Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders' singer and songwriter, unzips her trademark black leather pants and pushes them unceremoniously down around her ankles. She is wearing what appear to be old-fashioned white cotton underpants. I try not to gawk. The silence here in the quilt-walled living compartment of the Pretenders' comfortably appointed tour bus is broken only by the clatter of a relentless March rainstorm playing popcorn rhythms on the metal roof, and by occasional shouts and soggy laughter from a nearby group of about a hundred Pretenders fans lined up outside an already-packed club called Detroit, in Port Chester, New York. Chrissie reaches into a capacious handbag, pulls out the elastic support band she has nearly forgotten, slips it over her foot and up her leg, and positions it around her right knee, which — she informs me — she recently strained.
"Ten minutes left," says Dave Hill, the Pretenders' manager, who is alertly perched on the edge of a chair near the bus door. "Ten minutes?" Chrissie responds. "That suits me. It's just ten minutes less of me boozin' before we go on." She flashes Hill a reassuring grin as she hitches up her britches. "But I haven't had a drink," she quickly adds. Hill, shiny-cheeked and boyish at twenty-six, is businesslike in a low-key, British way, and he casts an appraising glance at his chief charge. The pale, mercurial Hynde, who's twenty-eight, looks tired. Nine days into the Pretenders' two-month maiden tour of North America — with the group's self-titled debut album already bulleting toward the U.S. Top Twenty — the booze, the boredom, the incessant rain and general dankness of life on the road already are taking a toll on her.
"You've got those black lines under your eyes," Hill says solicitously. Chrissie's forehead — what can be seen of it through her long, raven bangs — crinkles in mock dismay. "It took me five minutes to put'em there," she protests with a wounded whine. "I don't feel quite like a woman until I've got my eyes drawn on," she tells me, turning to assess her reflection in a full-length mirror. "I've got a technique that doesn't take any time, and you can do it when you're drunk."
Not quite happy with her somber ensemble of black leather and dark blue denim, she reaches over to the sofa for her favorite hat — a screaming pink, fake-fur coonskin cap, complete with a tawdry little tail. "Got it in London," she says a bit defensively, positioning the hat on her head. "I don't try to be tacky and out of fashion, but somehow I can never get it right. If I put on something pretty, it would be a joke, you know? I can't help it."
After a last, semi-satisfied look in the mirror, Chrissie sweeps up her red leather motorcycle jacket ("It's got my perfume in it"), and we both follow Hill out the door and into the teeming rain. It's show time again.
There's a pronounced buzz in the air about the Pretenders: this is only the group's seventh American gig, and the saga of their whirlwind British success (three hit singles and a subtly startling debut LP that reached the top of the charts) has whetted Anglophile appetites here for months. The Pretenders arrived out of nowhere in January 1979 with a billowing, Nick Lowe-produced revamp of an obscure 1964 Kinks track called "Stop Your Sobbing." It was a breath of classic pop freshness for a musical scene that had bogged down in post-punk predictability. But "Sobbing" gave no hint of the band's range or originality, qualities confirmed by the self-penned follow-up singles: "Kid," with its wistful melody and alluringly ambiguous lyrics, and "Brass in Pocket," a near-Motown-ish declaration of female sexual assertiveness.
The clincher was the LP Pretenders, released last January, on which American expatriate Chrissie Hynde proved herself one of the most completely convincing female rock & rollers in recent memory. A stingingly effective rhythm guitarist whose voice combines the fluidity of jazz singing with the rawness of rock, Hynde wrote or cowrote ten of the album's twelve tracks, imbuing many of them with a psychosexual candor that goes beyond even the bounds recently set by Marianne Faithfull. Add to this a rhythm section that can rock out ferociously in seven-four time, if necessary, and a lead guitarist whose combination of precision and flamboyance sometimes recalls the young Jeff Beck, and you've got an album that — as Pete Townshend recently described it on a British radio show — is "like a drug."
But the question that hangs in the air here at Detroit is: can they deliver?
