The BLUERAILROAD Interview
By PAUL ZOLLO
“Jesus Christ came down here as a living man
if he can live a life of virtue then I hope I can
Do unto others as you would have a turn
Come back here and repeat until you learn, learn, learn…”
From “Boots of Chinese Plastic” by Chrissie Hynde
“MINE IS THE LAST ACT of a desperate man,” she says. “I just didn’t want to be a waitress.” She’s in the midst of trying to convince me she’s not a great songwriter. But I’m not buying it. This is Chrissie Hynde, after all. But probably because it just doesn’t jive with her self-image to affect any pretension, any sort of “and then I wrote” songwriterly pride, that she repeatedly dismissed praise through our conversation, pausing to exclaim “this sounds so lame…” She came across like an anti-diva, eager to puncture any perception of pomposity. When our conversation was interrupted the second time by someone at her door, she came back and said, “You’re gonna think I have a life. I don’t.”
She is, of course, the writer of not one but many songs that have become rock standards, beloved and undisputed rock hits. Yet her reticence to take herself too seriously as a songwriter spoke to a fear that any light shone too directly into that realm from which songs emerge might destroy it. She did, however, have nothing but pure praise for her fellow Pretenders, past and present, especially James Honeyman-Scott, who died from a heroin overdose in 1982.
Her songs have stood the test of time. Though she emerged in an era of booming drum machines and synth pads, she steered the Pretenders always with a purist’s respect for the traditions of rock and roll. It wasn’t about rewriting the rules. It was about writing classic rock songs, and she’s had a powerful knack for it since the start – the great chromatic shift to the chorus in “Message of Love” is pure rock genius, as is the drive and brawn of “Back On The Chain Gang” which dances off a riff as ideal as anything Keith Richards has devised in its simplicity and vigor, and makes a clear statement – we’re here to get this job done right, to fight the good fight no matter what the effort is – a declaration of pure fidelity with James Honeyman-Scott, who invented the riff but died before the record could be made. It’s a love song to him, and to rock and roll.
Whether she wants to admit it, she’s not only a great songwriter, she’s a hit songwriter. But every now and then, due to my polite persistence, she gave in, and talked about how she’s done it. She even indulged my desire to name many of her songs for her immediate response, demurring at first before saying, “Okay, whatever. Go ahead and do your thing.”
So I did. And she gave a wonderfully expansive answer to “Brass in Pocket” that was beyond expectations, proving so poignantly how deep these songs do go, in her psyche and her history. All songwriters tend to feel that their songs are children (though most don’t say it out loud), and it became evident that for Chrissie, taking credit for these songs was like a parent taking credit for the success of a child. It’s the kid who is great, not the mom.
“Kid, my only kid
You look so small you’ve gone so quiet
I know you know what I’m about
I won’t deny it
But you forgive though you don’t understand
You’ve turned your head
You’ve dropped my hand…”
From “Kid” by Chrissie Hynde
She was born in Akron, Ohio in September of 1951. Her dad worked for the Yellow Pages. She wrote her first song at the age of 14 after learning two guitar chords, recognizing even then that limitations create possibility. “You only need one chord to write a song,” she explains. “Look at all those James Brown songs.” She hated high school and all it entailed, partly because her eyes were already set firmly on a musical future: “I never went to a dance, I never went out on a date, I never went steady,” she remembered. “It became pretty awful for me. Except, of course, I could go see bands, and that was the kick. I used to go to Cleveland just to see any band. So I was in love a lot of the time, but mostly with guys in bands that I had never met. For me, knowing that Brian Jones was out there, and later Iggy Pop, made it kind of hard for me to get too interested in the guys that were around me. I had… bigger things in mind.”
She went to Kent State to study art, and was there during the tragic shooting of students by the Ohio National Guard. Jeffrey Miller, who was shot and killed that day, was one of her friends. She wanted out of Ohio, out of America. Discovering the Brit music mag NME, she saved enough money to move to London. She landed a writing gig with NME but it didn’t last long – her next job was in Malcolm MacLaren’s SEX shop. It’s there she met Syd Vicious, and tried – according to legend – to persuade him into marriage, so she could become a British citizen. He passed.
“Me and you, every night, every day
We’ll be together always this way
Your eyes are blue like the heavens above
Talk to me darlin’ with a message of love”
From “Message of Love” by Chrissie Hynde
She joined a series of bands – first as singer in The Frenchies, then guitarist in Masters of the Backside, and the Johnny Moped band. Mick Jones invited her to join a nascent pre-Joe Strummer incarnation of what would be the Clash, and they went on a British tour together, but Chrissie wasn’t happy. She wanted her own band. But it would take time.
Her visa ran out and she had to go back to Ohio, but returned as soon as possible. In 1978 she succeeded at last in realizing her dream, and formed The Pretenders in Hereford with three Brits: James Honeyman-Scott on lead guitar and keyboards, Pete Farndon on bass and Martin Chambers on drums. Everyone in the band sang. Their first single was the Nick Lowe-produced “Stop Your Sobbing,” a Kinks song. In 1980 came the eponymous debut album, a critical and commercial success both in the US and the UK – which led to a great succession of amazing songs penned by Chrissie: “Brass In Pocket,” “Kid,” “Back On The Chain Gang,” “Talk of The Town,” “I’ll Stand By You,” [written with Steingberg & Kelly], “Middle of the Road,” “Message of Love” and so many more. But tragedy hit the band fast and early – first Honeyman-Scott’s death, then Farndon’s subsequent bathtub drowning, after having being fired from the band for being too messed up on drugs. Here was one of the greatest new bands on the scene, launching the ’80s with the promise of great rock to come, and suddenly half of the group was gone.
But she never was derailed for long. “I roll with the punches in my life,” she allowed. “I don’t get traumatized.” She also never had any desire to establish a solo career – and chose instead to reinvent the Pretenders many times over the years – even replacing Chambers, but later bringing him back as on the recent tour. “I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years,” she said at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, “and we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works in rock & roll.”
