Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir - Pat Benatar (2010)
Chapter 2. I CAN DO THAT
THE MARRIAGE WAS OFF and on from the beginning.
For the next few years, Dennis and I split up about once a year, and for about six months at a time. While this was happening, we also moved around quite a bit because he was still serving in the military. First we moved to Massachusetts, where he was stationed at Fort Devon. We then went on to Fort Jackson in South Carolina and Fort Lee, near Richmond, Virginia. Throughout these moves, we kept separating but always decided to “give it one more try.”
Those were tough years on both of us. There was no doubt he’d been through a trauma and it had marked him. We really struggled during our marriage, and as a result, I was essentially on my own a lot of the time. Though I worked and tried to take classes whenever I could, sadly, I stayed away from music.
It was while we were in South Carolina that I found a job at the Citizens and Southern Bank. Being so compulsive, I liked the order to the setup at a bank, with all those stacks of neatly bound packets of money and organized files. I had no experience working in a bank, but the funny thing was, the bank hired me precisely because I didn’t have any experience. They were switching over to a new check processing system, and the bank officials decided to start fresh with someone who had never worked with the old one. That way there was no “unlearning” necessary. It worked out so well that they sent me to school to be a trainer for other branches. I went from branch to branch, training lovely little blue-haired ladies on the new system while they kept telling me, “Ah don’t know why Ah have to learn this, darlin’, the old way was just fine.” I had the best time, and I really did love those ladies.
However, some of the older male customers weren’t so sure about me.
I worked as a trainer for a couple of years before being promoted to head teller at my own branch. All those elderly men with their Confederate-flag lapel pins would raise their eyebrows at my leopard-print dresses and peer at the name tag that read PATRICIA BENATAR, HEAD TELLER.
“Ben-ay-ter. That’s not a local name, is it?”
“No, sir, it is not.”
“Where are you from, little lady?”
“New York,” I’d say, laying on my thickest New York accent and watching them recoil in surprise.
“I think Ah’ll go to the next winduh…”
In the end, I learned to love the South and appreciate it. I was comfortable there. I think one of the main reasons I related to those people was that their ways were so genteel. There was a softer edge to what they did, and they truly were the salt of the earth. These were people who got up every morning, went to work, went to church, fed their children, and tried to do the best they could. It was blue-collar, working-class, and felt incredibly comfortable for me. Even if some of the older men were taken aback by my leopard-print dresses, they were like me in so many ways, very down-to-earth. Just regular folk.
When we made the move to Virginia, my banking skills paid off, and I was hired at the F & M Bank in Hopewell. Maybe it was working around all that money and seeing the paltry paycheck at the end of the month that did it, but I finally realized that I could not spend my life in a bank, even if I kept getting promoted. There was a limit to where I could go, and I knew it. I was aware that in too many jobs, I’d need a college degree, and I didn’t have one. I often kicked myself for quitting school just to jump into the wrong marriage, but ultimately I knew I had to make a change.
Then one day in 1973, after we had moved to Virginia, something miraculous happened. Some gay friends who worked at the bank with me asked me if I wanted to go with them to see a Liza Minnelli concert at the Coliseum in Richmond. I was not a huge fan of hers, but I loved Cabaret and adored her mother, so I thought, Why not? I figured that with everything basically in the dumper, a great music spectacle would lift my spirits. I hadn’t sung for two years. That’s what the new life was doing to me. The thing I loved most had slipped away from me. I kept thinking that I had really messed up somewhere along the way. I knew that there were people like Georgia Ruel who had seen great things in my future. All those plans, all that promise, and what was I doing? Counting other people’s money.
The Coliseum in Richmond was a great venue, comparable to the Forum in L.A. (now the Staples Center). As I sat there, watching Liza sing, loving the showmanship and taking in the entire performance, I looked around at the people in the audience, the lights, the stage, and thought: I can do that. This is ridiculous. I’m a better singer than she is. Sure, she’s a great performer, but with practice, I can definitely do this. I want to perform again, only this time, on a stage like the Coliseum.
Sound crazy? Maybe it was. And maybe we should all follow some crazy idea when our gut tells us it’s right.
