I have often thought about writing a biography of Chrissie Hynde. In my opinion, she is the George Harrison of punk rock: an utterly original guitarist possessed of a unique sense of both self and influence, with a strong spiritual guidance system and a public attitude that is equal parts mysterious and misunderstood. As a result of a bizarre cocktail of humility and fame, of working class Midwestern pragmatism and right-place-right-time English expatriatism, the Pretenders’ bandleader is one of the most ornery stars in the history of rock music. She is an extremely tough broad whose life and work are certainly worth a detailed 50,000 word treatment, and yet, the only commentary on her unique place in the rock pantheon comes courtesy of her own memoir, Reckless.
Published in 2015, Reckless stops at the early ’80s with the deaths of two of her bandmates. Though Hynde has been married three times, twice to other rock stars, her memoir only devotes about two or three pages to these relationships in total. Her early relationship with a bandmate begins and concludes in a single sentence acknowledgment, and her two daughters are likewise quite hidden. Many of the good stories in the book are a few tales that were already classifiable as oft-repeated from her interviews, and large chunks of the book are about the dumb things she did while on drugs.
Her discussion of one of those things, wandering addled into a situation where she was raped by some heavy bikers, ultimately tanked the publicity for Reckless in a firestorm of feminist condemnation when Hynde attempted to take responsibility for her own poor judgment. Lambasted as the writing of a rape apologist, Reckless never got the more positive attention it deserved as the lone account of Hynde’s legacy.
Enter Adam Sobsey, with Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography. Oh, I was so skeptical! Sobsey’s other book is about baseball, which at first thought might not appear to offer much in the way of credibility to any take on the Pretenders. But baseball is a dispassionate fandom, and Sobsey documents Hynde’s music with that same statistically-minded, historical approach. This book is thick with detail and seldom strays into editorializing that is unsupported by the facts. His ability to root out the facts, in this case, is itself quite admirable.
Hynde is a very guarded person, to put it mildly. Even direct quotations from her interviews or from Reckless are not straightforwardly reliable, in Dylanesque fashion, so Sobsey is not working with a huge pile of research to begin with and then additionally, he has to thoroughly parse what little background there is for hints of corroborated truth.
Despite the analytic difficulties inherently present in Hynde as a subject, Sobsey truly does deliver the goods. He has enough musicianship to accurately analyze chord progressions and time signatures, embedding these in considerations of genre, bands in the Pretenders’ orbit and other appropriate contexts. He has enough literary comprehension to trace themes and motifs across the lyrical compositions of multiple albums, including most obviously Hynde’s lifelong ecological concern for children and animals as well as her ongoing fascination with biker culture and the state of Ohio, where she grew up.
The subtitle points toward a preferential focus on Hynde’s work over Hynde’s life, but Sobsey does succeed in quite a thorough account of her life to the extent that it provides fairly direct parallels or accompaniments to her work in the band. Hynde’s life has been sensational, but Sobsey does not sensationalize it. He often draws attention to places in her story where proper details have not been forthcoming, and whenever he is compelled to lightly speculate, he makes clear that these are nothing more than open rhetorical questions sitting atop some plausibly fact-based or timeline-adjacent connections.
This work is as gloriously comprehensive as it gets on the subject of Chrissie Hynde. Sobsey’s effort to weave a consistent, continuous understanding out of a person who defies most modern classifications is a noble effort. It’s such a noble effort and so much a satisfying read that I’m happy to admit something I almost never do, which is that I couldn’t have written it better myself — and I have really given serious thought to writing it myself.
Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography will please both diehard fans starving for any trickle of concrete detail and those with a passing interest who might like to know a bit more about the leader of one of the world’s most enigmatic bands. Sobsey’s portrait casts away all doubt that the Great Pretender is, in fact, one of the most underrated, authentic people to have survived the music industry mostly intact. We are lucky to finally have this book, and even though the band has recently released its first album of new material since 2008’s excellent Break Up the Concrete, I doubt there will be a need for another Hynde biography for some time as a result of the quality of this one.