“Now look at the people
In the streets, in the bars
We are all of us in the gutter
But some of us are looking at the stars
Look round the room
Life is unkind
We fall but we keep gettin’ up
Over and over and over and over and over and over…”
From “Message of Love” by Chrissie Hynde
The ostensible purpose of this interview was to discuss The Pretenders Live In London, a DVD of a passionately joyful live show with the current line-up: Martin Chambers on drums, James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass and Eric Heywood on pedal steel. Her punk ethic still comes across when talking about it – as opposed to her peers that involve themselves in all angles of marketing and commercial calculations, she had no inclination to even view the DVD, and tried to beg out of it. But when she finally did view it, she was surprised by how great it was. And she was happy.
“You have to keep digging deeper over the years,” she says in regard to parenthood’s tendency to soften the edges of a rocker. Nearing 60, remarkably, she’s still one of rock’s most fiercely gifted songwriters, and, as evidenced by the great songs she wrote for 2008’s Break Up The Concrete, she’s still very much at the top of her game. Of course she won’t cop to it. And adds that she still feels like a sham – a pretender, if you will – who someday might be found out. “Compared to Dylan and Neil Young,” she says, “I’m still in the minor leagues.”
Yet few songwriters have talked about the sad suburbanization of America with more poignancy than this ex-patriate, who often returned to Ohio – even opening a Vegan restaurant there – and yet found her homecomings laced always with increasing sorrow at the sight of her hometown’s decimation. It’s a subject that has recurred many times in her work, most notably in “My City Was Gone” but also in more recent songs like “Break Up The Concrete,” a great example of outrage being projected, not unlike Neil Young’s “Ohio” about the Kent State massacre, with the assist of a great rock groove.
And throughout the years, her message has been a consistent one – a message of love – a message of recognition that under the concrete there’s a living earth, a direct connection to divinity. “The reason you’re here,” she sings in “Message of Love,” “every man every woman, is to help each other, stand by each other. When love walks in the room, everybody stand up!” A Vegan Buddhist, her values have never strayed since the start, leading some to commend her for “sneaking spirituality” into her songs. But if you pay attention, it’s really not so sneaky. “[The message] couldn’t be any more out there,” she says.
And when you hear “Boots of Chinese Plastic” from Concrete, with its distinctive blend of Buddhism, bravado and a taut Mersey beat, you hear a songwriter engaged, as inspired as when the Pretenders first emerged, exploding with zen urgency:
“Illusion fills my head like an empty can
I spent a million lifetimes lovin the same man
Every drug that runs though the vein
Always makes its way back to the heart again
And by the way you look fantastic
In your boots of Chinese plastic”
From “Boots of Chinese Plastic” by Chrissie Hynde
In conversation she’s sharp and funny, suffering fools with a distinctly derisive wit. Asked if her music would have been vastly different had she never left America, she said, “Yeah, because I would have killed myself.”
BLUERAILROAD: Do you enjoy writing songs?
CHRISSIE HYNDE: Yeah. When it’s getting somewhere, it’s really enjoyable. It’s fucking awesome. It’s the best thing in the world. But when it’s not getting somewhere, you want to put a gun in your mouth.
When it’s not going somewhere, do you force it or do you walk away?
I don’t know. [Laughs] I just don’t know what to say. It depends on how much pot I’ve been smoking, how many bottles of wine I’ve drunk. It’s usually just in a puddle on the floor in the morning, and is a waste of time. But once in a while, it works.
Do you start a song with an idea of what you want it to say?
I don’t know. I’m all fucked up at the moment. I think I might lay off the pot and not get too fucked up.
It happens all different ways. Sometimes with my limited guitar skills, I just want to hang my head and cry. And then other times I come up with something that is just a couple notes, and it sounds great. It’s always changing.
Do you usually finish the music first and then fill in the words?
I don’t know. I can’t say. It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle, and it doesn’t make any sense until you find that last piece. I hate to make it sound so pretentious or airy-fairy. But it is like that.
[Pause] It has to make sense, though. I know that much. It has to make sense or it doesn’t work. When people will say, “What’s that song about?” the first thing I’ll think is, “Oh fuck, they don’t know what the song’s about, so the song was a failure if it didn’t make itself clear.”
Yet you don’t want it to be too obvious – and you want it to be singable –
Totally. That’s the beauty of a song. It’s only three minutes and yet you can pack everything into it. The great songs that I like. “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate. I mean, why is that song so absolutely fucking likeable? You know, his voice is just perfect. It’s just great. It’s like the perfect pop song.
Much of it is a good groove – and your songs are very rhythmic –
Yeah, I always feel like you couldn’t dance to Pretenders records. That’s one of my secret shames.
I don’t think that’s true. A lot of them are very danceable—
Oh, I hope it’s not true.
When working on a song, do you tape yourself?
No. It’s all in my head. If I don’t remember what I had in my head two weeks ago, it’s gone forever. So I just keep going over it and over it in my head. And if I do pick up a guitar, I’ll go back to that song. It could happen really fast. Or it could take thirty years, like “Boots of Chinese Plastic.” When it started out, it was kind of like a Mose Allison song.
Really? You sped it up quite a bit. I love Mose.
Well, everyone does. The Who and The Kinks, all their songs were Mose Allison songs. That was the way they structured all of them.
He said that, like you, he just remembers ideas and figures if he didn’t remember them, they weren’t worth remembering. Whereas many songwriters feel you can lose great stuff that way.
Well, he’s really sharp. He’s one of the greats. I don’t think we’re all in that class.
Yet the truth is that you’ve written songs that are beloved to way more people than Mose Allison has.
How do you know that? That could be wrong. Look at how Mose Allison influenced the Kinks and The Who and how many people that reached.
I don’t mean to put down Mose – I love him –
Of course. I know you’re not. I appreciate you’re trying to say something nice.
But you don’t find you have lost a good idea ever?
