
O’BRIEN: Maybe they can figure out how to recycle it for a few hundred years.
HARRY: You mean just turn in your old plastic?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, they already do melt down records and press them again.
HARRY: Well, I feel much better now. Now that l know my records can be recycled.
O’BRIEN: What’s the best place Blondie ever played?
HARRY: One of the most interesting places was the Banquet Room of the Ambassador Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. We did four shows there, with two thousand people at each show. Bangkok has a really weird electrical system. I’m not an electrical expert but there’s no ground in it, or something like that. Like if you’re watching TV in Bangkok, at six o’clock suddenly the pictures comes in really great because all the businesses have shut down, so the TV gets more electricity. That means that there’s live electricity circling through the cables looking for an outlet. All of a sudden it could shoot out anywhere. Chris could be playing guitar…
O’BRIEN: And the brewery would shut down and…
HARRY: …We’d get really loud. The same thing happens in Belgium. Thailand and Belgium both bought their electrical systems from the same company. And one time we played in Marseilles with live electricity on stage. The electrical stuff was really ancient and there was no ground so there were huge trees of lights—live—hanging on both sides of the stage and we were in the middle. It was wild. In Thailand, I think we were the second rock group to play there since the end of the war. But they got a P.A. That was really great. And they had about fifty or seventy-five men setting up the P.A. and it took them three days because they had never done it before. There were hundreds of wires and every time there was a mistake they had to totally disconnect the system and start over since none of the wires were marked. I like it there. The people are really nice. Really sweet. It was eye-opening. The people are really pleasant and it’s a very sensual place. Because of the climate and the art—all the Buddhist temples. And there are lots and lots of flowers, heavily scented flowers. The air is real pungent.
O’BRIEN: I saw Emmanuelle 2. It made me want to go there.
HARRY: Oh, yeah. I didn’t see it; Do you think it’s a good idea to make porno movies?
O’BRIEN: No. I think there should be movies that are sexy or have sex in them, but I don’t like pornography.
HARRY: Because it’s dumb?
O’BRIEN: I think it fucks people up those sex magazines.[Chris Stein enters]
CHRIS STEIN: They all suck.
O’BRIEN: Right. All those straight business guys, part of the reason they’re the way they are is from jerkin off to Playboy for twenty years.
HARRY: Is that what they do them?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, that’s what they are. Right Chris?
STEIN: It’s true. I find I myself have a fixation for photographs.
HARRY: I can vouch for that.
STEIN: It’s from being brought up photographs before you can have girls. That’s all it amounts to.
O’BRIEN: But they get hooked on pictures, because they’re usually of better girls than the jerker-off can get.
HARRY: I have a lot of twisted thoughts about it. I wish everyone just took it for granted about sex. It should be more public. If there were two bears in the woods fucking and another bear came along, the only reason the third bear might get in the way would be if it was horny and if it wanted to fuck, too. But it would probably just look and think, “There’s two bears fucking” and just keep on walking.
O’BRIEN: Well, I think lowering the age of consent to thirteen in New Jersey was a great idea. It might give boys a better chance to get girls before magazines. That’s when they get hooked, in junior high.
HARRY: The thing is, I know there’s sexual interest and curiosity and stimulation from about the age of six or seven on. It’s just denied. No one has ever helped develop this sexuality or sensitivity. They’re just told to control it. That’s as far as it goes. It’s never looked into it. I think cancer is the result of repression of natural processes and lack of natural functions and correct thought waves.
STEIN: I think the problem is… (inaudible)
O’BRIEN: Thomas Dewey? The great educator.
STEIN: No, promiscuity. People shouldn’t get married till they’re thirty and they shouldn’t get laid until they get married. Didn’t it ever cross your mind that if you’d waited until you were twenty-four or something until you got laid you would have enjoyed it more the first time?
O’BRIEN: No. Debbie, how did you meet Chris?
HARRY: I met Chris at the Beauburn Tavern at the second Stiletto’s show. He came there with Eric Emerson and Elda. She used to go with Eric. He was sitting in shadows yet I could feel his piercing gaze upon me throughout the whole show, I kept staring at him because I couldn’t see his face. All I could see was this long dark hair. And then we met later and he joined the group and I’ve been working with him ever since.
O’BRIEN: Was Chris in a group when you met?
HARRY: No, he used to play with Eric sometimes, but he wasn’t in a regular group. Tom Verlaine had approached him to play in his group but he didn’t want to. Then he joined the. Stilettos. I guess that was in 1973.