Backstage, mountains of empty equipment crates tower above scattered clumps of thick black cable and heavy-duty power plugs, and groups of old friends, new women and local notables wander the central corridor, swigging beers and swapping news. Mick Ronson, the ex-Bowie guitarist who now works with Ian Hunter, has driven up from New York, and so has Lenny Kaye, the rock writer and Patti Smith Group guitarist, who met Chrissie during one of her down-and-out phases in London not so long ago.
There's a row of small, brightly lit rooms in the rear, each stocked with platters of fresh fruit and tubs of iced beer and Pepsi. Chrissie stops at the first door to trade a few warmup wisecracks with Pete Farndon, 27, the Pretenders' bassist, and Martin Chambers, 28, their drummer. A gleaming, matched set of metal-faced Zemaitis guitars ($1300 a pop on custom order) stand ready in a corner; but lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott — at twenty-three, the youngest and most fun-loving Pretender — is nowhere to be seen, having sequestered himself in one of the back rooms.
Chrissie listens attentively as Chambers, a heavy hitter, bemoans the condition of his drum kit, which was specially built to withstand his onslaughts. Last night he had to secure the snare drum with guitar strings, and tonight he's reduced to trying bootlaces. Farndon, a tall, dark and classically handsome sort, grunts sympathetically. Chrissie drifts off to greet an old girlfriend, and he watches as her jiggling pink coon's tail disappears into the crowd. "It's not easy to be in her position," he says, earnestly affectionate. "You know— locked up with four or five guys who are talkin' about tits and ass all the time. On the road, you've got nothing that most women would want. Chris isn't like most women."
He upends the bottle of Johnny Walker Red in his hand and takes a bracing gulp, grimacing as the liquor goes down.
Out front, in Detroit's main room, the last pummeling power chords of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" have receded into the house speakers. Suddenly, the air shivers with the bombastic strains of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which Dave Hill has nicked off the Apocalypse Now soundtrack for use as a fanfare. The Pretenders scurry onstage, the now-accounted-for Honeyman-Scott looking aroused and resplendent in a sparkling white Nudie-style cowboy jacket. Hynde, primed and nearly bouncing, jacks in her white Telecaster, and before the capacity crowd even has time to cheer, she's shouted out the raggedy count for "The Wait." For the next hour, the Pretenders' music — much of it composed in treacherously eccentric meters — explodes off the stage. Chambers churns up a brutal Bo Diddley beat for the jaunty "Cuban Slide" (the B side of their latest British single, "Talk of the Town"), and then downshifts into a walloping, primordial thud for "Stop Your Sobbing." Farndon's fat, fluid bass slides through the tricky rhythms like an oiled snake, coiling up in unexpected grace notes and quirky arpeggios, then slipping back into the dense sonic mix to await another opening. The radiant "Kid" stirs some of the crowd to sing along, and Chrissie's full, uncaged alto soars.
After "Porcelain" — a raw, as-yet-unrecorded guitar wrangle — Chrissie, sweat-soaked and smiling, grabs a microphone and announces "Tattooed Love Boys," her bike-club gang-bang epic. "This song is not about bikers," she says. "It's about girls who get beaten up by the same guy more than once." The song erupts at a neck-cracking 7/4 pace, with Hynde slashing at her guitar and spitting out the cold, pitiless words like razor blades: "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for!"
The set is capped with a stirring reprise of "Stop Your Sobbing." When it's done, the band, dazed and breathless, looks out over a sea of clenched fists, all punching upward like the pistons of some strange new engine. "Don't think we're used to this reception," Chrissie yells, "'cause we're not!"
Later, after an hour of backstage boozing and congratulatory blather, Honeyman-Scott announces that he's being tucked in tonight by some local seductress, and departs in a Cadillac. Dave Hill and I clamber onboard the bus with the rest of the band for the long, rain-whipped ride back to their Manhattan hotel. As the numbing rumble of the road sets in, Pete Farndon slips a homemade cassette into the tape system and turns the volume way up. A post-punk pounder, "Real Fun" by Ten Pole Tudor, leaps from the overhead speakers like a raucous toad. The bus takes a curve and Farndon sways (is it the bus?) toward the table where Chambers and I are huddled. The bassist slides his half-full bottle of Johnny Walker onto the table, where we fumble it around for the next half hour.
