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Chrissie Hynde Without Tears

Drugs and death didn't stop the Pretenders

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders performing at Radio City Music Hall In New York City on May 1st, 1984. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

The lights in Glasgow's Apollo Theatre dim as the voice of Frank Sinatra starts to fill the dank, dingy hall: "That's life/That's what all the people say/You're riding high in April/Shot down in May/ ... Each time I find myself/Flat on my face/I pick myself up/And get back in the race." With Sinatra wafting from the PA system, the defiantly unsentimental Chrissie Hynde takes the stage. Now 32, the Pretenders' lead singer looks like the same tough punk whose hellish behavior once attracted as much attention as the songs she wrote from her gut. Here she is, with the same black-leather wrapping. The same unfashionably tousled black hair, the heavy black eyeliner. The same snarl that can stop you dead in your tracks.

No, Chrissie Hynde doesn't seem to have been changed, or even slowed, by the two years of tragedy that followed the Pretenders' swift ascent to fame. First, the bass player who was once her lover, who had become a hopeless junkie, was kicked out of the band. Two days later, the guitarist whose lyrical playing formed the bedrock of the group's sound, died of a cocaine overdose. Within 12 months, the bass player, still addicted to heroin, was dead, too.

But please. Don't feel sorry for Chrissie Hynde.

There's a new band now, another hit album, a seven-month world tour — even a baby daughter.

Somehow, Chrissie Hynde just keeps on going.

It was the spring of 1982, and Chrissie Hynde was in love. Back in 1980, she had met Kinks leader Ray Davies at a New York nitery, and zap! Instant infatuation.

Romance had never really played a big part in Hynde's life. Sure, she had had her share of flings, but nothing serious. "I never had a real boyfriend," she says. "I don't like these girls who always have boyfriends. You know, the kind who read in Cosmo, 'When your boyfriend's gone, have a full array of sexual gadgets in the drawer next to your bed.' I mean, talk about sickos. I was never like that."

But if ever there were a man who could make Chrissie Hynde fall head over heels in love, it was Ray Davies. Ever since she'd been a child in Akron, Ohio, Chrissie had been enamored of Davies, now 39, and the Kinks. Their debut LP was one of the first albums she'd ever bought. Later, after she'd moved to London and begun writing for the New Musical Express, she once opined: "Raymond Douglas Davies is the only songwriter I can think of who can write such personal material (and he is always very personal), and never get embarrassing. One of the true romantics of our time." When Chrissie formed the Pretenders in 1978, along with three young musicians from the English town of Hereford, they announced themselves to the world with "Stop Your Sobbing," a Davies track from that first Kinks album.

Within a few months of their first encounter, Ray told Chrissie he wanted her to have his baby. "No other man had ever said anything like that to me before," she remembers. "It was so romantic." It was all she had to hear — well, almost. "The idea of my being a great big huge fat pregnant woman with tits and everything was horrifying. I couldn't relate to it. I've always related to being like a bloke."

But her sense of adventure finally won out, and Chrissie began planning her future: Near the end of April, she and Ray would be married; the day of the wedding, she would become pregnant. Her personal life was finally falling into shape — her love for Ray had inspired her to stop smoking, drinking and using drugs — and her career was going just as well. With two smash albums (Pretenders and Pretenders II) and a string of fine singles (including the hit "Brass in Pocket") to their credit, the Pretenders had firmly established themselves in the upper echelon of rock & roll. They weren't superstars exactly, but they could afford a few luxuries, like taking a little more time to record their next album, spending longer periods off the road. Chrissie figured that she and the band could work on their third album while she was pregnant, and then, after she had the baby in January 1983, she could take some time off. Everything seemed perfect.

"We never did get married that day," Chrissie Hynde says almost matter-of-factly, staring out a train window at the passing English countryside. "Ray and I had a row, and when we got down to the registry office, the guy took one look at us and refused to marry us. He probably thought he would have been making a big mistake." She chuckles. "His conscience wouldn't allow it."

Actually, Chrissie maintains, marriage really didn't matter. She's glad they didn't go through with the ceremony. "I can't really come to terms with what marriage means, especially nowadays. The fact that you can be divorced sort of nullifies the whole spirit of marriage. And I guess I don't like what I see in it when I look at other people. I don't wanna be like them."

Marriage or no marriage. Chrissie and Ray stayed together, and exactly nine months after the reluctant registrar turned the couple away, Chrissie gave birth to a baby girl, Natalie. And now, bouncing the baby on her lap as the train makes its way toward Leeds, the next gig on the Pretenders' 1984 world tour, Chrissie allows that she never should have tried to think things out in advance. She, of all people, should have known better. "Life," Chrissie says with a trace of resignation in her voice, "is never what you think it's going to be."

