Debbie Harry had wanted to become an actor. It’s no surprise that her glamorous image reads more from the book of Hollywood, than rock. Debbie , once said of Marilyn Monroe, “I wanted to be like her—that’s why I decided to dye my hair.” The legendary rocker was adopted at a young age and has said that, as a child, she fantasized that Monroe was her mother. Fittingly, Harry is now often referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of Punk. This metaphor extends beyond the concept of two pop culture icons that share the same platinum crown. Debbie, like Marilyn, unabashedly wore her sexuality as the vanguard of her leading-woman appeal. As Marilyn revolutionized the way sex was viewed in the uptight 50’s era of shame, Debbie challenged the ‘Good Girl’ image that women in music had during the early 70’s. Both stars had an influence that reached far beyond entertainment into the realm of groundbreaking feminism that was, at once unapologetically beautiful and rebellious, yet highly intellectual and mysterious. In both cases, their attempts at anonymity only made them more iconographic.
Marilyn tested the limits of her day by refusing to play “dumb blonde” roles, walking out on her contract and changing the system for every female actor to follow. She was determined that the facade of her public persona was not what defined her artistry. Like Marilyn, despite fame, Debbie had no hesitation about rebuking the machine of traditional star power to pursue artistry and control over her destiny. “ my goal in life was to be an artist, and if that meant sacrificing certain things, than being a star was really not worth it to me”. Forty years later, with unparalleled successes and the reuniting of “Blondie’, Debbie Harry’s fierce self-confidence remains an inspiration to other musicians, artists and fashion designers alike.
CHRISTINA LESSA: As a young teenager I moved to NY and had a punk boyfriend; he always had his finger on the pulse. He came in one night and woke me up so that I could hear Rapture. I was too young then to fully appreciate his enthusiasm, but now its clear. Blondie had just curated one of the most important moments in 20st Century pop music, the introduction of rap to the commercial audience, the beginning of a cross cultural revolution.
DEBBIE HARRY: If it hadn’t been for Chris Stein we would never have done that. We would have never done rapture. I don’t think a lot of people really knew what it was. We weren’t deeply immersed in one particular area. We were sort of an art band because we were experimental. Chris and I both come from that kind of thinking. Crossover was a new kind of expression meaning to combine different senses of logic in music. I hate to use the word revolutionary, but it certainly was a different approach. I think obviously it’s part of everyday thinking now, but credit where credit is due, Chris really had the vision or the fortitude to experiment and I think that it is pretty obvious today. Back then it was met with a lot of mixed feelings.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think that was part of the intrigue…it was uncomfortable, but at the same time we all sensed that it was a game changer.
DEBBIE HARRY: I felt that was parallel to folk music. The rap scene. That it was la voix pop, the voice of the people. It was a different voice. It was a voice of complaint, of talking about ego, of talking about their struggle. It was really like the folk music of the 60’s. I think that that was a really vital difference in what traditionally was black music. In the blues there was a hint of that and perhaps a musical hint of that in jazz. And then it sort of all coalesced into rap. Rap has a really long history of being a sort of secret language. Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali and maybe James Brown a little bit..they all had a hand in it. It certainly was a birth or evolution.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Last night I watched a Smithsonian Documentary on the Making of Parallel Lines/Blondie’s New York, which is now often referred to as the greatest rock album of all time. It just blew me away. I never imagined the amount of rigor involved in the process of making that album. Watching producer Mike Chapman behave in this sort of role as a conductor was just fascinating. Having that glimpse into the band striving for perfect timing and double or triple doing your parts manually, redoing them multiple time as the occasion demanded, using intellectual ideas to guide your art without the technology that’s available today. It was the perfect depiction of the making of a work of great art…and… doing it in a New York City that would be unrecognizable today. This singular album was a moment in cultural history that still has an impact 40 years later.
DEBBIE HARRY: Well, I think that we were truly immersed in the scene. And the scene was vibrant and very, very creative in a lot of different ways. All the different kinds of music and kinds of art and especially, I don’t know if you’d call it public art, but it certainly is art of the street. That was a great time, in a way it was very much like the period of Toulouse Lautrec who was fascinated by the underground scene because that has a real street quality to it. Again this was directed by younger people that were struggling. It was an art movement but it was also an anti-art movement. Back then you had full neighborhoods of artists in NYC trying out different ideas. Making Parallel Lines, and all of those hit tracks was the product of our life experience of that time. None of us knew that it would become what it did.
