Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir - Pat Benatar (2010)
Chapter 12. MY WAY
I HADN’T SEEN DEBBIE Harry in twenty-five years, and then out of the blue—a phone call. Not from her, but from my agent asking me if I wanted to go on tour with Blondie.
Some of my earliest memories in the record business are of Debbie, since hanging out with her on the set of Union City was one of the first things Chrysalis had me do after I signed with them. She and I were old friends, label mates who went all the way back, but it had been such a long time since we’d seen each other—largely because we were both so busy and we lived on opposite coasts. Though we hadn’t spoken in ages, I still looked back fondly on the time we’d spent together, so it was only fitting that after everything I’d find myself back with her again.
Debbie called me up that March, before we started out in July. She wanted to coordinate our wardrobe choices. That just killed me because I hadn’t given it a thought at that point. My real life took every minute of every day. I figured that I’d decide what to wear on stage the week before I packed to go.
“Well, all right,” she said. “But I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be wearing the same thing.”
I started laughing so hard I thought I’d fall off my chair.
“Oh, Debbie—I can pretty much guarantee that we won’t be wearing the same thing.”
And sure enough, when we got on tour Debbie showed up wearing red high tops and crazy outfits. Great outfits—but crazy.
Debbie was just one of the things that made the 2009 tour, “Call Me Invincible,” a blast—even better than I could have imaged. It was amazing that in all the years she and I had been around we’d never done this together before, and as it turned out, it was a little like rock and roll summer camp. We all hung out together during sound checks and knocked on each other’s dressing room doors to borrow hair dryers or mascara. The Donnas joined us on the tour as well, and those girls seriously know how to rock. I love, love, love those girls. We had a ton of laughs, they played great, and were just crazy, fun to be around. As it turned out, those brats were all born the year In the Heat of the Night came out.
Between the Donnas, Blondie, my family, and me, there were a lot of women around, and I mean a lot! Spyder went nuts. Sure, he was used to having a lot of girls in our house, but this was something else entirely; and while there’d been a lot of women on Lilith Fair, we were only there for a couple of dates. This time he was spending an entire summer surrounded by even more women. He hid away on the band bus, where Myron was also looking for sanctuary. Occasionally Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer, would join them when he’d had enough too.
While Debbie and I were old hands at this stuff, it was interesting for me to watch how the Donnas carried themselves. No matter where we were, what city we were playing in, they just went about their business confidently, like it was the most natural thing in the world to be four girls, in a rock band, touring America. It was one of those moments where you feel like you’re seeing progress in motion, and suddenly everything sort of adds up, why we all bother to put one foot in front of the other and keep pushing ourselves forward.
In a lot of ways that tour just made sense—a unique combination of my past and my present, but also with a glimpse of my future. Or maybe not my future, but our future. Like everything I’d experienced at Lilith Fair, it left me inspired with hope about what women in this business could accomplish and their ability to achieve whatever the hell they wanted to. I like the idea that we’re living in a world where four girls who were high school friends can just start a band and keep rocking until someone starts to pay attention. And when they hit it, and it’s time for them to travel the country, they don’t think twice about it—they just go and do their job, no compromising.
The situations that girls who want to rock face today are both easier and harder than what I was up against. In many ways the playing fields have been leveled; certainly digital music has put a lot more power into the hands of young women everywhere who are looking to make the record they want. At the same time, there are some things that will never change. There will always be sleazy guys looking to take advantage—guys looking to use sex as power and capitalize on an industry that is fundamentally superficial.
But still, I see women everywhere doing their thing and throwing themselves into situations headfirst, and not taking shit from anyone—man or woman—who tells them how they should be doing things. It’s empowering to watch, and to know that, perhaps in some way, I made the hard path that they still have to walk just a little bit easier. To know that all those arguments about image and attitude weren’t for nothing, and as a result, it’s simpler for someone else to walk out onstage.
Music can be a very shallow business, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get sucked into the cesspool. People are constantly telling you what’s wrong with your looks or your age, and learning how to ignore them is an acquired skill. I live in Los Angeles and Hana, and I can’t think of two places that are more diametrically opposed. While L.A. seems completely consumed with perfecting one’s physical appearance, Hana is all about beautifying the spirit. Living in both gives me a unique perspective. Any time I get too hung up on wrinkles or weight or age, I only have to think of the amazing beauty of the Kupuna (the elders) in Hana. They are a living example of grace and wisdom with a twinkle in their eyes that shines out of their leathery, browned skin. I’ve enjoyed every age I’ve been, and each has had its own individual merit. Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I’ve been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see. Nowadays, I don’t want a “perfect” face and body; I want to wear the life I’ve lived.
