Women in Rock: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless as Künstlerroman

Check out my iTunes playlist for Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless.

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, which were 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 in the UK with their first album that year. Those cassettes cover much of the ground in Hynde’s autobiography and add different 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 also 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 eye-witness 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 album. 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, and 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.”

RockandRomPalFinalCoverIt’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 with 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, April 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 persons at fault for a crime are of course the ones who commit 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.

A Taxonomy of Satanisms

Satan_Calling_up_his_legionsA few days ago I was watching That 70’s Show, and backwards masking came up in one episode. It was season 1, episode 8, “Drive-In.” One character — Fez — is a foreign exchange student (“F.E.S.,” pronounced “Fez” on the show, which is not his real name) from an undisclosed foreign country whose host parents are very conservative Christians. They warn him of Satanic messages that are hidden on rock albums by being recorded backwards and then embedded in the music or between songs. This practice, called “backwards masking” at the time, or “backmasking,” was being widely reported among Evangelical Christians prior to the age of CDs as an attempt to get listeners to unconsciously accept Satanism. It’s a frankly dumb idea on the face of it. Most people don’t get rock lyrics even when they’re hearing them performed forward. But TV evangelists like Paul Crouch would bring “neuroscientists” on their show to attest that this kind of recording could subconsciously influence listeners.

So if you spin the albums backwards (on your record player, of course — this is the 70s, but vinyl is making a comeback) you can hear the messages. Yes, I am a child of the 70s, and I did this myself. As you can imagine, it all sounds very creepy in a campfire story kind of way, so my friends and I enjoyed doing this the way people liked watching Creepshow in the 80s. There’s a great scene in this particular episode in which the teenagers are sitting around, getting high, imitating backmasked messages (“Get Satan a cherry pop”), and generally trying to creep each other out.

But yes, backwards masking is “real” in the sense that some bands did embed hidden messages on their albums. The Beatles (who else?) used backwards recordings on “Revolution 9,” so of course once it became controversial and popularized bands started doing it just to get “exposed” by people like Paul Crouch: this stuff is great advertising. It was taken seriously enough for an anti-backwards-masking bill to be passed in California, of all places, in 1983.

Besides the wonderful reminder that Laura Prepon performed Donna Pinciotti, That 70s Show got me thinking about the figure of Satan in society, particularly what this figure means to different people. The traditional Satan, of course, is an irredeemably fallen angel who has rebelled against God and is responsible for his deception and temptation of Eve and, by extension, the fall of humankind. Adam, in the traditional account, wasn’t deceived: he chose to fall with Eve. In the traditional account, Satan embodies evil and will be cast into Hell at the end of time.

But all that this narrative provides is an outline: the social significance of this figure varies greatly. I can think of at least four different Satans or Satanisms in the contemporary imagination.

Satanism as animalistic hedonism. If you’ve ever seen any contemporary representations of SamaelLilithGoatPentagramSatan at all, you’ve very likely seen at least one version picturing him with a goat’s head and feet. Known as Baphomet, this version of Satan (with wings added) has most recently been in the news as a monument erected in Detroit by the organization The Satanic Temple. While Baphomet has a history dating back to the Crusades in the eleventh century and wasn’t originally associated with Satan, the goat’s head became associated with the inverted pentagram and generally represents the union of physical or biological forces: the point is that it’s all about the body, not the mind or reason. The goat itself has had dubious associations since the time of the Mosaic law, the “scapegoat” being the creature who bore the sins of Israel out of the camp.

If you were to invert the pentagram pictured above, so that only a single point faced up, the pentagram would then be a symbol of man, the head at the peak of the upper point with the other four points symbolizing the arms and legs. So turned one way, with a single point facing up, the head or the human mind stands at the apex of the star, while turned another way, the mind is diminished and the animal is exalted. Satan as goat man is the antithesis of reason and culture, celebrating the release of unrestrained animal forces at the expense of reason. When the film Constantine depicted demons as having animalistic heads with empty brain pans, it was following this tradition.

Given this history, The Satanic Temple’s very noble statement of purpose sounds ridiculous: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” It’s a wonderful statement of purpose, but it isn’t Satanism, and Baphomet isn’t an appropriate symbol for an organization serving these goals. What Satanism means to The Satanic Temple, really, is a rejection of authoritarian theism, which makes it more sympathetic to Gnosticism — or even to certain branches of Christianity (except that it is “non-theist”: not “atheist,” but non-theist).

