In this excerpt from her new autobiography,"Reckless: My Life As a Pretender" (Doubleday), rock legend Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders, writes about growing up in Ohio and her childhood and adolescent experiences of nonconformity (before knowing what nonconformity was).
Don't miss Tracy Smith's profile of Chrissie Hynde on "Sunday Morning" September 6.
I started Fairlawn Elementary School, aged eight, with my first day as "new kid" ruined by the certainty that I would never be able to spell "people" or "Wednesday."
During recess, Lolly Reyant and Sally Bittaker, my fellow horse-loving compatriots, and I would wail! After drawing pictures of our alternative identities in class, we would assume our "horse" personas on the playground, galloping at full pelt, then sailing over hedge and fence. We were "The Herd."
Lolly was Tan Topper, a bay stallion with one white front stocking and a blaze from forelock to muzzle; Sally was Don Juan Ed, a dappled gray gelding; and I was Royal Miss, a chestnut mare with two white stockings and a star on my forehead. We trotted, galloped, snorted and pawed, reared and sidestepped, cantered and jumped, cleared bush and wall, never balking or shying; we crossed the length of the playground, carefully avoiding the area where the rest of the girls in our class were watching the boys play kickball.
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One day in the summer, when our parents were out bowling, I saw some of Terry's friends coming up Stabler Road and thought up a plan to scare him. I liked to scare people.
I snuck out, intercepted his friends and asked them to surround the house and wait while I went back in, then, when they heard me scream, they were to bang on the screened-in windows as hard as they could for one minute. When I knew his friends were in position, I let rip with an almighty howl, triggering a house-shaking assault, not unlike an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
Another time, I spied Terry sitting against the wall of the garage under the milk chute, reading Mad magazine. I went in, opened the chute and dropped a rock on his head. That time I was bang out of order and he was actually hurt. I was sorry. I'm not a violent person, but I couldn't resist a perfect setup.
I held my plastic "Jesus Saves" cross near a lightbulb before going to bed so it would glow in the dark. I didn't think I was religious and didn't think about whether I believed or not. Having said that, I could never understand how anyone with a modicum of rebelliousness or sense of fair play couldn't appreciate He who hung with lowlifes and healed the sick. I especially liked the story about Him driving those merchants out of the temple. Even Jesus could lose it if pressed.
I spent so much time in the woods that it went without saying that something transcendental was at work. Even a child could see that things didn't just appear out of nowhere. One afternoon, while staring into the sky intent on grooming, tacking up and jumping the horse I would one day have, an unfamiliar terror jolted me from my imaginings: I was beginning to love horses more than I loved God. I knew, even at the age of eight, to keep it in check.
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Dianne Athey was a grade behind me at school. We met at Faith Lutheran Church and spent many a sermon choking on silent, painful laughter in the choir box. In summer, we swung on the trapeze she had rigged up in her backyard, me playing the supporting role in anything athletic but being a total bully when it came to harmonies and parts for our musical repertoire -- on a cappella versions of the Kool-Aid theme song and "Foolish Little Girl."
Our bid for show business would have to wait a few years, but started when I got a baritone ukulele and the Mel Bay book of chords for an Easter present. Dianne already had a guitar, and we soon had a little thing going, nothing too exciting -- "Four Strong Winds," and "Barnaby"'s theme song -- a kids show on Channel 3. Stuff like that. Pretty crap really.
My dad played his chromatic harmonica and had an ocarina, aka a "sweet potato," which I would sneak down from the shelf and have a go on myself. (When "Wild Thing" stormed the charts years later, I could knock out that closing solo, no problem, me and a couple-of-dozen freckled West Virginians.) I copied Bob Dylan's harmonica holder out of a coat hanger so I could play my uke at the same time.
The new discount houses like Clarkins where my parents did their grocery shopping also had a record department. It was there that I first saw "I Want to Hold Your Hand." I stared in amazement for half an hour. I'd heard it on the radio but the long hair and Pierre Cardin suits threw me. I'd never seen a band that looked like them. In fact, I'd never seen an English band. This was a huge turning point. I abandoned my baritone uke and got a big-necked nylon-stringed acoustic guitar that said Zim Gar on the headstock. I couldn't play along to records as I wasn't good enough, but found with three chords I would make up my own tunes and sing along. I put to music a wistful message of love to Paul McCartney and found that singing came naturally when I was strumming my stuff.
Walk, Don't Run
I met Nita Lee while doing time at Litchfield Junior High School. She was willowy, long of limb, and wore her platinum-blonde hair parted just enough to reveal her sorrowful face and the dark circles under her sad eyes. She was beautiful, delicate and nothing like the rest of the Litchfield Argonauts who stalked the corridors. She spoke other languages that only she understood.
Neither of us was interested in what the "popular" kids were interested in, like getting good or even passable grades, dating guys or wearing penny loafers, or whatever else they were doing. We didn't want to be like them. Our music was better than theirs and that was what defined us.
We weren't yet aware of what "nonconformity" was, but soon it would be the hallmark of our generation. We were well outside the margin of conformity already. My parents might have thought that Nita came from the wrong side of the tracks. They weren't snobs, but they had that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality that characterized middle America.
Music was becoming the only important thing in our world. We sewed Empire-waist dresses, paisley-trimmed bell-bottoms and Nehru-collared shirts. Nita had recordings of old Hollywood theme songs and went into raptures at the sound of a violin as I did at the sound of an electric guitar. But what really set us apart, aside from our love of sewing, was that we were walkers. Our favorite pastime was walking to downtown Akron. It took a couple of hours from Litchfield, but we were in our element since there was nothing else to do, having rejected all things academic. We walked, rambling and philosophizing; our journeys up West Market Street were adventures. We studied every house and red-brick road, speculating about their histories while discussing the world and what might be out there beyond Akron -- like English bands and girls who looked like Jean Shrimpton. Then, when reaching our destination, the intersection of Market and Main, we would make our way over to Polsky's or O'Neil's, the two department stores still presiding over what had once been the heart of a bustling urban community, and perch like two panting sparrows at the luncheon counter in Polsky's basement, sharing a grilled cheese. It felt like running away from home.
One day, I got on a bus at the terminal on South Main and rode all the way to the nearby town of Barberton. Taking a bus almost felt like a subversive act, given that most (white) Americans living in the suburbs were required to have at least one car per family. Only "poor people" got buses in the new world. Well, you couldn't walk to a bus stop out there -- it was too far. You'd have to get a lift to catch the bus, so why bother taking the bus if you were driving anyway? Part of the "progress" process was to shun public transport. It was dead or dying.