I’ve met Chrissie Hynde a couple of times over the years, and she’s scared me. It didn’t matter. Her songs, voice– I’ve loved them for over 35 years. I remember when Chris, the lanky clerk with a shag haircut behind the counter at Bleecker Bob’s, handed me the import single of “Stop Your Sobbing” in 1979. (Import singles didn’t have the donut hole in the center for a yellow plastic adapter. They had a regulation spindle hole, like something you punched out for a notebook.) Real Records had two R’s, the printing was in black and white.
Nick Lowe (already a New Wave superstar) had produced the record, which was a cover of an obscure Kinks song. No radio stations played “Stop Your Sobbing” since radio then was all Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, and still mostly rejected “New Wave” music from England completely. The great Seymour Stein (of Ramones and Talking Heads fame) signed the Pretenders to Sire Records, out came “Brass in Pocket” (an expression we now learn Chrissie overheard at the dry cleaner) and the rest is history. In a few months, everyone knew the Pretenders.
Last week, for some odd reason, Dwight Garner in the New York Times jumped the embargo on Chrissie’s memoir “Reckless” (Doubleday) just to ambush her, attack the book, dismiss her as a bad writer and pretty much 86 the book. At the same time, the UK papers seized on Chrissie’s account of sexual assault at the hands of bikers in which she seemed to be blaming herself and victims of rape. I guess no one is doing publicity for the book since the whole thing just spun out of control. The book business has never learned a thing.
But “Reckless,” while a little incomplete, is the best rock memoir I’ve read since Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” It ranks up there, for its time period, with Bebe Buell’s “Rebel Heart” and Sting’s “Broken Music.”
“Reckless” is a real outsider’s story because she was a woman in rock (rare) who was a musician, not a groupie, who insisted on being taken seriously, was tough as nails, and American in a second British invasion of power pop after a long dreary cycle of corporate rock and hair bands. And because of all this, it took her a little longer to pull it together. But when she did, pow!
First of all, she loves Ohio. Still still loves Ohio, especially miserable Akron, the subject of her anthem “My City Was Gone.” (She doesn’t like Cleveland.) She went to Kent State and was there when the student riots left four kids dead from gunfire by the National Guard. She wants to be a rocker, a tough biker chick, part Jack Kerouac, and aspires to being a musician even though she’s not sure how. She wants to front her own band but it will take about a decade, all told, before she wills the Pretenders into existence.
The meandering and testing of Chrissie vs. the world takes up the first half of the book. She’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come, her eventual full departure from Ohio. She circles Europe– London and Paris–like a hawk before she finally lands. Note to all the meaningless pop stars of today: Chrissie Hynde paid dues. The part-time jobs are numerous.
But it’s the addresses– there’s no way to count all the places she called “home,” where she slept, couches, an office desk, basements, tunnels, chairs. There’s also no way to quantify the drugs. Ingestion is matter of fact. It’s amazing that she lived through it, unscathed. What you do get from “Reckless” is that Chrissie Hynde is indomitable.
“Reckless” kicks in historically when Chrissie meets all the people who’d become the Clash and the Sex Pistols and a dozen other groups who were on parallel paths. She almost marries Sid Vicious, and Johnny Rotten, to stay in the UK. She works for Nick Kent at the New Musical Express, and for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in a boutique. She sings back up on cult albums by the underrated Chris Spedding. She doesn’t know it at the time but all of it will pay off. None of them are famous yet.
My only quibble with “Reckless” is that it peters out. There’s a pretty full account of the Pretenders’ early days, and the drug deaths of two of the original members. But the book kind of screeches to a halt with a lot of unanswered questions. Chrissie winds up marrying The Kinks’ Ray Davies after she’s revived his career with covers of her songs. No mention is made of that. Also, I’m kind of curious what happened when she ran into all these people- like McLaren and Westwood– after she became a superstar. She also got to be a celebrity vegetarian, mixing it up with Paul and Linda McCartney. What was that like?
Also, the details of her songwriting could be richer. She sheds a little light. A second draft might have given deeper insight into how she writes, how the songs came about. She credits James Honeyman-Scott, who died early, with helping on the first songs. But after that, how did she do it? Hynde has one song that’s become a money making standard — “I’ll Stand by You.” She some others, like “Night in My Veins,” that are sheer genius and poetry. I still don’t know what makes “Back on the Chain Gang” soar the way it does. Maybe a Part Two will supply this information.
But “Reckless” a fine read, and a must read for anyone who grew up on punk, New Wave, came from the Mid West and aspired to greatness, or needs to know certain anatomical information about Iggy Pop. I can’t wait for the movie, by the way.