It wasn't the voice of, well, rapture that you'd expect. From Deborah Harry's tired, borderline cranky tone during the first few minutes of a phone call from her San Francisco hotel room, it's hard to tell whether she's lost about a week's sleep or if she just hates interviews. It's neither, says Harry apologetically, only tour fatigue. The singer explains that she just got back from doing a week's worth of shows in London only hours earlier and then booked butt immediately to the nearest gym for a soul-cleansing workout. Yeah, that's right, the same Deborah Harry who once cracked to Spin magazine that the only reason women go to gyms is to "jack themselves off" is now a spa enthusiast herself. A hardbody in cheetah skin and black leather.
A newfound buff bod isn't the only thing that's changed about the seasoned sex kitten. Recent publicity pics show nappy dreads--platinum, naturally--now crowning the famous heart-of-glass-shaped face. You also might take notice of a grown-up moniker. (Don't make her have to correct you: It's Deborah, not Debbie, these days.)
The most significant news, however, is the release of Harry's latest solo LP, Def, Dumb & Blonde. Unfortunately, it proves the more some things change, the more they stay the same. From the well-preserved Lolita gracing the cover to the new-wavey rhythms within, there's nothing radically different from the singer's Blondie days. And that's precisely the rub: While the album has a couple of interesting tracks, too often Harry's just reheating old hits as she did on her last solo disc, Rockbird. What to do as an encore to her string of number-one hits ("Heart of Glass," "Call Me," "The Tide Is High," and "Rapture") has been a question that's hounded the peroxide princess for most of this decade. It seems strange that a singer who found it relatively easy to parlay her cultish CBGB clubland following into international pop celebrityhood has been utterly clueless about how to build a solo career.
She got off to a bad start with 1981's KooKoo, an ill-fated pop-funk collaboration with Chic-men Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. The only memorable thing about the LP was its cover art, which showed the singer's head being shish-kebabed like a cherry tomato by enormous acupuncture needles.
Between the time of Blondie's disastrous last disc, The Hunter, in 1982 and Rockbird in 1986, it seemed Harry had all but retired. Actually she was spending most of her time nursing former Blondie partner and then-boyfriend, Chris Stein, who was fighting pemphigus, a rare genetic disease that kept him in and out of hospitals for three years. Harry's vinyl output was reduced to a trickle during this period, namely a couple of soundtrack cuts, "Rush Rush" from Scarface and "Feel the Spin" from Krush Groove.
The erstwhile Blondie babe rebounded--but only slightly--with her second solo LP, Rockbird. Some tracks, especially the shimmering Eurodisco number "In Love With Love," stood up to anything in the Blondie catalogue. But others, like the hyperspeed bopper "I Want You," came off like parodies of Harry's new-wave hits. Obnoxious back-up vocals and producer Seth (J. Geils Band) Justman's grating synth-steeped arrangements didn't lend any listener appeal, either.
In addition to changing management and record labels--she's on Sire-Reprise now--Harry claims she also changed approaches for her new LP. "I think Def, Dumb & Blonde is more accessible to the people that know me," asserts the Sunday girl. "It's got a different attitude than Rockbird."
A different attitude maybe, but Def, Dumb & Blonde is a similarly mixed bag. Mistake number one was in hooking up with has-beens Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie of the Thompson Twins, who co-wrote and produced a couple of tracks. The Twins' work here--including the LP's first single, "I Want That Man"--is strictly by-the-numbers pop.
The Brazilian duo of Nana Vasconcelos and Mario Toledo offer up better material for Harry with "Calmarie," a beautiful, languid samba. She plays the girl from Ipanema on this cut, wrapping her fluid voice around sensual Latino verse. Also worth checking out is the weird but compelling, quasi-autobiographical "End of the Run." In one of the song's many spoken bits, Harry alludes eloquently to her punk past: "I shrug off any attempts to explain how a torn tee shirt made it all dangerous again."
Def, Dumb & Blonde ends up being a more satisfying album than Rockbird, but odds are it's still not likely to jump-start Harry's flagging recording career. Ironically, while the singer struggles along doing her solo thang, several young British bands have co-opted Blondie's signature new-wave style and taken it to the top of the U.K. charts. This nouvelle vague revivalism among baby Brit bands may seem oddly premature, but Harry feels it makes perfect sense. "The industry seems to be calculated that way, where they bring something back after ten years," figures the former new-waver who, after all, did her part in resurrecting Sixties surf music and miniskirts way back in 1977.
One young, nostalgia-obsessed U.K. act, the Primitives, has Blondie's peroxide pop--Sixties-influenced and a bit spacy--down pat. Another group, Transvision Vamp, takes its cue from Blondie's more lewd, hard-edged side. This is especially evident on the Vamp's cover of Holly and the Italians' "Tell That Girl to Shut Up," which owes more to Harry's "Rip Her to Shreds" than to Holly's original.
Is the singer peeved that these upstart popsters seem to be modeling themselves so closely after early Blondie? "I think `seem to be modeling themselves' is an understatement," laughs Harry. "They're absolute knockoffs of Blondie. It's interesting to me that each one seems to have a different idea or different interpretation of Blondie, or me in particular, and has gone in one direction with it. I think it's very flattering."
Harry has made acting as much a part of her post-Blondie career as music, turning in performances that usually have been more entertaining than her solo albums. She tried Broadway in 1983 right after Blondie's split with Teaneck Tanzi & the Venus Flytrap. It wasn't exactly an auspicious debut, though. The show, a rock 'n' wrestling farce before Cyndi Lauper made that a marketable concept, closed after one night.
Harry claims she took the Broadway bust more or less in stride. "What would anybody do?" shrugs the songstress. "It's the same thing as applying for a job: You apply for it, and either you get it or you don't. Not many people slash their wrists because they don't get a job."
Harry's fared better in filmdom, especially with her early roles in Union City and Videodrome. During Blondie's dying days, she was offered the part of the victimized chanteuse in BlueVelvet--imagine her cooing "I looked for you in my closet tonight"--but Stein's illness and director David Lynch's lack of cash kept her from the role, which finally went to Isabella Rossellini. Her juiciest performance to date was in John Waters' Hairspray, as the scheming early Sixties housewife, Velma Von Tussle, who gets her comeuppance when a bomb planted in her four-tiered bouffant explodes during the flick's wacky finale.
The bottle blonde has also been all over the tube during the past decade, beginning with her 1980 guest spot on The Muppet Show, where she sang "Call Me" to Kermit the Frog. Since then she's appeared on everything from Tales From the Dark Side to RollerGames. Harry says doing RollerGames, which is hosted by Phoenix's own newsanchor-turned-Playmate Shelly Jamison, was fun, but she still longs for the derby's good ol' days when the skaters looked like truck drivers instead of the Day-Glo characters from a Jem cartoon come to life.
The singer got a respite from trash TV recently with a fairly well-written dramatic role on the mob melodrama, Wiseguy. Mick Fleetwood and Glenn Frey also have guested on the program, but Harry showed up their feeble stabs at method acting with her performance as a washed-up pop star who's reduced to singing easy-listening tunes in a New Jersey lounge. Considering her tepid rock career of late, did the singer fret that this might appear to be a case of prime-time TV imitating life?
"My agent and I talked about this, as a matter of fact," admits Harry. "But this was just a part. Whether or not people consider me washed-up is quite another story. I certainly don't think this character was modeled after me. It was just fiction--good fiction."
Deborah Harry will perform at After the Gold Rush on Monday, October 30, with Undertow. Show time is 8 p.m.
While Harry struggles along doing her solo thang, several British bands have co-opted Blondie's signature style and taken it to the top of the charts.