The worst thing is when you’re in that twilight moment when you’re kind of falling asleep, because for some reason that seems like a really fertile moment creatively. And I’ll be going over a song arrangement, or I’ll have an idea for a song. It’s happened to me quite a few times, where I’ve thought, well, that’s just the best thing that I’ve ever ever thought, ever. But I’m just too tired to get up and find a pen and a notebook and turn the lights on and get the guitar. I believe in it so much and I think I’ll just remember it in the morning. And I wake up and have no recollection of it. And that’s bummed me out a few times. But, you know, fuck it. They’re only songs.
Seems like that twilight time is fertile because you’re away from the everyday world – do you find it’s necessary to get away from the world – or can you write while on tour or during times of great activity?
No. But all those mundane activities are kind of informing the songs anyway. Like “Break Up The Concrete,” that was obviously while I was on tour and I just couldn’t stand seeing anymore concrete. That was an obsession. And then my tour manager told me that something like the size of Hoover Dam of concrete was poured everyday. Or some ridiculous statistic that he came up with. That became almost a mantra when I was in my tour bus. So I thought I’d better make a song out of this because otherwise it was a complete waste of energy.
How did that thought come together with that rhythm, that Bo Diddley beat?
Yeah, it was supposed to be Buddy Holly, but it’s all the same thing. That whole project happened pretty quick. I had those songs knocking around in my head for awhile, and when I got in with the band we had one day rehearsal without the drummer and I just said, “Well, here’s roughly how the songs are.” And then we went in with the drummer the next day and we recorded everything in about ten days. So we didn’t even know the stuff. I just said, “Here’s how it goes.” And we did two a day.
I love how on that song, in the breaks, you sing the drum pattern before the drums kick in – that funny “dat dat dat-dat-dat…”–
Well, that’s because I was just trying to run them through the song and tell them how it went. But then when we went back to listen to it – well, I was producing it though we wrote “Produced by The Pretenders” but I was the only one who knew [laughs] how it was supposed to sound.
On the end of one song on the album you hear Jim Keltner, who is obviously one of the gods, and at the end of the song [laughs you can hear him going [in a low voice], “Oh, I’m just getting worse and worse now.” And I laughed my ass off when I heard that, so I insisted that that had to be on the record. Of course, Keltner was horrified. But then when we came in and listened to “Chinese Plastic” and you can hear me going “dat dat dat dat…” of course, I was mortified listening back to it. And everyone else was laughing and said we have to keep that in, and I was, like, “Oh, give me a break,” and they said, “No, no, no, we have to keep it in.” Because I had got my way. So at that point, it became sort of a lurid free-for-all. Like you can hear me clearing my throat and coughing and stuff, and I said, “Just leave it all fucking in.”
And it sounds great. And probably wouldn’t have sounded that good if you had intentionally put that in.
Well, I don’t think anyone would intentionally put that kind of shit on a track.
Also, Keltner’s so solid, that you don’t need much else on that track – his drumming is so good—
Awesome. And Martin Chambers is like the best live drummer, and the most entertaining drummer ever. I mean, to turn around onstage every night and watch him. If I turn around, he’ll always do something. He’s like a comedian, too.
It’s one of the most touching things about the new DVD – to see you onstage with him right behind you, all these years later. The core of the band is there.
Why is it you never wanted a solo career? So many of your peers made a point of leaving their bands and being a solo artist, but even with many different musicians, you’ve always wanted to stay with The Pretenders.
I like working with a band. I’ve never joined a club, but I definitely love bands. And as a singer, my place in life is to set up a guitar player and make them look great. And I guess that’s how football works. I mean English football. You’re always setting up the other player.
Well, you could be Chrissie Hynde with a great back-up band—
Yeah, but who wants to see that shit? [Laughter]
All your fans.
Yeah. They’ll take what they get.
There’s something beautiful about that it’s The Pretenders.
It is a band. I need those guys. It turns me on to be standing onstage next to a great guitar player. And watching James [Honeyman-Scott] was a fucking riot. He was always different, he always pulled something out that you’d never heard. And if one of these guys makes a mistake, it’s always fucking great. Because they’re all musicians. I make mistakes all over the place. But if one of them makes a mistake, they’re so mortified. And I enjoy that so much. It’s so much fun. How can you not have fun in a rock band?
It was really an interesting time. Also, because of coming to London and being in Paris right before the Punk time happened here, I kind of learned how to really recognize when you’re going through a transitional period. When people are going through a transition, you don’t know you’re going through a transition. It feels like you’re on shaky ground and you don’t know why. And when the transition is over, then you see that it was a transition. What I’m saying is that I can recognize them now. And we’ve been going through one for some time. I mean, the whole industry has collapsed. No one knows how to sell records or where it is anymore. And everything’s gone on the computer.
But this seems to go in cycles. People keep buying guitars and people keep being in bands.
The last time I saw a really fertile, exciting musical scene was actually on television the other day. It was a documentary on the year that changed jazz, 1958. It was all Lee Morgan and Ornette Coleman. Coltrane, all the greats. And that was really, really exciting music.
Music’s also been informed very largely by the drugs everyone’s taking at the time. That’s always had a lot to do with it. And I’m always trying not to take drugs and not to drink. Like everyone else, I’m trying to get unaddicted. But, you know, we worked hard at those addictions to get addicted, and it’s really hard to undo it.
Even Dylan’s been talking about that, writing without any drugs. He said, “Try writing with a straight mind.”
Well, when I’ve done it in the past and I’ve gone straight. And I remember thinking “what is this feeling?” And I felt like I did when I was 14, before I started getting loaded. That was the last time I felt like that. Well, it’s kind of a youth pill.
So that’s really what Dylan said, try writing with a straight mind?
Well, it’s always been the drugs that have informed the music. But ultimately everyone comes to the same conclusion. If they live through it.
When we were kids, all our rock idols did drugs – and attributed much of their greatness to drugs. It was as if they said, if you want to go on this road, drugs is a part of it.
