WHEN Debbie Harry met Chris Stein, she fell for “the smart, funny, cute guy” who became her lover and fellow founder of Blondie.
They’ve been through thick and thin, from the euphoric highs of global success to crashing lows in the Eighties in the form of debt, addiction and Stein’s gruelling battle with a rare skin disease.
Though their relationship ended in 1989, they’ve remained close, they make music together and she is godmother to his two daughters.
Today, speaking from her home in New York, Harry tells me: “I just love the way Chris thinks. I will always rely on him for that.
“He is open to all kinds of music. I think it must be down to his punk spirit.”
With signature hits such as Heart Of Glass, Call Me, Sunday Girl, The Tide Is High and Rapture, Blondie famously blended numerous styles with their brash New Wave aesthetic — disco, Sixties pop, reggae, even early rap.
For years, sonic adventurer Stein harboured hopes of Blondie visiting Cuba, home of the rumba, to immerse himself in the Caribbean island’s vibrant music scene.
He’d already collaborated with Colombian dance group Systema Solar for Sugar On The Side from 2013’s Ghosts Of Download album.
In March 2019, the Cuban dream finally came true when the band, accompanied by filmmaker Rob Roth, headed to Havana to take part in a four-day cultural exchange.
Sadly guitarist Stein, who’s been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, was forced to stay behind but the concerts proved a riotous fusion of New York cool and hot Latin rhythms.
The trip resulted in an inspired short film and accompanying 40-minute album called Blondie: Vivir En La Habana (Alive In Havana).
To mark the occasion, I’m speaking to Harry, who first spares a thought for her absent bandmate and talks about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on her life and work.
She believes Stein won’t be playing live in the near future, though she does say this: “Well, he’s a founding member of Blondie and he will be contributing to our next collection of music.
“As you well know, he’s brilliant and he will be a continued influence for us.
“His activities will be more on the level of using his great powers of musical persuasion, his ideas. We’ll always be together in that way.”
Harry adds: “Let’s see what the future has to offer but Chris has done one new thing that is absolutely wonderful.
“I’ll definitely have that on the next album.”
Like the rest of us, the pop icon has endured the strangest 18 months of her life because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Tragically, I’ve lost some people to the virus,” she admits.
“Including Hal Willner, one of the most talented music people ever.” (The producer is noted for tribute albums, including recent posthumous releases celebrating T.Rex and The Velvet Underground.)
Harry says that during the early days of lockdown, “the statistics were staggering in New York”.
“I’m so grateful for Governor Cuomo going on air every night being strong, encouraging and honest.
‘MY EMOTIONAL BIRTHDAY’
“We were so fortunate to have him standing up to Washington’s political empire. He was fighting for us, the city . . . when it was completely scary.
“My friends in London say it’s been the same in the UK though some were fortunate enough to leave the city and move to higher ground, so to speak.”
Harry senses an improving situation and recently held “a little party” to celebrate her 76th birthday.
“I finally got to see people properly,” she says. “I was very touched and emotional about it.
“It was wonderful just being able to embrace my friends and have them over for a meal.”
She also found taking the stage with Blondie at Battery Park, New York, last month a highly-charged experience as it was their first post-lockdown performance, part of the Tribeca Film Festival, which was showing Vivir En La Habana.
“This was on the day (June 16) that the mask mandate was lifted and I’ll just never forget the feeling,” she says. “It was only seven or eight songs but it was very meaningful to me.”
Blondie Vivir En La Habana
- The Tide Is High
- Long Time
- Wipe Off My Sweat
- Heart Of Glass
Vivir En La Habana, the six-track soundtrack EP, is out now and the film is due out later this year.
As we speak, Harry is following the news from poverty-stricken Cuba, where rioting has broken out against a backdrop of food and Covid vaccine shortages.
Having just been there, she feels great sympathy for the people. “I wish we could do something for them,” she says. “With the headlines today, my heart goes out.
“I hate the idea that they’re struggling so much. From what I understand of the protests, there’s even hunger. This is a horrifying situation.”
Harry is well aware that international politics come into play over communist Cuba, ruled for decades by the Castro family and just 100 miles off the coast of Florida.
She also points the finger at drug companies for not getting vaccines there. “They have so much money and could easily defend Cubans against this virus,” she says.
“This should take priority but it’s easy for me to mouth off and say all this because I have an idealistic, artistic nature!”
Her words are in stark contrast to the events of spring 2019, when she arrived in Cuba for a gloriously happy occasion . . . a week in Havana including two nights of shows at the Teatro Mella.
“I was happy to finally go there and the trip rolled out quite wonderfully,” she says. “The Cuban artists were forthcoming and talented.
“The audiences were alive and interested, too, and actually knew the Blondie material so they were singing the songs. It was really heart-warming.
“We were also able to bring an entourage, which made it even nicer. I had my sister there, some friends, and a bunch of fans followed us over there.”
‘PLAYING ASSES OFF’
The Cuban backing singers, Ele Valdes and Maria del Carmen Avila of local jazz-fusion outfit Sintesis, do a stellar job on the soundtrack’s epic, expanded version of The Tide Is High, which embraces late Jamaican singer John Holt’s lilting 1967 original.
“I’ve always loved those harmonies and I was thrilled when they started singing them,” she says.
Likewise, Rapture sounds terrific and finds Blondie drummer Clem Burke joined by exuberant percussionists belting the life out of their congas. (More from Clem in the accompanying Q&A.)
Harry says: “You can’t actually say that hip-hop has a Latin feel but it certainly has its own flavour and those musicians were obviously into it. I love working with that kind of percussion and those guys were playing their asses off.”
Some songs are transformed into medleys reflecting Blondie’s New York heritage, so we hear Rapture morphing into the Beastie Boys’ (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) while The Tide Is High breaks down into Groove Is In The Heart by house legends Deee-Lite.
The inclusion of Wipe Off My Sweat, a Blondie song originally written partly in Spanish and partly in English, seems like a natural choice.
I ask Harry if she found it intimidating singing in Cuba’s predominant language.
“Well, I certainly thought I held my nerve,” she replies. “It was very minimal and it wasn’t like I was stretching myself too much. I mean ‘ven y besame’ is ‘give me a kiss’, not so difficult!
“My experience is that when you reach out to an audience in their own language, they’re very forgiving.”
Back in the day, she sang a Spanish version of Call Me for the South American market and she did a rendition of Sunday Girl in French.
Harry confesses: “I always thought French was so beautiful but I slaughtered it!
“My French really sucks but I did have a little Spanish in high school and it’s much more familiar to me because we hear it more in New York where there’s a big Latin population.”
She sifts through the mists of time to her first forays in the Big Apple in the Sixties where her friend Frankie Grillo’s father was a Latin band leader called Machito. Another pal played drums for salsa star Larry Harlow.
My experience is that when you reach out to an audience in their own language, they’re very forgiving.
“And when I got out of school, I always heard Cuban music on the radio because we had Latin stations,” she adds.
“I was a huge fan, so it’s woven into my mind and seems oddly natural. Let’s just say it’s always been a part of my consciousness.” Before our chat winds up, Harry talks about her motivation to keep Blondie a going concern 47 years after they formed.
“To be creative and to keep that part of my brain going is essential and as I get older,” she decides.
“I just want to feel that side of life and feel that I am contributing somehow to my own well-being. Music is my life force.
“And I’ve had so much support from family, friends and fans that I can’t think of any other way. What else would I do? Become a race car driver?”
Now she’s looking forward to bringing Blondie to Britain in November for an arena tour with Shirley Manson’s Garbage as special guests.
Q&A: Clem Burke
BLONDIE’S vivacious drummer Clem Burke decided to “call me” from Los Angeles to talk Cuba, lockdown and The Ramones.
How did you find being in Cuba?
This was our opportunity get inside the indigenous music of Cuba. It was also great that the local attendees of the concerts got in for a relatively minimal if not completely free admission.
The Tide Is High must have been fun to play?
We’ve gone through a lot of variations on the theme with The Tide Is High over the years, allowing us to make room for a bit of interplay.
So it was a natural thing to do with the Cuban musicians. I think having the female backing singers was really great for Debbie, and being the drummer, I had an enjoyable time interacting with the percussionists.
Did you see much of the country?
I went into downtown Havana on my own and wandered around a few times, especially at night. I felt relatively safe there, probably more than in some parts of the US. There was so much joy for life in the community. I know there’s an adverse situation there as well but I think people try to make the best of it.
How’s lockdown been?
For me, BBC World News has been a great connection to the world. I have a ritual of sitting down and watching it every evening to keep me in touch. We’re an international band but the UK took us to heart very early on and it is really like a second home for us. Unfortunately, you guys lost the match (the Euros final against Italy) but that’s another story.
What motivates you?
We enjoy being creative together, which is why we keep making new recordings. We were all really pleased with our last album Pollinator. And I enjoy travelling and playing music! In Blondie, we’re friends but we have other interests. Chris spends time on his photography, Debbie has her acting, I work with a lot of different musicians. It’s a cliche but I’m working on a memoir.
What’s your take on Blondie’s different styles?
Even Heart Of Glass was a subversive thing for a so-called punk band. But, at the same time, our role models were Bowie and The Beatles. You never really knew what to expect from them. The Ramones had their sound and identity and they stuck to it. That’s not what we set out to do. We have a broader musical palette… but the punk attitude prevails!
Tell us about The Ramones and your time as stand-in drummer Elvis Ramone?
They are The Beatles of my generation and one of the most influential bands of all time. They were our friends and we all hung out in the same places in mid-70s New York. I was with them briefly at a very acrimonious time. Johnny and Joey didn’t speak and I had a dedicated seat on the tour bus, sitting between them. Dee Dee would be in the very back in his own little world. It was a microcosm of life with The Ramones and their trusty tour manager, Monte A. Melnick, was at the wheel at all times. Their impact is huge and they get bigger and bigger… it’s crazy! SC
“I’ve really missed coming to the UK and I’d love to say hello to Alannah Currie (of Thompson Twins) and Boy George.”
Before I stop, er, hanging on the telephone with Harry, she says, with refreshing openness: “I hope I don’t sound like some sort of maudlin soap opera person . . .
“ . . . but it’s been an incredibly moving period in our lives.”