Superficial things become less important when you suffer the loss of a parent. That was driven home to me when my father died on January 2, 2009. He’d been sick for about five years, suffering with diabetes and heart problems. Dad never took care of himself—he didn’t exercise, never ate a vegetable, and paid little attention to his health. He was a hardworking man who loved his family. Dad and Mom remained like teenagers in love until the very end. When it became obvious his time was close, we brought him home and took care of him in-house, which is how he wanted it. He watched television, ate exactly what he wanted, and enjoyed having his family around him. Mom was an amazing caretaker. I know that he waited until the holiday season was over before he peacefully passed away. That was the way he was—thinking of us first, even in death.
I DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR much anymore, and I certainly don’t feel bad about doing what I need to do for my family. To say I listen to my gut is an understatement—I hang onto my gut’s every word.
My world now is a lot smaller than it once was, and that’s just fine with me. I’m a mother and a singer—in that order. The music is important, but a distant second to family. While I still love performing, I don’t yearn for the spotlight. I love the feeling of stepping on the stage and interacting with the audience, but that craving comes from my desire for a shared musical experience with the audience. It’s about taking them somewhere and having them do the same to me, not about being a rock star. I don’t miss dressing up every single day or putting on makeup for a show each night. (Well, maybe the eyeliner.)
I don’t have an overwhelming passion to record new music. If I never win another award or have another gold record on the wall, that’s okay. It would be a fun but not a necessary addition to my life. Recording and making music as often as possible is more important to Spyder. He plays in a little Italian band called the New Sicilians. They do contemporary Italian songs and some traditional, while also composing new music too. He plays some accordion and bandolino. They have great fun. And they just might go into the studio and record some of it one of these days. Me? Unless I am out on a tour, I’m happy singing Broadway show tunes in the car on my way to pick up my daughter and her friends. My dream is to end up in the islands, sitting on the side of the Hana Highway wearing a muumuu, selling leis and pineapples.
That’s not to say that I take for granted what music has done for my life. On the contrary, I’m incredibly grateful for everything music has given me, but music has its place as does everything else. Hana is still in high school, and I am an involved parent. It makes me happy to be Haley and Hana’s mom, who also happens to sing. And because I know that I like that, because I know that’s enough for me, I’m a much saner person than if I were trying to relive the glory days. At least now I know where I stand. I’ve put everything in the place where it needs to be. I’m not reliant on anyone, and I’m living the life that I want to live.
We’ll keep touring for as long as fans will have us. In 2009, Spyder ran into REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, and the two of them started talking about how much fun we’d had working together during 1995’s Can’t Stop Rockin’ tour. REO had come on the rock scene the same time as we did, with their 1980 number 1 hit, “Keep On Loving You,” as well as so many others including “Can’t Fight the Feeling.” Out of Spyder’s random encounter, 2010’s Love On the Run tour was born. I’ve been looking forward to it because I really did enjoy Can’t Stop Rockin’ and the fans—old and new—that came out to hear us. And I’m sure next summer we’ll be right back out there, on the road ready to do it all over again.
Sometimes, when I have a moment to catch my breath, I’ll flip on the TV and scroll past MTV. There’s little today about the channel that resembles the one that we helped launch, and I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that gets nostalgic for that aspect of the way things were. It’s cliché but true that MTV has little or nothing to do with music anymore. Videos were such a positive extension of the music, and things haven’t been the same since they pulled them off the air for reality programming. It’s too bad, but it’s not something that I dwell on. Just another way in which this continues to be one of the most frustrating and fascinating businesses to watch. Nothing lasts for long.
I continue to be amazed by how technology has the capacity to change the way that people find and listen to music. The transformation that started with MTV morphed into digital music, and has now become having a song on the Guitar Hero video game. But while the machinery for distributing music and attracting fans has changed, the actual art of making music still remains very much the same. For all the technological marvels that exist, the basic ingredients that go into creating a song have stayed constant. Ultimately there is something so human and so special about making music, and this will forever make it a far greater force than any technological advance—no matter how impressive.
