Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir - Pat Benatar (2010)

Chapter 10. ALL’S FAIR IN ROCK AND MUSIC

AFTER GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, WE made the decision, once and for all, to leave Capitol/EMI. The decision was mutual and without any big fireworks. The timing just seemed right to go our separate ways. Though we’d grown up there, it was not the label it once was, and it hadn’t been for years. The record business was made up of too many bean counters and not enough guitar players. Just watching what had happened to Chrysalis after the EMI merger was disheartening. Artists were considered roster “prizes” to be included in money deals, stock values, and corporate wheeling and dealing. While we were treated much better than we had been in the 1980s, it came at the expense of marketing and promotion. Simply put, they weren’t supporting our records as they once had, and we were ready to move on to whatever the next phase of our career would be. EMI wasn’t exactly crying to see us go.

Not long after our departure, they put together a hits package, All Fired Up: The Very Best of Pat Benatar. Now that we were gone, they didn’t have to pay us advances or consult us on artwork, content, or release dates. In fact, when it came to our catalog, they could do pretty much whatever they wanted. Since these were songs that already existed and they owned the masters, they could decide things unilaterally. They could package and repackage them as many times as they wanted with barely any overhead. For a while, they seemed to put out a compilation every year—with no input from us whatsoever. They’d pick some producer who’d go in and hack up our original recordings and make a record out of it. It was just put out there with no promotion. Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.

I knew it was “just business,” but I felt used anyway. While in the short term their efforts didn’t hurt us financially, if they got greedy and saturated the market, it would make selling new product difficult. We had to make sure this didn’t happen. They didn’t care how this would impact our future, because they didn’t have any claim to our future. It was shortsighted and mercenary, and of course, it was all about the bottom line.

But not for us. We weren’t shortsighted. In the end, the EMI product was very profitable for us, but we knew we had to become better business people. We began to look at ourselves as a brand. We had worked long and hard to establish what we were. We were unique; no one else could do what we did. That had to be worth something. We still had a lot of music in us and we weren’t about to let anyone screw that up. Figuring out our next step was crucial, and it was made more complicated by the fact that we also had to find new management. After Gravity’s Rainbow, Danny Goldberg had decided to take a hiatus from his management company, going instead to Atlantic Records as president. We started looking and had a few short-lived relationships but finally decided on the team of Elliot Roberts and Frank Gironda, who went right to work getting us back out in the public eye.

Right away they approached us with an idea for a tour package: Fleetwood Mac, REO Speedwagon, and us. My initial response was “Absolutely not.” I had nothing against those other bands, but we’d never been part of a package before. I was used to headlining on our own. However, I also knew we were in transition and without a record label. After much discussion, Spyder, Elliot, and Frank convinced me that it was a good idea, a way to see where we stood with audiences with minimal risk. We signed on.

And so we spent the summer of 1995 traveling the U.S. as part of the Can’t Stop Rockin’ tour. It ended up being a great experience, a little like being in the circus. It was a huge operation with three bands, three road crews, and an endless parade of buses and semis. We forged friendships with everyone on the tour and had a great time. We played baseball and had barbecues while our kids hung out together. All in all it was just a great group of people.

This was Hana’s first tour, and she was fourteen months old when it began. Like her sister, she was a wonderful traveler who loved the road, the bus, and swimming every day. She learned to swim in the pool at the Arizona Biltmore, and she loved being onstage, something that Haley didn’t care too much about. Haley was a little shy when she was small, but Hana wanted to go out onstage all the time. In general it had been our policy to keep the girls out of the public eye, but Hana would wait in the wings every night hoping one of us would scoop her up and bring her out. I remember taking her with me one night; I had her in my arms, and I introduced her to the audience:

“Hey, everyone, say hello to our youngest, Hana.” They all cheered, and Hana had a huge grin on her face. The crowd was yelling pretty loudly, and I asked her, “Are you scared?”

“Noooo, I like it,” she said happily. After that we had to find ways to distract her during the performance or she’d cry to go out. We’d station crew members in the wings, because she’d always try to escape from her babysitter and sneak onstage during the show to get bubblegum from Spyder’s onstage stash. We’d be deep into the set and this baby would calmly walk out onstage and grab a handful of bubblegum off of Spyder’s stool. The audience would go crazy, and of course that only encouraged her to do it again at the next show.

