Patty Smyth talks hiatus, McEnroe marriage and how she almost became Van Halen's singer: 'I went the route I was supposed to go'

Patty Smyth in 2020. (Photo: Melanie Dunea)
Patty Smyth in 2020. (Photo: Melanie Dunea)

When Patty Smyth took a break from recording to focus on her family with her husband, tennis legend John McEnroe, she never expected that her hiatus would last almost three decades. Now the Grammy- and Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter, known for her hits with Scandal (“The Warrior,” “Goodbye to You”) and her “Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough” duet with Don Henley, is finally back with her first full studio album of original material since 1992: the aptly titled It’s About Time, produced by Nashville veteran Dann Huff and featuring contributions from frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose.

Below, the 63-year-old Smyth reflects on a life well-lived with Yahoo Entertainment, as she chats about the unexpectedly perfect timing of her comeback, the secrets of her successful 23-year marriage with McEnroe, why she hates the music video for “The Warrior,” why she turned down an offer to replace David Lee Roth in Van Halen, and why she has no regrets.

Yahoo Entertainment: It kind of blew my mind when I realized that it had been 28 years since you’d released new original music. So, my obvious first question is, why the long break?

Patty Smyth: I'm going to be honest — I didn't realize it had been so long either. I've been touring for the last 13 or 14 years, and maybe because I got to play live a lot, that was keeping me keeping me satisfied creatively to a point. I've been writing songs the whole time, since I met John and before that. I think right around when I met John, I was experiencing some writer's block, so I really wasn't that interested in what I was working on. And sometimes you need to just live your life; that's where the stories come from. That's what you get moved to write about.

And now here you are, with a new album finally out — and you can’t tour to promote it, because of COVID.

Yeah, the record was coming out and then this whole pandemic hit, which was weird. Like, someone just said to me, “Wow, so you decided to release a record during a pandemic?” I'm like, “No, I decided to release a record in 2020.” Who knew all this was going to happen?

And then speaking of weird timing, there is the bittersweetness that the album came out just three days after Eddie Van Halen died. You were once asked to sing for Van Halen, to replace David Lee Roth. What happened exactly?

Eddie and [Eddie’s then-wife] Valerie [Bertinelli] came out on the road with [Scandal] and played a few days with us, and he said, “I want you to sing in the band.” Then months went by, probably close to a year, because I became pregnant [with daughter Ruby, from her first marriage to punk pioneer Richard Hell]. Finally, I was eight months pregnant and Eddie looked at me — we were at a dinner with the Letterman band, because Valerie had been on Letterman and he had sat in with a band — and he said, “Look, I gotta know. You gotta tell me now.” And I said, “I can't.” So, he definitely wanted me to do it. He asked me over the course of a year, several times. But when he really needed the answer, I just was not ready to move my whole world to California. It was just not what I wanted. I didn't see that as my immediate future. I wish he had just said, “Hey, let's just do a record, we can call it whatever.” But the way that he asked me made it seem like I had to move to California, and I just wasn't hormonally in the right mindset for that.

Were you surprised that he was so keen about having you in the band?

Well, I think it was a great idea. I think Eddie was ballsy and smart, and that would have been the right move. That was a pretty ballsy idea, especially for rock ‘n’ roll, which is so sexist. And he was just like, “You’re a badass. You can do it.” And I'm like, “I know I can do it, but I'm eight months pregnant! I don't feel like it right now!”

Van Halen was such a testosterone-driven band with a such young male fanbase. I wonder if you had taken the job, if the fans would have accepted you.

It would have been great. I think we would have completely crushed it. I think that the fans and everybody would have responded well, because they trusted Eddie and they loved him — like, he knew what he was doing. There may have been some skepticism in the press or whatever, sure, but I think that we would have crushed all of that.

