Looking Through The Heart of Glass
by Tobe Damit
I just finished reading Debbie Harry’s biography Making Tacks/The Rise of Blondie written by herself, Chris Stein (photographs) and under the general supervision of Victor Bockris who aided in the formation of the text and the selection of the photographs. It seemed the perfect time to read and review it since she just announced the release of Pollinator, Blondie’s 11th album, due for release on May 5, 2017 by BMG Rights Management. I was really looking forward to read this book since Blondie is a band whose music would be omnipresent on ”the soundtrack of my life’s movie”, if such a thing would indeed exist. Blondie has always managed to preserve their uniqueness and integrity throughout the years. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a story of perseverance, hope and faith. Seeing how often everything could have just gone down the drain, this is the ultimate proof that you really have to give it all you’ve got to make it… Sometimes even giving it what you haven’t got…Yet!
The prologue (added in the 1998 Da Capo Edition) is in fact a very juicy conversation between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris, recorded in 1980 when Blondie was at the top, during which it appears that Chris may hold the upper hand in their couple, a subject that is rather downplayed otherwise. It also sets the tone for the lavish story, the rocky early days and the forces at work behind the creation process since Chris and Debbie obviously are at the very core of Blondie. For the rest of the book, the story is told almost exclusively from Debbie’s point of view, constantly keeping us captivated with a very uplifting, spontaneous, straight forward and witty narrative . She goes on and about everything and everyone meaningful in her life; ”I don’t know exactly where I came from because I don’t know who my natural parents are. Chris thinks I’m definitely an alien because I fit the description in a book he read of a race of females who were put on this planet from space”. Right in this first sentence, one can immediately sense the hurting and the wounds but also the way Debbie has learned to deal with it, and how Chris later came into play. Young Deborah knew what she was destined to be before the age of six and never wavered in her firm conviction; ”I always knew I was a singer. When I began singing with the radio I was struck by the fact that I knew the next note before it was played.”
Very early on, she was a trendsetter during her High School days, dying her hair every possible color starting as soon as 1959 and always dressed in black, not giving much thought to what would people might say. ”When I was a freshman I started to draw attention to myself, with the orange hair and mostly black clothes(…)I always dressed intuitively and emotionally”.
Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie gives a very moving image of how Debbie was trying to become an artist during the mid sixties, working small jobs, going to auditions and painting. She was already singing in a folk group called Wind in the Willows. It was hard but at the same time we get to see how much that, from the sidelines, working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City by the end of the sixties, she observed, watched and learned.”When I worked at Max’s I loved all the people from Andy Warhol Factory, like Eric Emerson, Viva, Ingrid, Taylor Mead, Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Candy Darling, and all the superstars. I was just a baby growing up in the middle of this whole incredible scene, watching Andy Warhol’s eight-hours movies and listening to all kinds of fantastic music very close up at the front.”
Now of course you also get to know, in parallel, what was up with Chris Stein, how his mother was a beatnik painter and his father died when he was only 15, how he also always was into music, painting and arts in general. He is responsible for most of the incredible amount of wonderful pictures that can be found throughout the book, giving a visual dimension for each period that Debbie takes us through. Chris and Debbie went to a lot of events and shows at the same time but it took awhile before they would bump into each other. They had very similar tastes and both enjoyed seeing live the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane. Each of them were being influenced by both the NYC and the LA scene. Chris had his own isssues, he’d taken a lot of acid and was experiencing long periods of seeing everything as cosmic dust(!). He even received his draft notice at the beginning of ’69 while in an asylum, where he spent three months after completely flipping out. He was twenty at the time and this was a delayed reaction to his father’s death. He managed to insist he had all that was needed to be NOT eligible to join the war effort, got out of there with a 4F and rushed up to Woodstock. Debbie was there too, she had served Jefferson Airplane their dinner at Max’s the night before they left for Woodstock. They just didn’t know each other yet so they went separately, never bumping into each other.
Debbie had a lot of issues of her own, being so depressed that she couldn’t sing without bursting into tears. For a while she managed to keep it all together by using various drugs but 1969 was a very pivotal year for everyone. ”Paying for the drugs and doing them became a bigger drag than the problems I was trying to solve(…)It was a tremendously down period and we all had to shake off the freakouts that occurred in ’68 and ’69(…)All that sadness and tragedy just kept going through my head. I love the blues, but I didn’t want to sing them. I wanted to entertain people, have a good time, and be happy.”
So, she quits drugs and took a sabbatical from the whole scene for three years, during which time Chris, having been released from the asylum for good, went on welfare and, sponsored by the division of vocational rehabilitation, was studying photography at the School of Visual Arts, and making some of the connections that would eventually lead to the fatefull event of Debbie and Chris finally meeting.
