Check out my iTunes playlist for Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless, and check out my latest book, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023).
Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography, Reckless, has generated a number of mixed reviews and ambivalent reactions on social media. I’m going to try to untangle those reactions because I think it’s an important work for a number of reasons. Before I get started, though, I’d like to add that my comments here will be supplemented by my own research into Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, when I was researching a proposal for a 33⅓ Series book on the Pretenders’ first album about three years ago. Part of my research involved the usual music magazine readings and whatever available scholarship there was, which included Chrissie Hynde’s own music writing when she did a brief stint as a writer for the London-based music magazine NME. Reckless was hilarious on this point. She felt like a fraud as a writer. I think she wasn’t. She offered what she had: her authentic reactions. But feeling like a fraud, she said writing for a living was “like getting paid to shoplift.” The real gem of my time in the archives, though, was six cassettes recorded by Kurt Loder when he was interviewing band members for his May 29, 1980 Rolling Stone article about the Pretenders, who hit it huge both in the US and the UK with their first album that year. Those cassettes cover much of the ground in Hynde’s autobiography and add some details.
Hynde and her autobiography are important because, first of all, she is undeniably one of the most important female figures in rock. I’m using the term “rock” narrowly rather than broadly: classic rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, grunge, indie, or alternative as opposed to rap, R&B, or pop, which is almost never guitar-based. She stands out not just as lead singer and “frontman” but as a rare female rock guitarist, at least rare for her generation. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were singers, Suzi Quattro played bass, Patti Smith has appeared onstage with a guitar but is mainly a singer, and Hynde’s peers — Wendy O. Williams, Debbie Harry, and Siouxsie Sioux — were just lead singers. The only prominent female rock guitarists were usually in all-female bands like the Runaways, the Go-Gos, and the Bangles. Joan Jett is her only real peer after the end of the Runaways and the start of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who released their first album in 1980, same year as the Pretenders, but that band didn’t significantly chart until 1982. Lita Ford may well be the first frontwoman in rock playing lead guitar since Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but her first album didn’t come out until 1983. Female singer-songwriters like Joan Baez played acoustic guitar and weren’t primarily “frontmen” for a band, and they usually weren’t playing rock.
Hynde, by her own accounts, in her early forays into being a musician was often slotted into the lead singer position — which she deserves, because she has a great voice — but she also insisted on being able to play rhythm guitar too. Not because rhythm was all she could play, but because it was all she wanted to play: “I’d never once been tempted to play a single note. Chords, for me, three, less is more” (193). Apart from her own position as a rare female “frontman” and guitarist, though, she was a very close eyewitness of the rise of punk and post-punk in London in the late 70s and early 80s. She associated with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo while she was at Kent State, she was present during the shooting there, and she was close to members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols. She got close to Lemmy of Motörhead and started angling to steal his drummer. She almost formed a band with Tom Verlaine. She’s an observer of that bit of our cultural history from the standpoint of a close insider, so her account is also valuable for those reasons.
The mixed reviews are due in part to frustrated expectations. The original subtitle, My Life as a Pretender, implies for many people that the book should consist of background on Hynde followed by her history of the band from about 1978 to 2014 or so. But that’s not at all what we get. What we get is her life from childhood to around the time of the deaths of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, the Pretenders’ original lead guitarist and bass player, respectively, in 1982 and 1983. She makes quick work at the end of that period of an attempted marriage to the Kinks’ lead singer and guitarist Ray Davies and of her first pregnancy, by him. When the clerk saw Hynde’s and Davies’ emotional and physical states when they came to get married, he told them to “come back another day.” They returned home and acted like it never happened. And she makes even quicker work on the last page of her marriage to Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr in 1984, which lasted until 1990 and with whom she had her second child.
So if Hynde ends her story around 1984, why subtitle it “My Life as. . .” anything? The book ends when she’s 33, just over half a life ago as of the time of this writing. She announces the beginning of the Pretenders with the line, “And that, essentially, was the beginning of the Pretenders,” which appears on page 235 of 312. It’s the closing line of chapter 26. The actual history of the Pretenders takes up the last 25% of the book and only covers their first two albums plus Hynde’s initial work on “Back on the Chain Gang,” which would appear on the Pretenders’ third album. Readers who were expecting a comprehensive life didn’t get it. And as one reviewer complains, understandably, she left out quite a bit of really interesting material by cutting her autobiography off at 1984.
She didn’t discuss, for example, what it was like being a mother of two and a rock star. She’s said elsewhere that her daughters didn’t know what she did for a living until they were teenagers: they just slept in the tour bus while she performed. She didn’t describe much what it was like being a woman rock star and “frontman” on the road, which she does cover in interviews. Some of this material is on Loder’s tapes but didn’t make it into his article. She didn’t describe her six years with Jim Kerr or her second marriage, and she didn’t go through the many iterations of the band and her songwriting after Pretenders II, not to mention her many appearances and collaborations aside from the Pretenders as well as her solo work. She does not, of course, have any obligation whatsoever to write about any of these things, but readers expecting to read about her life as a Pretender might have expected some of this material. She’s still able to write a second book, so who knows what she may approach in the future?
