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Indifferent Goddess: Blondie, Dirty Harry and New York Punk

 

Lisa Dierbeck

Photography by Bobby Grossman, Chris Stein, and Dennis McGuire

 
 

Don’t read Face It, Debbie Harry’s memoir, in search of high art. You won’t find it. But the sly humor, frankness and eroticism that characterizes Blondie’s best lyrics are here in abundance. And in the rubble of the Lower East Side circa 1975 there’s the flash and glitter of buried treasure. Like an archeological excavation, this dig into urban history yields the key to a vanished past. Can we ever revive Blondie’s New York, now that the Bowery is Rodeo Drive and Williamsburg is Disneyland? The East Village, where Harry lived on the cheap, is now an NYU dormitory. The West Village, which incubated artists since the 1850’s, is devoid of aspiring musicians. Only VC’s can afford a sandwich, let alone a one-bedroom walk-up.

The great metropolis has lost its mojo thanks to rampant real estate development. We could do worse, these days, than look to an ageless, indestructible and subversive singer for direction. Harry’s memoir has an anthropologist’s accuracy in pinpointing what feeds the arts. The $70 apartment is essential, as is the dive bar, the two-dollar concert ticket, and the patina of grime. Though Face It may have been doctored (gliding majestically over the fallout of narcotics addiction), it’s pretty candid and smart. Alive to music and art, it reads like a love letter to a lost New York.

The memoir captures the metropolis in free fall, plagued by muggers, rats, a garbage strike and dog shit on the floor of CBGB’s. Times Square “belonged to the dealers and the hookers…no one with money would venture below Fourteenth Street.” People were “afraid to go to New York City. Their idea of New York was that it was filthy and dangerous . . . The upside was all these abandoned buildings, which were a magnet for artists, musicians, and freaks.” And so, from lowly beginnings, originality was born. New York’s alchemy worked magic for a generation of artists hellbent on beating their own path. They stomped out of the 60s and ran screaming into the future like a pack of tattooed pirates. According to critic Simon Critchley, Blondie rose to attention during a dramatic cultural shift. It began with the proto-punk of Bowie and ushered in a new sensibility, exchanging the utopian Summer of Love for something sharper. Disaffected. Brechtian. Darker.

 

Purists will not call Blondie punk. The songs were too commercially palatable to earn the moniker. But Harry shares punk’s taste for exhibitionism and outrage. With ironic lyrics and a Warhol poker face, she and the band pillaged pop culture to fashion Harry as a work of “living art.” Her public image was a brassy act of provocation, two parts prankster, one part social critic. Her golden locks and revealing outfits gave her the retro allure of a starlet. But a postmodern joke was being played. We, the listeners, were the butt of her mockery—unless we were in on it.

“I’m still a New York punk,” Harry declares, and we believe her, even if she wears silver lame in concert and radiates the elan of a countess. She has, by her own admission, crossed over from the counterculture to the mainstream, a function of time. And yet her voice, whether as lyricist or memoirist, retains its hard edge. From the Ramones of Queens to Siouxie and the Banshees of London, punk has delineated a stripped-down, sardonic and ultimately democratic territory. Blondie soaked it in and brought its propulsive speed-freak rhythms to the dance floor. The band joined social circles which were challenging cultural norms and middle-class proprieties. They embraced bad taste, low rent and the mutinous ethos of the outsider.

“We wanted a bigger life,” Harry writes. It was an epoch impatient with sensible strivers and their limitations, and less hounded by college debt and spiking costs. Dirty Harry, as her friends call her, has written not only her own history but the city’s, leading us through the blighted streets that spawned her.

Forces conspired to fuel 1970s New York with a high level of nervy risk-taking. Drug use was rampant, especially in the record industry, where substance abuse was a job requirement. That environment killed great musicians even as it made them famous. For Harry and Blondie, the squalor was invigorating.

Contrast Harry’s scarcely inhabitable lairs with the shiny high-rises of our day. As before, we see pockets of poverty and neglect. Yet they now cut deeper. Entire neighborhoods have given way, forcing long-time residents out by the tens of thousands. Homeless nomads are left to beg in the subway, which doubles as a shelter and a concert hall. The next Debbie Harry isn’t singing in CBGBs: she is busking.

Her contemporary David Byrne has been vocal about what we are losing. Crime and poverty don’t fuel creativity, he writes, but affordability is crucial. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.”*

 

One could afford to fail in 1975. Before they become international stars, the bandmates were adrift. They almost gave up. Nobody thought much of Harry, who had sex in the phone booth at Max’s Kansas City and worked at a topless bar. One band hired her because she was beautiful to behold, with a flair for edgy fashion on a dime. (One much-photographed outfit was made from a pillowcase.) Although this is how her pal Bowie got his start — good hair, good cheekbones, good thigh-high boots— it was galling for Harry. She was not going to be the backup singer or shimmy around playing tambourine. She refused to be kept on the periphery, reduced to eye candy.

Like a Judy Garland or a Freddie Mercury, she felt she was born to sing. In her lonely childhood as an adopted kid, “Singing for me at first was a way to keep myself company and a way to say things without words…Singing was a compulsion for me, something I was irresistibly drawn to. The need to create was an obsession, something that always preoccupied me.”

