Chrissie Hynde is, in every way, a daughter of Akron, the place whose essence is captured in the legends of two T-shirts sold at Rubber City Clothing in the downtown whose destruction she deplored in one of The Pretenders’ most acidic songs. AKRON: KICKING ASS SINCE 1825 and AKRON, WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN.
Hynde is still resolutely here so she’s no weakling. And anyone who hears her music knows she kicks ass as a matter of policy. Her new memoir now gives detail to all that the rocker survived between her childhood and 1983, and Reckless is its only possible title. She made sure there was a hell of a lot to survive.
The extensive list of ill-advised or downright dangerous episodes—most abetted by stupefying amounts of drink and drugs—is topped by the grisly sexual assault, at the hands of a biker gang, that has landed Hynde in the midst of a new furor. An interview with The Sunday Times of London in which she maintained that a rape victim might bear some responsibility for her own violation has caused outrage. Of the attack she endured, at 21 while looped on Quaaludes, she opined, “You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this?” As her statements were taken, getting smashed while wearing a short skirt calls for unthinkable punishment. But she makes a more scurrilous claim in the book when she terms what happened “my comeuppance”—for the offense of outspokenness. Ironic, and disturbing, when a figure so admired for never holding back suggests that speaking your mind while female is a punishable crime.
The latest commotion may be seen as of a piece with the rocker’s entire life, in which she usually fired first and aimed second. Or it could be considered the result of a common avoidance/coping strategy after sexual trauma. She gives no evidence she sought the cognitive restructuring that treats the syndrome. Calling her on the carpet for being unaware of what she might be suffering is to blame the victim of self-blame.
Characteristically Hyndean, Reckless takes a headlong approach to a headlong life. Hynde’s fearlessness borders on the pathological. The foremost quality of her personality is also that of her music. This is the woman who counseled in her “Advice to Chick Rockers” that the attitude of rock is “not ‘fuck me,’ it’s ‘fuck you.’” (She also advised, “Don’t take advice from people like me.”) But first she contends with Akron.
The first chapters are downright rhapsodic. Of course: as I know too from personal experience, Akron was “the center of the universe.” Any childhood lucky enough to be cradled in its green wonders (yes, perfumed with the scent of rubber wafting from tire factories’ stacks) is specifically, unforgettably, formative. Hynde’s memories of Akron are lavish, vivid, even if, in the end, she also found her beloved birthplace imprisoning. Perhaps it is the case with all such towns—the ones, like Athens and Liverpool, Portland and D.C., that grow great musicians like a wet forest grows mushrooms—that they force their cream to the top, and finally out. After Firestone High School (the usual and you don’t need to hear any more about that), followed by Kent State University (she was present when National Guardsmen opened fire on her fellow students in 1970), Hynde had done all there was to do in Ohio. It expelled her, as it does its overly talented offspring. She needed to go. She wasn’t sure to what or where, but it had to be wide enough for her ambitious and restless vision. Akron marked her, then she had to mark it.
“The winds off Lake Erie that swept over northeastern Ohio like searchlights announcing the grand opening of a new discount store seemed to be announcing my leaving.” This startling bit of lyricism—interspersed, consistent with all her creative output, among almost shockingly coarse disclosures—is the preface to her arrival at Heathrow in 1973. On the lenses of her sunglasses were the handpainted words “Iggy” and “Pop.” He was her special hero, later dalliance, and the author of two of the only three albums she brought with her into her new life: the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, and the Stooges’s Fun House and Raw Power.
Her eventual debut with an album that is considered one of the strongest in rock history appears both foreordained and miraculous. (“Go on, try to find the bad song” is the kind of comment echoed by countless listeners even 35 years after Pretenders was released.) It’s as if Hynde, wearing a blindfold for the first quarter-century of life, simply put out an unerring hand to pin the tail at precisely the right spot on the donkey’s hind end. By her account she had performed exactly one gig before going to London, in a church hall with a band that included a pre-Devo Mark Mothersbaugh. She had rehearsed in a separate room, already gripped by stage fright.
The memoir is certainly candid; you would expect nothing less of the songwriter who laid down lines like “I just feel pity when you lie, contempt when you cry.” She really doesn’t give a shit if you know she sometimes can’t remember what happened in the bedroom, or with whom, because she was plastered most of the time. She has no problem taking meat eaters to task as hypocritical and morally corrupt. (She opened a short-lived but beautiful and delicious vegetarian restaurant in Akron; the reason “My City Was Gone” was allowed to remain the theme song on a show that promulgated nearly every idea Hynde finds repugnant in the world is that she struck a deal with Rush Limbaugh to donate to PETA.)
She does have a problem with getting past the deaths of two of the original Pretenders, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, “the one I’d been searching for,” and bassist Pete Farndon, in the span of 10 months. The book seems to speed up as it approaches these events, skipping over entire swaths of life and work. (Her relationship with Ray Davies, father of one of her daughters, is taken care of in a few relatively vague paragraphs; by contrast, the painterly detail given the landscape of youth will make any Akronite who was also a teen in those days shiver in recognition: Summit Mall, the looming presence of station WMMS, Ghoulardi on late-night TV, and the depredations of Bonne Bell astringent are all recounted at length.) But her life after she loses her bandmates to drugs? It’s as if it went into the grave, too, six feet of pain heavy as dirt overhead.
In the beginning, Hynde didn’t so much insinuate herself into the molten center of rock’s ever-burning volcano; she was pulled into it. She would manage to thumb a last-minute ride to a concert that later turned out to be life-changing, but only after averting catastrophe at the hands of some lowlife scum with minutes to go. In retrospect, the long string of close encounters with musical stars she enjoyed in her youth seems less like luck and more like warm-up: she gets hauled onstage for a kiss from Jackie Wilson, catches a word with Eric Clapton, compliments Tim Buckley, gives David Bowie a ride in her mom’s Cutlass, ends up in a hotel room with a girlfriend, Rod Stewart, and Ron Wood (where nothing happened! She detested groupiedom, knew it was diminishing and beneath her; of rock stars, “I wanted to be them, not do them,” she writes).
Because she left London for Paris, then Paris for Akron, then Akron for Cleveland, egads, and worked in a bar band there—she lived amid such squalor it inured her to the very real dangers of the place she willingly inhabited—she declines Malcolm McLaren’s pre-Pistols offer to join Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine in a band. It’s as if she knew The Pretenders was her destiny. But she did not. She returned to London, still unknowing. And then it just … happened. What was meant to happen all along.
Hynde is a hundred contradictions in one fierce body: a feral beauty who has been the unrestrained object of desire of millions of men, but for whom love “didn’t last long … love never would.” She could look sexier wearing a turtleneck and jean jacket than anyone in a bustier and fishnets ever would. The range of her tremulous contralto, never schooled, runs from snarl to whisper, moan to barely contained howl, and can make you feel aches you never knew you had. She drives nails with her lyrics, bitter or keening, wistful or ebullient, lovely or sarcastic. She writes about heartbreak and about hypocrisy, large and small, unmediated and pure.
She writes just like she lives, and just like she makes music. She does it her way, which is an inimitable multiplicity of things: impulsive, untamed, ragged, proud, a little sad around the edges. This is her story, still unfinished.