Pete Farndon had been shooting heroin as early as the Pretenders' first U.S. tour in 1980. Back then, drug use and general dissipation were an accepted fact of life in the Pretenders' camp. Hynde admits to having tried just about every drug imaginable, and on the group's initial tours, she established quite a reputation as a boozing, brawling broad. Similarly, Jimmy Honeyman-Scott had a history of drug abuse. He had been addicted to speed as a teenager in Hereford, and later, after the Pretenders became fixtures on the rock & roll circuit, he became the band member who was always ready to party, who could never resist an offer of fun — or drugs. Even Martin Chambers, seemingly the straightest member of the band, had gone through periods of overindulgence; on the 1980 tour, he collapsed from exhaustion.

While most of these excesses hadn't really interfered with the band's work, Farndon's addiction had. Heroin had become his raison d'être. He had drifted away from his longtime friends. "When someone really gets into smack," says Chrissie, "there's a sort of network of assholes that you hook up with in every town, and it just becomes insufferable to the people around you." He had also become belligerent, she says, "yelling at people, giving them a hard time, punching them." And band rehearsals had become virtually impossible. Farndon was constantly complaining and resisting the group's musical ideas.

By the time the Pretenders toured the Far East in the spring of 1982, the gap between Pete Farndon and the rest of the band had become so wide that Honeyman-Scott was adamant: He would quit if Pete wasn't fired.

"For me, the hardest part of the past couple of years was deciding to fire Pete," says Chrissie. "It was so bloody sad that it had come to that. He was the first guy I got into the band, and the band was probably the most important thing in his life. But he was just driving everyone mad with his constant resistance to what was happening. We told him loads and loads of times: 'Maybe you should be in a different band if you don't like it.' But he was in a sort of diminished mental condition 'cause he was stoned a lot. He couldn't handle drugs that well. No one can handle that drug very well."

Farndon had to go, but Chrissie wasn't about to be the one to give him the bad news. "I couldn't do it. I didn't have the heart, I didn't have the courage. I didn't have it in me to tell him." So on June 14th, the group's manager, Dave Hill, told Farndon he was no longer a member of the Pretenders.

The irony, then, could hardly escape drummer Martin Chambers when, two days later, he arrived at Hill's office to meet with Honeyman-Scott, only to learn that a girl had just phoned to say the 25-year-old guitarist was dead in her apartment. Hill and Chambers raced over to the flat. "The first thing I noticed was that Jimmy was in his sleeping position, with the back of his wrists on his forehead," Chambers recalls. "So at least in a way, I knew he had died in his sleep; he hadn't died violently."

But his best mate was dead — heart failure, intolerance to cocaine, the coroner's report would say — and the drummer went numb. He couldn't take his eyes off Honeyman-Scott. "There was a policeman there, and he kept asking me questions. But I just couldn't turn my back on Jimmy." When the cop finally got Chambers' attention, he asked him for his autograph. "Funnily enough," says Martin, "I gave it to him."

Chrissie Hynde casts a nervous glance around the train. "Am I talking really loud?" she asks. "Americans always do."

There was a time when Chrissie was the archetypal loudmouthed American. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, she'd do or say just about anything. On the Pretenders' first tour of America, she kicked out the windows of a police car after being arrested for disorderly conduct in Memphis. And she once told an interviewer: "I had a few bad experiences, but the way I look at it now is, for every sort of act of sodomy I was forced to perform, I'm gettin' paid 10,000 pounds now." No dewy-eyed romantic, she.

And now, as she talks about that week in June 1982, Chrissie seems to have the same thick skin and cold, cold heart. "I don't look back at those events as being a hardship," she says. "It's just real life. People die — that's part of life." And that's typical Chrissie. Nothing can shake her. It was no big deal.

After the firing of Farndon and the death of Honeyman-Scott, Hynde and Chambers immediately recruited bassist Tony Butler (now in Big Country) and ex-Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner to help them record "Back on the Chain Gang" backed with "My City Was Gone." The single became the Pretenders' first 45 to make the American Top 10.

"What else were we going to do?" Chrissie asks, incredulous that anyone should think it unusual that the band regrouped and got to work so quickly. "Stay at home and be miserable, or go into the studio and do what we dig and be miserable?" So Hynde wasn't so undaunted after all? "Well," she says, "it wasn't exactly a barrel of monkeys."

Actually, Martin Chambers says, Hynde was fairly stunned. He remembers one recording session in particular: "Tony Butler was playing a bass line, and Chrissie walked in and said, 'What's that?' She didn't even know it was 'Private Life,' and she wrote the bloody song! That's the sort of state she was in."

