Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.
The Millions: You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?
Debbie Harry: I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.
TM: You mention in the book that memory is subjective.
DH: I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.
TM: You say you were influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs, maybe music memoirs, that resonated with you when you were writing this book?
DH: For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.
TM: You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s and even the ’80s. What do you miss most?
DH: I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.
TM: Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?
DH: The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, “Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?” Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, “Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!” You really do get a great feeling.
TM: You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman”—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie, too, isn’t it?
DH: To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.
TM: Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?
DH: It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film. I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.
TM: Have you read any of John Waters’s books? He’s a fine writer.
DH: Yes, and he’s an artist who has exhibited in galleries. And he gives lectures—I love his lectures, they’re fabulous. He’s so knowledgeable and so entertaining about B movies.
TM: In your book, you write that “success quickly started to feel anticlimactic.” Do you still feel that way?
DH: I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.
TM: Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?
DH: Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.
TM: You mention in the book that you’re making some new music. What are you working on?
DH: Just writing snippets, little bits and bobs of ideas for lyrics and themes. I’ve been parsing out some of the instrumental tracks, and I’m trying to learn about new artists I really haven’t been paying attention to. All the little pieces are filtering into my brain. Hopefully in the New Year, I’ll get in the studio to do some solo work.
TM: Who are the musicians you’re listening to?
DH: One is Aldous Harding. She has this great video on YouTube called “The Barrel.” The song is very interesting and quirky, and she comes more from being a poet. There’s some great stuff out there. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll has come a long way; it’s very sophisticated and it encompasses a lot of attitudes and instrumentation.
TM: Do you think you’ll have a new record next year?
DH: Oh, God no, I don’t think it’ll be out that soon. Thinking positively, we could possibly get an EP out.
TM: Are you going on a tour to promote your book?
DH: I am. I have about five or six dates around the country, and then I go over to the U.K. and Germany. I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair.
TM: Good luck with the book. I hope it sells like Krispy Kremes.
DH: Oh, thanks [Laughs.] But not as fattening!
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.
For the last year or so, my father has been sending me obituaries through the mail. He used to send sports clippings — box scores or recaps from the Phoenix teams that have been breaking my heart reliably since girlhood — but more and more his envelopes contain the back page of The Economist: a head of state, a humanitarian or scientist, sometimes a writer. Often the person being remembered is one I’ve never heard of before: the inventor of Helvetica, the Kalashnikov. My father annotates each with a Post-it, then affixes a Forever stamp, which he buys at Costco, 9000 at a time.
My father, 81 now, is no Luddite. He emails and checks flights on Flight Tracker and knows what a selfie is. He has a cell phone, though he prides himself on rarely using it. And each day, he gets his news on the internet, where all these obits can be found. But, as anyone who receives “snail-mail” knows, what can be done more easily online is beside the point.
Both my parents are prolific mailers. Every year my mother sends me at least two birthday cards, which arrive on the same day. She insists she can’t pick between the messages. (Hallmark loves her.) A friend from grad school who would watch my cat when I traveled said she could tell how much my family loved me, just from the volume of mail they sent.
It’s true. More days than not, an envelope addressed in my father’s neat engineer’s script is waiting when I get home. Some days, the contents are so thin, I think maybe he’s just sent me an envelope this time.
I joke with friends, calling it Summer Camp Syndrome, half-embarrassed by the constancy of the post, by its hint that I am merely on an extended trip somewhere, except that the trip is my life. But the truth is: there in the mail lobby, after a long day, I have come to crave seeing their hand.
The occasional square of sports news still arrives. But more and more I can count on that red-banded back page—Obituary—torn and folded neatly into sixths, and the formulaic obit sub-head: Name, notoriety, age at death.
The writing, my father told me once: that’s why he sends me them. Sidelong, often playful, and sometimes tender, it’s writing that makes you miss the remembered, or at least marvel at their works here on earth. (Even the recent tribute to Charles Keating, to which my father attached this note–A local villain from your early days–managed to do this.) The best ones do nothing less than bring the person (back) to life, if only for a page.
When I was in college, I was the one with a subscription to The Economist. And so when I read the epigraph to Gabriel García Márquez’s 2003 autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, I thought of my father, from whom I got what he calls the “remembering gene.” I tore out the review, folded it up, and mailed it an hour up the road to my parents’ address. I couldn’t know then that Gabo’s words would become a sort of motto for my father, a new way of thinking about his own life.
As a way of staying in touch, the obits don’t really give us all that much contact: I call or email him about the articles, but not every time. And I rarely mail him a letter back—me, a self-professed devotee of the epistolary, and the last human on earth still buying non-forever stamps for the pictures on them—at an actual post office. The fact that my father doesn’t send the obituaries expecting a reply—though true—seems too easy an answer. An obituary is the ultimate last word; the very form seems to pre-empt a reply.
But sometimes I don’t even open the envelopes. I’m not proud of this. I could claim that they just get lost among the junk mail and manuscript pages on my desk, but it’s not that simple. I’ll put an envelope in my backpack and carry it around, planning to read it, but when I take it out I just look at the address, feel the thickness, and put it back again, unopened. There are some weeks I don’t deserve a letter. And others, I can’t deal with news of a death.
But in my most honest hours, I know there’s more to my reluctance. While my father is a young 81—another man’s 61, according to everyone who meets him—and longevity runs in the family (his mother lived to 102), the fact that there’s an “8” in the age recorded in so many of the headlines he sends is still a fact, a fact that sideswipes me on certain days. When did this happen? I think. I think: So he’s preparing me.
