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With “Face It,” Debbie Harry Looks Back — and Forward

debbie harry

Extraordinary things tend to happen while Debbie Harry is walking down the street. During one early morning stroll, after viewing a screening of American Gigolo, she effortlessly wrote the first two verses of “Call Me,” one of the many songs that would become an international hit for her band, Blondie. Then one night, ever the fashion risk-taker, she ventured out to a party in shoes that soon became too painful to walk in. With no cabs in sight, she accepted a ride from a man whom she would later identify (though several sources insist this was impossible) as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. Her life has been nothing short of extraordinary, and with Face It, her long-awaited autobiography, Debbie Harry is finally telling that story from the inside out.

Harry’s unconventional path cut straight through the center of the legendary Lower East Side art and music scenes of the 1970s, through the bustling thoroughfare of pop culture, and later, farther afield into a stint as the lead singer of The Jazz Passengers. From the seedy filth of CBGBs to the glossy luster of Studio 54. From waiting on Andy Warhol at the famous Max’s Kansas City to forming a punk girl group the Stilettos to becoming a close friend of Warhol’s and lending the portrait he painted of her to the Chicago Art Institute. Before sporting her signature platinum bob, she wore her brown hair long as a member of The Wind in the Willows, a hippie collective who made the kind of music punks like Blondie would rebel against.

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Along the way, there were some fine turns in films like Hairspray, and David Cronenberg’s groundbreaking Videodrome and she even trained as a wrestler to be in the Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi. She would have happily taken the role offered her in Blade Runner had record executives, seemingly hell-bent on stifling the very experimentation that made  Blondie a success, allowed it. They feared they wouldn’t know how to market a singer’s crossover into movies, a laughable concept these days. Even ironically, Harry was a pioneer.

But if there’s one road down which Harry seems hesitant to tread it’s Memory Lane. She briskly ushers the reader through her life, past many of the boarded up and burned out haunts, with little more than a passing glance. Recently, the creative director of Face It, Rob Roth, sat down with Harry and her bandmate and creative partner Chris Stein, at the Aratani Theater in Los Angeles to discuss the book. Harry explained, “I don’t want to be introspective about my life, I’m more interested in moving forward.” Perhaps as a result, the stories in these pages often read like a series of dead ends.

The following could be a highlight of the book, itself worth the price of admission: “As a kid, I was always searching for the perfect taste. A flavor that I couldn’t describe… It was maddening because I was driven to have it, whatever it was… My birth mother kept me for three months. During this time she breast-fed me and this was the perfect taste …then she sent me out into the world of choices. The world of flavors. The world. Now, finally, thanks to my maturing, my searching… I have regained the ability to feel full… True satiation. It seems so simple. Probably as simple as infinity and the universe.”

This tender and beautiful passage is meant to bring full circle Harry’s earlier confession about feeling, her entire life, like an outsider, that her curiosity and devotion to discovery were part of a search to find a place to belong. It does what a memoir is meant to do: zoom in on an original and unique detail, then pan back to reveal a universal truth.

But much more often she repeats and sometimes contradicts herself. She spends pages describing the smoking habit she took up in her 60s and a paragraph on the assault she suffered in her apartment while she and Stein were tied up. Harry complains in the book that “…today everything is revealed, nothing is hidden. Boundaries have melted away in favor of an often-boring openness,” she comments about the current culture of oversharing. Yet, she dedicates a whole chapter to the importance of thumbs.

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Perhaps it’s her unflinching punk ethos that makes her want to eschew a traditional, cohesive narrative. Throughout the book, she describes her approach to fashion, cutting and pasting bits from different outfits, ripping things apart and sewing them back together out of order. One famous slip dress she wore was actually a refashioned pillowcase. This approach doesn’t quite work on the page and fails to build the kind of momentum that any life story, let alone one like Harry’s, needs to complete a satisfying arc.

Based on a series of conversations with rock journalist Sylvie Simmons, who is something of a cohort of Harry’s, the book oddly lacks much of the candor of spontaneous speech but keeps the points in which Harry digresses and then jumps ahead without resolution.

Toward the end of the book, she recalls the morning she got the call from Stein about reuniting Blondie, and her hesitation to revisit the past, when so many she knew and loved remained there. “I had spent the first hour of the day with my head in a photobook…called ‘Warhol’s World.” I saw so many people I knew and so many of them were dead.” One of those notables would have been Jean- Michel Basquiat, whose first sold painting went to Debbie and Chris. Twenty years on, the landscape is even starker. Famously close to Joey Ramone, she makes little mention of him in these pages, which admittedly, makes the caption “Hi, Joey,” under a picture of the two of them, all the more affecting for all that it doesn’t say. And, to be fair, this stoic, steely approach to the hard knocks of life is itself an emblem of a New York that is all but extinct. All the more reason for one of its last standing members to tell its tale.

This lack of sentimentality can also be funny and inventive, such as at the end of the book, where she treats the Acknowledgements as a comic strip. A note of levity. A sign that it ain’t over yet.

Or perhaps, Harry, through everything has maintained an admirable humility. “Are you proud of what you’ve achieved?” Roth asked Harry who is, arguably, the blueprint for every female fronting a rock band in the last forty years. She answered simply, “I’m amazed.”

-Marybeth Connaughton

Photo: Getty Images

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