I know that after David Lee Roth’s eventual replacement, Sammy Hagar, left Van Halen, the band was considering having Sass Jordan as their new singer before Gary Cherone ended up joining. So, the idea of working with a frontwoman was something Van Halen had in mind for a long time. Did you ever have any conversations with Eddie about why he wanted to have a female lead singer?

No, because I never have thought about “chicks” or “guys.” It never entered my mind that, “Oh, he's asking a girl.” It was, “He's asking me because I'm a rock ‘n’ roll singer and I'm a badass.” That's why he asked me, not because I was a chick or not a chick. He liked the way I sang; it was based on my talent, simple as that. I will say I was surprised he went to Sammy after me. I thought he might stay outside of the box, and Sammy was a little bit more inside the box. But we never talked about, “Oh, you're a chick, so it'd be cool.” And I didn't grow up that way. You know, I liked whatever music I liked. Most of the rock I liked was guys, to be honest, because there weren't that many women in rock ‘n’ roll then, and that's the truth. But in the other music that I loved, which was R&B and Motown and country, there were as many women as there were men. But no, we didn’t talk about the fact that I was a girl. But I was obviously a girl, because I was heavy with child when he asked me! [laughs]

Did you ever regret not saying yes to Van Halen?

I definitely regretted it for a few years. I had a few lean years when I was like, “Damn it, man! They're touring all over the place!” But then I would have never written “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” or “No Mistakes.” I might not have even met my [second] husband. Who the hell knows? So yeah, I regretted it for a couple of years, but then everything works out. I went the route I was supposed to go.

So as you said, you write from life experience, and one of the new songs on It’s About Time, “Build a Fire,” is about your husband, John McEnroe, with whom you still have such a spark after 23 years. When the two of you first got together, did people think it wouldn't last — not just because you were both recently coming out of other high-profile marriages, you with Richard and John with Tatum O’Neal, but also because of John’s bad reputation? Are people surprised you’ve lasted this long?

People are surprised because most marriages don't last, no matter what, whether you're in the public eye or not. But yes, a lot of people had a lot of opinions about me dating John in the beginning. A lot of my friends tried to give me strategies or advice — and I did not take any of it! [laughs] I really just followed my heart with him. I knew instinctually that there was something OK about him, that what I saw was what I got. He wasn't playing games. So I trusted him, and I trusted in the idea of us. I don't know why I did. Maybe it was because we grew up 15 minutes from each other and there was something new and exciting yet familiar about him. I will say this: I deliberately kept us under the radar and out of the public eye. I definitely made a choice in that department, because that's the thing that can tear you apart, having your s*** out in the public too much. I just felt superstitious about it, like it would jinx us. So, I just got down to the business of being married. I was raised by a single parent. I've got a sister. I moved every three years. I had the most unstable, crazy childhood that one could have. And then all of a sudden I was with somebody who was like, “I'm here and I'm not going anywhere.” And the years were going by. This was a whole new world for me. It was like a new frontier. So that piqued my interest and kept me excited and interested in this whole idea of like, “Wow, you can actually be with somebody and they can be your partner? Now I see why people get married and have kids.”

So, John’s reputation for being difficult and having a bad temper is obviously exaggerated.

Well, people judge John because he yelled at umpires. Which is so stupid. Like, I’d f***ing yell at an umpire if I was playing tennis; it's such a frustrating game! But he wasn't running around in his life, screaming and yelling at people. But that's how the public sees him. If you ask him, he'll tell you that I have the worse temper and I'm way more apt to yell at someone than he is. [laughs] He's like, “Calm down, calm down.”

I know you made a point to stay out of the public eye, but given the fact that you are two big personalities with different, interesting backgrounds of celebrity, and you have six kids between you, I have to ask: Were you ever approached to do an Osbournes-style reality show?

Yeah, in 2001, actually right before 9/11. That week, John was supposed to bring a producer over for us to talk to. I mean, we wouldn't have done it, but yes, they were definitely asking us. It would have been crazy and interesting and funny and scary, but no, we wouldn't have done it.

