Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo: 'We're Like Johnny and June'

Watch the couple blend their own "Heartbreaker" with Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"

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Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo: 'We're Like Johnny and June'

On August 1st, 1981, Pat Benatar strutted her way onto MTV, the upstart video channel that would change the way a generation listened to music. The petite New York native with the gigantic voice tore through a cover of the Young Rascals' "You Better Run," sticking her index finger in the face of some imaginary foe, and pointing toward a future in which women would grab rock & roll by the wallet. Only the second-ever video played on MTV, it followed the Buggles' synth-heavy "Video Killed the Radio Star" on the channel and helped turn the classically trained Benatar into a rock superstar with dozens of chart hits, a Number One album and a seemingly endless concert tour that continues to this day. By her side, playing guitar in the clip, was Neil Giraldo, who would secure his own place in history as the first-ever guitarist spotlighted on MTV. In addition to serving as her musical partner, Giraldo would also secure a place in Benatar's heart — they married in 1982 and have two daughters.

Although "You Better Run" was Benatar's first music video to air on MTV, it was the lead single from her second album, Crimes of Passion. Her initial chart hit, the blistering "Heartbreaker," reached Number 23 and helped her debut LP, In the Heat of the Night, reach million-seller status. In October of 1980, Benatar and Giraldo canoodled on the cover of Rolling Stone. In 2014, the couple launched their 35th Anniversary Tour, and last month released a CD/DVD set commemorating the trek and containing more than a dozen of their iconic rockers, including "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Shadows of the Night," "All Fired Up," "We Belong" and "Promises in the Dark."

After a whirlwind media day in New York last week, Benatar and Giraldo landed in Nashville to play the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, a fitting venue for the couple as they feel a close kinship to one of country music's most legendary couples. That's one reason their set list includes an incendiary mash-up of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" (co-written by the future Mrs. Cash, June Carter) and the couple's own "Heartbreaker." The result is one of their still-spectacular live show's most thrilling and genuine moments.

Backstage at the Ryman, Rolling Stone Country sat down with Benatar and Giraldo [or "Patricia" and "Spyder," as they call each other] where they proved that even if they will never be mistaken for a country act on stage, out of the spotlight they're an extremely nice, extraordinarily normal, family-oriented couple — which should probably at least qualify them for honorary membership in the country community.

How did you come up with the idea to pair "Heartbreaker" with "Ring of Fire"?
Neil Giraldo: That was me. I think of weird stuff for us to do, cover songs to do. I always thought it would be a good song for us, because we're like Johnny and June.

How much exposure did you both have to country music when you were growing up?
Giraldo: I really like the roots stuff, like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams; the real strong stuff. A carpenter that worked for my father knew a club in Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up, where they had country music. There was a guy [who] was like Hank Williams. I remember him being really great. Looked just like him — thin, the hat, everything.

Benatar: My exposure was really limited, because I was in New York listening to classical music, Led Zeppelin and theatrical music. But I do have to say I always loved Patsy Cline. That filtered through and was just undeniable. I like the young ones and I like the really vintage things that Spyder likes. They're just so pure. Spyder says this all the time, that when you write songs, the best way to write them is just piano and vocal or guitar and vocal, because it really gets it down to the essence of the song. When you sing songs, even our songs, with just guitar and vocal, they all sound country. [Laughs]

Giraldo: Every great song is written as a country song. . . Pairing acoustic guitar and vocal, or piano and vocal, it should sound like a country song. When you break them all down, they're really country songs.

What did you take away from the experience of doing CMT Crossroads with Martina McBride? Have you kept in touch with her?
Benatar: She's a doll. We do have some contact with her, but you don't get to hang like everybody thinks you do, because we live in California, she lives here. One of the fun parts of doing that show is I didn't really spend a lot of time with other females who had children and were doing what we were doing. So it was really nice to spend time with another woman who had kids. Once you become somebody's mother, you're on a whole other track. We were in Australia with the Bangles opening for us. They're great girls, I love them, but we were hanging out and they're talking about, "I was using this mic, I was using this. . ." and I was [mimics falling asleep]. I was asking, "Do you guys cook?" I'm really a homebody and that's what interests me: construction, décor, cooking, reading, writing, children.

At this point in your careers, with everything you've done, what motivates you to keep making music?
Giraldo: We're unstoppable. I truly believe some of the best stuff we're ever going to do is in the future. I'm an eternal optimist. I've got some songs that we're writing now that I think are phenomenal. It's impossible. We do it out of love. We don't do it out of money.

Your last studio album was Go, in 2003, so is it safe to assume you don't have that same drive to get new product out there?
Benatar: Yeah, that's not the big issue. I always say you make music because you have to. You write songs because you have to, you play because you have to. It's not about selling records. That's the dividend of doing it, but that's not why you do it.

Giraldo: If you take out that urge, that need to be out there and keep running that race, you get a lot better. Your drive is a pure drive. Not, "I've gotta be seen, I've gotta be heard." Neil Young has a great thing. He says every time he writes a song, it's just another story of his life at that particular time. He's not trying to write hits. You just write a period of your time.

