Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Chrissie Hynde: Reckless Indeed

Chrissie Hynde performing at the Irving Plaza, New York City, 1994. (Photo by  Ebet Roberts)

“The idea of me writing anything at all was ludicrous. My head was disorganized, a tangle of crossed lines. I couldn’t conclude a thought on a postcard… I wasn’t a poet. I wasn’t a writer. To begin a paragraph and find my way to a conclusion – Gretel tracking a breadcrumb trail would fare better… My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition and, if I couldn’t find a word in my dumb guy vocabulary, I would make one up.”

This is Chrissie Hynde describing how she approached being asked to write rock criticism for NME circa 1974. It would be a few more years before she stormed the charts herself in a band called The Pretenders. The self-evaluation holds true though, even today. The quote is from page 147 of her 312 page autobiography Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday, 2015). I laughed when I read it, because it echoes what I was thinking as I plowed through the book. It seems like she scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper and then pasted them together in more or less chronological order. Characters are introduced and then disappear, their ultimate relationship to Ms Hynde left undescribed, or maybe hinted at in a vague way.

Bob Kidney, for instance, is introduced; it sounds like he is to play a notable part in Chrissie’s future, and then he’s never mentioned again. A little research on Google shows that he’s the guitarist in The Numbers Band, which also features Chrissie’s brother Terry on saxophone. Her time at NME provides a fascinating chapter full of these scattered thoughts as she describes life with Nick Kent, reactions to her scathing and witty reviews of people like Neil Diamond, and a charming description of the time she tried to make a pot of tea for Brian Eno.

If you come to the book looking for an in-depth discussion of her life with Ray Davies you’ll be disappointed. The head Kink didn’t talk about her much in his memoir, Americana, last season and she doesn’t say much about him here. There’s one photo of the two of them together, captioned “Me and Ray always laughing.” Irony? Not sure!

The book is mainly taken up with stories of her youth, as a fan girl chasing after rock’n’roll from her home in Akron. It’s called Reckless simply because that one word describes her life more than any other. It was that recklessness that she attributes to her being in a room with a bunch of motorcycle hoodlums and the rape that has been the focus of much of the book’s criticism.

That event is only briefly mentioned and did not have the impact on my reading of the book that I expected it would. Nothing about the book really makes that kind of impact. The story of the founding and early success of The Pretenders is dealt with in the last fifty pages, almost casually.

There’s plenty of tragedy in Chrissie Hynde’s story. From the rape, to the deaths of bandmates Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, everyone around Chrissie was reckless, but there was ruthlessness too. She was able to succeed in a trade that didn’t have much room for women. This wasn’t folk music, or jazz: it was rock’n’roll. Chrissie Hynde is the poster child for rock’n’roll. Take a look at the cover shot. Her gold boots and blue jeans dangling over the side of a bathtub. The subtitle reads “My Life as a Pretender”. She is not pretending. She’s the real thing.

Later in the book she talks about writing again. “I didn’t know how to write in a team; I’d been doing it in solitude for so long. There was the occasional collaboration by accident, such as ‘Brass in Pocket.’ I’d heard Jimmy playing a riff I liked, and I put it on a cassette and wrote the song around. That was a true collaboration…”

Reckless is a true collaboration too. Her scattershot memories flick up on the screen like pistol shots. Then she expands on a thought for a while, only to distract herself with another story. A better story. A different story. The editor has taken Chrissie’s riffs and built a rock’n’roll symphony out of them. It’s a life still being lived, a song still being sung… a story still being told. Recklessly.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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