I thought of my older cousin as the epitome of cool, so when he casually informed me in the late '70s that Blondie was cool, I accepted it as a fact. Over time, my cousin stopped seeming cool to me. Blondie never did. If anything, Blondie seemed to get cooler. They were absolutely arctic to me by the time they'd broken up and Debbie Harry was on her second solo LP Rockbird, enough so that the chill kept until their eventual reunion in 1999—and it's been permafrost ever since.
Given their penchant for drugs, fraternization, jealousy and feuds, Blondie's the last '70s band that should still be alive, together (give or take) and touring in 2010, but that makes each time I see them all the more miraculous.
That said, I've been a lousy fan; I've seen Debbie and/or Blondie perform quite a few times, but not every single time. This tour, I debated whether I'd go (I'd last seen their Parallel Lines 25th anniversary show), but was lured in at the last minute by a unique offer to pay too much money in order to have some alone-time with the band.
Not counting spotting her in Chelsea with her dog, I'd met Debbie Harry three times. First, I jumped her after a performance of the play Crave in the Village (2000). I was fat, she was exhausted, but it's a great pic (of a pic):
Next, I stood in line forever to meet Blondie momentarily at a J&R Music World signing of The Curse of Blondie (2003). Finally, I was one of a handful of people allowed to sit and watch Blondie's AOL Sessions taping to plug The Curse of Blondie (2004; the subject of my first-ever blog post). But the prospect of a private audience with Debbie, Chris Stein and Clem Burke was too tempting...the fact that there were gold and platinum levels made it even more irresistible. At the risk of sounding like a "Maria...you oughtta see her" Antoinette, I must have the best if there is any way to have it.
My platinum package promised me a lot...I wondered how much it would actually deliver almost immediately after charging it:
I was told an on-site coordinator named Paris would meet me at the venue to facilitate. Nothing good has ever come from working with anyone named Paris, right? I picked up my ticket early and saw that Blondie's site recommended arriving by 6:45 for the meet-and-greet. This was not good—with doors opening at 7 for a show starting at 8, how would there ever be time for me to have front-of-line entry, part of the package? Well...there wasn't.
I arrived just after 6 and was told to meet my contact not in Red Square but "in the alley." In truth, the alley is a really nice area beside the Nokia filled with tourists that's 20 degrees cooler than the 95-degree outside world, but it sounded so ominous I had to laugh. I turned the corner to find all of two other VIPs penned in by the stage door, a young guy who fell for the band after seeing them on the American Music Awards in 1999 (and later interviewed Chris for Origivation) and a guy in his forties from England who remembered them from their hit "Denis" in 1978 but only really became enamored of them "over the past year or 18 months." (He'd flown from the UK specifically for this show and for the meeting, his first time on a plane in 21 years.)
"Is your heart racing?" he asked me. I hoped I didn't look as nervous as I was, but in reality I was more nervous about the details than the actual encounter in the same way I'm always freaked out about boarding my plane with no hitches yet never think twice that we'll crash.
Right on time, a young woman with alterna-red hair emerged, identified herself as Paris and escorted us inside. As we were entering, a fourth VIPer ran up, a woman who'd been texting and e-mailing with me after we met on a Blondie fan board; she'd missed her train and narrowly avoided missing her chance to meet Blondie. Inside, we were allowed to buy merch first...but I think only one person bought a T-shirt. I liked the "Hips or Lips" shirt but decided I'd be cruising for a bruising bringing that home and hey, I was broke after paying to meet the band.
The only big disappointment (presuming I get all the promised goodies, which are being mailed) was that the meet-and-greet was set for 7:30, so there was never any chance we'd get to enter the venue first and get front-row. (It was general admission...why does G.A. haunt me???) Otherwise, things went well...very well!
When it was time to meet the band, I worried we'd all meet them at once and have to fight for attention. "Look, Debbie, I can stand on my hands!" But Paris asked for someone to volunteer to go first and I stepped right up. She led me to a dark, cozy conference room, knocked and Debbie opened the door. This was awkward because it's hard to fawn over someone in a narrow hall, so I just said hello and then entered to shake hands with Chris (who has that cerebral, mellow-version-of-Woody Allen vibe) and Clem (youthful! I keep forgetting he's the baby of the band at 55). Debbie followed us in, so I did get to more explicitly greet her.
The first thing I told them was that I'd seen them at their AOL Sessions in 2004, but that I'd been there in a professional capacity and now I was freer to gush like a fan. Chris asked me what magazine I worked for, so I told him Popstar!, whereupon he teased Clem by saying, "He grew up in teen magazines...he had big piles of Tiger Beat and 16." Debbie chimed in, "He had stacks of 'em!" I think this refers to Clem being in the magazines so much.
I didn't know how much time I had (turns out I probably had much more than I imagined), so I asked about signing some things I'd brought. My main goal was to have Debbie sign the infamous Private Stock poster I'd been lugging around for years. It's a beautiful thing—she glowers from behind a see-through top, which made the poster too lewd to display and which did nothing to dissuade new fans that Blondie was Debbie and Debbie was Blondie. I asked if she'd be okay with it and she said "yeah" and immediately started to sign it to me. "I guess I should use black."
As she had with my 12" of "Denis"/"Contact in Red Square"/"Kung Fu Girls" back in 2000, she misspelled my name as "Mathew." I asked if she'd add a stroke for the second "T" which confused her until Chris translated—they still speak their own language. Chris wondered where I'd gotten it (eBay sounds so lame) and said he has one, too. He also noted wryly that when the poster came out, people thought it was an ad for a "massage parlor." (I love that phrase..."massage parlor." It's so 1970s. It makes me think of watching Carter Country and eating Pop Rocks and listening to The Carpenters.)
