Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir - Pat Benatar (2010)
Chapter 9. ALMOST OUT
THE NEWS THAT WE were no longer obligated to Chrysalis came as a complete shock. We’d been waiting for this moment for so long, we almost didn’t know what to do with it. But as monumental as it was, it was almost overshadowed by another, equally dramatic development.
Unbeknownst to us, while we’d been on our problematic tour for Wide Awake, Chris Wright had been busy laying the groundwork for a deal that would give the international record giant EMI full control of the U.S. division of Chrysalis, with Chrysalis selling 50 percent of the company to EMI/Capitol. Chris never discussed his plans with anyone from our camp, and we didn’t know what was happening until it already had. When the news was announced, we were in disbelief. As bad as things had been, after ten years of being with one company, we were being sold to a group of strangers.
At this point, we were without a manager, and while it was extremely liberating, it was a little unnerving as well. We weren’t set up to take care of the huge responsibility of running our careers. We went on the hunt, interviewing several people for the job and ultimately deciding on Danny Goldberg. Danny was well respected in the industry and had an eclectic roster of successful artists such as Nirvana, Bonnie Raitt, and the Allman Brothers. He was a talented, decent man, which was crucial because he had a challenging job ahead of him: fixing the mess we were in and restoring our status.
With Danny signed on, we all went to work repairing the damage that had been done. The first order of business was straightening out our relationship with the record company, and we went in with every intention of crucifying them. As free agents we were in a position to decide if we even wanted a relationship with them anymore. We went with a hard line: If we decided to work with them, we’d choose the kind of record we were going to make, and it would occur under the conditions and terms that we dictated. It was a very big “if.” It was unfortunate, but they were going to pay for the sins of their predecessors.
Once the deal was finalized, the two new presidents—Joe Kiener, who was the former vice president of A&R and marketing for Adidas, and Jim Fifield, who was with EMI—came to L.A. to meet with us. The company was “under new management” and they wanted to show us this by having our first face-to-face sit-down. Right away, it was clear Kiener and Fifield were both affable, decent people—a far cry from the people we had grown so used to dealing with. These new executives were actually gracious and amiable people, but they clearly had no idea about our history with the label. They were completely unaware of how contentious things had been and the hell we’d been put through. Chris Wright hadn’t bothered to fill them in on our turbulent relationship. Neither of them knew about the discovery Gerry had made about our contracts. They had signed on to Chrysalis thinking that they were getting us along with the company, and I was all too happy to tell them this was not the case.
When we finally got down to business, I was incredibly blunt. I told them in no uncertain terms that we did not owe them another record, and that if we decided to do anything with them in the future, it would be on our terms. We were free to dictate everything that we wanted. They were not going to tell us how to make records.
They were stunned. Not surprisingly, they had no idea our contract was up. They’d assumed we were locked in and were astonished to learn we were no longer under contract. While our last two albums had not measured up to our previous sales and Chrysalis had recently hit it big with Sinéad O’Connor, we still had a history as one of the original artists on the roster. We were no longer the lead artist, but we had been responsible for much of the earlier success that had helped build the label into what it was.
Regardless of what our recent sales had been, they made it clear that they wanted us to be a part of the label going forward, and speaking to our specific concerns, they made it clear that they’d never even thought about interfering creatively. “We would never tell you how to make a record,” they told us. “We’re businessmen. You make it, we’ll sell it.”
THOUGH MY GUT REACTION was skepticism, their overtures seemed genuine. There was nothing about their approach that seemed calculated to placate us or kiss our ass so that we’d stay and they could screw us over later. Still, we proceeded with caution, agreeing to do another album with them, but only one. We had options for more albums, but those would only happen if we all agreed to continue. Spyder and I would wait and see how well they did their job, then we’d decide whether more albums were in the cards. On this next album as well as any subsequent albums, they increased our advance and royalty rate. Going forward, we would now own 100 percent of our publishing, beginning with our next album, which would be called True Love. There was also a provision that increased the royalty rate for all our previous records, both retroactively and on any future sales, to make up for the increased rates that our previous attorney had failed to negotiate on our behalf.