Well, it was part of it. It was part of that mind-altering place, which has been part of every art and music scene ever. Always. It’s fucked up, so there you have it. Where would Lucinda Williams be if it were not for the hangover? We all write songs when we’re depressed and crying and all fucked up. So if you don’t get depressed and fucked up and you’re not crying or maybe you’re even in a good relationship, what the hell are you gonna write about?
And it’s makes sense why a songwriter would turn to drugs – to get away from the everyday world and get to that place where songs are.
I think songwriters and people with that creative way of dealing with the world – I mean, it think that sounds pretentious, so I try to avoid that – but I think artists want to go there. It’s only in my recent years I’ve really taken onboard that some people really just aren’t creative. I mean, you meet people who say, “Wow you can draw, I can’t draw. You can sing. That must great to be able to do something.” And you look at them and think, ‘What are you talking about?’ And the truth is some people can’t sing or draw. And I don’t think I ever really understood that. I thought everybody could sing and draw and do stuff like that. I think it was in a Karaoke bar one night that I realized, wow, some people can’t sing. It was pretty shocking. You hear girls at check-out counters at drug-stores. They’re singing and they have the most beautiful voices, they’re better than anyone on the radio.
Senses are imperfect anyway. Who knows if anyone sees green the same way I do? Obviously they don’t. Some people are color-blind. So it’s hard for an artist to understand that not everyone has an artistic way of seeing the world.
It might seem to you, when you see me onstage or on this DVD, and there’s a collection of songs that I’m largely responsible for, that I’m prolific and I know what I’m doing. The truth is that I’m not very prolific. And I feel like a half-assed songwriter and a phony most of the time. Sometimes I paste something down when I’m writing a song just by shouting. But sometimes I get there in the end, I don’t know.
But you’ve written great songs for years –
No, I just got away with it, man, come on. There’s not anything that’s original. I’m just trying to get through it. Mine is the last act of a desperate man. I just didn’t want to be a waitress.
Right now I’m really into The Pretenders, I love them. The band is on fire. I love them. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m not interested in them. But that’s kind of a hard slough to come up with stuff for them. I have some ideas. Of course, I do. The songs I can do with The Pretenders are more get-them-off-my-chest kind of songs. Like I still haven’t written songs about barbecues and stuff, so there’s still plenty of stuff I can moan about.
Are you living in Akron still?
No, I’m in London. I still do spend a little bit of time in Akron, maybe a week or two every couple of months. Which is a lot more than I ever used to.
I read a few things about you that said you moved back there to stay, but that’s not true at all—
No, that’s not true at all. Maybe I kind of implied that. I don’t know. I think that was misconceived somewhere along the line. I bought a place there and I have a restaurant there, so it looks like I’m living there more than I am.
It’s interesting how much your Ohio roots have colored your music, even though you’ve lived in England for so many years. Many times you’ve returned to the theme of seeing how much has changed in America, and how much is gone since you were a kid.
Yeah. [sighs] It’s kind of weird isn’t it? It’s kind of been my obsession all my life. And I’ve tried to go back to the Midwest and rebuild those downtowns. I’ve thought about it for hours and hours, I’ve thought about it for years, what happened to America. Then I finally concluded that the way we got that land, that’s where we went wrong. We stole that land, and we built our cities on burial grounds. So those cities had to go. Karmically, we committed an act of genocide. And what you put out came back. So those cities just couldn’t live.
Akron and Washington D.C. were two of the largest growing cities at one time in the States. I mean, Akron was thriving. It had all this industry and all these people. But, you know, America had all these problems – with the slaves, with emancipation and all that. I don’t think that people like my parents, who were very hard-working, they’d been there for a few generations, like Welsh coal miners, and they were just real ordinary Americans at the beginning – I don’t think my parents were racist or anything, but I think that clash of cultures frightens people. You see it all around the world. It’s more than racism. Racism, you see it obviously in the South. There was a real problem and there always has been. But people are afraid of other cultures. I live in the most multi-cultural city in probably in the whole world, in London. And you can see people can get along, but there’s a real conflict when what is considered blasphemy and what is considered totally unacceptable in one culture is something you’re getting your nose rubbed in every single day on the streets where you live.
But when blacks started moving into urban centers, the whites fled. They weren’t into the suburbs. I’m not entirely hopeful that we can retrieve our Zócalos or our centers. Cause it’s all gone into that kind of strip-mall mentality. You can’t even walk across the street. And what happens is that you use your youth culture. Cause when kids grow up and they get out of school, they want to move out of their parent’s house and move downtown and get an apartment with some friends and do something. Well, if there’s no downtown, there’s nowhere for them to go. So they have to leave the city. What kind of an 18-year old wants to get a job so they can get a mortgage and a car? They usually have other things in mind. Well, that’s the story of American cities. For all sorts of reasons, they have collapsed.
When you go back to Akron, is it sad for you to see what it’s become, or do you find joy in connecting with what it used to be?
It was sad for me in the ’70s when they razed downtown. And I milked it for all I could. No, I just stood there and cried when I went there. I used to walk downtown with my friends. And it would take us hours. But there was nothing to do in Akron, so we’d walk downtown. There were only two department stores, but that was the downtown for us, and we loved it. But they just knocked it all down and made great big inner belts. I grew up with it all my life. The house that I was first in, my grandmother’s house, you know they picked it up and put it on rollers and moved it up the hill. And that’s when the inner belt came through. All the streets got cut up. Yeah, I have obsessively talked about it. Even on this last album.
When you started writing songs, did you write alone?
Yeah, because I had my little guitar. And I wasn’t good enough to play along with records, so I had to write my own songs to have something to play. I learned two chords and I loved singing. So you can get a lot of melodies, and the least chords the more melodic possibilities you have. If you’ve got seven chords, you’re stuck with those chords. James Brown, some of his best songs, were just one chord. It would have sounded odd if you played a second chord.
