Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.
You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?
I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.
You mention in the book that memory is subjective.
I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.
You say you were influenced by Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs that resonated with you when you were writing this book?
For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.
You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s. What do you miss most?
I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.
Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?
The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, "Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?" Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, "Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!" You really do get a great feeling.
You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as "a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman"—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie too, isn’t it?
To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.
Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?
It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film.
"Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds."
I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.
In your book, you write that "success quickly started to feel anticlimactic." Do you still feel that way?
I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.
Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words STOP FUCKING THE PLANET on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?
Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to [fashion designer and environmental activist] Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.
AN EVENING WITH DEBBIE HARRY
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m.
Building 3, Chapman.