I’m ashamed, admitting this. Even the thought constitutes a kind of betrayal, since my father would never think this way. He only retired a few years ago, at 77. He still does all the yard work and cooking and house repair, still sings in the church choir, then goes to reverse happy hour (with the church choir). When a towering two-story cactus in his yard started to lean, Pisa-like, over a neighbor’s fence last summer, he insisted on felling it himself. I was visiting, and when I suggested that hiring a trained professional might be a good idea, he made a counteroffer: I could help catch falling limbs. He found me gloves. The man never thinks of his own age, and it shames me that I do—proves I didn’t inherit his sunny outlook, not entirely. My father’s philosophy is: if it’s your time to go, then a cactus is going fall on you, so what’s the use in thinking about it? And he doesn’t.
This spring, I sent an obituary back to him for the first time. Two, actually. Both storytellers. Printer-friendly versions of a remembrance of Mavis Gallant, and the postscript for Peter Matthiessen written by James Salter, whose writing about flight my father, as a pilot, admires. I went through them with a pen, underlining bits: their ties to Paris, Matthiessen’s role founding the Paris Review, Gallant’s move there as a young story writer. (My dad, I knew, would picture Gil Pender, standing there with his pages and waiting for Fitzgerald.)
The day I planned to mail these pages, Gabriel García Márquez died. The day before Good Friday. I thought about including García Márquez’s obit, too, but hesitated: I didn’t want to tell my father. It felt too big, news of all those writers in the same envelope. Instead, I just added a Post-it: I’m sorry about García Márquez.
I was on the train home when my father called.
“Thanks for the obituaries you sent,” he said. “But I didn’t understand your note. What about Márquez?”
Almost a week had gone by, but he hadn’t heard yet. My train was pulling into Daly City, the fog just tipping over the hills in the west, and I told him. He was quiet for a minute. “That’s too bad,” he said.
When I moved recently, I found a shoebox of envelopes in my father’s hand. Perhaps this portends pre-hoarding tendencies, though I hope not. Together, the envelopes form a history of my last decade: a real zoetrope of apartments and cities, the gold return address sticker in the corner always the same. For some reason, it’s harder for me to get rid of the envelopes than the newsprint itself. They are proof, I guess, but of what? Love, yes, but something else. That I am being remembered. And a quieter mandate, too: Remember me. Remember me like this.
My father called again the other day, from his flip phone.
“So García Márquez made The Economist,” he said. A copy’s in the mail to you. I put the other in my Book of Crap” (a sort of scrapbook he keeps). “Actually,” he said, “it’s not crap. Anyway, I wrote a note on the back.” I asked him what it said. “Thanks to Kate, I learned of this author who explained my interest in remembering way too much stuff, but always in the context of a story.’”
Way too much stuff. I found a pen and scribbled on the back of an envelope nearby, sad that I don’t know how to let a call just be a call anymore, sad or maybe lucky that everything, these days, feels like a keepsake. I asked him about that first review I’d sent him, to check my memory.
“Well, it’s in his book you gave me,” he said. “I think it’s an epigraph. Let’s see.”
I pictured him in his desk chair, staring at the bookshelves, thumbs at his lips, looking for the memoir. I knew exactly the afternoon light through the shutters, the wall of airplane pictures above the desk, the dogs asleep near his feet. I was standing in my own kitchen, watching the eucalyptus tree in back swerve. The day was bright and windy, the kind of day that lets you believe that the world will just go on.
“Found it,” he said. “Living to Tell the Tale.” I listened as he read to me. “Title page. Then here’s a note from you.” He read my inscription back, one I’d signed, stupidly, Your tale-teller. “Then there’s a page where people say how brilliant he is.” I could hear his thumb rasping the pages. Even though we both know the quote by heart, he’s an engineer, and there’s an order to these things. “The Library of Congress page—then, okay: here it is. ‘Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers, and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’”
“That’s it,” I said. Plain words that have come to mean so much to us both: words that give purpose to my father’s funny burden of “remembering way too much stuff” and that justify, for me, setting those memories down, on tape, in fiction. One sentence that named for him a way of being—I tell stories—and advanced an hypothesis I’m worried I’ve taken up as dogma: that remembering might be life itself.
“The next page is a map of Colombia,” he said. “And then, on the next page, the book starts.”
The book starts. Isn’t that a thrilling thing to be told? Maybe that’s what my shoebox of obits are, at least when they leave the post office in Arizona. What my father is saying, each time he folds and sends another. Something has ended, yes, but see? Now the telling begins.
Image via Mary Hutchinson/Flickr
In late 2004, I received this question from a reader:I’m wondering when the next volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography is coming out – anyone know?At the time I didn’t have an answer, but I instead managed to stumble upon the news, then ricocheting across the Spanish-speaking world, that he had finished a new novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. (The Millions was, in fact, the first English-language publication to report the news, and that post gave us our first big shot of readers.)Now, however, we have received word that Marquez may be starting in on volume two of his proposed three volume biography. The first volume covered his childhood, and Marquez has said that the second volume may carry us through to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982. Reporting on the occasion of Marquez’s 80th birthday, the LA Times said:His longtime friend and collaborator Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza said by telephone last week from Portugal that “Gabo,” as Garcia Marquez is known here, is picking up with his memoirs in Paris in the mid-1950s, where his first bestselling volume, Living to Tell the Tale, left off.It’s welcome news for fans, as Marquez “last year gave friends the disappointing news that he had ‘run out of gas’ and was quitting writing. The author was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, and after treatment at UCLA Medical Center, he recently was pronounced free of the disease.”As an aside, it was Marquez’s trips to Los Angeles to be treated that gave me the opportunity to meet him in the very early (and slightly embarrassing) days of this blog. (You’ll have to scroll down. I don’t know what I was thinking – How could I not lead that post with Marquez!)
I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.