Blondie’s Debbie Harry decided to write a book before she forgot it all
Blondie's leader is still cooler than you are.
When Debbie Harry was working on her new memoir Face It, the woman who has fronted Blondie for four and half decades considered a number of different titles.
First, she thought about Tempered Glass. That would have played off “Heart of Glass,” the band’s 1979 No. 1 hit.
It would have worked because tempered glass is “tougher than its brothers and sisters,” she writes. “And that would be me. Tempered to take the hits without flying into dangerous pieces.”
The title doesn’t trip off the tongue, so the next under consideration was Perfect Punk. That seemed good to the 74-year-old singer and actress after researching the word “punk.”
Harry, who grew up in Passaic County in North Jersey, found a possible origin from Unami, an Algonquin language local to the Garden State. The definition means “wood so decayed as to be useful for tinder to light a fire. A touchwood.”
Harry, whose band burst into fame — along with the Ramones, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads — out of burned-out 1970s New York, liked this option. She sees Blondie as punk at heart, even though though the band never wore the label like a badge.
“Blondie never claimed to be punk,” she says, speaking from her Manhattan home after completing her morning routine of reading while having coffee in bed. (That day’s book is Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind.)
“But if you were really knowledgeable about the scene that we came out of, it was really about doing something different than what was popular at the time. That was the idea of being punk. It wasn’t a musical reference. It was more of an attitude reference.”
But instead Harry decided on Face It (Dey Street, $32.50), in part because she knew the process would involve confronting her past. “Ultimately,” she says, “I felt like it was the time to do it before I forgot everything.”
But the book, written “in collaboration with” music writer Sylvie Simmons, is also called Face It because Harry’s face was once one of the world’s most photographed.
At Blondie’s peak — when the band was scoring hits like “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Call Me,” and “The Tide is High” — Harry was an A-list celebrity depicted by artists like Andy Warhol. For decades, fan artists have been sending creations to Harry, who included reproductions of scores of them in the book.
Today Harry is a stylish septuagenarian still skilled at provocation. On tour last year in support of the band’s excellent 2018 album Pollinator, she made her environmental activism known with a trench coat emblazoned with the words: “Stop [Expletive] the Planet.”
This summer, Blondie — led as always by Harry and her former romantic partner Chris Stein, who wrote Face It’s introduction — was an impressive opening act for Elvis Costello on tour.
In a nod to its 1980 hit “Rapture,” which expanded the boundaries of hip-hop at the time, the band covered Lil Nas X’s country-rap hit “Old Town Road,” and roasted President Donald Trump with the theme song from From Russia with Love.
In the ‘70s, Harry was the New Wave glamour queen, a peroxide blonde self-described “punk pinup” in the era immediately before MTV and Madonna exponentially altered the celebrity pop music equation.
Like the recently deceased Ric Ocasek of the Cars — whom she calls “such a sweet man” — Harry paid her dues before becoming a household face.
A working-class Jersey girl who was adopted at 3 months old, Harry graduated from what was then Centenary College in Hackettstown before moving to Manhattan with the intention of becoming an artist.
She worked as a secretary in the New York office of the BBC (where Muhammad Ali once dropped in) and as a waitress at famed rock club Max’s Kansas City (where she waited on Miles Davis). She was briefly a Playboy bunny.
Harry played in a variety of bands, including Wind in the Willows, a late 1960s downtown Manhattan folk ensemble. She sang in the female trio the Stilettos, a band that had its own artistic director, who taught her the art of “Method Singing.”
That band’s guitarist was Stein, with whom she formed Blondie. The band’s propulsive rock was powered up when ace drummer Clem Burke joined.
The band’s name was inspired by the catcalls she would get walking down the street — as well as the star of the Chic Young comic strip.
Harry says she was always conscious of playing a role.
Her friend Iggy Pop — for whom Blondie opened on its first tour, with David Bowie in his band — called it “Barbarella on speed.” (One risqué anecdote involves Bowie exposing himself to her backstage, a gesture she brushed off with a profane quip. On the phone, she expresses regret she didn’t get to see Pop’s privates, too.)
“Rock was a very masculine business in the mid-seventies," Harry writes. “To be an artistic, assertive women in girl drag, not boy drag, was then an act of transgression. I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game. ... My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.”
Face It has its dark side, too. “Memory, what did you do to the fun times?” Harry asks herself.
“It didn’t turn out to be quite the book that I thought it would be,” she says. “I would like to tell more anecdotal little stories about people and nights out and, you know, be a little less introspective. So maybe I’ll squeeze another one out.”
Several near-death experiences are recounted. One from 1972 finds her walking across downtown Manhattan and accepting a ride from a driver who tried to abduct her — she’s convinced he was Ted Bundy (the serial killer is not known to have been in New York at the time and the website Snopes has cast doubt on whether it could have been the serial killer).
Another is a harrowing story of a robbery at Harry and Stein’s apartment after a show at CBGB’s. A knife-wielding assailant tied them both up and raped Harry, also stealing the band’s equipment. Harry is surprisingly matter of fact in telling the story, writing “I can’t say I felt a lot of fear.... In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape. I mean, we had no equipment.”
Looking back, Harry says, “maybe that became a linchpin in my performance. That I used that rage. I don’t know, I don’t really feel anything about that now. I think for women who are assaulted, a rape combined with an assault is much more serious to deal with.
"And I wasn’t assaulted. I was threatened with a knife, and the dirty deed was done. And then it was over. I was victimized and I’m angry and all of the emotions, and I cried, and I talked to Chris. But I wasn’t brutalized and I think that for women who are brutalized it’s much, much more serious.”
Face It recounts Blondie’s beginning in terse, to-the-point prose. A drive to Coney Island in a blue 1967 Camaro is described like this: “There was a strip of garages in a burned-out area sort of across the street at the Wonder Wheel end that had people selling cool things for almost nothing. Which was good, because nothing is what we had, aside from youth, desire, love and music.”
Face It is particularly good at nailing what it’s like when a band’s popularity takes off and the members find themselves in a whirlwind, trying to top themselves artistically: “The lesson really was the same as it ever was: survive and find a way to create while you’re hurtling through space.”
“It was an amazing time,” Harry says. “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I don’t live with a lot of regret. I know how lucky I’ve been, and I got to do something with my life that I never, never expected to have happen. I had big dreams, but I had no real connection to the music business or the art world or show business and I was just basically winging it. Initially, it was just wish-fulfillment.”