You can really get a good sense of what’s behind this movement from the geek-out moments on this video:

Which are probably best compared to this Saturday Night Live skit:

https://screen.yahoo.com/goth-talk-christina-ricci-000000520.html

Gema_o_Piedra_Abraxas_de_la_obra_-The_Gnostics_and_their_remains-_de_Charles_W._King,_1887

Satanism as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a syncretist religious movement arising in the early days of Christianity that combined the teachings of Platonism, Christianity, and typically some forms of Middle Eastern or Egyptian pagan religions. According to Hans Jonas in The Gnostic Religion, many gnostic religions adopted the following narrative: that there was one true God, and that lesser gods, or demigods (associated with the planets), rebelled against the one true God, creating physical matter as a prison house for the true God and ruling over it as God themselves. They were only partially successful in this attempt, trapping some of God, but not all of God. They then established moral laws by which they could keep the one true God suppressed within the physical creation.

In this narrative, then, the physical creation is a prison house, and human beings are all fragments of the one true God seeking to escape the prison house of matter to be reunited with their source. Human beings gain freedom through arcane knowledge, which allows them to move up through the spheres — the courses of the planets — to finally reunite with the one true God. A Gnostic reading of Genesis would make out the Creator to be a lesser deity, an usurper, while Satan is the hero of the story, convincing Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which leads to death, which is understood in Platonic thought as escape from the physical body. While the truth about Gnostic religions is much more complicated than this, Gnosticism in common discourse has come to be associated with anti-authoritarianism and anti-morality, Satan in this case being a symbol of Gnostic goals and an emissary of, not rebel against, the true God.

What about Romantic Satanism? Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost is perhaps the true inspiration for the vision of Satan adhered to by The Satanic Temple, but at the same time, this version of Satan is too petty and vindictive to be heroic: Percy Shelley rejected Milton’s Satan as a viable hero and chose Prometheus instead. Eve is the most admirable figure in Milton’s story, perhaps the only admirable figure in the story next to Christ and then Raphael, and Satan causes her to fall out of sheer vindictiveness toward God, even when Eve more powerfully compelled him toward goodness than anything else in the natural world, including the sun.

The figure of devils or of Satan are moving targets in William Blake. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, consistent with the goat tradition that I described above, associates devils (Satan is not named in this work) with energy, activity, the body, and creativity, but consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition, sees the body as good. It just needs to be placed in a dialectic with reason, restraint, and order, so that we have enough energy to create, but enough restraint to keep our energies from being destructive. “Angels” and “devils” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are then so-called because they reflect the view of these very human forces by the Church of England, which in Blake’s opinion had a negative view of energy and of the body and mistakenly thought that only reason, restraint, and morality were good. Blake’s Satan going forward in his other mythological works is an ambiguous figure, eventually becoming passive-aggressive, like the Satan of Paradise Regained.

So Romantic Satanism is perhaps a combination of Gnostic Satanism and the next kind of Satanism, Satanism as a mirror of society.

Satanism as a mirror of society. This kind of Satanism dominates punk rock and heavy metal. Not long ago I watched Wolfgang Büld‘s Punk in London, his 1977 documentary about London’s early punk scene. Some of the musicians interviewed were asked why they wore swastikas and Satanic symbols, and one of them said that they didn’t believe in it: they were just reflecting back the society that they were observing.

Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is probably the best statement of this kind of Satanism:

You can read the lyrics here:

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death's construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Oh lord yeah!

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Yeah

Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait 'til their judgment day comes
Yeah!

Now in darkness world stops turning
Ashes where the bodies burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees the war pig's crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan laughing spreads his wings
Oh lord yeah!

As you see, this song isn’t about the worship of Satan. Like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the song protests the military-industrial complex and its war profiteering, which it associates with Satan by way of hell: the bodies burning on the battlefields resemble bodies burning in hell, and modern generals resemble witches and sorcerers. Black Sabbath’s Satanism, like punk’s, is there to emphasize the implicit Satanism of western capitalism, which is immorally profiteering and murderous. However, it does so from the standpoint of an essentially Christian morality: God eventually punishes the wicked.

Satanism as nihilism. When I was a teenager, I read Anton LaVey‘s The Satanic Bible. In it, there’s an anecdote about a young man who is told by another man on the street that if he will hand over all of the money in his wallet right then, that minute, the man will tell him the secret to a lifetime of wealth. When the first man hands over his money, the second man whispers in his ear, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

It’s a funny anecdote, but the point is that there is no point. This may as well have been a joke told about the purchasers of LaVey’s literature.

The actual worship of the Biblical Satan? Of evil? Doesn’t happen. Every one of these Satanists would be scared senseless if they ever had to confront real evil.

Song du jour: Punk and New Wave, 1976-1978

Footage from a documentary originally aired on Granada TV featuring punk and new wave acts from 1976-1978. From the YouTube list: Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Iggy Pop, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Penetration, Blondie, Fall, Jam, Jordan, Devo, Tom Robinson Band, Johnny Thunder, Elvis Costello, XTC, Jonathan Richman, Nick Lowe, Siouxie & the Banshees, Cherry Vanilla & Magazine. Some of the footage is pretty rough, especially what appears to have been Blondie’s first TV appearance, but that seems strangely appropriate.

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