When Blondie announced their breakup on Nov. 1, 1982, they initially appeared to be another victim of rock cliches. Drugs and personality clashes had taken their toll on the group, but the real impetus of Blondie’s demise was a rare and life-threatening disease plaguing one of the band’s core members.
The years before Blondie’s breakup had been their most successful. After emerging from New York’s punk scene, the Debbie Harry-fronted band blazed a new sonic trail, melding disco, new wave and funk into a distinctive sound. In roughly five years, Blondie had gone from the dregs of CBGB to some of the biggest stages in the world. Along the way, they released several timeless hits, including “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.”
With millions of album sales under their belt, Blondie assembled to record their sixth album, The Hunter, in the spring of 1982. Emboldened by their success, as well as copious amounts of cocaine and heroin, the band voyaged into new musical territory on the album. The decision proved disastrous.
“I knew that we were in a different and far less accessible artistic space,” producer Mike Chapman would later admit. “And that worried me. I could tell that things were different now, and I knew that this would be the last Blondie album.”
The Hunter was poorly received critically and commercially. Still, Blondie seemed equipped to weather the storm. After all, they still had devoted fans, and a U.S. tour alongside Duran Duran – then riding high on the popularity of Rio – would put them in front of packed stadiums across the country. But nothing could have prepared the band for what was next.
Watch Blondie Perform ‘Call Me’ During Their 1982 Tour
Before hitting the road, Chris Stein, Harry’s boyfriend and Blondie’s guitarist and co-songwriter, started falling ill. “That fucking tour. We never should have gone,” Harry recounted in her 2019 memoir Face It. “Chris was sick. Very sick. I have pictures of him where he was emaciated and weighed 110 pounds. That tour nearly killed Chris.”
Stein was having trouble swallowing, rendering him unable to eat. As Blondie continued to tour, his condition only worsened.
“We thought it was strep, Chris thought he had AIDS or cancer, or he was dying,” Harry recalled. “And none of the doctors could give him an answer.”
To mask the pain, Stein and Harry upped their drug usage during the tour. On more than one occasion, the guitarist collapsed due to stress and exhaustion.
The U.S. trek’s final stop was Aug. 21 in Philadelphia. After it was over, Blondie pulled out of a planned European leg, as Harry turned her attention to getting Stein help.
“And that was it. It was over. Not just the tour, but Blondie,” the singer recalled. The band’s breakup was made official on Nov. 1.
Watch Blondie Perform ‘Rapture’ During Their 1982 Tour
By that point, Stein had finally received a diagnosis. After retreating to the New York townhouse he shared with Harry, the guitarist survived on a diet of tofu ice cream, the only thing he could successfully swallow. After waking up one morning swollen and having difficulty moving, he was taken to the emergency room. The prognosis: pemphigus vulgaris, a rare and potentially deadly disorder of the autoimmune system.
Stein would stay in the hospital for three months, receiving a regimen of steroids to help him heal. Harry was by his side the whole time, providing support and also continuing to supply him with heroin.
“I think the doctors and nurses knew that he was high all the time but turned a blind eye because it kept him relatively pain-free and mentally less tortured,” she’d later explain. “I was indulging, too, staying as numb as possible. I don’t think I could have coped any other way. Drugs aren’t always about feeling good. Many times they’re about feeling less.”
Stein was eventually able to go home, with Harry continuing to care for him. Music took a back-seat during this time, as the guitarist’s recuperation was the priority. In the years it took Stein to fully recover, Harry released a few solo records, but they were generally unsuccessful.
Even as Stein’s health improved, further issues would plague the couple. Mismanagement by the band’s account resulted in severe penalties from the IRS.
“Unbeknownst to us, our accountant hadn’t paid our taxes for two years — the two years when we were making the most money,” Harry recalled. “We didn’t just lose our house. The IRS took everything they could lay their claws on.” In 1987, five years after Blondie had disbanded, Harry and Stein broke up. Their separation finally ended a collaboration that had been the foundation of the band’s success. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that Blondie reunited.
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