Debbie Harry Stares Back

The Blondie singer’s memoir, Face It, wryly recounts making the most of being ogled.

Celeste Sloman / The New York Times / Redux

After speeding through Debbie Harry’s eventful life in just 245 pages, the Blondie singer’s memoir, Face It, in its final chapter, lists stuff about thumbs. “I think first of that game where you try to trap the other guy’s thumb under yours while the rest of your fingers are gripping their fingers,” the 74-year-old Harry writes. “Then there is the old saying ‘I’m all thumbs,’ which is a peculiar mental image and is a feeble excuse for clumsiness.” Opposable thumbs, hitchhiking thumbs, thumbs up, thumbs down, Tom Thumb, thumbnail sketches, strangler’s thumbs, thumbscrews, thumbtacks, twiddling thumbs … each concept gets briefly discussed, making for five pages of thumb content.

There is no grand point to this exercise. “I thought a little bit of levity might be a good way to end my somewhat morose memoir, hence all this thumb business,” she explains, which just adds more bafflement to the pile. Harry’s memoir is not, in fact, a bummer. It’s true that she’s been stalked, raped, addicted to heroin, and hassled by Patti Smith, but Harry relates each incident, bad and good, with a “that’s life” literary deadpan. The rape, for example—by a knife-wielding home invader in ’70s New York City—did not inspire “a lot of fear” in her because “this happened before AIDS.” The worst thing about the attack, she writes, is that the rapist stole some of her guitars.

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!”

Leveraging sexist condescension to her advantage continued to be integral to her career. Harry’s persona in Blondie paid tribute to the Marilyn Monroe bombshell type, she writes, because Harry “felt that Marilyn was also playing a character, the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and big-girl body, and that there was a lot of smarts behind the act.” Over the years, she embraced cosmetic surgery unapologetically: “It’s the same as having a flu shot, basically, another way to look after yourself.” Always, she prized control when it came to using physical appeal. When her record company promoted a Blondie album with an image of her in a see-through top, she was livid. “Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that,” she writes. “But on my terms, not some executive’s.”

Despite all this history, late in the book Harry claims to have been surprised when her manager suggested she write about how she “broke ground as a female artist.” She just seems uninterested in being didactic on this subject: “I know there is misogyny and I know there is bias, but I’m more concerned with being good at what I do.” She’s also uninterested in getting very deep on certain personal mysteries, like the question of why she and Stein broke up in 1987 after more than a decade together. Her point of view as a songwriter gets only brief, sporadic treatment, though she does hit some highlights, such as her prescient brush with hip-hop on 1981’s “Rapture.”

On the final page, she admits, “I still have so much more to tell but being such a private person, I might not tell everything … It’s always best to leave the audience wanting more.” Holding back is an understandable maneuver for someone who’s been stared at so much, and it’s not quite right to call Face It evasive. She always comes off as tough and matter-of-fact and New York–y, very much the voice that complained about love as a “pain in the ass” in “Heart of Glass,” or that facetiously took down some “groupie supreme” in “Rip Her to Shreds.” Knowing that there are still those who expect her to be simply “a blonde in tight pants,” she tells her life story how she wants to tell it. And when she gets tired of sharing, Harry is kind enough not to extend a middle finger.