The Century, Seen Through Blondie’s Eyes

We’re at millennium’s end, and I can’t figure out whether we are doing more looking back or looking forward. Looking back, I guess, because at least we can see something there. Wars, for instance. Great moments in art, science, society. You look ahead, what do you see? A bunch of question marks and a couple of hip replacements.

How short and quick life is, especially today: That’s the main thing I’ve taken away from all of this end-of-epoch navel-gazing. Life probably seemed longer back when it only lasted 50 years but didn’t have modern gizmology to goose it along. A day lit by candles and torches would be a much longer day than a day brightened by Oprah and the Internet.

Even with all this reflection, some of it dark, I’m actually pretty chipper as we kiss 1999 goodbye. But the millennium does force you to do some math, and no matter how you crunch the numbers, if you are of a certain age, you realize that you’re leaving half your earthly allotment in the old millennium, with but half–you hope–to be run in the new.

Something happened on a Friday morning last summer that sent me back a couple of decades, and made me feel simultaneously younger and older than I really am. I thought about this at the time, and have been turning it over in recent weeks. I was transported back to 1980, at about 2 in the morning–a Tuesday, a Wednesday. My friend Mike and I were having a beer at Max’s Kansas City. I remember looking at the pictures of Debbie Harry on the staircase wall and wondering if I could have handled it if she had been our waitress. She famously had been a waitress at Max’s.

As I remember it, the pictures of Ms. Harry on the wall were black and whites; she had shades on and looked very dangerous. Mike and I joked about that for a bit, then decided to call it a night. It was midweek, after all. Work tomorrow.

Then, about five or six years ago–a lifetime since that night in Max’s–my wife Luci and I went to a Jazz Passengers show at some hall on the Upper West Side. The Passengers’ most recent disk, with a bunch of guest vocalists, was a nice stew of songs, some arty, some avant-garde. Deborah Harry was one of the singers on the recording, and she did a wonderful job on a couple of numbers. She would be singing with the band this night at the concert.

She looked great. She paraded out with a little dog in tow. She was zaftig; I never thought I’d say Debbie Harry, or even Deborah, was zaftig, but she was zaftig. Well, so what. I was zaftig, too, or the male equivalent. You get zaftig. It happens.

She sang wonderfully, and the crowd adored her. The evening felt very much on key: Deborah, stretching, was singing this advanced, difficult music, and still hanging gracefully in the New York scene.

Young Jeff Buckley, Tim’s son, sang that night, too. He was a stunningly good-looking kid, and a charismatic performer. I was sure at that moment that Jeff was on the cusp of whatever Debbie Harry had once had, and that he would be the planet’s biggest thing in the new millennium, but of course he’s dead now. He drowned–what? a year ago? Two?

About eight months ago at the office, I got Blondie’s new disk in the mail at work. On the album cover, Deborah was a combination of the old Blondie singer and the Jazz Passengers’ chanteuse: the downcast eyes and the pout, but attractive crinkles and, interestingly, some hair allowed to turn brown.

That was a nice touch, I thought. I tossed the disk aside, but after lunch took it out of its case and put it in the computer on my desk. I jacked it up as much as is possible around our place, and shut the door. It was Blondie updated for the new millennium, and since, for a pop band, Blondie was always at least a bit ahead of its time, it made some kind of sense. It seemed modern and adult. It wasn’t embarrassing, like those horny-guy things the Rolling Stones keep putting out.

So last summer, I was walking north on Fifth Avenue on a Friday morning, as I do every weekday morning. I turned left on 48th Street, heading for the office. A third of the way down the block, the sound started building. It was 8:45 A.M. and Deborah Harry was singing “Call Me” on a bright, sunny day. The reborn Blondie was playing the Today show’s concert series.

They sounded terrific; looked good, too. The guys had kept their hair. Deborah had clearly trimmed a few pounds and in her cat-eye sunglasses she almost (not quite) looked dangerous again. She was limbering up her arena moves, hands above the head a whole lot. The band took a break after “Call Me,” then sang a song from the new disk. It sounded like it could’ve followed “Call Me” in any perfectly acceptable album sequence, and sounded right up to date.

The crowd was interesting. Three girls had a “We Love Blondie” sign, and I thought: Really? Then there were some families, folks my age but from out of town, with toddlers, or infants en Snuggli . Then there were … us. Most of us were dressed down for Friday, but some of us had suits and ties. All of us carried briefcases. Many of us had kids at home; all of us had homes. All of us had late Tuesday beers in our past, and vague, hopeful plans for the future. All of us had, somewhere on our shelves at home, old Blondie L.P.’s and cassettes, a copy of the group’s greatest hits. All of us guys had memories of Debbie that didn’t scare us anymore, but that made us smile.

She sang “Heart of Glass,” and started to do that swaying of hers. I was proud of her up there.

The Today show was over, but Blondie was generous enough to stick around for one more song. A lot of the kids started leaving; with the TV cameras off, the morning had lost its meaning. Deborah sang “Rapture” and I wondered if any of the departing teens realized just how important that song was, once upon a time. No matter. I, for one, was sticking around, and so was the woman on my left and the man on my right, briefcase straps slung over their shoulders. We tapped our toes and waited for Debb … Deborah’s rap. She brought it off, then tossed around that now-brown-and-blonde mane of hers. Great stuff.

The band finished “Rapture” with a proper thump, and then Deborah said, “Thank you. Have a nice day.” Have a nice day.

I walked the block and a half to work, knowing I’d walk back this way in eight hours, heading for Grand Central, for Westchester. I hoped to beat it out early and get home by the time my daughter Caroline was finishing her nap. She could help Daddy water the plants.

It’s December now and those plants–perennials–are sleeping. When they awake we’ll have a new year, new century, new millennium on our hands.

Meantime, on New Year’s Eve, a quiet one spent at home with my wife and daughter Caroline, I’ll probably give the greatest hits collection a spin. It’ll make me feel young or old or–probably–both.