The Pretenders: Leather Wears Better Than Dreams
Lesley White, The Face, February 1984
In the last two turbulent years, Chrissie Hynde has had a baby by the man who once personified for her the rock and roll myth, and lost two of her closest friends — fellow members of The Pretenders — to one of the ruinous aspects of that myth. But the myth endures for her — some would say in her. This is the story of Chrissie Hynde’s chequered rock and roll life…
VERY EARLY one morning last December, an anxious young mother stood in the kitchen of her small Baker Street flat. She was in tears. “Do you think she resents me for leaving her?” she asked the baby-sitter as she handed over her eleven-month-old daughter for the day. Like all the previous partings from her first child this one was hard. She dried her eyes and strode out into cold daylight, a tall impressive figure in black leather with a harsh streak of black across her red-rimmed eyes. She caught a plane to Amsterdam, performed politely for the Dutch television crew and prayed she’d be home in time for her baby’s bed-time feed, a ritual she’d been careful never to miss. Such is the life of a Rock and Roll mother.
At 32, Chrissie Hynde looks much as she did three years ago when her group, The Pretenders, opened 1981 with a number one hit, ‘Brass In Pocket’; indeed much as she did five years before that when she was teaching Johnny Rotten his first guitar chords in her Clapham bed-sit. The biker jacket had been a sound investment as had, all things considered, the Rocker fantasy of a little middle-class girl from Ohio. Leather, however, wears better than dreams.
Domesticity and motherhood were not always in the stars for Chrissie Hynde. “I still can’t quite believe she’s actually given birth,” comments one old acquaintance. “I always thought of Chrissie as a bloke.”
So had others — or at least as a moody, man-aping Virago. You couldn’t blame them. Even if it masked a deep insecurity, Hynde’s perpetual ‘one of the boys’ pose and stoney-faced scowl was the Pretenders’ trademark — the face of a fast-living, hard-drinking, self-abusing life-style. “We just wanna play Rock and Roll,” at least one of them said in every interview. As it turned out a lot of people just wanted to listen to it; they became very popular. Unsurprisingly, the die-hard rockers of America — especially of Hynde’s native Mid West — bought their records by the truckload. Even the fickle British market proved favourable. Ecstatic press notices for The Pretenders debut album trumpeted the arrival of a brilliant new song-writing talent and whether through hyping (of which their record company was later accused) or not, they became a regular chart act. Hynde may indeed have been too shy to allow anyone else into the studio when she was recording vocal tracks but who was to know? She strutted and cussed on stage and shared a dressing room with her boys.
If Chrissie Hynde’s features are arranged in a softer, more reflective expression these days, if a once-notorious temper has mellowed, we can blame the sobering events of the past year. In the words of drummer Martin Chambers: “The past eighteen months or so have been like some bloody Agatha Christie thriller: one disaster after another”. And to quote the American scandal sheet The National Enquirer, “The Pretenders are a jinxed group.” What they mean is that guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, the two other founding members, both died of drug-related causes within the space of ten months, leaving Chrissie and Martin with the choice of cutting their losses and starting afresh.
“This is survival,” says Hynde in her gritty Stateside drawl. “All most people are trying to do is to get from A to B, from birth to death with a bit of integrity. I just do what I can do.” That is, she buried her buddies and carried on. The new Pretenders line-up played its first dates in the States last summer, their new album, Learning To Crawl, is released this month and, at the time of writing, they are preparing for a British tour. Old habits die hard.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to measure the effect of losing Jimmy and Pete — the latter an ex lover, the former described as “my right arm” — on someone as inscrutable as Chrissie Hynde. Or the effect of falling in love, for real, with her teenage idol Ray Davies and bearing his child. Perhaps she is a little more mature, more willing to take each day as it comes. Her lust for alcohol, drugs and cigarettes has vanished along with the reputation for being, in Rat Scabies’ tactful words, “a loud mouthed American boiler.” More revealing are the qualities that haven’t changed — the enthusiasms and aspirations that reside, secure, in her past.
