(photo by Chris Stein)
“Let’s face it,” Debbie Harry concludes in her recent memoir Face It. “I’ve had one fuck of an interesting life and I plan to go on having one.”
On one of the last nights of her book tour, the author, actor and punk pioneer was sitting center stage at the historic Sixth & I synagogue in Washington DC. Slightly arched back behind shades in her smart black pants suit and loosened purple tie, Harry had a sly smile that belied the star power she’s possessed and refreshed over five decades.
Flanked next to her was Blondie guitarist and photographer Chris Stein and visual director Rob Roth who served as the evening’s moderator. From the outset it was clear this wouldn’t be your conventional book tour. Before Harry walked in, a propulsive mix of Blondie’s dance beats and Harry’s unmistakable voice played against flashing images of one of the world’s most photographed women.
The multi-media mix was about to converge with the written and spoken word. It all seemed a little loopy for the first ten minutes like friends who were sitting around chit chatting and carrying on conversation in code from their earlier train ride. It made you think back to another era when Stein and Harry regularly appeared on a public access channel in their native New York City back in the early days of cable television.
“I learned that the reason it’s a New York Times best seller is that the DNC bought 10,000 copies,” Stein volunteered with a wry but unspoken reference to Don Trump Jr’s recent book.
When moderator Roth asked how many people had seen Blondie this summer at the Anthem, a screen flashed with a Twitter feed the first night they sang “To Russia With Love” against the backdrop of the now-infamous fake presidential seal.
Stein recalled how the concert in Las Vegas was a little less DC friendly with a few middle fingers flashed at the band. Later he went off on a tangent about scandals of days past including “The Crown” and recalling the onetime former House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills. When he was caught in a car with stripper Fanny Flagg, she ran off and jumped into the city’s Tidal Basin. A few days later he gave a press conference from her dressing room in a strip club.
“Those were the days,” he marveled.
“That’s what makes politics so fun,” Harry added but avoiding the temptation to be drawn into current events, Instead she reflected on feminism, her film and music careers and lessons learned over seventy-four years.
With mics set-up on two aisles, fans soon jumped in line for the chance to ask a question. In her book Harry talks of how doing a memoir meant she had to face up to her past prompting the book’s title. Tonight it was time to face her fans.
“We don’t need your biography,” Roth said trying to frame the ground rules and limit things to one question. It was a little in vain as many had a story to tell and turned one question in a two-part question. It was understandable given we were about to talk with someone who’s meant so much.
When someone mentioned an encounter with Harry that was her fifteen minutes of fame, it soon became apparent there were others. What they all had in common was speaking with her for fifteen minutes.
One woman told how she was dared by her friend to call Harry at her hotel in Baltimore when she starred in John Waters’ film Hairspray, one of more than thirty films she’d make. Shocked when Harry answered the phone, she seemed forever grateful that she gave words of encouragement to a struggling musician. “I think I woke you up,” she apologized with the statute of limitations having long passed.
Another told of how the two had met at a concert in Trenton, New Jersey in 1994. She had the ticket with her and Harry got up to autograph it. Someone told her how he stared at her poster in high school. Roth quipped it was her turn to stare back at him.
Harry was trying to cross cross between present and past, locking into decades and memories that seemed distant but still frozen in the moment to everyone asking at the mic. When a man approached and said they’d met in the mid-Eighties, he revealed he was a computer tech for Andy Warhol who did the first computer portrait.
“There’s two copies that exist and one is on my wall,” he revealed. Harry suddenly got animated and Stein was fascinated that he still had the original diskette.
“Andy was criticized for not being a fine artist,” Harry recalled. For his part Stein said of the early days of using a computer: “I spent an hour and a half and came up with a red triangle.”
In Face It, Harry writes reverently about palling around with Warhol in Manhattan. The artist had an incredible interest in discovering the creativity all around him.
When asked to recount the immortalized but now defunct CBGB club, Stein recalled his friend and its owner, the late Hilly Krystal. “Hilly never discovered something that didn’t walk in his door,” he quipped, reverently describing Krystal’s oft-repeated line of eyeing new talent:. “There’s something there.”
Harry reminisced about the clubs factions, the pop and rock camps. “It was a big deal when Richard Hell left Television,” she mused with a random reference that seemed like it was a long time ago.
In the venue’s foyer, Stein’s book of photographs was for sale. On screen, his Polaroids and portraits of Harry documented time and place. There was the picture he shot in the New York subway, years later later realizing it had an eerie resemblance to a similar picture of Marilyn Monroe shot in another station stop. He photographed Harry in the kitchen of their apartment that burned down, the singer wearing a dress that Monroe was said to have worn on the screen.
The Manhattan landscape is the backdrop for much of Face It, Harry’s love letter to the city. As he looked up to the screen above, Stein watched Harry and Iggy Pop walking through lower Manhattan in video of a song for a charitable album of Cole Porter songs to benefit AIDS patients.
There were memories of people lost before their prime to AIDS. Harry mentioned Robert Mapelthorpe and a friend who worked for David Bowie’s management company Main Man.
On a night that moved through history, Harry was philosophizing about the benefits and drawbacks of overexposure on social media, a medium that wasn’t invented in Blondie’s heyday. Stein seemed fascinated by the medium. At one point he found a video on Twitter of a cat purring loud enough to sound like it was saying it was cold. It drew laughter.
These days, Harry says she lives in New York “more or less.” In the book she criticizes former Mayor Giuliani for sanitizing the Big Apple. There’s still pockets like lower Broadway that resemble the place she once knew.
In a stunning moment, Stein showed a picture he took from outside his home on 9/11 with a view smoke rising from the World Trade Center. Years later at a showing at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, a man walking in the picture introduced himself.
Harry then got up to read for the first time. It was her poem “Rush of Souls” that was written out of mourning and grieving and it was stunning.
The program ended. Anything that might have been said after might have sounded trite.
This month, Harry is part of a benefit for the Joe Strummer Foundation at the Bowery Ballroom, paying tribute to play the Clash’s London Calling. Come January, her old vocal coach Barbara Maier that helped her so much is having a milestone 85th birthday.
“We’ll be partying hard,” Harry promised.