Chrissie Hynde, beaming and lovely after the evening's success — and jovially befuddled on the better part of a fifth of Montezuma tequila — holds aloft a small bouquet of roses from an unknown backstage admirer. "Someone must want to marry me," she announces. "'Cause any man who sends me roses is a man I might marry." The bus rounds another bend and she tumbles onto the sofa, giggling and kicking her feet out in time to the slithery rhythms of Iggy Pop's "New Values," which is blasting out overhead. Hoisting the tequila up to squint level, she contemplates the few remaining slugs. "I've made quite an impression on this bottle," she says with a burp.
Christine Ellen Hynde was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, where her father, Bud, works for the telephone company and her mother, Dee, is a part-time secretary. "I was Joe Normal," Chrissie says, sitting in her motel room later. "But I was never too interested in high school. I mean, I never went to a dance, I never went out on a date, I never went steady. It became pretty awful for me. Except, of course, I could go see bands, and that was the kick. I used to go to Cleveland just to see any band. So I was in love a lot of the time, but mostly with guys in bands that I had never met. For me, knowing that Brian Jones was out there, and later that Iggy Pop was out there, made it kind of hard for me to get too interested in the guys that were around me. I had, uh, bigger things in mind."
Chrissie's brother, Terry, played the saxophone, and when Chrissie was sixteen, she took up the baritone ukulele. Too shy to get involved with any of the local all-male garage bands, she kept to herself and started writing songs. "I never had that kind of experience most guys in bands do," she says. "I think that probably determined a lot of my style of playing. I still go by the dots on the guitar, you know? I have a very rudimentary knowledge of it."
At about this time, Chrissie had her first peek behind the scenes of big-time rock & roll — an experience that still causes her to cackle with dismay. After a concert in Cleveland by the Jeff Beck Group, she and an older girlfriend were taken back to the band's hotel and introduced to the bassist, Ron Wood, and the singer, Rod Stewart.
"We sat there all night — I was sixteen — and we smoked dope and got really out of our trees. At the end of the evening, the arrangement looked like my girlfriend would go with Rod Stewart and I would be left with Ron Wood. And...I'm not kidding, I'm not trying to put this on, but I seriously didn't know what was goin' on. I was a real virgin, man. I didn't even know what it was. And I just looked, and I said, 'I can't stay here tonight! I've gotta take my driver's training course in the morning! Let's go!' And I insisted on leaving, 'cause I wanted to get my driver's license. It never occurred to me until years later what could have transpired that night, you know? Just think — Ronnie Wood would've been my first big one."
After a one-gig alliance with a band called Sat. Sun. Mat. (which included Mark Mothersbaugh, later of Devo) and three listless years of art studies at Kent State University (where she got caught up in the 1970 National Guard riot), Hynde knew she needed a change. "I just wanted to get the hell out of Ohio," she says. "I always knew that, since I was in junior high school and this train used to go by. I know it sounds romantic, but it made me cry when I saw it. I just knew that I had to be on that train someday." Working as a waitress, and at various other odd jobs, she put together a thousand dollars and, in early 1973, flew off to swinging London — a place she'd read all about in the British rock tabloid New Musical Express. With her art background, she landed a lowly position with an architectural firm. The job ended after eight months, but by then she'd met New Musical Express writer Nick Kent. Through his auspices she secured an assignment to review a new Neil Diamond album. "I just took the piss out of it," Chrissie says, lapsing into British slang. "I was very sarcastic. I said, 'This song sounds like an ad for an American small car.' I just completely demolished this guy, you know? I ended it up saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, hand me those binoculars — I think I just saw Rod McKuen walking out of a bake shop.' And that was it!"
To Hynde's utter amazement — and despite the subsequent arrival in the NME's mailbox of outraged letters from "all four Neil Diamond fans in Britain"— her editor liked the review, and next assigned her to interview Brian Eno. They wound up discussing pornography, and Chrissie posed for an accompanying photo dressed in bondage gear, complete with high heels and black leather miniskirt. "It was the cover story," she remembers. "Of course, we started gettin' letters sayin', Who is this woman, and why is she wearing that tacky miniskirt?' So I would reply in the paper: 'I still wear white cotton briefs, too,' and they'd print all this, you know? For some reason they went for it. And here I was, a zero hillbilly from Ohio."
