The Pretenders Stop
Susan Whitall, Creem, August 1980
AS LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER
“There’s something I dread about talking to female musicians,” my co-editor DiMartino sighed as we drank beer and worried in the bar of Chrissie Hynde’s Detroit hotel.
I knew this wasn’t just sexism – we’ve gone too many rounds in the Editorial room on those grounds.
No, this was heavy Writer Dread. This particular dread we call the Patti Smith Syndrome, whereby a highly creative individual proves also to be a tensely strung personality. It seemed peculiarly endemic to women in the business, and no, I ain’t being chauvinistic. The business is harder on them; maybe they’re harder on everybody else as a result.
With such a person, one meeting would be peace, love, and better living through human chemistry. The next day, or week: eat shit and die, journalist scum.
Chrissie Hynde’s reputation preceeded her; we’d been entertained for months by the tales in the English weeklies about cars wrecked, people insulted and/or bopped, and always – much liquor consumed. Entertaining, until we have to ride the tiger ourselves.
And even without the Chrissie Myth telegraphing across the Atlantic, there was that sullen, beleathered album cover, featuring Ms. Hynde looking like she’d just as soon hit you as sleep with you, Jack…or maybe a little of both.
Once we’d slapped our test pressing on the turntable, we found that the songs on The Pretenders were a thoroughbred mix of rockers and soulful Chrissie crooning, punctuated with her strong, piercing voice spitting “fuck off!” in ‘Precious’, to the delight of most of the women I observed and the intrigue of the men.
The combination of an attractive (despite what she thinks) female showing spirit and anger as well as the tenderer emotions was potent – and America was ripe for her vivid musical personality. The predictability of such chantoozies as Debbie Harry or Pat Benatar or Ellen Foley or whoever was such a perfect bland backdrop for Chrissie’s rarefied, orchid presence, it almost could have been planned. Her only possible American competition, Patti Smith, had retired to bucolic Ann Arbor domesticity, leaving a sorry field of contenders.
Do such flora grow in Akron? Obviously yes, although Chrissie felt she couldn’t stay and flourish, and given her style – heavily steeped in British music of the 60’s – she would have been unhappy anywhere else but in London, treading the streets of her idols.
She confirmed to us later that she lived for the British bands who visited nearby Cleveland – and rather neglected the local Midwestern boys.
“This is one of my big regrets,” she confessed “I was sitting in Ohio, wanting to go see the Yardbirds and stuff, and I thought the Stooges [who often played the area] well, they were a local band or something, so I wasn’t that interested.
“And the MC5, when they said ‘High school – rah rah rah’ – I didn’t want to know them…at the time. ‘Cause I hated high school so much. So I didn’t go check these guys out…I assumed they couldn’t be good.”
After what she described as a “Joe Average” Akron upbringing, Chrissie did a brief stint at art school and made her presence known about the Akron-Kent-Cleveland area. At least, judging from the countless people who’ve offered to give us “the inside scoop” on Chrissie at art school, at this party or that, crashing in Lou or Joe’s apartment with a boyfriend, or whatever – and Detroit’s some 250 miles away.
In her 28 years on the planet, Chrissie was bound to rub shoulders with at least some of these myth-mongerers, but at present she is such a complex creature that any one Buckeye remembrance is bound to show just a fleeting glimpse of the singer who’s currently brazening her way into the American Top Ten.
Likewise, a simple sketch of Chrissie’s London years provides no real clue to the Pretenders’ meteor-like 1979 success. Chrissie cleaned houses, waited on tables, dabbled in rock journalism, (“I know what it’s like to go into a room and meet someone as a journalist, and sit there…” she said later) and ran with a talented, musical bunch of people but never really struck out on her own. But she seems to realize the importance of those vagabond, dare we say hippie years, rattling around London doing everything but singing with a band.
“The other guys [The Pretenders] had all been working with other bands,” she explained later on, “but because I would never get on stage…But I was waiting, I knew I was amassing experience with these other people.
“But I knew that wasn’t the band that I was really going to stretch my legs in, so to speak. As soon as this band happened, I was willing to go and record with them, which I wouldn’t have done with someone else. Maybe little backup vocals for some bread…but I knew this was the band. I didn’t have any doubts…I knew that we’d do something!”
