The first thing my eyes focused on each morning upon waking, was the exquisite face of a woman pierced through with five evenly spaced steel skewers. She gazed down upon me from the ceiling above my bed, and informed me on the ways of being kick-ass, sexy, and creative. I was only ten and my mother had expressed tight-lipped concern at my choice of subversive bedroom décor, but my big sister was to blame.
The woman above my bed was Debbie Harry in a dog-eared promo poster for her debut solo album KooKoo, a cast-off from my big sister’s growing collection of Blondie ephemera. Maria (Maz) was, and continues to be, a Blondie mega fan. Nearly nine years my senior, she took it upon herself to be my lifelong guide and guru on all things hip, cool and urban. She balanced my geeky obsessions with natural history, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and Brownie badges, with a regular Sunday afternoon record session. It was like Punk Sunday School. We sat in a colourful sea of vinyl, beside my father’s monumental OTTO record player, as she played me track after track. I got to pore over the album sleeves and chose my favourites, whilst absorbing The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Gary Numan, The Clash, Talking Heads, Scars, and of course Blondie.
My deep fascination with these new wave sounds and sights came from a potent cocktail of fear and lust. I secretly peeped at black and white photographs of these punk era icons in the books and magazines on Maria’s side of our shared bedroom, mulling over highly charged words: Smack, Gob, Anarchy, Skinhead, and Sex. Perhaps I dreamt it, but I have an image seared into my memory of Debbie Harry loosely dressed in a white bathrobe with a cigarette up each nostril. I wondered if that was what heroin looked like.
But I loved Debbie, more than ever, on that day that she sang with Kermit on the Muppet Show. She looked right down the camera at me, and was everything I always wanted to be; funny, talented, blonde and devastatingly sexy. I am blonde, so one out of four ain’t bad. When Maria asked if I’d like her spare ticket for Debbie Harry at The Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday, I leapt at the chance to see, with my own eyes at last, this legendary musical goddess.
We arrived in salubrious Cotswold-stone Cheltenham thinking about lunch, and quickly found a suitably cool New York-style vegetarian café called Vinnie’s, in the basement of an elegant Georgian row on Crescent Terrace. As we awaited our pea and spinach fritters we were joined by Sue Perkins, of Mel & Sue fame. Well, she didn’t actually join us, but sat with a friend at a table adjacent to ours. We tried hard to look nonchalant about her celebrity status, even though I was still a little bit in love with her after just catching up with BBC One’s Japan With Sue Perkins series. It was good training for what was to come.
At nearly three in the afternoon the low autumn sun finally emerged as we entered the festival gates on Montpellier Terrace. We were at the box office, taking a speculative look at what was left of the festival, when a rapturous radiating whisper of “There she is! There she is!” spread through the park, and I turned to see Debbie Harry’s fluffy peroxide locks, lit up, as if from within, as she made her way right past us, in the centre of a modest entourage, en route to a live Sky Arts interview. We had lucked out on tickets to watch that interview, so consoled ourselves with the last two tickets to see Caroline Criado Perez discussing her new book Invisible Women (about data bias in a world of men). I suddenly got that ‘Fleabag feeling’ sitting with my sister in the midst of a fierce feminist seminar, all the while preoccupied with an inner desire to just be funny, talented, blonde and devastatingly sexy. But what Criado Perez had to say was very interesting, she was accompanied by an adorable little dog, and the debate about unisex toilets at the end was enlightening…
It was T minus three hours before we would see Debbie (again) so our thoughts turned (again) to food. This time we perched on high stools at a rustic bench in the very groovy Coconut Tree, a Sri Lankan restaurant on St Paul’s Road. We ate Kotthu (a shredded roti dish) and spiced chickpeas, with a delicious sambal of carrot, coriander, cucumber and chilli with shaved coconut served in dented enamel dishes. It was really good.
Afterwards though, we fretted that our garlicy breath would be too much for a close-range meeting with Harry and Stein at the book-signing, and I longed for a stick of spearmint chewing gum, but it was time to join the snaking queue of fans outside The Times Forum tent. Maz observed that it was not the sort of crowd she was expecting, consisting as it did, mainly of middle-aged squares in anoraks. Then we looked at each other, and laughed. In our heads we were still very much rock n roll. I had made a bit of an effort, wearing my black leather bomber jacket, and Maz can’t help but look cool with her ubiquitous black record tote, but we had to face the fact that most of us there had been Debbie Harry fans for over fortyyears.