You mentioned a minute ago the subject of sexism in rock ‘n’ roll. What were your experiences with that when you were starting out in the ‘80s with Scandal?

Oh, it was like [radio programmers would say], “We added Pat Benatar, so we’re not adding you. We added the Pretenders, so we're not adding you.” I mean, they would just tell you that to your face, and I was shocked by that. I was raised by a single mom who was the boss — she ran all these coffeehouses in the Village and managed Link Wray. So that was when I really got my first taste of [sexism in the business]. And I believe it's still that way in rock — not that there's much rock left, but I mean, there's still sexism there. It's not as bad as it used to be, and there's way more women on the radio now, that's for sure. Back then, it was one chick a week; that was the rule, which was mind-blowing.

But Scandal ended up all over the radio, and even more so on MTV, especially with “The Warrior,” which later was featured on Netflix’s GLOW. That video definitely showcased you as a strong, badass woman…

Oh, I f***ing hate that video! It was supposed to be funny, but they hired some French chick who was a makeup artist and costumer and she cut all my hair off, covered me up in makeup so you couldn't recognize me, and put me in weird, hideous clothes. I'm barely in the video, but that's the only thing that saved my career — that and the fact that it was a good song. That video drives me crazy. It's so dark. The director was somebody who they found in a gym. I mean, it's a crazy f***ing story. I begged them to just let me do a performance video, like a concert video, but the label was like, “No, no, you gotta do ‘concept’ now.” There were some really beautiful costumes and makeup — they just weren't on me. I looked like a bat. I have nothing against bats, mind you. I just thought the video was going to be just a little bit lighter, and it's so serious. That's the part that bothers me. But it went top 20 in 1984, so maybe I shouldn't s***-talk it, really.

Going back to the present and to It’s About Time, you were talking about your tumultuous upbringing, so I would love to know about the inspiration for “Drive,” which is about your sister. I understand that that song was a big impetus for the entire album.

Yeah, when I wrote “Drive,” it was like, “I’ve got to build an album around this song. I'm not going to put this on a shelf.” The song was that strong, and I needed to take action. … It’s a love letter to my sister and to a time in our lives when it was very simple, being free and not having kids or a big, messy life or whatever. I just picked up a photograph and the song came from that — an old picture of us, and sort of yearning for that. I was feeling a real distance from my sister and I didn't know how to bridge it, and that was painful. And so I wrote “Drive” to try to somehow explain that to her. It was my gift to her, basically telling her that I loved her and I wanted her back, and that I wanted to have that time back. And it worked. It did help our relationship.

See, I think it's interesting with the timing of this record. As you said, no one could've planned or predicted what would happen in 2020. But I think there are a lot people who are feeling that way now, about estranged friends or relatives that they can’t see because of COVID. Like, now they have regrets, and they want that time and that connection back.

Yes, it is weirdly timely. Timing really is so important. I've been saying, the record is called It's About Time, but the record is also about time. A lot of people have said that to me that that song is perfect for right now, that it’s just what they needed. People are yearning for something different from what's happening now, that's for sure, and maybe that does make them yearn for the past. But yeah, it's interesting how it just happened to be a good time for it, because this is a time when people are reflecting and connecting more with their past or their friends. It's just a coincidence. But there are no coincidences.

I started this interview an obvious question, so I'll end with another obvious one: Now that you're back, will you make music at a more rapid, regular rate now?

Yes, I promise it won't be another 28 years. Hopefully it will be 28 months. I'm already patchworking my quilt of new songs, so it's not going to be a long time again. I needed to step back, and I'm not really sure why that is still; I'm still trying to figure that out. But that's not going to happen again, because I've enjoyed this. I've had such a nice response to this record. I feel glad that I finally did this, and I'm going to keep on doing it, because it's what I love to do. And I don't have any more kids around to bother me.

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