England was going through a musical lull at the time, though, and after a year Chrissie lost interest in her budding journalistic career. She worked for a few weeks in a strange little clothing store in the King's Road run by Malcolm McLaren, the soon-to-be Svengali of punk. Then, after a disastrous period trying to start a rock band in France, she returned in 1975 to Cleveland.
"I had a terrible time," she says. "I was hitchhiking around, and I'd forgotten how dangerous it was. 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." She laughs bitterly. "That's how I try to look at it, anyway."
After another abortive attempt to put a band together in France, Hynde returned to London in 1976. She sensed something new in the air, and she was right. It was punk. She tried to put a group together with a young guitarist named Mick Jones, "but it didn't work. He was really young and fresh, and here I was, already spent. I didn't have his sort of fresh innocence. I wasn't like the young punk who had just gotten out of school."
Next, she fell back in with Malcolm McLaren, who wanted her to play guitar in a band he was putting together to be called Masters of the Backside. They rehearsed a lot, but eventually Chrissie was dumped and the group evolved into the Damned, who became the first punk band to make a record. After being similarly ejected by another outfit, Chrissie started wondering if she'd ever make it. The low point came when Mick Jones and his new group, the Clash, invited her to join them on their riotous first tour of Britain.
"It was great," she says, "but my heart was breaking. I wanted to be in a band so bad. And to go to all the gigs, to see it so close up, to be living in it and not to have a band was devastating to me. When I left, I said, 'Thanks a lot for lettin' me come along,' and I went back and went weeping on the underground throughout London. All the people I knew in town, they were all in bands. And there I was, like the real loser, you know? Really the loser."
But she didn't give up, and eventually a demo tape she had made wound up in the hands of Dave Hill, a former promo man who was looking for talent for his new label, Real Records. He liked Chrissie's material and was taken with her feisty determination. Hill stepped in to manage her career, which had yet to reach square one, and began by paying off the $140 back rent she owed on her rehearsal room in Covent Garden. He told her to take her time and get a band together.
Pete Farndon met Hynde in the spring of 1978, as she was making her umpteenth attempt to organize a group. Farndon had lately split from Sydney after a two-year stint with a popular Australian folk-rock band called the Bushwackers. Following an extended layover in Hong Kong — doing "drugs, mainly" and watching his teeth rot out — he returned to his mother's home in Hereford, a drowsy municipality near the Welsh border, to await the arrival of a new set of choppers and, he hoped, some action. Through a drummer friend, he heard about an American singer, a girl, who had some good original tunes and was trying to build a group around them. Farndon, gigless and itchy, expressed interest, and a meeting was arranged at a bar in London's Portobello Road. It was not a cordial encounter.
"I walked into the pub and there was this American with a big mouth across the other side of the bar," he recalls. "She said hi, and turned around and ignored me for about an hour. I thought, 'Am I gonna be in a band with this cunt?'"
As it turned out, he was. "As soon as we got down to her rehearsal room, which was the scummiest basement I'd ever been in in my life, the first thing we played was 'Groove Me,' by King Floyd. The second thing we played was this great country & western song of hers called 'Tequila.' I was lookin' at this woman like... you know? Fuck, man, I'll never forget it: we go in, we do a soul number, we do a country & western number, and then we did 'The Phone Call,' which is like the heaviest fuckin' punk-rocker you could do in 5/4 time. Impressed? I was very impressed."
Like Farndon, James Honey-man-Scott and Martin Chambers both hail from Hereford, home base of the once-mighty Mott the Hoople, and a place otherwise noted chiefly for its hobbit like pastoral pleasures. "Dull," as Jimmy puts it. "Totally uneventful." Farndon had managed to escape, though, and Honeyman-Scott (who left school and home at fifteen) and Chambers (who'd been honing his chops with a fourteen-piece dance orchestra) finally scored their passage out with Cheeks, a band led by ex-Mott keyboardist Verden Allen. The group toured a lot but never recorded, and after three years it folded. Jimmy went back on the road with a straight-ahead rock band modeled after Bad Company, and Martin scrounged for studio gigs around London. Neither of them was going anywhere particularly quickly.