At our first meeting with Chrissie, during the band’s soundcheck at the Motor City Roller Rink, my co-worker and I managed to mutter hello and disappear into the skateroom when we were introduced. We’d been lounging against a wall, earlier, speculating on our photographer Bob Matheu’s lifestyle and eating habits, when a piercing female voice worthy of a Memorex commercial entered the Rink.
“HEEEEYYYYYY!” This girl with a pink bunny hat followed it. She was hailing a buddy. We quivered. Of course it was Chrissie, and she stalked up and down the roller rink’s locker area like Ilsa, she-wolf of the S.S. “Where THE HELL is there a mirror in this pop stand?” she snapped at no one in particular. “Oh,” she softened, spotting an employee of the place, “I didn’t mean to call it a pop stand in front of you. I just want a mirror!”
He directed her, and we started devising alternate, cowardly solutions to the task at hand. We wouldn’t bitch and moan for an interview like all the other mags, we’d show the yellow feather and hightail it back to the office, where we could drink beer, suck our thumbs and write…a think piece!
KILLED BY A DHARMA VEGGIE?
But nah, we didn’t. We turned up at the hotel, planted ourselves in the bar to cry and be rooted out by photographer Matheu, who fetched us to the lair of Chrissie.
There we encountered a tallish, slender girl in white t-shirt and black leather pants, presiding over her room from the window bed. She’d put a tourist shop license plate reading “HERS” over her headboard, and it was an appropriately assertive backdrop. And that’s what she was – assertive, animated, strong of voice and vivid of gesture. But not a macho chick – sorry guys. Back to your Gyno-Supremacists magazine. She looked like her better pictures, her eyes made even bluer by the characteristically English heavy black eyeliner rimming them. It was her only makeup, and she came off younger than 28 – looking like a youthful Stefanie Powers with her hair chopped off. (Maybe it the Girl From U.N.C.L.E. image – April Dancer would’ve kicked out the windows of a police car – one driven by THRUSH agents, anyway. Without mussing her bangs.)
We apologized for being so quiet at the soundcheck (Chrissie had remarked upon our shyness to Bob Matheu).
“Well you’re in the doghouse now, Bob,” she laughed, and swigged some Budweiser. Bob looked scared.
We talked about Chrissie being physically in Detroit – the lack of radio airplay (now the worst radio setup anyone could imagine) despite the album’s ranking as I write of #11 with a bullet. But so what, right WRIF? The local fans bought the record and sold out the show – it’s a safe bet they wouldn’t be listening to Detroit FM anyway.
Chrissie had been to Detroit at least once before – with a carload of friends from Akron, she’d driven up to see Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust tour at the Fisher Theatre.
We’d tried to bring one of her Detroit heroes, Mitch Ryder, down with us, but it turned out he was still in Paris, having finished a tour, mourning the death of Jean-Paul Sartre. We didn’t tell her that – figured it would blow the image. Where should we place him? Eating ribs on the East Side? Or better yet, bowling, with the smokestacks of River Rouge behind him. That’s where all cool Detroiters are supposed to want to be from, after all. Right? We lie all the time.
More information was extracted from Chrissie fairly easily: No, she wouldn’t buy ‘Brass In Pocket’ if she was a kid – didn’t like the mix.
We fired more questions: did she feel she was treated as an obnoxious American over there as opposed to just an obnoxious musician?
“Well,” she mused, “I’ve lived there for seven years or something, and I know everyone in town, in London. They’re used to me, you know? I’ve been a face in the crowd in London just like anyone else who’s been living there for seven years. So they don’t think of me as like the American passing through town. They know they’re not gonna get rid of me now. And I can make a pretty good cup of tea, so I’ve been accepted…”
Neither she nor drummer Martin Chambers (who was a fitting interview partner/comic foil for Hynde), showed signs of tour fatigue, other than a fondness for dumb jokes and insulting each other with fervor. This, despite only having a few days off between their five-week British tour and the current U.S. haul.
“I could keep doing this for a long time,” Chrissie said happily. “It doesn’t bother me – I’m not tired of it…but you know, you gotta work up new material. I gotta write some songs, or else I’ll crack up.”
She did no writing on the road?
“I do that kind of thing when I’m alone,” Chrissie replied. “I have to spend a lot of time alone…and I might get an idea for a song – it could be like three years ago. There was one tragedy where I left a notebook full of lyrics and stuff in one motel.
“And you know, you’re writing over a period of months or something – you just jot something down…”
Chambers, the type of ageless Englishman with an ancient baby face, stepped manfully into the silence.
