When the ‘Message of Love’ Rang True
Trapped in a world that they never made
But not me baby I’m too precious
— Chrissie Hynde
The song “Precious” lives on side one, track one of Pretenders. I first heard those words jump from the speakers of my Panasonic turntable, cassette, and AM/FM combo in the summer of 1982. I was just becoming a teenager. I’d been playing bass for a year or two by then and was a bona fide rocker. Zeppelin, The Who, Hendrix, Rush — if it was on WBAB or WNEW, I dug it. I was playing in a band, and my life was pretty simple except for the simmering angst. There was my bicycle, which carried me on my paper route, my pals, the girl next door (who preferred older jocks in Camaros to the company of a bespectacled, bass-playing seeker of truth), MTV, and the radio.
So there I was, 12 years old, obsessed with rock & roll, reading my Creem and Hit Parader magazines, making mixtapes off the radio, when something new started to seep its way into my barely pubescent, sponge-like consciousness.
I had met and started jamming with an older guy in the neighborhood, who played a Fender Telecaster through a Jazz Chorus amp. He wore skinny ties and an earring. He had spikey hair and a rat tail. He drove a Scirocco. He was cool. He lent me some records: Pretenders, Pretenders II, and the first couple of REM releases were in the stack. “You should listen to WLIR, it’s a cool station,” he told me. Back then it seemed everything was either cool or not cool, and I, of course, was cool. At least I thought so.
WLIR played new wave, post punk, jangle pop, college rock — call it what you will, but as far as I was concerned, it was cool, and The Pretenders became my new favorite band that summer. I liked the REM stuff, but The Pretenders pinned my head back.
Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farndon, James Honeyman- Scott, and Martin Chambers had me from note one. They were aggressive. The songs were fast and out of control. The lyrics were dangerous and mean and sometimes sweet. The playing was tough. The Pretenders were like a gang and their leader was Chrissie Hynde, who seemed like she might kiss me or stab me with a switchblade. I wasn’t sure which, but I liked it. Come on, I didn’t know anybody with a name like Honeyman. My friends had names like Dave and Frank and Vinnie. I remember learning “Message of Love” off the second album and how excited I was that I could play it. That cool, walking bass in the chorus and that slidey bit in the verse, I could do it. I was learning the secrets! I was hooked.
It’s a funny thing trying to write about the innocence and excitement of youth, trying to find words to describe the feeling of mystery and discovery that happens when your mind is opening and expanding and all is brand new. Music is magic and bands are everything. As an adult, I can intellectualize it and say it’s this or that, but really those years for me were all feelings and emotions. Trying to describe adolescence in words is like . . . let’s just say I was running on testosterone and confusion and leave it at that.
Now I find myself at the conclusion of this column. Fancy meeting you here! This is the part where the adult in me wants to describe how Chrissie Hynde is a role model, or how she beat institutionalized sexism and conquered the boys club. But here’s the problem with all that adult thinking: I seriously doubt Hynde could have given a shit about being a role model. She didn’t sell sex, and she didn’t win the game because she didn’t even play the game! She transcended it. She moved to London, formed a band, wrote great songs, slung a guitar around her neck and showed the world how it’s done. She threw a middle finger to the Reagan/Thatcher conservatism of the day and did exactly what she wanted to do. Do yourself a favor as you peruse our 2017 Music Issue — throw “Tattooed Love Boys” on your turntable and turn it up. Louder!