Stop Your Sobbing

To read the rage this fall—the angry comments, the push of reporters, the attempt to gin up controversy about Chrissie Hynde’s new rock ’n’ roll memoir Reckless: My Life as a Pretender—was to be tempted to despair. We are at such a crazed point in our culture, I wanted to scream, that to find sanity preached, we have to listen to a washed up 1980s punk rocker recalling her pre-stardom days of drugs and madness.

But it isn’t true. To begin with, the book proves that Hynde is far from washed up, used up, flushed away by the art she once tried to make with music. In fact, Reckless is very much an artist’s book. Oh, Hynde has only a weak grasp of pacing and little sense of overarching narrative, and her diction often falls off the tightrope: overwritten at some points (“Autumn, hesitant at first, slate-colored skies and leaves of scarlet and gold”) and underwritten at others (“Jeannette’s friend, Janice, had committed suicide there and I got her room”).

In other words, writing prose simply isn’t Chrissie Hynde’s strength, and she struggles to make autobiography an expressive medium for her artistic impulse. Still, the impulse is real and present in the book. Reckless is no celebrity autobiography along the lines of 2002’s Soul Survivors: The Official Autobiography of Destiny’s Child. Neither is it exactly an attempt at finding a new outlet for poetic thoughts about the past, in the mode of, say, Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography Chronicles, Vol. 1 or Patti Smith’s memoirs, the 2010 Just Kids and the 2015 M Train.

Instead, Reckless is trying to understand and express the puzzle of a life spent in mad pursuit of new experience—even while its author has always felt distanced from those experiences. Chrissie Hynde has lived her life a step back from herself in self-consciousness. She’s never stopped feeling like a pretender in her own skin, and even now, 63 years old, she’s still trying to figure out why.

One of those experiences is what led to the controversy around the book this fall. In Reckless, Hynde mentions a sexual encounter she had when she was 21—an encounter in which she was repeatedly penetrated by members of a motorcycle gang. High on Quaaludes, she writes, she’d gone to a biker bar in northeastern Ohio. And then, after some drinks on top of the barbiturates, she went off to an abandoned house with a group of the bikers, who used and abused her over the course of a night.

In a promotional interview, a British journalist asked her about the incident, and she dismissed it with the claim that the result was partly her fault: “You can’t f—k about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges.” Worse yet, she added, “You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this? You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive.” It was an echo of the line in the book where she writes—of the whole life, really, that she lays out in Reckless—“this was all my doing, and I take full responsibility.”

The Twitter universe went mad in response. Newspaper columns and web postings announced that Chrissie Hynde was blaming rape victims for their rapes. The peak of the effort to brand her a rape apologist may have come early last month with an awkward interview on NPR, in which NPR’s David Greene seemed incapable of asking about anything except the biker gang. The interview dragged on to the point that Hynde finally blew up, losing enough of her famously distant, abstracted persona to demand (albeit, still in a tired way):

Why are you asking me this? . . . I’d rather say, just don’t buy the f—king book, then, if I’ve offended someone. Don’t listen to my records. ’Cause I’m only telling you my story, I’m not here trying to advise anyone or tell anyone what to do or tell anyone what to think, and I’m not here as a spokesperson for anyone. I’m just telling my story.

In a few later interviews, Hynde has tried to back away from the controversy, but generally, in the escalating barrage of commentary, she has kept to the narrative in the book. She never identifies herself as a victim—although, make no mistake, it’s not that she refuses to identify herself as a victim. It’s more that the thought of victimhood seems never to have occurred to her. Truth to tell, there isn’t much awareness in Reckless of the current battles of feminism. Or any battles of the culture wars, for that matter. Certainly it isn’t the memoir of someone striding forth to champion the conservative view of sexual relations.

The most curious part of the reaction to Hynde has been the apparently obligatory line, from all her detractors, about how much they formerly admired her. In the Guardian, for example, a columnist named Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote, “Chrissie Hynde has long been one of my personal heroines and—in a more abstract way—something of a feminist inspiration, too.” But Cosslett immediately goes on to denounce Hynde for her failure to understand rape, the evils of patriarchy, and the necessity for sisterhood.

She is particularly outraged by the book’s cruel mocking of Nancy Spungen (whom Hynde knew through her friend, the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious—the man who would later murder Spungen). “In these more inclusive times,” opines Cosslett, “comments such as Hynde’s infringe our modern sense of feminist solidarity.” It would be hard to find a sentence more at war with itself; the columnist appears not to notice that the words “inclusive” and “solidarity” are natural enemies. But more to the point, she joins the many other commentators who insist that they loved the Pretenders’ music while they seem never to have actually listened to it.

On the band’s first album, the platinum-selling Pretenders (1980), for example, Hynde sang “Tattooed Love Boys.” It’s about that bikers’ gang-bang. Even worse—for a modern sense of feminist solidarity—its final verse is addressed to a woman intending to make herself the gang’s next love object, and the singer has a pretty tough message for her:

Now I see you all impressed and half undressed . . .

