The Pretenders pioneer tells one of today’s top comedians about her lack of female role models and the ghosts that haunt her memoir.
Chrissie Hynde is defiant. That has been a consistent trait of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer for the past 30 plus years, as the Pretenders frontwoman kept her band alive through ever-changing lineups, nine studio albums and the drug-related deaths of two founding members. It also is a thread in Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, the 64-year-old’s chronicle of leaving her Akron, Ohio, hometown in search of London’s rock mystique, meeting and falling in with her idols (Hynde has two daughters, one with The Kinks’ Ray Davies and one with Simple Minds’ frontman and ex-husband Jim Kerr) and finding success with The Pretenders.
Hynde always has been outspoken, from publicly rebuffing gender solidarity (“I’m not a feminist,” she told Billboard in 2006) to decrying animal slaughter through PETA protests. (“I don’t want to leave this mortal coil until every McDonald’s is burned down to the ground,” she tells Billboard now.) Most recently, Hynde struck a particularly sensitive chord when she told The Sunday Times that she believes some rape victims are responsible for their sexual assaults. “If you play with fire, you get burnt,” she reasoned, in reference to her own rape by a biker gang — an incident she broadly recounts in Reckless. (In a statement to Billboard, Hynde stands behind her comments and “has nothing further to add.”)
That firestorm hadn’t yet ignited on Aug. 20, when Hynde spoke with comedian and longtime fan Tig Notaro. The 44-year-old first found herself in awe of Hynde’s candor and cool in 1986, when she heard the singer interviewed on the radio show Rockline. “I was blown away,” remembers Notaro. “Everything [she] said spoke to me.” Hynde’s influence was so important that in February, when Notaro performed in Cleveland for the first time, she detoured through Akron, just to see her hero’s hometown.
Hynde lives in London, but was back in Akron when the two artists spoke at length about adoration, aging and regret.
You’re my favorite singer, and when I told people I was interviewing you, they knew exactly what that meant to me. Who is that person to you?
Well, thanks for saying that. For me? I don’t know -- Iggy Pop? I love live performance, so there are hundreds.
What made you finally decide to write a memoir?
My parents died. I wouldn’t have said any of this while they were alive. That sounds shitty -- like I’m doing it behind their backs -- but it just would’ve been too unpleasant for them. The way I express myself was always a bit of a problem in the Hynde household. After my mother went, I just started writing little vignettes. They weren’t really related to a book, but that’s what it turned into.
In your process of writing, was there anything that surprised you?
The book ends about 30 years ago, because when my guitar player and bass player died, I kept writing, and then I thought, “Well, this just doesn’t feel right.” So that’s where I stopped. A lot of the people who feature heavily -- predominantly men -- they’ll be surprised that I remembered who they were. Things that seem insignificant, things that happen that you think didn’t work out, they lead you to your destiny. That’s what I found a lot.
You’re not supposed to meet your idols, but you had a child with one of yours. When were you able to see your idol as a person?
Once you enter into the same activity that these people are doing, you just naturally meet them. I don’t meet that many doctors, I meet a whole lot more singer-songwriters. As soon as you meet a person and they’re in front of you, they are the human they are. If you’re working with anyone, you’re probably a fan. I’ve collaborated with a whole lot of people, and I’ve had hundreds of boyfriends -- most of them were bums. I like what they do when I meet them, but it all falls apart eventually.
Would you say you’re difficult or easy to be in a relationship with?
Oh, I’m easygoing and I’m a riot, really. Also, I like being on my own. I don’t need to be in a relationship. I’m a lone wolf, that’s how I operate. I got everything I needed out of guys.
I think you’re perfect, but what character flaw would you change about yourself?
(Laughs.) I can be impatient, I suppose. As I get older, I’m a lot more relaxed. I make a discipline out of trying to be in a good mood.
You don’t seem to be the biggest fan of the United States. Is that fair to say?
No, not at all. I’m a hippie. I’m a citizen-of-the-world type. I know why you’re asking that, because I haven’t lived here in a long time, but I don’t think you’ll meet someone who’s more American than I am. I’m loving being back in Akron.
You’re known as a badass, and you write about feeling unsettled in your surroundings when you were growing up. Where do you trace that back to?
I don’t think of myself as being a badass, but if you say so.
I’m not the only one who picked up on it.
My brother still lives here, and we had exactly the same upbringing. He has been in the same band for 40 years, and he loves it here. I knew when I was a kid that I wanted to see the world. I think that’s just inherent to the character that you’re born with; I don’t think it’s a good or a bad thing. A lot of people are content to stay in one place. You just are who you are.
You wouldn’t know that Hendrix was in The Isley Brothers if you hear him either. We’re not trained, we’re rock musicians. We have to make it up ourselves -- we have pretty primitive skills to work with, some of us. By no means am I a great musician -- I get away with it. I use the guitar as a tool to help me get where I have to go, but I’ve not really ever excelled in it, or anything probably. I’m just more of a good bandleader.