“Haven’t you written one since Memphis, Chris?” he asked affectionately. “‘I Don’t Like Fridays’?”
Long silence, suppressed giggles.
Chrissie sighed. “I want to clear this thing up!”
“This” being the incident in the Memphis club “Fridays,” at least reported in Rolling Stone, to the effect that Ms. Hynde, blocking an aisle and asked to vacate it, had responded by swinging a chair at the club manager, necessitating her being sat on by the manager until the cops arrived, and ending with a handcuffed Chrissie kicking out the windows of the police car and being invited to spend the night in the slammer.
Chrissie was torn as to whether we should even mention the incident, but you can’t tell writers the true story, and then remark that it wouldn’t help to print it anyway. At least both versions enter the collective consciousness, eh Chrissie?
“I was not blocking an aisle,” she complained. “I was not blocking an aisle. I was sitting down – at a table, minding my own business, after spending a lot of cash in there, the whole night. And I wasn’t even being loud or anything, I was sitting down! I wasn’t even saying anything, I was sitting like this [she posed demurely over her beer]. And this guy comes up to me and sort of…wasn’t very tactful in his approach to me. And it kind of got me going. It was my fault.”
Well, Chrissie, we joked – that’s the kind of thing that we heard about that filled us with trepidation before we talked to you…we didn’t want to get hit.
She scoffed: “I’m a baby, I can’t fight! I don’t like it when people fight, I really don’t.”
Bob Matheu offered helpfully: “People stay away from you now, when they – “
“That’s the thing, see,” Chrissie replied, exasperated. “To me this is the bummer. I’m 28, right? I’m an old dog, and I’m the way I am. But how it looks – I mean, that’s just the normal kind of thing that would happen, you know? You go into a bar, someone gives you some flak. But how it would look to me, if they didn’t know us, and I had read about it, I would think God, she comes over here, and probably thinks ‘We’re really hot shit, and I am somebody special and you can’t tell me’.” She stabbed the air with her finger, “thinking that I could do anything that I want, and get into any kind of fight ’cause I know I’d get bailed out – a real spoiled brat type thing, that’s how it would look to me if I’d read it.
She wailed plaintively: “But it wasn’t my fault, and I was victimized, and it was really awful, and now my mom’s been on the phone and I have to – it’s really terrible, it’s a real bummer. Plus, those guys, the cops said, ‘She’s either gonna spend the night inside or she’s gonna spend two weeks in hospital.’ ‘Cause I was really winding them up – ’cause they were really winding me up.”
Martin: “I was shouting ‘Take the hospital! Take the hospital!’ “
Chrissie continued. “No, but can you imagine? They would really have loved to have an excuse to smash my face, ’cause I was winding them up. Well, I [getting excited again] consider it a windup when someone throws you in the back seat of a car in handcuffs – that’s a windup! All the guys in that place…the disc jockey – everyone was real – AIEYYYY! – up for a scrap and wanted to get in there…”
We pushed on to happier topics – the Pretenders’ music – the point, after all, of our being here. Somewhere out there, a kid in Drayton Plains was buying a Pretenders album…it would be natural for us to ponder why. Why not Scream Dream?
“Maybe people think of us as a new thing,” offered Chrissie. “They want something that’s – I don’t know. Obviously someone out there likes it – as Mart says, we have a real cross section of people in our audience.”
Martin added, “It reflects the sort of music we do…there’s a bit of variation to it, it isn’t just straight rock: ‘1-2-3-4’ and that’s it. There’s a bit of this, and a bit of that…”
“We don’t really take any sort of political-type stance,” Chrissie continued, “or put ourselves in any kind of bag musically. We don’t have any…real image or anything like that.”
Do they feel a need for one?
“Well, I guess we haven’t had a need for it,” Chrissie replied. “We haven’t consciously said ‘Well look, let’s not have any style whatsoever.’
“Everyone else, particularly in London, was very image-conscious, and I’m a slob, I know when I’m beat, so I wasn’t gonna change.”
“Who wants to wear a pink suit, anyway?” Martin said, sounding positively Zippy-like.
“Our whole thing is really just the music, and the records, and playing,” Chrissie stressed. “What you see is what you get, really.”
