Pat Benatar: This Year's Model

Rock's newest sex symbol cleans up her act

Pat Benatar, 'Crimes of Passion' tour at The Dominion Theatre in London, United Kingdom on October 18th, 1980 Credit: Peter Still/Redferns/Getty

Pat Benatar's bus is a mess. Strewn across its counter tops, seat cushions and narrow center aisle, and overflowing from a hanging trash bag, are piles of paper, half a dozen empty beer bottles and several videocassette boxes (Rebel Without a Cause, The Green Berets, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea).

But mostly, there's evidence of a serious junk-food fetish. "Thirteen and a half hours to Omaha!" Benatar had exclaimed that afternoon. "We're gonna need some doughnuts!" Standing in mute testimony are the remnants of enough bags of Lay's potato chips, chocolate-chip cookies and bubble gum to fuel a sixth-grade class for a fortnight. So when the bus pulls out of a desolate truck stop in Beto Junction, Kansas, it's not surprising that the trash bag tears free and crashes to the floor near lead guitarist Neil Geraldo.

"I'll get it, hon," Benatar says to Geraldo, her boyfriend. She picks up the bag, shoves the spillage back inside, ties it up and puts a fresh one in its place. Then she goes back to cleaning the counters. Geraldo lies motionless on the couch while bassist Roger Capps idly peruses a copy of Swank. He bought it for the 3-D spread, but the cowriter of Benatar's hit "My Clone Sleeps Alone" is delighted to find, in a column on women's sexual day-dreams, a letter from a randy reader who fantasizes about her clone.

Pat Benatar is the star aboard this vehicle. She has one of the nation's fastest-selling albums. Crimes of Passion, which jumped into Billboard's Top Twenty three weeks after its release. She also has another Top Sixty album: In the Heat of the Night, her 1979 debut, which contains her breakthrough hit single, "Heartbreaker." She's in the middle of a five-month tour of the U.S., Canada and Europe, and more often than not, critics are calling her things like "a tough, sexy, fiery vocalist . . . with a voice powerful enough to shatter concrete." She has a "platinum" bubble-gum card—part of the new Chu-Bops series. And as one of rock's certified sex symbols, her leonine, Spandex-clad form gracefully adorns two album covers and countless publicity photos.

But she's also the woman on this bus. And she doesn't seem to mind the domestic duties that apparently go with that station. "Look who gets to clean up," she says, flashing an easy grin as she brushes aside a stack of sports magazines. "This is such a boy band. But I don't mind. I'll even do the dishes."

Of all the female performers who have recently emerged to challenge rock's male bastions. Pat Benatar is probably the most successful — outselling even Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. But where Hynde's hard-bitten stance challenges the rock & roll establishment. Benatar's achievement is different. She brings a multioctave, classically trained voice to the kind of material male rockers have been singing for years: "Heartbreaker" is a typical, densely layered hard rocker reminiscent of songs by dozens of male-led British bands.

The only thing revolutionary about the song is that a woman sings it. And it helped that that woman was undeniably attractive and had a penchant for wearing one-piece Danskins and skimpy tights. Benatar was a marketing man's dream come true: her first shows found critics calling her "a vampish, sensual bitch" and angered some who felt she merely perpetuated an old stereotype.

As we sit on the comfortable red couch in her and Geraldo's private room at the back of the bus, the five-foot, ninety-pound singer shakes the new short-and-straight hairdo that rims her delicate features. Flexing her blue-jeaned legs and fidgeting with a baggy yellow sweat shirt, she slowly warms to the midnight conversation, her Brooklyn-inflected voice often breaking into laughter and, quite often, downright giggles.

"The shit the record company puts out is embarrassing," she says. "I came back from the last tour and found out they'd made a cardboard cutout of me in my little tights. What has that got to do with anything? They also took out an ad in Billboard and airbrushed part of my top off. They knew I'd never pose like that, so they took the cover of the new record, moved the bottom line up a bit and airbrushed it to look like I'm naked. If that is gonna sell records, then it's a real sorry thing.

