The great Pretender: Chrissie Hynde talks Dylan documentary and why her badass image is 'all a bluff'
In her new documentary, Tomorrow Is a Long Time: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, the Pretenders icon and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer flatly states that she really doesn’t like doing interviews. So, it’s an honor — and just a little intimidating — when she agrees to get on the phone with Yahoo Entertainment to promote the film, which makes its U.S. television premiere on AXS TV Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. ET. But ironically, Hynde doesn’t even remember making that remark, because she admits that she hasn’t actually watched the documentary herself.
Since the start of her career, Hynde has in fact made it an habit to never read her own press or watch her own footage. “I don't want to be self-conscious, and I don't want to think about it,” she explains in her shrugging, typically no-nonsense manner. “I just never have. I don't read reviews. I don't go on social media, either. … I'm not doing it to make a point. You know, I'm just busy.”
Hynde certainly was busy during lockdown, remotely recording the covers album Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan with her Pretenders bandmate James Walbourne. While the pandemic project began as a lark after Walbourne sent Hynde Dylan’s 18-minute epic “Murder Most Foul” and she suddenly felt inspired, it eventually expanded to become a full LP, along with the Tomorrow Is a Long Time film – which, we can assure Hynde, is well worth watching. Along with a glimpse into the creative process behind Standing in the Doorway, the 90-minute documentary includes candid, almost stream-of-consciousness conversations between Hynde and Walbourne about not only the making of the album but also the state of music business (and Hynde’s place in it), how Hynde maintain her sanity and creativity while living in 2020 isolation, and why being a woman in rock ‘n’ roll’s boys’ club never intimidated her.
As intimidating as Hynde herself can be, however, there is one surprising, humanizing, humble moment in Tomorrow Is a Long Timethat shows she’s not quite the fearless, fearsome rock-superheroine she is always made out to be: When she reveals that she hasn’t reached out to Bob Dylan to get his reaction to this project. She seems almost downright nervous to do so, and even quickly changes the subject when it’s broached on-camera. As Hynde speaks with Yahoo ahead of the film’s AXS premiere, we glean a little more insight into her little-known vulnerable side, as she confesses that her badass image is “all smoke and mirrors” and that she’s not all that comfortable being considered a “post-modern feminist” icon.
Yahoo Entertainment: There's a moment in your documentary when you reveal that you did not send the Standing in the Doorway album to Bob Dylan or his camp, or give him the heads up about. Were you intimated to do so? Obviously you don't seem like a woman easily intimidated by anything or anyone…
Chrissie Hynde: Oh, of course I am!
Are you? Really?
Well, yeah! Isn’t everybody?
I mean, I guess so — but maybe you are less so than the average person, I would think.
Yeah, well, you think that that because I'm standing six feet above you on a stage. But, you know, it's all a bluff. Really, people who are in the public eye are probably even more intimidated, and more vulnerable and scared. But that's not what people pay to see. You don't want me to get onstage and whine, “Ohhhh, I had a bad morning.” No one wants to see that. So, I'm not a confessional person. It’s all smoke and mirrors. But yeah, I didn't send it to Bob. Ha ha, “Bob” — first-name basis! Yes, I've met Bob Dylan and he's a lovely person and he's funny and he's personable and he's fun, but no, I’m not going to call him on the phone. I wouldn't bother him.
But the thing is, anyone can do his songs, because they're out there. I used to have fun when we were doing them onstage — I’d say, “We'd like to thank Bob Dylan for allowing us to do his songs!” And that just made me laugh, because the truth is anyone can do his songs, but it made it feel like I had some inside line to Bob. [laughs] Someone did ask me, “Did you send the songs to Bob Dylan?” And I was like, “No.” And then I went home and thought about it. I thought, “Well, let's say if I did a bunch of Cat Power's songs, of course I'd send them to [Cat Power’s Chan Marshall] and say, “Hey, look, I did your songs, whaddya think?” But so you say, “not easily intimidated”… well, I guess I didn't send them to Bob, but I know his manager and I did write to him and say, “Hey, we're doing these songs.”