But how did she see herself? The songs on the album run the gamut from the tender ‘Kid’ and the girlish ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ to the flesh-ripping ‘Precious’ and the lusty, sopping wet ‘Up The Neck’. How does she reconcile the public’s two images of Chrissie Hynde – the soft person singing ‘Kid’ and the tough girl?
“I’ve never really heard that,” she said, shaking her head.
But ‘Precious’ has all this tough imagery…
“I didn’t think that was hard and tough,” she protested.
Bob Matheu jumped in: “I know a lot of people have that impression because of the ‘fuck off!’ line – for guys to hear a girl say that, they say ‘Wow! Don’t mess with her!’ “
“See, this is another thing in that song,” Chrissie sighed. “I realize, in reading reviews, people always get the lyrics all wrong. I dunno if I sing like I’ve got a handful of change in my mouth or what, but they really do misinterpret the thing something awful sometimes, and I think everybody thinks I’m tellin’ somebody to fuck off, and I’m not!
“Let’s see – what is that line? It says ‘Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed’ – Mr. Stress is a band in Cleveland – it’s so innocent! It goes ‘Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed/Trapped in a world that they never made/But not me baby I’m too precious I had to fuck off!’ I’m not tellin’ anyone to fuck off, I just said I left…I had to piss off.”
“My impression of you has just changed!” Bob Matheu cried.
Chrissie laughed. “Then fuck off! No…someone gave me a badge backstage – a Wayne County badge that says ‘If You Don’t Wanna Fuck Me, Baby, Fuck Off!’ I thought ‘Oh, thanks,’ and put it on, and it occurred to me that they gave it to me because I said ‘fuck off’ in the song, and they thought that was, like, my thing!“
But as for the tough/tender tag you always get – wasn’t it probably because of the variety of songs, of emotions expressed? Chrissie pondered.
“I also get this thing all the time where people think I’m sort of sexual – I don’t know. The way these songs are interpreted, you know – I mean, I don’t think all our songs are about sex or pulling a guy or anything. Everyone thinks ‘Brass In Pocket’ is like – they’ll say ‘Chrissie, now tell me, ‘Brass In Pocket’ is like…the definitive song of sexuality!’ They think I’m going in a bar, trying to pull a guy. And I mean, it is the last thing I thought of! I say ‘Pardon?’ They always think that I’m talking about sex or something.”
Martin interjected: “In Chicago they misquoted – well, they thought the lyrics in ‘Brass In Pocket’ went, instead of ‘Gonna use my sidestep,’ ‘Gonna use my sausage‘.”
“Someone else said they thought ‘Gonna use my sexy‘,” Chrissie laughed. “I said, ‘Pardon? Gonna use what?’“
“And then another one I remember, one of my favorite songs, ‘The Phone Call’ – one of my favorite lyrics – I’m sure no one knows what the hell I’m saying in that.”
No, not at all.
“Well,” Chrissie laughed, “we’ll have to wait for the songbook to come out.”
She finished off her Bud, and was off and running at the mouth again.
“Our new song, ‘Talk Of The Town’, have you heard it?”
We all nodded.
“Well, there’s one line, at the very end of the first verse, it says: ‘Out loud in a crowd everybody heard/’Twas the talk of the town.’ And I read the quote – they wrote the lyrics out in one of the English papers, and it says, “I was the talk of the town,’ Which, in the context of the song, really makes it look like I’m the hot dog, saying like ‘Yeah!‘
“Just even the slightest misquote can throw the whole angle of the song off.”
What about the infamous “You’re gonna make a plastic surgeon a rich man”?
“Oh yeah, ‘Tattooed Love Boys’. But I didn’t say that, I said “You know what they say…” I was repeating something that someone once said to me: “Stop sniveling, you’re gonna make a plastic surgeon a rich man.”
Jeez, you’re mellow. We’re leaving.
“I’m stoned on pot,” she laughed. “No, I’m not, I don’t have the kind of front to say ‘Stop snivelling, you’re gonna make a plastic surgeon a rich man.’
“You know, really, when I think of what a lot of people are thinking – that I walk around with a chair [she jumped off the bed, put her dukes up and yelled] saying ‘HEY! YOU WANNA PUT THAT CIGARETTE OUT!'” She is indeed scary, although we’re laughing too hard to worry about it.
The truth is: Chrissie is…a hippie? Nah – more like a fusion of a 50’s jazzbo bohemian with a greaser and a 60’s hippie as well.