"The strange thing is, the bigger you get, the less control you really have. So when something gets really screwed up, you have to pull out the big guns and say. "Look, cut it out or I won't sing.' I'm not ready to be Farrah Fawcett."

Still, she's ready to take some of the blame—Benatar is, after all, the one who posed in those tights in the first place. "You're so naive when you do those things in the beginning," she says. "It didn't occur to me what I was doing until later, and then it was a case of, 'What have I done?' I wore tights onstage because they were comfortable. I didn't realize that when I put my leg up, people went crazy. I was just putting my leg up.

"Even the first album cover doesn't look sexy to me. People look at it and go, 'What a cover.' I think, 'My teeth are too big, my eyes are too small.' But it created an image that everyone capitalized on. Basically, I knew I was gonna get it. But I never knew I was gonna get it this bad. All of a sudden, you realize, 'Shit, people are looking at my crotch. This is embarrassing. I can't do this, I gotta do things to avoid it.'"

Although she still struts onstage, she's made a vow to concentrate on singing; she no longer jumps onto, or hangs off of, the drum riser. She's replaced her skintight-tops-and-nylons wardrobe with pants—sleek, form-fitting pants, but pants nonetheless. And she's cut her hair, the curly dark locks replaced by a straighter, lighter, less overtly alluring style.

"I used to think I could be real sexless onstage," she continues, one bright red fingernail poised at the corner of her mouth. "It doesn't work. You're a female, and it comes out no matter what you do, no matter how many ERAs they pass. Just having hips is enough. I'd like to challenge the stereotypes, but there's no getting around it — I am a stereotype. I'm the pretty-girl-who-can-sing stereotype."

But with her new hairdo, and with a stage costume that often consists of boots, black pants and a fringed, short red tunic, Benatar often resembles nothing so much as Peter Pan—a male role popularly played by women.

"I never thought of it like that," she says when I mention the image. "That's kinda cool. It does work, especially with the short hair. Hey, everything's working. Maybe we're on the right track for a change. Wouldn't that be amazing?"

Fifteen hours later, Benatar's resolve is put to the test. She's performing in her second consecutive Doobie Brothers-headlined outdoor show in the crippling Midwestern heat. The previous day, in Oklahoma, it was 125 degrees in the audience. Down on the tarp-covered football field, countless baseball caps couldn't shade the sweating crowd, and hordes of parched fans jostled around the indoor snack bars to buy huge Sooner Schooners of soft drinks.

It's not quite that hot at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium. But Benatar can feel the heat through her high-heeled boots as she takes the stage in a full-length, clinging black jump suit. It's the kind of garment she now refuses to wear without a jacket; so in the stifling heat, she begins John Cougar's "I Need a Lover" in a black blazer. By the end of the second song, a torrid original called "Treat Me Right," she's fanning herself with the tails of the blazer. By the end of the hour-long set, she's drained, exhausted and seeing black spots. Through it all, the blazer never comes off.

Benatar's band is a visual hodgepodge. Geraldo stands downstage in jeans and a red shirt, leading the group and looking like a typical street punk; rhythm-guitarist Scott St. Clair Sheets stands unobtrusively off to the other side in black leather pants and striped red shirt; short-haired bassist Roger Capps resembles an old rockabilly singer in straight-legged black pants and outdated sunglasses; and drummer Myron Grombacher, a carrot redhead in battle fatigues, jumps around and shakes the drum set that his roadies have to weld down every day.

Benatar herself exudes a sexual ambiguity rare for someone marketed as she's been. Her moves are borrowed not from other female performers but from male hard rockers. She never slinks onstage — she always struts, and she favors clenched fists and occasional jabs. And when one of her guitarists goes into a solo, she plays air guitar with all the abandon of the kids in the back row.