As we signed our names to the new deal, I felt the most tremendous sense of freedom. At last it was there in writing. We’d won. We were calling the shots. We were the ones making informed decisions based on personal comfort and artistic merit as opposed to financial gain. We were finally able to put our best interests, desires, and passions above all. Our contract gave us complete creative control. We could play whatever we wanted, do whatever we wanted, tour whenever we wanted—and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it.
THE IMMEDIATE IMPACT OF our new deal with Chrysalis was that we had downtime. There was no one rushing us back into the studio, no one asking when we were going to get back on the road. With the fallout from the Wide Awake in Dreamland tour still fresh in our minds, we knew that we had to be shrewd about where we went from here. We wanted to tread carefully, but we also were not interested in recording anything right away.
This break enabled me to donate some of my time to things I really cared about—children and family. Ever since writing “Hell Is for Children,” I had been advocating for children. Controversy aside, the song and its response had a profound impact on my life, leading me to do whatever I could to improve the lives of children. Becoming a mother myself only deepened my commitment. Any time an event, benefit, or recording that was attached to a children’s organization came our way, we participated.
It was around this time that we were approached to participate on the second record of Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… series. The original Free to Be You and Me came out in the early seventies, and it used songs, poetry, and sketches to teach kids essential values. This sequel, Free to Be a Family, was in much the same vein, but for an entirely new generation of children—Haley’s generation.
Growing up, I loved Marlo Thomas. I was a devotee of her TV show That Girl, and I’m pretty sure my rabid affection for heavy, long bangs can be attributed to her. I also had fond memories of her dad from Make Room for Daddy, and I’d always loved the story of how he created St. Jude’s Hospital, where no sick child is ever turned away for the inability to pay. The idea that one man’s heartfelt prayer turned into a safe haven and lifesaving facility for the world’s children touched my soul.
Because of all this, the prospect of working with Marlo Thomas on Free to Be a Family was incredibly appealing, and we happily signed on. The album consisted of material taken from the book of the same name, and like the first one, it empowered children by tearing down the stereotypes about boys and girls. Marlo asked us to record “Jimmy Says” we’d never done anything like that before, and it was a great experience and a positive message for kids.
Another project I worked on during this time was especially important to me, because it gave me the opportunity to meet one of my inspirations, Elizabeth Glaser. It’s been so long now since Elizabeth died in 1994, and I hope people haven’t forgotten her and the important work she did. She was the wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser and was one of the first and most visible victims of the AIDS epidemic. In 1981, while receiving a blood transfusion during childbirth, Elizabeth was infected with the HIV virus. Her newborn daughter, Ariel, contracted the virus through breast milk, and the Glasers’ son Jake, born in 1984, was also infected. It was not until 1985 that any of the family underwent testing and learned they were HIV positive.
In 1987 the Food and Drug Administration approved AZT as a treatment, but only for adult patients. Elizabeth and Paul fought to get Ariel the drug that might have made a difference, but it was too late, and Ariel died in 1988. Elizabeth then founded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, working to raise awareness and research funds. Her story is heartbreaking and heroic. She told it in her 1991 book, In the Absence of Angels.
I had just read this gut-wrenching book and was still reeling with emotion when I was approached to participate on the album Disney for Our Children: To Benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. We could choose any song that we wanted, and I remembered that a dear friend of mine, Michita, who was a fellow mom at Haley’s school, had once mentioned that she’d love to hear me record the hymn “Tell Me Why.” When they asked us to do the record, I immediately thought of Michita’s suggestion; it was perfect. Spyder and I decided to record the song in its simplest and purest form, like a lullaby.
All the artists who had signed on to do the record were invited to New York to hear Elizabeth speak, and when I met her in person, it was almost spiritual. I don’t have a lot of experience with the metaphysical side of this world. I haven’t had those kinds of encounters. I don’t even know how I feel about them, although I do keep an open mind. But on that day, I felt like I was seeing another plane of existence.
