Chrissie Hynde: Don't get me wrong

Chrissie Hynde is one of rock's greatest survivors - and spikiest characters. Here, she sets the record straight about her music, marriages and life as a self-confessed 'pain in the ass'. Interview by Simon Price
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The Independent Culture

Her famous face forms a hard stare. Her famous eyes, raccoon rings of kohl, peer out from beneath her famous fringe, now dyed a flaming autumn red, half-suspicious, half-intrigued. The stare softens.

"Oh, you're the journalist."

No names are exchanged. I know who she is, and that's all that matters.

When I go to shake her hand, she proffers her left, not her right. It's the first sign, but far from the last, that Chrissie Hynde's brain is wired differently to the majority.

This makes her an exhilarating, dizzying interviewee, prone to mercurial, lateral leaps. Ask her a question about Sid Vicious, and before you know it she's giving you an answer about the breakdown of commerce and a return to the barter system, by way of her theory that Christ and Krishna are the same person. To a degree this may be a tactic to deflect difficult lines of enquiry, but you suspect it's more spontaneous than that.

We're ostensibly here - nestled on, of all things, a leather sofa in her PR agent's office in St John's Wood - because her band The Pretenders are going through one of their fitful phases of activity, with an album, Loose Screw, in the shops and a live DVD, Loose In LA, imminent.

But for the first 20 minutes, as she eats a sandwich from the local deli, she refuses to talk about herself at all, asking all about me instead, and feeding me super-strong liquorice sweets called Tyrkisk Peber which she has to go to Finland to buy. "This," she says, "is my only drug now."

She comes across as a really cool mum. Which is, after all, exactly what she is.

Born 52 years ago, Chrissie Hynde grew up in the suburbs of Akron Ohio, the 27th largest city in the US, rubber capital of the world and home to the Goodyear blimp. She revisited only last week, and waxes lyrical about its lost beauty and its American Indian heritage, lamenting its decline into strip-mall-and-concrete uniformity.

Never a "girly" girl, she was always something of a tomboy. "I was really into sewing so I made dolls' clothes and stuff, but ... when the other girls went to the kickball field to watch the boys play, I used to pretend I was a horse."

As she grew older, she found herself drawn to the Hell's Angels, attracted by their aura of freedom and their outlaw code. "Then, of course, when I hung out with them, I discovered that the code they lived by was murder. So that wasn't so cool."

Although distant from the musical metropolises of New York and Los Angeles, north-eastern Ohio was well-placed to "get" the Sixties. On her FM dial, Hynde would switch onto such ear-opening experiences as "Sister Ray" by The Velvet Underground. Over on AM, it might be country from Nashville or R&B from Detroit. Nearby Cleveland was something of a testing ground for touring rock acts: David Bowie played his first American show there, Lou Reed his first solo show.

Chrissie Hynde's early years read like an abandoned screenplay for a hipper, rock'n'roll version of Forrest Gump: she was present at an improbable number of crucial moments in musical and counter-culture history.

In 1967, having learned the guitar and ukulele, she formed her first band, Saturday Sunday Matinee, with Mark Mothersbaugh, later of new-wave pioneers Devo. In 1970, during a brief spell at Kent State University, she witnessed the notorious National Guard shooting of anti-Vietnam war protesters.

She left Kent State without finishing her degree, determined to leave America and travel the world, and in 1973, pitched up in London. "I thought," she says ruefully, "that in London everyone was gonna be into Iggy Pop, because I had some back issues of the NME. And then I came here, and no one had heard of Iggy Pop, so I was really bummed. But I did eventually bump into the guy who'd written the article which I cut out ... and it was Nick Kent."

The legendary rock critic, who would for a while become her boyfriend, introduced Hynde, never short of a loud-mouthed opinion on music, to his editor Ian MacDonald (recently passed away, much to Chrissie's sadness). "It had never occurred to me in a million years to be a journalist. I thought you had to be qualified, you know?! But I guess the qualification is to know music and love it ... and I was working illegally, so I did whatever job I could to survive."

One early Hynde article, an interview with Brian Eno, involved her dressing up as a dominatrix and hanging upside down. In another, conducted in the ladies' toilets at the Reading Festival, she interviewed Suzi Quatro, excitedly - and tellingly - writing "Goodbye tits'n'ass. Hello rock'n'roll."

