photo & text by nacrowe
as i mentioned before in my FACE IT book review, my brother works at a big box electronics retailer and within the past year had an older customer come in about her phone. my brother started looking over the phone and asked the customer "are you?..." to which she said "yes." at that point he went in a back room with the phone to begin repairing it and told an associate "that's pretty wild that DEBBIE HARRY is outside" to which his coworker asked "who's DEBBIE HARRY?"
well, DEBBIE HARRY is the legendary singer of BLONDIE, one of the most iconic NEW WAVE bands that came out of the original PUNK ROCK scene at CBGB's in the late 1970s that also famously nurtured TELEVISION, PATTI SMITH, SUICIDE, THE DEAD BOYS, TALKING HEADS and, of course, THE RAMONES. i know there is much debate about what specifically constitutes a PUNK band versus a NEW WAVE band and where BLONDIE fits into that schema. such talk never really interested me. all i know is that PARALLEL LINES (CHRYSALIS, 1978) is a great pop record with all that entails: great hooks, powerful performances, thoughtful lyrics and sheer charisma. there is a reason that HARRY is so beloved and has been a touchstone for everyone from JOAN JETT, ELASTICA and MADONNA to GARBAGE, R.E.M. and NO DOUBT. i dont want to get away from the obvious fact that DEBBIE HARRY is a female cultural icon in the vein of MARILYN MONROE. there is a reason ANDY WARHOL did portraits of her during the last decade of his life. but i think that image also has an underbelly and such is that she is criminally underrated as a singer and a recording artist due to her commercial appeal and status as a pre-internet celebrity.
PARALLEL LINES often gets attached to the PUNK and NEW WAVE movements, but in my estimation the movement that should be referenced is the POWER POP movement that sought to modernize the modern classicism of THE BEATLES. This is evidenced in the excellent covers of THE NERVE's "HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE" and BUDDY HOLLY's "I'M GONNA LOVE YOU TOO" as well as all the CHRIS STEIN written/co-written tracks such as "PICTURE THIS," "SUNDAY GIRL," and of course "HEART OF GLASS." all showcase a way with a memorable pop hook that was not attached to their more experimental brethren at the time. that sense of melodic appeal and pop sheen has been a sore spot for many when compared to the likes of PATTI SMITH, TALKING HEADS or THE RAMONES, but in my mind they all carved their own lane. why do they all need to sound the same. it is the same case when one realizes that GREEN DAY and NEUROSIS came from the same EAST BAY scene and where admirers of one another. life is complicated, get over it.
Perhaps my favorite moment on PARALLEL LINES is "ONE WAY OR ANOTHER" written by HARRY and based on her experience with a stalker. the song is from the perspective of the perpetrator and the lyrics really counteract that celebratory upbeat vibe of the music. its an interesting juxtaposition that subverts listener expectations and showcases the psychological complexity of a deranged mind focused on the object of his/her obsession. it many ways this voyeurism is mirrored in the deification involved in celebrity culture, something i am almost certain was not lost on HARRY who was the object of said attention.
i want to close by mentioning that guitarist CHRIS STEIN is also criminally underrated as a songwriter. his sense of melody, structure and arrangement is often overlooked among his peer group. i feel the influence of BLONDIE on modern music is as much his legacy as HARRY's, who obviously was the public-facing member of the group. on top of that he is also a talented photographer.
definitely check out PARALLEL LINES and take in its sublime pop bliss. and then listen to THE RAMONES.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
if you are fan of music then you already know about NILE RODGERS. he is arguably one of the great composers, arrangers and musicians of the 20th century with a list of musical collaborations that spans from DAVID BOWIE, SISTER SLEDGE, DEBORAH HARRY, MADONNA and BRYAN FERRY to AVICII, DURAN DURAN, DAFT PUNK, GRACE JONES, THE B-52s and even his legendary 70s outfit CHIC. he is very much a musician's musician and no less a guitar-playing connoisseur than JOHNNY MARR named his son after him. just let that one sink in for a moment.
but until recently his public profile was behind the scenes in production.
the documentary NILE RODGERS: THE HITMAKER (BBC, 2013) is attempt to change all that. filmed during a break from rehearsing for a worldwide CHIC tour at time he was fighting prostate cancer, this film very much feels like an opportunity for the man and his admirers to give their props should the worst happen (thankfully he survived and continues to work to present day).