Expectation mounted as we took our seats in the stalls and worked out the best possible sightlines through the six rows of overlapping heads and shoulders between us and the stage. An animated series of illustrations from the new book Face It played out on the screen above to a soundtrack that matched some of those Sunday afternoon records, and the lights eventually dimmed as Debbie, in a scarlet suit, accompanied by Chris Stein and Rob Roth appeared on stage to take up their positions for a cosy chat on the brown leather chesterfields.
As an interviewer Roth, was chaotic and flakey, navigating clumsily through a series of slides and snapshots of Debbie on an ipad, and asking banal questions that were often met with one-word answers. I was beginning to wish that they’d asked Maz to conduct the interview, and then some rude audience members began to exit the forum prematurely in an effort to be first in line for the book-signing, but we stayed to the end, captivated by the way that, at 74 years old, Debbie Harry still manages to be the most funny, talented, blonde and sexy woman in the room. It is easy to draw parallels between her and Marylin Monroe, emanating as they do, that supernatural glow mere mortals can only dream of. Roth teased out of them random snippets in time: They talked languidly about the devastating fire in their apartment, and the mysterious blood-soaked mattress they later found on the roof of their building, about the designers who made her kooky clothes, about her early life and her mother, about what it was like to tour with Blondie in the UK in the early days of punk, and how they were on the beach when the FBI called to say that the serial killer Andrew Cunanan had got Debbie Harry in his little black book. It was a bit like listening to the art school and advertising agency reminiscences of my parents, just without all the trippy drugs and music. When it was over and people were heading for the doors, DH was still hugging Roth and taking photocalls on stage, so we swam against the current of exiting bodies to get closer to her, just… because. One does funny things around an icon.
As we joined the long long open-air queue to meet DH and Chris Stein at the end of the night, I left Maz holding our place and recced the giant pop-up Waterstones to see if they had started the signing. There was an agitated crowd of people jostling at one end of the store taking photographs, so I raised a hand high in the air above them to take a picture on my iphone. It turned out that what they were all getting excited about was an empty table and two chairs. We had a long wait ahead of us. Some bat-faced squeaky drama queen was complaining loudly to the queue that the interview had been a complete joke, that it was a disgrace, and that Debbie Harry probably doesn’t even know her own name any more. We collectively glared at the shrill little woman until she trotted away to her nest to tweet nasty things. Under a bright full moon, it was like waiting to meet Father Christmas, especially when tantalizing glimpses of DH’s red suit could be spied through the crowd up ahead.
As we shuffled forward, the staff briefed us on the Do’s and Don’ts of getting to the front of the queue, then suddenly our copies of Face It were spirited away for presentation to the king and queen of punk rock, while our bags were carried somewhere else. Approaching the table I almost curtseyed, avoiding direct eye contact with DH incase I should be beheaded. We stood like a goofy pair of teenagers behind Chris and Debbie, (as I now like to call them) while their publicist used our phones to take pictures for us, and Maz was talking to them both and presenting gifts from Tall Bird Records, (the record shop she has owned for the past 6 years). I ventured to put my hand on Debbie’s shoulder and whisper, “Thank you for staying up so late to sign our books” and she replied lightly, in her NY drawl, “Ohh, you knoww…”
And then it was all over. We were reunited with our bags and our signed books and were spat out on the other side of the table like two weak-kneed and giddy schoolgirls. My sister’s usual air of cool disdain had melted away to giggling glee, until I reminded her that she forgot to get DH to sign her arm for a tattoo. “Oh Shittt!” she said, and we looked back to see if we could just squeeze back past security and ask. But it was too late, and not cool.
We walked quietly back through a deserted Sunday night Cheltenham feeling generally rather pleased with the conclusion of our Blondie pilgrimage, and scoping the streets for a night cap. We found one at The Bank House on Clarence Street, where a gang of paunchy old bar-flies chatted us up (tragically, a significant boost to my ego) and we downed our drinks quickly, looking forward to the awaiting comfy Premier Inn beds. It was fun to be sharing a bedroom again and to dream dream, even for a little while, that we were kids again.