It's a warm October morning in Miami, and Debbie Harry picks up the phone. Her voice sounds particularly sweet and humble despite her icy-blonde stage persona. The unmistakable clink of porcelain objects — like a teacup placed gently on a saucer — is clearly heard over the line as if it were tea time with punk royalty.
The interview begins by syncing a recording app to the call. Harry is surprised by the ease of the process. "Are you really good at computers and things?" she asks. "I admire that so much."
It's not as if Harry — one of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll — has much to be envious of. She spent her youth rubbing shoulders with poets and musicians while waiting tables at the now-defunct NYC nightclub Max's Kansas City and working for a short time as a go-go dancer and Playboy Bunny. By her late 20s, in 1974, she cofounded the band Blondie, becoming a fixture on New York City's Lower East Side, particularly at venues such as CBGB.
Looking back on those times of excess, Harry is aware she often recalls those days through rose-colored glasses. "Memories are always a little bit sweeter than how things were at the time," she says.
Blondie found commercial success with the release of its third album, Parallel Lines, which catapulted Harry into punk-rock icon status. Her platinum-blond hair and keen sense of fashion made her the poster child of '70s excess and debauchery in New York City. At her influential peak, Harry's star was shining so brightly she was forever immortalized by Andy Warhol in a series of paintings.
"We had a very interesting period of creativity with very interesting music and very interesting people," Harry says. "I was at the right place at the right time."
After 50 years in the music business, Harry has countless stories to tell. Face It, her new memoir, will bring the legendary blonde — along with Blondie cofounder Chris Stein and the book's creative director, Rob Roth — to the Miami Book Fair Wednesday, November 20.
Harry, now 74 years old, decided it was finally time to put her life story on the page. "At first, it was absolutely hateful. I'm not the type who likes walking down memory lane a lot, and I'm not so sure if I like being edited," she admitted earlier this year during an interview with the British music site NME.
Face It covers Harry's life in its entirety, including her birth at a Miami hospital — yes, she is a 305 native — and her upbringing in an adoptive family in New Jersey. Must-read passages include the time she allegedly escaped from serial killer Ted Bundy and when David Bowie exposed himself to her during a tour with Iggy Pop as a way of thanking her for sharing her drugs. The book also dives into her life in New York City and her role as a fundamental part of rock 'n' roll history alongside the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls. Written in a conversational style, the memoir is the result of a series of interviews with the British rock journalist and musician Sylvie Simmons.
Despite being a public figure, Harry has always found sharing the private details of her life difficult. "I had second thoughts about including some of the most personal things that I've never talked about before," she admits. "But it made me feel liberated in a very personal way to just say what my life was like and how I resolved it, how I lived with myself. It's a kind of perspective you can only gain with age."
Working her way up in an industry that, at the time, wasn't as diverse and inclusive as it is now, Harry had her fair share of ups and downs. However, she has a way of finding the positives in that history and shares her stories with a wry twist.
Harry discusses painful moments — including her first encounter with heroin and the time she was robbed and raped at knifepoint — from a kind of detached perspective, like a narrator in noir film. "Reading stuff like that helps you understand yourself," she says. "We all go through rough times; a lot of people go down when they hit really rough times. I went down, and fortunately I held on and came back up. I think, in that respect, it might be good for some people to read that."
Face It makes room for more uplifting stories too. Several of the anecdotes come from Blondie's cofounder Stein, who photographed many of Harry's iconic moments. The two were in a romantic relationship for 13 years and have remained close friends.
"I had a great partnership with [Chris]. He was always very positive, and I think we were both living the dream," Harry says. "It was inspiring to have all these people who were on the same boat trying to make music. It was very challenging, but it was also very encouraging and inspiring."
Perhaps naturally, Stein wrote the introduction to Harry's memoir, which also includes some of the photos he's taken of her over the years. "I'm a rigid believer in reincarnation, past lives; something like that goes on. I think people know each other before they met in a way," Stein says of his bond with Harry.
The connection between the two might have been the key to Blondie's success, but Harry believes the band's achievements can also be attributed to its variety of musical influences. "In New York, as in Miami, we have a lot of musical influences, and living in an urban setting like that and loving music of all kinds, it seemed very natural to me," Harry says. "It's exciting. It's fun to put what you hear into your music."
Throughout the book, fans can read about Harry's experiences, encounters, and collaborations with some of New York's masterminds, including Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Readers will also find fascinating details about her childhood and her daily routines. But as an experienced entertainer, Harry finds a way of maintaining a bit of mystery.
"I still have so much more to tell, but being such a private person, I might not tell everything," she says. "As I've learned in doing shows, it's always best to leave the audience wanting more."
Debbie Harry at Miami Book Fair. With Chris Stein and Rob Roth. 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 20, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $20 via miamibookfair.com.
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