Overall the tour was a success for us. Throughout that summer the reception we got from the crowd was encouraging—strong enough to show us that there was plenty of support for us all around the country. There were still a lot of people who would show up to hear us, and that was an important confidence boost that would help dictate our next step.

Now that we knew there was still goodwill out there toward us, it was time to try putting out a record. Tours were good but they weren’t enough to keep us relevant. To do that, we needed to record new music. We’d have been delusional to think that once we left a major label, we could just sit back and hope people remembered us. Without the exposure that new material generated, we could do ourselves long-term damage. We stood at a crossroads, knowing that if we didn’t step up and make a new CD, we might never again be in the position to do so with any fanfare.

We could have easily signed with another major label, but why? Fifteen years of being big on a big record label had left us feeling exhausted and demoralized. The label had helped us to tremendous success but at a huge psychological cost. Our goal now was not to replicate that success, but to find ways to continue to do what we loved and make money in the process. And so instead of jumping right back in with another major, we set off on a different journey.

Around the time that we split with EMI, I read an interesting article about the singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. At the time, I wasn’t all that familiar with her music, but I was instantly fascinated by what she was doing. In 1990, she’d started her own record label called Righteous Records (later changed to Righteous Babe Records), and through this label, she had financed, produced, and distributed her own records. This was something that Spyder and I had been talking about for years—creating an independent label that would give us complete artistic freedom to do whatever we wanted at our own pace.

What seemed like far-fetched crazy talk started to make sense after I read about what Ani DiFranco was doing. The recording industry has long had a rich history of independent labels. Let’s face it: Jac Holzman founded Elektra Records in his dorm room in 1950. Sun Records in Memphis launched Elvis Presley. Motown. The list goes on. These were historic labels, and if Ani could do it, so could we. I always say, “God bless Ani DiFranco,” because she was my inspiration to stop thinking about being independent and actually start doing something about it.

As it turned out, this intense interest in going independent combined with another trend; by the midnineties, we could see that digital music would soon be forcing change on the recording industry. For a few years digital technology had been slowly seeping into the music business, and we’d been keeping an eye on how it was changing things. Gravity’s Rainbow was the first recording we edited and mastered digitally. Spyder loved the technical aspect of recording, and he embraced digital advances with enthusiasm. As producer he was constantly looking for new ways to push the boundaries of what he could do in the studio, and the digital world held all kinds of possibilities, many of which he utilized on Gravity’s Rainbow. Its value was undeniable, and in the years since Gravity’s Rainbow, Spyder had been steadily incorporating digital methods into his recording process whenever he was playing around in his Soul Kitchen. At first it was simply digital editing and mastering, but then he moved on to digital recording and mixing.

While Spyder was fixated on the new studio experimentation that digital made possible, my goals were different. The way I saw it, digitally recorded music opened up a whole new way to get music to the masses. No more large manufacturing costs, no expensive album art—it might not even be necessary to make actual CDs if we didn’t want to. All these ideas crystallized in 1994, when Spyder and I read an article about an innovative new concept called “file sharing.” Learning about this process helped me visualize how we could actually implement this new distribution to the consumer while cutting production and manufacturing costs. Basically we’d be eliminating the middlemen, who of course were the record companies. It would no longer be necessary to have their money or muscle to get product made and sent out to the public. Distribution would be simple and cost-effective. The playing field would be level: artists and small labels would have the same access and clout as the majors.

Spyder and I each had our own vision for the future significance of digital music, differences that mirrored our original disagreement over the role of music videos. Spyder was fascinated by the impact on the actual music and the limitless creative possibilities that the digital age ushered into the studio. My interests were not so lofty. I was a businesswoman first and foremost, and though the artist inside me saw what technology could do for recording, I was more drawn to how it could prevent the financial turmoil that we’d experienced at the hands of the record label throughout our career. It was true digital was untested and uncertain, but if it worked, it would return the power to the artists, where it belonged. As with music videos, we recognized the game-changing promotional power that existed in digital music if we used it to meet our own needs.