I did not mess around. The very next day I went to the bank and gave my notice. I found a little music paper—a Village Voice sort of thing—and started looking through it for anything that seemed like a singing opportunity. I stumbled across an advertisement for a singing waitress at a dinner theater in Enon, Virginia, called the Roaring Twenties Café, where the performers doubled as the waitstaff. I applied and got the job, complete with a flapper dress and a garter.
In twelve hours I had changed my life.
The Roaring Twenties Café was a funny place. You’d be serving a baked potato one minute and have to jump on the stage the next, with or without blue cheese dressing on your costume. They didn’t serve alcohol, so the customers brown-bagged it. It was a cabaret-style show, a revue. I did a lot of Judy Garland songs, sang in some ensembles, and in one portion of the show I was in a Sonny and Cher sketch. After a couple of music-free years, I began to feel like myself again, quickly becoming close friends with the other performers. We were really just Muzak live, but career-wise it was a step ahead of being a bank teller.
And the clientele who frequented the Roaring Twenties Café? Lots of traveling businessmen, but couples came too. The middle-aged men who were away from their families always behaved the worst. Most were these rotund old Southern boys with their big cigars. That was when you could still smoke everywhere. They’d be puffing those stogies and then reach out and slip a finger down around your garter.
“Why don’t you sit down here, darlin’? Let’s talk about a few things.”
“How about I punch your eye out?”
Once in a while that comeback didn’t work and somebody would still hang on to that garter. So I’d have to say, “I don’t think so, fellas. I’m from New York, and you’re an asshole!”
They’d sit there roaring with laughter, bellies shaking, saying things like, “That little Yankee girl is cute and feisty.”
But they got the message, and usually, they took it fine. They were just a bunch of good old boys, and they’d back off as soon as I put them in their place. It wasn’t exactly the big time, but it was something of a start.
The real beginning came when I met Phil Coxon, who played piano at the Roaring Twenties Café. I started singing with his band, Coxon’s Army, and and we played at local clubs like a place called Sam Miller’s. In 1974, we got to be such a famous regional act that we were the subject of a PBS special. We even had a radio hit in Richmond with “Day Gig” on Trace Records. Between Coxon’s Army and singing a few local ad jingles, I was making a huge amount of money for the time, over a $1,000 a week, an enormous sum considering that the rent on the apartment I shared with Dennis was only $100 a month.
During this time, Dennis and I split up a few times, and it was becoming less and less clear where our relationship and my career were headed. Then in 1975 I had another one of those moments. One morning I read an article about open-mic club nights in the New York Times, saying that this was a big scene in the city, where singers and comics could build a following and possibly be discovered. Open mics were a great equalizer, a way that anyone could be heard by people who mattered in the entertainment industry. I thought about the potential for about five minutes, then decided to pack up and head to New York. The response from my Richmond friends and colleagues was across the board negative.
“What? But you’re making so much money here!”
“Why would you do that? You own this town!”
“Why spoil the good thing you got goin’ here?”
They were right, but I knew that Richmond was only going to take me so far. I was never going to seriously go anywhere if I couldn’t do this on the biggest stage of all.
“If I really want to make it, I’ve gotta be in New York,” I explained to them with the air of confidence that only a twenty-two-year-old can pull off. “I’m never going to really get ahead, to do any better than I am already. Good money or not, I’m stuck.”
“You’ll be back,” they all told me.
“No, I won’t.”
IT TOOK ME ABOUT a day to gather my things and head for New York. I’m no fool. I didn’t jump into the middle of New York City and use up all my savings renting an apartment. I moved back to North Hamilton Avenue with my parents and started singing every place I could, trying to get a break. Dennis ended up following me, and eventually we moved to the city, taking a little East Side one-bedroom apartment on Eighty-first Street. My husband decided that he was going to try to manage me, which was a ridiculous idea, but for whatever reason it made sense to him. What it really meant was that we had but one income: mine.