By the summer of 1978, Honeyman-Scott was back in Hereford, working in a music shop and raising vegetables in his considerable spare time. When local legend Pete Farndon rang him up one day to ask if he'd like to join a group with this terrific American girl he'd been working with the past four months, Jimmy was mildly intrigued. "I thought 'money first,'" he insists. "They had to pay me in money and drugs to come down and work with 'em." Initially, he recalls, the band was "too bloody loud. But as soon as I cranked some powders up me nose I became interested, of course."
With an Irishman named Jerry Mcleduff on drums, Honeyman-Scott, Farndon and Hynde did some quick rehearsing and then went to a small demo studio to cut a tape that included Hynde's "Precious" and "The Wait," plus their cover of "Stop Your Sobbing," a Hynde favorite since 1964. Chrissie had been rattling around London for some time by then and knew everybody. She took the tape to her old drinking buddy, Nick Lowe. He thought that "Sobbing" was a potential hit and agreed to produce a single for them, with "The Wait" on the flip side. It took one day. The next day, the Pretenders traveled to Paris to play a six-night stand at a club called Gibus — their very first gigs. 'I am the loudmouthed American', says Hynde. 'No one can be meaner than I am. But I don't want to be. It's a front, you know, to get what I have to.'
Mcleduff had been about the fortieth drummer Hynde auditioned, and he was good. But he couldn't quite put out the kind of visceral, Charlie Watts-style slam that Chrissie heard in her head. At the time, Martin Chambers was working as a driving instructor in London and "trying to sort out my life." Since both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon had been hanging out with him, they decided to bring him along one day to audition. The chemistry clicked immediately, and Chambers was in. The previously recorded "Stop Your Sobbing" was released in January 1979 and quickly climbed into the Top Thirty. The group played its first British gigs, and the press raved. By the time they'd played half a dozen shows, the London music papers were running front-page features on this hot new band with the tough Yank up front. For a brand-new group, the pressure was intense.
By spring, the Pretenders were ready to record again, but Lowe had lost interest. Chris Thomas, producer of the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music, agreed to give the project a week-long try. The week stretched out to six painstaking months. Last January the completed Pretenders album was released to choruses of acclaim, and the group's been going full-tilt ever since.
The exhaustion is beginning to show. It's the day after the show at Detroit, and everyone feels like dogshit as we set off from Manhattan for the next gig, a club called Emerald City in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It's at least a two-hour bus trip in the ongoing monsoon. Honeyman-Scott, back onboard again, tries to brighten things up with highlights of his carnal encounter of the previous evening. "I played 'Let Him Run Wild' seven times in a row last night," he says, citing his all-time favorite Beach Boys track. "With the sea goin' outside the window— oh! — and the Cad in the driveway!" He hugs himself with delight.
Ebullient as he seems, Honeyman-Scott has had his problems adapting to success. "I went through a bad patch," he admits. "Well, a couple of 'em. I was addicted to speed for god knows how many years —had to have treatment to get off that crap. Now I've got cirrhosis — burned my liver out. I'm under doctor's orders, and it's on the way to being cured, but I'm still gettin' the old withdrawal attacks. I've gotta take it easy, stop spacin' out."
I suggest that cocaine is not exactly a balm for burned-out livers. "Yeah, I've been doin' that again," he says sheepishly. "I don't know, maybe I expect too much of life," he muses. "When you're a kid and you see a group like the Beatles on TV, you say, 'I wanna be that.' But when you're there, everything's exactly the same, nothing changes. You think, 'Ah, a Number One album,' like the fucking skies are gonna open up or something— and nothing happens. When our album was Number One, I went right down into the depths."
Chambers, sitting across the table, pulls aside a thick curtain and peers glumly out the window at the gusting rain. Hynde is curled quietly in a corner, her hair pulled up into a careless pineapple topknot. She is perusing a book on palmistry. The bus rolls noisily on.
