Face It by Debbie Harry; Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith – review

Highly contrasting memoirs from two female icons of 70s New York – one poetic and dreamlike, the other full of squalid adventure – are equally compelling

Patti Smith and Debbie Harry went to something like rock’n’roll high school together, as the Ramones might have put it. But that’s the only common denominator to be found in their two memoirs. New York in the 70s was a school of hard knocks, from which these fellow travellers emerged with honours of very different sorts.

Both books are highly anticipated, however. Harry’s memoir is her first, correcting an egregious absence. That one of the most famous women in pop should not have recounted her story until now is hard to believe – that is, until you start reading and learn of Harry’s deep reticence at having to rake over the past. She spends a chapter discussing the marvel that is the opposable thumb, as though straining for the word count on a homework assignment.

Patti Smith’s is her third, including the award-winning Just Kids (2010), an account of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe. The slim pamphlet that is Year of the Monkey covers just one lunar year in Smith’s life, her 70th, which coincides with the political upheavals of 2016 and some significant endings.

Harry’s book is full of pictures of her made by other people, a gallery of fan art the singer has collected over the years, from her Andy Warhol portrait down to children’s scrawls. On the page, she is far goofier than you’d expect. There is a surprising matter-of-factness with which Harry discusses her face: she knows full well people masturbated to posters of her. She acknowledges the weird superpowers beauty gave her and has unapologetic surgery to preserve it.

But there is also ambivalence towards her looks. As an adopted child, Harry resembled no one in her family; people used to say she looked “European”. As a child, she was “always afraid”. She is at pains to point out that the Harry who fronted Blondie was always a caricature, in drag, “an inflatable doll”. Although her looks could have made her one of the beautiful people, Harry was a punk, into bricolage and heroin and early hip-hop, her role in John Waters’s movie Hairspray far closer to her heart than the entitlements of conventional glamour. At one point, in London’s Kensington High Street, she accidentally walks into her own reflection and sustains whiplash and damage to her spine.

Debbie Harry with Blondie bandmate and former partner Chris Stein in 1980
Debbie Harry with Blondie bandmate and former partner Chris Stein in 1980. Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum

One particularly terrific shot of Harry by her then partner, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, finds her holding a burning frying pan in the squalor of their New York apartment, wearing a chiffon gown. It’s the squalor to which you are inevitably drawn.

Face It’s title reveals a grudging reckoning. The book’s difficult gestation involved interviews with Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons, in which Harry recalls, matter-of-factly, a violent partner, her near-abduction by a man she is convinced was the serial killer Ted Bundy, a rape during a robbery, several near-death experiences and Stein’s serious autoimmune illness. She brought him the heroin he also needed, the nurses turning a blind eye. Because Blondie’s managers and accountants were strangers to due diligence, the tax authorities took away all their assets – including Stein’s health insurance – while he was clinging to life in hospital. Unexpectedly lyrical are the passages where Harry compares her singing to her blood family’s plumbing business. “I now know I am a part of a forced air legacy,” she says.

Smith’s book is full of black and white photographs she herself has taken, all simple, many moving – her father’s teacup, the late Sam Shepard’s Stetson. One of this strange memoir’s subplots concerns a photograph Smith took of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s board games cupboard.

Year of the Monkey presents more like a work of poetry or a novella than a conventional first-person narrative, doubling down on the peregrinations of 2015’s M Train, her second memoir. Real things happen: Smith goes to the deathbed of her longtime friend Sandy Pearlman, and to work on a manuscript alongside Shepard, also not long for this world. “A yellow-haired confidence man” is elected and inaugurated.

The other goings-on, however, are both elliptical and not a little confounding. Smith finds herself in conversation with a motel sign at the Dream Inn; they bicker. From then on, this road trip plays out oneirically, Smith wandering in a kind of charmed hyper-reality, everything full of portent. Just as often, coffee is uppermost in her mind, or huevos rancheros.

Weird coincidences dog Smith; she hitches rides with creepy strangers and strikes up intense conversations about art, film and literature with coffeehouse denizens who recur, implausibly, along her route. Everything is unprecedented in Year of the Monkey, Smith seems to be saying. Time concertinas, reality is unmoored. But you get the feeling that Smith might exist in a permanent Stendhal syndrome swoon, as Flemish altarpieces, Dragon Ball anime and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit all swirl around in her mind.

The book is a highly individual stocktaking of a most unusual 70th year of a great woman of letters. But what happens next? Towards the end, Smith has an apocalyptic vision in her dreams, perhaps brought on by Chinese herbal tea, in which vast numbers of refugees, “clothed in the fabric of lamentations”, plough across a benighted landscape, watched by people on their tablets and smartwatches: the next reality TV hit.

• Face It by Debbie Harry is published by HarperCollins (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

• Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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