Punk rock wasn’t meant to have a face – not at first, when it was all about attitude. Punk distilled the anger of misfit youth in a thrash of electric guitar and a yowling disdain for the slickly packaged, corporate pop that ruled the 1970s. There were no pin-ups in punk.
But things changed once Debbie Harry hit her stride as the front woman for Blondie, and her bedroom-eyed baby face set the atomic-blond standard for female rockers. She branded Blondie with a cool glamour, her almost uninflected vocals lending a subtle toughness to the killer hooks of “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another” and “Call Me.”
Millions of record sales later, Harry’s new memoir, aptly titled “Face It” (Dey St., 368 pp., ★★★½ out of four stars), is a post-punk bijou that rewards her devotees. In between the prose, there are numerous color images of that fabulous face, much of it fan art collected over the years, along with iconic Harry photos taken by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Mick Rock.
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But Harry’s bombshell doesn’t colorize or whitewash the details of her journey from sunny Hawthorne, N.J., to the dark side of 1970s New York (much of the book is drawn from frank interviews with British rock journalist Sylvie Simmons). As the adopted daughter of Dick and Cag Harry, who doted on her, gave her a car and room to move, young Deborah was a good student with an artistic yen and a reverence for Marilyn Monroe.
She dyed her hair platinum as New York beckoned with cheap rents below 14th Street, day jobs at corporate offices, a stint as a Playboy Club bunny, and a nightlife seething with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll in the clublands of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. At its best, the book is a picaresque blur of ’70s motion. Andy Warhol and his entourage of gender-fluid “Superstars” set the tone, while celebrities slummed and Harry sought a place in it all.
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She remains an unsentimental sphinx about those days, especially about the sex and drugs: “They weren’t doing scientific studies and methadone clinics; if you wanted to do drugs you did drugs and if you got hung up or got sick, you were on your own.” She also survived the worst of a crime-ridden Manhattan, including a rape and a harrowing escape from the locked car of a man she believes was serial murderer Ted Bundy.
“I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game,” she affirms. “I was saying things in the songs that female singers really didn’t say back then… My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side.”
A romantic, though, she kept looking for love amidst abusive boyfriends (or a “one-hour stand” with a hot downtown denizen) before meeting guitarist Chris Stein, another suburban exile who became her soulmate and business partner. They survived heroin addiction, illness and financial mismanagement together, broke up as a couple in 1987, but remain close. Blondie was their baby – the band itself broke up in 1982, re-forming a decade later and still touring.
Harry is 74 now, yet that face – unlined and unmistakeable – radiates the authority of a pop survivor. From cocaine giggles with David Bowie and Iggy Pop to film roles, solo projects, even an official Barbie doll Blondie, Harry has prevailed, chasing her dreams at the cost of chased dreams. But as Blondie tells us, straight up, dreaming is free.