Friday, December 28, 2012

Debbie Harry

The "punk rock" movement was messy, disharmonic, sometimes violent, and wholly necessary.  The great creative period in popular music that had ushered in the fantastic cultural shift that was the 1960's  had been supplanted in the 1970's by the droning electro-pop of disco.  Instead of Jimi at Woodstock, or even the Stones at Altamont, there was now a battalion of sequined, interchangeable, air-coiffed "singers" offering equally interchangeable, tedious, synthesized music that accompanied dance moves that made even the graceful look as if they were suffering from cranial damage.

On the other hand, punk rock was loud and as in-your-face as a bellicose Red Sox fan in a Bronx bar.  If disco prepared the foundation for the metrosexual, punk was its primordial remedy.

Early punk bands were mostly English and ridiculed and attacked all sorts and forms of institutions.  The most memorable of the early punk songs was the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", which melodized:

God save the Queen
She ain't no human being

Well, you may as well watch them, but I warn you.  By the way, the singer's name is Johnny Rotten and the bassist, Sid Vicious, is renowned as the worst bassist ever to get a recording contract:

Well, that was horrible, wasn't it?

Punk bands were known to play in the noisiest and loosest manner possible, somehow turning three simple cords into something like a world war.  They could be very drunk while on stage and were sometimes known to physically assault their fans.  The word finesse was wholly lost in this type of music.  However, it was refreshing in that the musicians were playing their own instruments, however badly, and were not the product of some studio electronics.  If disco had John Travolta and other boys prancing around a dance floor with hair like that of my date to the 9th grade homecoming dance, punk rock had "slam dancing", which is just as it sounds.  Trust me, I think I'm still bruised from it.

But, for all of its necessary, raw appeal to the power of music as primal force, sooner or later a more sophisticated form of the music had to develop.  That next level, known to musicologists as "New Wave", was handsomely embodied by a petite, platinum blond from New Jersey who became the ingenue of the Greenwich Village and East Village joints that were in those days at the cutting edge of this latest musical trend.

If the punk rockers were "hot" on stage, Harry was cool.  If they were frenetic, she was serene.  If they presented their lyrics of rage and disregard with a voice that sounded as if an Osterizer was implanted in their larynx, Debbie Harry was smooth, gentle and a little breathless with lyrics about the universal themes of desire, lost love, and remorse.  Her delivery and style altered the energy of the punk movement without disturbing its drive or originality.  Her band, named "Blondie", became the biggest thing in lower Manhattan in the late 1970's, when I first entered the music scene.

This is a much better video than the one above, and not just because Harry is prettier than Johnny Rotten:

One evening at The Bitter End, when my guitarist and I were desperately trying to convince the owner to let us play a gig sometime, Debbie Harry came in with her entourage.  I don't recall who was on stage that night, but they were known to Harry and she sang one song with them.  It wasn't one of Blondie's, it was "Someone to Watch Over Me", an American standard from earlier in the century composed by George and Ira Gershwin.  It was beautiful.

The reason I think of her from time to time, as I now am older and beginning fondly to look back on the halcyon days of my youth, is because, not long after she finished on stage, the two of us were within feet of one another at the corner of the bar.  I wanted to tell her how nicely she had sung that old torch song, but the place was far too loud and crowded to permit it.  Also, she was a big star at the time and I was a big chicken.  So, I raised my glass to her and smiled.  She winked at me.

Sometimes, at the end of a trying day, I think of that wink and I smile.

Harry would eventually become a torch singer and still performs, although usually singing American classics in smaller venues.