One Sunday afternoon before the days of cable TV, I spotted this woman on some now-forgotten show. She wore a khaki brown fedora and a jumpsuit in the same shade that looked as if it was sewn from a shiny garbage bag. She looked into the camera like she owned it. I fell in love.
With her platinum hair and pouty red-stained lips, Debbie Harry exuded an iconic sexiness in the late 1970s that I had only seen on the pages of my mom’s “Cosmopolitan” magazines. The former Playboy bunny sung about a heart of glass and rapped before most of America even knew such a technique existed.
Forget the woman I had been idolizing – Olivia Newton-John. She was gone in a screeching flash. I threw down the jump rope that I sung into while pretending to be Sandy from “Grease” and invested in eyeliner and glittery eyeshadow for my rendition of “Heart of Glass.”
Debbie set me – and many other Gen X girls – on a superb punk and new wave voyage filled with musical discoveries, fashion lessons and Independence 101 that has carried us for decades. Her independence, more than anything perhaps, threatened men even the seemingly tough ones.
“I think if most guys in America could somehow get their fave-rave poster girl in bed and have total license to do whatever they wanted with this legendary body for one afternoon, at least 75 percent of the guys in the country would elect to beat her up,” rock journalist Lester Bangs wrote in his biography “Blondie,” which more or less rips the band to shreds.
Blondie was a band that evolved from the 1970s New York punk scene with its black leather, deconstructed T-shirts and edgy haircuts. It was a world away from my Southern town where Ralph Lauren polo shirts and preppy plaid ruled, and girls and boys learned to properly dance at Cotillion. In New York, no one cared what you wore or how you danced. It was a good lesson to adopt at an early age.
But living in small-town Arkansas didn’t stop me from wearing mini-skirts, florescent colors and black fishnets. I carved my own fashion, career and life path taking notes from the book of Debbie.
Debbie could have let the boys in the band write her hit songs, but she didn’t. She co-wrote new wave anthems such as “Dreaming” with the opening line “When I met you in the restaurant, you could tell I was no debutante” or “Call Me” with the come-hither line, “Roll me in designer sheets, I’ll never get enough.” I scribbled madly in stickered journals, hoping to pen something semi-close to “Rapture.”
Unlike most women, Debbie never married, which gave many girls hope that they didn’t have to say “I do” either. (I’ve never married.) She lived with Chris Stein, the co-founder and guitarist of Blondie, for several years and nursed him back to health when he was diagnosed with a near-fatal autoimmune disease. But they broke up, he married and had two children, but she remained single and childless.
“I’m not the only woman in the world who never had children,” she once said in an interview. “There are many reasons why Chris and I didn’t. We were working very hard, we were happy and we didn’t feel a need. And I always thought: there are a lot of children in the world. I didn’t need to add to that, you know?”
In 1982, Blondie was slated to play in Memphis, Tenn., on the “Tracks Across America” Tour. I saw an ad for the tour in the newspaper and begged my parents to take me to the concert two hours away. Supportive of my musical fascinations, they balked at that idea, saying I was too young to go to a rock concert. One day, I would be in her presence.
Twenty years later, I finally saw Blondie in concert. Debbie Harry, then 50-something, stepped on the blue-lit stage rocking her trademark blond hair and wearing a mini-skirt so short that my boyfriend spent the night looking up her skirt like a 12-year-old. Debbie, of course, oozed that punk-kissed aura that made men still desire her, and girls want to be her. And like a true diva, she knew it.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for Reuters, TakePart, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.
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