It doesn't always work, perhaps because of her newfound restraint and her limited vocabulary of gestures. But the show has its moments: some corny but believable lovers' interplay with Geraldo — onstage kisses, mock snarls, mussed hair — that echoes the teenage-romance affection the two exhibit offstage; a stirring verse of "Heartbreaker," during which the instruments drop away and her voice soars into the chorus, accompanied only by a synthesizer and a single gong (she puts her foot up on the monitor here, and the crowd screams); and, particularly, a sultry workout on "In the Heat of the Night."

The last number is Benatar's favorite song from her debut album; slow and nocturnal, it contains a moment of Springsteen-inspired drama when she stops dead between lines, stares down the feverish audience, then eases fluidly back into the song. When Geraldo solos, she stands center stage listening raptly, her eyes closed, her lips pursed, and her head thrown back and softly shaking. For that moment, she is both seductive and entrancing.

When we pile back into the bus after the Omaha show, Benatar and Geraldo quickly huddle with her manager, Rick Newman, who has just joined the tour. It's not a business meeting; Newman was welcomed aboard with a round of hugs, and now they have some friendly gossiping to do before talking shop.

"This is a family tour," the band's bus driver had said backstage. The genial, beefy man, whom everyone calls Suds, was right. Except for Geraldo and Benatar, all the band members are married, and their vices are Budweiser, Pepsi and cookies rather than drugs. For Benatar, the tour is simply "normal, middle-class and straight." Not much of a change from her childhood. As Pat Andrzejewski, she grew up on Long Island, and she recalls having "a happy childhood, a real Catholic upbringing—cheerleader, the beach, Gidget."

Her mother sang in the New York City Opera's chorus but quit when Pat was born; her father is a laborer. "He's worked in a sheet-metal plant for as long as I can remember," she says fondly. "He's like a foreman now, and they bring him my clippings and call him Mr. Benatar."

Benatar's parents never pushed her into a musical career, but once her teachers heard her sing, they enrolled her in special voice classes (instead of physical education, which she preferred). She performed in local choirs, community productions and school plays, singing "Oh Holy Night" and appearing in Bye Bye Birdie and the like. She was also an inveterate radio listener. "Purple People Eater" is the first song she remembers hearing; the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Judy Garland were latter-day favorites.

In 1970, at age seventeen, she began her vocal training in earnest, taking part in rigorous sessions with "harnesses and stuff" in preparation for operatic studies at the Juilliard School of Music. She never made it that far; she dropped out, disgusted by the strenuous regimen, the lifestyle that had her "going to cocktail parties with men in bow ties" and a daily schedule that left her little time to smoke marijuana. She studied health education briefly and married Dennis Benatar, whom she'd known since she was sixteen. Shortly thereafter, he entered the army and they moved to Virginia.

"I was a bank teller for about two and a half years down there," she says, "I had always been able to do whatever I wanted, and suddenly I had to face the reality of marriage and lots of bills. I sat in that teller's cage every day, looked at the money and thought, 'I know there's a way for me to have this without going to jail.' I wanted to steal it. I didn't want to sing, but I always knew that if I did it well enough, it could work. So I quit the job on an impulse and became a singing waitress and played real sleazy bars."

Benatar upset the fabric of Richmond's lounge-band scene by wearing leopard skin and singing tentative versions of "Stairway to Heaven." In one of those bands, she met Roger Capps, a Knoxville musician who says, "I been two things in my life: a Jehovah's Witness, 'cause I was raised like that since I was two, and a musician."

When Pat realized Richmond's Holiday Inns were a dead end, she and her husband moved back to New York — followed, some months later, by Capps. She worked on the cabaret circuit. At Catch a Rising Star, a showcase club mostly for comedians, she entered an open audition and, at about 3:45 a.m. one Monday, sang Judy Garland's "Rockabye Your Baby" well enough to win a regular slot in owner Rick Newman's club. (A year later, Newman became her manager.)

"I was broke, man," she says of the ensuing years. "We're talking broke. Rice and beans and stuff like that. It makes you mad to be hungry, and it makes you mad to want to sing rock & roll and have people tell you, 'Janis Joplin died. Give it up.' I learned more in New York between 1975 and 1978 than at any other time in my life, because I was so mad."