Growing up, Harry traversed a chasm, from Eisenhower to the Sexual Revolution. Orphaned, she was adopted by a couple eager to instill respectable and proper behavior in their daughter. They accidentally raised a rebel. From an early age, her sexuality propelled her towards greater liberty and sparked a hunger for experience. Though she was ogled, stalked and attacked, she built an identity on badass wildness and toughness. Nights in downtown Manhattan “before it was safe” were spent in acts of defiance. One ponders the era now with a sense of wonder. The furies at a city girl’s back as she charged through “no-go” zones of streetwalkers and drug dealers, dressed in provocative, crazy-looking clothes. The subway rides alone at two a.m. The saunters through the city solo, after hours, in vertiginous shoes. What were we thinking?

Just try to stop me, is what. Harry was part of an anarchic sisterhood that kicked down barriers with roach-killer toes on boots of black synthetic leather. It tested its mettle, overcoming shyness or timidity, refusing to be intimidated by any hazard, internal or external, psychic or physical. Whether aged 25 or 13, urchins or doyennes, we were newly unleashed into the freedoms and dangers of the world. We were explorers, never victims, always soldiers. Nothing was worse than indulging in dainty or ladylike behavior; women like Harry were determined to try anything. And to weather any blow with a show of moxie.

 

“”We wanted a bigger life,” Harry writes. It was an epoch impatient with sensible strivers and their limitations, and less hounded by college debt and spiking costs. Dirty Harry, as her friends call her, has written not only her own history but the city’s, leading us through the blighted streets that spawned her.”

 

For some readers, Harry’s race up the stairs of dubious tenements in the hope of arriving safely will ring familiar. The image of the petite blonde traipsing through needle-strewn gutters alone at night while a murderous creep calls out to her from his car is unnerving. Yet she insists that being robbed and assaulted at knifepoint meant nothing, except the loss of a musical instrument. “I was more upset about the guitar than the rape.”

A female child of the 1940s would have been taught that rape is “a fate worse than death.” Harry, we sense, is convinced that the attitude is wrong and depicts herself throughout her memoir as a hardened punk priestess: undefeated and strong. In the end, memoir invites self-mythologizing, broadcasting a version of the author that has been artfully arranged. Readers of Face It may find themselves wondering just what has been left out of the telling.

Whatever happened to her, it seems Harry followed an unspoken, deeply personal code of honor. It told her to persevere. When an ex-boyfriend threatened her, she wrote a hit song about it (“One Way or Another,” told from the perspective of a stalker). When her band stalled out, she dined on cookies and went hungry for days at a stretch. When her apartment burned down, she made art of it, posing for a soot-stained photograph in the charred remains. One can’t help but speculate: did the use of heroin erect this sturdy coat of armor? She would agree the drug was refreshingly anesthetizing. Perhaps it helped transform bravado to bravery. If so, there is no evidence of any grave psychic damage in these pages. On the contrary. Harry, a daredevil, was drawn to danger. “An adrenaline-craving idiot, I loved those rides,” she writes of the 262-foot parachute jump on Coney Island. “I imagine I might have become a stunt girl, an astronaut, or a race car driver.”

 
 

She was also driven to seize a male-dominated industry by its throat. She muscled her way in to a fraternity of boy musicians, the clique of rock n’ roll. They were involved in a dick-swinging contest, sometimes literally. (When Bowie exposed himself backstage, Harry responded with her trademark blasé. They became besties.) Though she scarcely touches upon it, it was an era of casual misogyny. Disc jockeys were held to a quota: only one female-led band could be aired per hour. Roughly 29:1. All-male audiences threw garbage at The Runaways. Women could not play guitar—a widely-held view at the time. Like her friend Joan Jett, Harry set out to prove she was as good a musician as anybody. She could write a hit in under an hour, as the industry would eventually discover.

During the lean years of obscurity, the New York Dolls were an influence. “They were ragged and raunchy and uninhibited, strutting, swaggering about in their tutus, leatherette, lipstick, and high heels.” Retro in stilettos, Harry construed gender as a performance long before Judith Butler wrote a word. Modelling the “night creatures” she found fascinating, her act toyed with stereotypes only to bust them. Again and again, her lyrics placed a female in the role of aggressor. Harry, as Blondie, is androgynous, playful, yet at a remove—as untouchable as a Valkyrie.

A Dada bricolage, this figure is heir to the fears and fantasies that swirled around The Blonde. The silvery tresses of Mae West, Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck belonged to pre-Hayes code Hollywood. The actresses stirred controversy as sophisticates who rejected small town ways for the “wicked” city. In mid-century America, while female behavior was heavily policed, platinum signaled power.

Harry cites such larger-than-life blondes as Marilyn Monroe and Nico as her early inspirations. But, as we read about Blondie’s invention, it is Marlene Dietrich who comes to mind. Dietrich’s “fallen woman” hovers as a guiding spirit, with her jaded charisma, world-weary in an elegant tuxedo and top hat, forever kissing attractive strangers up on stage. Style and wit and a song—her only weapons against those who try to stop her or dare to harm her. Reflecting light, sequined and slinky, Dietrich telegraphs sublime indifference. She is comrade to Harry, who radiates the cool of a woman who has seen it all. Undaunted, triumphant, she is a goddess fallen to earth. She has lived.

*”If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” David Byrne, The Guardian, Oct 7, 2013.