My admiration for Deborah Harry goes back some time. I first met her in 1999, and again this year, both times when she was travelling to/from Glastonbury. For me, she was born to deliver the adapted killer script line from Sunset Boulevard ” I am a big star, its the music industry that got small”………… However, its not just me that’s under her spell. She’s also amongst the top 5 favourite customers as voted by our ground crews. Unfailingly polite, engaging in a genuine manner with the “little people” who dance attendance around her, and a genuinely world class tipper. Trust me,dear Puffins, these are not a combination of traits she shares with many/any of the wannabe slebs who pass through our doors. But even now – at the age of 77 (ish) – she still effortlessly possesses the authentic vibe of the dirty girl juvenile delinquent…..
Not that I’ve stalked her or anything remotely like that, but some research shows that she arrived in this world as the illegitimate Angela Trimble, adopted by the Harry family and renamed Deborah. Her destiny as an international lust object was clearly evident early on; as a baby, a doctor told her mother: ‘Watch out for that one — she has bedroom eyes!’ From the age of eight, she was pestered by a pervert, but rationalised the approach & innumerable subsequent others thusly ‘because of their frequency, over time, these incidents felt almost normal.’ As a child she won a prize for ‘perfect attendance’ at the local church choir, and the twin pillars of singing and sex that her life would swing from are in place. At 12, she is pursued by Buddy Rich. When she dyes her hair blonde at 14, the die is cast and the rest is pure hysteria.
By the age of 20 she is in New York, her El Dorado, vaguely dreaming of becoming a painter. Instead, she gets a job as a secretary with the BBC — ‘My first link to what would be a long, lovely relationship with Great Britain’ — and meets Malcolm Muggeridge, who must have prayed that night especially hard not to have impure thoughts. She became a hippie, a rich man’s plaything and a Playboy Bunny at breakneck speed and the same phrase keeps cropping up: ‘I was curious.’
In an age when every pleasure is pathologised and every celebrity has ‘issues’, it’s refreshing to meet someone who walked on the wild side not because she once saw mummy kissing Santa Claus but simply because she was curious. Nowadays you can’t turn on the TV without seeing some showbiz sad-sack snivelling about being ‘cyber-bullied’ , having ‘anxiety’, or even ‘deep seated mental health ishooes’. Not our Debs……..
Galvanised by the New York Dolls — the mayflies of pop, who glowed only for a moment but would influence bands from the Sex Pistols to the Smiths — Harry joins a few girl groups, and then meets Chris Stein. Promiscuous since her schooldays, she started, with Stein, what was to become one of the strongest alliances in pop: ‘We kept on making it for 13 years. I didn’t think it could be done. But it was so easy.’
The subsequent success of their band Blondie was one of the oddest cultural phenomena of the late 20th century: two arty outsiders catapulted into mainstream pop mania because of the way one of them looked, which probably accounted for the air of bemusement that almost became their trademark…….success, when it finally came, quickly started to feel anticlimactic, compared to the exhilarating years leading up to it. As she said later “When Phil Spector stuck a gun into my thigh and David Bowie showed me his penis (huge, apparently), I knew I’d arrived………..”
You get the feeling that she and Stein were somewhat relieved when the records stop selling and the band breaks up. Her heroin habit and his illness — causing such dramatic weight loss that they are convinced he has Aids or cancer — seem like payback for years of being on Tops of the Pops every other week. ‘We felt so desperate and isolated, hiding Chris’s strange illness from the world.’
In fact it turned out to be a rare disorder of the auto-immune system, with a 90 per cent fatality rate, from which it took him three years to recover. Harry devoted all her time to him. By the end they are broke and homeless — despite the huge fortune Blondie made — and back where they started. And then they split up.
It would have been easy for Harry to have given in, as so many great beauties mugged by Mother Nature and Father Time do. But she has avoided the fates of the other great blonde icons of the 20th century. Without the marshmallow centre of Marilyn or the driven diamond hard schtick of Madonna, she has turned into the grande dame of the avant garde, where she belonged all along, whilst all the time tip toeing on the eccentric side. (After all her exotic travels, she rhapsodises most about the Scilly Isles: ‘Such a wonderful place.’)
Some would be shocked by her calm recounting of sexual peril; but being a stoic, she probably can’t see the point of making some inadequate rapist an important part of the story. The same with drugs: ‘For times when I was dealing with depression, there was nothing better than heroin — nothing.’ That second ‘nothing’ is the mark of an incorrigible rebel who was never trying the look on for pleasure and profit.
In an age when young reality TV stars produce memoirs about having sex, getting drunk and wetting the bed, she’s the recollections of someone who has had enough experiences to fill nine lifetimes, ‘I’ve had a very, very lucky life,’ she says. We’ve been lucky too to have had such a perfect pop star.
© DJM 2023