January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Emotions are running high in-the dank New York City basement recording studio here the four original members of Blondie have convened for interviews and a business meeting. But instead of clashing over dollars and cents, the late-’70s new-wave band is debating a minor historical detail: Did drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri once share living space with guitarist Chris Stein and singer Deborah Harry? “There was the loft that everyone crashed at,” says Burke. “You never slept there,” an indignant Stein interrupts, “ever.” Sure he did, Burke insists. “Especially when I was picking up girls. I definitely did because I remember cockroaches crawling all over my body as I slept on the couch.”

The dispute ends cheerfully, a far cry from the days when heated confrontations—occasionally followed by all-out fistfights between the male members—helped break up the band. But nearly two decades after Blondie’s 1982 split, life’s a bleach again. The quartet has regrouped for a new album, No Exit, due Feb. 23, and for their first television appearance in 16 years, at the American Music Awards Jan. 11 (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). They have already wrapped a six-week U.K. tour, and this spring they will embark on a U.S. tour that will keep them on the road through the summer. “It took a while to get tight musically again,” says Destri, 44. But, he adds, “we are a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family.”

One that was wary of unearthing its tangled roots. “At this stage in my life, I wasn’t really planning to be in a rock band or to do the pop girl-singer thing,” says Harry, 53, who has been a touring and recording chanteuse in recent years with the group Jazz Passengers. Having preceded the bottle-blonde likes of Madonna and Courtney Love into the pop-icon realm, she had segued into acting, appearing in John Waters’s 1988 comedy Hairspray and other independent films. But when Stein first approached her about reviving Blondie four years ago, she couldn’t refuse. “Obviously, the money is very attractive,” she says. “And there is a bit of nostalgia amongst the band members. In a way, we never really finished it. It was left hanging in limbo.”

The journey began in 1973 on New York City’s downtown music scene, where Harry, a former Playboy bunny from suburban New Jersey, met Stein when he joined her then-band the Stilettoes as guitarist. The two became lovers before leaving to form their own group. Burke signed on in 1974 after answering their Village Voice ad for a drummer, and Destri came onboard the following year. After a couple of misnomers—Angel and the Snake was one—they settled on calling themselves Blondie, inspired by the catcalls Harry received on the street. (Bassist Nigel Harrison and lead guitarist Frank Infante, who joined the core four in the late ’70s and are not part of the reunion, despite having played on the band’s tour de force 1979 album Parallel Lines, have filed suit over use of the moniker and band income.) “We had a musical common ground,” says Burke, 43. “The other thing was that I saw Debbie’s charisma. It immediately affected me.”

Similarly charmed, Chrysalis Records signed the group in 1977 and rereleased their debut album, Blondie, which they had put out the previous year on the small independent label Private Stock. A string of platinum albums and four No. 1 singles, including “Heart of Glass” and “The Tide Is High,” followed between 1979 and 1982. But at the band’s professional peak, interpersonal relations were strained, due in part to the media’s love affair with Harry. “A lot of the [attention on Debbie] was somewhat misdirected,” says Burke. “It took away from the band identity, to say the least.” Harry, who recalls their then-manager’s putting “Blondie Is a Group” T-shirts and buttons on sale at shows, concurs: “I had mixed feelings about the attention. I wanted to have a band. I was very careful to bring everyone in to any kind of press. But I have an ego too.”

Contributing to Blondie’s ultimate split was a mysterious illness that struck Stein in 1981, leaving him gaunt and weak. Initially he blamed rock and roll. “I was getting stoned a lot,” says Stein, who turns 49 this week. “I always smoked pot. Then there was coke and dope. All that was the result of all the pressure.” After collapsing on tour the following year, he was diagnosed with pemphigus, a rare, potentially fatal disease that caused him to break out in blisters all over his body and inside his mouth. “He couldn’t swallow,” recalls Harry, who spent the next two years nursing him back to health, “so I had to liquefy all his food. He was really, really frail.”

Down to 120 pounds in 1984, Stein spent three months in a hospital, with Harry sleeping on a cot beside his bed. “I was delirious the first couple of weeks,” he says. “I was taking all these massive doses of steroids, which were extremely psychedelic. I had amazing astral projections.” Although a combination of steroids, rest and tender loving care helped him recover, by 1987 his romance with Harry was over. “It was such an intense period,” says Harry. “I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was really lost and very, very depressed. Chris was trying to recover, and I was trying to recover. There just wasn’t room for two recoveries.”

On her own again, Harry released several unsuccessful solo albums in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and Stem had a short-lived marriage between 1990 and 1993. Meanwhile, Burke recorded with other bands, and Destri turned to producing and to family life with his wife, Eileen, and their two young children. In 1994, Stein, desiring a sense of closure and possible big bucks, encouraged his old band-mates to consider reuniting, but pulling it off took several years. “Any relationship you go back to, you bring baggage with it,” says Burke. “Whether it be an old friend, an old lover or an old band member, there’s baggage.”

The load was lighter for Stein and Harry, who have remained good friends and New York City neighbors since their split. “We even double-date,” says Harry, who, like Stein, is currently unattached. “Usually the person either of us goes out with gets along with the other one. It’s very social. It works out.” And, they all hope, the reunion will follow suit. “We’ll at least make another record,” says Burke, “I would hate to think we came all this way to have it disperse after six months. Everything’s been on an up since we got back together.” Harry, for her part, is also upbeat. “Back then, being stuck in that Blondie character was irritating to me,” she says. “But now I can deal with it better. I’ve got more distance and experience to get me through the night.”

Jeremy Helligar

Helene Stapinski in New York City

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