One of the places I started going to was considered a real star maker, a club called Catch a Rising Star on First Avenue between East Seventy-eighth Street and East Seventy-seventh Street—not too far from our apartment. Catch a Rising Star was the reason I’d come to New York in the first place—the article had mentioned it specifically as a place where upcoming talent could be discovered. People who kick-started their careers at Catch over the years include Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Ray Romano, Ellen DeGeneres, David Brenner, Whoopie Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, and my dear friend Richard Belzer. It had only been in business since 1972 but already had legendary status in entertainment circles.
I was scared to death the first time I sang there. Early that afternoon, I’d gone to the club and waited outside with all the other hopefuls to get a number. It was first come, first served—the number you got determined when you went on. I got number 29, which meant that I wouldn’t go on until nearly three A.M. Luckily the club had a good late-night crowd. When it was finally my turn, I sang a cover of Judy Garland’s “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” I was so nervous I had to hide my shakes. After I’d sung the final note, I closed my eyes, terrified to open them and see the crowd’s reaction. The next sound I heard was everyone in the joint going absolutely crazy. I was in total shock.
While I was singing, Rick Newman, the club owner, had been drinking with some of his friends in the bar at the front of the club, not paying much attention to the contestants. When he heard the audience cheering for me he burst through the doors as I was exiting the stage.
“Who are you and where did you come from?” he asked with a smile. I don’t know what reaction I was expecting from my performance, but that was not it. I laughed and told him my story. Newman was a big, tall guy—very seventies with his open shirts and gold chains. He had curly dark hair and a big mustache that made him look like he was wearing one of those fake noses with glasses. (Richard Belzer even poked fun at him about it in his act: “Hey, does that nose go with the glasses?”) My performance made Newman an instant fan, and he offered to do anything he could to help me get started. That at least meant more performances at Catch a Rising Star.
It didn’t take me long to become a fixture at Catch, and hanging out there became one of my favorite things to do, whether I was performing or not. The comics weren’t just funny onstage. They were “on” most of the time. We would stay up all night and then go for breakfast at a local coffee shop called the Green Kitchen. Between Richard Belzer and the other guys, I think I had coffee and milk shooting out of my nose every fifteen minutes. I finally figured out that Belzer waited until I had just taken a big gulp of my coffee to jump in with a one-liner. Then, of course, I looked like an idiot for all to see. The best part though was nobody thought you looked like an idiot.
I loved to play poker, and on some nights, I’d stay there with the comedians until five in the morning in a card game. With the exception of a few times when some girlfriend of Newman’s played with us, I was the only woman in those games, but it wasn’t something that ever really occurred to me. In my mind I was just laughing with the boys—John Belushi, Chevy Chase, John DeBellis, The Untouchables. I learned everything about humor, timing, and swearing from these guys, hence my extensive collection of obscenities. The whole scene was just fun, and I fit right in.
Those became some of the happiest times of my life. Everyone was trying to make it, and in the process we were a family. We were all working toward the same end. We cheered each other’s successes and stood by each other when auditions went badly. It didn’t matter that you didn’t have any money or that your name wasn’t on any marquee yet. Everyone was more or less in the same position, with some closer to the brass ring than others but everyone trying. When you find creative people who are all trying to do similar things, so often resentment and competition overtake everything. It’s so rare to find people who are confident enough in themselves and their own talents that they’re able to honestly be there for one another. But that was precisely what we had. It was a close-knit community, with all of us encouraging and supporting each other. You didn’t find much negativity there. It was tough in New York; Catch was a safe haven.
But while Catch was good fun and good exposure, it didn’t pay anything, and I needed a paycheck at least once in a while. One day I was talking to a good friend named Mel Pralgo, who was a partner in a band that played weddings and bar mitzvahs, and laid it on the line.
“Shit, Mel! I’m dying here. I need to make some money!”
He shrugged. “Why don’t you come sing with me? We’ll do parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. You won’t get rich. It pays a couple of hundred at a time. But it’s something.”
And so I did. I decided something was a lot better than nothing, and off we went every weekend. I sang “The Way We Were” and “Feelings” so many times I’d probably do something requiring jail time if I ever had to sing them again. One night, we were playing a party in Huntington, Long Island, and I was sitting in a local club when in walked Harry Chapin. He was truly one of the most casual stars ever, basically a modern-day troubadour. That night, he looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. After I got to know Harry, I realized he always looked like that. His hair was always messed up, and he couldn’t have cared less what he wore. He also never, ever, carried any money on him. Even that first night I met him, he had to ask the bartender to spot him.