At Catch a Rising Star, Benatar's polished voice began changing; with effort, she learned to scream, rasp and enunciate poorly. "I stopped trying to emulate Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand," she says. "I just stopped listening to anybody I liked, because I so desperately wanted to find my own voice." (Even now, she says she can't listen to Chrissie Hynde or Bruce Springsteen too often; she admires them so much she's afraid she'll sing like them.)

"When my voice started coming, so did the confidence, and pretty soon that person who wore leopard-skin dresses in Richmond started to emerge. It happened gradually, but by the time Chrysalis came down to see me. I was in tights and boots, almost where I am now."

Chrysalis Records chairmen Terry Ellis and Chris Wright liked what many other record companies had turned down, and they signed Benatar in 1978. When the producer originally chosen for her album proved incompatible. Ellis persuaded Mike Chapman to produce three songs on the record: Chapman associate Peter Coleman finished the varied, bombastic disc.

"The record was released just after Carolyne Mas. Ellen Shipley and about four other female singers released their albums, so we didn't expect much," says Benatar. "I remember being in tears because Ellen Foley's album had a radiator on the cover and so did mine. I thought, 'How could that bitch do that?'

"We went on tour as soon as the record came out, and one day, somebody came up to me and said, 'You know you're Number Twenty-eight, don't you?' I said, 'Twenty-eight what?' 'Twenty-eight in Billboard.' 'Get out of here, we're not Twenty-eight!' We never bought Billboard because we figured we weren't charted, and nobody told us because they figured we'd freak out."

When it came time to record the second album, Benatar did panic. For the first record, she had assembled a band that included Capps; Sheets, a New York musician who was holding down a day job as a computer programmer; and Geraldo, who's lived with her since shortly after the album's release, when she got a divorce. For the initial tour, they added Grombacher, who, like Geraldo, was an Ohio native and Derringer veteran. "At first, I said absolutely not, I'm not playing with any girl," says Grombacher. "Then I met her and heard her voice, and I'd never played with anyone who could sing like that. It's awesome."

The group went into the studio for the second album. They knew they wanted a band sound; they knew they had to follow a big hit; and they knew they didn't have enough songs.

"I was never so tense in my life," says Benatar. "It never happened to me before, but I was freaking out so much I couldn't sing. I'd go home at night and compare my vocals to the first album, and I'd be crying, 'It doesn't sound like the first one, they're not gonna buy it!' I'd be, like, ripping my hair, taking Valiums and sitting in the hot tub going out of my mind. Neil would drive his car into the hills and sit there staring at Hollywood, because he didn't know what to do, either."

"We had already started preproduction, and we only had four songs," says Geraldo. "We were cutting basic tracks, and I remember coming home late; telling Patty to go to sleep, fixing myself some pasta and sitting down at the piano to write songs. Sometimes I'd work until six in the morning, wouldn't write anything. I'd smoke about eighty cigarettes and feel sick and have to go to bed and say to her. 'Patty, I didn't get nothin'. 'I don't ever want to go through that again."

They finally finished enough songs; Benatar cowrote half the album, including "Hell Is for Children," about child abuse. Geraldo contributed four songs, and the record was completed when he put the final touches on "Little Paradise." Now that it's doing well, Benatar finally admits she likes the record.

I'm just a scrapper from Cleveland," says Neil Geraldo. It's a good thumbnail description of the guitarist, who speaks in the tough cadences of an East Coast street kid. His position in the band is tricky. He's largely responsible for Benatar's sound, song selection and concert repertoire. Not everyone wants his contributions publicized. On the back of her new album. Benatar thanks him "for all the heart and hard work on the Production of this Record. I love you." But the current Chrysalis bio doesn't even mention that he writes songs.

"Lindsey Buckingham once said that getting in a relationship inside a band is a big mistake," says Geraldo as we sit in the revolving bar atop the band's Omaha hotel. "I never believed him. Now I believe him. It is very tough. You gotta have. . . ." He pauses, then laughs. "I don't know what you gotta have. It's just very tough."