What I was after was simple: the end of the record industry as we knew it. I wanted to see the collapse of the major labels’ stronghold on music. Consolidation had both strengthened and weakened the majors. They had more money and clout, but they often lacked innovation. If the labels didn’t get on board with the digital age, they would implode. And since we despised the way they did business, we figured we’d be only too happy to stand by and watch it happen. The digital age was going to shake them up and change everything, and I wanted us to be part of it. That said, we didn’t want to be moguls and we were not looking to build an empire. This wasn’t about creating a label that had dozens of bands on it and being able to control other people’s careers; it was about controlling our own.

The environment seemed ripe for us to take advantage of the digital advances and strike out on our own, but as prepared as we were mentally, we still had reservations. We could finance a record ourselves, take our time making it, put together a distribution deal, and retain control over everything. We could afford to do it. Each time we met with accountants, we were pleasantly surprised at how much money we had managed to keep over the years. It’s frightening to see the money lost by musicians through personal lifestyle choices, bad management, and record company rip-offs. But our years of being basically frugal people and homebodies had paid off. Even so, financing a record ourselves would be taking a huge chance. We had the money, but we didn’t have unlimited funds. We weren’t set up like corporations that could leverage one loss against other wins. If we rolled the dice and lost, we could lose everything. We’d be putting not only our career but our children’s futures on the line.

Spyder and I had never been impetuous people when it came to finances, so we decided to move ahead with caution. We wanted to test the waters without diving in completely. Rather than simply launch into our own indie venture, we made the calculated decision to sign with an indie label for one record, so that we could learn the business model and see if it was something that we could make work on our own.

With this specific goal of learning in mind, we started searching for an independent label that would meet our needs, and in the process we met a man named Tom Lipsky who ran an independent label called CMC International Records. A really dedicated guy, Tom loved rock and roll, and his only goal was to create an environment for artists to make the best music they could. And he was a character! A gregarious Southerner, he only wore shorts—no long pants ever. He said that he’d been denied entrance to some of the finest restaurants because he refused to change those shorts. You just had to love him.

Tom spelled out the deal, telling us exactly what he could do and what he could not do. And he hired the best people available (including people stolen right out from under moguls like Clive Davis) to do those things he couldn’t. He told us exactly what kind of money he’d put into the recording and promotion. He believed we needed to have a new record out there and he was willing to put his money where his heart was. What he asked was that we make the record we wanted to make, with no thought to what might play on radio or what might be written about it. He wanted our music as we saw it. Moreover, there was a level of artistic respect we’d never before felt. He didn’t see us as product to simply be packaged or manipulated. His philosophy was that people who’d made great strides in the industry should have the opportunity to make the music they wanted, to keep producing, keep being creative—but on a different level.

From our first conversations with Tom, it was clear that he understood exactly what we wanted to do with this record. Neither one of us had any big expectations about what this deal would do. There was no bullshit talk of platinum sales or aspirations of returning us to our former glory. And quite frankly, we didn’t want either of those things. I’d been a rock star, I’d sold out stadium shows, I’d been chased by paparazzi. I had no interest in any of that. What we wanted was to figure out how we could keep our personal life intact, make money, and still have fun. I wanted to be a badass mother who could rock and make a living doing it.

This arrangement met those needs, while also having the added benefit of getting a new album out to help us keep a toe in the water from a recording standpoint. I didn’t want my career to disappear, but I did want it to belong to me, not some record stooge. Regardless of how the record performed this would be a win-win situation for us. The deal with CMC was a means to an end, satisfying our need to keep recording while also giving us the chance to learn the business of running a label. Once we accomplished that, we’d be able to branch out on our own.

The result of all this was Innamorata, a record we made under some of the most peaceful circumstances we’d ever worked in. The record is one of my favorites; it was the beginning of the artistic experimentation we’d been missing for so long. Sure, we’d had freedom with our last two records on Chrysalis, but there was always pressure to sell. They went along with our plans because they had to by contract, not necessarily because they wanted to. There’s such freedom in creating when you aren’t concerned with critics or people trying to make your life miserable.

From the beginning, Spyder wanted to mix the tone up a bit. He wanted to make an electric/acoustic record, bring a viola in—keep the vocals aggressive but make the bed a bit different. The only electric guitar is actually on “River of Love,” and even that felt a little odd at first because we were going in another direction. The title cut, “Innamorata,” was the first song we recorded, where we got the technique down. Once again, we made it live with very few overdubs. One of the songs, “Papa’s Roses,” was inspired by Katherine Dunn’s provocative novel Geek Love, about a traveling carnival and the crazy family that runs it. It’s quirky and fascinating, and it encourages a great deal of interpretive thought. We ended up making a beautiful video for the song “Strawberry Wine,” which we shot in Dallas with two very young directors. It was simple but innovative, and, most important, it was peaceful. I was sad more people didn’t get to see it, so we included it on a video compilation we later did called Choice Cuts.

In the end, Innamorata sold a respectable amount of records, but that wasn’t the point. We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do, and that convinced us we were ready to go independent and start our own record label. Though it wasn’t nearly our most successful record sales-wise, we made more money on that record than on any other we’d done simply because we owned everything—all the publishing was ours. Even when you’re a major star and selling millions of albums, you’re still only making less than a dollar on each record you sell (in some cases it’s a lot less than a dollar). While we were making more than that in our most recent deal with EMI, in comparison it was still terrible. Almost all the money from each record sold would go into the pocket of the label. But with CMC, we took home about 40 percent of the revenue from every record sold, a number that presumably would be even higher if we had our own label. So even though we were selling less, we were making more, and we were doing it all without having to put up with any crap from the record company. This was a revelation. Not only was this going to give us the creative freedom we craved, it was going to be lucrative as well.

Seeing the money we could make combined with our gut feelings about the fundamental shifts digital technology was bringing to the industry. After years of having other people tell us what to do, being independent just felt right. We could put aside the commercialism, and the charts, and even the profits. I’d get to make the music I felt like making and have a wonderful time doing it. Nobody would be saying “You need to cut this song because so-and-so has publishing.” Or “This one’s a radio-friendly record.” Or “You need to get in the studio today no matter what because the schedule is everything.” I would make music at my own pace and not think about hits. If one or two squeaked out onto the airwaves, it would be great. It would be gravy. But my lifestyle didn’t have to change. I could still have time to be with my family and friends. I could have a life.

We played a few dates with Steve Miller, who was quite the gentleman, and tried some of the Innamorata music out. On the whole, it was received enthusiastically, enough so that we put together a nationwide club tour that took us from St. Louis to Chicago, Cleveland, Scranton, New Haven, Norfolk, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. We played Tramps in New York and the House of Blues in New Orleans. Of course the crowds loved hearing our older hits, but we were pleased that some of the biggest ovations came from performances from Innamorata, including “Only You,” “River of Love,” and an acoustic version of “Papa’s Roses” that Spyder and I did.

Musically this tour was exciting. Switching from electric to acoustic performances was great for contrast, and I believe it added some fascinating texture to the shows. We also opened shows for Styx during that time. It was one of the best ways to showcase the music for a big crowd yet not have to work on a grueling eighteen-month tour. Again, these decisions were ours to make. No record company was telling us we had to do something.

I never again wanted to work for a company that got inside my head. I didn’t want some guy in a suit invading my brain and rattling around in there. Almost from the beginning I’d been saying that I wanted a situation where everybody did their job. My job is to make music; the label’s job is to sell it. How hard is that to figure out?

AROUND THE TIME THAT we’d been preparing to take Innamorata on the road, I was approached about participating in an upstart new traveling tour that was beginning that summer, something called Lilith Fair.

On its face, the pitch was quite a concept: an all-female festival tour celebrating women in music. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan came up with the idea, not as a political statement, but to showcase the wonderful music that women continue to contribute to the culture. But political or not, Lilith Fair grew out of Sarah’s refusal to accept stereotypes about female artists. I had always loved Sarah’s voice and songwriting, but her business sense and entrepreneurial spirit were equally admirable. First, she was fighting stigmas like the decades-old idea that radio listeners wouldn’t stay tuned to a station that played two female artists in a row. Then, of course, there were the concert promoters who remained skeptical about booking too many women on the summer tour schedule.