Harry and I started talking about a play that he was doing at a local theater.
“I think you’d be perfect for this one part.”
I hesitated, because I hadn’t done any theater work since high school.
“Why don’t you just come audition and see?” he said.
So that’s what I did, and I landed a role in his rock musical, The Zinger, which played at the Performing Arts Foundation for a month. It was a thrilling opportunity, especially because I got to work with Christine Lahti and Beverly D’Angelo. I was a step behind them professionally. They were on their way up, while I was pre–on my way up. I didn’t expect this gig to be the big break I hoped for, but I did see it as a wonderful learning experience, a way to be onstage with pros. (Most of all I got to know Harry and his darling family. When he died, it absolutely broke my heart.)
The best part about all this was that I had the freedom to experiment. I was trying to make it, but I wasn’t limiting myself. New York offered endless ways to experiment musically and push the envelope. I just had to find those opportunities and take advantage of them. In the process, I ended up doing a lot of different things and meeting cool people. Meanwhile I was singing anywhere and everywhere that I could—always looking to get in front of a crowd. I ran in different circles because that was a good way to meet people, but I didn’t think that every single thing I did would result in the big time. That goal was first and foremost in my mind, but I also wanted to experience all that New York City had to offer. I was driven but I was also having fun.
And when I wasn’t on performing or trying to line up my next gig, having fun meant hanging out with my friends. New York was an insane place to be in the late seventies, and while I didn’t participate in the drug scene, I was definitely around it all the time. You’d show up at parties and there would just be mounds of coke, and, of course, pot was everywhere. But none of that was my thing. Now, I’m not saying I was an angel, but that stuff really didn’t interest me. I wanted to be in control of the situation, and in my experience, that control was usually the first thing drugs made you relinquish. Doing drugs would’ve produced so much anxiety that it wouldn’t have been worth it. (Thanks, Mom, finally a situation where those scare tactics paid off.) Besides, I always worried that I’d hurt my throat or ruin my face or eat too many M&M’s. I was too responsible to let go like that.
Eventually it just became a given that although I was cool being around people who were wasted, I didn’t indulge personally. I had a lot of druggie friends (some of the comedians I hung around were notorious drug users), but the bulk of my close friends were lay people or musical theater people, both of which were much more benign. The choice to not spend a lot of time with the hard-core rockers was mine. For me, it was about the music; for a lot of them it was a lifestyle. I was a nice girl, a little square and cautious perhaps, but with an edge. Still, I would not be a casualty. I had a plan to succeed and not succumb.
After I’d been living in the city for a bit, I started looking for a manager, and I decided to take a chance on a semi-well-known guy named Jeff Nicholas who wanted to represent me. When I told Newman about him, he was skeptical, but he told me to give it a try.
“Just don’t sign anything” were his only words of caution.
I began working with Nicholas, and at first, things were okay. He seemed interested in my career and we seemed to have a similar vision of what I needed to do. I spent most of my time hanging around Catch with the gang, always keeping Newman informed about what I was up to. One afternoon, Nicholas set up a meeting with a songwriter he wanted me to meet. The guy lived on Central Park West, and the plan was for me to meet him at his apartment by myself so that we could start talking over ideas. Walking up the pristine avenue across from the park, it occurred to me that with this address, this songwriter had to be a big shot of some kind. Clearly this meeting was a good one for me to take. When I arrived at his door, I saw he was in his midforties with a thin comb-over on his shiny, balding head. At first, he seemed nice enough, but there was an anxiety to him that seemed off. For one thing he had several locks on his door, which was odd given the neighborhood and the fact that this was a doorman building. I quickly found out why.