But you still don't know if Bob has heard the album?
I have no idea. I kind of like to think that he hasn't. Because I'd like to think that he's busy and he's doing more important, like writing songs.
Is this all kind of related to how you don't like to read press or watch films about yourself? Like, you'd rather not know what he thinks, or anyone thinks?
No, not at all, not at all. … The thing is, yes, you know who I am. And yes, I’ve made some records and I have a modicum of fame, and I’ve been doing this a long time. But I don't like to be yanked out of my life and reminded of all that. I like keeping the low profile and doing my thing. I don't live a celebrity lifestyle. So, all that stuff, if anything, makes me self-conscious. And there's something creepy about it.
I think it's really interesting when say that you get insecure like anyone else, because honestly, that's not the reputation you have. You have this reputation of being this iconic, balls-of-steel, fearless badass…
You know, that's that post-modern feminism thing. I mean, words like “empowerment” mean nothing to me. If a person is timid, if you're a timid person, then be timid! There's nothing wrong with that! If you're a shy person, then be shy! There's nothing wrong with it! If you're gentle, be gentle; if you're loud and bossy, fine. All of these qualities that are feminine qualities inherently have been kind of sidelined by this idea of taking control and being a hard-ass and not taking any s***. My mind doesn't think that way. I just do what I want, if I think I can get away with it. And if I can find anyone else interested in doing it with me, then that's good.
Do you not like being call a feminist icon or badass?
I don't care what I'm known as, honestly. I don't give a s***. It's not part of my world. It's out there, like the rings around Saturn or something. What's it got to do with me, what other people think about things? Think what you want.
I actually really love what you just said about “empowerment,” because I do think that word is overused and has been rendered meaningless at this point.
It’s just terminology. It's rhetoric. I can remember a time when people talked about having self-respect. You don't hear about “self-respect” anymore — now it's “self-esteem.” Self-respect isn't really a thing. So, instead of respecting yourself, it's a matter of, what do you think of yourself? To me, the language that we use is probably largely inflamed by all the social media that everyone's reading — it's sort of hijacking the language. And when you use certain words and say certain things, it changes your way of thinking. Like, someone told me once that in Chinese — this is probably not even true, but it impressed me anyway — that there was a word for “opportunity “and it was the same word as “crisis.” And I thought, “Well, that's kind of cool, that a crisis is an opportunity.” It sort of changes your way of thinking of a crisis, so now you're looking for the opportunity in a crisis. And for example, no one really thinks about words like “dignity” or “virtue” or “chastity,” things that people would laugh at now, because it's more the way people use the language.
Well, the whole point of “crisis equals opportunity” in a way brings it back to this record, which you made during COVID to stay creative.
Oh, I like it! That’s a nice curve that you just went on! But you know, this thing about women and empowerment and all that – look, when I was 14, I started teaching myself how to play the guitar, like millions of people sitting on their bed because they had nothing else to do. And I liked Bob Dylan and I played my little harmonica, wishing I could be in a band. … It just depends on how much you find a friend in that guitar, or how you find a way to express yourself. You find something. And anyone's allowed to do it. So, if people say that I am “empowered” or anything, well then, you know what? Get off the catwalk and get a guitar.
You did say something in the doc that really stood out to me: that, contrary to popular belief or to what a lot of other female musicians’ experiences may have been, in your experience, men love it when a woman plays guitar.
You know, I find all the obstacles I've ever experienced are obstacles that I placed before myself. I mean, Jeff Beck works with women. Prince worked with women. Musicians don't care. Musicians just want to be with someone who makes them sound good.
Do you have any idea why your experiences in the music industry seems to be different from that of a lot of other women?
I don't know! We all get periods. We all have all this bulls*** we have to deal with. We all get depressed and we cry, and we're all beholden to the guys that we're suckers for. And we're submissive and we're nurturers and all this other stuff. But you know, I just didn't want to be a waitress, and I couldn't find anything else to do. I have no idea. I don't think my experience is different from anyone else's.
Is that why you were a waitress in the “Brass in Pocket” music video? Was that a nod to a life you could have had — a life that you didn't want to have?
