"Blondie Is A Group!" the band sought to remind fans 30 years or so ago, but by the time I fell in love with them they weren't anymore.
The seeds had been planted by overhearing my cooler older cousin’s records and listening to Debbie’s KooKoo over and over thanks to an adventurous Columbia House pick by my mother, but it wasn’t until Debbie Harry was attempting to reinvigorate her career via Rockbird and her first live performances in years that I become hooked. I spent a lot of money buying up all their vinyl albums at a trashy used-records store in Flint called Jellybean's that also sold used magazines, like one called Big Mamma Jamma, featuring an obese, nude black woman on the cover. I memorized all of Blondie’s songs, and I pined for concerts I had missed by having the misfortune of being born too late.
My favorite album of theirs was always Autoamerican—its arty refusal to fit into any particular category made me feel superior any time I listened to it years after its release. This was not Stacey Q! But a close second would have to be Parallel Lines, the 1978 retro-cool fist-pounder that ushered in their ironic disco #1 “Heart Of Glass” as well as career-defining tunes like “One Way Or Another.” It’s a great record, start to finish, and remains a must for any rock fan’s collection.
Now, 30 years later, Blondie is again a group, and they’re in the midst of a surprisingly successful tour on which they play every song on Parallel Lines as well as a few encore bonuses. I caught Blondie for the umpteenth time at the Nokia in Times Square, which was pleasantly packed (until the drunk straight girls arrived—they always fuck things up).
The opening act, Miss Derringer, is a group that owes a lot to Blondie; their lead singer posed nonchalantly as a drum majorette and announced each song’s title deadpan. Her most prominent co-conspirator looked like the ghost of a Civil War soldier (credit to Jason for the visual). Toward the end of their painful set, she asked the crowd, “Has anyone ever committed suicide here?” It was a joke, but some were thinking, “Not yet.” Today can last another million years.
Then it was time for the main course, which wound up being a feast for the senses.
Clem Burke’s insane drums washed over us as Debbie Harry strolled in, making a cool entrance before cracking her huge smile—and launched into the unforgettable opening track, “Hanging On The Telephone.” Looking better than she has in years, she wore a black, form-fitting dress with silver-glitter stripes that matched the set’s mimicking of the Parallel Lines album cover. The smile wasn’t a one-off, nor was the band’s nailing of the exact right delivery on this cracklin’ opener. I'll getcha, I'll getcha.
“One Way Or Another” is almost too familiar by now to truly excite, but she always manages to snarl her way through in a new way. But the best part of an almost-perfect show for me was the following trio. “Picture This” is one of my favorite non-obvious Blondie tracks:
“Picture this—a day in December/picture this—freezing-cold weather/you got clouds on your lids/and you would be on the skids/if it weren’t for your job at the garage/if you could only oh-oh-whoa picture this…” It's good to hear your voice—you know it's been so long.
It ends with her sarcastic dare, “Get a pocket computer/try to do what you used to do—yeah!” Well into a new millennium, the audience was taping her every move with various types of pocket computers, capturing her trying—and succeeding at—doing what she used to do—yeah! She sang the hell out of it, and then absolutely sent chills up my spine with “Fade Away And Radiate,” a mesmerizingly moody song from the album that obsesses over television’s lure. Less spooky and a continuation of the album’s ‘50s/’60s rock vibe, “Pretty Baby” was another stand-out live. When she wailed, “I fell in love with you!” you believed it.
“I Know But I Don’t Know” is the closest thing to filler on the killer Parallel Lines, and I wasn’t overly impressed with it live, but just the sheer familiarity sold me on it. “11:59” and “Will Anything Happen” have always blended into one massive, perfect song for me, so I loved hearing these rarely-performed scorchers. Long live innocence.
“Sunday Girl” is a song everybody knows, a sweet ‘60s sort of girl group tune with French thrown in because . Very New Wave. “Heart Of Glass” received a triumphant reading that found everyone following Debbie’s command to sing along (“That’s very pretty…” she assured us, getting our hands into the air). I'm gonna do my best to hook ya.
Sadly, Blondie chose to reinvent “Just Go Away,” a deliciously nasty fuck-off song and the final one from the album, as a vintage “Whiteout,” with minimal lyrics and a lot of sass. It amounted to Debbie cooing, “Just go away” every once in a while. Hated it! And I was not happy when Debbie threw in two substandard songs from her latest solo record, the title track and “Whiteout.” More successfully, the band included “I’m Always Touched By Your Presence, Dear,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.” Another clunker arrived in the former of “Screaming Skin” from Blondie’s so-so first comeback album No Exit, but the set closed downright merrily—Debbie sang (heavily relying on lyrical prompting) a riot grrrl version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and then turned in a rousing rendition of “Get Off Of My Cloud.” Will I...see you again?
I felt I’d been given the impossible—a chance to see Blondie live back at their peak. Even with the few flaws, I felt like a kid with an ice cream sundae (girl). Seeing Debbie looking to beautiful and confident, sensing how at ease she is with this material, made me believe time travel is a possibility, and perfection has no shelf life. All photography by Matthew Rettenmund.