What Debbie Harry's Memoir Reveals About Her Gripping Life Story
The Blondie front-woman's book 'Face It' is so engrossing that you don’t mind how little she says about the music, finds Helen Brown
"Fame,” says Debbie Harry, “felt like having sex, a wash of electricity coursing through your fingers and up your legs, sometimes a flushed feeling at the base of your throat.”
On stage with Blondie, she felt the heat of “5000 people pulsing their desire at me” and worked hard to “turn them on even more” in a “frenzied feedback cycle”. I’ve never read a rock memoir so unsqueamishly frank and celebratory about the role sex plays in the whole star/fan transaction.
But the frontwoman of Blondie — a band that scored six No 1 UK hits, including Heart of Glass, and sold 40 million records from 1976 on — is as curious as the rest of us.
Born Angela Tremble in Florida, in 1945, she traces her need for electric connection back to a childhood that saw her spend only three months with her birth mother (a musician) before she was adopted by a kindly, strait-laced couple from the New Jersey suburbs.
A doctor, examining the newly renamed baby “Deborah”, told her parents to “watch out for that one, she has bedroom eyes”. Harry has a lifelong craving for a taste (almost peanut butter, a little coconut) that she suspects was her birth mother’s breast milk.
She describes a relatively friendless childhood, creeping out to the woods to play alone: “dig a hole, poke an anthill, make something, or roller skate”. Deliberately spooking herself with thoughts of the “scary folk skulking in the bushes”, she let her creepy imagination run wild. Then she would sneak into the coal store, blackening her preppy clothes, marvelling at the furnace.
“Over time,” she writes, “I learnt to create compression in my body as a singer, I could see myself as a combustion engine ... Singing is hot and wet, and you can take that any way you want.”
The young Harry loved movies, loud music, fashion and boys. She writes about the first flasher she encountered, when she was 8 (“he made me feel like a fly on the edge of a spiderweb”), and the first boy who followed her home (she will never forget the pain on his face when he overheard her describing him as the class freak).
She was drawn to danger, but “not dangerous myself — yet”. She soon found that she loved sex. “I think I might have been oversexed, but I didn’t have a problem with that; I felt it was totally natural.”
After two years of college, she hightailed it to New York, where she met (and dishes up great anecdotes about) almost everyone on the late 60s, early 70s underground scene. She describes the thrill and squalor of sex, drugs and violence with a punk deadpan.
Despite — or perhaps because of — her underlying anxiety, Harry appears relatively untraumatised by having been stalked, raped and filmed naked without her consent. She was more bothered when a man, who she believes was Ted Bundy, attempted to abduct her.
These horrific assaults are relayed as part of life in a feral, rat-infested city where the bins were on fire.
While other female rockers — like her hero, Janis Joplin, or Patti Smith — channelled a macho swagger, Harry created a hyper-feminine (she increasingly suspects transsexual) persona for Blondie. She channelled Marilyn Monroe (who she liked to fantasise was her mother): a dumb blonde act with serious smarts behind it.
“To be an artistic, assertive woman in girl drag, not boy drag, was then an act of transgression,” she writes. “I was saying things in songs that female singers didn’t really say back then. I wasn’t submissive, or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass.” In Picture This (1978), she sang that her finest hour was spent watching a lover in the shower.
The more she was photographed and objectified, the more she subverted that male gaze. She says it helped that she didn’t become famous until she was on the brink of her 30s, when she was old enough to know that “sex is what makes everything happen”.
The Blondie story is also, of course, the story of Harry’s 13-year romance (now friendship) with guitarist Chris Stein. She is honest about their drug use and heartbreaking about Stein’s near-death experience with a rare autoimmune disease in the early 80s. Harry implies — but doesn’t say — that it was Stein who ended their relationship on the day Andy Warhol died in 1989, seven years after Blondie broke up for the first time before reforming in 1997.
There’s also not a lot about music. Which is fine. Harry’s strange, sad, funny and rebellious personal story is more than gripping enough for one book.
There’s sadness towards the end, when Harry traces her biological parents, only to find her mother wants nothing to do with her, and her father is dead. Her half-brothers did not want contact either. Perhaps that feeds into her “obsessive” need to destroy evidence of her existence: she flushes nail clippings and hairs down the lavatory.
But then there’s a description of a drive during which she feels a lifetime of sorrow slip away. She finds a protein drink that captures something of that “lost” taste. And, in her 70s, she is happier than she has ever been: “at heart, still a New York punk”.
By the end of this book, unusually for a rock memoir, I grew to really like — not just revere — the author.
Face It by Debbie Harry, Harper Collins, $44, ebook $26
— The Daily Telegraph