With new insights into her life and music and fascinating details about the making of all of her albums, this is the first book about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend Chrissie Hynde, the leader of The Pretenders.
Series: American Music Series
A musical force across four decades, a voice for the ages, and a great songwriter, Chrissie Hynde is one of America’s foremost rockers. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, she and her band The Pretenders have released ten albums since 1980. The Pretenders’ debut LP has been acclaimed as one of the best albums of all time by VH1 and Rolling Stone. In a business filled with “pretenders” and posers, Hynde remains unassailably authentic. Although she blazed the trail for countless female musicians, Hynde has never embraced the role of rock-feminist and once remarked, “It’s never been my intention to change the world or set an example for others to follow.” Instead, she pursued her own vision of rock—a band of “motorcycles with guitars.”
Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography traces this legend’s journey from teenage encounters with rock royalty to the publication of her controversial memoir Reckless in 2015. Adam Sobsey digs deep into Hynde’s catalog, extolling her underrated songwriting gifts and the greatness of The Pretenders’ early classics and revealing how her more recent but lesser-known records are not only underappreciated but actually key to understanding her earlier work, as well as her evolving persona. Sobsey hears Hynde’s music as a way into her life outside the studio, including her feminism, signature style, vegetarianism, and Hinduism. She is “a self-possessed, self-exiled idol with no real forbears and no true musical descendants: a complete original.”
- One. Talk of the Town: Beginnings
- Two. Up the Neck: Pretenders
- Three. Birds of Paradise: Extended Play and Pretenders II
- Four. Time the Avenger: Learning to Crawl
- Five. Don’t Get Me Wrong: Get Close and Packed!
- Six. Legalise Me: Last of the Independents and ¡Viva El Amor!
- Seven. Complex Person: Loose Screw and Break Up the Concrete
- Eight. You or No One: Fidelity!, Stockholm, and Reckless
- Sources and Notes
- Selected Discography
“Just don’t buy the fucking book, then, if I’ve off ended someone,” she said in 2015, in an interview to promote her new book, a memoir called Reckless. She’d sooner lose the sale—and fans—than her integrity. Even if it gives offense, she stands by her truth, which in Reckless was all of four words: I take full responsibility.
This is why people love Chrissie Hynde. They love her even if they haven’t heard a note she’s written or sung, in that instantly recognizable voice of hers, since she had her last hit, more than twenty years ago. And most people haven’t. They love her despite knowing virtually nothing about her or her band, the Pretenders. In a world full of pretenders, Chrissie Hynde is unassailably authentic, and it’s her authenticity that gathers and uniﬁ es the details of her life, that makes it possible to adore her without really knowing them.
She is probably America’s foremost woman rocker: an icon in eyeliner, a voice for the ages, and a great (and greatly underrated) songwriter. She is “the greatest female singer, maybe ever,” as one eminent music impresario put it,¹ and her greatness is steadfast and unchanging. She looks the same, sounds the same, and swears the same as she did when she and her band burst out of London’s punk scene in the late seventies, and there has never been anyone quite like her. She’s a self-possessed, self-exiled idol with no real forebears; a complete original who, despite trailblazing for countless female musicians, has always disdained the idea of “women in rock” and has no true musical descendants.
Yet as self-contained and singular as she is, as thoroughly herself, Chrissie Hynde is full of contradictions, and she can be hard to apprehend. “Every time I try to get close to you, you throw nails in the road,” she sings on the 1999 Pretenders album ¡Viva El Amor! That lament could just as easily be sung about her. She’s a Hindu and a vegetarian who has gotten herself arrested protesting animal rights, but she has defended the death penalty on religious grounds. Her songs have featured plentiful and strong sexual content, and her most famous song is about using her body to attract attention, yet she has virtually never presented herself as a sex object, and she sharply criticizes women rockers who do. She’s a generous, charismatic, entertaining live performer who is frequently prickly and combative with her fans, the public, and the press. After half her original band died young of drug overdoses, she made the most accomplished album of her career without them.
She’s the very image of snarling rock-chick toughness, but she writes and sings tenderly, tremulously about the vulnerabilities of love and motherhood; she may be the only signiﬁcant woman in rock to make motherhood itself an abiding musical subject. She had romances with two high-proﬁle pop stars, but she has mostly lived singly, quietly, and plainly in London, where she raised her two daughters far from the spotlight, taking eight years off from touring to be a mom at the height of her career. She’s an American treasure who has lived nearly her entire adult life in London. She’s a Hall of Famer, a musical force for four decades, but she has made only eleven studio albums.