However, Hynde's most fateful career choice came when she took a job at Craft Must Wear Clothes But The Truth Loves To Go Naked, the Chelsea clothes shop, run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, which would later adopt the less unwieldy name Sex.

The entire nascent punk-rock scene passed through the boutique, and almost inevitably, Hynde found herself in various fledgling bands with characters such as Mick Jones (The Clash), Captain Sensible (The Damned) and session guitarist Chris Spedding. One was known as The Berk Brothers, another (put together by McLaren) was called The Love Boys, another (during a return to Ohio in 1975) was Jack Rabbit, and perhaps the most infamous, with Steve Strange (later of Visage), had the working name of The Moors Murderers.

When I ask her whether punk was a bit of a boys' club, she is quick to disagree. "Not at all. In fact, what punk was about was non-discrimination. And that's why I started trying to get a band together, because I knew that it wouldn't be a novelty that I was a chick. It was like, 'Oh, you can play the guitar, let's get together.' And it wasn't about sex either, which was really refreshing and interesting. I mean, people had sex, but it was referred to as a 'squelching session'. It was impersonal. You weren't really having relationships. Johnny Rotten would come over to my squat and he would spend the night, but there was never anything sexual going on. It probably wouldn't have been very hard to convince me! But he wasn't into it, you know?"

Rotten's sidekick, Sid Vicious, has since been caricatured as a murderous buffoon, but Hynde still speaks fondly of him. "Sid was very sweet and very honest. He really told you what he thought. He was so non-discriminating. If you were standing there talking to a girl and she had a big nose, he'd say: 'Corrr, you've got a really big nose!' He was just pointing out what he was looking at.

"And as soon as he realised how much everyone hated Nancy [Spungen, his final, fatal girlfriend], man, he stuck to her like a stamp to a letter. That's why he was called 'Sid': he hated the name Sid, so everyone called him Sid. That's what that whole scene was about. But when he got fucked up, he got very violent actually. He was shooting speed before he met Nancy, and when she got him into dope it was a very easy switch to make; then it was all over for him. He'd never been with a woman before, where she had that kind of control over him. They were in love, I guess."

AT ONE point, Hynde and Vicious nearly married. "Only so that I could stay in the country. We went down to the Register Office, but it was closed for a holiday. And he had to be in court the next day for taking someone's eye out with a glass, so we didn't do it in the end. In fact, John offered first! But he had that Bill Grundy thing [the scandal following a famously foul-mouthed TV appearance], and he was all, 'Oh my God!' And I said, 'Hey John, remember that thing we were gonna do so that I could stay in the country?' and he goes, 'Wot? Wot? Wot's going on? There's got to be something in it for me!' And I said, '£2, and I'll give it to you at the Register Office.' I had to keep watching him the whole time to make sure he didn't escape ...

"But," she breaks off, momentarily wistful, "it's a shame about Sid."

Despite her punk connections, however, none of Hynde's various band line-ups worked out, and she watched from the shadows, frustrated, as one by one her peers rose to fame. "I went to every club, every night, with my guitar. I just walked around looking for someone to get a band together. I was desperate and determined. Everybody I knew had a band by now. Even people who I showed how to play a few chords! And I was holding out, waiting for my band."

Finally, Hynde found her guys. "And, of course, they were from Hereford, and they didn't like punk music, so I had to wait a little while longer again."

Along with bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, she formed The Pretenders. With a classic chiming sound which harked back beyond punk to the Sixties, The Pretenders released a couple of well-received singles, "Stop Your Sobbing" (a cover of a Kinks song written by Chrissie's hero, Ray Davies) and "Kid" in 1978 and 1979, before making their breakthrough with "Brass In Pocket", a stealthy, sassy tune which became the first Number One single of the 1980s. A chain of hit singles - "Message Of Love", "Talk Of The Town", "I Go To Sleep" (another Ray Davies composition) - followed, establishing the former punk also-ran as a mainstream rock icon.

Hynde's persona was markedly different from that of her punk peers. There was none of the in-your-face confrontationalism of Siouxsie, Poly Styrene or Ari Up. Hynde was always identifiably female, and yet there was a subtle androgyny to her image (she modelled herself on another idol, Keith Richards, and was never pictured in a skirt).

