The great Pretender

A walking contradiction of tough talk and tender gestures, Chrissie Hynde inspired a generation of female rockers and fans.


Joyce Millman
April 6, 1999 5:04PM (UTC)

When Chrissie Hynde was a 12-year-old in Akron, Ohio, her teacher asked
the class to write a poem about their favorite word. Hynde's favorite word
was "England."

For Hynde, and other rock 'n' roll-crazed American kids in the early
'60s, England held a talismanic significance. It meant the Beatles, the
Stones, electric guitars, exotic accents -- everything wild and cool that
their hometowns couldn't give them. Chrissie Hynde wanted to play in a
band, in England, and never mind that she was a girl and American. She got
her first guitar at 14 and with the stubbornness, desire and bravado that
have characterized her music ever since, set out to transcend accidents of
nationality and gender. "I was more like a guy, locked away in a room,
practicing obsessively," Hynde has said of her adolescence.

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The story of Chrissie Hynde's success is one of rock 'n' roll's best
fables. She did go to England and become one of the boys, playing guitar in
her own rock 'n' roll band. But in being one of the boys, she realized two
things: She could never be one of the boys, and what's more, she
didn't need to. The first epiphany made her interesting. The second
made her great.

Christine Hynde was born on Sept. 7, 1951, in Akron, a Cleveland suburb
known as the tire capital of America. She graduated from Firestone High
School in 1969 and attended Kent State University as an art major at the
height of student protests against the Vietnam war. She played in a local
band, then dropped out of college in 1973 and moved to London, where
destiny was not as quick in coming as she had planned. Hynde waited tables
and fell in with the proto-punk rockers who hung around Vivienne Westwood
and Malcolm McLaren's Kings Road clothing store, SEX. She also worked
briefly as a rock critic for the New Musical Express, sang in a group that
later became the Damned and shared rehearsal space with Mick Jones before
he formed the Clash. A possibly apocryphal story has Hynde almost marrying
Sid Vicious in order to obtain British citizenship.

Hynde watched as her pals became punk stars. Years later, in a British
music press interview, Hynde remembered riding the subway home from a
concert in tears because everyone she knew was in a band except her.
Finally, in 1978, Hynde met a pair of musicians from Hereford, guitarists
James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon. In 1979, as the Pretenders, they
recorded a cover of the old Kinks song "Stop Your Sobbing" for the small
punk label Real Records. (Drummer Martin Chambers didn't join the
Pretenders until after the first single was recorded; a session drummer
played on those tracks.) A dense mix of jangly guitars, stuttering drums
and Hynde's sulky-sweet vocals, "Stop Your Sobbing" became a Top 40 hit in
the U.K. The Pretenders' self-titled debut album soon followed; it collected
almost unanimous raves from critics, climbed to No. 1 in the U.K. and
made the Top 10 in the United States. Chrissie Hynde's dream of England had come true.

The cover of "Pretenders" shows Hynde standing in a row with her band
mates. The guys affect the standard new wave look of ironic detachment, but
Hynde scowls straight into the camera, black bangs almost covering ice-blue
eyes rimmed in heavy black Dusty Springfield eyeliner. She's wearing a
bright red leather motorcycle jacket, zipped up, with fingerless black lace
gloves. Her arms are crossed at the wrist. She looks tough, untouchable.
But then you flip the cover over and in the back photo, she's bending down
to neaten the cuff of Farndon's pants in a gesture that's almost motherly.

Hynde was (and still is) a walking contradiction, and "Pretenders" stopped
you dead in your tracks with the sound of worlds colliding. The Pretenders
played a churning, chiming blend of macho rock (buzzy guitars and
clattering drums) and girlish pop (bells and sighs), and on top of all that
was Hynde's emotional-quicksilver voice, a dusky alto punctuated by
affecting quivers, which could turn from lilting to unforgiving in the space
of a couplet. The moody intimacy of her phrasing and the confessional,
peephole quality of her lyrics made it impossible for listeners to separate
Hynde from the girl in her songs.

On tracks like "Tattooed Love Boys" and "Up the Neck," Hynde tauntingly
detailed rough sex and emotional cruelty as a two-way street; her refusal
to moralize and her unwillingness to characterize herself as a victim
presaged the riot grrrls by more than a decade. But that was only one side
of Hynde. She was meltingly tender and maternal, soothing a lover like a
baby on "Kid"; she was shy but determined, working up the nerve to go
after her dream guy on the wistful "Brass in Pocket" ("I'm special,
so special"). On "Talk of the Town," the swirling follow-up single
to the first album, she yearns to be a somebody, and her singing is so unself-conscious and vulnerable that listening to it feels like intruding on
a private prayer.