I think, in part, the subtitle means that for her the Pretenders really ended with the deaths of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, but especially with the death of the latter, as Farndon had been fired from the band for drug use shortly before Honeyman-Scott’s death. Hynde credits Honeyman-Scott with her own success as the leader of the Pretenders. She wrote the songs, but his guitar work, by her account, made them great. The subtitle also alludes to her perception of herself as a pretender: while she recounts that she spontaneously came up with the name when the song “The Great Pretender” popped into her head, her book narrates the various personas she had to navigate since childhood. Her parents were post-World War II conservatives who wanted normal lives and normal daughters, so Hynde spent years hiding her love of rock music, drugs, and bikers from them. Her parents were Rush Limbaugh fans in the 80s and 90s, and when Limbaugh started using the opening riff of the Pretenders’ “My City was Gone” to start his show, Hynde refused to pull it because she knew her parents were listening. She even says in the Prologue to Reckless that “I couldn’t have told this while my parents were alive.”
It’s natural to care about the opinions of one’s parents, but this feeling has persisted, intensely, until Hynde is in her 60s. It’s hard not to see it as a sign of Hynde’s feeling of dividedness over her own life. So is she perhaps pretending to herself? Sherry Truffin’s “‘Crying Like a Woman ‘Cause I’m Mad Like a Man’: Chrissie Hynde, Gender, and Romantic Irony” in Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) is a good study of Hynde’s androgyny and ambivalence as Romantic phenomena and is worth checking out. There’s no hiding that Hynde believes her book is about drug abuse and its consequences, which is what she said she meant by the title Reckless. I don’t think she’s pretending in the book. After listening to Loder’s interview tapes, the book captures her voice, though not always with her energy. One reviewer accused Hynde of holding back, but I don’t think she ever does. At least, she never holds back from her readers anything that she’s not also holding back from herself.
Understanding this facet of Hynde’s writing helps us approach one of the most controversial parts of the book: Hynde has been raped twice, and in the book and in interviews she blames herself. Needless to say, victim-blaming doesn’t play well with many people, and it shouldn’t. But there’s some misunderstanding at work, both on the book’s end and on the part of reviewers and other respondents, and it has to do with Hynde’s intent for taking blame. In terms of legal and ethical blame, the only person at fault for a crime is of course the person who commits it. If I leave my car door unlocked and someone steals my wallet from the front seat, the thief alone is responsible for the theft, and he or she isn’t let off because I left my door unlocked. But that doesn’t mean I don’t exercise any agency in the matter: I could have locked my doors. In other words, blame has to do with ethical and legal responsibility for an act, while agency has to do with the outcome of an act, or the ability to affect an act, to determine to some extent its ultimate success or failure.
The problem with so much rape discourse, for as long as women have been taught strategies for avoiding rape, is that blame and agency are often identified with one another. Too often women have been told that if they didn’t exercise agency, then they are to blame, but that’s wrong because blame and agency are completely separate categories. Rapists, thieves, or any perpetrators are always to blame for their own actions. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t exercise agency to prevent rape or theft. Maybe we should think of it this way: everyone is responsible for their own agency but not anyone else’s. Leaving your door unlocked doesn’t mean that someone is somehow compelled or obligated to steal your wallet, just like seeing a woman passed out on the ground doesn’t mean that anyone is compelled to rape her. While you might be responsible for leaving your door unlocked, only thieves are responsible for stealing your wallet, because that’s their exercise of agency. But on the other hand, placing the blame on perpetrators of crimes, where it belongs, doesn’t mean that we’re all powerless. Blame only rests on the person who commits the act, but there’s plenty of agency to go around. I think Hynde’s comments constitute her assertion of agency, her wresting control of her life, and what happens to her, from the rapists to claim it for herself. Only the rapists are still, and always, to blame.
The general idea of a confusion of categories gets us close to the real issue with the book. We certainly learn quite a bit about drug abuse from the book (yes, it’s horrible), but the book isn’t about drug abuse. We learn quite a bit about Hynde’s life, but the book isn’t just an autobiography. I think the book suffers, just a little, from being unaware of its own purpose, which is that it’s a very special kind of autobiography. It’s a Künstlerroman, or a book about the growth and development of a person into an artist. What the book most consistently narrates are the origins of Hynde’s attraction to rock, her desire to perform, and the experiences that created her as a songwriter and a performer. Once she gets into her early 20s, and especially into Pretenders-era personal history, the book becomes a history of her early songwriting too. It’s an explanation of how music became her vehicle of freedom and her primary exercise of agency, the way she took control of her own life to make it what she wanted it to be. It is a narrative of her life starting with her awakening to music and ending with her attainment, and then apparent loss, of everything she’d worked for.
What ultimately drove her to rock, to music? For her, rock was “nothing you could be taught, coming from inside and upstairs: never black or white; never good or bad. Personal, personality–Him up there, that’s who we were all talking to. To address another human was one thing, but a singing voice was capable of so much more” (194). Hynde would agree with Steve Argent, and I think she’s been trying to give some rock back to the person she believes gave it to her.