With a new album out, Debbie Harry talks about her career and life as a fun-loving bohemian.
Debbie Harry: Still bold, still blonde
With her feline beauty and punk bravado, Debbie Harry changed the face of pop music, scoring a string of hits with the Eighties band Blondie. Now, with a new album out, the singer tells Michael Odell she has everything a fun-loving bohemian could want - almost
Debbie Harry is munching through a goat cheese salad when she demands - as airily as someone ordering a side serving of chips - a man.
"It would be nice to find someone," she says. She sighs, now with the theatrical ennui of a woman who has been wandering around a busy supermarket for hours looking for an assistant to offer advice on a new food product. "Do you know anyone?"
Harry and I have just been reviewing her largely solitary existence in London Terrace, the 1930s block in New York's Chelsea District with vast views that were the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Here Harry goes to the gym, swims in the balconied art deco pool or steps out to attend openings at art galleries and, occasionally, nightclubs.
As well as her bawdy New York drawl and a ready sense of humour, Harry signals her energy and appetite for life in a youthful dress code. Today she is wearing a vivid purple, orange and red trouser-and-blouse ensemble that, like the sun, would burn your retinas if you looked straight at it. Her platinum blonde wig does the job of a workplace ID laminate: it is hair, yes, but it also says, "This is what I do."
All this confirms her as a fun-loving bohemian. But at night Debbie Harry sometimes feels lonely.
"We are social animals, aren't we?" she says, swivelling those mischievous cat eyes. "We all need someone."
Luckily her day job as a revivified blonde bombshell keeps her busy. Blondie has a new album, Panic of Girls, out soon and a slew of festival dates throughout the summer in which Harry will relive the glory days of the late Seventies and early Eighties. But that's work. Harry is 65 now and wants a companion, not a swarm of male groupies.
"What is it with you great hairy beasts?" she asks. "You'reeither all babies or you are all... do they still call them cads here?"
It says something about society when a muse to the pop artist Andy Warhol (who described her as his favourite pop star) cannot pull. Harry seems to have reached a point in her life where all those things that used to be assets have become handicaps to romance. "It's kinda like a perfect storm," she says. "I guess I am seen as a challenging proposition."
Challenging or not, Harry is knocking on a bit, but still sultry. This, counter-intuitively, will put a lot of men off because they assume that she must be going out with an Ashton Kutcher. "Men are very predictable in wanting younger flesh as they get older," she says with a wry cackle.
Second, her hair. OK, so she is not a natural, but she has made her living rebooting the classic lineage of blonde icons. The thing is, when you reach a stage in life when you want to kick back with a book and a glass of wine, this hair colour gets in the way.
For example, she is reading a heavyweight economic tome on the "hydrogen economy" that deals with economic thinking post-peak oil. Harry talks new millennium geopolitics with punk rock attitude and it's the first time I've heard anyone start swearing on the subject of solar power.
"You know this could solve the problem of the Middle East if a country like Greece forgot oil and harnessed all their sunshine for energy, so what's the f****** hold-up?" she fumes.
The point is, this is the kind of geopolitical tract Harry wants to discuss of an evening with her putative man. But being blonde gets in the way. "If you are considering something interesting and then you see that some men are just looking at you like a piece of meat... No one wants that," she says. "But image is hard to get over..."
This turns out to be true. Even while Harry is munching her salad and holding forth volubly on Greek sunshine, I find myself staring at the feline face and reflecting that if a cat could pack a bag and leave home to become a pop star and then sit down to talk about it over lunch, this is what it would be like.
Adopted at the age of three months, Harry had a conventional upbringing in New Jersey, where her adoptive parents ran a gift shop. Her mother tried to mould her as a "church-going preppy Wasp", but when she was 20 Harry decamped to Manhattan and experimented with sex and drugs and hung out with Patti Smith and the Ramones at the seminal music club CBGB. In 1974, she met Chris Stein, a contributing photographer for Punk magazine, who asked her to pose nude with a guitar for the centrefold. They became lovers and eventually formed Blondie.
Their third album, Parallel Lines, made the band global stars. Not only did it have great pop/punk tunes, but the cover showed Harry standing hard-faced, with hands on hips, in a white shift dress, rewriting the rules of the blonde ditz. "For a lot of people that album cover was supposed to sum me up," she says. "Hardcore. Intimidating. And then there were the punks who said I was being too girlie. I am not complaining, but that is quite a bit of baggage to carry around."
Throughout the band's success she was in a relationship with Stein. The rest of the band took offence and wore badges reading "Blondie is a band" to try to correct the imbalance.
"Not an easy job at all for Chris," she recalls. "That throws a huge spanner in the relationship. You have to be a very strong man to endure that pressure. It's a real test of egos, success. He was my boyfriend, my lover, but he was also expected to protect me from extraordinary levels of intrusion."