I spent the next hour being chased around the piano—literally. At every turn the guy kept trying to put his hands all over me, refusing to let me out of the apartment. I finally began to cry, and with the tears, he seemed to realize how green and young I was. He took pity on me and let me leave, but the damage had been done. I rode the crosstown bus back to the East Side, shaking and crying the whole way home. I went straight to the club and told Newman what happened. Instantly his paternal instinct for me kicked in. He sent some people to Nicholas’s house to convince him that he should gracefully walk away from any relationship with me.
That was where my association with Jeff Nicholas ended. I had always been cautious about the people I trusted, but after that run-in, I came to see just how guarded I needed to be. As open and progressive as the music business was supposed to be, it was still very much a man’s world. Men held the power, and they weren’t afraid to wield it in order to get what they wanted.
The whole experience left me feeling demoralized. As great as my support system at Catch was, none of those guys ever had to deal with something like this. It was Newman, though, who was able to lift my spirits, when he and I began to discuss the possibility of him managing me. He was hesitant because he’d never managed a music act before and had absolutely no experience in the music business. But neither of us let that stand in the way. We both believed I had the goods necessary to make it. Whatever we didn’t know, we’d figure out as we went. We were taking baby steps. How hard could it be?
Once he started repping me, I got thrown into Newman’s world headfirst. I’d always known that Newman had some colorful friends, and when we’d first started working together, I had periodic run-ins with some of these guys, many of whom were total characters.
One morning, before I’d signed with Chrysalis, I was meeting Rick at a restaurant-bar called Friar Tuck where he was going to introduce me to a prospective agent. The restaurant was closed during the day, so only a skeleton staff was there prepping for the evening. I was sitting at the bar and waiting for Newman, but since it was eleven A.M. I wasn’t drinking. However, there was an older gentleman who was also sitting at the bar, and he wasdrinking. We sat there a long time, not speaking and occasionally smiling politely at each other.
When it became clear that Rick was officially very late, the gentleman finally spoke. “Hey, doll, whattaya doin’ here?”
“I’m waiting for my manager—we’re having a meeting,” I told him.
“Oh, are you waiting for Ricky?” he asked.
“Yes.” I was surprised he knew Rick. He shook his head.
“Now that’s wrong. It’s rude to keep a pretty girl like you waiting so long. Whatsamatter with him? Me, I got an excuse, I’ve been hit in the head a lot of times.” He smiled and went on eating his meal. I later found out that the gentleman was legendary boxer Rocky Graziano.
Another time, Rick and I went out for some Italian food at a restaurant called Jilly’s in midtown. Jilly Rizzo, the owner, was a longtime friend of Frank Sinatra, and right as we were walking in, Frank was walking out. He stopped to say hello to Newman, and looking at me he said, “Who’s this little girl?”
“Frank,” Newman said, “her name is Pat Benatar and she’s an amazing singer. You’d love her voice.”
Frank smiled, those famous blue eyes twinkling, and then pinched both my cheeks. “With this doll face, she’ll have no problem. Good luck, kid, maybe I’ll see ya around.”
Then he was gone, and the only thing running through my head was, Oh my God, did Frank Sinatra really just pinch my cheeks and call me doll face? Newman and I may not have known where we were going together, but at least with him it was never a dull moment.
IN 1977 I ACCIDENTALLY hit on my stage image thanks to an old science fiction movie and a Halloween party.
It was a 1953 D-movie titled Cat-Women of the Moon that inspired me to dress up in black spandex with a lot of eye makeup. It’s pretty shocking that Ed Wood didn’t have a hand in making this movie. It’s that bad. But I was a junkie for terrible sci-fi and horror flicks, so I knew it well. There was something about the campiness of their outfits that was too good to pass up—especially for Halloween.
That night, I carried a ray gun and wore black tights, short black boots, and a sheer black top—not to mention lots of eyeliner. A bunch of us dressed up and decided to go to the Village to see all the outrageous costumes. With a large gay population, most of whom made dressing up for Halloween an art form, the Village was the only place to be. We all entered a costume contest at Café Figaro on Bleecker Street, and given the competition, I figured there was no way my Cat-Woman of the Moon outfit would win. Unbelievably, it did. After the contest, I had to go back uptown for a show at Catch, and to celebrate, I decided to perform in costume. So, there I was, in this crazy getup, singing the same songs I’d been singing for months, only this time I looked like I stepped out of a fifties sci-fi flick.
