Blondie’s Dark Roots
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This article originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Esquire. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic. Or, upgrade to All Access.
With No Exit, Blondie’s seventh album, Deborah Harry returns to the band that made her pop music’s original ironic blond. During the band’s sixteen-year hiatus, she has done some movies, released three solo records, and performed on two others as a vocalist for the Jazz Passengers. She has a quality of sweetness and innocence that you don’t find in most other ironic blonds, and she lends this quality to the songs on No Exit, which, in classic, genre-skipping Blondie fashion, range from ska to Shangri-La in origin. She recently appeared with Coolio, who also performs on the album, at the American Music Awards in L.A. More recently, on a morning in New York City, she looked, as she always has, extraordinary. She was wearing a jacket that I can’t even begin to describe.
Esquire: You grew up in Paterson, right? I’m also a Jersey girl.
Debbie Harry: A tomato!
Yes. And I was thinking the other day about the advantages of growing up someplace where you wanted to hang yourself from sheer boredom.
But all teenagers want to hang themselves from sheer boredom. There are very few teenagers who are satisfied.
But at least now they have MTV. we had no MTV. The mall only opened when l was halfway through high school; before that, there wasn’t even a mall to be bored with.
We didn’t have malls when I was a kid, either. But I used to go to this section of street up in Totowa where all the slutty girls would walk around and meet boys. I was fascinated with that, so that was my nasty little habit. It’s sort of funny that I’ve come around to this Jersey consciousness and appreciation of my Jersey background. It’s terrific, there’s really nothing like it, but first you come through all these stages of trying to be this and trying to be that, just to end up at a stage of learning to appreciate what you really are.
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How old were you when you left Paterson?
I don’t know. Twenty? I was just at the end of being a teenager.
And what were you looking for?
Oh, I don’t know. I was trying to find myself. I wanted to be an artist or to be in showbiz; I wanted some excitement, some glam-a. I wanted out of what was expected of me. I wanted to live, live!
And that’s the path that leads to waitressing. Back before you made it, when you worked as a Playboy Bunny, was it hard to wear that outfit?
Well, it’s custom fitted. It’s like wearing a waist cincher, of course, but as you know if you talk to someone who wears corsets all the time, your body does mold into that shape.
I want to hear good music and see somebody with attitude.
What do you think of all this girl stuff—this Grrrl stuff?
Girl, schmirl, you know, whatever. Whoever can do it. I want to hear good music and see somebody with attitude. I like Courtney Love—she’s full of attitude, she does come up with some interesting hooks, she has ideas. Her musicianship needs to grow, and whether she’s really interested in doing that, who knows, maybe she just wants attention. But she’s got all the elements of a pop star, all the ingredients. I don’t know if I could be in the same room with her for very long, but who can you be in the same room with for very long? She’s a strong character, very intense, but that’s what it takes, so God bless.
And you always get asked about Madonna. Do you feel you can claim an influence on her?
Absolutely. But she’s an incredibly resourceful refinery—she knows how to refine elements and make them completely understandable and salable to the public. She does a fucking magnificent job, and God bless her, too. I can’t say that I even believe in God, but l certainly like the slogan, so God bless her.
What do you think was the best year for music?
I guess maybe somewhere between ’63 and ’65. Or maybe between ’65 and ’67—those were pretty weird years; there was all that acid music. And you could still see Coltrane—those guys were still playing live. And at the same time, they were having happenings. It was great, there was really a big mishmash of stuff.
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You don’t see too many happenings anymore.
I don’t know if anyone would know how to behave at a happening now. They might have to have little instruction booklets.
Of happening etiquette?
Yes. How to happen.
I was always interested in the clandestine. That’s what attracted me to the music world.
If you were coming across the river to Manhattan as a twenty-year-old today, what would you be aiming for?
I think that probably now I would go into the sex industry.
In what capacity?
I don’t know, but that’s a clandestine area, and I was always interested in the clandestine. That’s what attracted me to the music world. And I don’t know where you can find that so much these days.
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