High Times Greats: Debbie Harry

The lead singer of Blondie tells all.
High Times Greats: Debbie Harry
Photo by David Croland. Hair and makeup by Moiz for Piere Michel, New York.

From the November, 1996 issue of High Times comes an interview between Debbie Harry and Victor Bockris, followed by a sidebar featuring a 1980 conversation between Bockris, Harry and Chris Stein. On the occasion of Ms. Harry’s birthday July 1, we’re republishing it here.

I met Debbie Harry in 1977, and experienced a good deal of her success with Blondie firsthand through 1978-1982. During this time, we wrote the text for Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie, a book of photographs by Chris Stein, Debbie’s live-in collaborator on Blondie. They wrote the band’s hits together. After Blondie’s break up in 1982 (under sad circumstances caused largely by a mysterious illness that struck Stein down), I kept in touch with Debbie sporadically. I approached her to do the High Times interview with some delight, since she was just reaching a peak in her solo career thanks to the movie Heavy, in which she starred opposite Liv Tyler, and Individually Twisted, her record with the Jazz Passengers. Harry has been touring with the Jazz Passengers and is finding a cool, new groove to work in.

The interview was conducted at the apartment of photographer David Croland, and in Harry’s own Manhattan apartment. Some of the material, particularly the sidebar conversation with Stein, was recorded but never released during the time we were working on Making Tracks. The new Debbie Harry is in fact no different from the old Debbie Harry inasmuch as she is Debbie—the singer, songwriter, actress and comedienne who will continue to tie us up in individually twisted stitches throughout the ’90s and into the next century.

HIGH TIMES: What is the most important thing that’s happened to you in the last year?

Debbie Harry: Just this past weekend I had to drive upstate to see my Mom and Dad. I sort of had the same feeling I had at the beginning of Blondie. Then, I had this really wonderful instinctive drive, this guiding momentum, this energy, and I just had to use it. I was so instinctive. Everything was just there, you know?

Then, for a long time I didn’t want any kind of energy like that. But all of a sudden, driving upstate, I thought, Gee, I wonder if I could do that again? And I just had this little feeling in the pit of my stomach that went, Yeah, I could, and maybe I would want to. But who focuses all their drive on work at my age? I was thinking, I want to do that, then I was thinking I’m already doing it.

With the Jazz Passengers?

Yeah. This technical jazz singing with the Jazz Passengers is more emotional, more delicate. The voice is in a different position within the instrumentation. You have an obligation to be creative and responsive. You have to respond to every particular feeling, because being there in the moment is really important. It’s not just this section four times, the next section two times, then the last section. The parts are woven together, and what somebody else plays and how you respond to that is more like acting.

Is the process of writing jazz songs very different from writing rock songs?

With the Jazz Passengers, I stepped into a situation that already existed, and then tried to add something of my own to it. That’s different than what I did with Blondie. My Blondie stuff was more personal and direct.

How did you get involved with the Jazz Passengers?

[Producer] Hal Willner introduced me to them. Hal called me from London and said, Why don’t you come and sing a track on this jazz album I’m doing? So he sent me the track and I thought, Oh, kinda weird, but it’s pretty good. So I did it. And then from there I started working with them. I couldn’t for the life of me have picked a better situation than the Jazz Passengers to experiment and to sing in a different way and perform in a different way and to know exactly what I wanted to do. It’s very nice for me. It’s like a great period of creative discovery.

Was Heavy a good role for you?

Getting a real acting part in Heavy was a revelation to me. Being other people is really the best thing for me. Being somebody else. I think the picture turned out well and I think the director, James Mangold, is a brilliant guy. Both of his parents were painters, and he’s wonderful to work with. I was surprised when I saw the film. I had no idea what the pacing would be like. I was really moved.

Are you addicted to your work?

I guess I am, but I just think it’s the best thing to be productive and to be creative. What else are you gonna do?

What is your daily life like these days? When you’re living in New York and you’re not touring, do you have any practical schedule?

Well, I swim every day. If I’m not working that night, performing or going to a club to see a band, I’ll get up at about seven-thirty, eight o’clock. I take my dog for a walk and feed the cat. Then I get the newspaper and read it for an hour. I drink coffee and have a pastry. Then I just do phones or tour plans or clean up the apartment. Try to get jobs. Rearrange traffic. I’m trying to organize doing a book of my own again.

You want to do your autobiography?

Yeah, but I’d like to have more of a sex life before I write it. I mean, the book should be banned somewhere!

When did you break up with comic magician Penn Gillette?