Benatar: It's just like eating breakfast. You eat breakfast because you have to. You have to play music because you have to.

Having done these hit songs for so many years, how do you keep things interesting for yourselves on stage?
Benatar: It's not like there are not days when you're really tired or you've got personal stuff going on. But the minute you get out there, it's on. You're back where you belong.

Giraldo: It's a chemical thing, too. The endorphins do make a difference. Offstage, I'm the nicest guy; I'll be kissing babies, hugging. As soon as I hit the stage, I've got Jerry Lee Lewis blood. Sometimes when I'm coming off, I've got to really be by myself because I'm so worked up and so nuts at that point. I need to come down.

Benatar: You can't talk to him.

Giraldo: You can't be near me because I get pretty nuts. But leaving the Jerry Lee Lewis blood out there is great.

Benatar: I completely come down. Boom! The minute it stops, I'm really happy.

Giraldo: She's super-mellow; I'm super-charged.

What's the best advice you could offer young women in music today?
Benatar: Marry your guitar player. [Laughs].

Giraldo: Write your own songs. Don't let anybody get inside your head. Some people are mentally strong, like Bob Dylan. People didn't get in his head. But it's easy to have somebody get in your head and mess you up. And be yourself. Don't sound like a million Martinas. Don't sound like a million Patricias.

Benatar: Find out what you do that's really unique and go for it. It's different today. Our youngest daughter is going into the music business also. They just have a different attitude. It's not without its challenges, but it's not the same thing. You cannot just go in thinking that you're going to be the artsy musician and not be in control of your business. You need to know what you're doing. And if you don't know, you surround yourself with people that you trust and that do know.

We have two daughters. Haley is 30, and Hana is 21. The older one is very sensitive, super sweet girl, super smart. She wanted to be a singer and then she realized early on that this was not for her, because she had no armor. The little one is like a warrior. This is her genetics. It's about personalities. If you have the other kind and you're vulnerable, you'd better ally yourself with someone who's going to be your protector.

How often are you writing songs?
Benatar: He's always writing. Twenty-four hours a day.

Giraldo: All the time. Our little daughter is like that, too. Sometimes she'll say, "Papa, you got any ideas for any songs?" I'll give her one line and then wait about 10 minutes and she'll say, "I think I've got something!"

In terms of songs you've written, is there one that came from a really surprising, unexpected place?
Benatar: "Hell Is for Children" came from an article in the New York Times, an exposé on child abuse. We came from really good childhoods. Our parents were still married; we had loving families. We were reading this thing and we were like, "What?" This is in 1980. We were so naïve and shocked. It was a terrible awakening. Who would hurt a baby? It was so unbelievable to us that it started this whole catalyst to write that song.

Giraldo: When it came out, it was during that time when people were burning [our] albums, because they thought we meant hell is for children. Whoa, you don't get it!

Benatar: The entire universe of adults that had been abused as children were taking it straight to their hearts as their anthem. And yet we had all these nut cases out there thinking we're saying hell is for children, literally.

It had to open you up, though, to people wanting to share their personal stories with you.
Benatar: It was incredible, because it was before the Internet. We got bags of mail. It was one of those things like when you find out there's no Santa Claus. You can't believe it. It just kept going and going, and getting bigger and bigger. Spyder and I, we love old people, animals and babies. These are our three things: protect the elderly, protect animals and protect babies.

Is there any particular song that you recorded that you think didn't get its due?
Benatar: We don't have enough time. [Laughs].

Giraldo: I'll tell you one right away: "Somebody's Baby" [from the 1993 album, Gravity's Rainbow.] I thought we hit something really brilliant on that. We had a beautiful video for it. Because our record company then was so smart, they said, "We can't get it out of our heads from the Jackson Browne song [released 12 years earlier]." What followed was this new marketing plan: "We're going to do nothing." Oh, that's a great idea! Thanks.

Benatar: They must have been talking to Seinfeld. What the hell? [Laughs].

Did you read much of your press in those early days?
Benatar: Oh, no. It's best not to. One of my favorite authors is Anna Quindlen. She says things like, "You should never watch the nightly news unless your husband or wife is the anchor." That's for everybody else to look at. You just go about your business.

How do you think you've stayed so normal in such a crazy business?
Benatar: Our best friends are laypeople. Spyder knows a lot of musicians, but I was too busy working and raising a family. Even when we were young, we weren't partyers. We didn't go out, we didn't go to awards shows. We basically just stayed with each other. It was like having twins; how when you have twins and they only play with each other. All we do all day is, "What are we making? Who's going to the store? What are we getting?"

Not exactly rock & roll.
Giraldo: Early on, people would say, "You guys are so nice. You're like country artists." They would say it all the time. They'd expect us to say, "Oh, fuck off." They'd go, "Wow, they're too nice."

Benatar: You can't be too nice. [Laughs].

Giraldo: That's right, June.