Next month Deborah Harry is singing at a small London club. To celebrate, Nicholas Barber gave the original Blondie a ring
Sunday 28 January 1996
No jokes about "Hanging on the Telephone", please. At the other end of a transatlantic phone-line, the woman who was a Rock Babe before the term existed is being gracious, insouciant, laid-back and scattily funny, punctuating our interview with chuckles and protestations of, "I'm running out of answers. Can we end there, please?" This could be because she is not a natural self-publicist, and views herself with an ironic half-smile. Or maybe it's because it's only 8.30am in New York.
In February she will be in London, singing "personal, light-hearted but interesting, complicated music" with the Jazz Passengers. The Passengers are usually instrumental, but on their last album, In Love, a pantheon of guest vocalists took a track each. Harry was one of them, and was invited to sing the whole album live on the group's subsequent tour. Among the shoes she has stepped into are the Converse boots of rock's rising supernova Jeff Buckley and the high heels of Staple Singer Mavis Staples, two of America's most formidable vocalists. Wasn't she terrified at the prospect? "Yes, I was." A microwave timer beeps in the background. "My hair turned grey. Then it went instantly white after that. But that was all right, because I just looked like my old self again."
Her old self being the peroxide frontwoman of Blondie. From 1977 onwards, Blondie struck platinum, releasing 13 Top 20 singles, including five No 1s, and six albums whose influence on Sleeper, Elastica and Pulp is plain. Say all you like about their unique fusion of disco pop and prickly New Wave. What was at least as important was that Harry - "Debbie Harry" as she was then - had a mould-breaking, assertive sex appeal that made her both fantasy figure and feminist role-model years before Madonna Louise Ciccone reached for the bleach. Blondie split in 1982. From 1983-85, Harry nursed her co-writer, guitarist and lover, Chris Stein, who was suffering from the skin disease pemphigus. She then returned to pop, with Stein as her professional (if no longer her personal) partner. But in 1994, she was dropped by Chrysalis Records. "I'm free right now, and I'm digging it," she yells. "I'm enjoying performing more than ever."
This interview cliche would seem like self-deluding bravado were it not for her CV, which shows Blondie as a short straight stretch in an otherwise zig-zagging, scenic career path. She is now 50, closer in years to Jerry Lee Lewis than to John Lydon; her time in the group spanned her mid-thirties. The achievements and/or the lives of most pop stars are over before they're that old. But for Harry there has always been more to life than hit records.
She met Chris Stein when she was in a girl group called the Stilettos, which she joined in 1972. Before that, she did "not too much". In the Sixties she was a bunny girl, a waitress, and a pal of Andy Warhol. She was often at rock clubs, but never on stage. "I knew that I had to be involved with music, but I didn't have it pinpointed that I had to be in a band. I could have been screwing a conductor." Finally, she sang in a folk group, Wind in the Willows. They made two albums; only one was released. "After that I wasn't sure that I felt at ease being in the business, so I skipped around doing other things and travelled a bit. I guess I was a professional hippie. Isn't it funny how misdirected I appear to be? But I'm not! I have my secret approach! To confuse everybody! Including myself."
To this end, she'll turn up in films, either smuggling a bomb in her beehive in John Waters' Hairspray, or, more recently, characterising a frustrated waitress in the heart-rending inaction movie Heavy. Her acting roles seem deliberately off-the-wall, but she claims they are "pretty much what I'm offered". Has she no goals in mind? "I don't know what you mean by that. That I should have some kind of monster plan to conquer the universe?" Her voice sinks to an evil slur: "I don't talk about that. That's secret." Back to normal: "I don't really like to talk about things I'm doing until they're done. So many times I've talked about things prematurely and regretted it because then if it doesn't happen," - an earthy laugh - "you look like an asshole."
She will, however, admit to composing more material with the Jazz Passengers, and she has another solo album planned ("Well, yeah, I've always got them planned") with Chris Stein. But she still doesn't have a record deal. "I think we're just going to do some writing. I don't know what the end purpose will be," she says with typical vagueness, crunching some breakfast. "We may want to release it independently or sell the material to other people. Depends."
Asked about the work which is closest to her heart, she nominates "the Blondie thing". "I think I was at my most mad - it was a mad time in my life," she muses. "One always clings to that. But anything can happen. I don't know whether to close the book on myself, or whether to say, since I have all this experience, something may just click in my head and I'll have another mad idea." The professional hippie adopts a wicked crone's croak. "I'm - not - dead - yet!"
! The Jazz Passengers with Deborah Harry: Jazz Cafe, NW1 (0171 344 0044), 6-10 Feb.
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