The digital music revolution has accomplished a lot of what we hoped it would when we first started thinking about it in the nineties. While it hasn’t done away with the record labels altogether yet, it has gnawed away at their ironclad grasp on power. But for all that digital music has eroded the centralized control of the record label, it’s also had an impact far greater than anything we could have anticipated, upending not just record companies but the entire power structure of the music business. It’s not just the label execs who are fighting for dear life—nothing in the music business functions as it did twenty years ago. Online radio, music journalism—everything has changed, returning much of the power to the artist, where it belongs. Ever since our decision to leave EMI, we’ve never looked back, never regretted our choice. Even when we were in the throes of doing all the work, we had the satisfaction of knowing that we were doing it all for us.
Thinking about how music has changed in the last ten years, I am reminded of how important it is to be unafraid. That’s not an easy thing to do, because there are times you just want to give up. I know I came damn close to it after the disaster of the Wide Awake in Dreamland fiasco. Getting off the ground after that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It would have been so much easier just to throw in the towel. And I’m sure in some alternate reality that’s just what might have happened—my career would have ended late in that summer of 1988.
But like so much in my life, it was Spyder who set me straight and pushed me over the next hill. I had many terrific years left in me, and just as I never would have found my sound in the first place if it hadn’t been for Spyder, I never would have kept it going without him either. Perhaps one day I’ll decide to hang up my mic for good, and when that happens, at least I’ll know that the time is right, because my chance to end it early came and went a long time ago. Until then, Spyder keeps me going, keeps me grounded. Every day I look at him and I’m reminded of how I got to where I am and why I’m even still doing this in the first place. And every day I get up and love the life that we’ve built together.
There are lots of famously over-the-top ways for rock careers to end, but seeing as how I’ve never been one to follow in anyone’s footsteps, I’m not about to start now. As the producer for VH1’s show Behind the Musiconce told me—mine is one of the only stories that doesn’t involve at least one trip to rehab. I’m proud to say that like a lot of rock and roll truisms, that whole debate about burning out or fading away is bullshit—the same crap music execs kick up to sell records and make you think that rock music only belongs to people under thirty. A true rocker is going to do whatever the hell she wants to, whether she’s a school teacher, a CEO of a large corporation, or someone’s mommy. Because that’s what rock and roll is really about: following your passion with no apologies. Following that sound in your head that only you can hear.
And that’s what I tell young musicians—female or male—who are trying to make it today: create your own music. Don’t listen too much to what’s out there. Don’t try to follow a trend or fit in with what’s selling. It may not be fashionable next week. Don’t try to sing like anybody else but yourself. Hone your songwriting skills. Practice those guitars. Practice your instruments. Make sure that you’re the best you can possibly be at what you do. And own everything! I’m proud that we made our music and never tried to remake the previous record. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Don’t be afraid of taking a chance, of switching your musical direction. One of the greatest things about getting older is that you care far less when someone uses you as a target. Stay open to the world around you. You never know where inspiration will come from, or what form it will take. It may be a journal or a blog entry—or it may turn into a song.
And girls—stand up for yourselves. Demand respect and then return it. The world has changed, but not all that much. Evolution is a slow process, but that’s what intellect is for. You can bypass what’s been hardwired in by being smart. You’ll still screw up here and there, but at least you’ll know what to do afterward. No one made more mistakes than me, but sometimes I think that was the point. I believe that every step, good or bad, has been a step forward. People much smarter than I am have long agreed life’s not meant to be perfect.
I’ve nothing left to prove, which is probably the most liberating feeling in the world. I’m not holding on for dear life, trying to recapture some fleeting moment that’s long since evaporated. Over the past thirty-one years I have been a singer, a lover, a businesswoman, a daughter, a friend, a wife, a mother, and yes, sometimes even a rock star. In my journey I tried my best to honor all of these things. In the end, I suppose that’s all that’s really required.
At night when I close my eyes, I don’t see myself back onstage at Catch, thinking back to where it all began or some romanticized version of that past. I don’t revise history that way, and I don’t forget that the great times were never as great as they seem in the rearview mirror. Instead I see the road that’s led me here to this moment, and how now after thirty-one years, I am exactly where I want to be. The only clock that I punch is the one that I built myself.