Icons / August 2017

Debbie Harry: Sylph-Perpetuating Myth

At the height of her punk power, Debbie Harry was lionised as she ironised. But at all times she was in control, a woman whose image was no one’s business but her own.

Debbie Harry performing live on stage, circa late 1970s.

She rose like a curious wind off the Hudson, more biting than a zephyr yet still delicious on the hot skin of a Manhattan summer. Debbie Harry — Blondie was the band — reigned over the mid-seventies and early eighties like a sylph with a potty mouth and a penchant for clothing skimpier than a Kardashian poetry volume. She was fomented in the same roiling punk scene that gave birth to the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Heartbreakers and The Fleshtones at the notorious CBGB club. But while her male contemporaries sneered, spat and leered at what they saw as the anodyne, sanitised and cheesy world of commercial music — remember, this was the age of disco — Harry followed a different path.

In short, she took more piss than a urologist struggling to make his alimony payments. Her musical style was a grab-bag of reggae, new wave, pop and even the nascent hip-hop — some credit her with being the first rapper to chart, with the song Rapture. Yet it was all underpinned by a streak of sarcasm and more winks and nudges than a Benny Hill show. “It was very much about irony at that time,” she has said. “It was about a sophisticated sort of put-down, antisocial but witty. We were always trying for that play on words, for the double entendre.” In a few years, Harry went from singing backing vocals for a folk group to touring with Iggy Pop, via a requisite stint as a waitress at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club.

To the substance she added style. It was a case of Kewpie doll gone bad, all tiny shorts, bra-less tanks, platinum hair, a Cupid’s bow on which you’d like to see out the rest of your days, heavy-lidded gazes, and knowing glances in soft focus. But here’s the thing: the look and the ’tude were informed by the era’s rampant feminism. Harry was in no uncertain terms a woman in control, whose image was no one’s creation but her own and one she could scrap if the circumstances called for it. One night, after a gig in Manhattan, a stranger offered her a lift. When she got into the car she noticed there were no handles on the doors. Reaching through the window she opened the door from the outside and flung herself from the speeding car as the driver tried to keep her in the vehicle. His name was Ted Bundy. That Ted Bundy.

Tags

Contributor

David Smiedt