1 September 2015 | 11:31 pm
Way to go, Akron, Ohio, for giving the world Chrissie Hynde, a malcontent for the ages — or, at a minimum, for the post-punk era — with a look to match: kohl-rimmed eyes, a low hedgerow of bangs, the best sneer since Elvis’s.
Androgynous and possessed of a shivery froideur, Ms. Hynde has long been an unconventional sex symbol. Her sunny side, if it exists, is rarely up. In terms of temperament, she’s something close to rock’s Joan Didion.
With her band the Pretenders, she recorded a stack of crunching singles (“Brass in Pocket,” “Talk of the Town,” “Message of Love”) that sound as alive today as when they made them. She’s a consequential figure in the history of rock, and easily among its most important women.
The Pretenders used to stride onstage to the recorded sound of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” It took nerve to play that as a fanfare. The band’s punishing shows tended to live up to it. It was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
With her new memoir, “Reckless,” Ms. Hynde proves that she can compete with male rock stars in another essential way. She’s written a book that’s just as slack and disappointing as so many of theirs have been.
The sound this book makes is of casual strumming, not of purposeful music making. If it were a song, you would not pull off the road to listen to it.
The averageness of “Reckless” is a letdown, because Ms. Hynde has led a busy life. She was a student at Kent State when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on young people there.
She was a near-feral presence in London, where she moved at the dawn of the punk era. She hung out with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten (this book includes a photograph, taken by Ms. Hynde, of Vicious naked under the sheets in a hospital bed) and was nearly an early member of both the Clash and the Damned. She had a long relationship with Ray Davies of the Kinks and married Jim Kerr of Simple Minds.
“Reckless” is a double letdown because some of us had high expectations, if only because, in her early days in London, Ms. Hynde was a well-known writer for the influential magazine New Musical Express.
It turns out, she admits here, that the magazine’s editors wanted her only for her sex appeal. “I really couldn’t write,” she says. By the time we read this statement, halfway through the book, we’ve sensed its truth in our bones. This memoir gets a story told but it does not instruct or delight or move.
The Pretenders don’t come into view until this book’s final pages. There is little about her relationship with Mr. Davies, and nothing of her marriage to Mr. Kerr. This book is half a life, and not the half you’re more curious about.
Ms. Hynde was born in Akron in 1951. Her dad worked for the phone company. As a teenager, she wanted out of her conservative, middle-class family, and she found escape, as so many did in the mid-to-late 1960s, in music and drugs and sex.
The music flowed from nearby Cleveland’s great, progressive radio stations. (One Cleveland disc jockey and TV personality she loved was Ernie Anderson, father of the film director Paul Thomas Anderson.) The drugs were everywhere, as was the sex.
“Words like ‘whore,’ ‘slut’ or ‘loose’ were replaced with ‘free,’ ‘hip’ and ‘groovy,’ ” she writes. “Clap clinics burst at the seams from coast to coast.” Her motto, she says, was “Any experience is better than no experience.”
This book recounts some brutal experiences. Ms. Hynde was attracted to bad boys, and spent time with a biker gang. “Reckless” includes a fuzzily described but harrowing scene in which the 21-year-old author is apparently gang-raped by bikers at a house that, she writes, “had ‘Jeffrey Dahmer’ written all over it.”
In her book, and in recent interviews, she has blamed herself for this incident. “I take full responsibility,” she writes in “Reckless.” This has earned her ire on social media, from commenters who have noted that the assailants and not the victim are to blame. The best response came from Hadley Freeman, the excellent Guardian columnist, on Twitter. She refused to leap on the pile of scorn, merely noting how sad it is that the great Ms. Hynde would blame herself for so very long.
There is a lot of wandering in this slow-moving book. During college, and after, Ms. Hynde lived in Mexico and Toronto and Arizona and Paris. She worked a lot of dead-end jobs. “Me, the cocktail waitress,” she cracks. “A good way to ruin anyone’s night.”
She seemed to live like the character in Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel, “How Should a Person Be?,” who commented, “We tried not to smile, for smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time.”
Ms. Hynde had owned a guitar since she was young, and she was in a number of fledgling bands. About playing rhythm rather than lead guitar in the Pretenders, she writes: “Someone had to hold the fort. Like sex, if the rhythm changed, even fractionally, the mood was lost.”
There are a number of fine moments in “Reckless,” which, at its best, is a sensitive and rowdy coming-of-age story. Ms. Hynde figured it out as she went along. “I thought if I kept not doing what I didn’t want to do,” she says, “I would naturally get closer to what I did want.”
When we finally witness the rise of the Pretenders, the party ends quickly. Two founding members soon die from drug use. In an epilogue, Ms. Hynde writes: “I think it’s easy to see that the moral of my story is that drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, only cause suffering.”
Ms. Hynde, a mother of two daughters, thanks her parents for disapproving of her teenage imperatives. “Had it not been for their total refusal to accept my need to rock,” she writes, “I might have stayed in Ohio and married a biker and be reaching under the sofa for my teeth now.”
My Life as a Pretender
By Chrissie Hynde
Illustrated. 312 pages. Doubleday. $26.95.
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