Deborah Harry continues the dance
November 29, 2007
ASPEN Deborah Harry didn’t come from an artistic background. Her father was a salesman in New York City’s garment district, her mom, a homemaker who sometimes took part-time jobs. So Harry, who had creative ambitions from the time of her childhood, had to engage in a process of self-invention to go from a not especially artistic upbringing in Hawthorne, N.J., to the singer, actress and fashionplate known as Blondie who sat atop the fabled club scene some dozen miles away in downtown Manhattan.For many, Harry was such a symbol of those times – when punk and New Wave were emerging, New York’s downtown was dirty and dangerous, and pop music was untidy and unpredictable – that it’s hard not to freeze the singer in the era. The cover of 1978’s “Parallel Lines” – five guys in black suits and skinny ties, and Harry, tough as a pistol and way more sexy in a skimpy white dress – could well be an emblem of those years. And the songs from that and other Blondie albums – the insistent come-on of “Heart of Glass,” the lean rocker “One Way or Another,” and “Rapture,” which introduced a radio audience to the coming of rap – were unquestionably part of the soundtrack for the times.But it hasn’t seemed difficult at all for Harry herself to move beyond the moment. Even though Blondie remains, some three decades after its heyday, an ongoing venture – its last album, “The Curse of Blondie,” was released in 2003 – Harry continues to reinvent herself. Or, at least, build on and expand that original impulse to become a creative force.”I always wanted to be an artist – those were my inclinations, my fascination was with that,” said Harry by phone. “I felt early on I’d be in fine arts or entertainment.”
The young Harry dabbled in painting, took a stab at singing in a folk-rock group, and modeled for Playboy. In the mid-’70s, she met Chris Stein, who would become her boyfriend and a collaborator in forming Blondie. The band was both a New York institution, helping put CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City on the musical map, and a force on radio. Harry enjoyed every aspect of the creative outlet, from the music to the clothes to the attitude.”I was having so much fun doing it,” she said. “It was very good to be in a creative frame of mind. Satisfying that creative urge was important to me at the time.”Actually, it never stopped being important. Harry has tested her wings in a variety of fields and, while never matching the popularity of Blondie, she hasn’t turned away from the idea of continually moving forward. She gets steady work as an actress, appearing in such films as the original “Hairspray,” “Cop Land” and “Deuces Wild”; she has a part in the upcoming film “Elegy,” based on the Philip Roth novel, acting alongside Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper, her onscreen husband. On the musical side, Harry has taken part in such far-ranging projects as being vocalist for the Jazz Passengers, an ambitious avant-jazz ensemble which released several CDs, and writing songs for a new stage production of the 1985 club film “Desperately Seeking Susan.”Last month saw the release of “Necessary Evil,” Harry’s first solo CD since 1993’s “Debravation.” The album – made in collaboration with Super Buddha, the production team of Barb Morrison and Charles Nieland – is notably up-to-date in its sound. The idea that it shouldn’t be is foreign to Harry; staying in tune with the time is as effortless as her New York accent.”A lot of people have said that to me,” said Harry, who appears with her four-piece band Friday at Belly Up Aspen, “but I don’t think I was striving to do anything unnatural. This is what people are talking about, and this is what I’m striving for.””Necessary Evil” encompasses a wide range of sounds and feels. “If I Had You” is a warm tune, whose balladlike passages are broken up by a catchy chorus; “Needless to Say” stays a gentle ballad. “Jen Jen,” written by Stein, has thoroughly unexpected African elements; “Deep End” has a punk element that is both expected and refreshing.
Harry sees the album as a neat progression from the work she has done in Blondie. “I think Blondie’s always been nontraditional in certain ways,” she said. “We broke down barriers doing ‘Rapture’ and “Tide Is High’ and ‘Heart of Glass.’ That’s an important part of Blondie’s identity.”While the music is in line with her history, it is also a separate entity from what she does with Blondie. Harry says that the freshness of “Necessary Evil” comes from having worked on new Blondie material for several years and thinking about what other kind of music she might want to try.”I wanted to do something that was about me, today,” she said. “I wanted to do a Deborah Harry solo record that was about Deborah Harry in 2007.”And in some essential ways, the 62-year-old Deborah Harry of today has a lot in common with the younger, archetypal model of 30 years ago. Most of “Necessary Evil” – and especially the pulsing, wonderful opening track “Two Times Blue” – is made not only for listening, but for moving.Harry still spends what she calls “a fair amount of time” in clubs, and counts DJs among her friends. She has developed some discriminating tastes in clubbing: “I like a certain kind of club, with blended, interesting, textured music. That’s a lot of fun,” she said. “Not just that one kind of beat, with one pulsing thing.”And Harry, like the singer in the video for “Rapture,” isn’t likely to sit on the sidelines when she does visit a club. Dancing remains a favorite activity.
“Definitely. I encourage it,” she said. “I love dancing. Love it.”Shouldn’t I?”Deborah Harry, with Kristoffer Ragnstam opening, Friday, Nov. 30 at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen. For the complete Belly Up schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org