Chrissie Hynde seems, then, not so much divided as double, as if there is both a Chrissie: the voice, the persona, the rock goddess, and a Hynde: the songwriter, the mother, the Hindu. (It’s for this reason that I’ve found it comfortable, throughout this book, to refer to her as neither Chrissie nor Hynde, or sometimes as both.) As she sings—or warns, or even boasts—on a late Pretenders album, “I’m a very, very complex person.”
Chrissie Hynde’s complexities and contradictions are not only the key to her enduring appeal, they’re also why she is worthy of a book. Yet her own memoir, Reckless, doesn’t really do them, or her, justice, and its author inadvertently explained why shortly after it was published: “The stuff I really regret, I left out of the book.”² She left out much more than her regrets. For one thing, the narrative of Reckless ends in 1983, leaving more than thirty years of her life and career untouched. For another, her book often repeats familiar stories she and her cohort have been telling publicly for years. The events these stories recount are now several decades old, and many of her recollections are drug-clouded, so Reckless is twice unreliable. Thrice, really: an assiduously protective type, she takes care throughout the book to be circumspect about the actions and motives of her intimates. Her omissions are sometimes quite conspicuous. The ex post facto controversy over I take full responsibility was far more charged and provocative than anything in Reckless, which, despite its title, is anything but. The memoir is best read not as a historical document but as a Chrissie Hynde album, a retrospective anthology of mostly well-known songs, occasionally interspersed with an early track or neglected rarity. Its most valuable moments are Chrissie Hynde’s terse but clear philosophical aphorisms, which give clues to what has driven her actions over the years. (All of the unattributed quotations in this book are from Reckless.)
The most important missing element in Reckless is, glaringly, Chrissie Hynde’s music. What inspired it, how it was made, what it might mean to her—none of this is in her memoir. Her music is as closely guarded as her children, and it’s naturally where my attention turns in this book: this is largely a musical biography, less concerned with seeking the singer in her songs than with studying the work of an artist whose music spans nearly four decades and more musical genres, from punk to pop, country to chamber, blues to bossa nova. To that end, I make occasional brief detours into musical analysis. The composer’s use of chords, modulations, and meter are sometimes jarringly unpredictable or deceptively complex, like Chrissie Hynde’s character and actions—and also like her famous voice, which is actually “two different voices: one for the ballads and one for the rockers.”³ These unpredictabilities and complexities are nearly always strongly linked to the lyrics, stories, and moods of her songs. I have tried to maintain the same connection in my technical discussions of her compositions.
You may find that this book ends somewhat abruptly—in the middle of the road, to borrow the title of one of the Pretenders’ hit songs—and in fact right where it began, with Chrissie Hynde snarling, “Don’t buy the fucking book.” That is deliberate, and not only for the practical reason that she is very much alive and kicking, and almost surely has more music in her. (Indeed she does, announcing a new Pretenders album as this book was in production.) The controversy over Reckless was simply her last salient act before I concluded.
The book’s ending-as-beginning and avoidance of ﬁ nality are also motivated by its subject’s spirituality. In her early adulthood, Chrissie Hynde was introduced to the ancient Hindu scriptural poem the Bhagavad Gita, and she has been devoted to it ever since: it is “the glory I bask in,” she calls it in Reckless. Anyone who wants to understand her would do well to read the Bhagavad Gita and to consider the ﬁttingly contradictory character and circumstances of its protagonist, Arjuna. He is a warrior who, on the brink of battle, suddenly does not want to ﬁght. He gives halt orders to his charioteer—who at once reveals himself to be the god Krishna and who, for the rest of the poem, sermonizes to Arjuna not only on the dilemma at hand but, more important, on the nature of being. Over and over, Krishna touches on notions of impermanence, the incompleteness of the self, and the endless cycle of all life into and out of death.
What will last is the music. “She will always carry on,” Chrissie Hynde sings in “Hymn to Her.” “Something is lost, and something is found.” She would probably appreciate that although she sang that line, she didn’t write it. (“The self is not the doer,” the Bhagavad Gita counsels.) “Hymn to Her” was composed by Meg Keene, one of her childhood friends, and she gave it a voice as an interpreter. This book, this hymn to her, is offered in the same spirit of interpretation, with the modest hope that in it something of Chrissie Hynde may be found.