In the prologue to her entertaining and aptly titled memoir, “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” Chrissie Hynde confesses some misgivings about the tale she’s about to tell. “I regret half of this story,” Hynde writes, “and the other half is the sound you heard.”
It’s a remarkable admission, but without the regrets — we presume she’s talking about the zealous rejection of her parents and the copious drinking, drug taking, and indiscreet sex — it’s possible Hynde would never have fled Akron, Ohio, and put together the Pretenders. In other words, thank goodness for late nights.
The Pretenders, formed just when it seemed Hynde might abandon all hope of being in a rock ’n’ roll band, released their first album in 1979, a post-punk masterpiece whose iconic cover has the snake-hipped Hynde, flanked by her bad-boy bandmates, looking seductive and vaguely sinister in a red leather jacket. The chiming guitars, barbed lyrics, and velveteen voice on songs like “Brass in Pocket,” “Kid,” and “Mystery Achievement” heralded Hynde as a formidable talent.
But if she’s chagrined about aspects of her past — there’s a nightmarish account of an afternoon spent alone with a violent gang of “tattooed love boys” — why write about it? One answer can be found in the success of recent books by Patti Smith and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. There’s an appetite for memoirs by smart women rockers, and Hynde, 64, serves up a hearty and satisfying meal in “Reckless,” writing with the sort of candor and humor rarely found in books by her male counterparts. (I’m looking at you, Steven Tyler.)
Hynde’s book isn’t a tell-all in the traditional sense. If you want the skinny on her relationship with Ray Davies of the Kinks, with whom she had a daughter, or marriage to Jim Kerr of the Scottish band Simple Minds, with whom she had another daughter, there’s not much here. Of her scrapped wedding with Davies in 1982, to which she took a train (wearing a white silk suit), Hynde laments: “Even a total stranger could tell we were making a mistake.”
More interesting anyway is Hynde’s origin story in “Rubber City” — Akron was the headquarters of Firestone and Goodyear — and how growing up “trauma-free” in a company town contributed to her desire to escape. Hynde was an awkward, acne-faced teen during the British Invasion, and music was a lifeline. She tuned in Cleveland’s underground radio stations, scavenged record bins — “Freak Out!” by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention was a revelation — and went to every concert: Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, Tim Buckley (in a bowling alley), and Jackie Wilson, who plucked Hynde, then barely in high school, from the audience and put his mouth on hers.
“I guess that was my first kiss, although there might have been one poorly aimed Juicy Fruit-flavored peck at a fun fair courtesy of a friend’s older cousin, but no match for the salty, experienced lips of Jackie Wilson,” she writes.
There is a Zelig-like quality to the young Hynde, who found herself in the company of rock stars — she once gave David Bowie a ride in her parents’ Oldsmobile — and was a student at Kent State University in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired on her classmates, killing four. A keen observer of her cultural moment, Hynde writes incisively about urban renewal, race, fashion, and feminism.
(Recently, while promoting the book, she made some controversial comments about rape and provocative attire that suggests she may have a ways to go on that last topic.)
Hynde had a vagabond’s heart and decamped to London, more or less permanently and with no plan, in 1973. Squatting wherever she could, she worked briefly as a music writer, a window washer, a shop girl at a boutique run by Malcolm McLaren, and palled around with Mick Jones and Johnny Rotten before punk rock was a thing. (If you’re not familiar with those chaps, this may not be the book for you.)
Hynde was all the while writing songs, but her attempts to form a band failed. That is until James Honeyman-Scott arrives on the scene — the shaggy-haired guitarist makes his first appearance about two-thirds of the way through “Reckless” — and the Pretenders, rounded out by Pete Farndon on bass, and Martin Chambers on drums, are born.
The book concludes, somewhat hastily, with the story of the band’s rapid ascent — the first album debuted at No. 1 in England — and the calamitous consequences of success for Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, who hung around long enough to make a second record but ultimately succumbed to their excesses. Hynde, backed by varying lineups, continued with the Pretenders for several years, but it was never the same.
In the end, it’s understandable that Hynde has some regrets, but it’s also heartening that bad girls sometimes finish first.
My Life as a Pretender
By Chrissie Hynde. Doubleday,
336 pp., $26.95