The band fell apart in the early Eighties, partly as a result of Stein suffering a serious illness. Harry nursed him back to health, but then their relationship imploded. It must have been heartbreaking when they split and he married the actress Barbara Sicuranza and had children. "I am godmother to them," Harry says quietly. "I don't feel deprived in that area at all."
Harry never had children because the band found fame when she was in her 30s.
"Life was just too insane to contemplate starting a family," she says. "I mean, I wouldn't put a child through that lifestyle. That would be kind of almost abusive."
On the new Blondie album, Panic of Girls (with Stein and drummer Clem Burke, the only other surviving original members), is a track titled Mother. It would be easy to assume it was about her biological mother whom Harry tracked down through a private detective in the early Nineties. Her mother refused to meet her and the song's pining chorus, "Mother... where are you tonight?" seems poignant in the light of this. But it's actually about a New York nightclub that closed in 2000. If she cannot find a man to cuddle up to, the next best thing used to be a no-holds-barred Saturday night freak-out.
"Mother was a club in the Meatpacking District [in New York] where you could go and explore your fetishes and freaky side," she purrs. "It was awesome and I truly really miss it. People think that as you get older you are going to be content sitting in bed with your rollers in your hair. But I was a child of the Sixties, and once you have unlocked your wild side it is very hard to get that genie back in the bottle. Mother was hetero, it was gay, it was bi... it was crazy!"
Perhaps this is Harry's greatest handicap to finding love. In their mid-60s lots of men want a partner to play golf with or go on a Saga cruise. Fetish clubs don't usually get a look in. As a teenager Harry went to Woodstock, and before Blondie she was a member of several "out there" art collectives. In one of them, the First United Unaphrenic Church & Bank, Harry would gargle into a microphone while a friend played tablas.
"It was art. It was rebellion," she says. "I still like to try new things. If I'd thought more carefully about my career then I would have got to where Madonna is before she did."
Harry says this with a flash of indignation in her eyes, and no wonder.
When Blondie disbanded, Harry was signed as a solo artist to Warner Bros, Madonna's record label. It was a humbling experience. Madonna was the new girl, Blondie Version 2.0, with a remarkable understanding of the opportunities afforded by newly invented video and the media age. Not only did she grasp the new dance-orientated pop music, she also pushed boundaries in a way punks had done without ever thinking to package and market them. While Madonna was taking over the world in the mid-Eighties, Harry and Stein were having their house repossessed to pay tax bills.
"Artists today are much smarter," Harry says, "and they have choices that we didn't have. They think about their work and they own their work in a way that we never thought about. To us it was even maybe a little bit uncool to take the business side of things too seriously. It was supposed to be art. But today if you are not on top of your business side of things, you are a fool."
But Harry seems to be enjoying Blondie's status as revered icons of that old, pre-showbiz age. The Blondie music has aged well. As well as the middle-aged diehards, a younger generation of fans has discovered the band. This summer the festivals beckon.
"You never forget how you felt at that [teen] age," she says. "You never forget what an inspirational artist meant to you. For me it was Marilyn [Monroe] or the Beatles or the Ramones or someone like that. It feels strange for young kids to look up to me now. But I like it. I want to give them something that is going to inspire them in the way that I was inspired. If I hadn't been inspired to take the risk of going to New York and doing what I wanted to do, I would have lived a dull life."
Later this summer, when her Blondie duties allow, she wants to hang out at the beach in California or maybe Mexico. And if the right man reads this article, he may join her and share the ultimate Harry indulgence: a seafood platter. "I can make a great one," she says.
It's a mad world when Debbie Harry has to flaunt her facility with prawns to get a man's attention. She says that an Englishman would work because Britons are laid-back and have a sense of humour. Also, because in the 1970s it was largely English men who had the impeccable taste to make her a star before the United States cottoned on.
"When I was a kid, I thought all English guys were like Ringo Starr and I wanted to marry one," she says. "Now I know to cast my net wider. Just give me a nice guy and good times. A brain is optional."
Panic of Girls is due to be released on July 4. Blondie's European tour, including Ireland and the UK, begins in Portugal on July 6.
The Harry file
BORN Deborah Ann Harry, July 1, 1945, Miami, Florida
SCHOOLING Hawthorne High School, Passaic County, New Jersey; Centenary College, Hackettstown, New Jersey
FAMILY Adoptive parents Richard and Catherine Harry, gift shop proprietors
FIRST JOB Secretary at BBC Radio's office in New York
ASSOCIATED ACTS Wind in the Willows, the Stilettos, Blondie, Divinyls, Jazz Passengers, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri
GENRES Folk rock, new wave, pop, rock, punk rock, power pop, disco, techno, hip-hop, Great American Songbook, avante garde jazz
INSTRUMENTS Vocals, percussion, tambourine, tambura, finger cymbals, clarinet