Watching TV that day in 1978 when Debbie Harry first appeared on TOTP singing Denis, I was so electrified that my drink abruptly put itself down. I tried immediately to memorise the French bit. How she drenched the tune in her insouciant beauty.
And I knew, from that day forward and even though we were never going to meet, that Ms. Harry and I would be firm friends. Easily I can still bring to mind the individual moment I first heard the later tracks French Kissin’ In The USA and I Want That Man. When in a much later 21st century year she appeared one evening on the Chris Evans TV show to give us Maria, well, I slammed my drink hard down again and, as ambient friends can affirm, cheered myself hoarse.
Back in that big Blondie day, you could not go to a friend’s house without Parallel Lines or the further singles playing in the foreground. Do not argue with this : no rocker has ever slapped out a song with the soaring control and the sheer angry melodiousness of DH in Picture This. Apparently, she knows London well. Well, there should be a statue of her mounted there, maybe somewhere in Green Park, close to the other royals. For she has put down the soundtrack to millions of sexagenarian lives. If someone could sort actual immortality for her, that would be good and right.
And so, to Face It, a kind of autobiography, “my somewhat morose memoir”.
What can one say? Maybe three things:
Firstly, quality in artistic output comes perhaps only at a horrific personal cost. Nothing is missed here of the rough of the road, the provincial grime of yet another album tour, the bandmember insurrections, the devious and manipulative managers, the inconvenient love affairs, the stodgy record labels, the penury under the boot of the IRS, the bouts of homelessness, the vacated friendships, the menace of bad fans, all the hesitations and doubts to which professional jealousy can give birth. It is a super-commendable, against-the-play accomplishment that the Blondie / DH discography is as rich as it is. Some parts of her story here are so well written, by the way, that you can absolutely smell the midnight oil getting splashed on the burning drums.
Secondly, this is a story about just what sort of feminism can realistically be pursued when a) your profession is, sic, punk and b) no soft way of putting this – you are yourself as hot as a magma duvet. DH knows all too keenly what her power-face has brought her and, in this sense, she does not seem unhappy in her skin; indeed she talks freely of how much, all her life, she enjoys being treated as super-pretty.
But she has had to wade through sexism, stalking and horrific sexual assault (unflinchingly described)… not to mention a spell as a Playboy bunny. And though she speaks unselfconsciously about her personal decision in favour of plastic surgery, one cannot help but feel that she knows that this, in its (for lack of a cuddlier word) politics, has been a very paradoxical life. Sometimes from a detailed autobiography or merely general knowledge it might be relatively easy to imagine what the heroine’s inner life was like. But not here. Not for a second. There is a permafrost round the edge of the stage, a silence before and after the set.
Thirdly – and in relation to Firstly and Secondly – drugs, both of the mild and most noxious variety, play such a dynamic part. Sometimes she readily admits that when she was very low “there was nothing better than heroin”. She even supplies some such stuff to a special friend in hospital (sic). Her best fans will surely wince at the claim : “Drugs aren’t always about feeling good… Many times they’re about feeling less”. As I read, I kept hoping that there would appear some emphatic if wizened denunciation of the whole narcotic world of the 60s, 70s and beyond. But it never really comes. And partly (I guess) as a result there is a sadness which never leaves the pages. Sometimes the chemical hedonism was a blast; other times, recounted here, she must have felt so desperate. Sad.
So, of what materials is this icon made? Yes, she represents a repudiation of catatonic suburbs in favour of mean streets. In ways never to be fully applauded in these or probably any days, she exudes sex and exults in it too. Her American Dream is a woman’s victory over slobs and phoneys and play-it-safe boors. She has grappled with all the everyday demons to pull her art up through the cultural smog. Her Blondie is as something of an androgynous superheroine able to tease the pogo cretins into believing that she is a doll. Under her boot however, machismo has taken it in the groin. Maybe, the irony, too many will not have been unhappy with that kind of pain. Thus a confusion of ego and image and purpose : all very audible here.
You know. Reading the book all the way through in a few sittings, I for one concluded by the end that I still did not really know DH and that this was precisely her plot all along. She never, as it were, really comes in from the rain. It would be flea-market psychology to over-reference the fact that she was adopted as a child but the multiple references to the story suggest an abiding fragility, around which her distinctly unromantic girl-on-top songs were perhaps a shield. We can tell she was no debutante. But not much else. There is only a small slit in the curtain.
The Rinkli Funstaz vibe? As you reach your 70s, by what precepts should you explore and understand your life, your impact, your contribution? What remains of the day, your day, such as you might have had, in the sun? For all its hesitations and occlusions, Debbie Harry has brought us here an astonishing life. And she has a good go at telling us what it all might have meant. Millions, yes millions, of lives have been enriched by her glorious thumping rock amplified by a distinctly unapologetic attitude for the life she has led. Bravo, Debbie, bravo, bravo.