and survive the dude has. raised by heroin-addicted, bohemian parents in MANHATTAN, he grew up intimately aware of street life and drug culture along with the lexicon of music by devouring his parents JAZZ and CLASSICAL vinyl records. their is an aspirational quality to the uplifting, kinetic rhythms of CHIC and their escapist messaging to the audience of the emerging DISCO scene all over NYC. their is an almost symbiotic relationship between his guitar work and the pulsing, driving FUNK rhythms of bassist and collaborator BERNARD EDWARDS. They rode that initial wave in the late 1970s until the xenophobic, anti-BLACK and anti-LGBT DISCO SUX wave effectively stopped them in the their tracks. this led to his production career which was jumpstarted by DAVID BOWIE with the "LET'S DANCE" record basically has sustained him since as an in-demand writer, arranger, composer, guest musician and producer.
what i appreciated most about this film was how past collaborators spoke of his uncanny ear to see space in a mix where he could contribute a guitar line or texture. these small contributions are the details that make a record pop and although maybe unnoticed by your average listener, these are the sonic details that musicians strive to achieve in the studio. they notice. participants included that of BRYAN FERRY, JOHNNY MARR, DEBBIE HARRY and CHRIS STEIN of BLONDIE, JOHN TAYLOR of DURAN DURAN, STEVE WINWOOD, LA ROUX, NORMA JEAN WRIGHT of CHIC and NILE RODGERS himself.
I think it is touching that this documentary was showcased before his biggest hit in decades, "GET LUCKY" by FRENCH electronic duo DAFT PUNK, was released to worldwide admiration. just proves the dude always has something up his sleeve.
photo & text by nacrowe
my brother works at a place in NEW JERSEY where they fix consumer electronics on-site and an older customer came to him with an issue with her phone. he went about solving her problem by analyzing it and quickly realized by its contents who his client was and asked "are you?..." to which she replied "yes." my brother then went in the back area and started working on the phone and told his 20-something co-worker "just so you know, thats DEBBIE HARRY out there."
"who is DEBBIE HARRY?"
FACE IT (DEY STREET, 2019), the recently published memoir by legendary BLONDIE front-woman, actor and fashion icon DEBBIE HARRY is that rare outward statement by an artist that directly addresses their public persona. here HARRY incorporates dozens of portraits by fans through the years as a way of showcasing how enduring a cultural legacy her musical creation has been and how it has carried on much like that of her beloved idol MARILYN MONROE. all artists have personas and the idea of authenticity is a fraught concept to begin with, and i think that incorporating the fan aspect as a literal house of mirrors is an interesting take on the idea of fame.
because a lot of this book deals with BLONDIE before they became famous. it showcases a hungry upcoming band struggling in a post-apocalyptic downtown landscape in NYC during the 1970s when the social contract that binds us temporarily broke down. but in that chaos was a risk and reward with cheap housing and ample space to create. no doubt this story is important for her to tell because it showcases the psychical and emotional sacrifices she made pre-fame to chase her dream of being an artist. not a singer, but a multi-dimensional artist in a rich tapestry of like-minded souls that only an extended network like NYC could provide with the adjacent ANDY WARHOL/PAUL MORRISSEY scene and slow-churning band of misfits that made up the early punk scene.
a lot of times BLONDIE gets trapped into being NEW WAVE as their sound clashed with the likes of RICHARD HELL, TELEVISION and THE RAMONES, but this book puts that argument to shame. BLONDIE were PUNK. PUNK enough to do DISCO. her argument bases itself on her band's intent, as they were constantly pushing out their sound over several albums to expand and incorporate elements of JAZZ, ELECTRONIC MUSIC, AFRICAN and LATIN rhythms, R&B, HIP HOP and beyond. its hard to argue against that. plus not everyone needs to be PATTI SMITH.
the crux of this memoir seems to be her relationship with the BLONDIE character, which is really just a dialogue we all have with our pubic image. this is beyond prescient and meta when you consider that everyone with a social media account (cough, cough or blog) is putting out an image that may or may not jive with their real-world counterpart. HARRY dealt with this in real-time throughout with her career to unique extent that is probably only matched by movie stars and other high profile female musicians that are marketed based on their sexuality. most of the female musicians i have written BOOK REVIEWS for over time in this space (RONNIE SPECTOR, PATTI SCHEMEL, LILLY ALLEN, KIM GORDON, PATTI SMITH and CHRISSIE HYNDE) have largely had to deal with this issue, whether or not they abandoned it at some point. it is just an awful aspect of our culture that women are subject to being expendable once their perceived "beauty" has expired. for me HARRY is an archetype for this dilemma and her memoir shows her constant expansion into new territory and new creative relationships to date. to LADY MACBETH that shit and unsex her there. how do you follow up your third successful album, by collaborating with NILE ROGERS and having your album cover created by H.R. GIGER, duh. seems the logical choice for a commercial career trajectory.
i feel HARRY is still criminally underrated as an artist and this memoir does its part to argue in favor of her contributions separate from her BLONDIE persona.
but then again i am totally biased. like her, im from NEW JERSEY.