Chrissie Hynde - No Pretending
By Tony Wardle
Different people promote vegetarianism in different ways. Some are smooth and silky about it, conciliatory to meat eaters, trying their hardest not to ruffle feathers. Chrissie Hynde, on the other hand, is the sandpaper of the veggie movement, the carborundum stone, the nutmeg grater. Eat meat or defend the practice and you’re likely to get your skin stripped off in a rhetorical blast of outrage, spiked with pithy expletives.
The ultimate rock chick (although at 52, ‘chick’ is probably pushing it somewhat) she’s been at the top of her profession for more than 20 years, her extraordinary, immediately-identifiable voice giving her and her band, the Pretenders, hit after hit. But what other rock and roller would finish off a concert by having a go at their audience? ‘Thank you to all you veggies out there. The meat eaters? You can just xxxx off!’
We make excuses for people who don’t seem to care about animal suffering and try to coax, cajole and encourage them into changing their ways, pinning the responsibility for their eating habits on persuasive advertising, poor advice and lack of information.
Don’t expect such wishy-washy liberalism from Chrissie Hynde, she hits them around the head with a cudgel of contempt:
“The bottom line is that you certainly don’t need to eat meat to live so why are you doing that? Unless an animal is trying to kill me, why would I want to kill it? I question any parent who can bring their child up thinking that this act of unnecessary violence should become a part of their life and that they accept it as normal. I think it’s gross irresponsibility by the parent. I think it’s shameful!” Ouch!
You can almost knit a cardigan with the weight of clichés that people apply to Chrissie – tells it as it is, calls a spade a spade, punches from the shoulder, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and so on and so on. But no one is that two dimensional. She has strong spiritual beliefs, is a mother, an extremely talented song writer, musician and a solo artist who is permanently in demand. She acts for animals, has been arrested for them and champions them at every opportunity but Chrissie Hynde doesn’t wrap up her beliefs in cosy sentimentality. When filming her for our ‘End Factory Farming’ video, Not in My Name, I ask what she would say to animals if they could understand her:
“You’re in for a bumpy ride, pals – you’re gonners, better luck next time.” I should have known I wasn’t going to get a coy, cuddly answer. But then she immediately broadens it out into something less flip, much more complex:
“Whatever suffering I cause to anything while I’m here, I’m going to get that back. So when I see the mass scale of factory farming it makes me sad, not just for the animals but for the people who perpetuate it. They’re gonna have to go all the way back to the beginning and start over and they’re gonna have to endure a lot more suffering than a bull in a bull ring. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes because I believe that every pig you slaughter, you are that pig eventually – and sooner than you think, pal, so tread lightly.”
Chrissie Hynde was born in 1951 just outside Cleveland, Ohio, in the tyre manufacturing town of Akron. She attended the suitably-named Firestone High School but spent much of her adolescence locked away in her room practicing guitar obsessively. She went to university – Kent State University – in 1969 when demonstrations against the Vietnam war were at their height.
Anyone who has seen the horrific footage from that year, of young students protesting on the campus against the invasion of Cambodia, will never view ‘democracy’ in quite the same light again. They were expressing opposition to the violence of a war thousands of miles away which was ultimately to produce four million civilian and almost two million military casualties before culminating in defeat. End the killing, cried the students. State troopers took and began the killing, firing at all-American girls in summer dresses and clean-cut boys, mowing them down. When it was over, the neatly-trimmed grass was littered with the dead, dying and injured of American youth and the hysterical cries of distraught, disbelieving survivors filled the air. The final toll was four dead, nine injured. Chrissie Hynde was there.
Maybe it had some bearing on her subsequent actions – she dropped out of college a couple of years later and headed for London, where she had every intention of making her name as a musician – failure was not an option. She was already vegetarian.
“When I was about 17, I heard the word vegetarian. I didn’t know any, not in Ohio but it occurred to me that if you can live without killing animals then what on earth had I been doing for the last 17 years? As I became aware of farming – the forcible control of animals, the cages, tethers, mass transport – I thought of Nazi Germany and the holocaust where the images were akin to factory farming.”
I suggest that some people might be outraged by her comparing animals with humans.
“Well they’re wrong – they’re wrong to think that animals don’t have a soul and people do. They’re clearly not reading the right literature. It’s more than a strong link, we’re all inter-related.” And that isn’t the end of her belief that animals and humans are connected.