That night, though, something changed. I don’t know if it was because I felt like I was playing a role or I simply removed my personal shell, but I had newfound bravado, a sexual swagger that wasn’t there before. The notes were the same, but they had an attitude to them, an aggression. In the years since, I’ve returned to that night countless times, and even now, I’m not totally sure what prompted the change inside me. I’d been on that stage for months, and I’d had the spotlight on me for years; never before had I owned the stage like I did that Halloween.
The audience ate it up. They stood and applauded, yelled and stomped—not exactly the reaction I was used to. Don’t get me wrong, I usually got a good reception, especially at Catch, but this crowd was going crazy. As I took in the moment and looked around the packed, costumed room, I tried to piece together just what had happened. It didn’t take long for me to figure it out.
Now, I may have been a newbie, but I was no dummy. I decided to wear the outfit again the next night (minus the ray gun), and the crowd had the same reaction, even bigger than the night before. That was all the proof I needed. From that moment on I wore variations of that outfit every time I played. My stage persona was born. Later on when people asked my mother about my skimpy outfits, she quipped that she was relieved I was wearing clothes at all because she’d been worried I would end up a stripper. (When one journalist was obviously fishing for a negative comment from her about my stage outfits, her response was simply, “If I had her shape I’d dress like that too!”)
Riding the wave of my newly energized live show, Newman got some demo tapes together that were beautifully produced—but that was precisely the problem. They didn’t sound like rock and roll. My attitude, which I honed through performing, was solid, but my vocal delivery was still too controlled, too trained. Because I sang a lot of other singers’ music, I tended to emulate their voices when I was performing their songs. Part of the blessing of having a wide vocal range was also a curse: I sang songs too closely to the sound on the actual recording, making it hard to hear my voice.
I could see this was creating a problem, so I sought out songwriters with original material that I could put my own vocal stamp on. This proved to be the right move, and when we had enough original songs, we made more demos. Newman and I were both convinced a record deal was right out there waiting for me. For a long time it seemed like we spent every spare minute trying to get a name of some record label rep who would let us drop off a tape. Sometimes we didn’t have a name. We just dropped the tape off at the front desk. Everybody passed.
I shared the demos with people I knew, and while everyone agreed they were wonderful, the tapes were still missing something only I could hear. Never one to give up, I went back to performing live, figuring that was where I needed to be in order to work toward the sound I heard in my head. I stopped playing at cabaret clubs like Gypsy’s, Goodtimes, and Dangerfield’s, and I moved into rock venues. Through singing original songs, my voice began to emerge, and though it still wasn’t quite what I wanted, it was getting closer all the time. My stage persona was growing by leaps and bounds; it became sensual, aggressive, and on occasion I was compared to Jagger. I was beginning to have control over an audience in ways I’d never had before.
It was exciting, but even then I knew a huge part of what I wanted to achieve was absent. While I loved bands and singers from every genre of music—the Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan, and all things Motown—none of those were how I envisioned myself. I wanted that amazing, blistering guitar player, a partner to play off. Musically, I wasn’t getting that monstrous chordal “bed” I was looking for. Zeppelin, the Stones, the Clash, Foreigner—all had that intense, guitar-driven sound. I was well aware that this was new territory for a woman, but that made it all the more attractive. I had listened to Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, and I admired them. But neither of them had the sound I wanted. I wanted to be Robert Plant.
The success of my live shows highlighted that whatever was working live clearly wasn’t coming across in those demos. Finally Newman decided that it was time to showcase me for labels, to let them see the onstage energy I projected. We held it downtown at one of the city’s best-known clubs, a place called Tramps, on Fifteenth Street. It was the kind of place where up-and-comers debuted and established players went to showcase new material. Newman ran around getting people to promise that they’d be there, and every friend and relative I had showed up. The showcase would be for two nights, and I should have felt tremendous pressure about the whole thing—not only were we paying for the show but sometimes in the music business, you get one shot. If you pull those label people out, you better be prepared to deliver. But I knew that I would put on a good show. It wasn’t arrogance. I had worked for three years for this day and I was confident I was ready.