What makes a good bandleader?
Knowing what everyone’s good at doing, trying to put it together. Every band needs one. The word “democracy” is used, but that’s just to pacify everyone -- someone has to steer the thing. It’s like a lion tamer: You can’t let them go in there and maul a gazelle -- that’s not entertainment.
You were the first female I admired, other than my mother. In your book, you don’t mention many women who were influential to you.
There were, but guys were in bands and I liked bands. There just weren’t that many girls doing it. I’ve heard some women say we weren’t encouraged, but neither were the guys. There’s not a father in the country who said, “Son, are you practicing your guitar? Are you going to play at a bowling alley this weekend, or aren’t you?” As far as women, I loved Dionne Warwick when I was growing up, and I loved Janis Joplin. I don’t think that I liked Janis because she was a woman. It was all about the music. I didn’t care who was behind it, just how it makes you feel. It’s the same with a comic: “Are you laughing, or aren’t you?”
In an interview from the early ’90s, you said, “I’m sick of hearing people say, ‘I’m gay, I can’t do it.’ ‘I’m black, I can’t do it.’ ‘I’m a woman, I can’t do it.’ Just shut up and go do it.”
If you tell me I said that, then I have to believe you.
You said it, and it really made an impression on me.
We’re living in the West; we’re in a pretty affluent society. A lot of people have things going against them, but when you’re talking about being a musician -- or being whatever you want to be -- there’s only one person in this world who’s really going to stop you, and that’s yourself. I only became a musician because I was shitty at everything else. I wasn’t so driven that I thought, “You’re going to see my name in lights before you see me back in this town!” It was never anything like that. I didn’t want to be a f—ing waitress anymore and I like music. It was a perfect time for me because it was during the punk scene in London and if you could play, it actually worked against you. With my shitty guitar playing, I just fell on my feet at the right time. Being a girl wasn’t relevant at all.
Have your politics ever been a hindrance to your career?
I guess not because I never thought about it.
How have time and age changed you?
I’m happier as I’m older. I’m not as uptight. Although I don’t smoke pot anymore, I’m like a pothead in the way I view things -- and a pothead doesn’t want to be hassled. So that’s how I live. If something’s hassling me, I think, “I just don’t want that anymore.” The same with smoking -- smoking’s a hassle, so eventually that had to go. Once you’re in a hassle-free zone, everything’s pretty easy -- until you get to old age, disease and death.
You don’t smoke cigarettes. You don’t smoke pot. Do you drink?
No, I’m free. I feel like I did when I was 14. Everyone comes to the same conclusion by the time they hit, oh, 65: You just can’t function when you’re too f—ed up all the time. It seems like most people spend about 20 years getting addicted to something, then about 20 years being f—ed up on it, and then it takes about 10 years to sort it out. If you’re lucky, you have a few good years left after that.
How long have you had that clarity and freedom?
A few years now. The last time I got really wasted was at Kate Moss’ 40th birthday party [in January 2014]. I saw [British punk designer] Vivienne Westwood and she went, “Oh, Chrissie, are you not drinking?” I said, “I wasn’t planning on it.” She goes, “I think it’s good to have a drink once in a while.” And I thought, “I’m not going to have this conversation 10 times tonight.” So I was like, “Garçon!” Then someone wheeled me out of there at two in the morning.
What do you think about music today?
I’m not real big on talent shows. I never was. I wasn’t one of those kids who showed off to my parents’ friends, so I’ve never watched a reality show. And what they call R&B now isn’t what I call R&B.
What do you listen to these days? Of course, you have all my albums, so that takes up a lot of your time.
Mozart, but that sounds highbrow. I like Tame Impala. I love The Black Keys. But I was just saying [to someone]: It isn’t like it used to be, where you could reel off 30 amazing bands. Now, you have to really think about it. So then I went, “F— it, why don’t I just get in a band?” So, I’m putting a little band together at the end of the year with some people who play as shitty as I do.
Can I be in it?
Yeah! What do you play?
I play rhythm guitar and a tad bit of drums. I wouldn’t impress anyone, so I’m exactly what you’re looking for.
OK, well, move to London. I’ve got another girl in it, too.
This has been a dream come true. There were a couple of times when I could’ve met you and I decided not to. Obviously, no offense to you, but ...
No, I haven’t been very nice to people, I have to admit, and I really suffered for it. I get embarrassed easily, and if someone approaches me, and I’m in that mood, I can have a bit of a “f— off” attitude. Then I think about it for years and I’m really sorry about that. But, you know, nobody’s perfect.
Tig Notaro is a comedian whose documentary, TIG, is available on Netflix and whose stand-up special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, is streaming on HBO Go.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.