“The amount of suffering that animals endure doesn’t surprise me because it’s mirrored by the scale of human suffering. There are whole continents where people are starving to death and the cause is the same – enforced slavery and exploitation. Violence breeds violence and gentle ways promote more gentle ways. The reaction to murder is murder and people who eat meat are responsible for wholesale murder. They take pleasure in eating meat, which has nothing to do with necessity, and killing for pleasure is murder.”
With such an outright rejection of the status quo, it was inevitable that on arrival in London, Chrissie would end up in the company of people such as Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and the Kings Road punk rock set, but it was five years before she formed a band. The Pretenders came about after she met two Hereford guitarists – James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon. The following year they recorded an old Kinks number, Stop Your Sobbing, which made it into the UK top 40. The album which followed went straight to No.1 in the UK and No.10 in the US and Chrissie and the Pretenders were on their way.
The story is that Chrissie had carried a crush for Ray Davies of The Kinks since childhood. After they met it became more than a mere crush. In 1982 they set out to get married but the registrar refused to conduct the ceremony because they wouldn’t stop arguing. It’s a great story if true but they certainly never repeated the exercise and in 1983 their daughter Natalie Ray was born. Their relationship ended soon after and in 1985, after a whirlwind romance with Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, Chrissie had a second daughter – Yasmine Paris. In 1997 she married the Columbian artist Lucho Brieva.
Throughout this extraordinary period of growth and development, both professionally and personally – “From rock ‘n’ roll goddess to straight-A student, from greaseball to mother’s pride in 15 seconds” – she inspired a whole generation of female rockers but never wavered from her beliefs. Having children strengthened them even further.
“Accepting widespread cruelty is the worst thing a society can do because it will all be reflected back on us. Whatever damage we do to the animal kingdom we are doing to ourselves and to our own children and families – the whole human community.”
Those of us who campaign against meat eating constantly hear the cry ‘But I can’t live without my meat, I like it too much!’ If you’re one of these people don’t, whatever you do, use that argument to Chrissie Hynde or you’ll be dismissed with a metaphorical swat, as peremptorily as a holiday mosquito.
“Well you don’t need your meat so that’s a lie – that’s not even an argument. Clearly you don’t need it and we veggies are proof of that. It’s a silly thing to say when for thousands of years in India a whole nation hasn’t eaten meat. As far as you liking it, ha, if you think that’s an argument for killing then you’re giving license to serial killers to keep at it because the reason they kill is because they like it, too.” I warned you!
Dark eyed, dark haired, denim clad and still sporting the fringe behind which she has sheltered for two decades or so, Chrissie Hynde is still as slim as a bean pole. She doesn’t smile a lot but when she does, it’s lopsided – almost half a smile as if that’s all she’s prepared to grant. Her voice is deep and resonant and when she tells you her view on something, there is no sense of her speaking for effect.
She tells it straight and true and the swear words seem as natural as the rest of what she says. There’s no big deal about them, they’re not said to shock but simply to give emphasis in the right place. For instance, what does she think of the claim that Britain has the best animal welfare in the world?
“It’s all excuses. Foot and mouth? BSE? Good luck and xxxx off! I’m 52 years old and I don’t have that many years to mess about with. I’ve got other things to get on with so I don’t like to associate with meat-eaters and their excuses more than I have to because that’s very valuable time to me. I’m not saying that I feel above them but I certainly feel I’ve got a better chance of understanding why I’m here than they do.”
One of the great things about interviewing Chrissie Hynde is that questions are never left hanging in the air. There’s no equivocation, just an answer filled with conviction. I’ve never heard such a telling response to the question – how important is it for someone to take the decision to go veggie?
“It is the most important step you can ever take in your life. Without taking that step you just can’t progress, you can’t get on with the important things in your life. It’s just never going to happen and you’re going to end up very frustrated at the end of your life – and that’s guaranteed.
“That’s why groups like Viva! are so important – they change peoples lives. There are parents and children who are ignorant but now they can get a magazine, a website or go to a friend’s house and watch a video and it changes their lives. There are people who are born with this mission to look after the animal kingdom and then there are people who’ve never really thought about it before and the one can change the other. Thanks for what you’re doing!”
In fact Chrissie Hynde does do a lot for the animals and she’s determined to carry on doing so after she’s gone. Instructions have been left that an ad should be placed bearing her picture and the words ‘Dead meat should be buried not eaten. Take it from Chrissie Hynde’.
So, maybe her image will live on – certainly her voice will and the strong beliefs she’s championed for most of her life.