My admiration for Deborah Harry goes back a long way and — fittingly for a woman who even as a septuagenarian has an air of juvenile delinquency about her — got me into trouble as a teenage writer on the music press. Sent to review the hot new American group Talking Heads, who were in London for the first time, I raved instead about the unknown support band, Blondie, in effect ending up: ‘And then these really boring preppies came on and spoilt everything.’ I was subsequently sent to review Gilbert O’Sullivan in Croydon as punishment.
I normally skip the start of showbiz memoirs (childhood is so common), but I was hooked from the moment Harry — in the dreamy yet deft tone reminiscent of Blondie’s best lyrics — starts recalling her origins as the illegitimate Angela Trimble, soon to be adopted by the Harry family and renamed Deborah. Her destiny as an international lust object is evident early on; when she’s just a baby, a doctor tells her mother: ‘Watch out for that one — she has bedroom eyes!’ From the age of eight, she is pestered by perverts: ‘Because of their frequency, over time, these incidents felt almost normal.’
At 12, she is pursued by Buddy Rich. We bitchy little teenage punks used to wonder why she was so old — all of 30 — and what took her so long; obviously fighting off the attention of a sizeable proportion of the American male population since babyhood was a full-time job. But also as a child she wins a prize for ‘perfect attendance’ at the local church choir: the twin pillars of singing and sex that her life would swing from are already in place. When she dyes her hair blonde at 14, the die is cast and the rest is 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 becomes 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 read of someone who walks on the wild side not because she once saw mommy 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’ or having ‘anxiety’ — just don’t do a job that attracts attention then!
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 starts, 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 they often wore: ‘Success, when it finally came, quickly started to feel anticlimactic, compared to the exhilarating years leading up to it.’ Phil Spector sticks his gun into Harry’s thigh and David Bowie shows her his penis (huge, apparently).
You get the feeling that she and Stein are 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 the succubi of outré artists trapped inside them and finally wreaking revenge after five 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, which took him three years to recover from. 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. Neither too tender to live like Marilyn nor too tough to learn like Madonna, she has turned into the grande dame of the avant garde, where she belonged all along, verging on the eccentric. (After all her exotic travels, she rhapsodises most about the Scilly Isles: ‘Such a wonderful place.’)
Some will 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.
Face It is a very heavy book, and would have benefited from editing. But like its author, it’s a thing of beauty, and the fact that it’s so big is partly because it contains a huge selection of the fan art which Harry has touchingly collected for 40 years (most stars get their ‘people’ automatically to bin such love offerings), and says something very sweet about her.
In an age when young reality TV stars produce memoirs about having sex, getting drunk and wetting the bed, it’s good to read the recollections of someone who has had enough experiences to fill nine lifetimes, yet has waited until 74 to relate them in one lush, louche, luxe volume. ‘I’ve had a very, very lucky life,’ she writes at one point. We were lucky too to have had such a perfect pop star for a while — even if she herself didn’t enjoy it much.