To counter the portrayal of women as bad business, Sarah and her friend (and fellow Grammy-winning singer-songwriter) Paula Cole booked a summer tour in 1996. One of their shows was called “Lilith Fair,” after the biblical Lilith who refused to obey Adam and exited Eden for parts unknown. The shows were so successful that in 1997, Sarah launched a wider Lilith Fair tour, playing thirty-five cities, with a variety of female musicians, and it became the top festival tour of the year. I already had our Innamorata tour booked, so when I was approached about playing Lilith Fair, I found I only had two dates available. But you couldn’t have kept me away from those two. It was such an honor not only to be asked to participate in this groundbreaking event, but to be told that I had been an inspiration for many of the young women involved.

Some people questioned whether this “all-chick-singer” tour could work. Would this end up being a bunch of divas fighting over dressing areas? Would egos spin out of control? Could that many women actually be trusted to get along? At the press conference just prior to my August 19 appearance in Milwaukee, I told people exactly how I felt about all that kind of talk:

My first impression [on being asked] was that I was so happy. I’ve waited twenty years for this. I stood there in 1978 in front of a bunch of people who patted me on the head and said “That’s nice” and “We don’t think that can ever happen.” They were convinced that women would never be able to compete with their male counterparts regarding record sales and concert attendance. So for me to be here with all of them [the female artists], I could just cry. It’s so emotional. It’s fantastic. I’ve heard really great things; I haven’t heard any bad things.

This is my first day here so I’m here with a lot of enthusiasm and am honored to be with all of you [the other women on the tour]—who I know were about five or ten when I was beginning! So, it makes me feel like the grandma, which is kind of nice. The important thing is that it isn’t about divisiveness—that’s what I don’t see. I see that it’s about a celebration of being female, not about separatism or any negative things about being female, but the good things that we are. Everyone is looking for dirt, but I haven’t heard any.

I played two nights and truthfully they were the best forty-eight tour hours onstage I’d ever had. Standing up there with all those successful, capable young women made me think of the early years when every day was a fight just to be a woman in the man’s world of rock and roll. I thought back to all the radio promoters and record men. The guys who’d said things just to try to make me feel uncomfortable and the guys who told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. I thought about wearing baggy clothes to hide my round pregnant body and having the program directors at the radio stations lick their lips as they asked me to take a seat on their laps. I thought about the extra five layers of skin I’d had to grow just to be standing on that stage two decades after that lunatic songwriter had chased me around a piano.

While times had changed, I knew that none of those problems had gone away completely. I knew that all those women—both those onstage and those in the crowd—had to contend with these issues in one way or another, usually on a daily basis. But the most important thing was that all of us kept going. We’d be damned if we were going to let bullshit get in the way of our vision for the future, our plan for life. I’d spent my entire career being the only female in a sea of guys. Now I was surrounded by women who, like me, couldn’t resist the call to perform. I watched them up there, confident and in control. Seeing all of those young women enjoying each other’s musical talent, supporting each other, warmed my heart. Women like Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Meredith Brooks, Jewel, Shawn Colvin, and the Indigo Girls were playing their music, interacting with each other, being treated with respect, and proving once and for all that an all-female lineup could sell out festivals.

The best part was that their shows were all spectacular. That was what made me almost cry with happiness. I’d felt like I was constantly out there fending off the lions with a baseball bat. I kept thinking what a struggle it had been and how far we’d come as female performers. Just like me, they had a sound in their heads that they had to follow; they had to put their voices out there. And it made me so proud to know that without even realizing what I was fighting for, I’d been on the front lines on behalf of young, strong women like the ones I witnessed onstage those nights. I’d signed on with big hopes, but even those hopes couldn’t prepare me for the atmosphere of beauty that permeated the entire tour. It was an uplifting and emotional experience. It was an incredible sisterhood. It was the Estrogen Express.

On the second of my two nights, we sang an ensemble number together, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” I got the fun line, “Late last night, heard the screen door slam / And the big yellow taxi took away my old man.” Earlier that day, we’d done another press conference at a big long table with all the ladies. I’ll admit I got teary eyed when each of them spoke about the sacrifices that those of us who’d gone before had made and how grateful they were for what we’d done. I’d never been prouder to be part of a group of women who forged a path where none had been before so that future generations of women could walk unencumbered in pursuit of their dreams.

The next day, Lilith Fair’s website said: “Pat Benatar rocked the house.”

