No Debutante

Face It BY Debbie Harry. New York: Dey Street Books. 368 pages. $33.

The cover of Face It

For every thirty-year-old with a personal-essay collection consisting of totally normal experiences, there’s a figure whose life is so suited to becoming material that writing a memoir is not really a question of if but when. These people—celebrities, people in proximity to celebrities—revisit their experiences not only to gain closure but also to fulfill some sense of duty to history, their legacy, and their fans. Maybe they’ve also been offered a lot of money. Still, writing a book is invasive, uncomfortable, and hard. “At first, it was against my better judgment to do a memoir/autobiography,” Debbie Harry writes on the last page of hers, Face It (Dey Street Books, $33), “but it seems appropriate at this time in my life to get it over with and remember.”

Her reluctance is obvious throughout the book, which suggests, presumably inaccurately, that you already get the gist of what the lead singer of Blondie’s life has been like and don’t really need to read about it. As a performer, Harry channeled her guardedness—which was first considered a weakness, making her seem “quiet” or “indecisive”—into a controlled irony that played on her alien-knockout looks while still letting her fans in on the joke. But in Face It, the clichés never become critiques; her self-protection doesn’t serve the good story we know she has.

Harry was born Angela Trimble in 1945 and adopted at three months old; her new parents changed her name to Deborah. She claims to remember the day the Harrys picked her up. (This ability is possibly related to the psychic visions she’s had all her life.) Despite the “real inexplicable core of fear” instilled in her by the separation from her birth mother—Harry still gets a horrible feeling when she splits from her band at the airport—her life growing up in small-town New Jersey was “very, very lucky.” Still, she was “desperate” to move to “magical” New York and become an artist. She liked TV and movies and briefly wanted to be a ballerina; she experimented with her mom’s peroxide, made her own clothes, identified “strongly” with Marilyn Monroe (a doctor once told her mother that baby Debbie had “bedroom eyes”), and fantasized about “being a star.” She was a majorette—hence the stance she sometimes took at the beginning of a song, putting her hands on her hips and beaming cheekily at the crowd, one in her roster of stereotypically female characters—and had “a lot of boyfriends.” She moved to the city, where she worked as a secretary at the BBC and “sought out everything New York had to offer, everything underground and forbidden and everything aboveground, and threw myself into it.”

Here, about ten years before the formation of Blondie, the mention of loft parties and the Velvet Underground marks the point in the story at which things might have gotten interesting. But the self-referentiality that makes Harry a charming performer also keeps her unhelpfully tethered to the awareness that she’s writing a memoir, never allowing her to have a writerly breakthrough. The book has a self-conscious tone and structure; Harry often transitions into anecdotes as if she’s taking requests, particularly in chapters like “Routines” and “Close Calls.” On stage, playing a dumb blonde or a placidly entertaining girl-group member gone rogue, she took the audience’s expectations and mocked or subverted them. In Face It, she relies on a similar mutual understanding with her audience, but she doesn’t move beyond those expectations.

Debbie Harry, 2019. Ann Lawlor
Debbie Harry, 2019. Ann Lawlor

Instead, she applies the logic of name-dropping to the narrative itself, expecting the significance of events and people to be obvious. And it’s true—people understand the importance of Andy Warhol, the Ramones, and the rest, so much so that they hardly even register as real. Meanwhile, what would register, their significance to her, is rarely discussed. A relative lack of nostalgia for downtown New York is welcome—one hates to have it rubbed in—but in place of an overwrought eulogy, Harry flits from anecdote to reminiscence without allowing the reader to grasp the meaning of anything until it’s too late.

There is a story here somewhere. She forms a band. She forms another band. She meets Chris Stein, the future cofounder of Blondie and her partner for many years. They form another band and open for Television and the Ramones at CBGB. “Blondie” refers to the catcalls Harry would get, as well as to the long-running comic strip about, Harry writes, “the dumb blonde who turns out to be smarter than the rest of them. . . . I could play with that role onstage, it was a good start. But really there was no grand scheme behind anything. We just did what we liked to do and everything was just inching forward.” Once she grows out of her timidity, fame ensues, albeit less accompanied by fortune than by shady management and tax problems.

It may be that Debbie Harry is so genuinely cool that everything really did just roll off her back, that she doesn’t understand why anyone would care about her life but is trying to give them what they want anyway. Her frequent ellipses suggest the guileless mystery of a texting parent, not coyness or cowardliness. “I have plenty more horror stories to tell—and I will tell them—but I’m going to try real hard to dig out some funny stuff,” she writes of the first years of Blondie, but the promised badness never seems quite so bad; her descriptions are often superficial (a short-lived venue: “fun, cool, and influential”), and everything turns out OK in the end. A typical conclusion, from the time she spent living with “very serious drug dealers”: “Fortunately, we didn’t end up as collateral damage in one of their all-night deals.” Most events are allocated the same amount of space, about a paragraph. When she does go longer, it’s on topics distanced from herself—a basic analysis of Videodrome is recited ad tedium, for example, but her anxiety about appearing in the movie’s “intense sex scenes” is distilled as: “I was standing on the set naked, with a towel around me, clinging to that towel like it was a life raft and thinking, I can’t do it. But I did it.”

But I did it. Sometimes that’s really all it is. But like Harry’s face, often euphemized by others as merely wildly “photogenic,” her life has become a source of fascination for other people, even if it’s ultimately straight-forward. In his essay “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket,” Wayne Koestenbaum proposes a suitable outlet for Harry’s transfixing essence: “Debbie Harry—as my test-case deity—should be given an off-Broadway theater; she would appear on its stage for one hour a night. She needn’t put on a traditional show. No song, dance, script. No fancy costumes or special effects. Harry would sit in a comfortable chair onstage and receive our attention. . . . The star would simply be present; with her existence’s supra-normality she would bless and astound us.” For someone who always wanted to be a performer, who loves song, dance, script, fancy costumes, and special effects, the pressure to perform mere existence would be a curse—even if, like the name Blondie, it’s sort of a joke. Sitting evocatively is not an effective authorial strategy.

I believe Harry when she says “there was no grand scheme behind anything” back in the day. That’s part of what makes her cool. But what emerges from Face It is a retroactive desire to introduce a scheme. She wants it all to be taken seriously, which encourages the reader, who is likely at least a casual fan, to do the opposite. Her weird insistence on having been “punk” is the most telling example of her attempt at control. Like popular artists today who are eager to brand themselves as politically “radical,” Harry employs circular reasoning to suggest that the specifically not-punk aspects of Blondie—their borrowing from disco, say—are actually evidence that they were, in Stein’s words, “punk in the face of punk.” Elsewhere, Harry compares herself to Patti Smith, a bold strategy, in particular for a memoirist: “To be an artistic, assertive woman in girl drag, not boy drag, was then an act of transgression. I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game.” I wish she would have included a more comprehensive definition of “punk,” because being frustrated that your record label didn’t let you appear in Blade Runner doesn’t fall under mine.

One doesn’t need to be “punk” to be a good artist, of course, and it’s sad that Harry would abandon all the strange, genre-bending elements of her work that made her unique. The star cannot simply “be present” when she is being carefully watched, as Harry’s friend Andy Warhol knew. Written in an era in which what was once subversive is now just sellable, Face It demonstrates, rather than describes, the loss of the freedom that allowed Harry to be an artist without any grand scheme. The idea that one must process one’s life for the public is as much an industry value as chart performance (which Harry recounts when she discusses each album). What would have been punk is to write no memoir at all.

Lauren Oyler is a writer in New York.