O’BRIEN: When did Blondie start?
HARRY: In the spring of ’75, I guess.
O’BRIEN: Why did you start Blondie?
HARRY: It was Chris’ and my idea. We really didn’t have any exact ideas about what we were going to do. But we got to a point in the Stilettos where we were getting some notoriety, and some following and some press, and then we started not getting along on business and artistic points after a while and we broke off on our own.
O’BRIEN: Didn’t you tell me once that Holly Woodlawn was in the Stilettos?
HARRY: That was something else. That’s how I got into the Stilettos. I had been in a folk-type group, and I had dropped out of the scene, and then I started going to a lot of Dolls’ shows. That was around ’71 or ’72. Then in ’73 I was living in New Jersey, and one night I was in Max’s and I ran into this girl who used to go out with Sylvain when I was hanging out with the Dolls, and I said, “Oh gee, I hear you’ve got a girl trio.” and I gave her my phone number and told her to call me when she was going to play because I really wanted to see the group. I had been thinking about doing something in music ever since I had stopped doing folk rock. thought, “Wow, this is girls doing something and that’s really cool.” Because hardly any girls did anything in those days, nobody did fucking shit. So I pursued her. And the group broke up. And that group had consisted of Diane, who used to go out with David Johanssen, and Holly Woodlawn and Eida. So I went to see Elda and she said she knew another girl with a fabulous voice, so we called her up, her name was Roseanne, and the three of us got together as the Stilettos. We did our first show entirely on our own, and then Roseanne brought Tony Ingrassia around. I think MainMan had just about met its demise around that time. So Tony started to direct us, and choreograph us, and teach us method acting applied to singing, which was very grueling! We used to work our butts off, and sing for hours until our throats were raw. It was incredible; it was just like going to school. He was real intense about it. I still have to respect him for that. I would get mad at him, but it was stimulating to get that mad.
O’BRIEN: Did the Stilettos have regular musicians?
HARRY: We never had steady musicians. Sometimes we worked with Tommy Miami, sometimes with Jimmy Miami. We worked with a lot of different musicians. Maybe forty or fifty. Chris was our only steady musician. We played a lot of gigs at Kenny’s Castaways, at the Mushroom, at clubs that no longer exist. We really paved the way, you know. We really got the New York scene going. The only other group from that time that still exists, sort of, is Television. The popular groups then were Street Punk, and Palace or maybe it was Castle…
O’BRIEN: And the Harlots of 42nd Street, and Teenage Lust.
HARRY: Those were the happening groups at the time. The Dolls were doing their communist shows. It was really fun.
O’BRIEN: So Debbie, tell us about your new film that Mark Reichert directed.
HARRY: I don’t even know what it’s called.
O’BRIEN: I just read what it’s called in People.
HARRY: I know, but I wasn’t sure for them either. Tuxedo something, or Union City. They’re taking it to Cannes. But I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t recommend that anyone should go to see it, unless they want to see the people that are in it make fools of themselves, that’s all I can say. But the camera work is excellent.
O’BRIEN: Do you make a fool of yourself?
HARRY: Yeah, I’m sure I do.
O’BRIEN: You’re a housewife?
HARRY: Yeah, a young housewife who doesn’t know what’s happening. All she knows is that she wants a man to love her. That’s all she wants.
O’BRIEN: Her husband?
HARRY: Her husband is crazy.
O’BRIEN: So she wants another man to love her?
HARRY: Originally, she wanted her husband and she works at it. She always cooks his dinner and does his laundry and makes the house look nice and everything, but he goes down to Tatty’s bar all the time and gets loaded. And he gets crazy. He gets nuts. And in those days nobody went to psychiatrists, nobody knew anything, especially girls.
O’BRIEN: What year does this take place?
O’BRIEN: Who plays your husband?
HARRY: Dennis Lipscomb. He’s a very good actor. He helped me a lot. He taught me everything he doesn’t know.
O’BRIEN: Isn’t Taylor Mead in it?
HARRY: Yes, Taylor’s in it. He plays a drunk. He’s very funny. I really laughed a lot.
O’BRIEN: Is it a comedy or a thriller or what?
HARRY: It’s not really a thriller. It’s a weird story. There are all these little plots happening at the same time, that somehow or other all link together at the end. It’s not a thriller in the true sense of the word, more of a who-dun-it.
O’BRIEN: How did you like dressing for the ’50s, did it take you back?
HARRY: I’m not that old.