The past is important to Chrissie. Not in a dreamily nostalgic way but because, above all, she is a great traditionalist. Her memories of her early twenties spent courting disaster around London town — hanging out with Hell’s Angels, dossing on strange floors, the drunken brawls and junkie friends — are not only a source of song ideas; they are also a great comfort. They were, at the time, the right things for a neophyte rock musician to be doing. And she came all the way from America to do them.
Akron, Ohio, the Mid West’s rubber capital, isn’t the prettiest of towns but it did well enough for the all-American raising of Christine Elaine Hynde. An acutely shy girl — especially when it came to boys — she buried her reticence under the bluff guise of high school hipster. Continually mistaken for a boy in her perennial jeans and sweatshirt, Chrissie’s gang were the long-haired trouble shooters, the “ugly kids” who scored acid instead of attending the Prom ball and avoided all contact with the wholesome preppy types. Music was the only acceptable passion for a tomboy rebel like Chrissie — especially the Stones, the Kinks and other British bands who visited Cleveland, only thirty miles from her home. “I’d much rather go and see a band,” she recalls, “than sit necking in the back of a car with some boy.“
In 1965 she saw Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin and Mitch Ryder on the same bill and her fate was sealed with a stage kiss from Jackie Wilson. The same year she was given the first Kinks LP and began practising her own interpretation of what was to become the first Pretenders single, ‘Stop Your Sobbing’. Then there were her own songs (“the day to day diary of a hurt wall-flower”) written on the baritone ukelele she’d begged her parents to get her for Christmas.
The long suffering Mrs Hynde, glancing about her daughter’s bedroom, must have wondered where it would all lead. The walls were covered with rock pix clipped from the pages of the NME she ordered at the local drug store. It was a hopeless case.
After high school, Chrissie discovered Jimi Hendrix and started a Fine Art course at Kent State University… “But the clock on the wall,” she remembers, “was telling me it was time to go.” For quick cash she waited on tables at a cocktail bar and painted coats of arms for a “quack mail order firm”. With a thousand dollars saved she spent half on a ticket to London, packed up some Lou Reed records and a friend called Cindy Smith, and set off for England.
“That place was oppressing me,” she says of Akron and her homeland in general. “I wanted to get the hell out, I’d never really felt as if I belonged and I couldn’t relate to the lifestyle. I didn’t want to get a job and an apartment and make money — and there was fuck all else to do. London sounded cool; I expected Marc Bolan to be playing down the street.”
IN FACT, AS her plane touched down at Heathrow, Dawn’s abominable ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ was the chart-topping record. What’s more, the girls’ drunken antics got them thrown out of their cheap Lancaster Gate hotel, Marc Bolan was nowhere in evidence and Cindy went home. Broke and homeless, the dream city was a mean disappointment to Chrissie but she had no intention of giving up. It could only get better. She met a girl who offered her a room in Clapham which, after all, was better than Ohio.
She found a menial job with an architect’s office in Barnes for sixteen pounds a week. They sacked her because she spent all day sketching secret portraits of her colleagues but were decent enough to use her drawings for the firm’s Christmas card. A romance with the writer Nick Kent — whom she had met at a party — led to an invitation to work for her former bible, the New Musical Express. Amazed and somewhat disheartened that they’d encourage “any old Tom, Dick or Harry off the street with a big mouth to write for them,” she began penning barbed invectives against everyone from Neil Diamond to Kiss. “There was absolutely no music at the time you could get excited about.”