No, the “Brass in Pocket” video got hijacked by the director, because the idea of that was that these guys were going to break in on motorcycles and I was going to get on the back and ride out of there. And he had different ideas, and he left me in there crying. That wasn't my script.
It's interesting that the subject of music videos came up in the documentary, because you sort of put down MTV — even though MTV was quite instrumental in the Pretenders’ early career.
Yeah, well, MTV kind of destroyed of a lot of what I loved about the whole music scene. But things change from generation to generation. There used to be thousands of radio stations, and they all had a different playlist and a different format. And when MTV came along, it was all about a kind of image that took over — and there was only one MTV. It was all filtered through this one channel, and it lost its regional flavor. It wasn't like the music you were listening to in Detroit was different from what you might be listening to in Pittsburgh or Southern California or Germany or Paris, All of a sudden, it all got homogenized. And it a lot of what it came down to was, may the best stripper win! I mean, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart — they weren't making videos. Everyone eventually made a s***ty video, though, unless they were putting millions of dollars into them and getting the hair and makeup specialists in. But for the most part, people in bands, they grudgingly went along with it and did it because everyone was doing it. And so, there's a lot of s***ty videos by some very, very good artists, and a lot of fantastic videos that came from a lot of very s***ty artists. And it kind of it all became the kids from Fame. I kind of lost it at that point and started losing interest. I went along with it like a good citizen. I made a ton of videos. And they were all appalling. But I did it because that was the name of the game, and we were trying to stay in the game and get on the radio. I think when we started, we didn't go along with anything; they came to us. But then it all went very flabby for about 30 years with videos. I think it's kind of leveled off now, because even bands are kind of finished — although I hear bands are coming back!
Yeah, I feel like it's been at least 20 years that people have been saying “rock is dead” and kind of wringing their hands about it, looking for some young band to “save rock ‘n’ roll.” I can't imagine that is something you would be worried about, but…
Yeah, well, I was worried about it! I was kind of bummed out about it. But I understand that there's a whole ton of young bands out there doing stuff. They have to play small venues, of course. We got into this moment… when I say it got “flabby,” I mean arenas and stadiums, and then certain bands wanted to be the “biggest band in the world.” And that went against everything that I loved about rock ‘n’ roll, because I felt we were kind of staying in the shadows and being anti-establishment and staying out of the fray. And we didn't want to be household names. We didn't even want to be in the household! So, then all of a sudden it was this drive to be the biggest — and I wouldn't say I lost interest, but I lost interest in that aspect of it.
You never wanted the Pretenders to be a big band?
I wanted to be big enough to exist. But I didn't want to be the biggest band in the world.
How did you process it when the Pretenders had that huge early success, then?
We were on the road, we were touring. I was not reading the press, because right from the start I didn't. And you know, we were just getting by, and we had our own problems and drug addictions and it was all f***ed up. I was distracted, actually. By the second album, half the band was dead, so I had other things to think about. To be honest, I think probably by the late 1980s, I spent many years where people were saying, “What are you doing now? Are you still trying to get a band together?” And I felt humiliated, because I hadn't gotten a band together. … I had to figure it out.
Obviously you love to keep busy, most recently with the Standing in the Doorway album and this accompanying documentary. When James sent you Bob Dylan’s 2020 song “Murder Most Foul” — which was the springboard for this whole project — what exactly was it about that track that spoke to you so much?
Well, I can remember where I was sitting at my desk in school when it was reported over the PA system that the president had been killed. [“Murder Most Foul” is about the assassination of JFK.] And so, it certainly resonated, because that was part of my generation that I grew up with. And I hadn't heard anything new from Bob Dylan lately. It really blew me away, and it was the beginning of that lockdown. So, I was sitting there with no outdoor space, in an apartment by myself, and it was pretty freaky at the beginning, because you really didn't know if you were supposed to touch anything or if you could go out. Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, when I heard that song, it really lifted me, I think. Certainly, clearly, it was a very poignant story, but Bob is always funny. And musically, it was interesting. And he was singing great. I don't remember whose idea was, mine or James’s, but anyway, it doesn't matter — we just thought we'd cover one of these songs for something to do, just over the phone, like voice memos. And we enjoyed it and kept doing it. We didn't intend to make an album, and we didn't even intend for it to be heard. It was just something to do.