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And of course there was "Precious," the first album's lead-off track,
which careened along at a punk clip while Hynde kissed off everything that
ever stood in the way of her success. In the song's most famous (and most
famously misquoted passage), she spits out a farewell to Akron that stands
as one of the most thunderous expressions of female anger and ambition in
all of rock: "Now Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed/Trapped in a
world that they never made/But not me, baby, I'm too precious/I had to
fuck off."

There had been tough female rockers before, and tender ones, and
ambitious ones, and even ones with dirty mouths, but there had never been
one who was all of these things at once. And there certainly had never been
one who strapped on an electric guitar and made female subjects and
sensibilities, long relegated to the worlds of folk, blues and "women's
music," the focal point of a rock 'n' roll band -- and a mixed-gender one at that. "I'll never feel like a man in a man's world," Hynde
sang on the fade-out of "Lovers of Today" on "Pretenders" -- and for female
rock fans who felt excluded from or pandered to or mocked by the music
they loved, that line had a life-changing resonance.

In concert, Hynde acted out her contradictions in ways that were
fascinatingly evocative -- she alternated male rock-guitarist poses (the
crouch, the windmill) with graceful, swivel-kneed dance moves, and her hand
gestures while singing were as delicate as a geisha's. She was also
brattily provocative: "Thank you, girls," was how she'd typically
acknowledge applause, and she played several shows on the band's first tour
wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "bitch" (take that,
Courtney Love). And in the age of Blondie and Pat Benatar, Hynde never
flashed so much as an inch of cleavage or leg. Throughout her career, her
look has remained the same (bangs in her eyes, pants, T-shirts, jackets
buttoned up to the chin), although, as an animal rights activist, she has
long since stopped wearing leather.

Hynde partied as hard as the boys on the Pretenders' early concert
tours; arrested once in Memphis for being drunk and disorderly, she kicked
out the window of the police car while being wrestled into the back seat
and spent the night in jail. But Hynde started toning it down after she met
Ray Davies of the Kinks, on whom she'd had a childhood crush, and about
whom she wrote, during her rock critic days, "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." Davies wanted
to get married and start a family, which, not surprisingly, freaked out
just-one-of-the-guys Hynde: "The idea of my being a great big, huge, fat
pregnant woman with tits and everything was horrifying," she recalled in a
1984 Rolling Stone interview. "I couldn't relate to it. I've always related
to being like a bloke." Hynde and Davies set out to get married one
day in April 1982, but the London registrar refused to issue them a
license because they wouldn't stop arguing in his office. Although they
remained together, they never did wed.

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While Hynde was cleaning up her act, former boyfriend Pete Farndon was
sinking deeper into rock star squalor; he was a heroin addict and his
bandmates found him increasingly unreliable. On June 14, 1982, Farndon was
fired from the Pretenders. Two days later, in one of rock's bigger cosmic
ironies, James Honeyman-Scott was found dead of a cocaine-induced heart
attack. Suddenly, the Pretenders were a duo. In September 1982, the
now-pregnant Hynde, along with Chambers and two session guitarists,
released the single "Back on the Chain Gang," a gorgeous elegy for
Honeyman-Scott, backed with "My City Was Gone," a bass-heavy
pro-environmentalist protest song. Hynde appeared in the video for "Chain
Gang" visibly pregnant under her denim jacket.

By her own account, the birth of daughter Natalie Ray in January 1983
took Hynde "from rock 'n' roll goddess to straight-A student, from
greaseball to mother's pride in 15 seconds. I never even picked up a
baby before I had one. I just thought they were a load of Martians who had
nothing to do with me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even when I was having the
kid, when I was actually in labor, I kept saying to Ray, 'How do people do
this? It's so bloody hard.' He was going, 'Yeah, but you're doing
it!' It was like being initiated into a secret society."

The birth of Natalie and the deaths of Honeyman-Scott and, in April
1983, Farndon (of a heroin overdose) were at the heart of the Pretenders' 1984
album "Learning to Crawl." Defiantly embracing parenthood on tracks like
the snarling "Middle of the Road" ("I'm not the cat I used to be/I got a
kid, I'm 33") and the shimmering "Show Me," Hynde confidently challenged
two of rock's most persistent taboos -- writing about your kids and acting
like a grown-up. Paving the way for later odes to parenthood by rockers as
varied as Bruce Springsteen, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth,
Madonna and Lauryn Hill, "Learning to Crawl" was about blessings counted
and losses mourned. It was the Pretenders last truly cohesive album of the '80s.

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Hynde spent 1984 on the road (Natalie in tow) with the band, which by
that time consisted of Chambers and guitarists Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm
Foster. Her relationship with Davies was barely over when she met singer
Jim Kerr of the band Simple Minds; after a whirlwind courtship, the two
were married in a hansom cab circling New York's Central Park. Their
daughter, Yasmine Paris, was born in 1985.