O’BRIEN: I know you were a baby, but I thought you might remember. Like open-toed shoes.
HARRY: Well, I certainly don’t remember it from a fashion point of view. I was always wearing second hand clothes. We were really broke then. And my mother wasn’t really into pop culture at the time, so it wasn’t really driven home to me what the ’50s were like. The only thing that struck me from that period was that my mother used to wear this hat that was shaped like a clam on the top of her head. But in the movie the styles aren’t what we think of as ’50s. Early ’50s styles were more like the ’40s. The real ’50s look didn’t come in till ’55. In the film my hair was real flat. I started feeling like a clam after a while. My hair had to be flat and parted and in all these neat little curls and this stuff. It was alright.
HARRY: It’s from the movie company. “Dear Deborah … etc. etc. …. Union City.” Oh, they’re calling it Union City. Great. I like that name. I was going to write a song about union.
O’BRIEN: Package contains a thin dark tie covered with plastic pins representing…
HARRY: Bathroom accouterments. Fixtures. Sink and a soap dish. Medicine chest with towel rack. A bathtub. A toilet with a way overhead tank and no chain. A pitcher and a stool. On a skinny tie. Maybe I should wear this to the Mother’s Day party celebrating Joan Crawford.
O’BRIEN: Yes, that would be perfect. Joan was a stickler on bathroom cleanliness.
HARRY: I know she washed her hands a lot, but don’t we all?
O’BRIEN: Well, we’ve touched briefly on your film career… let’s go back.
HARRY: Yeah, well my film career is so brief that you have to touch on it briefly. Otherwise it disappears. It just goes away.
[In the studio]
O’BRIEN: Do you get nervous before you go on stage?
HARRY: I get excited. Sometimes I have doubts. I always scream before I go on, “I don’t want to go. No! No! I don’t want to do it!” But I do it anyway. 1 just have to say that. It’s like part of the ritual.
O’BRIEN: Do you watch the group that goes on before you or hide out?
HARRY: Most of the time I check ’em out; check out the audience. Everybody says, “Oh you’re not supposed to look at the audience.” I always look at them.
O’BRIEN: Do your shows vary much?
HARRY: No. They vary in terms of energy—depending on how tired we are. That happens to all rock groups. Sometimes you have these incredible stints of seven gigs or more in a row, with travelling during the day. It’s really hard. Plus that, everyone goes out at night and wrecks themselves.
O’BRIEN: Do you know any good hangover cures?
HARRY: Yeah, Golden Seal. Get real good capsules of Golden Seal, mix ’em with a little bit of Ginseng powder. Actually about five of those caps. It works great.
O’BRIEN: I make tea with it.
HARRY: I can’t stand the taste of it. It’s too bitter for me. Do you like incense?
O’BRIEN: No. It reminds me of church, or hippies.
HARRY: Are you a Catholic?
O’BRIEN: I have been.
HARRY: Well, that’s it.
O’BRIEN: I like some of the more nonsectarian scents, though.
HARRY: I always take it with me on the road. And I always bring a package of miso paste, a thing of sea salt and Golden Seal. I always have those things on the road. They save my life.
O’BRIEN: You seem pretty health oriented. Chinese vitamin vials, your new peanut butter machine.
HARRY: I have to concentrate on eating good food because when you’re working crazy hours, like when you’re on the road or in the studio, it’s hard to eat right. We’ve been getting food from one of the delis around here that is poisonous. So last night I ordered two containers of pea soup, and the pea soup arrived filled with soggy croutons, which I don’t like anyway. So the soup was ruined to begin with, but then I ate the container of soup. And after I ate one container I belched, and I got sick from this belch, because I realized what I had eaten. And I couldn’t eat the second container. So today my resolve was to go to the health food store and buy really good food and make every little bit that goes in count.
[Mike Chapman, Blondie’s producer, enters]
MIKE CHAPMAN: Debbie, could you call Bruce and find out where Clem is, because, if Clem’s dead, we ought to know. Maybe he died in his sleep last night.
STEIN: Of old age, he’s really almost sixty years old.
[Pause trying to find Clem]
O’BRIEN: What do you do in your leisure time?