I walked into the large banquet hall that had been set up with a podium and rows of chairs. It was packed with people mingling before it was time to take their seats, but I could see Elizabeth at the far end of the room. We had spoken on the phone but never met each other in person. I made my way to where she was standing. I could see this glow around her. I kept thinking, What is that? My God, this woman is surrounded by light. It was truly astonishing, and I couldn’t figure out if I was hallucinating. I found myself staring around at other people to see if they were seeing the same thing. Did anyone else see it?
It was a beautiful, soft, warm light. It made you want to be closer to it. Not only that, but there was a powerful vibration coming off her body that was so intense I could actually feel and hear it. It made a humming sound, a low mmmmmm. When I finally reached her and we said our hellos, I took her hand, and it was like an electric shock, a jolt—the most wonderful feeling. Her very being simply radiated energy. We both looked at each other and smiled. I knew I was in the presence of an angel. I felt blessed to be there with her, to stand in a space close to her.
And I was blessed again when they asked me to come back so that along with former president Reagan, I could present a check to the foundation. Spyder and I went with Danny Goldberg. While we were waiting in the greenroom for the presentation, President Reagan, the former first lady Nancy Reagan, and a bunch of Secret Service people were there with us. The two of them were just a darling old married couple. As we waited, President Reagan perused the dessert table and he grabbed a couple of chocolate-chip cookies. He began eating them and turned to Nancy, saying, “Aren’t these delicious?” with chocolate all over his mouth. Just then Nancy noticed his face and looked like she was ready to faint. She rushed over to wipe his face with a napkin.
I’ve never been one to be starstruck, but I had never been near a former president before and I figured I might never be this close again, so even though it was completely out of character for me, I walked over to him and said, “Mr. President, would you sign an autograph for me?”
“Sure, sure,” he said with a smile. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Pat,” I replied. I knew he had no idea who I was, so I said, “Just sign it to Pat, please.”
“What?” he asked.
The first lady chimed in with a little frustration in her voice. “Pat! P-A-T!”
You just had to smile because she was both exasperated and protective. It reminded me of the kind of exchanges Spyder and I, and most married couples, have from time to time. It made them human to me. It substantiated what I’d always thought—that people are all the same. I don’t care what heights you get to—you’re not that much different from the next guy. We all get chocolate on our face sometimes.
I did a few other public-service and charity type things during that time, but mostly we kept out of the public eye and out of the recording studio. The bottom line was that everything from the last few years had caused a lot of emotional stress. Between the problems with Wide Awake in Dreamland, the backlash from our tour, the messy end to our relationship with Newman, and the management change at Chrysalis, I just didn’t know how much more I had in me. This downtime allowed me to feel that recording was something I could live without. The cumulative effect of ten years of shit had taken its toll. I began thinking that I was ready to hang up my tights and throw in the musical towel for good.
The more I considered it, the more I realized this wasn’t just something I was kicking around in my head. This was real, and I meant it. Finally I told Spyder in no uncertain terms that I intended to quit. He could continue on his own—producing, writing, and playing—but I was finished. I was going to stay home and raise our daughter. A few years earlier I would have been shocked to think those words, let alone say them out loud or actually mean them. But I meant them. I meant every syllable. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. For a decade, I’d given my career everything I had—twenty-four hours a day, seven days week. In that time we’d accomplished more than most artists do in their entire career. We didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, least of all ourselves, and it wasn’t enough fun anymore to do it for its own sake. It hadn’t been for a long time.
In many ways, the final straw had been the way everything ended with Newman. To know that the team that had helped make it all happen had also played a role in its near destruction was difficult to face. The people who’d shared our success had managed to taint the experience so badly that retirement seemed to be the only logical solution. There was too much in the way, too many obstacles that over-shadowed the joy of making music. To have worked so hard, to have struggled with the rampant sexism, to have kept a marriage intact when everyone was hell-bent on destroying it, to have found a way to balance motherhood and a career—to have done all that only to be done in by my own camp was heartbreaking. I didn’t see any way to salvage it once that had happened. It simply wasn’t worth it. I was done.
AND THAT WOULD HAVE been the end of it. Truly, the story would have ended right there if it hadn’t been for the man I married, the man who always knew how to push me into ideas that initially seemed completely ridiculous and probably were. But he also knew how to be pretty persistent.
