I polish my toenails. I shave my legs. I like perfume. I am a real conventional chick.—Chrissie Hynde
Okay, she’s a married mother of two who hails from Akron, Ohio. But conventional? Believe that about Chrissie Hynde, and a bridge salesman from Brooklyn will be on your doorstep in the morning.
At 35, the lead voice, chief songwriter and hot-wire power supply of the Pretenders comes about as close to convention as tiger-striped mambo shoes. Lots of folks are vegetarians; Hynde is an antimeat militant who once refused to go onstage until an advertisement for fast-food burgers was covered up. “I think killing an animal and eating it is like eating your own child,” she snaps. Although she salts her conversation with biblical references—learned from her Lutheran Sunday school days—she also believes in reincarnation and regularly visits a Krishna temple near her home in London. Sums up a longtime associate: “Chrissie’s about as predictable as Picasso.”
For proof, just ask two of the players on her latest LP, Get Close, who got their walking papers one week into the band’s current U.S. tour. “Only one person can lead a band, and I have a certain vision of how I want things to be,” says Hynde. Or the teenage fan who knocked on her hotel door in Los Angeles expecting to find a postconcert party. “I came out with nothing on but my Iggy Pop T-shirt yelling, ‘How dare you wake me and my children up!’ ” recalls Hynde. “My husband almost threw her out into the street.”
For Hynde, there are fewer parties these days—and, she says, no drugs—partly due to the deaths-by-overdose of two Pretenders in 1982 and 1983. There is also less of the punk and sexual posturing that made for songs like Tattooed Love Boys on her first LP. Time and motherhood, it seems, have planed away some of Hynde’s edges, though not the grain beneath.
On Get Close, she steers the band through some old Jimi Hendrix, a brush with reggae and even a soft-rock love anthem. The old outrage, though, is never far away. On How Much Did You Get for Your Soul? Hynde plants a roundhouse on the sort of rock idols (no names, please) who “sing for the money” in cola ads (“Millions of kids are looking at you/ You say, ‘Let them drink soda pop’ “). Chill Factor hits closer to home with its themes of motherhood, passion and the pain of abandonment. “It’s cold to leave a woman/ With family on her own/…She had her dreams too,” sings Hynde.
For the youngest of two children born to a phone company worker and a part-time secretary, those dreams began in the garage bands of Akron. “I was so shy that when we practiced, I would have to shut myself in the laundry room with the mike to be able to sing,” she says now. At Kent State University she studied art but learned about activism when she joined a crowd of antiwar protesters and watched in disbelief as National Guardsmen killed four students in 1970. A year later she quit school, then a waitressing job (“it was disgusting serving meat “)and in 1973 fled to London to investigate the music scene.
During the next few years Hynde scraped along selling handbags on the street and working as a messenger and as a reviewer for a London rock tabloid. Nothing lasted long, and by 1976 she had been reduced to stealing food from grocery stores and jumping turnstiles on the underground.
With London’s punk music era aborning, however, Hynde found a niche. After passing through a string of no-luck bands with names like Masters of the Backside and Big Girls’ Underwear, she joined up with three like-minded rockers and formed the Pretenders in 1978. Their first 45, an old tune titled Stop Your Sobbing that Hynde first heard on a Kinks LP when she was 14, quickly hit the Top 30.
Two hit LPs followed, as did an affair with Kinks leader Ray Davies, whom Hynde had met at a New York nightclub in 1981. But after the band’s quick success came equally sudden disaster. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon died within 10 months of each other, both the victims of drugs, and Hynde and Davies soon parted ways. “I was devastated,” says Hynde, who was left alone to mourn her losses and to mother the baby daughter, Natalie, now 4, that Davies had fathered.
After nearly a one-year layoff from music, she stormed back in 1984 with a new band and a new LP, Learning to Crawl. In a hotel elevator, while on tour in Australia, she met Jim Kerr, lead singer with the Scottish band Simple Minds. A few months later the couple married. “She’s genuinely the most modest person I know,” says Kerr, who is eight years her junior. “She doesn’t have a clue as to how great she really is.” Responds Hynde: “Jim is naturally very stable and optimistic as opposed to my own dark pessimism. He really vibes me up. What I do for him is anybody’s guess.”
Off the road, the couple retreats to a 19th-century London town house with Natalie and their own 2-year-old daughter, Yasmin. The home, decorated with antique and modern furniture and painted pink and white, “is not particularly trendy,” admits Hynde. “You might think it was the home of someone in their 50s.” A strict but doting mother, who breast-fed both daughters for a year, Hynde keeps two nannies and a cook on the family payroll.
Such capitalist comforts have hardly softened her views. In the space of a teatime break she’ll champion the goals of British socialism, bristle over the porno tapes in a video shop window and denounce the polluters of a West German river. “I am outraged that the planet’s resources are being squandered,” she says. “I believe we don’t so much inherit the world from our parents, but rather we borrow it from our children.”
There are, in what she says, echoes of the old campus radical, the protective parent, the plain-speaking Mid-westerner. And perhaps, in the end, that mix is not so terribly unconventional after all. “Deep down inside I am no different from the 35-year-old divorced cocktail waitress with two kids living in Ohio,” says Hynde. “That is who I identify with. That is who I am.”