Debbie Harry has a reputation for being a prickly interviewee — terse and aloof when she’s not in the mood. At 65, and after nearly 40 years in the music business, this is probably her prerogative. When Sunday Times journalist Lynn Barber interviewed her a few months ago, she got so many one-word answers she was reduced to describing Harry as “a plump granny” — probably the first time one of American pop’s great icons has been likened to a grandmother.
Technically, she is old enough, but the Harry who enters the restaurant of a London riverside hotel, carrying a bowl of fruit salad she started eating upstairs in her room, isn’t grannyish by any stretch. She’s wearing a clash of orange blouse, blue satin necktie, lace-up boxer’s boots, candyfloss platinum hair, with — the only visible concession to age — a pince-nez on a chain around her neck. Given her sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in the 1970s, the years have left a light imprint.
“I don’t know if I ever thought I’d live to be 65,” she says wryly, then changes her mind. “I thought I’d live to a ripe old age, because I always felt there was a lot to do. I had a driven feeling. I always thought in the present.” Her speaking voice is like her singing voice, surprisingly youthful and airy, and despite the early start, Harry is in a talkative mood. The first new Blondie album since 2003 is out this month, and after eight years spent doing this and that — a solo album, jazz gigs, an AIDS campaign — the singer seems more than ready to reacquaint herself with the fuss Blondie still generate.
And the fuss is considerable. When Harry appeared on Desert Island Discs at the weekend, Kirsty Young told her: “It’s a strange feeling to be sitting opposite an icon. When I was younger, I wasted 10 years wanting to be Debbie Harry.” As did many other women who first encountered her in Blondie’s late-1970s heyday: a raving beauty, terrifically stylish, artfully appropriating both punk and vintage. Put this together with Blondie’s mix of 1960s girl-pop and new wave up-yours attitude, and Harry was irresistible; the album generally deemed the band’s best, 1978’s Parallel Lines, produced five hit singles, including the worldwide No. 1 Heart of Glass. “We were pounding along, muddling along, trying to build a reputation and repertoire,” is how Harry remembers those early days now. “Our first real paying gig was in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. We got the princely sum of US$500.”
Still, how does it feel to be an icon? American rock photographer Bob Gruen recently described Harry as “the Marilyn Monroe of her generation.” “Iconic?” she echoes. “I guess so. But the word ‘iconic’ is used too frequently — an icon is a statue carved in wood. It was shocking at first, when I got that reference. It was a responsibility, and it’s impossible to live up to — you’re supposed to be dead, for one thing.” By her own estimation, Harry isn’t famous enough to be an icon: “I’m still sort of a cult figure. I’m not J-Lo, I’m not in the gossip mags and USA Today. Sometimes I’m in the New York Post.”
Yet if Harry hadn’t existed, neither, arguably, would Madonna, or Lady Gaga, whose chart-pop is similarly loaded with ideas about image, art and sexuality. So she is right about the responsibility that goes with her status — people have expectations. She does her best to meet them: Later that day, at an album launch party, she gives a lesson in what it means to give good “presence.” At one end of the room there is a surrealist painting by Dutch artist Chris Berens, blown up to 2.5m high, also the cover of Blondie’s new album, Panic of Girls. After keeping an industry crowd waiting for an hour, Harry is shepherded in by her publicist, then steps in front of the splashy picture and simply stands alone, motionless, as the room goes silent. It could look ridiculous — small blonde lady hanging around in front of big painting — but it’s not. She emanates charisma.