"I was never a feminist," Hynde explains. "I don't care about women, as such. And when I've told girlfriends of mine that in the past, they've said 'How can you say that? Any intelligent person would say they were a feminist! Don't ever say you're not a feminist in the press, because it sounds so bad!' But I just am what I am. I care about people. I care about human relations, human behaviour ... Hang on, I'm saying things I shouldn't..."

For the first time, she pauses.

"On the other hand I can see, in a tribal sense, how women should hang out with women more, and men should hang out with men more. Especially during child-bearing years, so we can pool more. One isolated woman, with a child, in a council flat - I don't envy that. Any woman alone with a child. Or even any woman alone with a child and a man. That seems a bit odd too. And obviously feminism and women's rights have an important place, in the workplace. But I think a lot of what feminists are about was sidetracked by birth control. So that they did forget their inherent female role in the human pageantry. And trying to emulate men, that to me wouldn't be a smart move, but it's what they got up to."

Like Debbie Harry, Hynde's "voice" - both literally and figuratively - was always the voice of experience. The Pretenders were never a "youth thing". Which is, perhaps, the key to their longevity. "There's no song that I've ever written," she confirms, "that I couldn't sing now, that I'd think: 'Ooh, that doesn't apply to me any more'."

Hynde never subscribed to the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old school of generation-gap rock, and therefore does not feel hypocritical for performing into her fifties. "I grew up in the Sixties, and there was a huge divide between youth culture and old people, the heads and the straights. And the motto then was 'never trust anyone over 30'. Now I would say 'never trust anyone under 30!' And also, getting old is fantastic. Why anyone has a problem with getting older I don't understand. The more experience you have, the more interesting life is. The principle of life is to enjoy it."

This brings us to the subject of the two men in Hynde's life with The Pretenders who didn't get to enjoy the ageing experience: Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, her bandmates, who both died in the space of one horrific, accursed year. On 16 June 1982, Honeyman-Scott died from an overdose of heroin and cocaine; then, on 4 April 1983, having been booted out of the band for his own drug-related personality problems just two days before Honeyman-Scott's death, Farndon drowned in the bath after another OD.

"Oh, I was bummed," she says, with considerable understatement. "One day I had a band, and two days later I didn't. But I see all of these things as being a reflection of something greater. I think I have a pretty healthy grip on what loss is about. Loss is extremely painful, but I think that it's ultimately our separation from God that it's trying to remind us of. Do I sound like a Jesus freak? Ha ha ha!"

A Krishna freak, perhaps.

"I told you. He's the same person."

We're into her favourite areas here. Metaphysics, philosophy, religion. Although raised as a Lutheran, she is now a devotee of Vaishnavism, an inclusive, all-encompassing branch of Hinduism which allows her to see Christ - who was, as she says, the same person as Krishna - as "an avatar, a man who lived on earth but was an incarnation of God".

"Personally," she says, "I think all religions are wonderful. And people, I've heard it for years and years and years from my generation, they say 'Religion is responsible for so many wars', but it's not the religion that's responsible. The problem happens when you take God out of the religion. It's men lacking religious principles."

The twin deaths did not halt The Pretenders' career, however. With an ever-changing line-up, Hynde continued having hits through the 1980s - including "Back On The Chain Gang" (a tribute to Honeyman-Scott), "Don't Get Me Wrong" and "Middle Of The Road", not to mention solo hits with UB40. Throughout the decade, however, she was in the papers for her love life as much as her musical output. Having begun an affair with her hero in 1980, she was officially named as adulteress in the divorce proceedings between Ray Davies and his wife. Davies and Hynde nearly married in 1982, but were turned away by the registrar on their wedding day because they were arguing too much.

Nevertheless, in February 1983, they had a daughter, Natalie (now an English Literature student at the University of London). Hynde says she took to motherhood easily. "And people were surprised because I was such a bloke. I'd never held a baby before in my life, and the baby was there and I just had to figure it out. Poor little thing. She's a Goth now! You can trace it back."

