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Face It by Debbie Harry review rock ‘n’ roll stories to burn

Taking heroin, being flashed by David Bowie, and punk-pop brilliance but in this long-awaited memoir the Blondie singer remains mysterious to the last

When Blondies singer, Debbie Harry, was crafting her image as a pop star in the mid-70s, she looked first to cinema. Her love of cartoon fantasy figures led her to Barbarella, as portrayed by Jane Fonda in the Roger Vadim film, though her biggest influence was Marilyn Monroe, who she recognised was playing a character, the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and the big-girl body a woman playing a mans idea of a woman. As the only woman in an all-male band, Harry knew she had to make her mark. With her peroxide hair, thrift-store clothes and expression that sat somewhere between a pout and a sneer, she was a pin-up with a subversive streak: My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up yet I was very serious.

In Face It, Harry, who is now 74, outlines the influences and events that led to her rise to fame. Written with the music writer Sylvie Simmons, the memoir is based on a series of lengthy interviews, which makes for a conversational style, though anyone looking for an excavation of the soul might be disappointed. Harry has rock n roll stories to burn but the memoir as a confessional isnt her style. For the most part, the Blondie character remains.

The music, which merged punk rock with pop sensibilities, is only part of the picture; having been awarded the title best-looking girl in her school yearbook, Harry knew the value of her attractiveness early on, and later created an industry around her image. It was she, for instance, who saw an upturned car on a New York street and, rather than moving on, declared it ideal for a photoshoot. Before designers were lining up to work with her, she would find a pillowcase and turn it into a stage outfit; later, years before Lady Gagas meat dress, she would step out in a gown made of razorblades. Harry was driven not by a quest for fame but for creativity. Ultimately for me, she notes, its the overwhelming need to have my entire life be an imaginative out-of-body experience.

We learn how, having been given up for adoption at three months old, Harry was raised by her adoptive parents in New Jersey. Before Blondie took off, she worked variously as a model, a secretary at the BBCs New York office, a waitress and a Playboy bunny, all the while trying to figure out her next move. When she first moved to New York, she wanted to be a painter but, after seeing the likes of Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground and, later, the New York Dolls, she decided music was her calling. Harry joined and left various bands including the Stilettos, through which she met Chris Stein, who would become her principal collaborator as the guitarist in Blondie, her partner for the next 13 years and, after their split, one of her dearest friends.

Debbie
Caustic and funny. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in New York, 1980 Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum

Early on, Harry offers a vivid portrait of a seedy, bohemian scene in late-60s New York in which drugs were part of your social life, part of the creative process, chic and fun and really just there. No one thought about the consequences. Describing her first encounter with heroin with her then-boyfriend, she recalls: It was so delicious and delightful For those times when I wanted to blank out parts of my life or when I was dealing with some depression, there was nothing better than heroin. Nothing.

A similar matter-of-factness runs through her recollections of the man who approached her and Stein one night outside their front door and threatened them with a knife. When they said they didnt have any money, he insisted on accompanying them into their apartment. There he tied up Stein and Harry while he piled up their guitars and amps by the front door. He then untied Harry and raped her. I cant say that I felt a lot of fear, she recalls. Im very glad this happened pre-Aids or I might have freaked. In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape.

Her account of the incident indicates the somewhat detached tone of this memoir. Whether reflecting on her fruitless search for her birth parents, or the New Jersey ex-boyfriend who stalked her and threatened her with a gun, or the close shave with a man who offered her a lift, and whom she believes to have been the serial killer Ted Bundy, Harry allows no room for shock, sadness or vulnerability. This is, of course, the authors prerogative and doesnt mean that the book is without depth or charm. She can be caustic and funny, and is drily unfazed by the antics of her mostly male peers. While on tour with Iggy Pop and David Bowie, the latter flashes his penis at Harry in the dressing room as if I were the official cock checker or something. Noting Bowies generously proportioned appendage, she is moved to wonder why Iggy didnt let me have a closer look at his dick.

As her star rises in the late 1970s, towering cultural figures drift in and out of her orbit, among them Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol. While playing a series of shows in LA, she and Stein are invited to meet Phil Spector at his mansion. He greets them with a Colt 45 in one hand and a bottle of Manischewitz [kosher wine] in the other. Elsewhere, there are forays into film she played a neglected wife in Marcus Reicherts Union City, and Velma Von Tussle in John Waterss Hairspray. She and Stein were keen to re-make the 1965 film Alphaville, and even bought the rights from its director Jean-Luc Godard for a thousand dollars. Only later did they learn that they werent his to sell.

By the early 1980s, band relations were fraught. A last-minute tour cancellation because of Steins ill health (he was later diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease) was the final straw and Blondie fell apart. Shortly afterwards, they discovered they had accrued two years worth of unpaid taxes, prompting Harry to lose her house, her car and even some of her clothes. Swallowing her fury, and having nursed Stein back to health, she got back to work.

Inevitably, Harrys tales of her solo ventures and Blondies eventual reunion lack the atmosphere and excitement of the early years, and its with more than a little awkwardness that she shoehorns in details of her current day-to-day life to spice things up. Could my routines reveal further insight into what makes me tick? she asks, treating us to her morning schedule of letting the dogs out and making coffee, to which the answer is: no.

But when not resorting to padding, Face It makes for an engaging and occasionally surprising read. Its a shame that Harry passes up the chance to dig deeper into her experiences of objectification and the nature of fame, but more disappointing is that we learn so little about her interior life, and how she really thinks and feels. Perhaps thats to be expected from a notoriously private star with such an acute understanding of image. Rather than expose her inner workings to the world, Harry has determined to stay mysterious to the last.

Face It by Debbie Harry is published by HarperCollins (RRP 20) To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/03/face-it-debbie-harry-memoir-review

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