HARRY: I haven’t had too much leisure, time since about ’77. But I do a lot of different things because I have leisure time at different hours. Like I have leisure time now in the morning, till about midday. Today I planted flowers. I had little sprouts that I had sprouted and I planted them, and I swept off the terrace, moved the chaise lounge on to the terrace and moved two pieces of the couch into the bedroom, and got, some stuff from the cleaners. Real exciting, huh? But sometimes my leisure hours are reversed, from about 1 AM to dawn. go to see groups or to free parties. Like I went to the free’ party that was held after the Barbarians show at Trax. I saw Sylvia Miles. That was it. I also like to go to that club I like, the name of which I won’t mention. I walk around, go shopping. I haven’t gone to the movies in a long time. I watch TV a lot. I like cable TV. I’m always running into Ugly George on the street. I do a lot of photo sessions. And now I’m doing a lot of our business. I like to go to studios when other people are recording. I lig a lot.
O’BRIEN: You what?
O’BRIEN: Oh, lig! What sign are you?
O’BRIEN: What are the other ones?
HARRY: Which other ones?
O’BRIEN: You know, rising, moon…
HARRY: Sun in Cancer, Moon in Cancer, Scorpio rising.
O’BRIEN: Who is the famous actress who used to live in the apartment you live in?
HARRY: Lillian Roth.
O’BRIEN: She wrote, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, right? Have you ever seen her ghost?
HARRY: I sometimes see flashes of light, but nothing really. Sometimes I do feel that there’s a presence there, but I’ve never come into contact with it.
STEIN: She’s not dead.
HARRY: Yeah, she’s dead. But it could be anybody. It doesn’t have to be her.
O’BRIEN: Do you play any musical instruments?
HARRY: No, not really. I have a trumpet now that I blow into sometimes and I try to accompany Walter Steding. But I’ve been playing a little bit with Blondie, too. I played on a whole tour around the world—I used to blow the trumpet on Cautious Lip. I carried the stupid thing all over the world, to Australia, to Thailand, to Japan, Europe, all over the place. I played the sitar for a while, but not very well. It was sort of a mistake. I took piano lessons for two weeks.
O’BRIEN: Did you ever write the music to any of your songs?
HARRY: Sometimes. I wrote the music to “Little Girl Lies.” Mostly I don’t write tunes, but little lines that are expandable. They’re not total musical compositions. “Little Girl Lies” was a total corn-position. Chris developed the chord changes and the figure in the beginning. I think it’s really necessary to write with an instrument. You really have to play a piano or a guitar. It’s virtually impossible even on a bass guitar. You have to play an instrument that you can make chords with. You can only hum one note at a time. It’s really difficult to think in terms of hearing more than one note at a time unless you’re actually hearing it. It’s not easy to envision a sound.
O’BRIEN: What are the first songs you remember from your childhood?
HARRY: “The Lollipop Tree,” I think Burl Ives sang it. “Frog Went a Courtin’.”
O’BRIEN: Sometimes you do funny songs in concerts, oldies. What are you doing these days?
HARRY: Most recently we did “Get It On” or “Bang a Gong” whichever you want to call it. I think Troy Donahue was the original artist to perform that.
O’BRIEN: Oh, uh, you mean Markle? Marc Bolan?
HARRY: Yes. Just testing to see if you were awake.
O’BRIEN. Yeah, Marc Bolan.
O’BRIEN: Well I know both of them well. Oh, no, they’re dead aren’t they?
HARRY: No, Troy Donahue’s alright. Now he plays swarthy roles. Character parts. He must be an interesting character. He had that big boat, right? Was that his TV show?
O’BRIEN: No, he played a cartoonist who lived on Malibu beach.
HARRY: Wasn’t his boat the Kon Tiki?
O’BRIEN: No, you’re thinking of Gardner McKay in Adventures in Paradise. It was the Tiki.
HARRY: Sorry, Troy.
O’BRIEN: The Kon Tiki was Thor Heyerdahl’s balsa raft on which he drifted from Peru to Easter Island.
HARRY: Sorry, Thor.
O’BRIEN: And l think I was thinking of Tab Hunter. You should do the theme song of Adventures in Paradise. It had great drums.
HARRY: Yeah. I always liked the music from one of the King Kong movies, too. Actually, I think it was Mighty Joe Young. It was very interesting music. In the scene where all the lions were in the cages, in the club. Not the song where he held the piano on his head. A different one.
O’BRIEN: Who are your favorite movie stars?
HARRY: I don’t know if I really have any favorites. I like a lot of them. Who’s your favorite?
O’BRIEN: I couldn’t say.
