Debbie Harry's ‘Face It’ isn't just a rock-star memoir

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 3:16pm

NOSELL

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Even if you don’t know her name, it’s likely you’ve seen Debbie Harry’s face. As the frontwoman of the groundbreaking sometimes-pop, sometimes-rock group Blondie, Harry’s wide-set eyes and shock of bleach-blonde hair are unmistakable, a necessary and irreplaceable part of music history. Blondie was the band, but it was also a character for Harry to play, an ultra-feminine woman in the macho rock scene of New York in the ’70s, consistently proving her place in the industry over and over again. In her own words, Harry’s “Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side.”

Her image was appropriated by friend, Andy Warhol, in his iconic Polaroid series, in his eerie computer-generated pop art, in addition to photographs which have been taken of her by every major photographer. Harry is an icon in the truest sense of the word ― just as Marilyn Monroe’s blonde curls represent a specific time and place in the past, so do Harry’s, heralding onlookers into a people’s history of art and rebellion in the greatest city on the planet. 

“Coincidence came calling for me big-time in the early seventies,” Harry writes in an early chapter of the memoir. “Coincidence: it’s supposed to mean just these random disconnected events that concur or collide. But coincidence is not that at all. It’s the stuff that’s meant to be.” This perception makes sense considering the performer’s history. Everything that made Debbie Harry the icon she is today is what made Blondie so popular, and most of what happened in the height of post-punk glory seems to hinge on brief moments of interpolation between one world and the next. In the book, Harry remembers these flashes of coincidence in brilliant literary detail, plunging the reader into the color and fury of her experiences with a sharp wit and unflinching sense of honesty. 

From the first page, in which Harry describes her biological parents before going into the stories of her childhood as an adopted daughter of two humdrum New Jerseyans, one is able to grasp how she’s processed the somewhat accidental nature of her life. The musician has a keen eye for detail and orchestration: Just when she brings up an anecdote that seems out of place, it suddenly begins to make sense in the larger framework of her life — the last chapter of the book is all about thumbs in her life, just because she wanted to end on a funny note. Harry’s own sense of humor about both the happy times and the sad times of her rollercoaster experience with fame is what makes “Face It” a must-read. Sure, two of her apartments went up in flames, one of them while she was on tour, but it made for a fantastic photoshoot in which she sat in burnt kitchen wearing a full ballgown. 

Harry’s clout as a cultural powerhouse could have carried her through “Face It” on a wave of crazy stories about shows, cheeky cameos from her bandmates and thin analyses of her own life. But Harry doesn’t do this at all. Instead, “Face It” seems more like a self-interrogating revision of her experiences, occasionally punctuated by the names and stories that we expect from a rock star’s memoir.

From someone who has been funneling her experiences and inspirations into music and art for the last 40 years, it is clear how easily self-analysis comes to Harry, as she weaves her true history into a riveting and often surprising narrative of serendipity and triumph. Even if you’ve never heard a Blondie song beyond “Heart of Glass” (on Wii Just Dance 2), Harry’s story is one that deserves to be read widely. Her voice and experiences act as a time capsule of New York in its prime. The American reflex to make art, even in the craziest of times, is most present in people like her. That thread of passion is hard to miss in Harry’s retelling of her own story, as it is one that reaches much farther than just her.