One day in 1990, he came to me with exactly this kind of idea: he wanted to make a jump blues album. I was incredulous.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. “There’s no way we’re doing that.”
Spyder and I had loved the blues all our lives. It was the music we played at home, for personal enjoyment. Big Maybelle and Sonny Boy Williamson are my absolute favorite singers. Spyder knew that. And he also knew enjoying that music as a listener was one thing, but singing it was something else entirely. He was convinced we would make an amazing record, but I was pretty sure that he’d lost his mind. I didn’t want to be one more white chick trying to sing the blues, and Christ, who was whiter than me? It seemed like a recipe for disaster, but Spyder was adamant—just like he always is when he knows he’s right about something.
He was right about one thing: with total creative control, now was as good a time as any to roll the dice. I mean, honestly, since I was already thinking about quitting, what difference would it really make? We had a chance to make whatever record we wanted to make. Why not use that to try to remember why the hell we were even making records in the first place? I wasn’t completely sold, but Spyder has this wonderfully annoying habit of never totally hearing me, especially when he’s trying to persuade me to challenge myself. In the end, even though I wasn’t 100 percent convinced, he’d planted the seed in my head, and he knew that was all he needed.
He set out to find the people who could make it work. He started out by approaching our friend Chuck Domanico, a great upright bass session player. Chuck was unbelievable and had played with everyone, including Frank Sinatra and many of the blues players we loved. He was a big guy with this big belly and masses of curly black hair. He was Italian, but he definitely sported an Afro. And he was constantly smoking, coughing, and telling stories. We knew that with Chuck, not only would we make some great music, we’d have a great time in the process.
With Chuckie on board, Spyder then went about putting the rest of the band together, eventually securing the group Roomful of Blues. They were tremendous players out of Providence, Rhode Island. They’d released their debut album in 1977 and had been playing constantly ever since. Respected and revered, they’re widely considered to be responsible for paving the way for artists like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Spyder loved their work and knew they were exactly who we needed to make this record swing.
“I’ll just cut some tracks,” he said, trying to entice me. “Then you can see what you think.”
“Okay. Just a few tracks, though.”
“Right, first we need to pick some songs.”
And so we listened and listened. I picked some of my favorites and he picked some of his. The band came to Spyder’s Soul Kitchen, and in eighteen days we ended up making a record. The recording was unlike anything we’d done before, a completely unique experience. With few exceptions we recorded without overdubbing, and if something was messed up, we went in and redid the whole thing. Everyone was in a terrific mood all the time, and Chuck set the tone. He was an endless source of irreverent humor that came out no matter what was going on. And he was strictly a union guy. We’d be on a roll recording, and then out of the blue, he’d stop us and say, “Lunch break!” We’d do two or three takes at a time, and then he’d stop us again and say, “That’s enough.” He’d then blow on his hands, kiss each of his fingers, and say, “You gotta let ’em know when they done good,” before laughing uproariously. There wasn’t a single moment during the making of that record that wasn’t pure delight.
The last song we planned to record for True Love was “I Feel Lucky,” which was going to be an up-tempo, swinging rave in the style of Louis Prima. Spyder and Myron had written the lyrics, and when it came time to write the music for the song, to get in the mood, Spyder would start drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes first thing in the morning. He never was much of a coffee drinker because it just made him a wired maniac. He’d have an occasional espresso after dinner, but that was the extent of it. But when he was creating the music for “I Feel Lucky,” I’d find him at the piano, jacked up on caffeine, working out this boom, boom, boom progression. He was the Mad Hatter on steroids, but he wrote one hell of a song.
“You are nuts!” I’d tell him. “You’re flying! What do you think you are doing?”
“You gotta hear this song! It’s gonna be great!”
The song was this fast-paced swing number that was unrelenting from the first note. He showed the horn guys what he was doing, and they jumped all over it. Those guys just rocked it. When they finished I shook my head and said, “Spyder, you are a maniac. I hope you know that.”
“Oh yeah, I know it,” he said with coffee-induced glee.
You can hear the fun we were having in every bar of True Love. This recording was joyous for many reasons, not the least of which was that we felt like we were being reborn. Spyder called it a cleanse, an event that turned the tables on the old mistakes and grievances.
