Touched by Her Presence, Dear: Debbie Harry’s ‘Face It’

Blondie drops truth bombs in her long awaited memoir

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry is probably one of the few people who could get away with describing writing her autobiography as a thankless task.

“At first, it was against my better judgment to do a memoir / autobiography,” she states. “But it seems appropriate at this time in my life to get it over with and remember.”

Lucky for us that she did decide to “get it over with.” Face It is a fond, if somewhat detached, look back at her life and a career that blossomed during an extraordinarily inventive period in rock music history, one whose reverberations are still being felt today.

Yet Harry’s beginnings were supremely ordinary. Adopted as a baby, and growing up in “a white-on-white, middle-to-lower-middle-class burb” in New Jersey, Harry went to church, joined the girl scouts, was a drum majorette, and ventured into New York City with her family to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center every December. Yet she also yearned for something more, from a young age. Keenly interested in fashion, she dreamed of becoming a star. And waiting in the distance to make that dream come true was New York City, her own personal Oz, a place she describes as “magical …. an enchanted forest,” a place whose bright lights served as her homing beacon.

A reminder of just how different the times really were comes in small details, like the rent for Harry’s first apartment in New York in 1965: $67, for a four-room flat on St. Mark’s Place. It would take over a decade for her to find acclaim as a performer, yet she recalls those early years of struggling as the best: “Everybody got by on no money. Nobody talked about mainstream success. Who wanted to be mainstream? What we were doing was so much better than that. We felt like pioneers.”

Face It by Debbie Harry

Harry’s affection for her pre-fame years comes through strongly. In the ‘70s, New York City was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with garbage piled up in the streets due to garbage strikes. But there was a freedom in that as well. “Nothing is what we had, aside from youth, desire, love, and music,” Harry writes, and when you are young, that’s pretty much all you need. Harry clearly revels in the “raw, uncut, visceral living” of the period, a time before the Internet and cell phones, and before a predatory media (and your fans) could document your every move. You were also allowed time to develop. Blondie released three albums before finding success in the US; what labels today would wait years to see if an act caught on?

One disappointment is that there isn’t more detailed information about the band’s songwriting and recording process. The making of Parallel Lines, for example, is dispensed with in three paragraphs. Harry shares some details (“One Way or Another” was inspired by a stalker; “Pretty Baby” was written after Harry and her then-boyfriend Chris Stein saw Louis Malle’s movie of the same name), but you wish for a more comprehensive trawl through the band’s impressive catalogue. 

Harry is refreshingly open on topics others play down in their own memoirs. “I really loved sex,” she says of her coming-of-age. “I think I might have been oversexed, but I didn’t have a problem with that; I felt it was totally natural.” There are no regrets about drug use: “For those times when I wanted to blank out parts of my life or when I was dealing with some depression, there was nothing better than heroin. Nothing.” And her recounting of David Bowie’s displaying his penis to her in a backstage dressing room is both delightful and sweet: “David’s size was notorious, of course, and he loved to pull it out with both men and women. It was so funny, adorable, and sexy.”

Andy Warhol’s portrait of Debbie Harry

She also shows an awareness of the conundrums and insecurities that come with being a performer. While observing that all the focus on her appearance has “made me wonder if I’ve ever accomplished anything beyond my image,” she also concedes, “I have to admit I like being a pretty person.” The contradictions became even greater as Blondie took off. A sticking point for Harry came when the record company issued a poster of her in a see-through blouse, after telling her they would crop the photo. It wasn’t the exposure of the shot that she minded, but rather that she was increasingly losing control over the process. The name “Blondie” was meant ironically, not meant to represent Harry herself, but more a character that she could step into and out of, like an actor (she also considered that character to be androgynous; “I was probably portraying some kind of transsexual creature”). But the mainstream wasn’t prone to making such distinction; hence the necessity of the specially created buttons that reminded people “Blondie is a group.”

Harry’s response has been to roll with the punches, not wanting to be seen as “whining about being a woman.” Fiercely independent, Harry comes across as one cool customer. Losing all the money made during Blondie’s heyday due to bad business decisions (the IRS even confiscated her coats!) might’ve been overwhelming to some. But to Harry it’s just another obstacle to be overcome by seeking out jobs that pay in cash. Even her rape at knifepoint is seen as less problematic than the theft of the guitars that were stolen by her attacker after the assault. And for all the book’s anecdotes, one gets the sense that Harry is cagey about what she chooses to reveal. You don’t learn much about her post-Stein love life, for example (though she does admit she “made out a few times” with Harry Dean Stanton). She complains about the rudeness of a radio DJ who referred to the time when Stein was suffering a chronic illness as when “Debbie walked out on you.” Yet she never specifies why she and Stein did break up, which is exactly why unfounded speculations can circulate. 

Perhaps it’s Harry’s own penchant for leaving the audience wanting more. There’s certainly no denying that Face It is a page-turner, an insider’s vivid account of a lost era, and a wry chronicle of a life spent in the public eye. Harry herself puts it more succinctly: “I have had one fuck of an interesting life and I plan to go on having one.”

For a woman who is at her core the definition of a survivor, that seems highly likely.

 

VIDEO: Debbie Harry talks about her new book with the NME

 

VIDEO : Debbie Harry talks about Face It with Rob Roth and Chris Stein

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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