Face It

Face It
By Debbie Harry
[Dey Street/Harper Collins]

Blondie’s Debbie Harry has always been something of a consciously postmodern shape-shifter, even when said shape-shifting was a prefiguration of the postmodern condition that would be defined by frou-frou critical theorists in the late 1970s. Playfully manipulating her persona for the entirety of her career, Deborah Harry the person seems to view “Debbie Harry” the rock star, provocateur and prefab fashion plate as a blank slate prototype upon which various postures, comportments and stereotypes are projected to best suit the contingencies of the given moment most expeditiously. In other words, Debbie Harry has always purposely operated as a cultural simulacrum – being the proverbial mirror that reflects both what “you” are(n’t) and what “she” is(n’t).

That’s why it’s no surprise that Harry’s bio, Face It, is written from such a standpoint of remove and/or flat affect. It’s almost like Harry is a third person observer of her own life – rather than being the “person” who experienced X and lived to tell the tale. Whether this disconnection is a coping strategy or yet another deftly executed media manipulation and/or performance art schtick is a conundrum likely to vex even Harry herself, whoever the hell she is.

Of course, none of these conundrums are lost on Harry. Face It is a gorgeously constructed, full-color book that is chock full of scrawls, drawings and artists’ renditions Harry’s visage in umpteen permutations. (Personally, my beef with the drawings and paintings is that none of them – not even those rendered by “serious artists” like Robert Williams – come anywhere close to capturing the beauty of the gorgeously [co-]constructed Harry. Actually, the drawings and paintings summon elements of grotesquerie that Harry, ever the chameleon, probably finds perversely funny.) And of course, there’s the text – which is, of course, co-written/co-constructed by a skilled culture industry drone, prolific rock book hack, Sylvie Simmons.

Face It delivers a first-person account of Harry’s life that was actually written by another person. I myself have no problem with this hall-of-mirrors level of pop art abstraction because, hey, a meta-commentary on the planned obsolescence and vacuity of the pop product might indeed be Harry’s artistic raison d’etre. Granted, such creative sleight of hand was by no means without antecedent when Harry accepted/appropriated the proverbial torch and ran a touchdown straight through the punk era into a new wave of mainstream success. I get it. And I like it.

Really, it’s as if Saint Warhol – who was, by the way, one of Harry’s heroes that later became an acquaintance and kinda/sorta peer, even – was actually the person who “wrote,” or at least co-constructed, or at least signed his name to Harry’s life after some other hack wrote/painted/produced it. Harry (or Simmons, or somebody) writes, “Andy [like Harry] was the master of blurring the line between art and commerce. His art [again, like Harry’s] played with the conventions of commerce – marketing, mass production, branding, popular culture, advertising, celebrity.” Fair enough.

So, while Face It is by no means an “inside” glimpse into the life and career of “Debbie Harry,” whoever that is, the book is a provocative, witty and smart rendering of the Debbie Harry that crafted/amalgamated her own persona to helm the SS Blondie from the fetid backwaters of CBGB’s Bowery to the top of the charts. And there are some juicy bits, too.

Among Face It’s (not necessarily) fun facts: Debbie was besties with William S. Burroughs, designer Stephen Sprouse, hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and H.R. Giger; Debbie has fond memories of “making out a few times” with Harry Dean Stanton while filming Repo Man; a coked-out David Bowie, whose “size was notorious,” by the way, flashed his junk at her while they were on tour together in the late ’70s – an act Harry describes as “funny, adorable and sexy;” Harry (along with Blondie co-conspirator and ex-lover Chris Stein) was a heroin addict in the ’80s; she was raped in the mid ’70s in her Lower East Side loft by a knife wielding mugger who stole several guitars afterward. “I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear,” writes Harry. “In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape.”

So, if you’re looking for a tale of empowerment for, ahem, “women in rock,” or #MeToo era outrage at the lecherous, predatory antics of exploitative, male showbiz mavens of yore, well, I suggest you look elsewhere. This is not to say that Harry is not a feminist. But it is to say that Harry, in retrospect, has a somewhat laissez faire reading of the at best questionable and at worst felonious actions of drugged-out rock ’n’ roll dudes and slimy entertainment industry types explained away as “boys will be boys” in the ’70s. This is the third person standpoint of remove which I mentioned earlier. Or maybe Harry is just being pragmatic.

All told, the book is a fast-moving, fashionable fun read that isn’t exactly classical literature – but it’s not just petty sensationalism, either. Like Blondie’s music, Face It falls somewhere betwixt the polarities of “high” and “low” art. Yeah, it’s pop art. Debbie Harry is a smart, sophisticated lady, an enthusiastic participant in the machinations of fame that made her the (sub)cultural icon she has indeed become – or at least portrays herself as being. Harry is a neo beat, protopunk, merry prankster who was in on the joke from square one. And the joke is never on her, thank you.