By J.T. Ryder
The two-toned hairstyle that became Deborah Harry’s signature in the 1970s and
1980s almost acts as a physical analogy to the dualistic nature and perception by the public of her and her band Blondie, which will perform Saturday, August 28 at the Fraze Pavilion.
Born in 1945, Harry was adopted by Catherine and Richard Harry when she was only 3 months old. While growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey, there was very little to indicate Harry’s future path into the world of music. Even so, the winds of change probably began as a slight breeze when Harry worked at Max’s Kansas City which, since its inception, immediately became the habitué of artists, haunted by a wandering bevy of hipsters, high society, hacks and hangers-on. On any given night, you were apt to see Andy Warhol and his ever-changing entourage making an entrance while William S. Burroughs raised a glass of whiskey through an omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke. Shortly after her employment as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City (as well as a stint at Dunkin’ Donuts, as a dancer in New Jersey and then as a Playboy Bunny), Harry made slight inroads into the music scene.
In the late ‘60s, Harry joined a group called Wind In The Willows, a folk group that barely grazed the charts with their self-titled 1968 release. Before the group formally broke up, they recorded another album’s worth of material, much of which featured Harry’s vocals (as well as a song Harry penned titled “Buried Treasure”), but the tapes from that session have since been lost. Even so, Harry kept her ear to the ground by making forays back to Max’s to check out what was happening on the music scene. She had heard a rumor that Elda Stiletto had an all girl group called Pure Garbage, so she asked Stiletto if there might be room for her. Stiletto told Harry that the group had already broken up, but Harry was not going to give up that easily. She invited Stiletto, Roseanne Ross and another friend over to see if they could put together another group. Through a series of convoluted complications, the group was formed. They called themselves the Stilettos and created their persona as being that of a choreographed dance combo, although there was still an epic amount of infighting as Stiletto wanted to project an image of (in Deborah Harry’s words) “True Confessions trash, tacky.”
At the Stilettos’ second show at the Boburn Tavern in New York City on W. 28th St., Stiletto invited Chris Stein, a guitarist of some note, to check them out. Afterward, she asked Stein to join the group and he accepted, which had more to do with his interest in Deborah Harry rather than a musical choice. The first streak of blonde began to appear.
It’s important to note that this was a time of shifting tectonic plates within the local music scene. There wasn’t so much of a groundswell as there was a total disenchanted collapse of commercial conceptions, which seemed to coincide and physically manifest itself with the collapse of the Mercer Arts Center and the Broadway Central Hotel in 1973, which was the home base of the New York Dolls and the after hours center of the emerging punk rock/glam rock scene. The faces were changing. The sound was changing. Groups like Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Voidoids, the Ramones and the Talking Heads were taking the commercial complacency that rock and roll had become and turned the volume up to 11, distorting it through a filter of angst and ennui. Clubs like Max’s, Club 82 and CBGB became the impromptu epicenter of this nascent new wave of music.
CBGB’s was created at the right place and at the right time. It opened in December 1973 after the owner, Hilly Kristal, closed his bar located on the same site after it had been overrun by Hell’s Angels and other “undesirables.” The new bar’s full name was CBGB & OMFUG, which stands for Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers. It’s mildly ironic that the name reflects little of the iconic music that was developed within its walls. Elda Stiletto’s boyfriend at the time, Richard Hell, clued her in on this new bar and she was able to talk Kristal into allowing the Stilettos to perform on the Sunday bill with Hell’s band Television. While integral to the development of Blondie, the future of the Stilettos was quickly coming to a close. Harry and Stein particularly wanted to branch out into more of a stylized type of music. The lineup between Harry and Stein’s new band was not very different than that of the Stilettos: they basically appropriated all of the band members like bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O’Connor to form a new band.
Originally billed as Angel and the Snakes, Blondie debuted at CBGB’s in August 1974. The Ramones opened for them and the bar was practically empty. Changing the name to Blondie did little to change their luck, so Harry decided to change some of the personnel. The two back up singers, Julie and Jackie, were replaced with Harry’s old friends, two sisters named Snooki and Tish Bellomo, whom Stein dubbed the Banzai Babes. Next, Harry recruited a second guitarist, a Czechoslovakian named Ivan Kral, whose proto-punk influence fleshed out the sound that Blondie was striving for. Although they remained a medley of musical styles rather than straight ahead mainstream pop, Blondie began gaining a following among the CBGB audiences. Many of the other groups that were part of the CBGB stable played strictly original material, which had little to do with their bands’ conceptual integrity and more to do with the inability to figure out how to play other groups’ music. Blondie, however, was still very reliant on interpretations of other musical groups. In the beginning, Blondie was very raw, a far cry from the polished persona that was to be projected later in their career. Even their early version of “Heart of Glass” (originally titled “The Disco Song”) sounded like a rough version of