“I hated my looks as a kid but I could not stop staring.” So says Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It. Well, yes – who could ever stop staring at this extraordinarily beautiful woman? I certainly couldn’t and it is impossible to talk about Harry without discussing her appearance. Thankfully, Harry doesn’t try. Mostly she stands at some distance from herself chatting about how she put together her look. She is always visually hyper-aware. She learns how to be photographed and wonders whether if it’s true that photos steal a part of your soul – for if so she wouldn’t have a soul left. From early on she is seeking to control her image but perhaps it’s only now that she is doing so.
The book has a needless, hippyish introduction from Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist and resident photographer and Harry’s former lover. Harry needs no such introduction but it’s a reminder that she and Stein are from the LSD-dabbling generation that the nascent British punk scene so deeply rejected. It is worth remembering just how puritanical parts of punk were.
As punk as Harry is – actually pure punk – she is the one who meets, through her boyfriend’s mum, Timothy Leary and Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen. She somehow always manages to be in the midst of where the culture shifts. Sometimes she is fully present, sometimes strung out on heroin, sometimes clearly in need of protection. Stein provided that for her, but if you want more lowdown on their relationship, it’s not really here. They would always end up in bed after a photo session, which hardly seems surprising.
Harry writes with a certain cool, at times a Warholian blankness. Occasionally she is slightly ditzy. There are long passages about who she met – to be frank, just about everybody. One day she is serving Miles Davis as a waitress, another she is having a meeting with Jean-Luc Godard. Or she is buying a work off Basqiuat in his first ever sale. Or Bowie is pulling his cock out. Or she is going to rap gigs in 1977. Or even more weirdly she is a secretary for the BBC, excited to meet Malcolm Muggeridge and Alistair Cooke.
Then every so often she pulls out a sentence of absolute self-knowledge. She recalls traumatic events which make us reel but are totally recognisable to any woman who chose to go her own way.
From an early age she attracts unwanted sexual attention. A man masturbates at her when she is eight. She claims to have been approached by Buddy Rich when she was 11 or 12. She is beaten, stalked, threatened with guns. Apartments burn down. She drives her car into a river. She gets away from a man that she later recognises as Ted Bundy. At home she and Stein are tied up by an intruder and she is raped at knife-point. Harry is mostly upset that the rapist stole the guitars and the band has no equipment.
What drives her is not clear as she is a reluctant memoirist. Her honesty about sex and drugs is a relief. Unusually for a sex symbol, she actually likes sex. Her observations on heroin are acute: some people, she writes, take drugs not to feel more but to feel less.
Fame, the intense high of Blondie’s global success, from “X Offender” in 1976 to “Rapture” in 1981, is like electricity. She feels it sensually but anticlimatically. The band is defined by her image, regardless of her or their wishes. Blondie as a name was meant to be about the double standard, a play on the whole dumb blonde thing and a homage to her beloved Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Harry was not brought up by her birth mother, and she identifies with Monroe’s need for love. Harry claims to remember the trauma of being separated from her mother at three months. All she wants is a picture of where she came from, feeling so often afraid and different.
What she understands brilliantly is that she herself was in “girl drag”. Monroe, she says, was a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman. Harry did not adopt the masculine look like Patti Smith. She is resolutely female and was heavily criticised for this. But seriously, who else could wear a pillow case as a dress the way she did?
At the time, however, I think us girls did get it. No one else could be Harry. Now ordinary girls look at beautiful celebrities and feel inadequate or try to emulate them. With Harry we just bathed in her light.
I remember a gig in the late 1970s which was a bunch of male musicians telling the audience to fuck off in various ways. Each of them would go on to became famous, though it was quite boring. Then someone put “Hanging on the Telephone” on and all us girls started jumping around. It was a revolt into pleasure and melody and female frustration. Harry did not write that song but she made it hers. And ours.
John Waters, who cast Harry in Hairspray, once said she turned her back and Madonna stole her career. He was referring to the time she was nursing Stein, who was very ill in the 1980s. I don’t agree. Harry has done it her way. The book is full of fan art, which is surely part of her looking at her own image and owning it.
Still she remains aloof, made of steel but strangely maternal to all around her. She likes a cigarette these days and appears to be having more fun than at the height of her career. Fame, she says, was about wanting to make things happen – Harry did that all right, with her off-kilter dancing, her ability to radiate cool, her sheer presence.
She is one magnificent broad. The worship continues.
Face It: A Memoir
HarperCollins, 368pp, £20
This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries