It’s hard to put your, um, finger on the Harry that emerges from Face It. While other aging-rocker memoirs have earned press for the gossip they’ve revealed, so far the biggest brouhaha about Harry’s book has been about a clumsy attempt at summing her up. “In her memoir, Debbie Harry proves she’s more than just a pretty blonde in tight pants,” read a Washington Post tweet that went viral for the wrong reasons. Sibbie O’Sullivan’s corresponding book review began with disdain (“Even if Debbie Harry, of the band Blondie, isn’t to your taste—her voice too thin, her sexiness too blatant, her music too smooth—you can’t dismiss certain truths about her”) and ended with the backhanded praise of the tweet. In the scorn storm that brewed on social media in response, the journalist Alicia Lutes asked, “Legitimately who has ever thought so little about Debbie fucking Harry?”
One revelation of the memoir is that the public hasn’t been given a ton to think, good or bad, about Harry over the years. Absolutely there’s a well of fervent and uncomplicated admiration for Blondie’s music, which includes some of the most crystalline pleasure-rushes of the ’70s and ’80s: “Heart of Glass,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” “Call Me.” Definitely she’s remembered as a fixture of CBGB, the legendary New York City punk club. But when I went to look up her role in Please Kill Me, the canonical dirt download about that era and place, I found an interview in which she told the writer Legs McNeil, “Supposed to be questions about fucking punk, man,” when he asked about her backstory. Now, with Face It, Harry is here to fill in some of the blanks—briskly, humorously, and mixed in with abstract riffs on appendages and animals.
Her anecdotes begin with her adoption in New Jersey at three months old. “They claim it’s unusual to have memories of your earliest moments,” she writes, “but I have tons.” Quickly, her life began to be shaped by that which O’Sullivan’s review fixated on: her beauty. “Even as a little girl, I always attracted sexual attention,” she writes, before wryly running through vignettes about the male gaze. A doctor admired her “bedroom eyes” when she was a baby; a stranger exposed himself to her when she was 8; when on vacation as a preteen, the big-band drummer Buddy Rich, then in his late 30s, followed her home. Her early jobs included waiting tables at the rock venue Max’s Kansas City—“It was all such a big flirtation, such a scene”—and being a bunny at the Playboy Club, where the patrons were mostly polite to her.
Her entrée into rock came through her friendship with the seminal cross-dressing troublemakers the New York Dolls, and her first band, the Stilettos, was fronted by three women. The next band, Blondie and the Banzai Babes, initially featured two female backup singers. By the time it became just Blondie, Harry was the indisputable focal point, though the music was heavily shaped by the other members, including her longtime creative and romantic partner Chris Stein. “My idea was to bring dancing back to rock,” Harry writes of her musical vision. She recalls an early gig in which the opening band, the Ramones, were kicked out by the bar owners, but the Banzai Babes got to stay. Writes Harry: “They liked us because we were cute girls—harmless. Ha!”