Wednesday, November 11, 2015

New Chrissie Hynde Memoir Takes Some Swipes at Good Ol' USA


-by Denise Sullivan

I think of Chrissie Hynde's stunning "My City Was Gone" just about everyday as I stalk the streets of San Francisco, searching for meaning and life in a place I used to and sometimes still do call home. The song's themes of urban destruction and environmental decline in the name of so-called progress are threaded throughout Hynde's new memoir, Reckless, My Life as A Pretender, among other unexpected twists to her rock star's back pages, but then Hynde was never one to do the expected. The fact she let Rush Limbaugh get away with using the opening notes of "My City Was Gone," for his radio show for years still boggles the mind: Rationalizing her parents were fans, with folks like that, is it any wonder she had to leave Akron?

Born and raised in and around Rubber City and what became the Rust Belt, Chris Hynde was a warrior for the underground and a champion of the underdog from the gate. With Zap Comix as her Bible and artist S. Clay Wilson as her teacher, she loved the swagger and style of rock'n'roll dandies like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page; Mitch Ryder's and Iggy Pop's stage antics were the kind of thing that sent her but she also loved Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Personally, she was drawn to amphetamine popping, hell for-leather motorcycle types-- carnies and heavy bikers-- and their allure inevitably led her into water too deep for even a biker chick to navigate. She got it semi-together during a stint at Kent State ("I loved being in Kent. There were people walking the streets like in a real town. This was human pageantry on display where it should be"), but noticed an unsettling disconnect within the peace and love generation: "I was baffled that the entire hippie nation hadn't become vegetarian en masse. It made no sense as eating meat went against the whole dialogue. Were the hippies just as hypocritical as the rest of them?" With Young's "The Loner" as her theme song, she was not long for university life, even before she witnessed the famous massacre at Kent that injured nine and took four lives, including Jeff Miller, her friend Cindy Hino's boyfriend.


Throughout Reckless, Hynde recounts further feelings of otherness that led her to leave the Midwest and plant roots anywhere but there. Just one problem: So lost and so high was she, Hynde couldn't read the signals clearly enough to know the way out. Pacing the city's streets before making her way across the country, west, north, and eventually overseas, she took a last look around: "Something was happening to me. Even the gigantic oak tress that had ushered in whole families and see them right through to their endings seemed to be waving me past-- past the Akron houses with their Akron stories. 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. That way. You go that way. It's time."

Trapped in a world that she hadn't made, with only an intuitive knowing that told her the heartland was no place for a girl like her, she followed a few chance meetings with rock stars (including David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) and a hunch she should set off for England in 1973 with another friend named Cindy (quite possibly of "Cindy's Lament" fame). There was no point to staying: The bikers wanted to kill her, and everything else was falling apart. "Just outside the city limits, the whole country was bending over to take it up the backside. The green meadows of Montrose were being churned up and rolled away, concrete expanding over the hills of Ohio like molten lava."

While Hynde might not be the first songwriter who comes to mind when we think of ideas and topical concerns, her writings on the failure of the American Dream, its disconnecting interstates, urban renewal programs, and our often animal-based diet, are the threads that bind her musings on the rock'n'roll life with real life, as seen through the eyes of an ex-patriate. She's exhilarated by England's vast train, tube and bus system, impressed by the National Health Service and believes in squatter's rights. There used to be good reasons people made rock 'n' roll to survive. But rather than drawing these distinctions and declaring any party allegiances, Hynde stays true to punk's extremes and attitudes of non-conforming and delivers her sketches, her version, of what the music's meant to her. She captures to great effect the wait she endured-- like dog years in a young person's life-- as she worked her way into the English music scene and into the country itself to stay. Hynde was well behind her gang, watching as her close friends in the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Damned all formed bands around her while she shuffled along, unable to secure compatible people to play with and unable to write or perform a decent song. Her addictions to substances-- any and all-- were the culprit and a drug addict's path is not one she recommends or endorses; the regret of time wasted on people and places for whom drugs were central are writ large throughout the pages of Reckless, yet she doesn't preach or proselytize in the name of clean living.

Similarly matter of fact are the passages about her willing liaisons with men while she was under the influence: She was ultimately left black and blue and fearing for her life. Upon publication of Reckless in September and during the publicity period that followed, Hynde took responsibility for being half dressed, messed up, and abused over repeated occasions which riled sexual assault victims rights groups and (mostly) younger feminists who voiced their displeasure with her position. Hynde's defenses of her remarks did little to help her profile as intractable, and she would not be moved: Not a joiner of movements (well, except maybe animal rights) or a spokeswoman, her righteous autonomy is one of the most appealing things about her persona.

The book's subtitle, My Life as a Pretender, works on at least three levels and is best saved for the reader to discover, though fans of the band who've come seeking more about the working relationship between Hynde, Pete Farndon, James Honeyman-Scott and Martin Chambers may be disappointed: Hynde doesn't even meet them until the book's final 60 pages. Not too much about the songs themselves, though stories of the creation of "The Wait" and her friend Meg Keene's "Hymn to Her" emerge; she describes the thrill at hearing Grace Jones sing "Private Life."

It's tempting to compare Hynde's book to this year's offerings by the punk era's Viv Albertine and Kim Gordon, both women in their 60s, but the three memoirs are distinctly different in style and approach; despite her recalcitrance and tough exterior, Hynde is the most likable on the page. Her measure of humility and ability to own every bit of bad behavior along the way without excusing it, denying it, or apologizing for it ensures her status as an icon. As painful and graphic as some of the situations described are, her style-- a combination of hipster casual mixed with American and English street slang-- succeeds at covering even the most unseemly and unthinkable situations without being too coarse. It is of course all a bit of hat trick, appearing to stay cool while living under the pressure of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, yet it's clear Hynde has paid the cost to rock; that she's lived to tell of her experience at all, and not tell all, is her mystery achievement.

Denise Sullivan is a regular contributor on arts, culture, and gentrification.

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