For Chrissie Hynde, priestess of the Pretenders, it's a long way from Akron, Ohio. As she prowls her Georgetown hotel room, throwing off the final heat of a Sunday night rock 'n' roll show, her speech ranges from thoughtful and defensively slow to careless and aggressively speedy.
On loss of privacy: "Yeah, sometimes that really drags my bag. But you can draw away and keep out of touch. That's fair enough."
On Pat Benatar, the rock singer who slept in the same room two years earlier and was on the cover of People last week: "The cover said 'She's available, boys.' Where's that at? That put me off right away, but I bought it to see how they approached her, how they made her look. They're doing me soon."
On the music business: "How am I supposed to account for the way it works. It just f---s me up, doesn't it."
Hynde has lived in England for nearly eight years now and her accent is somewhere in transit: beginning in American and ending in English. She seems uncomfortable with talking. Her first words, "What do you want?" establish a defensive, almost bitter, stance. Not too long ago, the Pretenders played an Akron amphitheater that had once hired a more innocent Hynde as a waitress in its restaurant. "I saw an old girlfriend and she looked at us up there on stage and said, 'Wow, Chris, did you catch the gold ring or something?' It's funny to look at it that way," says Hynde acidly. "It looks like I really got . . . lucky."
She's earned her wariness: Her U.S. entrance was heralded with a Rolling Stone cover trumpeting "The Pretenders -- Thrilling America With Leather and Love," and an accompanying article portraying Hynde as a hard-drinking, loose, rock 'n' roll woman. "That was strictly American," she says of the cliche'd portrait. "I always wore these cheap plastic pants that felt real good 'cause they stretched. I get scared when I think about publicity," she admits. "I don't read a lot of interviews because they really get me down. Maybe I am a hard-a--, but what does that mean? The Pretenders is a pop group, what does that mean?"
If Hynde sees herself as the illusionless woman -- and it's something she seems intent on projecting -- her stance is in part a reaction to the mythology of the music business. She's a reluctant champion who seems to draw joy in an inverse proportion to her paycheck as one of the hottest new stars in rock's instant and forever expanding universe. Hynde attacks the image of being "raised on rock 'n' roll, with dreams of stardom and every kid wanting to be in a band."
"I never had any goals or assumptions," she blurts out. "I wasn't looking for a career, and I don't think a lot of people are. Most people in bands do it because they do it; chances are they're not equipped to do anything else. I can type, I can wait on tables; I'm not so out of it that I can't wait on tables for eight hours. Now, a 9-to-5 office job, I'd probably commit suicide, I would, I know it."
She doesn't have to worry, at least for a while. The Pretenders seem solidly established for now, with much of their appeal built around Hynde's provocative explorations of the battles between the sexes. Interestingly, her psycho-sexual narratives explore both the strengths and weaknesses of women, but it's the hard-edged and aggressive songs -- "Tattooed Love Boys," "Precious," "Pack It Up," "The Adulteress" -- that solidify the image of Hynde as a liberated -- even butch -- rock 'n' roller.
"The fact that I'm a girl is certainly the reason this band is so popular," Hynde shrugs. "No question about it. Ten years ago, it was such a big gimmick that I wouldn't have even considered it. It's not a real big attraction. The Runaways were a good band -- and they were probably great gals -- but the main attraction was that they were girls doing it; if it was blokes doing it, it would have been so . . .. commonplace.
"We're not talking about a battle of the sexes here, we're talking about music. We formed as a band; they guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, drummer Martin Chambers and bassist Pete Farndon did not join me, we joined each other." When the Pretenders came together in 1977, Hynde had already run through a dozen odd jobs and a score of frustrations in trying to put her music together with a band. That she would do so in England was predicted in junior high school when her class was asked to choose a word and write a poem around it; Hynde's first lyrics were composed to and for "England."
In England, Hynde made herself known through her occasional (but always irreverent) writings for the weekly New Musical Express as a rock 'n' roll critic; she drifted into the burgeoning punk and New Wave scene, less a participant than a chum. She wrote a few lyrics for the first Clash album (possibly inspiring Mick Jones to change a wimpy love song titled "I'm So Bored With You" to the more aggressive "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.") and even taught Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten the ultra-basic chords to "Louie, Louie." Hynde laughs, briefly, remembering Rotten's childish pleasure.
With a few hit singles under their belt, the Pretenders became a hot touring attraction; their debut album went platinum, and they walked off with all sorts of honors. Keeping in character, Hynde has chosen to disassociate herself from her work, to the point of saying in interview after interview, "I've often thought I wouldn't buy our records. I haven't listened to "Pretenders 2" since we recorded it. And there's so little out these days that I enjoy."
Except, maybe, for the Kinks: that seminal rock group's lead singer and guiding spirit, Ray Davies, is currently Hynde's paramour. Hynde, a Kinks fan since her early Akron days, admits to waiting outside the stadium as a 14-year-old, shyly turning away from Davies as he walked by. "So what! There's tens of thousands of Kinks fans who've waited backstage and they've walked by and said hello. It's the highlight of their teen-agehood. But it's just fairy-tale stuff."
In the course of the evening, Davies calls in from the road. Suddenly, the toughness is relaxed, the barriers eased, the conversation less intense. It's a private moment that overshadows the ennui, frustration and disillusionment with life on the road. When Hynde hangs up, the conversation drifts to career dreams. "I think our popularity is going down," Hynde says cheerfully. "I think it was a big, false start. We didn't play our game right waiting 18 months for a follow-up album and we've been ditched on a lot of stations." She pauses for a moment. "Maybe it isn't so funny."
She doesn't seem to care, though. Hynde harks back to the emotions of the group's first rehearsals. "You don't think about what's going to happen in the future. No one looks that far ahead." Which is why she stays in England. "The charts change every week there, there's a slew of national music papers that don't care about last week's news. If you stay up in the charts it's because you've got something interesting, something happening. Here, it just lingers on." Which is something Chrissie Hynde seems loath to do, in conversation as well as career.