That’s an understanding a lot of songwriters don’t have, that it doesn’t take a lot of chords to write a good melody.
Well, yeah, that’s why we have limited skills. It really frustrates me that I’m not a better guitar player. I’m good at the one thing I can do. [Laughs] But I can’t just listen to something and then just play what I want to play. I am a rhythm guitar player and that’s what I always wanted to be. Ever since I heard a James Brown I wanted to play rhythm guitar.
Your songs are deceptively simple. In that when I play them, they seem more complex than they are. Or a song like “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” it’s only three chords and yet it’s such a great song.
Oh. Well, less is more I guess. That comes from having very little technical skill. Not counting anything or knowing the names of the chords helps. Up to a point.
You said you started with two chords. Do you remember which they were?
Probably A and D.
A lot of your songs are in A. Is that a favorite key?
I don’t know. I don’t know where I sing the best, I don’t know what keys my songs are in, I don’t know which song I photograph well on.
[Laughs] But your best side to be photographed, that’s a lot different than what keys your own songs are in —
But you would think after being photographed for thirty years, somebody would have figured that out. And the rest of it is I just go by the gods.
When you sit down to write a song, how do you avoid going to the same musical patterns you’ve gone to before?
Well, I don’t avoid it. I think I am going to the same patterns. Which is why it’s great to write with someone else who is also of that kind of limited skills on guitar. He has great ideas, but he also can’t pick up the guitar and express himself the way that James Wilbourne can.
You could get three of the best rock musicians in the world, or any musicians, but you’ve got to have that one focal point to kind of distill it all. Or it’s just gonna be lost in space. They might enjoy it while they’re playing in their basement.
And so many of the greatest songwriters have not been great instrumentalists. Do you think limitations can sometimes create great stuff?
Yeah, I think so. I think you find that even if you’re decorating a flat and you have a low budget. Just look at kids. Look at teenagers. If you go on a high street sometimes and you see the kids in a rich part of town, they’re wearing designed clothes and stuff and they look like shit. But if you go into the really poor part of town, you’ll see kids – one that are into music, anyway – they have a look. And the more limited is your budget, often you’re more creative. That’s what I think. If you have unlimited recourses, sometimes there’s just too many choices. It’s all about hunger, isn’t it? When you really want something badly, you’ll get it. When you’re satiated and you’ve had too much, there’s not much creative possibility, is there?
“Boots of Chinese Plastic” is the best fusion of Buddhist thought and chanting in rock since “My Sweet Lord”–
[Laughs] It’s a song about philosophy, basically. And if you’re not thinking about philosophy at my age, you might as well just put a gun in your mouth.
So many of your songs are about spirituality.
Well, I try to keep it hidden. You know, because certain things you just can’t express to the light or to the public. My philosophy and where I’m coming from and why I do this has always been exactly the same. And it’s all ultimately about child protection and what you might call animal rights. That’s something I’ve had with me since early.
That consistency of message became really clear to me preparing for this, and listening to your whole body of work from the start to now. And the message of “Message of Love” and “Boots of Chinese Plastic” is the same. You said how you keep that message hidden, and a friend told me she likes you cause you “sneak spirituality” into your songs. But I don’t think it’s that hidden, if someone pays attention. The message is out there.
It couldn’t be any more out there. I’d be bearing a cross if it was anymore out there. [Laughs] The thing is, it’s weird. It’s very, very literal. And you are the very first to even ask me about it. And I did quite a lot of press for that album, and you know, nobody ever once asked me about that song and I thought that was really kind of far out. Chanting Hare Krishna Hare krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare. Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Nam myoho renge kyo. Talking about Jesus Christ. And nobody ever asked anything about it, which is very strange. Certain things, you have to keep a veil on. And I thought maybe I didn’t on that song. But I seem to have got away with it. Not that it’s gonna change anyone’s life. But nobody came to me and said, “What are you talking about?”
Well, maybe the sneaky part about it and why people missed the message is that it’s a great rock and roll song – has that cool Bo Diddley beat – so maybe people got into that groove but didn’t pay attention to the words.
Well, that’s good.
Sure. If they’re still chanting Hare Krishna. If they’re still thinking about Jesus Christ and saying, “Nam myoho renge kyo,” it can’t be a bad thing, can it?
I read that the line you repeat in the song – “every drop that runs through the vein makes it was back to the heart again” is a translation of “nam myoho renge kyo.” Is that so?
No. In fact, that line is from a song I wrote when I was trying to get the Johnny Moped band together, called The Unusuals, and that was from before I was in The Pretenders.
Nam myoho renge kyo, I don’t even know the literal translation.
It’s a beautiful song. I love that line “I see you in the birds and in the trees.” I think that’s the heart of many of your songs, recognizing God in nature.
Well, that’s what I mean. That will be the continuity in my songs. Other than heartbreak and fucked-up relationships and that kind of stuff. But I really roll with the punches in my life. I don’t get traumatized. But it’s the philosophy that can keep you on your path. Otherwise, you’ve got nothing.
In that song, I am not quite sure when you say “you sure look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic,” if that’s sincere – or a statement about the cheapness of much of our lives—
No, I think they’re great because they’re not wearing leather. [Laughter] I guess I snuck that one in.
I thought it was about the disparity of the beauty of nature which surrounds us while people are getting excited by plastic boots, a symbol for disposable culture.
No, it’s just part of my endless quest to find the nearest Payless. Cause I don’t wear leather. Actually, that’s a lie, because I actually can afford Stella McCartney boots. Of which I have many.
I thought of you when I heard that the Pope attacked the movie Avatar for promoting a “new divinity,” that nature is God. Showed me there are always forces working to keep us from the spiritual understanding that’s in your songs.
Well, yes. But there’s more value in the creator. In the one who created it. So I understand where the Vatican is coming from. I mean, this is only the material world. I mean, if you’re not beholden to who created it, then I don’t know what you’re looking at, really. And of course it’s beautiful.
