By Chrissie Hynde
Doubleday. 312 pp. $26.95
Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography, “Reckless,” lacks the exquisiteness of Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” the charm of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” and the humor of Keith Richards’s “Life,” but it out-rocks them all. You can read her book and wax nostalgic about band culture in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Or you can promptly check yourself into rehab. She wouldn’t care; as she writes in the prologue, “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard.”
Or, you can read this book as an attack on the politics of rape. But more on that later.
Hynde was born in 1951 in Akron, Ohio. Later, her family moved to Cleveland, which had plenty of great radio stations. In love with TV Westerns and horses, by junior high she was happily answering the question put to Marlon Brando in the 1953 biker film “The Wild One”: What are you rebelling against? He famously answers, “Whaddaya got?” For Hynde, that “whaddaya” included her nice but conservative parents, America’s car culture, school, the decimation of Cleveland’s downtown, and anyone who wasn’t bonkers about rock-and-roll. Fueled by drugs — pot, LSD, pills, opium, cough syrup, speed and, later, heroin— her rebellion succeeded. Want proof? “Had it not been for [her parents’] total refusal to accept my need to rock, I might have stayed in Ohio and married a biker and be reaching under the sofa for my teeth now.” So she’s grateful to her parents, but she also admits that she couldn’t have written her book while they were still alive.
Until recently, the so-called Cult of Experience concerned male experience, Hemingway being the prime example. But women are now part of this cult, and their experiences tend to cluster around sexual and substance abuse, or extremes of independence, such as walking the Pacific Crest Trail in flip flops. Often there’s a taint of glamour in these female stories, but to Hynde’s credit she doesn’t glamorize her years of drug use or the dicey sexual encounters she’s had. She gives us the ugly truth. Her motto was “Any experience is better than no experience.”
However, sometimes she doesn’t deliver the entire experience, and the reader has to infer what could easily have been narrated. Did she or didn’t she shoot heroin once she got to England, as so many others involved in the music scene did? And what really went on with those heavy bikers back in Cleveland?
In her recent Sunday (U.K.) Times magazine interview, Hynde says of her rape by one of the bikers: “Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility. . . . If I’m walking around in my underwear and I’m drunk? Who else’s fault can it be?” Understandably, these comments have raised considerable objection. In “Reckless,” Hynde frames this rape in terms many women won’t agree with, but she’s being honest about her own hunger for experience, however unsettling or drug-induced: “But chicks (present company guilty as charged) overlooked obvious s--- when in the thrall of some muscle.”
Memoir writers frequently juxtapose their past self with their current self, a strategy that assumes some kind of learning curve. But in “Reckless,” Hynde dispenses with this and lets her drug-muddled experiences speak for themselves, often without assessing their value, if any. This probably does not help today’s young women who want to play rock-and-roll without getting hurt, but it certainly rings bells with older women who had to negotiate the often dangerous sexual terrain of the ’60s and ’70s.
Hynde’s a no-looking-back kind of gal, so it makes sense that she’d get out of Cleveland and escape to England, just in time for the reign of terror called punk. In 1973, wearing her Iggy Pop sunglasses, she arrived in London, where “everyone was underweight with undernourished, pallid skin tones, greenish in hue.” Soon she was mixing with the important people, or people who would become important: Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald, Brian Eno, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood — and that was just on her first visit. On her second trip, she was pals with Chris Spedding, Mick Jones, the Slits, Joe Strummer, the Sex Pistols and Nick Lowe. She was invited to tag along with the Clash on their first tour. They got along well: “[Joe Strummer] and I crawled out of a student union in single file on hands and knees one afternoon, we were so drunk.” Her commitment to music was as strong as her commitment to drugs: “Drugs now permeated everything — it was just a fact of life. A life without drugs was unfathomable,” and it got worse once she discovered there were heavy bikers in London, too.
We also get a tour of Ladbroke Grove, a notorious neighborhood of “antique dealers, drug dealers, hippies, bikers and Rastafarians.” All this time, Hynde was playing her guitar, writing songs and singing. We see the growth of an artist who’s unconcerned about domestic comfort, a steady paycheck or clean underwear. She’s living up to her motto.
In 1978, Hynde formed the Pretenders. She had struck gold with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who brought his immense talent to the band. Honeyman-Scott was not punk, and neither was Hynde. Her extensive listening to early rock-and-roll and soul had created a singer and composer who valued melody and interesting rhythms. Honeyman-Scott showed her how it’s done: “Jimmy would transform my songs in a way I could only have hoped for in my wildest imaginings.” Once the complete band was in place, the Pretenders soared. Their first album, “Pretenders,” went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts in 1979; a second album came in 1981, but things soon got ugly. When not worrying about fame being “akin to living in a high-security prison,” Hynde was daring bassist Peter Farndon to rub Tiger Balm on his nether parts. It was her band after all. Because she “discovered guys never confront each other, preferring to say nothing — the opposite of girls,” she ignored Farndon’s “heroin shenanigans.” He overdosed in 1983, a year after Honeyman-Scott died from a cocaine overdose. “So be it,” Hynde sums up in the epilogue. “I went on to have a lovely little family and found out that children really are the most joyful thing.”
So be it? Evidently, one can be both reckless and heartless. Rock on, Chrissie.
Sibbie O’Sullivan is a writer who recently retired from teaching in the Honors College program at the University of Maryland at College Park.