Rapidly boring herself into a disillusioned impasse, she sold her typewriter to Julie Burchill and took a walk, wondering what to do next. Her quandary was resolved by one Malcolm McLaren who had noticed and rather approved of this lanky American girl’s deathly pallor and female machismo. He decked her out in fishnets, stilettoes, a rubber mini and “this T shirt with zips across the tits” and set her to work in his Kings Road shop, ‘Truth Loves To Go Naked But Craft Loves To Wear Clothes’, selling Vivienne Westwood’s pre-Sex clothes to the ace faces of a nascent Punk scene. It was a cool enough way of passing the day but what she really wanted was to be like everyone else who patronised the Roxy club — to have a band she could call her own.
For a while it amused her industrious employer to partner the ever-willing Chrissie with other more dubious proteges in shortlived joke groups like Big Girls Underwear and The Love Boys in which she was to pose as a man. With the advent of the Sex Pistols, however, Chrissie’s novelty value down at Worlds End was wearing thin. Besides, she was overstepping her mark; teaching Johnny Rotten guitar when he was supposed to be “the poet”, daring to present a blithely apolitical front to their stylised Anarchy. Malcolm, said Vivienne, That Girl Will Have To Go. So she did. And they haven’t spoken since.
It was 1976 and Chrissie Hynde was living in film maker Don Letts’ Forest Hill flat, writing songs, practising guitar, humping her amps through the rush hour crowds for rehearsals with the likes of Mick Jones and future members of The Damned and getting nowhere — but desperate. All her friends — The Pistols, Viv Albertine, Patti Paladin, Judy Nylon — were musically aligned so why couldn’t she get in on the act? Perhaps because, as Judy Nylon suggested in Chris Salewicz’s Pretenders biography, “Chrissie was a little older (than most of them) and it was a big problem for her being American. Punk was very much a Buy British thing. Imagine thinking your boat had really come in and then realising it couldn’t happen because you were from the wrong country!” Chrissie burst into tears on the Picadilly Line at the unfairness of it all.
Surviving solely on the loyal support of friends and money raised selling cadged promo records, the tenacious Hynde, who was never fully convinced of her own talent, hung on in there, waiting for her man. He arrived in the shape of Dave Hill, now the Pretenders manager but then young gun in the process of setting up a record label, Real Records, and looking for acts. Hill found and paid for rehearsal rooms where Chrissie and her first recruit, Pete Farndon, prepared to audition for a drummer and guitarist. They needn’t have bothered; the quietly reliable Martin Chambers and the gregarious speed-freak Jimmy Honeyman-Scott, old friends of Pete’s from Hereford, proved perfect for the job.
ALL DEEPLY committed to revivifying the time-honoured doctrines of Rock and Roll through the powerful but sometimes melancholic medium of Chrissie Hynde’s songs, The Pretenders were proud of their extensive touring, robust guitar-based sound and their dangerous image. Martin Chambers takes a sanguine view of this last tendency.
“I read something in the paper the other day that explains it quite well,” he says. “There was a bloke driving down a road in South Africa and the girl in the next car had a pet snake. He asked her if she minded if he touched the snake. She said ‘no’ so he leant over and bit a chunk off its tail. In court a week later he was heard to say, ‘I’m a jazz drummer… I’ve got to be free’. That’s the way it is in Rock and Roll. You’ve got to have a certain amount of irresponsibility and it is to do with drugs because it can never be safe.”
Personal conflicts were bound to arise in this group of pressurised, exhausted and, Martin excepted, highly volatile individuals. As Pete Farndon’s heroin habit worsened so his musicianship declined, his sloppiness infuriating the guitar-fixated Jimmy. Hynde found it increasingly painful to work with an old boyfriend — especially a junkie beyond help. Wills clashed and tempers frayed, particularly during that world tour of 1981. Chrissie hit the bottle, got herself arrested in Memphis and retaliated by kicking out two of the police car’s windows. Jimmy collapsed with cirrhosis of the liver. Even Martin reacted to the intolerable strain by smashing his fist onto a bedside vase in Philadelphia, severing his tendons and calling the tour to an abrupt halt. Whispers went round about sacking Pete. Paranoia prevailed.