For a while, Chrissie even toyed with the idea of changing the name of the band. But, she says, "I finally thought it still was the Pretenders more than it wasn't. To me, 'Back on the Chain Gang' sounded like a Pretenders song. And I couldn't imagine never playing 'Stop Your Sobbing' or 'Message of Love' again. It was sort of like Ken Kesey: Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus, and I felt like Martin and I were still on the bus, even if the other guys had gotten off."

So Hynde and Chambers set about finding permanent replacements for Farndon and Honeyman-Scott. First, they enlisted 26-year-old guitarist Robbie McIntosh, a former pal of Jimmy's, whose most notable experience had been with a band called Night (their song, "Hot Summer Nights," had been an American hit in 1979). Then, at McIntosh's suggestion, they auditioned 28-year-old bassist Malcolm Foster, with whom Robbie had played in several groups. Foster fit in immediately. With the lineup settled, the group began laying tracks for a new album. And Chrissie began realizing that all the difficulties weren't over. "I went through periods of feeling almost a sort of resentment toward the others, in a very irrational, emotional sort of way," she says. "The first time I saw one of them — I think it was Malcolm — walk in with a Pretenders T-shirt on, I thought, 'Who is he to be wearing a Pretenders shirt?' It's like if your wife died, and you had a new girlfriend whom you really loved. But one day she went through your wife's wardrobe and walked in wearing her clothes. No matter how you felt about this woman, your reaction would be, 'Hang on! That's not cool.'"

It took the group nearly a year to record the album — Chrissie took time off during and after her pregnancy — but Learning to Crawl was well worth the wait. It became one of those rare records that is successful both artistically and commercially (in America, the LP has climbed to Number Five on the charts, higher than either of the group's two previous albums). One favorable review said the album was "about life and death and love and transcendence … a triumph of art over adversity."

That was enough to make the punk in Chrissie want to puke: "It's just a collection of 10 measly songs. It's not a real important deal. I hate this sort of romantic or sentimental take people have on it — you know, the tragic demise, the reawakening. It wasn't like that at all. I even regret naming the album Learning to Crawl, because it just sounds pathetic. I mean, I'm not sentimental."

That doesn't mean, however, that she is without feelings. As the train draws nearer to Leeds, she begins to open up. Yes, she has suffered over the past two years. But it could have been worse. "You lose someone who's a very real part of your life, and it's like losing a part of yourself," she says. "But everyone goes through that. No point in making too much of a deal out of something that is everyone's fate. It's all relative. What might look hard to one person looks like a piece of cake to someone else. And I always look at that someone else."

Farndon, that's all Dave Hill had to say. Chrissie knew.

It was April 14th, 1983, when Pete Farndon was found lying in a bathtub. "The guy blew it," says Chrissie. "He shot up a speedball and drowned in the bath. It's not really my idea of a beautiful rock & roll image: the tattooed arm, hanging out of the tub, turning blue, with a syringe stuck in it. But that's what it came to in the end."

Unlike Honeyman-Scott's death, Farndon's demise didn't come as a surprise. For nearly a year before the bass player was sacked, Martin Chambers had been having frightening premonitions. "I kept having this terrible nightmare," recalls the drummer, who, like Hynde, is now 32. "It was like Vietnam. I was on the 50th floor of this building, surrounded by windows, and I had this big machine gun and was defending the place. And Pete used to come running in, naked and covered in blood, and he would dive out the window. It used to scare me to death. I'd wake up sweating."

Farndon's deteriorating condition was all the more worrisome to Chambers and Hynde because they were moving in the opposite direction. While he was swaggering around — covered, as Hynde says, in "feathers and leather" — Chrissie began wearing Burberry macs and the like. "I wanted to be Joe Anonymous again. But Pete had gotten into being a rock star. He had lost his own personal identity. He would see a picture of himself in the paper, and he thought that was him. But it wasn't; it was just a photograph."

According to other reports, Farndon had also become irritated by his ex-lover's romance with Ray Davies, a relationship that led to Chrissie's newfound sobriety. "The image of me as a hard-drinking, hard-living rock & roll bitch had become obnoxious," she says. "It really started occurring to me that I hated myself. Every morning I'd look in the mirror and think, 'You fuckin' asshole. How did you get home? Who brought you here? Where were you?' And I'd met Ray at that point, and I thought, 'This guy's not gonna want to hang out with this greaseball much longer.' I had to get it together."

Chambers was trying the same. He'd married a woman who worked in the London office of Sire Records, the group's U.S. label, and had curtailed his carousing. "People go through phases when they're young," he says, matter-of-factly. "They drink, or they do other things to the extreme. But then you grow up a little bit."