Debbie gives us a very detailed description of what she was trying to accomplish musically with The Stillettoes who were Elda Gentile, Rosie Ross (later replaced by Amanda) and Debbie; ”a combination of the aggressive Shangri-La’s rock and the round solid vocals of an R&B girl group. The overall idea was to be entertaining and danceable. The original group included Tommy and Jimmy from the Miamis, Timothy Jackson and Youngblood. Tony Ingrassia was the choreographer and worked on giving them a cohesive look so that they each had a stage concept.”
Chris became involved with Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps via the School of Visual Arts by becoming the Dolls’ opening act, and quickly became friends with all those people who hung out on the periphery of the Dolls, eventually becoming Eric’s roadie. He was invited to the second Stillettoes gig at the Boburn Tavern on 28th Street by Elda herself who was the mother of Eric’s children. ”The most striking thing about collaboration is that it often happens in dreams. A microsecond of dream will unfold an elaborate scene in a flash.It’s an amazing form of communication and it happened between Chris and me the first time we saw each other when I was singing and he was in the audience(…) I was very nervous so I delivered a lot of songs to him. We had a psychic connection right away, which struck me particularly because I’d previously only had such string psychic connections with girlfriends”. Chris joined the group on Elda’s request.
Now I gave you a very detailed insight of the early days but the book is even more exhaustive, leaving absolutely no stones unturned as the group slowly takes shape, requiring numerous musicians replacements, new musical directions, new looks and styles, the final result of all this evolution being the band worldy known today as Blondie -always having at it’s very core Debbie and Chris Stein. Reading it you really feel as if you are right there with them, reliving every moment and all aspects of what was to become a very unique band, not really punk, not really disco, Debbie insists on saying that Blondie was a pop band, nothing more, nothing less. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a very fascinating journey to the top with all its up and downs, the tours, the crazy people, the shady promoters, the providential roadies, the tragic and the funny anecdotes, and everything stardom life is about. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry being always the very core of Blondie, you get to see them on various pictures with all the punk and post punk icons as they go on tour around the world several times, living their success with an integrity as persons and artists that is rarely seen.
Starting on the Bowery’s very distinct selective CBGB’s club with The Ramones and all the other bands that have now become legends, Blondie was to later gain international success and go around the world more than once to become one of the most successful bands to have risen from NYC. Here are a few people that you can see with Debbie and/or members of the band on photos included in the book: Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Devo, H.R. Giger, Siouxie, Chrissie Hynde, Andy Warhol, The Screamers, David Bowie, Ray Manzarek, Suzie Quatro, Joan Jett, Cherie Curie, The Buzzcocks, The Screamers, The Ramones to name very few, thanks to Chris Stein who really did an amazing photography job!
You also have a very interesting insight on various projects she was involved with like Blank Generation, a seminal movie about Richard Hell, a remake of Godard’s movie Alphaville that sadly has never seen the day, a promotional clip involving HR Giger ‘‘I Know You Know”. I also happened to watch a cult sci-fi horror movie from 1982: ”Videodrome”, directed by David Cronenberg. Deborah Harry plays the role of Nicki Brand, a sadomasochistic psychiatrist and radio host. I found Debbie’s performance more than satisfying and the movie to be very prophetic.
The book doesn’t contain the usual formal complete list of everything Blondie or its members have been involved with nor a complete discography but rather focuses on the narrative and it’s quite ok since it’s done in a way to sustain the readers interest in the story Debbie tells with a surprising gift for writing. Such a list would have been a cool addition but I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard to find on the internet.
Making Tracks is not only about The Rise of Blondie but also about how they all handled its success. It does not contain a complete discography nor every movie she has played in Every true Blondie fan should read this book since it contains everything you want to know delivered with Debbie’s very witty way of seeing things that always sustains your interest since it is written from a very intimate point of view; and as I mentioned the photos are a very important ingredient in making the reader ”part of the gang”. The whole story is very cohesive and never boring. I will leave you with this quote written by Debbie near the end of the Heart of Glass European Tour that I found very interesting as she compares the UK culture with the US:
”Politics is business-getting enough money to win, keeping enough to stay in power and make more as a politician. The politicization of art in the sixties was very hypocritical. It existed in the minds of the people who wanted it to exist, but the people who were in power were definitely not having anything to do with it.
I don’t think there’s too much difference between the Americans and British scenes, Everybody wants the same thing for themselves and their culture, but the methods have to be different because of the differences in the way the cultures operate. In America Iggy was a radical force without saying anything political. His presence and what he did was a radical phenomenon. If somebody can get on the subway and wipe out the minds of the people who see him, he’s having an effect on them and doesn’t need to say anything. I hope the kids in England realise that we all want the same things, we’re just going about it in different ways.”
Almost all of the pictures above are taken from the 1998 edition of Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie and taken by ©Chris Stein. I only posted very few of them. The book is litteraly loaded with awesome pictures, most of them are very hard to find. See my interview with co-author Victor Bockris about this book here!