Geraldo was given the job as Benatar's musical organizer prior to the first album; his experience at that point consisted of bar bands with his uncle and a stint in Derringer that left him unsatisfied. "It was suffocating," he says, "because they wouldn't use my songs and I had to play piano to get on the record.

"When I was hired to do the first album with Patty, I swear, there was absolutely no direction," he says. "She'd just say, 'I like rock & roll. What should I do?' I'd say. 'Well, do you want some guitars or what?" She'd say, 'Yeah,' so I'd get some guitars. I knew it would be good, because when I heard Patty's voice, I just loved it to pieces."

With characteristic, quiet cockiness, Geraldo wants badly to be recognized for his contribution — not for living with a sex symbol. "If I did absolutely nothing. I wouldn't feel bad, because I could sit back and say, 'Gee whiz, my girlfriend, she's a sex symbol and this is fun.' But the hard part is that people don't recognize, or they try to play down, the fact that I may really be in charge of a lot of things. I don't think people like to admit that I had a hand in coproducing the record. When you have so much control, which I do, that makes it tough on your ego."

Geraldo is now looking for outside artists to produce. But that's off in the future, after he and Benatar spend some time in their house in Tarzana, a quiet, residential suburb in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. They moved in last March, but they've been away for all but two months; their dog and two cats had to be kenneled, and the place looks, in Benatar's words, "like a tomb."

And when they're home, are there any questions about who's in charge?

"No questions at all," says Benatar. "He's a total Italian, he's so macho. He's the man. I'm the woman, and I've got to learn to adjust to that." She smiles. "It's kind a nice, really, because he's genuine about it. Neil will never be Mr. Benatar. Never."

I've got this list. It's a list of all the things I want to accomplish. There aren't very many more to go." We're back in Benatar and Geraldo's hotel room; they're about to leave Omaha for another long bus ride, to Denver. The bags are packed and by the door, the Emmy Awards are on the television screen, and Benatar sits on her bed in tennies, T-shirt and gym shorts.

Tucking her feet underneath her, she looks away from the screen. "I used to like to think I would never want this to end. Now I think I wouldn't mind it ending. I really want to have a family and stuff — maybe live in the country and wear flat shoes and flannel shirts. Real normal stuff. I'm not cut out to be a star."

So it wouldn't bother her if, say, the album stalled at Number Sixteen, never cracking the Top Ten?

"Oh, no," she says quickly. "That's on my list. I gotta do that first, then I can stop. I just hope I don't have to wait twenty years for a Top Ten record, because if my popularity started dropping, I don't think I would stick around and beat my head against the wall until it changed. I'm not that kind of person.

"I'm really not secure enough to be a star," she continues. "It's like not being able to admit that I like the record until I see that everybody else likes it. I hate being vulnerable. When I was a kid, I loved to play little-girl games — until they started to take advantage of me because I was a girl. Then I thought things were out of hand.

"A kid named Joey lived across the street from me once, and he'd push snow in my face before school. I could never do anything about it, because I was a girl and real small. But after about a week, I got real pissed off. So I had two friends hold him on a slide. Then I punched his teeth out."

In some ways, Benatar is still enjoying her little-girl games. These days, it's singing with the boys on the bus, and she enjoys it until people go overboard — for instance, when they look at her instead of listening to her.

It's the old image problem: the problem of a performer who isn't trying to bulldoze any barriers. A performer who wants to sidestep a few stereotypes, not destroy them, who's as comfortable with some traditional male-female roles as she is with traditional, old-wave rock & roll.

"To me," Pat Benatar says, "the point is to be strong but to still be a woman, not to be tough. I'm not a little flower, but I'm not somebody's sexual fantasy of a cold, hard bitch, either. There are some women who want me to be like that, to stick it to the men.

"I try to tell those people that they're missing the point. I'm not gonna be masculine, and I'm not gonna be a frilly girl who gets what she wants because she's frilly. There's a middle ground, and that's where I want to go. I get a lot of shit for going down the middle, but I'm hanging in there."