- New wave pioneers Blondie are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a new album, Ghosts of Download
- Maggie Lake speaks with Deborah Harry and Chris Stein about modern music and unforgettable 70s moments
- She discovers the duo love touring, miss family and have mixed views on the new world of digital downloads
In an era of entourages and media minders, rock-n-roll hall of famer Deborah Harry arrived to our interview alone.
Wearing a black and white graphic scarf draped over a long sleeve T-shirt and practical black flip-flops, she wandered in off the street, browsing the hotel art installation like any other tourist.
But this was no casual viewing. Strewn around the room was four decades of memories -- stunning black and white photos taken by Blondie bandmate and one-time boyfriend Chris Stein. It took me a few minutes to realize it was her. She seemed strangely detached looking at her younger self. But then, it was a lifetime ago.
Blondie hit their stride when the lines between music and video were mingling. They made their mark in the space between punk, new wave and disco and introduced mass audiences to hip-hop. They were a fixture on the New York scene, but that is a landscape that has changed literally ...and musically.
When Stein arrived a short time after Harry, in his trademark leather and shades, he paused to look at the blown-up photo of Harry up on the top of the World Trade Center observation deck. It made him emotional to see that building, now gone. Neither could remember the exact date he snapped the shot or why she seems to be holding a folded bill.
It was just one of the ghosts in the room. We talked about the clubs that have closed, music stores shuttered. Songs now premiere on YouTube before the radio or TV. You might expect the veteran rockers to lament this lost past. But Harry and Stein are surprisingly open about the change. While Harry has been quoted in the past as saying the internet killed music, she was much more nuanced in our conversation.
"It makes it more important to tour, there is no record industry to speak of, but I sort of appreciate that a person can download a track they love," said Harry.
Stein also seemed to appreciate technology's ability to reach an audience. "It used to be a struggle to get yourself on television -- before MTV even more so -- now it's completely secondary," he said. "Now you can just press a button and watch anyone doing anything anywhere doing anything. In unison they agreed: "The verdict is not in yet."
The new studio album may be called Ghosts of Download, but both artists feel it's forward looking, especially in the collaborations. Beth Ditto of Indie rock group Gossip, Oakland-based Panamanian rappers Los Rakas and Colombian Systema Solar are featured on tracks. Stein, laughing, noted: "I think my ego is less pronounced -- it's easier to take ideas from other people."
Though they may be rock-n-roll royalty, they are incredibly down to earth. Harry, still striking, has a wry smile and a slight mystery about her. Stein is more open. We joked about TV binge-watching House of Cards and Game of Thrones (which was why he was running late) and the difficulty of getting things done in politics. Does Harry have a favorite song? Rapture and a little known track Cautious Lip, she wished she could play live.
They tag team a conversation the way only long-time partners can. "We get along," joked Stein when I asked how they have survived when so many other bands haven't. The best thing about touring? "The fans," Harry said without hesitation. The worst? "Being away from my wife and kids," said Stein, who is married to actress Barbara Sicuranza.
Though people dismiss the potency of aging rockers, there is a history they carry that is hard to resist. When I asked if they had a favorite live performance, they an told amazing story about being in Bangkok on New Year's Eve in the 70s, the night the curfew from the Vietnam War was lifted.
The band may have a treasure trove of memories, but they are now 40 years on -- in their words, Blondie 4(0) Ever -- and looking to the future.
When asked which musicians they admire, the reveal: Justin Timberlake and J-lo.