In 1986, the Pretenders released the album "Get Close," which featured
only one original Pretender -- Hynde. She and Chambers had had a
falling out, and she replaced him with another drummer. Hynde's output
since "Get Close" (which featured the hit single "Don't Get Me Wrong" and
the praising-the-goddess ballad "Hymn to Her") has been erratic, partly
because she took four years off from recording to raise her daughters and
devote time to promoting vegetarianism and animal rights causes. But "Get
Close," "Packed!" (1990) and "Last of the Independents" (1994) also
suffered from a lack of direction, a revolving door of sidemen and a lack
of bandmate give and take (although Chambers did rejoin the Pretenders for
"Last of the Independents"). Throughout this period, Hynde began
collaborating more and more with outside songwriters-for-hire, a move that
yielded the adult-contemporary hit ballad "I'll Stand by You" (from "Last
of the Independents"). She also wrote or performed theme songs for a string
of movies and TV shows, including "G.I. Jane," the TV series "Cupid" and
the recent Juliette Lewis feature "The Other Sister."

But while the Pretenders' albums have become more rote and
disappointing, Hynde is having a successful shadow career as a solo singer.
Since her frisky, delightful 1985 appearance on UB40's "I Got You Babe,"
some of her most intriguing and fully realized work has been on her duets
with other artists (Elvis Costello on "Satellite," from his album "Spike";
Urge Overkill on the Carpenters' "Superstar," from the "Wayne's World 2"
soundtrack), and on cover versions of classics that she has contributed to
dozens of soundtrack albums and compilations. You could fill a boxed set
with these side projects, including "Angel of the Morning" from a guest
spot on (of all things) "Friends," the Stooges' "1969" from the soundtrack
to the cinematic bomb of the same name, her melancholy "Have Yourself a
Merry Little Christmas" (from the "Very Special Christmas" benefit album)
and her lovely "Baby It's You"/"Message to Michael" medley from the Burt
Bacharach tribute "One Amazing Night." Hynde's best Pretenders album since
"Learning to Crawl" was the live set "The Isle of View" (1995), recorded
with a string quartet, in which she reconsiders some of her band's greatest
hits in acoustic arrangements that put her vocals front and center. Is it
possible that this tomboy chick is finally comfortable with the sheer
prettiness of her voice?

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The Pretenders haven't released a studio album since 1994 (the new
"Viva L'Amour" is due out in May 1999), but Hynde has a higher profile than
ever through her soundtrack work and her animal rights activism. She
made People magazine's gossip column on Oct. 31, 1994, when she announced
that she had changed her will to authorize People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals to "exploit her image after her death in any way PETA sees fit."
Her will also stipulates that, upon her death, PETA is to take out an ad
consisting of her photo with the caption, "Dead meat should be buried, not
eaten. Take it from Chrissie Hynde."

A close friend of fellow vegetarians Paul and Linda McCartney, Hynde
scooped professional journalists with her Nov. 1, 1998, USA Today Weekend interview with Paul McCartney, his first extensive interview since Linda's
death. Hynde is also a co-organizer of the April 10, 1999, Linda McCartney
tribute concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, at which the Pretenders
are to share the bill with Elvis Costello, George Michael, Siniad O'Connor and
Paul McCartney (among others). And Hynde has gotten married again (she and
Jim Kerr divorced in 1986), wedding Colombian artist Lucho Brieva in a July
10, 1997, civil ceremony in London, after which the couple and their guests
adjourned to a local pizza parlor for dinner. No pepperoni was served.

This more mellow Chrissie Hynde is perhaps not exactly the one who
inspired a generation of women rockers and fans. But that other Chrissie's
influence still looms large in the majestic complexities of hellcat-mom
Courtney Love and in the unvarnished rage of Alanis Morissette's "You
Oughta Know." Most thrillingly, Hynde is conjured like an avenging goddess
by disciple and sound-alike Shirley Manson of the band Garbage. With a
sneer and a moan, Manson quotes "Brass in Pocket" throughout the song
"Special" (from Garbage's "Version 2.0" album) to taunt an unfaithful ex.
At the very end of the song, Manson suddenly begins trilling, "We were the
talk of the town," and the effect is like the Clash quoting the guitar riff
from the Who's "I Can't Explain" on "Clash City Rockers" -- it's a gesture
of respect to an elder, an acknowledgement of the history rock fans and
players share. Except this is the female history of rock 'n' roll.
And it sends a deep shiver of recognition through the women whose worlds
were rocked, and horizons expanded, by Chrissie Hynde.


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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