And then Chrissie was cited as co-respondent when Ray Davies’ second wife, Yvonne, filed for divorce on grounds of adultery.
Profoundly depressed as she was, Chrissie’s love affair with Ray was a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. The two had met in March 1981 in New York. An old school friend of Chrissie’s casually mentioned spotting the reclusive Davies on the street while she was eating a pizza one day. Chrissie was intrigued to meet the songwriter she so admired and arranged an introduction in a nightclub, Tracks. “It was no big deal,” she sighs. “I was just another fan.”
“I didn’t really want to meet her,” Davies was later to confess, “I would rather people liked my songs from a distance than try to meet me.”
Though she claims she had no amorous designs on the unsuspecting Davies, one member of the Kinks entourage remembers being approached by Hynde, shortly after their first encounter: “She said, ‘Tell me everything you know about Ray Davies. I must know’. It was obvious she was after him.”
Whatever her motives, the pair seemed perfectly matched. The sexually insecure woman with a penchant for “weedy, skinny types” and the man who wrote ‘Lola’, two headstrong but separate personal styles, Hynde the girl in boys’ clothes, Davies the temperamental artist with a delicate psyche. The Daily Mirror called it a “love story from a teenage romance magazine”, but it did nothing to solve the Pretenders’ problems.
ON JUNE 14, 1982 Dave Hill undertook the unenviable task of sacking an incredulous Peter Farndon. Chrissie Hynde was three months pregnant. Two days later, after a particularly heavy cocaine binge, the 25-year-old body of James Honeyman-Scott finally gave up the ghost. Martin Chambers remembers:
“I saw Jimmy the day before he died. He’d been over in Dallas with his wife Peggy Sue and I went to pick him up at Heathrow — but his plane came in at Gatwick! We had Sunday lunch together and went to see Frankie Miller, I think, at the Half Moon on the Lower Richmond Road. I remember he was in great spirits, really optimistic and we arranged to meet the next morning at our manager’s office to discuss auditions for Pete’s replacements. When I arrived Dave was on the phone to someone saying that Jimmy was with them and they thought he was dead because he was cold. We told them keep him going, slap him around but it was too late. The irony was that we all expected Pete to be the first casualty.” They buried him in Hereford, playing his beloved Beach Boys records at the funeral. The coroner returned a verdict of “death by misadventure”. A Rock and Roll suicide.
On April 30 last year Chrissie Hynde received a call from Dave Hill. All he said was “Farndon”. It was enough. Farndon’s death was less of a shock that Honeyman-Scott’s — as an unrepentant smack fiend his days were numbered — but its impact was no less resounding. He drowned in his bath in a heroin-induced stupour — the official conclusion, “death by drug addiction” — and to this day Chrissie Hynde regrets never properly explaining to him the reason for his dismissal.
Chrissie Hynde does not relate these tumultuous times with any particular bitterness or rage; for her the tale does not have a moral twist, only a personal sadness logged away in the vaults of memory perhaps to resurface some day in songs of the future. What concerns her now is the welfare of her child, her privacy and her peace of mind and she guards all three with all of the old ferocity. Asked about the fairy tale aspects of her tempestuous relationship with Ray Davies she comments:
“I suppose to some people it seems pretty incredible, like I’ve copped the golden ring. But to me it’s no more incredible than dreaming as a child of travelling round England in a train with an electric guitar and seeing that come true.”
As the night draws in around Dave Hill’s Soho office, the baby Natalie squeals in the next room — tired or hungry or just missing its mother. Chrissie jumps up and, showing no sign of irritation, rushes to see what’s wrong. You might spot her one day pushing a pram through Regents Park or shopping for baby clothes in Marylebone; you certainly won’t find her drinking the boys under the table at Rock and Roll parties. But don’t jump to any conclusions, the narrowing eyes warn. “I may be doing things differently these days but that doesn’t mean I’m not as hip as any of those cats out there. I can still dig it.”