CHRISTINA LESSA: FLATT’s mission is one of arts support and the use of art to further missions of philanthropy. Do you have an opinion about that?
DEBBIE HARRY: As someone in the public eye, talking about things, saying what you’re supporting and interested in and appearing for different causes is really important. It definitely helps a lot. It helps the people who are dedicating their time to whatever program and charity it is. It vitalizes people to respond. It really calls attention to things.
It does it in a giving way, an entertaining way. As a person who wants to be a part of things or to help the process, it’s a little frustrating because there are so many really important things to do. I have great respect for people who are very effective in one direction, who have chosen one particular thing and really focus on that. One of those people is Elton John. He’s done a lot in AIDS and in cancer. And also the MAC Corporation has done a tremendous amount for AIDS, for years. They have the Viva Glam Program. They put out every year a lipstick with all profits dedicated to that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You recently said “the issues of humanity and what is fair and good treatment of fellow humans should not really be based on a personal sense of right and wrong or judgment. Morality should have to do with killing people, hurting them or stealing from them. When it comes to adult choices, I don’t see it.” I think this is something that we struggle with globally. This is a huge topic and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
DEBBIE HARRY: I think my quote says pretty much all of it. Most of it is the result of bad politics. I am highly suspect of why people go into politics as a business basically. It’s worldwide and people are suffering greatly in may different ways. I think because of globalization everyone is aware of everybody else. There aren’t any areas that are so remote that their not aware of what’s going on in Pakistan or Africa of Somalia. Everybody is aware of everything. We have a lot of room here for change.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You said “I have a lot of regrets but I’m not going to think of them as regrets.” I love this quote. What advice would you give young artists who are coming up now if you could tell them a few things.
DEBBIE HARRY: I think the world is such a different place now. It seems like because of the Internet a lot of people are confusing themselves in a way. They think that they are doing art, but it’s a taste of it. Sort of like when you are a kid and you make little drawings and it doesn’t go any further than that. Living your life regardless of anything else, whether you have any kind of security or comforts and just knowing that you have no choice but to do art or be an artist. I don’t think it goes to everybody. Some people know that they are artists from the time that they are three years old. I think that to be able to get to a point where it’s so internal, your expression is so connected to your psyche, and it has nothing to do with anything that’s popular or accepted or already been done. This is not easy. Artists really struggle with that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I am particularity interested in the concept that everyone thinks that it can happen overnight. It does have a lot to do with the web. If you put it out there, then it must be important because you have an instant audience. In addition to that, we’re constantly being entertained with very little room to think independent thoughts.
DEBBIE HARRY: That is part of the problem because people are never left alone to stew in their own juices and that kind of ripening is missing in today’s world. Everything is ‘do it’ and ‘get it out.’ Because of technology, we have the ability to do that but it doesn’t necessarily complete a thought process. You may be talking to the wrong person about this because thought processes have changed and people are better informed. Perhaps I can’t really speak to that in a way because my growth has been according to a different sense of time. That’s very fascinating. Time is such a fascinating thing. You look at what the scientists say about time and what the philosophers say about the illusion of time, it’s very complicated and beyond me to express even.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I really respect and appreciate what you’re saying about how each individual experience is a unique one. There’s nothing we can do to stop this process. What will be produced and left as evidence of this time will be. We work with a lot of art historians and FLATT promotes scientific and technological work so we hear a lot of differing opinions on the subject. No one really knows what will become of this instantaneous work that is spit out on the spot.
DEBBIE HARRY: Science at work is amazing. The thing that I always find interesting is the guy or the girl who is sitting in the lab year after year, hour after hour, doing experiments and just repeating this process to you know make a discovery and to complete a thought. That is an art. That kind of dedication is mind-boggling because they are sitting there practically in the dark. If they get some kind of endowment or are connected with the university that helps them but there are always on sort of tender hooks whether their funding is going to continue. As an artist or performer I get a certain amount of applause or gratification even in the beginning when I was nobody. I don’t know if those people actually benefit from that, so it has to come from some really intense dedication or interest. It doesn’t have much to do with the payoff.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think a lot of visual artists experience that same process. It’s one of the reasons FLATT exists to give support to this process. As you said there are people who are born to be an artist and that’s it and we don’t really appreciate the value of that here and the fact that these are the individuals who but beauty and intellect into our lives. Andy Warhol was someone like that. It seems he was a defining figure for you.“Blondie learned their Andy Warhol lessons well: They made pop art out of pop music, tripping us all out with the universal language of fun and turning fifteen minutes of fame into something eternal and blessed.”
