Debbie Harry and Chris Stein lecture usJune 19, 2013
Hey 19, You remember Blondie right?
They were perhaps the most influential and certainly the most commercially successful American band to emerge during the New Wave era of 1978-82. They emerged from the same downtown Manhattan scene that spawned the Ramones and Talking Heads. They legitimized disco with the parody song “Heart of Glass”; redefined the parameters of European synth-rock with “Call Me”; made one of rock’s first sorties into hip-hop with “Rapture”; might have started the ska revival with “The Tide Is High.” As many kids probably bought their records for the album covers — which featured the stunning Debbie Harry, a former Playboy Club hostess from New Jersey with a wicked sense of ironic distance and a voice like a crippled angel.
Then, in classic rock ‘n’ roll fashion, they dissolved in the mist of acrimony and health problems — Chris Stein, the guitarist and Harry’s longtime lover, contracted a rare, painful genetic disease called pemphigus, that caused him to develop blisters all over his body and inside his mouth and throat. For two years he couldn’t swallow solid food — Harry was by his side almost constantly, liquefying his food, dodging tabloid reporters, attempting to preserve their privacy.
Harry made a handful of solo records during the mid-1980s — including the Nile Rodgers-produced Koo Koo and the underrated Rockbird — but basically the story was over. Debbie Harry became Deborah Harry, she took a few movie roles (she was very good in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome ) and started singing with the Jazz Passengers, which more or less represented a return to her roots.
The first incarnation of Blondie had one of the more perfect career arcs ever described by a rock ‘n’ roll band — five years, six albums, a clutch of hit singles, a lot of impressionable fans who would start bands of their own, and an exquisite corpse. Eventually Stein recovered. And one of the great rock ‘n’ roll love stories had a semi-happy ending. After more than a dozen years together, Stein and Harry broke up. But they remained friends. Stein says they even double date these days.