I didn't want to act like I only cared about Debbie—though Debbie solo is sensational—since I care very much about Chris and Clem, but it's hard because I'm a diva-oriented fanatic and Debbie is so imposing in person. As she signed, I studied her a bit—she's small in stature (but not a munchkin as Madonna-spotters always say of that other blonde queenpin) but has a regal air. Her gray-blonde hair was brushed back and she was shivering in a black jacket that didn't look like it was keeping the hardcore A.C. at bay. She looks amazing in person and was gracious to her awestruck fanboy.
I had brought a bunch of single covers for the whole band to sign, which they did happily. I blurted out how I was dying to hear their new songs in person because as great as they sound on YouTube, it's not the same as hearing it live. "They're a little more refined," Chris promised.
Speaking of which, Clem's pretty cute! I was wracking my brain for info on the gay/straight status. UPDATE: Straight as a drumstick. He was also so, so kind, offering to sign me a pair of his drumsticks and later suggesting that I get a shot just with Debbie after our group pose:
After they signed, I thanked them and Debbie said, "Suuure. Thank you—for staying with us." I told her I'd be there in a wheelchair eventually if they wanted to play that long and she laughed. When I asked them their favorite stuff to play considering their massive catalogue, Chris said, "Just anything that we haven't played a lot. I just like doing the new shit."
Clem spilled, "Yeah, we're doing, like, a set of New York songs from, like, other New York bands. We wanted to do something a little different for the hometown show."
"Yeah, we always talk about doing a covers record," Chris revealed. They've done so many inspired covers—"More Than This" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" spring to mind, but don't forget "The Tide is High" and "Hanging On the Telephone" count as covers, too.
I do love their covers, but told them—Debbie specifically—that the only trade-off is I miss Blondie's lyrics. My most fannish moment was telling Debbie that her playful, strange word choices have always inspired me in my writing. She thanked me but said, "I don't think they're strange, I try to make them not so typical...I feel like a lot of stuff is just so beaten to death."
"I guess that's why I say 'strange,' because most people are happy to beat stuff to death. You've got a great vocabulary."
"I wish that I had a better one. I've read some people that have incredible vocabularies."
I pointed to my Warhol shirt and asked if she's seen the Brooklyn Museum exhibit yet and she said, unconvincingly (even to herself), "Yeahhh...?" I figured since she's in it, in the form of a blown-up Polaroid, she might want to check it out.
We took photos together, huddling for warmth, and Debbie again said, "Thank you for your support." She then asked my last name, kind of as if she might know me. This is a great thing for any famous person to do to any fan, even if you know they don't. She laughed indulgently when I directed her to my blog to see what I'd eventually write about the show and Clem instructed me to have a good time. "Enjoy the show!" she called out as I took off.
Next, I persuaded the venue peeps to let me dash across the street to my office to stash my goodies, which also included a limited-edition poster the band had signed for me. I made it back in the allotted two minutes, then the platinum VIPers were taken on a trés unglam tour of Nokia's tiny, funky-smelling, utilitarian backstage. The only cool parts of this would be seeing the doors to the Debbie, Chris and Clem's private rooms (Chris actually shares with the all backing band members)—pictured—and getting to stand on the stage as openers Gorevette wailed to the crowd.
Finally sensing my VIP trip was nearing an end, I said my good-byes and made my way into the crowd. It was full-ish, but without being a prick, I easily walked up to within five people of the stage. To my amazement, there were none of those dreaded pushy short girls with two drinks in their hands! In fact, you won't hear a complaint out of me regarding this G.A. experience! (Okay, one vicarious one—two-thirds of the way in, an obnoxious dude and three or so obnoxious, shaven-headed punk grrrls who looked as dated as that word violently shoved their way to within three people of the stage like they were about to form a mosh pit. The guy was outrageously physical all the way, later almost beating someone down to get something tossed from the stage. And I also don't get why girls put one arm up in the air, curling all but one finger into their palm and then point downward toward the floor rhythmically as rock music is playing...but it wasn't a big issue in front of me so I'm just being a grievance tourist.)
"Hips or lips"...as from here (thanks, John)
The show was easily the best Blondie show I've seen! This is partly because I love their new material: "What I Heard" is an infectious track that manages to simultaneously sound like vintage Blondie and an adult, modern, Top 40-ready single; "Mother"'s a bouncy, Go-Go's-style tune; "Love Doesn't Frighten Me" reminds me of a lush, more coquetteish "Maria" and "D Day" rawwwks! But it's partly because they had chosen a really intelligent mix of songs for NYC. I didn't previously love Debbie's Emmylou Harris/Cindy McCain wig, but it worked well on stage in person and her voice was incredible as always. The crowd ate up the NYC tribute encore Clem had confirmed and went ballistic over the the iconic stuff like "One Way Or Another." The only song in their lengthy set that didn't live up to my expectations was "Atomic," on which Debbie didn't seem to have as much of that soaring quality the song demands.
Otherwise, check out the videos and see and hear for yourself that Blondie really is still cool.
Full Set List, August 31, 2010 @ Nokia NYC—CLICK SONGS FOR VIDEOS!
(CORRECT ME IF I'M WRONG...):
(1) "D Day"
(2) "Hanging on the Telephone" (The Nerves cover)—FULL SONG
(7) "What I Heard"
(8) "Orchid Club"
(10) "The Tide is High" (The Paragons cover)
(13) "Call Me" (elements of Muse's "Uprising")
(14) "One Way Or Another"
NYC Medley (15)—(19)
(15) "Pet Sematary" (Ramones cover)
(16) "See No Evil" (Television cover)
(17) "Havana Affair" (Ramones cover)
(18) "Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" (J Thunders cover)
(19) "Jet Boy" (New York Dolls cover)
(20) "Break Your Heart" (Taio Cruz cover)
(21) "Heart of Glass"