HARRY: There are all these different areas of specialization. That’s it. You have to be a specialist nowadays. There’s no other way. I was an artist for a long time, but I was always into being a general practitioner. I did a little of this and a little of that. And nothing got me anywhere. You have to specialize. If you don’t specialize, it takes you until you’re about fifty years old before anybody notices that you’re doing anything at all.
O’BRIEN: That’s exactly how I feel.
O’BRIEN: No, diffused. What else did you used to do?
HARRY: I used to paint. I painted portraits.
O’BRIEN: Do you think stopping that helped you succeed as a singer?
HARRY: No, it’s more of a commitment. You have to specialize. If you were a painter and a rock and roll musician and weren’t established in either—to be an artist today you have to be as much a businessman to succeed, you have to spend an equal amount of time doing business as you spend doing your craft. So if I had to spend equal time doing paintings, and equal time going to galleries and doing art business and equal time making music and equal time going to record companies, or to the publicist or to the lawyer, forget it. It would take four times as long to do all that stuff. Unless I had a patron. That’s why Leonardo da Vinci was successful. He had the Medicis, right?
O’BRIEN: Where are they now?
HARRY: They still own everything.
O’BRIEN: I guess so, I wonder who they’re patronizing?
HARRY: I think they own the Vatican, in fact. This is getting too political. We don’t want to step on any toes. It’s bad enough that you admitted being a Catholic.
O’BRIEN: Did you have a religious upbringing?
HARRY: Oh sure.
O’BRIEN: In what faith?
HARRY: Episcopalian. No incense. No confession.
O’BRIEN: Not too mystical, but good hymns.
HARRY: Good hymns, and not too mystical actually, but I really am a mystic. I don’t know where I got it from.
O’BRIEN: You’re not a typical Protestant. I hate to say that there is a typical Protestant.
HARRY: There is.
O’BRIEN: Protestantism is great business training.
HARRY: It teaches you to be real pragmatic. Then you start to wonder about God. Then you just leave the church. A lot of Protestants don’t go to church. But it’s very social, very community supportive. But I think that G-O-D is like the answer to a formula for creating life. Or some kind of energy or antigravity. It’s like the answer to an equation and it’s become mythical over the years. But at one time we all knew what it was. I don’t know when it was exactly, but that was the ancient knowledge. It’s become diffused as it was handed down and turned into myth. Just like the stories of Ulysses. I really wish that the great library of Alexandria never burned down, because we’d all be in better shape today if we had all those books. You know who burned it? Marc Anthony. The Romans did it They wanted the power and they had it for a long time.
O’BRIEN: They’re still in power.
HARRY: They’re still in power. They burned the fucking library. It really pissed me off. And I’m not the only one. I was at the Nova Convention and saw a poet perform this really great poem about the great library of Alexandria. I could hardly understand a word he said because he had a really heavy accent, his name was Dr. Oz or Dr. Wizard, or something like that. Anyway, I was really shocked because I had always felt that way, and he was up there raving about it. I have to agree. They fucking blew it.
O’BRIEN: Do you think there’s a mystical element in rock and roll?
HARRY: There is. It has to exist. must be there.
O’BRIEN: Have you seen it lately?
HARRY: I don’t know. Have you?
O’BRIEN: I don’t know. Maybe Chris has.
HARRY: I think, actually, that rock and roll is a misconception. It should no longer be a term for music.
O’BRIEN: l should have said music.
HARRY: In music the mystical element is definitely there all the time, and one can see it. When it comes to rock and roll, when it comes to any kind of industry, it’s not there. It’s not there. So it’s a battle between the two. Music, Industry. But yet one exists off the other. It’s really weird. Really weird. It’s much the same process as what’s happening now all over the world, this devolution, I guess. I don’t want Delta to think I’m ripping them off but…
O’BRIEN: Actually devolution is one the big words in The New York Times political pages .
HARRY: The planet is eating itself; everyone’s eating themselves out. It’s like burnout time.
[A loud, distorted electrical guitar. “America the Beautiful” comes from the studio.]
O’BRIEN: It said in People that you were thinking of doing a disco version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
HARRY: It could be a huge hit.
O’BRIEN: Bigger than “Join the Navy”? Didn’t Jimi Hendrix record the “Star Spangled Banner”?
HARRY. Yeah, it was on the Woodstock album.
O’BRIEN: Did they ask you to play at the new Woodstock?
HARRY: Of course not.
O’BRIEN: I was thinking that this should be the Summer of Lust.
HARRY: Yeah, let’s have a lust-in.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1979 ISSUE OFINTERVIEW.
For more from our archives, click here.