My City Was Gone

Except on the occasions when a stock photo of Chrissie Hynde appears alongside mention of her name in a condescending WOMEN OF ROCK feature, or when a local paper reports in a bemused way that Hynde has been arrested yet again for animal-rights activism, she is largely absent from the rock media. So fans of rock-write can be forgiven for not knowing that Hynde was herself once a writer for NME; that she left the modernist vanguard of '70s Ohio (her brother, Terry, did not—he continues to play with Kent's 15.60.75) for punk London, where she lived in a squat, in a social circle that included Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer; that she had a child with Ray Davies; and that her first album, Pretenders, is a punk classic. But though her work is certainly as good as that of these men, even if these men themselves saw her as a comrade and peer, most of the music press finds something too androgynous—as well as something maybe too seemingly anachronistic—in Hynde to speak of her as a legend, as someone who has a place in the pantheon of great rockers.

Presumably Chrissie Hynde was getting at this when she sang “I'll never feel like a man in a man's world” over the fadeout in “Lovers of Today,” and she did not help matters by adopting a corny (though sexy!) pose on Last of the Independents.All the same, it is annoying in the extreme to see such a complex, idiosyncratic artist imagined with force, again and again, into the most bankrupt of celebrity narratives.

For instance: in a 2000 feature for Toronto's Eye Weekly, Joanne Huffa wrote of Hynde, “Her capacity to keep going when others would have surrendered justifies her image as the epitome of the tough, cool girl who rocks as hard as any dude who fondles his Fender for adoring fans.” That's really a very shrewd, perceptive point, if you are a stone idiot. Huffa is referring to the fact that James Honeyman Scott, the brilliant lead guitarist in the original Pretenders, and bassist Pete Farndon both happened to die in the early 1980s from drug overdoses. Over Hynde's protest—”I'm not a survivor. If I'd been in a car accident or something, I could be called that”—Huffa dutifully inscribes Hynde back in the same old boring story, as if what were really remarkable about her was that two of her band mates died from drugs (!) 20 years ago and that, despite being possessed of ovaries, she is able to rock on.

In fact, as Pretenders fans know, Hynde is remarkable because she is a gifted and singular artist. She sings with a true vocal tremolo, composes and interprets unforgettable songs in a range of styles—the heartbreaking melody of “Kid,” the punk sneer of “Precious,” the joyous “Middle of the Road” and “Mystery Achievement”—and has written some of the most striking, uncanny rock N roll lyrics ever. The next time you hear “Middle of the Road” in the mall, ask yourself how many of your fellow consumers are really hearing the lyrics “WHEN YOU OWN A BIG CHUNK OF THE BLOODY THIRD WORLD, THE BABIES JUST COME WITH THE SCENERY.” Artists from the Midwest often know just how to make the bizarre seem ordinary and the familiar unrecognizable, and at her best, Hynde's songs capture the feeling you sometimes get that the fun you're having at the bar or at the party are of enormous political significance, or the feeling you get more often when you're working your fucking execrable service job where no one recognizes your abilities and the customers treat you like lint and you would like nothing more than to go apewire and bust a cupful of ICEE in some sucker's face while spitting, “STOP SNIVELIN'! YOU'RE GONNA MAKE SOME PLASTIC SURGEON A RICH MAN.”

I went to see the Pretenders with the B-52s in the second half of the last decade at that awful place the Universal Amphitheater. I missed most of their set because the security guards insisted I go put my Swiss Army knife back in my car or forfeit it altogether. Once I got back inside, half an hour later, I removed a sharpened toothbrush from my boot and cold shanked 43 suckers to the bone before proceeding to my seat, where I caught most of the Pretenders' last number, “Mystery Achievement.” It is certainly no more fun to go to the House of Blues, and it is slightly more difficult to straight-up cold shank fools in the neck while an outsider portrait of Otis Redding is judging you from the wall, but so long as you don't mind paying $12 per drink to an insanely wealthy corporation that is filling America's malls with theme-park versions of actual clubs, nothing will distract you from the show. “My City Was Gone,” indeed.


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