Yet it seems it’s that kind of idea – that what is sacred is beyond this world, and not of this world – that leads some people to feel fine in destroying the earth and killing animals, because they do not consider anything of this earth to be holy.
Well, they’re living with a false doctrine then. They’re living with an imperfect idea. People will gravitate and be born into and find their own level of their own understanding, they always will. There’s not any religions that promotes or condones the killing of animals. What they say in these Halal meat and Kosher laws is all bullshit. But nowhere in the Q’uran or the Torah or the Bible, it never says anywhere to kill or eat animals. In fact, on the first page of the Bible it says, I give you herbs bearing grain. And “Thou shalt not kill.” And yet we’re killing billions and billions of animals a year. So we’re doomed, cause that is murder. That’s unlawful killing. Because what we’re doing in factory farms, it’s Nazi Germany. And anyone who is paying for that, and turning a blind eye to it, doesn’t matter how much you don’t see it, you are responsible for it, and you’re gonna get it in the teeth. And that’s what we’re getting.
All the people who, in the name of their religions, are butchering animals – they are butchers. They’re not holy people. Because if you read through the world religions and read those things, they’ll make concessions if you have to kill, how not to cause unnecessary suffering to the animals. But believe me, that is not what’s going on in these slaughterhouses. So they’re liars. They’re all fucking liars. My world is a world on a battlefield. As far as I’m concerned, I am a warrior and I’m engaged in a way, which I am very willing and happy to die fighting. And that is my war against meat-eaters and that’s why I’m in music.
Yes. And it always has been. And I don’t say that in the songs. But what I can do is at least get this a little attention, have some fun, and hopefully encourage people to stop that.
You have expressed much of what you believe in songs – your philosophy, your horror at the death of our cities – so why haven’t you directly put that animal rights message into a song?
I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t figured out how to do it well yet. Morrisey had that beautiful song. I just haven’t managed. I’m also mindful of never wanting to preach to anyone. Because unless someone invites advice, they’ll hate you for it. Nobody, nobody, nobody wants advice, or to be told what to believe or what they should be doing. Nobody. Especially me. People told me I should be using email for 15 years and I wouldn’t open a computer. I don’t like being told what to do. 15 years later, after saying, “Oh, you’ve gotta get email, it’s so great” and now they’re saying how lucky I am that I’m not using email. I don’t know where I got lost in that arc of you’ve got to have it to you’re lucky you don’t have it.
But some songwriters who have gotten so involved in non-songwriting pursuits – working for causes – lose touch with their songwriting—
A lot of animal rights people do that. They lose their human companions. But we’re not going to save the world, we’re only going to save our own souls. Our job on earth is not to save the world. So if you think that’s your job, take your Messiah complex and do what you have to do with it.
In “Message of Love,” you say our job is to take care of each other. Is that how you feel?
Yeah, I do. I think we’re social creatures. We have to look after each other because if we were supposed to be alone, there would be only one person on the planet. It is obvious, isn’t it?
How have you been so passionate about animal rights without letting it get in the way of your work?
Because I know I can lend myself more to it by having a famous name than actually being on the front line. And that’s just the way it worked out. You know, I’ve got stacks and stacks from animal charities and stuff. And it’s a creepy society. It’s a celebrity society. People are more interested in what someone that they’re never gonna meet is wearing or who they’re dating than their own lives. It’s so voyeuristic.
Why do you think that is?
Because people don’t know who they are. They don’t know who their real self is. They’re confused. They think that they are their body. So they become obsessed with things just related to their body. They stop eating meat because they don’t want to put that into their body. It’s all about their body. They’re confused. There are different levels of consciousness. And very few people are fully conscious. I’m sure I’m not. There’s a stunted consciousness. Which is more like the consciousness of a tree. And there’s a budding consciousness, which is beginning to open. A fully opened consciousness, not very many people have those. And you can’t have it when you’re clouded over with meat eating and all these other practices which prevent that.
I understand. When I listen to your songs, there’s a sense of an old soul looking at this world with some sadness.
Well, you know, the soul’s eternal so how old is that?
It seems some are farther along than others.
Well, who knows? They say there are 8,400,000 species and we transmigrate through all of them.
Do you think that’s so?
I’ve interviewed Randy Newman many times, and he always says how much he loves you as a songwriter—
He said he told you that once, but you thought he was joking.
And he’s quite like you, he’s very reticent to ever celebrate his own greatness as a songwriter.
Well, come on, it’s not the Sermon on the Mount, is it?
Yet songs are one of the few meaningful parts of our lives that aren’t just part of our disposable culture. Even now, people are constantly walking around listening to songs. It seems that songs do matter.
It is true. No, I agree, I agree. It’s just that I feel I’m not worthy. Like how did I get here? Like it was just something that I got away with, like a scam that I pulled off. But I agree with you about songs, because songs inform your whole life. And they really do. And there’s no way of telling what’s going to turn you on in a song. That’s so subjective. Recently some of my friends who are around 30 were telling me about this one artist. They all just love her. I’m not gonna say who she is, because I’ve met her and she’s a really lovely person. But they were just going on about how great she was. And I was really excited to hear her. And I got the CD and I put it on and I didn’t like it at all, and I thought, “God, what’s wrong with me?”
Among songwriters, if someone writes one song that lasts, that is beloved by the masses, it’s huge. And there are some of you who have written many – and that’s a great accomplishment.
Well, I haven’t written that many. Come on, I’m not like Dylan or Neil Young. I’m still in the minor leagues.
But Dylan is an exception—
Right. No one can compare themselves with him.
Hits are the way many songwriters measure their worth, and you’ve had a lot–
I could use one now, but you know, I haven’t had one in years. You know, I wrote “I’ll Stand By You” with Tom [Kelly] and Billy [Steinberg] and that was a cold-blooded mission to get on the radio. I was ashamed of it, to be honest. But then some people who I really like said they liked it, so that made me like it.