A year ago. Basically, we were in a relationship where we planned to meet in airport lounges, which I thought was cool. But then we had trouble on the sex front because he’s kind of big, and it was difficult to find a place to squeeze into, you know?

Have you been seeing anybody else?

No, not really. Dates here and there. Nothing much.

Are you working with Chris?

We haven’t really done anything lately, but we did do some rock shows at SqueezeBox [at Don Hill’s, the New York club] last year. And the last record we did, Double Vision, we worked on together. It’s sort of an ongoing thing between the two of us, although we’re not really super-active right now.

What do you remember about your teenage years?

At sixteen, I found out about pot, which was unbelievable because nobody did it. I lucked out. I had a girlfriend, Wendy, who was a year older than me and she had an older sister who was a real beatnik painter who lived in New York in a loft on Grand Street on the Lower East Side. She had traveled in Mexico and taken magic mushrooms and smoked pot.

What was it like when you first smoked grass?

I first smoked grass when I was eighteen. It was like an acid trip. I took about three hits off a joint and it lasted for hours and hours and it was great. My whole life just ran in front of me and I realized a lot of things in a flash. I could see a lot of things very clearly. It didn’t answer everything, though. I still had some emotional problems and a lot of pain in my body.

Did you go out with a lot of different guys in high school?

When I was a freshman, my town had these stifled sexual appetites. It was really awful. No matter who you were, if you went out with a lot of guys you would get talked about and people would say you were a whore. It was this big paradox. So I ended up going out with one guy for a couple of months and then another guy for a couple of months. In my junior and senior years, I pretty much had one boyfriend.

Were you attracted to a particular type?

No. But I was really oversexed. Really charged, hot to trot. Later on, when I got my driver’s license, I used to drive up to this sleazy town near Paterson [New Jersey] and would walk up and down this street there called Cunt Mile. I would get picked up and make out with different guys in back seats of cars to get my rocks off, because I was so horny and I couldn’t make out with anybody in my town.

Did you always have this idea of going to New York and becoming a star?

There was quite a big jazz scene in 1965 on the Lower East Side when I moved there. I was into music more and more even though I was painting then. After taking my first acid trip, I started painting sound and decided I wanted to be in music. I hung out with bands and didn’t paint anymore. But I had to learn how to feel good about myself, because I didn’t like myself. To break up these patterns, I had to become what I wanted to be and who I wanted to be, and it took a long time. I felt that I was another person inside and that I wanted to come out, that I was in pain and always depressed and feeling terrible. Sometimes I was uncomfortable within my body. Sometimes I didn’t like to feel at all. That’s why taking drugs had a very strong attraction for me, because it made me bodiless, which is very nice.

When did you first get involved in the music scene?

In 1967. But I was so depressed and so upset, I knew that I would do it wrong and get so far in one direction that it would make people think of me in another way. This happens to many people, like Lou Reed. I knew I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to, so at the end of the sixties I stopped doing music. I had come to a point that seemed like a tunnel. I was at the entrance, and I could either go down into the tunnel and continue or I could take this little winding road off to the side. So from ’69 to ’73, I took a sabbatical.

When you came back out in ’73, what was the first thing you did?

That was the early glitter period when I used to hang around the [New York] Dolls. They were put down by the critics, but they were the pets of the New York scene. That period—T. Rex, Jonathan Richman, the Dolls—was when I jumped back in mentally. I had a little car and used to drive them around, but I was more on the fringes of every thing. When I started performing with the Stilettoes in 1973, my intuition was no one was dancing to rock ‘n’ roll. And that was what the Stilettoes wanted to do—bring back rock dancing.

How did you learn to become a singer?

In the early ’70s, when I was living with a guy who was a musician from when he was four years old. I used to practice all the time with earphones on. I was always going to rehearsals and watching people play, trying to learn about the structure of music. That was my musical training period, and it was really necessary. I knew I had to really learn how to sing more and I had to learn how to sing with all different attitudes. I could only sing in a very soft voice. I could never express a lot of emotion, otherwise I would start to cry, so I could only sing like a nice, sweet girl. I could never really let go, so I would practice shouting and singing as loud as possible whether it sounded good or not.

When you started Blondie, what was your motivation?

I wanted to be successful, but success was not my goal. That was not my obsession. My obsession was actually to just do it and everything else was secondary. I survived the hard times by not being obsessed. I was afraid of not being good enough musically. Blondie were never touted as being musical innovators, but we really had a terrific amount of feeling for the songs and the lyrics we did. They really meant something to us. and we did them with everything we could put into them. That’s what made it happen with the audiences.