When it came time to do the video for the title track, “True Love,” the idea was to show the beauty in all the ways that people experience love. That included the love between a parent and a child, between brothers and sisters, between a preacher and his congregation, between friends. This was about true love in its many forms. We filmed scenes of a young couple holding an infant, beautiful laughing children—and the label wanted it all cut out and replaced with me…being sexy. Yawn. It was ridiculous. And it didn’t happen; in the end they came around and the result was a tender, beautiful, and sensual video. Compared to our past dealings on creative issues, their initial opposition to the video ended up being just a small bump in the road.
We did a short tour to promote the record, convincing Chuckie and the entire Roomful of Blues band to go with us. Unfortunately promoters were still a little nervous after the disastrous Wide Awake tour. Rather than take the chance that audiences might not want to hear us playing the blues, they covered their butts by billing the show with the ambiguous moniker “An Evening with Pat Benatar.” As a result, there were occasionally disgruntled audience members who’d come to hear us play our bigger hits and would get unruly from time to time.
“Play ‘Heartbreaker’!” they’d call out.
“Darlin’, you’re at the wrong show,” I’d call back.
We were playing songs off the record, like B. B. King’s “Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss” and “I’ve Got Papers on You,” and Albert King’s “I Get Evil.” There was no question we rocked, but there was also no mistaking the fact that “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” was not happening at these shows. We tried to get the advance promotion changed so that people knew what they were going to be hearing, but there wasn’t enough time. The main thing that happened was that a few marquees read “Rock and Soul.”
Even with that small glitch, we had a blast. Chuckie entertained us with his endless stories, and traveling with Roomful was like having all your crazy brothers over for Sunday dinner at once. We had a lot of laughs, but most important, it wiped the tour slate clean. It was like starting over; we’d been given a gift, a second chance.
There’s no doubt that as an album True Love wasn’t as commercially successful as the earlier records, but it was a completely different genre. It had absolutely no radio support. It was like comparing apples and oranges. Blues records can’t be held to the same sales standards as pop and rock records. True Love sold 339,000 copies in the U.S., and for the blues, that’s a damn good showing.
In the end, making True Love turned out to be the most important decision of our career. Spyder’s idea to create a record that had a completely different direction was brilliant and fateful—exactly what we needed to conjure the spark that had brought us together in the first place. True Love was a labor of love from two people who couldn’t bear the thought of a life without music. When it was finished it had surpassed all that we hoped for. We were newly inspired and ready to begin the next phase of our musical life together. True Love was God’s gift to us for sticking it out.
WITH TRUE LOVE, we’d put the new Chrysalis’s pledge to give us creative control to the test, so we decided to sign on for another record, Gravity’s Rainbow. It would be our last with them.
From the start, we were looking to make this album something that was more traditional for us, but the impact that True Love had on our psyches was apparent. The high from True Love carried over to Gravity’s Rainbow,making the atmosphere positive and optimistic. We were all happy to be there. Don Gehman was co-producing with Spyder, and he was a mellow, upbeat guy. He brought along his engineer, Rick Will, who we could tell right away was born under the same “I’m a bent, lovable lunatic” sign that Spyder was. We had some fun. We were happy to be back playing the kind of music that had been our signature sound. Seeing all those amps again and hearing that wailing guitar just made me smile. I had tucked my love for all of this away in a safe place and it had survived. In spite of everything, I still loved my job.
By the time we recorded Gravity’s Rainbow, Spyder and I had given up trying to have another child. We’d been trying for almost nine years—ever since Haley had been born. In 1988, I’d had an ectopic pregnancy and lost the baby very early on, and that was enough to make us feel that we were not destined to have another child. We desperately wanted one, but it just wasn’t going to happen.
One weekend while we were making Gravity’s Rainbow, we went away—just on a little getaway to decompress from recording since I had to be back on Monday to shoot the cover for the record. That weekend, Spyder and I talked about how we really needed to stop trying for another baby. Obviously God had a different plan for us, and we were so grateful to have Haley, who was now eight years old. We made a pact to give up the hope of having another child and simply live in the present, enjoying our family the way it was.