Knowing Steinberg & Kelly – I remember hearing you were working with them and being really surprised. They are great songwriters, but different from what you do.
The thing is if you’ve been in the game for a long time, you do all the things you never wanted to do. You thrive on change. And I do like change. And I like traveling and moving a lot. And then you actually start running out of things that you haven’t done. And the only things left that you haven’t done are the things that you never really wanted to do.
So you wrote “I’ll Stand By You” to be a hit?
Yeah, and I was ashamed because I’d never done that before. I’d never made an attempt to be commercial and get on the radio. And it started to hurt, that I wasn’t getting on the radio. And I love radio. To me, radio is everything. Always has been. I grew up on radio. And the radio’s always there for everyone. Although that can be changing now with computer. Everything’s changing now. It’s kind of exciting. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m under no delusions whatsoever that things are getting better, or we’re progressing. We’re definitely not progressing. You know, the dumbing down of this society, I don’t know how much lower it can go. But that’s definitely the direction it’s going in. If we didn’t have these factory farms and slaughterhouses, we might have a little chance to have a little bit of peace.
Interesting you wrote that to be a hit, as that seems so unlike you.
I’d never done that before. It was only when I talked to Noel Gallagher and he said, “I wish I’d fucking wrote it.” And then Jeff Beck loves it. And then I thought, fucking hell, if he likes it. And melodically, it’s got some nice stuff in it. It’s a good song. It was just a cold-blooded attempt on my part.
Did you do something different that you normally would in that one to make it a hit?
No. Not particularly. Just writing with Tom and Billy, who are hitmakers, it was a step in that direction. But I have to say it was a blast, and I loved writing with them. It was really, really fun.
Did you all sit in a room together and write at the same time?
Well, mainly it was like me and Tom ganging up on Billy and trying to torture him. [Laughter] I’d kind of just drink tea and go out and buy chocolate and hang out and keep thinking of things I had to go out and buy. You know, I’d stay at the Chateau Marmont and drive to Encino everyday. I hated that drive.
Then Billy would arrive with his little poems. And he’d show them to me, and I’d just pace and eat and drink and get more chocolate, and just goof around for hours. And then you could tell that Billy was getting really nervous. And Tom would say, “Billy, can’t you see she’s trying to surround the moment?” We even hid from him once behind some curtains with knives. And were gonna attack him. But my dog gave our hiding place away. So that was some of the most fun times of my life, trying to torture Billy. But I make no secret of my kind of sadistic tendencies. And Tom, I just loved working with Tom. And Billy. They’re fantastic. I’d just love to work with them again, it was so much fun.
Would Tom be at the piano?
Yes. And I’d be right in the middle of them, so I would put in musical ideas and change lyrics. And bastardize Billy’s sentimental little offerings.
Were you playing guitar?
Sometimes, yeah. We wrote quite a few different songs together in all different ways.
Would it be okay if I named some of your songs randomly, for any thoughts you might have?
Yeah, is it okay if I throw up? [Laughter] Yeah, whatever. Do your thing.
“Brass In Pocket.”
Well, I said that would go out over my dead body. That was my famous quote.
You didn’t like it?
I didn’t like it because I didn’t think it knew was it was. I thought it sounded like it was trying to be a Motown song, but it didn’t quite get it. Didn’t quite make it.
You wrote it together with James Honeyman Scott?
No, he had that little riff [sings opening repeated guitar notes], he was playing that in the studio, and I thought, “Wow, that’s awesome,” and I just happened to have a little tape recorder and I taped it. That’s the one time I did that. I wish I’d done it more. That’s how I did it with him a few times.
But now I like that song because [pause] it’s one of those songs that served me well. I didn’t like my voice on it. I was kind of a new singer, and listening to my voice made me kind of cringe. I shouldn’t be saying all this negative stuff, because if people hear me saying all this negative stuff, they’ll start to believe it, too.
Exactly. We love these songs. As far as this song, one time you said that people think you are that character in the song, and you’re not.
Although I loved the anti-establishment nature of rock and roll – that’s why I got into it because I didn’t want to be part of the establishment – I still have this thing. See, the thing about rock is there’s rules but there’s no rules. There’s a kind of tradition, like Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “the purpose of a man is to love a woman.” So I wrote “Message of Love,” and I took the title “Message of Love” from Jimi Hendrix. Like “2000 Miles” come from Otis Redding. I always want to pay tribute to my heroes. And I always think everyone’s gonna see that straight-away, and then when no one mentions it, I think, fuck, someone out there will think I just plagiarized this person and tried to get away with it. I think they’re so obvious when I do that.
Or maybe they don’t have any idea that it didn’t start with you.
Maybe. It wouldn’t occur to me that somebody wouldn’t know that. Anyway, “Brass In Pocket,” it’s alright. I like it.
It’s an interesting title. Why did you call it that instead of “Make You Notice Me” or something like that?
Because I heard a guy from a band up north who had taken his suit to a dry cleaner, and I can’t do the accent, but he said, “Was there any brass in pocket?” I hadn’t heard that before, and I that it was a good turn of phrase.
I know you said you worried that sometimes you weren’t clear enough in songs, and yet we like that mystery.
It’s got bottle, too, in it. Bottle is Cockney rhyming slang. It means bottle and glass. And the way Cockney rhyming slang works is the word you’re really saying rhymes with the second word. So bottle and glass rhymes with ass. In England to say somebody has a lot of ass it to say they have a lot of funk. So you say, “That guy has a lot of bottle.” There’s also reference to Robert Crumb in there where I say, “It’s so reet.” Another one of my heroes, Robert Crumb. And, well, this is just fucking me rambling. Like I said, I got away from it in that song.
