It could have been just a trip down memory lane but it wasn’t. When Blondie landed in Washington, D.C. this summer, Debbie Harry, 74, stood before a visual of Donald Trump as she sang the theme song played from “To Russia With Love.” The band, helped propelled by drummer Clem Burke, upstaged headliner Elvis Costello and seemed more relevant than nostalgic.
Harry, one of the pioneer female front women in rock and most widely photographed people in the world, has been an outspoken advocate, mixing her own performance art into Blondie’s new songs and greatest hits. When Blondie released Pollinator, inspired by the plight of the honeybee and our food ecosystem, Harry took to the streets with slogan emblazoned on her trench coat that said “Stop Fucking The Planet.”
Now with the release of her memoir Face It, written in collaboration with veteran British rock journalist Sylvie Simmons, Harry scripts a lively and reflective look at a career that has spanned over forty years, fronting the stage persona she helped create and roles in over twenty feature films.
“I have had one fuck of an interesting life and I plan to go on having one,” she declares in a lively and illuminating book that mixes memories, philosophy and embeds a slew of photos and fan art shared with her over the years. There wasn’t social media back in Blondie’s heyday but you could call this user generated content in today’s parlance.
Harry approaches her memoir with a sense of life experience and detachment from today’s pop culture. “Today it’s all about being famous,” she says with a sense of resignation that belies the quest for exploration and experimentation that led to creative expression on record, stage and screen.
Harry reveals how she created the role of Blondie, inspired by a cross-between a blow-up doll and the comic strip. As she reflects, it’s one of the longest running roles in rock.
From the outset, Harry calculated that she was up to the idea of “being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game.”
“When I started out, rock music didn’t want girls to be anything but window dressing, something to stand there and look pretty and sing ooh ooh ooh or l‘a, la, la.’ That wasn’t me.”
To this day, Harry and her former partner and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein is asked what is was like to be with the sex symbol of the seventies.
Recalling how there were posters of Farrah Fawcett, Suzanne Somers and one sold of herself as “Blondie,” Harry was comfortable in her character. “I liked I was on the fans’ bedroom walls, helping them to entertain themselves. You can’t control other people’s fantasies or the illusion they’re buying or selling. You could say that I was selling an illusion of myself. But the bigger seller is always sex.”
Despite selling millions of records, Harry was broke after relentless and exhausting touring. When it was suggested that they reunite, Harry initially questioned it. Blondie has continued to perform for the last three decades and along the way were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The rise and fall of Blondie the band takes up a relatively short portion of the book. Most interesting are Harry’s musings on her fascination with the screen. She encounters a parallel world in films by John Waters, Marcus Reichert and Jean Luc Godard. In the narrative, she describes how Iggy Pop once referred to her as “Barbarella on speed,” a reference to the character Jane Fonda once played in a Roger Vadim film. “But the mother of that character was really Marilyn Monroe,” she points out. Monroe is the actress who Harry admired and emulated noting the Fifties-era actress played a character of a dumb blonde and was never given credit as a comedic actor. “She was a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman,” Harry writes.
Face It is also Harry’s love letter to New York, a creative bastion that fueled her art. Harry’s full of detailed memories of hobnobbing around with Andy Warhol and recalling the rise of the punk scene in lower Manhattan.
Harry romantically reveres it as a time where she and Stein would walk everywhere when they had no money. The onetime couple battled poltergeists, fires and near death. Harry was held at gunpoint and raped. In another scene she describes taking a ride from someone she is convinced was serial killer Ted Bundy.
Describing her early days as defined by a garbage punk aesthetic, Harry’s writing recounts how she would literally turn art from other people’s trash. Her friend David Johansen once told me that there was a time the Seventies where if you stood on St. Marks Place, you would see every form of life walking by. Harry has harsh words for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who cleaned up the city in a way where it was so sanitized it was unrecognizable.
Today she continues to draw inspiration from the island of Manhattan and revel in a routine of starting her day with coffee and reading for an hour in bed, reflecting a lifelong fascination with the written word.
Harry became a cigar smoker later in life and shares one of the many life lessons she learned. This one was received unexpectedly. After leaving a cigar bar, she felt a tap on the window from a man who told her:
“Everyone has talent , but to persevere and to achieve success is what separates the real talent from the wannabes. You’ve done what so few have ever carried out. You didn’t just think or dream about it, you hung in there and weathered the rough road to success.”
Harry seemed taken aback.
“I would have never guessed his insight or thinking would be so generous and acute.
“This moment has stayed with me.
“What the fuck?” she asks with a sense of wonderment. It’s something that is pervasive throughout Face It.