Music

THE GREAT PRETENDER

In a world of instant divas, the original chick rocker is still the real deal

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 24 2003
Music

THE GREAT PRETENDER

In a world of instant divas, the original chick rocker is still the real deal

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 24 2003

THE GREAT PRETENDER

Music

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

In a world of instant divas, the original chick rocker is still the real deal

CHRISSIE HYNDE is not thrilled about having her picture taken. "Look at me with your eyes," the photographer gently asks her. But her eyes are masked by bangs and dark eyeshadow, and they're not smiling. After staring down the lens for a few frames, she loses her focus. "Stop looking at me," she tells the record industry rep, who's watching from across the room. "I'm too easily distracted." In beat-up blue jeans, a black T-shirt and vest, the lead singer of the Pretenders looks every inch the rock 'n' roll road warrior, with no concessions to glamour. But her insouciance is its own fashion statement. She once drew up a list of 10 commandments to budding "chick rockers." Number six: "Don't think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f—able will help. Remember you're in a rock and roll band. It's not 'f— me,' it's 'f— you'!"

Before Avril or Alanis or Shania, before Courtney or Britney or Pink, even before Madonna, there was Chrissie Hynde. She's the original chick rocker, the first to turn female empowerment up to 11, while pretending it's no big deal. Unlike the current breed of pop diva, Hynde has never sold herself as a one-name brand. She possesses an exquisite voice, a sound that soars from sultry innuendo to blue-sky clarity with a sweet, surrendering grace. But she's always presented herself as the anti-diva, just a girl in a band with a guitar around her neck. One of the boys.

Hynde was a rock fan from Akron, Ohio who dropped out of Kent State University and followed the British Invasion to its roots. She formed the Pretenders after moving to London to join the punk scene in the '70s. She still lives there. And despite losing two founding members in drug-related deaths during the early '80s (bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott), the band is still very much alive a quarter-century later. So is Hynde. Her big hits—Precious, Brass in Pocket, Back on the Chain Gang—may be behind her. But at 51, this punk mother of two grown daughters (aged 18 and 20) is

too vital, too tough, and too savagely uncompromising to let herself be packaged as another rock 'n' roll legend. "I don't think we'll ever be mainstream," she says. "And I'm very grateful for that."

Loose Screw, the Pretenders' first studio album in four years, may work its way into the mainstream whether she likes it or not. With a more mellow sound, and an infusion of reggae grooves, Hynde has created the most intimate and seductive album of her career. It's also her most mature. Two of the strongest cuts,Fools Must Die and The Losing, are sanguine meditations on mortality with lyrics that could have come from Leonard Cohen. And in the Jamaican lilt of Complex Person, she offers a wry comment on firearms and feminism: I refuse to keep a gun in my purse/Imagine if I was feeling perverse/The builders and the workers/When they whistle and they shout/I'd like to give them something/To shout at me about.

But the album's most insistent theme is ruined romance. With a string of songs about heartbreak, infidelity and desertion, Hynde has never sounded more vulnerable, or defiant.Lie to Me, the album's one blistering rocker, is a manifesto of mistrust. Nothing Breaks Like a Heart is a tender lament from a jilted lover.I Should O/reels off a litany of regrets for a relationship that could have been saved only "if, if, if." In Saving Grace, an abjectly beautiful ballad, the singer pleads with her ex to have her back. And in Walk Like a Panther, the album's one cover tune, she sings of a Latin lover ditching her for "a woman half my age."

Hynde recorded Loose Screw as she was separating from her own Latin lover, and second husband, Colombian sculptor Lucho Brieva. But she shrugs off the suggestion that it's a breakup album. "Everyone keeps telling me it's about the breakup of my marriage, but I don't see that." Then, running through the songs one by one, she offers prosaic explanations of where they came from.The Losing was inspired by a friend who bets on horses, she says. "You get an idea for

a song. Then put your own take on it. It's personal but coded in mundane events."

Face to face, Hynde is a daunting presence. Knowing she's an advocate for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), I remembered not to wear the leather jacket to the interview, and find myself handling her with kid gloves. Sitting in her Toronto hotel room, scarves draped over the lamps, she's blunt and surly at first. But as she relights a hand-rolled cigarette from the ashtray, she begins to open up. Soon she's talking a blue streak.

On the road not taken

I thought I'd paint. I was even accepted at the Ontario College of Art, in 1970.1 thought Toronto was so cool and everything. I took a day off work. I was drawing these bogus coats of arms for a mail-order catalogue run by a bunch of hippies. I got my little portfolio together and got a flight up. They accepted me. But I didn't have the money to go. I'm glad it didn't work out.

On the wages of success

I don't think I could make it if I was starting now. There wouldn't be any place for someone like me. I was talking to this television guy last night. He's of the 30-plus generation. We were talking about how the industry has gone, and I posed this question: would you rather be one of these artists who sell a few million copies of their first record and are on the cover of Rolling Stone—provided they look like a porn star—but have never done a live show? Or would you rather just know your position is secure because you like playing and you're with the band? And he says, 'Oh no, I'd go for the comfort.' That's that generation. You get the Rolex watch and the holiday and you're set. That's why everyone goes solo so soon. The rock band is a dying breed. It doesn't depress me. Things change. But if you were starting in the '60s, you didn't expect to be part of the Establishment. That's why you were in a band—to avoid all that.

On the burden of being a rock legend

I don't idolize anyone any more. I admire Neil Young, Bob Dylan, people who are just true to themselves. Bob Dylan is one of the funniest guys I've ever met. He's a riot. But everyone takes him so seriously. It would really get on my nerves if I were him.

On Bruce Springsteen

There's always the exception to the rule. He's a great humanitarian and he's got a lot of humility. A lovely guy. When I met him he reminded me of the foreman of a lumber company or something.

On eschewing meat

I'm a stickler for detail. If you're not a vegetarian, you're not a hippie.

On selling the music

I don't have to make videos any more because now they know that no one's ever going to play them. I'll do some television, which makes me squirm, but if you're not on TV you don't exist. We don't sell records. We don't get radio play. A few companies own all the stations now, and everything is formatted. We get pigeonholed as a classic rock act. And classic rock stations won't play any-

thing new. I'm sure something really good can be popular, but it seems unlikely.

On the war against Iraq

Obviously America has to be stopped. The foundation of America is genocide, so karmically it's got to be brought back down. Plus, America and the West have been pumping out a lot of stuff that's offensive to the rest of the world—pornography, smash-and-grab capitalism gone berserk. But how does it affect me? I'm just getting on with my life. I play guitar in a band I really like. They're nice people. I lead them to glory every night. M