And the other thing about “Brass In Pocket,” the tradition of it is that you’re supposed to be kind of cocky and sure of yourself. You’re not supposed to go onstage and say, “Oh I’m small and I have no confidence and I think I’m shit.” Because you just can’t do that onstage. You’re not supposed to. And probably you don’t have much confidence and you do think you’re a little piece of shit, or else you wouldn’t have gotten together a rock band in the first place. The nature of the stage – where you’re already seven feet higher than everyone and they have to look up to you – you have to use that to your advantage. And so, hence, “Brass In Pocket” is, I guess, a big lie. Name another song.
That’s an odd song, because I’m not really a story-teller. God, I feel so fucking lame talking about this shit. I’m more sort of autobiographical and more expressing my real experiences, and that was more of a story about a prostitute that her little kid finds out at the end that she’s a prostitute. It doesn’t say that in the song, but if you listen to it, you’ll find out that’s what it’s about. Maybe that song doesn’t work because you don’t know that. But then we don’t know what Otis Redding was talking about when he said I’ve been loving you too long and I can’t stop now, and your love’s become a habit to me.” Is he talking about heroin or is he talking about a woman?
Right. But I think “Kid” does work, even not knowing the subtext, the emotion of the subject comes through.
And I use a lot of English expressions that, when I think about it, I know as an American is almost a different language. Like in that song it says, “your tears are too dear.” ‘Dear’ means expensive. They cost too much. But I know from an American point of view, “too dear” might just not make sense or sound really stupid, so fuck it.
Yet from listening to British songwriters all these years, we know a lot of these terms. But would your music have been vastly different had you not gone to England?
Totally. Well, it would have been different because I would have put a bullet in my head. So it would have been very different. It would have been played on harp.
“Back On The Chain Gang”?
That was a song I was writing and I had shown Jimmy Scott some of the chords, and I was working on this song which he liked, and then he died, and it turned into more of a tribute to him.
You made such a great record of it – the guitars, the chain gang vocals. Do you think in terms of the record when you write the song?
No, that comes later.
That one has such a great riff. Do you come up with riffs?
More the guitar player, I suppose. Which is why I don’t use my own name on the thing. Cause their contribution is so great, that I always keep it as a band thing.
That’s unusual to do that, to give writer’s credit to the whole band.
Because a lot of people want all the credit for themselves.
A lot of these cunts, they take credit for stuff they haven’t even written. It’s shameful, really. Horrible. There’s some who will say, if someone sends them a song, I’ll only perform your song if you give me half of the songwriting.
Right. That’s kind of an unfortunate American tradition. Al Jolson did it – and so did Elvis.
Well, that’s stealing. I don’t like cheaters. This year I have a thing about cheaters. People who cut you off when you’re driving. People who try to get to the head of the line. I don’t want credit for anything else. I don’t even want my name as producer or anything, necessarily. Because, hey, I’m a rock star. You can’t get any higher than that. Why put yourself down by saying you did the artwork or are the producer. I have other things to worry about.
Oh yeah, “Pop Star.” I like that song. I don’t think anyone else really got it. I was trying to write a song like “Get Off My Cloud.” It’s a very literal song, too. People thought it was my take on the new generation of singers. It was very literal. It was me going out with a guy, and when we broke up, he found a younger, prettier version of me who wanted to be a pop star. As they always do, of course. So it’s really literal. I like that song a lot. David Johanssen’s on it. He’s playing all these ad libs on it. I should have had him play harmonica, he’s a much better harmonica player than I am.
I think you sound great – I was kind of surprised how good you are on it.
I never practice or play it. I should play more. I like it a lot. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’ve never put ‘Harmonica by Chrissie Hynde’ on it. [Laughs]
But we know it’s you.
Well, yeah, the inimitable sound.
“Middle of the Road”?
That’s a real rip-off. That’s a total Stones rip-off. I probably shouldn’t say that but fuck them. They ripped off so many people in their time. That was kind of my version of “Empty Heart.” Same chords. But there’s only four chords anyway. And that’s another one about exploitation. “The Middle of the Road” is referring to the i-ching, the middle way. Always stay in the middle. Another one of my philosophical comments. Like I said, I like to keep a veil over them.
It’s a powerful song, because you’re saying things in rock nobody has ever said. You’re saying, “Hey, I’m 33 now, I have a kid, don’t jump on me.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I like singing that now, I’m 33, now that I’m 58. But at my stage I can say what I want. Actually, at the time I was only 32, but it didn’t rhyme with the word I was looking for. So I said I was a year older. I used to always say I was older than I am anyway.
What are you going to do next?
You know I just finished an album with a Welsh singer-songwriter named J.P. Jones, that I met a few years ago. It’s a total divergence from what I was doing. I was on tour with The Pretenders, and I came back and I was sitting here in a bar and he sent me a song when I was on tour. He just sent me a few songs, and I thought they were good. Really good. And he said we should try writing some songs together, so we did. So we just finished a whole album. So that was a complete out of the blue for me. That’s never happened to me. I usually have to wait until I get ideas, and then go to my band. His name is J.P. Jones. We’ll have the record finished this weekend. Not sure yet what it’s called. [JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys.] We both sing. It’s pretty awesome. It’s really unusual. And it’s a whole other band, different than the people I usually work with. It’s just great.
I enjoyed being on that last tour, the one you see on the DVD. It was a fucking blast. I love playing with that band. But every year you think maybe you’re coming to the end. I’ve always felt that way, even before The Pretenders. By the time I was 24 I thought I was too old to be in a band. Because it used to be a real youth culture. And yet here I am.
In the new DVD, it’s exciting to see that you seem as in touch with the source as ever –
Well, I hope so. If you’re not, than just get out of it, I guess. It’s like bring a prize-fighter. You got to know when to get out.
But like prize-fighters, most songwriters seem to peak young – in their 20s. It’s impressive when someone goes beyond that – as have you. A new song like “Boots of Chinese Plastic” is as inspired and inventive as your best work.
I don’t know. I kind of think of myself as a songwriter. I don’t know. It’s a moment. I picked up my guitar last night and I was just shit, and I thought, “Ah, I’m just a phony.” You know, I go through those down periods of thinking.