Chrissie Hynde has built a career, not to mention a life, out of stubborn, unexpected choices. Her willful unorthodoxy has made her a singular singer of jagged songs that somehow become hit singles. Her tendency to shoot her mouth off — to paraphrase one of her early songs with the Pretenders — has also frequently gotten her in hot water, as it did recently when she made some flippant comments to a newspaper related to being assaulted in her youth by a roomful of bikers, one of several not particularly charming stories the onetime rock critic tells in her first, stalwartly unsentimental memoir.
The media once again gets Hynde wrong. “Reckless” is not a book about rape, or even the ravages of rock ‘n’ roll, but about the American dream turned sour. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer devotes a scant 65 pages to the Pretenders, with whom she performed for about 35 years. This is no kiss-and-tell memoir; her first husband, Ray Davies of the Kinks, earns just a few pages, though Hynde does let us in on that night with Iggy Pop. (Who wouldn’t brag about that?) On the other hand, there is no mention at all of her second husband, Jim Kerr, of the band Simple Minds.
Instead Hynde offers a story of coming of age in the heartland’s baby-boom bust, with sometimes brutal passages told in her inimitable blunt, jocular and occasionally woefully tone-deaf vernacular. Controversially, she holds herself responsible for getting locked in a room with a biker gang: “I’d never blame others for my transgressions. That would just be bad form. Painting oneself into a corner could pass as an art installation by any other name.”
Hynde was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1951. The demise of the small American city has been a motif of some of her greatest songs, and a town rent by an interstate and disemboweled by white flight provides the bleak setting for her upbringing. “American households had no room for Grandma, but the car’s needs were paramount,” she keenly observes.
Describing a white-picket-fence childhood, the singer is in many ways a thoroughly Norman Rockwell-esque artist. And yet at an early age, she became a vegetarian, to her meat-and-potatoes family’s befuddlement. She portrays herself as an anti-institutional autodidact, but somewhere along the way she developed a trenchant critique of exo-cities and a honed spirituality.
Perhaps she learned these lessons during her years at Kent State, where she took part in the demonstration in which the National Guard killed four students — including her friend’s boyfriend. An avid counterculturalist, Hynde soaked up the liberationist mantras of the 1960s. But instead of finding release or even pleasure in free love and free speech, she seems to have merely acquired drug habits and sexually transmitted diseases. Her desire for extreme adventure led her to dangerous situations, like her teenage love affair with the outlaw Heavy Bikers (as she calls them in the memoir): “I liked the feeling of moving fast — moving fast and moving away — and soon that’s what I’d have to do. Move fast and move away.”
Hynde fell so in love with British rock stars that she became one. At 21 she fled to London with a handful of records in her valise and has been an expat ever since.
For a while, she reviewed music for the London music paper NME even though “I knew I was a phony,” she writes in a moment of typical self-deprecation. It took her six years to finally form her own band, the Pretenders. After this slow start, Hynde quickly blew up, becoming a star on both sides of the pond with the Pretenders’ first album.
She sprints through the next four years of hit records and tours, knowing that rock ‘n’ road stories of drugs, debauchery, mayhem and mischief are as old as, well, the Rolling Stones.
“As far as rock bands went, it was all textbook stuff,” she writes. “But the fact that everybody in every band in history had gone through the same things didn’t make it any easier to assimilate the horror show of drug addiction.” Again, she’s being hard on herself: Losing half your bandmates in four years is extreme even for the ‘70s. Hynde ends “Reckless” with the deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon. She describes having moved on from this double tragedy, and yet despite herself she lingers there — and then stops.
“Reckless” is written in simple sentences, with little embellishment. But Hynde has a knack for the deft turns of phrase and in-jokes that have made her a beloved songwriter. Her portraits of the famous and the infamous — Sid Vicious, the Clash, Johnny Rotten, Vivienne Westwood — are short and sharp. Of Lemmy, the legendary leader of the metal band Motorhead, she writes: “True to the ethos of rock, Lemmy was forever unchanging. It’s one of those inexplicable phenomena inherent to rock stars, the opposite of reinvention. … Wherever he may be, he remains in a pub off St. Luke’s Road, the actual location totally irrelevant. Not so much time travel, as untravel.”
Hynde could also be describing herself, of course: She is one of those ur-rockers who doesn’t need a periodic makeover; it’s always Chrissie, in her leather jacket, zipped up tight emotionally even while unzipping her mouth. Of course, being locked into position is a problem for a narrative; the reader craves transformation.
“Chaos and disorder were to be ongoing themes for me with a mouth that flapped like a rag nailed to a post in a windstorm,” Hynde writes. That mouth, literally and figuratively, is what has made Hynde famous. It’s the hole out of which that beautiful burr of a voice comes. And if she still has a tendency to shoot her mouth off recklessly, well, that’s Chrissie. Maybe “Reckless” should come with a trigger warning: Caution: Violent scenes, lousy judgments, internalized misogyny and great rock ‘n’ roll ahead.
Reckless: My Life as a Pretender
Doubleday: 336 pp., $26.95
McDonnell is the author of “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.”