Soon afterwards, the relationship with Davies broke down, and in 1984, after a whirlwind romance, she married Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr. They too had a daughter, Yasmin (now an actress, who recently starred with Eddie Izzard in Channel 4's 40). However, this time Hynde found herself on the receiving end, as Kerr left her for a young actress called Patsy Kensit.

Given that she subsequently dated the singer in a band called Urge Overkill, and that her most recent husband was sculptor Lucho Brieva, I ask whether she finds it easier to relate to people of an artistic temperament. She bristles slightly. "No. It's just a matter of who you meet. Unfortunately, I'm a healthy person and I don't meet many doctors. I meet rock stars! And I don't go to dinner parties - surprise surprise! No one wants me around, because they're afraid I'll bring up the vegetarian thing. I never bring it up! Everyone else always brings it up. Or it starts with 'I guess you don't eat fish, then?' or some inane comment. What was the question? Am I only attracted to rock stars?"

No it wasn't, but ...

The "vegetarian thing" is, of course, her other favourite topic. "I do judge people by how they relate to animals," she continues. "I don't judge people on anything else. To me, there's the meat-eaters, and there's us. And that's how I look at the world, frankly! My vegetarian thing doesn't come from 'Oh the poor cuddly little cute animal, let's not cause it any suffering'. I come from the point of view that it is my religious duty to prevent the slaughter of animals."

Religious duty?

"I think that Christ was absolutely against the slaughter of animals. One of the reasons they killed him! Everyone else was making money out of animal slaughter. Things haven't changed."

Are there passages in the Bible to back that up?

"I'm sure I could find them. Anyway, I'm not so concerned with the Bible. I'm more bothered about the things I think he was studying, which was Vedic literature. If you have the opportunity to show mercy to any living entity, and you deny yourself that opportunity, what kind of person are you? You're not someone I wanna vote for, that's for sure. You see, the atheists and the meat eaters will always take the same line..."

At this point, I tell her that I am an atheist vegetarian. She's temporarily thrown.

"Well, you're too emotional then. It's your emotion that prevents you from believing in a supreme controller. And anyway you're just a young lad: you'll be attracted to these things eventually. To decide not to be one of them means that you are already attracted towards something higher. There's plenty of time to be moving up. But that is the direction. Upward. And for all of the people that think I'm preaching, I've had literally hundreds of others over the years saying, 'I heard you on a radio station and I started thinking about it and I've been vegetarian ever since.'"

TRUE TO her word, Hynde has long been a "pain in the ass" of the meat industry. But it was on 8 June 1989, at a Greenpeace press conference, that her outspoken nature most famously led her into trouble. Someone asked her what concessions she'd made to the environment, to which she said, 'I've firebombed McDonald's'. Then someone did firebomb them the following day, and she subsequently got the blame. The ensuing legal case saw Hynde sign an agreement never to speak the company's name in public. She remains unrepentant, and is still clearly opposed to the global spread of fast-food culture. "If I inspired someone," she says now, "I'm truly grateful."

In March 2000, Hynde was arrested as one of a group of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaigners who destroyed displays in the window of a Gap store in New York City, to highlight the company's policy of using illegally sourced Indian and Chinese leather. "We busted them," Hynde says, "And they finally conceded and stopped selling it. But only after we humiliated them. They didn't want us to be arrested, because of the publicity it would attract."

Our time is nearly up, but Hynde has so much more to talk about, flying off in random tangents. About the perniciousness of Sex And The City. About the Fame Academy/Pop Idol machine ("end-of-the-world stuff"). About her struggles with the cult of celebrity. About the Clear Channel takeover of American radio.

But to end with, I ask about a lyric which jumped out at me on Loose Screw, and which seemed to sum up the paradox that makes hers such an intriguing character: "I'm a peacenik but I'm going off to war," she sings on the aptly entitled "Complex Person".

"Well, she says, "there are some things which are worth going to war for, and incidentally that was all written before September 11. A peacenik can go off to war. My choice would be to be a pacifist. But also I'm willing to fight if called upon. No problem with it at all. I'm willing to die. I'm ready to die."

She pops her last Tyrkisk Peber of the day before handing me the rest of the packet.

"So if anyone needs me for a cause that I believe in, and there's a great risk involved, call me now. Because I'm ready."

'Loose Screw' is out now. The Pretenders are on tour in October (ticket information 0870 400 0688)