She eschews eating flesh (a problem on the road). She mourns her cat’s disappearance from her ex-flatmate’s house in London, and is teased mercilessly by the boys in the band, who torment her by meowing and carrying on. “Apparently he was having a scrap in the hall and one of the guys living in the house went and booted him,” she explained. “Caved his head in or something, and he split. That got me pretty upset, but I don’t wanna think about that – I’ll wait ’til I have a little bit of time on my own, to have a good cry over it.”
She urges her Detroit audience not to buy “any more cars,” a stunning piece of naivete considering that a good half of them must have bought their tickets with auto factory-earned money. No cars bought, no jobs, no money for Pretenders tickets or records.
We can forgive her such careless politics on the grounds of her voice; it’s been compared to Sandie Shaw’s or even Aretha Franklin’s, but it’s most like Martha Reeves, a real fog-cutter of a wail. Loud or soft, it doesn’t show a bit of strain even after rigorous touring – no Stevie Nicks vapors for Chrissie’s iron-clad pipes.
In fact, if it wasn’t for ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, I couldn’t imagine Chrissie’s meaty vocal chords working out on any songs of a girl group, or R&B nature, well, I was wrong. Not only has she performed such numbers on stage, she dueted with Iggy, of course. They took over the stage at a club in Cleveland, and went to work on such chestnuts as ‘I Got You, Babe’, ‘Dock Of The Bay’, ‘Louie, Louie’, etc. Chrissie’s memories of the night are hazy but warm:
“That was one of the highlights of my life, if you can imagine,” she enthused. “I mean, I think he is such a brilliant singer – he’s a songwriter, a performer, everything – and I’ve been listening to him for so long now, and I just love him to death, and here I am, onstage, singing with him – it was too much. It would have been, like, if Martin could have gotten onstage with, um…”
“Lucille Ball?” Martin offered. General laughter. “What? It’s not funny!”
“I don’t want to get into too much of an Iggy Pop rap here,” Chrissie continued, “but I think he’s a very generous, sophisticated, mature, intelligent…there’s something about him that’s immature, though…he’s like a kid! I’ve seen him in hotel rooms and stuff – by the time he enters and gets the door open he’s already peeling things off just like a little kid who can’t keep his clothes on in Sunday School!
“If I could go back into the past for one night, I’m sure it would be for a Stooges gig.”
Getting off Iggy, then (this is actually an extremely brief summary of about two pages of Iggy commentary), did Chrissie enjoy all the media attention she was getting?
“Well,” she considered, “it’s better than a kick in the teeth…It’s great, but again, we’re on the road, we’re working, and I don’t ever sit back and think ‘Hmmmmm [she leers evilly] I wonder how many cities I’m being played in at the moment…I wonder how many guys are sitting there looking at my record, I wonder how many girls have gone out and bought a pair of fingerless gloves today!’ “
Did she get many guys coming on to her? Aside from Memphis?
“Surprisingly not very much,” she mused, “but I’m not that sort of sex symbol I guess. You know, I don’t stand on stage and…I’m not very enticing or anything. No…I really don’t get guys coming on to me. Funny, that – what am I doing wrong?”
“They’re all homosexuals,” Martin replied. “You attract homosexuals and transvestites.”
“I get some guys making some pretty lewd-type – uh, I can tell what they’re saying – when I’m onstage, and I just try not to look at those guys,” Chrissie remarked. “If there’s a guy at the front who’s being attentive, you know, and he’s nice-looking, then I’m a lot more inclined to want to look at him than at some guy at the side of the stage who’s going [she performed the classic finger-fucking-fist motion with her hands]. Some of these guys, geez! I don’t know what they think – they’ll stand there throughout the set, and they think maybe some obscene gesture’s gonna…”
Get them a date? Chrissie was about to kick us out, so we fired off one last Q: Did it bother her, being 28 and admitting it, that in the midst of the new wave, especially in England, everybody was ashamed to be over 21 or 22? If they were…
“But that’s the funny thing, all those guys were lying about it,” Chrissie replied. “They’re crazy, man! If I was gonna lie about my age, I’d say I was 34! And then people would say ‘Well she’s doing something right, she really doesn’t look her age. And then people respect you, and think, if you’re under the table or something, they’ll say ‘Well, let her go to it, because look at her! The proof’s in the pudding!’
“But if I was gonna walk around and say I was, like, 23, people would say, ‘God, don’t let her have another drink!’
“Which, of course, is what they’re saying anyway…”