Some artists were very creative during the 2020 pandemic, and others felt very stagnant and uninspired. It seems like you fell into the former category.
I think that just this comes down to an individual. Everyone was going through some sort of existential moment, trying to figure it out. Lucky for me, I live alone, so I didn't have to really refer to anyone else. I just had time on my hands. We had been ready to take off on a pretty extensive tour of more than 60 cities, now all of a sudden, it was just gone. And I found that after the dust settled, it was interesting. I didn't thinkI'd been on a treadmill, but then I realized I had been. When everything stopped, I thought it was pretty cool how the whole world was arrested. And it needed to happen. Everything was going too fast. Things were out of control just about everywhere you looked, and everything kind of had to pause. It’s like, I kind of loved Sundays a long time ago, when that was a day when everything closed. I missed that. I think it's good to stop everything. So, yeah, I dug it.
You mentioned in your documentary that you live alone and you don't have a garden, and that you would spend weeks at a time alone in your home. And I did see an interview you did in The Guardian actually in 2018, with a headline that said, “It's hard work being alone.” But it sounds like 2020 was not hard for you.
Well, you're taking one line that was taken out of context. I mean, that’s the nature of doing interviews and articles and journalism. There was a story I about George Michael — I don't know if it's true, but it was a great story — that he spent an hour and a half doing a press conference, and on his way out, when it was finished, one journalist shouted, “Hey George, have you had an AIDS test?” And he just turned around and said, “No.” And then the headline the next day was: “George Michael lives in fear of AIDS!” And I thought that kind of summed it up. It doesn't really matter what you say; anything that's quoted is already taken out of context, because it's out of the conversation. Which is probably why I don't read any of it, because it it's kind of a windup. … Anyway, I think everyone has their own hard work to do, every day of their life. I don't see my situation as particularly different from anyone else's.
Back to Standing in the Doorway… since we were talking about how “Murder Most Foul” spoke to you in a moment, I'm wondering how you picked the songs for this album, because they aren’t necessarily the most obvious or mainstream hits by Bob Dylan — songs like “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Don’t Fall Apart in Me Tonight,” “Love Minus Zero,” “Sweetheart Like You,” “Every Grain of Sand,” et cetera.
Um, I'd like to think that I've been that clever and I really had curated it and really spent a lot of time on it, but I didn't. I didn't know half the songs. I mean, I love Bob Dylan and I know a lot of his music, and I had his records when I was a teenager and he's a major influence, blah blah blah — he is an influence on anyone that writes songs or likes music. But I haven't had all of his albums. I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not a Dylanologist. The way we chose those songs is I just kind of looked at YouTube and tried to find songs that weren't like eight minutes long, that might've had like a chorus, that we can do it in a more song format. I mean, I don't always write choruses and neither does he, but you know, just songs that well that we could interpret somehow. There's not much point in doing the really well-known songs, because everyone's heard them, and I've heard them, so you end up kind of doing them the way Bob does them. You have to do it in your own way, because otherwise, what's the point of doing it?
Would you ever do this full-cover-album treatment that you did for Bob Dylan with any other single artist? I feel like it could almost be a series, if you were inspired to do that.
I haven't thought about it. The Dylan thing came by accident. It was largely because [famed record produced] Tchad Blake, when we sent our first recording to him to mix, he and his family were locked down out in Wales somewhere, and they made the first video [for the project]. And that inspired us to keep going. I thought, “Well, if they keep making videos like this, we'll keep recording songs!” So, that was hugely instrumental to it. But even at that point, we weren’t thinking of making an album; it was just something to do. We weren’t thinking of making the documentary out of it or anything. We were just doing it for fun. And actually, I would say that's why I do anything that I do. It's my goof-off time, where I can do what I want to do. And if anyone wants to do something with it, be my guest. But that's not really the intention. That's not the motivation.
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