Blondie returns with a head full of highlights
It’s easy to forget that some of our Chelsea friends and neighbors are also rock stars.
More than ten years ago, I was walking a gigantic painting from my boyfriend’s studio to our apartment. It was much too early on a Saturday morning to find oneself on the ass end of such an ugly canvas. Moods didn’t improve when he set his end down to chat. As I whipped around to the front of the painting to more effectively glare at whomever was impeding our progress, I came face to face with that legendary jaw that needs no further waxing here, but really could have a drink set down on it.
“Nice sunglasses,” Deborah Harry remarked nonchalantly and continued chatting with my boyfriend. She was out for a morning walk in bedroom slippers accompanied by her adorable Papillion scamp Chi Chi.
Over the years, there were more sightings. The window of the Bright Food Shop on Eighth Avenue was always a good vantage point, playing into Harry’s storied years as a Max’s Kansas City waitress and Playboy Bunny. Her tips were princely, to be sure.
Harry is a New Yorker, albeit by way of Hawthorne, New Jersey. She made her big screen debut opposite Pat Benatar in the Jersey-themed “Union City,” but it wasn’t until the current “Curse of Blondie” record that Harry officially came out about her Springsteen stigmata. She raps about New Jersey on the lead track “Shakedown” in a naked attempt to place a song on “The Sopranos” soundtrack. She’s a fan.
Just last week our paths happily crossed again—okay, I sneaked backstage—while she was headlining a benefit at Joe’s Pub for Katie Gustern, the late daughter of her vocal coach Barbara Maier. Harry took the stage in sunglasses—nice sunglasses—and head-to-toe silver, right down to her pumps and handbag, and rocked through a set that included selections as far apart as “One Way Or Another” and Cole Porter.
But it was the new material—some of it so fresh it was laid out before her in sheets—that was most exciting.
So, Deborah Harry, rock star?
Perhaps the opening from “Background Melody (The Only One),” a song from the new Blondie disc, says it best: “I know what I’m made of, but what’s inside of me may be science, may be giants, may be just a mystery…”
Tony Phillips: I’m glad to get you in the morning. I imagine these interview days run like airports and the delays build up over the course of the day.
Deborah Harry: Yeah, on or close to schedule [laughs].
TP: So tell me about “The Curse of Blondie.” I’ve had it for a while, but I can’t stop listening to it. It’s infectious.
DH: Oh, great. Thank you. Thank you so much. I feel it’s of course the latest and the greatest. I always feel like our newest stuff is the best, but I feel there’s a nice sort of emotional trip to this one. I come from the old school, obviously, of albums being like a variety pack, not just a one-way thing, not just one level. I think it needs to go up and down emotionally, like a roller coaster.
TP: I saw you out in Brooklyn last summer with The Jazz Passengers doing a live accompaniment to the film “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” In addition to this great title, you’ve got a song on this new record called “The Tingler” that’s based on William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest of the same name. There’s even have a funhouse mirror in your apartment.
DH: Yeah, there is.
TP: So what’s the deal with the monster movies?
DH: Well, Chris [Stein, Blondie member and former flame] and I, in the early days, used to really watch them a lot. They’re kind of fascinating. There’s nothing like watching a cheap movie, a cheaply made movie, I should say. Something that’s fantastic can be very entertaining and silly. I don’t know, I guess it appeals to the child side.
TP: Is the title ironic at all? I mean, four years in the making! And before “No Exit” it was even longer, 16 years between new albums! And yet, on the art inside this new one, you’re stepping on a mirror and smashing it. Are you superstitious at all?
DH: No, I try not to be. Superstition doesn’t really enter into it. I think karma is something that I do think about. Superstition is far less productive, isn’t it?
TP: So there’s nothing you do before you go on stage that would fall under that category?
DH: Well, what I do is pretty ritualistic in my preparation, but there are times when I don’t have the luxury of a complete hour before I go on to get dressed and made up. Sometimes I just have to rush out and get ready in like 15 minutes or something, but I do like ritual. I don’t know if that has anything to do with superstition, though. I think superstition is something that holds you back, but ritual is very supportive.