How do you reconcile carrying around the enormous shadow of the legend of Blondie?

That’s funny, because to me it’s grossly out of proportion. It’s ridiculous and preposterous, yet it’s totally accurate in relation to what is considered really vital and really valuable in the culture. But it just seems totally absurd to me that I should be considered anything other than another singer. The mythologizing of it is absurd. I was just being a driven, obsessed, star-crazed rock ‘n’ roller, and doing my best to be part of all that, and wanting to say a few things that were relevant at the time, and now it’s gone way out of proportion.

The concept of the youth culture has an awfully powerful effect, which is incredibly fucking misleading. It’s so boring, so incredibly ridiculous, but it controls many people’s lives. They think they better get it done now because when they get to be forty-five they’re not going to have anything.

Where do you see rock heading?

The only place left for rock to go is toward more girl stars. There’s nothing left for men to do. There’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new. What girls are saying is: “Don’t treat me like that, treat me like this.” Which Nancy Sinatra initially did with “These Boots Were Made for Walking”! That’s the sort of predominant attitude. It’s not the same as “Take another little piece of my heart now.” or “Baby love, baby love”—all that kind of gush. It’s giving girls a chance to develop, get to the stage where their style of living and thought is the same [as men’s], not some clandestine activity.

The rules of the game nowadays are: If you can screw somebody and get away with not paying for something and make somebody else pay the price, that’s cool. It’s a horrible, rotten status quo, and it’s not going to get any better by itself. That’s the really bad thing about the downfall of religion. Religion said everybody must be good so that everything would stay in balance. I can look at it like a scientist, but still have respect for the powers that would be gods.

Maybe more ritual would install a sense of order and balance. If the proper ritual is followed it has some kind of electromagnetic implication that further on down the line more and more of your circuits will be completed so that you’ll be able to do more of the things you want, and more of the things you want to happen will happen. This is what magic really is. You should always strive to summon up your own magic on a daily basis.

I’m confused by the Nineties. Historically, the last five years of any decade are supposed to be a fantastic time. But nothing’s happening!

There’s so much information, Victor. People are too aware of history, too informed. There’s going to be a new perception, a new idea of what people are. People will be a different thing. The human race will be a different thing. It will be much more sophisticated and aware of its animal motivation. It’ll become more intellectual.

That’s the greatest non sequitur I’ve heard in a long time: Aware of animal motivations so it will become more intellectual.

The human animal is motivated by food and sex, right? And now, because were so informed about political history—the nature of people going after money, power and sex—everybody’s exposed. There’s no way you can actually do those things without a secretive, animal, clandestine thing. It’s just a different kind of behavior. We’re going to have to be very psychic and slinky.

‘Will you Shut Up?!’

The following conversation between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris was recorded at Harry and Stein’s penthouse apartment on West 58th Street in 1980, when Blondie was the No. 1 rock band in the world. As Harry and Stein lay in bed, we discussed the text for Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie.

CHRIS STEIN [to Debbie]: At the beginning here you definitely should say I experimented with drugs. Everybody knows it. If you leave it out it’s just a fucking whitewash. You say if you didn’t try [drugsl you’d have ended up killing yourself, and yet there’s nothing in the first page to suggest why you’re miserable enough to want to kill yourself.

DEBBIE HARRY: I was miserable. I just thought that’s the way everybody was.

CS: If you don’t say you took drugs and you were depressed and you couldn’t sing and you couldn’t talk… if you don’t put the negative side in, it just comes off like a normal life.

DH: It was normal. Why don’t you put in the nitty-gritty about life then, Chris?

CS: [switching the subject] This stuff on writing a popular song is a little

DH: The method of writing a hit song is to fucking die and then come alive again. Just experience as much pain as possible, then you could write a hit song right. Get Four Stella D’Oro breadsticks and a big jar of Vaseline and wait for the full moon in Cancer on a warm night and go down to the street and ram the breadsticks up your ass and then lie down in front of the taxicab so it runs over your stomach and makes the sticks into crumbs. Then belch, throw them all up, take the breadcrumbs and cook them into a cookie and mail it to Ahmet Ertegun. After he eats the cookie, you bring in your tape. This is the magical formula. Or, get a big jar of peanut butter and plug it into the wall. Spread it all over your face while you’re holding onto an electrical wire. Rent a twenty-dollar-per-month one-room apartment without a bathroom, lock yourself in with a year’s supply of Dexedrine and just sit there and never sleep and just bang on the guitar. Then, at the end of the year, just take the last three minutes of the session and that’ll do it. Guaranteed hit.

