RECKLESS: MY LIFE AS A PRETENDER
(Audio Edition: Unabridged) (368 pages)
With so many '70s and '80s rockers cashing in their literary chips nowadays, it's hard to imagine anybody's latest tell-all revelations making a major impact. But that self-evident truism only creates greater expectations for figures who haven't weighed in yet, such as Pretenders lead singer, guitarist and guiding light, Chrissie Hynde.
As an admirer of the band's various incarnations, I had high hopes for this affair, since most of her interviews barely scratch the surface - except for a handful of guitar and recording tech mags, where she seems to (finally) let her guard down long enough, particularly for a favored writer. Other times, she plays the deer-caught-in-the-headlights-diva, and often winds up dishing out a juicier quote than she intended. Given the absence of a definitive Pretenders biography, then, a Hynde memoir naturally seem all the more compelling.
So, do we get that book? Sadly, no. Hynde doesn't even begin dishing on her first brushes with fame - starting in '73, when she flew to Britain, and joined NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS's hip young gunslingers - until page 200, give or take (or disc six of the audio edition). Instead, we get page after page of minutiae about why her hometown of Akron, Ohio, sucked - Chrissie, you aren't the only youngster who had issues with the place that sired you - and a wealth of irrelevancy on many, many peripheral characters with whom she shared the '70s staples (sex, drugs and drink).
What makes these flaws even more glaring is that the Pretenders don't enter the proceedings until the last two chapters -- even though that's one of the obvious spurs that would motivate her fans to read (or hear) RECKLESS, as Hynde acknowledges: "(Guitarist) James Honeyman-Scott is the reason you're even reading this, because without him, I'm sure I would have made the smallest splash with my talents." That's a stunning admission from someone who's presented such a steely front for so long, and one of the few times that you get a peek behind her public persona.
A little bit more of this candor would have gone a long way, especially since Hynde's observations of the band -- and the punk/New Wave scene that made the it possible -- are lively and insightful, once she finally starts sharing them with the reader. I don't give a toss about all these peripheral types -- many of whom hung around for the equivalent of 20 minutes -- nor the various two-bit bands that blew up in puffs of smoke before she finally found her perfect collaborator in Honeyman-Scott, the Beach Boys-loving, punk-hating "hook man," as she affectionately calls him ("He didn't give a toss about attitude").
Actually, you could argue a good case that the Pretenders' manager, Dave Hill, made the biggest difference in Hynde's life -- because he decided to wind down his activities at Anchor Records, and form a new label (Real), after hearing her demo tape. That decision, once you consider who else Hill was managing -- the late Johnny Thunders, another cameo visitor to this tale -- seemed eminently sensible, at least from a cold business standpoint.
That's not to say we can't draw insights from RECKLESS's earlier material. Hynde does write eloquently of the slaughter at Kent State University -- one of several whistle stops on her lengthily detailed what-am-I-gonna-do-now odyssey -- though, curiously, she doesn't mention the members of Devo, who also witnessed the May 4, 1970 massacre of four fellow students that day. That event obviously hardened her own radical tendencies, though -- judging by the endless sex 'n' drugscapades that we're given -- she doesn't seem to have participated in any meaningful political activity (aside from becoming a vegetarian in her teens -- much earlier than she's suggested publicly).
Instead, like many of her cohorts, Hynde apparently preferred to spend most of the '70s getting high and listening to music, working various dead-end jobs (or even running petty scams). With this kind of attitude, it's not hard to see why countercultural dreams of sweeping social change never got off the starting blocks.
Sadly, predictably, inevitably, neither Hynde nor her cohorts -- including Honeymoon-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers -- seemed able to shake off their bad habits once success finally came calling via those glorious '79 singles ("Stop Your Sobbing," "Brass In Pocket"). Naturally, Farndon's descent into the junkie abyss makes especially painful reading ("He had already embraced the Chinese Rocks lifestyle, and was languishing in its thrall"). Ironically, Farndon's personal and physical decay issued the final, mortal blow to the much-loved "classic" Pretenders lineup -- after he decked an elderly stagehand who admonished him for smoking backstage during an Australian tour date.
The band sacked Farndon on June 14, 1982. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott died at 25 of a cocaine overdose, effectively changing the Pretenders from "four-piece-against-the-world", to a flag of convenience (Hynde, plus her latest crew of backup musicians). Farndon himself would succumb on April 14, 1983, and it's not hard to feel the pain leaping off the page: "His head went under and he drowned in the bath, needle in his arm. There's your rock 'n' roll death."
Hard-hitting as these glimpses are, they fall short of answering the natural questions that fans might ask. What was the survivors' state of mind? Was carrying on always in the cards, or did that decision take time to figure out? What, if anything, could have been done to ease Honeyman-Scott and Farndon off their self-destructive paths? Hynde could also have stuck with her brief recounting of those traumas, and expanded into other areas, such as the inspirations for various songs, or the recording of PRETENDERS (1980), and PRETENDERS II (1981) -- both produced by Chris Thomas, who could be considered "the fifth Pretender."
Alas, we don't get any of those details, either, leaving a work that's not totally disposable, but not what it should have been -- a situation magnified on the audio edition by Rosanna Arquette's lively (yet often cartoonish) narration. When she's not running out of breath, Arquette often elongates words and syllables to unintentionally comedic effect (as exemplified by her pronunciation of the "GEE-BUS Club," in Paris, France, or "HER-uh-FERD," where Honeyman-Scott, Farndon and Chambers had all toiled, to varying degrees of obscurity, before joining the Pretenders). A good editor (or vocal coach) could have sorted out this problem.
So what do we make of all this? Hynde, it appears, doesn't have much to say beyond her music, although the last third of RECKLESS almost redeems its shortcomings. Who knows, we may see a second volume, since Hynde -- like many celebrities -- seems to prefer doling out a few kernels of her life story at a time, which certainly helps the marketing plan. Whether the punter will continue falling for this gambit is a different matter entirely. In the end, Ian Hunter's aphorism seems especially apt: "Trust the message, not the messenger." So it goes with RECKLESS.
12/21/21: This is the place for books, CDs, DVDs or LPs by other artists that fall within this site's mission, and subject matter. (Anything that pertains to me will be posted in the "Press" section.) Hit the "Archive" button to see the full listing of reviews.