DEBBIE HARRY: I have said this many times before. I thought that he was a genius. He did something that was crossover: he took graphic art and technical art and he merged it with fine art. This was, in part, the basic philosophy and theory of pop art.
Andy Warhol, part of his genius, was that he was a very good listener. Most people are expounding and talking about their ideas, Andy, he listened.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I parallel the way he put things together to you actually. I think about the way you put glamour and sensuality together with the genre of punk mixed with a little bit of this and that. You were melding everything together in a mixed media way. I have another quote of yours that I love “rock and roll is the voice of the people and something that’s socially motivated, it’s relevant to real life. The real essence of poetry and fine art is music, that’s the real vitality of life.”
DEBBIE HARRY: I think that music is so basic that it came before spoken language. That is truly is the essence of life.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’re described as a pioneer for women in music and as someone who was never shy about the nature of sexuality. I’m interested in your opinion about how women today are still struggling for basic human rights around the globe and to be seen as equal human beings here. I hope that women are on the verge of having a new moment in history where they will be able to experience a different level of respect. As gay rights is evolving in that way, I’m hoping it will happen for us soon. A lot of people believe that the intellectual and economic evolution of our species really depends on this kind of evolved respect for women. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that.
DEBBIE HARRY: It’s been going on for quite a long time historically. The right to vote, the right to work. I can’t imagine what it was like to be considered as someones piece of property.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You came up through
very interesting times. You experienced a bit of the 50’s, a lot of the 60’s, the 70’s – the woman’s lib era, do you feel there has been great movement up to this point?
DEBBIE HARRY: Yes I do. I can’t predict whether it will ever really go all the way. I think that it’s sort of weird because I think a lot of what is changing is biological—and that had to do with Mother Nature. It’s sort of expedient to life on this planet. I think it’s related to overpopulation and the fact that so many people are coming out as being of alternate sexualities and not necessarily wanting to raise a family or finding the basic urge to do that. This may be the beginning of woman’s role changing in society. That is interesting to me. I think that hormones govern everything and that man’s hormonal drive is to propagate and to create more life. In many cases a woman’s hormonal drive is to do the same thing. I can’t possibly predict or think that that will change radically. We sort of have to have that. Through it all to have a sense of peace with that to say well OK we can do that and we can do this. I also think the struggle and the burden and the onus is put on men traditionally to be the breadwinner and the supporter and what that has done to them and their thinking, their sociology, is kind of warped as well.It’s been going on for such a long time, all the warring, I guess we are going back to politics. We can’t live without it. I think that religions have taken advantage of that and that has a lot to do with women’s oppression.
I think by now people should understand that these stories and legends in all the religious books are simply that. They are metaphors and not true stories. Anybody who takes that as fact, I just think, “wow.” Not everyone in this world is super smart or well read and they have been mislead and taken advantage of. No one is perfect and we all have our system of beliefs. I went to see “Noah” and it’s a great film but I think many people actually believe that that happened. If you look at geological studies there were floods everywhere. There’s a flood in every religious story. It’s prettied up about the survival. And that is the beauty of it. We are reinforced about survival. That though this horrible loss of life and the flood taking everything, in that sense it’s strengthening. Everyone takes it verbatim and religious leaders take advantage of it to polarize genders and keep women down.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Tell me what interests you right now?
DEBBIE HARRY: I’m pretty focused on what we are doing. I have a pretty full time job. I like film. I like movies. I like to read. As far as art goes I am focusing on people that I know. I’ve sort of made friends with Elizabeth Peyton, Tony Just and Robert Harms and a few people like that. I don’t know, I guess being in New York you’ve worked with different photographers. I had a little meeting with Allan Tannenbaum who is putting out a little portfolio of his years in the 70’s working for the Soho News. Fortunately for me I have been around a lot of these people.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What do you see for yourself in the future?
DEBBIE HARRY: I think that when you look at someone with some kind of fame, you may assume that they have no questions in their mind about themselves…. but I do. I have questions. I realize how lucky I am, but I keep working to eliminate some of the things that hold me back. That’s my own personal quest. I don’t know if everybody has it. I think many people are completely satisfied with what they are doing and do it well and carry on. I feel like I am getting better at what I do and it’s very satisfying, but I’m still seeking answers.