VB: When you started Blondie, did you think it was going to be a big, international sensation?

DH: Not at first. Things were picking up gradually, but everything was so burned out at the time I never thought, Wow! A hundred people are coming to see me, I’m making it. At that time, who cared? New York wasn’t a place for live entertainment, except in cabarets. At first, we played around sporadically. Our first drummer used to pass out from anxiety. At the most important moment when we really needed him to play he would pass out. He was always lying on the dressing room floor after drinking half a glass of champagne. That’s when we played at Brandy’s. The biggest song we did was “Lady Marmalade.” One night, this girl Maud Frank the Third came in and invited us to play at her townhouse for a party for the Equestrian Club. This was more or less Blondie.

CS: They offered us two hundred dollars, so we jumped at it.

DH: We got more than that!

CS: The thing was, we were only supposed to play three sets.

DH: We got FUCKING FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS upfront, then we said: For a thousand we’ll play all night.

CS: You’re out of your brain!

DH: I am not out of my brain.

CS: Are you just making this up? [To VB] She doesn’t have a real good head for details, believe me.

VB: (To DH] You mean this is just a little fantasy in your mind?

DH: We did it for more than two hundred dollars.

CS: We got two hundred dollars for fucking three sets is the way I remember it, and then they said, Well, play one more time and we’ll give you another hundred dollars. We came out with three hundred or three-fifty. I certainly don’t remember getting a thousand dollars—for anything at that period!

DH: Well, I guess you’re right.

VB: You only had a couple of songs. How could you play all night?

DH: Victor, what are you talking about? You don’t even know what our repertoire was. We did “Poor Fool.” We did Tina Turner songs. We did “Narcissima” and….

CS: We didn’t do any of those songs! We never did “Narcissima.” C’mon, Debbie.

DH: I’m beat now.

CS: So shut up! Why don’t you watch TV? [To VB] The thing is, when we played at Brandy’s we did cover material like “The Little Tootsie Roll Song” and “Honeybee.”

DH: The early disco stuff that came out in ’73 and ’74 more or less overlapped into Blondie. We just jammed out.

VB: So you really were drawing an audience that early on?

CS: Around this time Patti Smith said to Debbie: I love you, come away with me. We’ll live as lesbos. Let’s stick our tongues down each others’ throats. Shall we put that in?

VB: [To DH] Why can’t you just tell the story that Patti Smith came up to you and told you to get out of rock ‘n ‘roll?

DH: ’Cause it’s tacky.

CS: Yeah, just leave it out.

DH: Just say around this time people came up to me and told me to get out of rock ’n’ roll. Patti wasn’t the only one. I was pretty horrible. I deserved to be told to get out of rock ’n’ roll. I was pathetic. Horrible and pathetic. I was very shy and stiff.

VB: You weren’t good enough for rock ‘n’ roll?

CS: No, that didn’t have anything to do with it. Everybody knew she was too good-looking and she was a threat. Our bass player Fred’s last show was Jungle Night when Debbie, Tish and Snooky dressed up as jungle girls.

DH: We all wore leather thongs. Fred quit that night.

CS: He didn’t really quit.

DH: He quit.

CS: He didn’t.

DH: He stopped playing, didn’t he?

CS: Well, he ran off the stage.

DH: For God’s sake, when did he quit?

CS: He ran into the street in the middle of a song because the set was so horrible and disgusting.

DH: It was always disgusting! To say we were a garage band was a compliment, because we were a gutter band. We were a sewer band. We were disgusting.

CS: But all this stuff about us being shattered and blown out wasn’t any more than usual.

DH: You know that’s true, Chris! It’s true! It was so, because all we did was lay in bed for a while.

CS: What are we doing now?

DH: That’s all you ever do!

CS: That’s all we ever do.

DH: Bullshit! It was a new thing to me then. I wasn’t into it then. I had a day job.

CS: Shut up! [To VB] Just say that Fred quitting really ripped the bottom out from underneath us. Period.

DH: It ripped the bottom out from underneath me!

CS: Will you shut up?

DH: Because it meant the bass part went out.

CS: Stop it! There’s not much tape left. Please! I don’t want to do this if you’re going to keep carrying on, Debbie!

DH: [In a very small voice] Sorry.

CS: You gotta shut up and stop it! If you don’t, I’ll kick your fucking ass! Now shut up. Watch Meteor on TV. Look, look!

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