In her new memoir, “Face It,” Harry describes a life formed by the desire that, one way or another, she’d leave suburbia and become a performer, a desire she shared with Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde, three other women who influenced post-’60s music. (Hail, hail the women of rock-and-roll, especially those who qualify for an AARP membership!) That Harry succeeded is a tribute to her ambition, perseverance, talent and good looks.
The book opens with her heart-rending origin story. Harry’s mother gave her up for adoption, reluctantly, in 1945, when Harry — whose given name was Angela Tremble — was 3 months old. Harry was raised in Hawthorne, N.J., by Richard and Cathy Harry in a migrant worker’s house near a park, where Harry spent most of her free time on her own, daydreaming — a tomboy who loved to play in the woods with her dog, Pal. Seeing a show at Radio City Music Hall piqued her interest in becoming a stage performer. She knew there was more to life than being a high school majorette and later, in junior college, a sorority sister. By age 20 Harry was living in the East Village, on St. Marks Place, where, listening to the sounds of the city, she felt like she was “in the place where my next life would begin.” And so it did.
Harry quickly took to the artistically combustible downtown scene, watching acts like the Velvet Underground and Janis Joplin, and playing “anti-music music” with a fellow who called himself Charlie Nothing. She befriended street people and later the drag queen Divine. Ditching her secretarial job at the BBC to work in a head shop, Harry navigated the edges of new sensibilities. She had a hookup with an Andy Warhol protege in a phone booth in Max’s Kansas City and began what she blithely calls “chipping and dipping” in heroin. (Harry is quite explicit in her descriptions of her drug use and sex life.)
The chapters about the New York scene and Harry’s early adventures making music are the most compelling parts of the book. We’re in her environment — smelling the garbage piled up on the street, trolling the sidewalks for discarded clothing, stepping over drunks on the Bowery. Life was DIY. About her experience playing at the notorious club CBGB, birthplace of punk, Harry writes, “It was a time of felt experience — no special effects, just raw, visceral, uncut living.” Nothing seemed to faze her. There were loft fires and relocations, and she once was raped at knife point: “I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear,” she writes of the experience. “I’m very glad this happened before AIDS or I might have freaked.” In these chapters, Harry is introspective, as she writes about death, time and the serendipitous, sometimes hazardous life she was living.
In 1974, she and her lover, guitarist Chris Stein, founded Blondie. After playing in New York’s punk scene, the group gradually rose to stardom and soon toured with Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Television. By 1979, Blondie’s song “Heart of Glass” was No. 1 on the American charts, and the band’s popularity blossomed. Unfortunately, fame can make for a rather dull narrative. Once Harry digs into Blondie’s heyday, the book suffers in ways other rock memoirs often do — rehashing the next album, the next tour and so on.
More engaging is Harry’s effort to categorize her music, which she calls a “crossover between glitter-glam and punk.” She’s reluctant to name disco as an obvious influence, instead insistently aligning herself with punk. But she was familiar with disco — music favored by the drag queens she watched in underground clubs. She also loved drag’s performative qualities, especially its attention to fashion and gesture, two practices Harry perfected while shaping her own image. Drag queens saw Harry’s display of femininity as drag, “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman.” Harry’s words are more revealing: “I’m not blind and I’m not stupid: I take advantage of my looks and I use them.”
Her commentary on the sexual politics of the music scene of her time are insightful. Rock, she writes, “was a very masculine business in the mid-seventies.” Patti Smith “dressed more masculine … my approach was different. . . . I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game. I was saying things in the songs that female singers didn’t really say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back. I was kicking his a--, kicking him out, kicking my own a — too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up but I was very serious.”
Despite rapid and worldwide fame, Blondie disbanded in 1982. Harry’s soul mate, Stein, broke up with her, and she went on to make solo albums. Faced with mounting debt, for a short while Harry became a professional wrestler but had better luck making movies, most notably John Waters’s “Hairspray.” She would have appeared in the original “Blade Runner,” had her record company not forbidden it. In 1997, Blondie reformed and continues to tour.
The strange final chapters of “Face It” include a rambling poem Harry wrote about 9/11 and a plea to save honeybees. Throughout this visually evocative book are photographs and a lengthy gallery of fan art. Readers, both familiar and unfamiliar with Harry’s career, will enjoy this memoir because on nearly every page she proves she’s more than just a pretty blonde in a pair of tight pants. If she sometimes comes across as self-interested, so what? She was a young woman who fell under the spell of New York and made herself into the performer she always knew she’d become, one who went on to cast her own spell on millions of listeners.
Sibbie O’Sullivan is a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland. Her book of essays about John Lennon is forthcoming from Mad Creek Books.
By Debbie Harry
Dey Street. 352 pp. $32.50