On Monday after the relaxing trip, I went to the studio where the shoot would take place. I got my hair and makeup done, and then it was time to go to work with the stylist. She’d put together a bunch of outfits for me to try on, but I always hated this part, dressing and undressing—the whole thing was so tedious. On this particular day, it was especially awful because apparently she’d gotten all the wrong sizes. Everything was uncomfortably snug.
“I don’t understand it. I know I took the correct measurements,” she said, exasperated.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, trying to adjust the seams on my clothes. “Let’s just get it over with.”
We tried on several outfits and took Polaroids to preview how they looked before we started the actual shoot. One of the photos in the pile was a close-up of my face to check the lighting. I picked it up to see if I liked the makeup, and looking closely at my face, I stopped dead: there, in my eyes, was the light I’d seen before, in the footage from the “Painted Desert” video.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I told myself not to get my hopes up. I didn’t say a word to anyone, and I finished the shoot. On the way home I had the limo driver stop at an all-night pharmacy, where I bought a pregnancy test. This was back when you had to wait to do the test in the morning, so when I got home, I hid the test and set my alarm to get up before Spyder. I got up the next morning and took the test. The line was blue. It was a miracle. Nearly nine years of trying and finally, a baby. I ran into the bedroom and jumped on my sleeping husband, waking him out of a dead sleep.
“Spyder, wake up! We’re pregnant!”
“What? What? What are you talking about?”
“I took the test, it’s blue, I’m pregnant.”
He just stared at me. “Nope. I don’t believe it. You did it wrong. I’m going to the drugstore and getting another test.”
It was six-thirty in the morning and the closest pharmacy didn’t open until seven A.M. He sat there waiting, and when it finally opened, he bought $150 worth of tests. We spent the next hour turning sticks blue. Oh yeah, we were definitely pregnant, and we had a pile of blue plastic sticks scattered across our bathroom floor to prove it. The next day I went to the doctor, and it was verified—we were having another baby.
The knowledge that I was pregnant again made the release of Gravity’s Rainbow a particularly joyous occasion. This album was back in the AOR pocket and contained a big hit with “Everybody Lay Down,” which reached number 3 on the album rock chart. A second single, “Somebody’s Baby,” was released with a beautiful and compelling video.
Of course, when it came to the label’s reaction to my pregnancy, old habits die hard, even when the old habits are being perpetrated by new people. This was partly because by the time we found out I was pregnant, the reasonable and rational team of Joe Kiener and Jim Fifield was gone and Chrysalis had been completely absorbed into EMI. Now we were EMI artists under the direction of Charles Koppleman, CEO, and Ron Fair, the head of A&R, part of a monstrous company with their fingers in every pie, from music publishing to electronics. With all that the folks at EMI had going on, you would have thought they’d have better things to worry about than my pregnancy. Apparently not. They shouldn’t have cared but they did. While they didn’t put us through the hell that we went through with Haley, they were clearly displeased and made no attempt to hide their dissatisfaction.
Gravity’s Rainbow came out, and though I was pregnant, we still went on tour. From the start, though, the performances were tough. I had terrible morning sickness that made it really difficult to focus. Eventually it got bad enough that we had to cut the tour short after three or four weeks. Our decision didn’t go over well at the label, and there was no doubt that the premature ending hurt sales. While it was disappointing, we made no apologies about where our priorities were. We didn’t forget how blessed we were to be in the situation we were in, and how careful we needed to be in order to preserve it.
Whether the record execs they liked it or not, Hana Juliana was coming, and she arrived in the world on March 12, 1994, screaming her head off. She was so loud that Spyder and I started laughing and her godparents, Moni and Myron, jumped up and peered through the delivery room windows to make sure everything was okay. She was a force of nature from the moment she arrived. She was beautiful, with twinkling eyes. As for Haley, all of her sisterly instincts came out, and she doted on Hana night and day. We worried about her having been an only child for so long and thought maybe she’d resent this new little creature, but if she felt any of that, she never showed it. She adored her baby sister. Our lives were officially on our terms, and we were going to do whatever we could to keep them that way.