Before Madonna, there was Blondie.

Her name was really Debbie Harry, but everyone knew her in the beginning as Blondie--the name of the band that emerged in the late ‘70s as a refreshing alternative to faceless, recycled corporate rock.

With tuneful, dance-oriented pop hits like “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture,” Blondie--the band--became the toast of pop. And Harry herself got lots of attention by playing off a cartoon seductiveness that was a throwback to Marilyn Monroe and ‘50s pinups. Eventually, she reached beyond the music world to films and glamorous fashion layouts. She was one of the Faces of the ‘80s.

But everything ground to a halt in 1983. Guitarist-songwriter Chris Stein, her boyfriend and key partner in Blondie, was hospitalized for several months in late 1983 and early 1984 with a genetic disorder known as pemphigus. Harry was with him virtually around the clock--even sleeping on a cot in the hospital room. It was one of the most dramatic pop disappearances since John Lennon’s “house-husband” period a decade ago.

But those hard times are behind her. Stein is much improved (in fact, he took the accompanying photo of Harry) and her first single in two years--”Feel the Spin”--has just been released as a 12-inch by her new U.S. record label, Geffen. She’s looking forward to a new album and films.


Aside from a slight shyness that was surprising in view of her media-conscious image, Harry seemed comfortable and optimistic recently as she sat in her manager’s office here. She smiled at the word comeback --and nodded knowingly at the mention of Madonna.

About the comeback, she said: “I always knew I’d be going back to records and I guess it’s finally time. But I’m in no rush to leap back into it. I’ve signed with Geffen Records for the U.S. and David (Geffen) and John (label executive John Kalodner) have said repeatedly: ‘This is your most important record . . . take your time.’ ”

On the issue of Madonna, she said: “Of course I saw her. . . . I still paid attention to what was going on (the last two years). I identify with a lot of the things she does--and the fact that some people think she’s being exploitive. The same thing happened to me. At one time, I was considered exploitive because of the aggressive, feminine images.

“It’s funny . . . Rolling Stone magazine said some really tacky stuff about me using my sex and, then, a year or two later, they had the Go-Go’s on the cover of the magazine in undershirts.”

She then added with a chuckle that sounded distinctly like someone enjoying the last laugh: “ Give me a break .”

There was so little written about Debbie Harry’s two-year hiatus that many people were confused about why she was away. They got the few stories about Stein’s hospitalization mixed up and thought it was Harry who was ill. When I mentioned to people here that I was going to interview Harry, they asked if she was strong enough to work again.

The possibility of Harry being too delicate to work brought a smile this time from Stanley Arkin, a criminal-defense attorney who is managing Harry.

“She’s tougher than all of us,” he said, sitting across the room from the singer. “She goes to a gym something like four days a week and works out with weights . . . and when she decided things weren’t right at Chrysalis (Records), she went on strike . . . (refusing to record) until things were worked out. Debbie’s not delicate.”


Looking at her across the room, he continued: “This is one human being who has one firm grasp on her art and her life and she knows what she wants to do with both.”

Arkin, a forceful man who is taking his first stab at management, explained his involvement with Harry: “I met her seven or eight months ago when she asked me to work out some business problems she had. It’s not ordinarily my line of work as a lawyer, but it was something that intrigued me because I was very taken with her.”

Harry looks back with affection on the early days with Blondie. After all, the group’s success opened lots of doors, demonstrating to skeptical execs that new wave music was commercial and that a woman’s place wasn’t just in the audience.

“We had sort of revitalized the concept of songs and dancing in rock,” she said. “We came along during this big guitar period when everyone sat around and just listened. Part of our goal was (to get them) dancing again. But I don’t think anybody in the band really expected to (become as big) as we did.”

By the early ‘80s, the two Blondies were growing apart. Reports of tension in the six-member band were widespread as Harry reached for her own identity. Her image became more sophisticated and she cut a solo record that was co-produced by Nile Rodgers--who later produced Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” LP. Harry also appeared in films, including “Union City” and “Videodrome.”

Harry and Stein knew by the time of her solo album in 1981 that the band’s days were numbered--even though they did another group album, “The Hunter,” in 1982. “I didn’t go around announcing it, but I think people knew it was the end,” she said. “In fact, I really didn’t want to do the ‘Hunter’ record . . . but Chrysalis persuaded me to do it.


“We (band members) were so different from when we started. I got some of the guys in the band when they were 19 . . . really young guys. We all grew up together . . . learned the business together and we had a good long time together. . . . Most bands don’t last three years.”

By the final Blondie tour, Stein was so ill that oxygen had to be taken on the road for him. “It was really nightmarish,” she said. “We ended up just doing the Eastern half of the United States and canceling the rest of the tour. It was extremely taxing for him to go on stage and then having to go to doctors. But we still didn’t know what was wrong with him. It was a mystery to everyone.”

Once the problem was apparently diagnosed, Stein eventually spent three months in the hospital, Harry at his bedside.

“It was really a sad, unhappy and scary time,” she said. “We had been working and living together for 11 years . . . so I really couldn’t leave. When someone gets that sick, you can’t just carry on with your job.”

Harry is proud of her pioneering role as a woman rocker, but is quick to credit others--including Joan Jett, whose mid-’70s shows with the teen-age Runaways were a sizable culture shock in the male-dominated field, and Patti Smith, the poet-turned-rocker whose 1975 album, “Horses,” was one of the most acclaimed works of the decade.

She remembers the insults from industry executives and club owners who looked at her as a novelty with little musical mind of her own


“Sure, it was a real exciting (but also) frustrating time,” she said. “It’s hard when people don’t take you seriously . . . (and) you go through a lot that bothers you. But you have to understand what’s happening. You can’t go around torturing yourself about things that would take 100 years to change. It’s just good to see they take women much more seriously now.”

Being taken seriously may still be an issue for Harry. Despite her success with Blondie, Harry is very much a question mark in many minds. She enjoyed considerably more respect as a singer than Madonna, but to many, she remains more a personality than an artist.

However, she seems to thrive on challenges. “I could have folded from pressures (about living up to challenges) a long time ago,” she said flatly. “But I tend to be very feisty when it comes to things like that. I get more aggressive.”