I’m a Pretenders fangirl, not an objective reviewer. Like Chrissie Hynde, I grew up in Northeast Ohio. I was in high school when “Brass in Pocket” came out, and when the DJ said that the lead singer grew up in Akron, quit her waitressing job, and bought a ticket to London to be in a band, I was blown away. She was proof that the world was full of possibility. No one had to stay where they were if they didn’t want to. Naturally, I preordered Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. I liked it, but there are good reasons why you might not.
I write a lot of profiles and do a little ghostwriting, so I tend to read a lot of memoirs by musicians. It’s a good way to learn more about writing this sort of book, and musicians are willing to be interesting. (Corporate executives want to be dull role models.) You don’t have to be a fan of Donny Osmond’s music to appreciate his conflict between the music his fans wanted to hear and the songs he wanted to sing (Life is Just What You Make It: My Story So Far), nor do you have to love Black 47 to appreciate Larry Kirwin’s Green Suede Shoes: An Irish Odyssey, a story of life in a band that was almost, but not quite, big enough to make it.
“Reckless”, though, is probably a book for fans, although that would include fans of punk as well as of the Pretenders. Chrissie Hynde has received some flak for this memoir, namely the two pages about her sexual assault by a biker gang. She says she takes responsibility for what happened. That has upset a lot of people, as though she is blaming other victims, but I don’t think that’s it. The specific circumstance is that she was bombed out of her mind. Many people who build a new life after an addiction find that they need to take responsibility for everything that happened while they were using. This would fall into that.
The infamous NPR interview starts with the assumption that “Brass in Pocket” was a song of female empowerment, which was a mistake. It’s not about empowerment. Instead, it always struck me as a song of desperation, of trying too hard to make the boys like you. In high school, Pat Benatar was the woman pushing us to be strong, to tell that heartbreaker not to mess around, to demand that we be treated right. Chrissie wanted the boys to like her, which got attacked by bikers in Akron. It also got her into a band in London.
The rape didn’t surprise me; Hynde already told the story in “Tattooed Love Boys”. The drugs did. Johnny Cash’s use of uppers and downers to manage his sleep schedule while on tour seems positively responsible, in contrast to Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farandon, and James Honeyman-Scott. She notes that for whatever reason, the band seemed more wholesome than most of their punk counterparts, but they weren’t. Also: don’t do speedballs before going on stage, as they will screw up both your voice and your timing, Who knew?
Drugs were one of the key passions of Hynde’s formative years, along with horses and guitars. The (not very good) memoir of her fellow Akronite LeBron James, LeBron’s Dream Team: How Five Friends Made History, is all about basketball; there’s no tension, no drama, and no regrets. James spent his high school years training, while Hynde spent hers doing drugs and chasing bands. Neither paid a lot of attention to academics.
In the introduction, Hynde says that she could not have written this book while her parents were alive. The memoir cuts off when she is pregnant with her first child. The sharpest characters are people who died. She has no love for Nancy Spungen. She writes a lot about James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farandon, not much about Martin Chambers. Her songs “The Adulteress” and “Show Me” have more to say about Ray Davies and being a mother than this book does.
Martin Chambers is alive. Ray Davies, and Jim Kerr, and Lucho Brieva are, too, as are her two daughters and her grandchildren. That’s why she doesn’t write about them. As a human being, I respect that. As a book reviewer, I’m left with a story that’s too much about drugs and not nearly enough about Chrissie herself.