After checking into a nearby hotel, Honeyman-Scott and I stroll through the gaudy innards of Emerald City — a club that seems to have sprung full-blown from a Ricky Ricardo wet dream. Six-foot-tall corn plants imitate palm trees back among the rear tables, and a big, samba-size dance floor stretches out toward the broad stage. The guitarist says he loves it, and wanders off to join the sound check, which is already in progress. Hynde has just arrived, and now that we're both feeling a bit less bilious, I steer her off to a secluded lounge on the second floor. Chrissie turns her back to the looming picture windows and settles on a couch, pulling her coat — a chaotic assemblage of mismatched fake-fur pelts — tightly around her. The pink hat adds an almost poignant touch.
"The only time it's really hard," she sighs, "is like one week before I get my period. And then it really is hard." She nods at my tape recorder. "You should mention this, because this is reality, you know? This is life. Not just for women, but for men, because men have to deal with women, and they have to understand what a woman goes through. One night you can tease your woman, and you can make fun of her and joke around with her, and it's fine. Another night, you can't tease her, she can't handle it. She'll break down and cry, or throw something. You're supposed to be very kind and gentle at that time."
She pauses to light a Marlboro. "I have my mental breakdowns," she says with a weary half-smile, "but I try to do it back in my hotel room." She seems depressed. We agree to meet at the Holiday Inn after the sound check.
Where's my sandy beach?
I had my dreams like everybody else
But they're out of reach
I could ignore you
Your demands are unending
I got no tears on my ice cream, but you know me
I love pretending
"Mystery Achievement" by Chrissie Hynde © 1979 by Modern Publishing Ltd./Hynde House of Hits.
After seven years of banging her head against a wall of music industry indifference. Chrissie Hynde has finally found her sandy beach. She's got a band, a good one, and they're making it big on the strength of her songs — songs that are mainly about love (and sex) in all its variegated, sometimes violent forms, from the selfless kind ("Kid," "Lovers of Today") to playful randiness ("Precious," "Brass in Pocket"), lust-driven punch-outs ("Up the Neck") and quasi-rape ("Tattooed Love Boys"). She doesn't like to discuss the specific content of her lyrics ("Once a song's recorded, I kind of lose ownership of it"), but her amatory experiences have had an obvious and profound influence on her songwriting.
"I think we were very misled in the pill generation," she says. "That pill turned women into men. Men can afford to go around and fuck every night, but women can't. Women have to go by their own cycle, you know? I'm very governed by my cycle. And I think that to take a pill, and to turn yourself into a robot, and fuck every night like a man, it's...it's what it does to your intuitive psyche. A woman's gotta stay home some nights. If she doesn't want to get pregnant, she doesn't fuck, period. And if a guy that she loves wants to fuck someone, he's gonna have to go off and fuck someone else that night, and she's gonna have to put up with it."
Chrissie leans back on her Holiday Inn bed and takes a sip from a large glass of whiskey, chasing it down with a slug of Budweiser. She says she sees nothing unusual about a girl (as she still refers to herself) leading a hard-edged rock & roll band. "You've always had women playing instruments in the modern world. There's nothing butch about me. See, that's the big myth, you know — the 'loudmouthed American.' I am the loudmouthed American — no one can be meaner, and no one can be more of a cunt than I am. But I don't want to be. It's a front, you know? I just do what I do to get what I have to get."
Ironically, this single-minded pursuit has left her romantically unattached at the moment. "I don't have any one boyfriend," she says. "Boyfriends, yeah, but I can't really have any distractions. I've got somethin' to do now. It's like all been laid out on a plate for me, and I'm gonna dedicate myself to doing the best I can. When the day comes that the band folds — because all bands fold eventually — then I can find...whatever is left to find."
There's a knock on the door. Dave Hill sticks his head in to tell Chrissie it's time to get ready for the gig. She climbs off the bed to collect her effects. "Maybe I'll find someone who will just stay home and rub my feet at night," she says, walking toward the bathroom with hairbrush in hand. "That's the kind of man I'm lookin' for myself. But, uh, I'll take what I can get."