Tattooed love boys have got you where I used to lay.

Well, ha-ha too bad, but you know what they say.

Stop snivellin,’

You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man.

Oh, but the prestige and the glory.

Another human interest story:

You are that.

A fast punk-like effort (played in 7/16 time, more or less), “Tattooed Love Boys” is an odd song by almost any measure. But then, the Pretenders’ first two albums, recorded with the band’s first complete lineup, are often musically surprising. “Talk of the Town,” for instance, is built around an unexpected pop guitar chord: Csus2 with a wandering bass note added on—a “Beatles chord,” the Pretenders’ lead guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, calmly informed Hynde when she suggested it to him.

Hynde had immersed herself in the 1970s punk scene in London, and her musical taste at the time was shaped by the anti-virtuoso, anti-musicality of punk rock. But, she insists in Reckless, the talented Honeyman-Scott reawakened in her the love of melody and clean guitar work that she had known during her 1960s childhood in Akron, Ohio. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw plenty of other performers blending punk with pop and big-riff guitar rock to create what was called the “New Wave” sound, notably Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (who produced the Pretenders’ first single, a cover of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” another less-than-feminist-solidarity song). But the Pretenders seemed to ride that wave with more immediate success than any of the others: nine singles in two years, including the megahit “Brass in Pocket.”

The band was badly injured by the drug-induced death of James Honeyman-Scott in the summer of 1982, only two days after the firing of bassist Pete Farndon (who would find his own drug-induced death a few months later). Hynde would push on, gathering together a few stray musicians the next month to record “Back on the Chain Gang,” the Pretenders’ biggest hit in the United States. (The B-side of the record was “My City Was Gone,” an account of Akron’s decline since Hynde had known it as her childhood home. Riffs from the song are heard now as the bumper music that opens Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.) But in many ways, the Pretenders never really recovered from Honeyman-Scott’s death. Hynde’s lyrics and ideas for melodies needed the musicality of her guitarist. Without him, and without Farndon, as she admitted during the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, “the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years.”

It is around the time of her two bandmates’ deaths in 1982 that Hynde ends Reckless. If her feminist critics had actually read the book, they might have found in that fact a real reason to complain: An account of her forceful reassemblies of the band in later years might have revealed more of the strong figure who proved such a shrewd businesswoman and clever navigator of the pop scene. But Chrissie Hynde clearly intends the book instead as an attempt to understand why she was so driven to seek powerful experiences.

To her credit, she indulges in none of the sentimentality that insists on risk-taking even as it demands that none of the risks issue in bad consequences. The narrative she lays out in Reckless is one of ceaseless motion. As a young woman, she saved up $500, bought a plane ticket to England, and dove headfirst into the nascent punk rock scene of the early 1970s. She sought what she imagined her Midwestern American upbringing had deprived her of, and she got it.

In England she had peculiar love affairs with Ray Davies and Iggy Pop, wrote music reviews, worked at clothing stores and other menial jobs alongside people like Johnny Rotten, did drugs with future members of the Clash, and got to know people in the London music scene from David Bowie to Nick Lowe. And all of it added up to . . . less than she expected. Less than she wanted. Less than she needed. The cool affect of her voice and stage persona were well earned. She had seen and experienced an enormous amount by the time she achieved stardom at age 27, but she never quite figured out how she was supposed to feel about it.

All the deaths along the way have made her realize, in the retrospect of a woman in her sixties, how reckless she had been—in the literal sense of the word: unreckoning of consequences. She was lucky not to have died herself, on several occasions. Lucky to have had success find her. Lucky to have met the people she met. Lucky to have had her parents. Lucky, for that matter, to have had opportunities for experience, however hard she had tried to pursue them.

That American cult of experience is an old one. I suppose it could be traced back to the pioneers, trailing off to the West—or back to the American Founding, for that matter. Such revolutionaries as Ethan Allen and Samuel Adams are hard to understand without it. At the beginning of the 20th century, the wanderings of Jack London formed a central part of his literary hero status, and after the Second World War, the cult of experience—the notion that many and varied experiences lie at the root of wisdom—reached new heights with the beatniks and their hippie successors. That’s the vision Chrissie Hynde pursued into the underground world of punk, and the vision she pursued in her music.

I have the sense that not many Americans view experience this way any more, and perhaps we should not regret its passing from the national scene. But we should note, at least, how few people recognize even its prior existence—its role in the long tale of American art and American history. The upset caused by her memoir makes Hynde seem an inexplicable ghost: a woman wandered in from the past, with no business in the present.

The autobiographical question of Reckless is why Chrissie Hynde felt so detached from herself even while she plunged into life with such intensity. How could that make any sense to those who can’t even remember the prior question of why wild experience once seemed something we thought we should pursue?