While Chrissie and Martin were developing interests outside of the band, Farndon and, to some extent, Honeyman-Scott were not. "To me, Pete and Jimmy only had one thing," says Chambers. "It was rock & roll." So when Farndon was fired from the band, it was a devastating blow, a blow that his mother apparently felt was the direct cause of his death — that's why she asked the Pretenders not to attend his funeral. "I'm sure," says Chrissie, "that it must have looked to her as if we had fired him and it had broken his heart, and then he turned to drugs and, finally, out of despair, killed himself — that it was because of us; that it was our fault."

According to Hynde, Farndon's widow, Conover, had told the press, as well as his family, that as far as she knew he hadn't been taking drugs. "It just confused his mother and made it all the more bewildering," says Chrissie. "I really loved Mrs. Farndon, and I didn't want this woman, who was undergoing this horrible grief, to be so confused and in the dark about it." So Chrissie called her a week after the funeral. "I said, 'You know, he was taking drugs. He was taking smack. He was strung out on smack. He was shooting it up.' I was trying to tell her the truth. If you know the truth. you can choose not to believe it. But it you're left in ignorance ..."

A telephone rings. Chrissie Hynde picks up the receiver: "Uh-huh ... yes, she's here, but I'm afraid she's busy right now. What's that? Oh, the president! Just a minute, Mr. President. ..."

Hynde takes the toy receiver and hands it across a table in the Glasgow airport, where she, Dave Hill and Malcolm Foster await a flight to London on this day off from their tour. "Natalie," Chrissie says to her nearly one-year-old daughter, "it's the president for you."

Natalie has been on the road with the Pretenders since the start of their tour, and unless there's some change in plans, she'll continue with the entourage until early May, when the group wraps things up with a series of shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall. A baby on a rook & roll tour might be a bother to some, but Chrissie is having the time of her life. The baby is almost always at her mom's side — a nanny is along to take care of Natalie during the shows — and Chrissie is constantly cuddling her, talking baby talk (she calls the infant "my way-bee") and playing games. In Edinburgh, Chrissie bought matching gray anoraks for herself and Natalie, as well as a little tartan vest and skirt.

As Chrissie stands up and puts on her anorak — "Do they still call them bench warmers in America?" — she has to laugh at the way motherhood has transformed her. "From rock & roll goddess to straight-A student, from greaseball to mother's pride in 15 seconds," she says. "I'd never even picked up a baby before I had one. I just thought they were like a load of Martians who had nothing to do with me. But the morning I had her, I got out of my bed and walked down the corridor to have a good look at her, and she was just this tiny little helpless thing. And I looked at the other babies, and you start to see that they are individuals. They're all different: different behavior, character and personality."

Even on the road with the band, Chrissie has been breastfeeding Natalie. "I said I was going to feed her for one year, because I thought it would be good for her. People think it's weird because it's inconvenient. My God, a baby has one infancy in its life. They're totally dependent on you. You have to give them what they need, not what you want.

"It used to be that I'd see kids who were running riot or crying or something, and I'd think, 'Shut them up!' Now I see a four-year-old girl crying, and I realize it's because she's getting new teeth in. I also see mothers differently. Even while I was having the kid, while I was actually in labor, I kept saying to Ray, 'How do people do this? It seems so bloody hard!' He was going, 'Yeah, but you're doing it.' I couldn't understand it. It was like being initiated into a secret society."

A few days later, when Davies turns up in Manchester for the Pretenders' final show on the English leg of the tour, he shows as much affection for Natalie as Chrissie does. He doesn't get to see his daughter, or Chrissie, as much as he'd like, because of the couple's determination to maintain independent careers. When the Pretenders began this tour, Davies was in America with the Kinks; now that he's back home in England, he'll only be able to spend two days with Chrissie and Natalie before they leave for Australia and more Pretenders gigs.

"It splits the family up," Chrissie says. "I know Ray misses Natalie like mad." But that's not the only occupational hazard for this family. "He's been doing this for 20 years, and he just abhors the music business. Up until he met me, he could get away from it; he just went home and had nothing to do with it. Now the poor guy walks into a hotel room in America, turns on MTV, and there I am." As a result, their relationship tends to be, well ... "I don't want to start off World War III," she demurs. "Let's just say we get by in our own inimitable way."

"I'm not the cat I used to be," Chrissie Hynde is singing onstage in Glasgow. "I got a kid/I'm 33. ..."

Onstage, she may still look as cool and tough as ever, but Chrissie Hynde is no longer kicking out police-car windows. As Martin Chambers sees it, she's simply grown up. Or had to. "Same as everybody," he says. "You can't be a kid all your life."

Chrissie would agree. "I abhor this idea of 'now I've seen the light,'" she says. "It just doesn't apply to me. Nothing's really changed all that much. I'm just a bit older and a bit more broken in." Then, of course, she has to add: "Not that big of a deal."