TP: Do you have a bead on what you and Chris do? When you listen to a song like “The Tingler,” it’s just amazing because you guys have gone through so much and transitioned into so many different things yet your capacity to write hit records is in no way compromised.
DH: It just sort of works. I don’t know what happens. I think that we’re two heads of the hydra, as it were. Perhaps that says it all.
TP: At Plaid last week, the DJ, when he wasn’t playing actual Blondie records, was mixing “The Rapture” into other artists’ songs. It was fabulous. So I’m wondering, is your House of Blues date in Los Angeles to suggest that this is a club tour?
DH: Well, you know, we’re always mixing and matching everything here. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a club tour because we don’t play strictly dance music so that would be kind of difficult and I don’t think audiences would like that so much. I think we’re playing some clubs and theaters and casinos. In Portland we’re doing the Crystal Ballroom. I guess we’re doing festivals, too. It’s a real mixture over here.
TP: I’ve seen you in some really interesting venues recently, a couple months ago you played Carnegie Hall.
DH: Ah, for that Peggy Lee tribute!
TP: Can you talk about that night a little? It seemed so special.
DH: It was, I think it was a terrific night. There were a lot of people involved and the musicians were Peggy Lee’s musicians, which I thought was just thrilling. Grady Tate was the drummer and he was outstanding. And the whole thing, I’m always amazed at how a person will sort of pull that together, you know? It was all put together so well and they got all these women to be a part of it. It really was a tribute to Peggy Lee. It didn’t go down all that well critically, though.
DH: Yeah, I think it got quite a slam.
TP: Well, Stephen Holden at The New York Times seemed a little cranky.
DH: That’s putting it mildly.
TP: I can’t think of that night and not think about you and Nancy Sinatra dueting on “Siamese Cat Song” from “Lady and the Tramp.” When I listen to the new record and your remake of a traditional Okinawan folk song “Magic (Asadoya Yunta)”, it begs the question, which came first?
DH: “Magic” came first. We finished writing and recording most of the stuff that’s on the album in the fall of 2001. And then the project was shelved for a little while and we went back to it the following spring. Then our label closed, so we had to find a new label in the States. So it took a little while to get it out.
TP: So I’m reading this thing Glenn O’Brien wrote about the new record and when he’s talking about the rap in the song “Shakedown” he says, “The delivery is as smooth as that other great blonde rapper, the one from Michigan” and I’m thinking, Madonna? Who the hell is he talking about? But I suppose it must be Eminem. So I was wondering how you feel about both of those people?
DH: Well, I guess I feel a lot different about each of them [laughs]. I think Eminem is quite genius and I guess Madonna is genius in her way. I think she’s really done a lot for interracial relationships and made them much stronger. That crossing over and mixing things, she’s really good at it. Eminen is just so passionate and so thoroughly in touch. You can just see it in him. He’s all focused and it comes from the core of him and that makes it a really valuable experience. In a way, it’s really like Dylan.
TP: Well, I can’t help but thinking out of the three of you, there’s one lady that just needs to stop rapping.
DH: Well, I’m a terrible rapper.
TP: Debbie, I didn’t mean you. I personally don’t think Madonna could rap if she were standing behind the Christmas counter at Macy’s.
DH: Well, I do it, but what I do is very white bread. And it’s in total admiration and awe of the great rappers and the way that they put it all together. I think it’s a terrific medium.
TP: Now at the Pug Rescue benefit at Joe’s Pub where I last saw you perform, Tammy Faye Starlight talked about Blondie doing “The Mike Douglas Show.” What was that like?
DH: Oh, we were sort of wild and rough around the edges. And Mike was super nice to us. We would get on there and [laughs] we used to just, I don’t know… we used to play everything at such a frenzied pace. We were just mad. I guess he liked us. He was always so sweet.
TP: So a gig on the Sunset Strip, but not New York? What’s up with that? I know the band is coming.
DH: No doubt.
TP: It would almost have to, right?
DH: Not perhaps on this trip, but probably later in the summer.