There was a time, from the late 1970s through the early ’80s, when Debbie Harry was one of the most transfixing and recognizable human beings on the planet.
As lead singer and co-songwriter in Blondie, the New York City New Wave sextet that became a Pop juggernaut, Harry’s sleek visage and devil-may-care attitude embodied a downtown cool that now barely exists. She came off like a bohemian Marilyn Monroe, a platinum-blonde chanteuse with effortless style and a sexuality so assured it verged on banality. As Rob Sheffield wrote in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, “Deborah Harry was the most exquisitely tired singer in history. Even her emotionally direct songs wafted on the exhausted sigh of someone who’d whisper in our ears about infatuation and heartbreak only as long as it took for her bath to run.”
Whether intentional or not, there’s always been a mysterious, almost alien quality to Harry’s persona, which makes her new memoir, the just-published Face It, such an intriguing look behind the mask. Her national book tour for Face It includes a visit to Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills High School on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.
“At first, it was against my better judgment to do a memoir/autobiography, but it seems appropriate at this time in my life to get it over with and remember,” she writes near the end of the 368-page book, which is laden with photos and various artwork related to or inspired by Harry’s nearly half-century in the spotlight.
Face It is not rendered in same high-literary mold of recent biographies by Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith; it’s anecdote-driven but largely chronological, the remembrances of a whirlwind life that came of age long before the daily social media documentation of our current era. She writes about the many ups and downs of her life through a spare, conversational prose style so matter-of-fact it makes Raymond Carver’s look florid.
“I don’t think I really had much choice about that,” Harry says when asked about her straightforward approach during a recent phone interview. “I’m not an experienced or particularly skilled writer but I’m used to pulling my thoughts together in lyrics. Having to get an idea across in a few lines with a few words, I have a lot of experience with that, so I guess making something conversational and making an audience understand what you’re saying is something that I’m very familiar with.
“Sitting down and writing a longer piece, what I really had to learn was to not be so brief and not be so abbreviated and to develop a picture in a person’s mind. That was kind of a challenge.”
Harry was born as Angela Trimble on July 1, 1945 to a single mother who died from cancer six months later. A middle-class couple, Richard and Cathy Harry, adopted the baby and rechristened her Deborah. Face It’s early chapters are among the most fascinating for those familiar with Harry as a performer and public figure, as they reveal clues to how and why she became the woman we know today.
Harry writes that she had a rather normal childhood in the suburban New Jersey town of Hawthorne, which is about 25 miles northwest of New York City. As a teenager, she was already dreaming of becoming a performer or artist and was traveling to the city to take in what she could. Harry was especially intrigued by the bohemian underworld she encountered and was determined to live that life herself. By 19, she moved to Manhattan and has never really left.
“It was my fascination from a very early age,” Harry says of New York. “I felt like that was the place for me. I think it was instinctive somehow that I would feel most comfortable in that environment and that it would be the most exciting and the most challenging thing. I was drawn to the exotic and mysterious. I was intoxicated by the idea. I couldn’t escape it. I really couldn’t.”
As expected, Face It touches on the various celebrities and artists Harry has encountered over the last five decades — from Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie to The Ramones, John Waters and William S. Burroughs — but one person has had the biggest impact: Chris Stein, co-founder and guitarist of Blondie, her personal partner for 13 years and friend and collaborator for life.
“He was just so supportive and understanding,” she says when asked about Stein’s influence on her creative and personal evolution. “He grew up in New York City in a sort of beatnik family. He was sort of automatically there, and I was wanting to get to that state of mind. For whatever reason, the poor guy, he sort of understood what I liked and what I wanted. We understood each other almost instantaneously, so I think it was unavoidable in that respect. We were very fortunate that we met. He was just a great person for me to meet and work with and to love — so, lucky me.”
Stein was a grounding force, especially during the whirlwind period of Blondie’s rise from aspiring Punk Rock outfit to the worldwide phenomenon they would become via hit songs like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” and “Rapture.”
Along with her pioneering musical work, Harry’s celebrity earned her sex-symbol status. She writes about her sexual experiences and various encounters, both good and bad, with men over the years in Face It with a rare frankness.
“I think it’s about time that the playing ground was leveled a little bit,” Harry says when asked about the #MeToo movement. “My stories and the events and the things that happened to me are as factual and as true as they could possibly make them. Maybe I didn’t go into great emotional detail but I think the important thing for me was about the resolve in living with myself and living with things that have happened to me. I think it’s about survival and encouraging a certain strength within myself and perhaps for others.”
Harry, now 74 and still creatively active, can’t believe that she has finished Face It and that it’s finally out in the world for all to see.
“I’m still dealing with it,” she says. “I’m going to be dealing with it for a while. Maybe I’ll never live it down, but I guess I just wanted to get it out. Maybe I’m looking to turn a page in my life."
Debbie Harry’s tour for Face It comes to Walnut Hills High School (3250 Victory Pkwy, Walnut Hills) on Oct. 7. “An Evening with Blondie” will feature conversation and a visual presentation, with Harry, Blondie co-founder Chris Stein and multi-media artist Rob Roth. Tickets/more info: blondie.net and brownpapertickets.com.