IN MY HEAD, THE strength that I gathered from Lilith Fair mingled with my newfound understanding that I could be successful and independent. Together they solidified my resolve that whenever we were ready to release another album, we would do so on our own. Bold vision required bold moves.

This resolve was aided by a rather serendipitous encounter after the tour. For years we’d been scouting land in Hawaii, near where we married in Hana. We could see how wonderful life on that island could be, the privacy and the inspiration of the surroundings. Now we could afford to consider buying the land, building a house, and living there part of each year. The problem, of course, was the very thing we loved about the area: its remoteness. This is the jungle. If you don’t build close enough to a populated area, you will never get the power and water hooked up. You have to start from absolutely nothing. We had looked every year for just the right place.

It got crazy. It seemed like every year we went to Hana for vacation and spent the whole time looking for a place to one day build a house. We’d drive here and there, look at some piece of property that was too far into the jungle and another that was too close to the neighbors. It ended up taking up all the hours out of what was to have been time off!

Finally, in 1998 we found a piece of property that was just what we wanted. It was on a street in Hana that had houses, but they were not so close to each other that anyone felt they lived “in town.” It was also right on the ocean, up on a bluff where you could look out over the water. The place we found was connected to the family of Paul Fagan, the man who saved Hana by building the original Ka’uiki Inn and opening up tourist trade.

The first Paul Fagan had purchased five parcels of land that were now owned by his grandchildren. Spyder fell in love with a parcel on a little strip of the family’s land. He wanted to build there so badly! But there had seemed to be no way to do it. “No, no, no! That’s Fagan land. You’ll never be able to buy that.”

One day, after we’d been looking for about twenty years, we said, “Enough is enough.” This time when we went for our vacation, we decided that it would be a vacation, not a site search. We told our real estate representatives, Carl and Rae Lindquist, who were also our good friends, that maybe we should just look elsewhere.

“Wait!” Carl said. “You won’t believe this—I think I may have something you’ll want to see.”

He took us for a short ride, and there it was—the very place Spyder had loved since we’d first started coming to Hana! As fate would have it, one of the grandchildren needed to sell his land. I guess he hadn’t wanted to let his family know he needed to sell, because as I understood it, none of his brothers and sisters knew that it was on the market. He’d approached Carl privately.

We bought it that very day.

It took several years before we started, but we did build a home in Hana. It’s not a big house, but it is beautiful—a lovely plantation-style house with a view of the ocean. It’s a home where I can sit with a cup of coffee and watch the waves crashing against the cliffs, the Ewa birds, and the turtles that come into the cove to lie on their backs and float in the water. It’s paradise.

Hana is a very tiny, close-knit community, a place where you don’t “talk stink,” ’cause you never know who you’re talking to. Almost everyone in Hana is related in some way. It’s also a sanctuary of sorts for some celebrities because it’s isolated and the folks in Hana are immune to the modern fascination with famous people. They simply don’t care about it. They’re much more interested in whether you are a good person and you respect the aina (land). A perfect example is Kris Kristofferson and his wife, Lisa, who are responsible for our finding Hana in the first place. We’ve known each other for years; Haley went to Our Lady of Malibu school with their sons Jesse and Jody, and Hana later went to Hana School with their youngest son, Blake. Kris and Lisa are our neighbors and good friends. The thing I love about them is they’re straight shooters, no pretense; what you see is what you get. They’re tireless activists, hands-on parents, and good people.

Everyone in Hana calls me CP; our dear friend Pinky gave me the name after he heard my mother call me “Patti.” There are a lot of cattle in Hana, so there are a lot of cow pies and patties around. Pinky thought it would be “cute” to call me “Cow Patti,” abbreviated later to “CP.” Spyder is known to everyone as either “Coach Spyduh,” because he was the soccer coach for two years, or “Paisan.”

In a lot of ways, the Hana property coming along when it did seemed to represent much more than just our finding a home away from home. For years we’d been wandering, searching for a path that was truly ours. Now, in this town that meant so much to us, we’d found what we’d been looking for all those years. Coming at the same time as our epiphany about going independent, the symbolism was too clear to deny. We had found our way out, our way to happiness. We didn’t belong to anyone but ourselves. We knew what we had to do.