Debbie Harry—actor, activist, and leader of punk stalwarts Blondie for more than 45 years—released Face It (Dey Street Books) last month. In it, she describes her life and career in matter-of-fact detail, from rising through New York’s art and alternative music scenes through global stardom, bankruptcy, addiction, personal tragedies, and the breakup and eventual reunion of her band.
American Libraries spoke with her about music, art, libraries, and how climate activism is the new punk.
Your life and image have been heavily documented already. Was it difficult to separate your memory of things from the photograph or the edited version of events?
Oh, yes. Especially between me and Chris [Stein, Blondie cofounder and Harry’s longtime collaborator and former partner]. Between the two of us, somehow we get a complete picture of something that happened in the past. One of us will remember things that make more of an indelible impression on each of us. And many times, it’s not the same thing.
Your book includes portraits of you that fans created and sent over the years. What made you keep them for so long, and why did you include them in the book?
I always wanted to do that. That was one of my primary objectives. I had all this fan art [and] there were times where I’d go, “Why am I saving this stuff? Why?” Yet I couldn’t get rid of it. I love all of it.
I had all this great stuff from all different kinds of people, all different ages, all different artistic abilities. It’s heartwarming. I just thought, “Wow, this is really something.” This is a real body of work, and it’s such a tribute. And, in turn, I can let the fans know in a very personal way how much it means to me. I can get up on stage and say, “It’s great to see you all here tonight. Blondie fans have all been really great to us over the years.” But I think if I had done that [sent artwork], and it showed up in somebody’s book, I would just pass out.
You spent a lot of your life on the leading edge of popular culture. You worked with Andy Warhol, started one of the first punk bands, had the first number one song to feature rap—is there a thing that you are into right now that the rest of us are going to catch up to in five years?
I don’t know. I’ve had a moment with grunge right now, which is sort of a step backwards—in time, anyway. We haven’t started working on new material yet. But it’s always so exciting for me. It’s like food; it’s so nourishing to start working on songs and expressing myself in that format. I’m really looking forward to it.
What has been the role of libraries in your life? Did you use libraries while you were working on the book? Were you a library kid?
I was a library kid. And I have since been a small, small, small patron of New York Public Library. I just think libraries are the most incredible thing. The more you get educated, the more you can appreciate what there is inside these wonderful places.
Can you talk about your activism around climate change, specifically around BEE Connected, which raises awareness of declining pollinator populations?
I never feel like I can do enough. And I’m really happy that kids, especially kids who are still in school, are really paying attention to all of this, and I just wish that they all could vote. Greta [Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist] I feel is the Joan of Arc of our age. Here’s this young woman who is just so positive and so strong and so dynamic. I mean, the power of this little person, to take this stand and be so adamant. It’s a complete statement. I’m totally in awe.
At the end of the book, you write that you are still a New York punk—what does that mean to you?
Punk didn’t have anything to do with the style of music. It had to do with an attitude, which was about change and about reidentifying yourself and poking fun at mores and social behavior—things that were acceptable in the past that should be passed over at this point.
I think that anybody who is concerned with climate change is a punk. It seems clear that if we don’t do something radical now, if we don’t get really smart and use all the technology we have available to us and move away from these fossil [fuels], we could all become fossils.
It’s about standing up. And if that’s what it takes, that’s what we all need to do. And the more people that do it, the easier it becomes.