The first night my set list ranged from Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to the Rascals’ “You Better Run” to a reggae version of “Stairway to Heaven.” The crowd ate it up, partially because the entire room was filled with my friends and family. The one label representative I met that night was Jeff “Buzzard” Aldridge from Chrysalis, who loved it. And one music critic in attendance really loved it. This will tell you the power of the press back then: Carl Arrington from the New York Post wrote a rave review about the show—the kind of accolades normally associated with parental adulation or eulogies. The next night people were lined up around the block for my set. It was insane. On that second night of the showcase, five different record labels came to the show, all because of the Post review. Buzzard was back, and after the show he brought Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, the founders of Chrysalis Records, backstage to meet me. Suddenly all of the record companies who had passed were interested.
The very next day I started meeting with record labels. But having already met Terry, Chris, and Buzzard, I really felt like I wanted to sign with them. It was a smaller label, which was very appealing to me, since it meant I might get more personal attention than at the giants. After one meeting with Terry and Chris, I was signed to Chrysalis, unprepared but on my way.
What I didn’t know was that the contract I signed practically made me an indentured servant. Because Newman hadn’t managed a singer before, he didn’t know what to be on the lookout for. As a result, neither one of us really knew what was necessary to protect me. From the day I first signed on that dotted line, I felt like I was playing catch-up, learning on the fly as I tried to follow the record label’s rules.
At that first meeting with Terry and Chris, I explained what I wanted to accomplish, trying to describe for them the hard-rock sound that I’d been working to articulate but had yet to achieve. Though they’d liked what they’d heard and seen at the showcase, they were intrigued by my idea. The thought of having a female front person who could compete with male rockers, filling arenas, selling massive amounts of records, was unheard-of. Female pop singers, yes, of course, but a solo female rocker? There wasn’t anything like that out there. The cash registers in their heads were chiming.
The fact that they’d had such success with Blondie only made them salivate more, and oddly enough, one of the first things they threw my way after signing with them was the chance to take a small part in an independent movie called Union City that Debbie Harry was also in. I showed up on the set, and over the course of making it, Debbie and I ended up spending a few days together. From the start, I really liked her. She was everything I wasn’t—quirky in the best sort of way and definitely part of the New York art crowd, a group I admired and whose libertine lifestyle I enjoyed vicariously. She was crazy yet sweet as could be. The movie itself was a bizarre little thing, and I’m only really in it for a minute, but the whole experience just made me bat my wide eyes in disbelief at where I was standing. I was hungrier than ever to find that sound, my sound.
As it turned out, Chrysalis desperately wanted me to find that sound too, and they thought they knew how to get it. They assembled a group of New York’s finest session players, Paul Shaffer (later of David Letterman’s band) among them, and hired a successful producer named Ron Dante. With this pedigree, everyone thought we were off to a great start. The label had given me a song called “Heartbreaker” that we were pitched through the Chrysalis A&R department. It was written by a couple of British guys, Geoff Gill and Clint Wade, and though it was obviously a strong starting point, the original lyrics had too many English colloquialisms that an American audience wouldn’t understand. The record label worried that it wouldn’t fly with American listeners and asked me to rewrite some of the lyrics.
In spite of these promising beginnings, the sessions were a disaster. Everything was wrong. The tracks were played technically well, but they had no soul, no passion. The music was so uninspiring that I couldn’t conjure any fire in the vocals. We had “Heartbreaker,” for God’s sake! But the recordings were a fiasco. I cried for days, saying that I was finished before I’d even started.
After listening to the sessions, Chrysalis determined that they’d been a little hasty jumping on my “female rocker bandwagon.” They had a new plan. They had seen a “great vocalist” on that stage at Tramps, a technical singer who also knew how to work the crowd. They had determined that female singers were easier to market as solo artists, and marketing niches usually trump all else. They’d bring in the great producer Mike Chapman, who was working wonders with two other acts on their label, the Knack and Blondie. I’d be a pop star or a New Wave singer. See, all better.
But when I met with Chapman, the opposite thing happened. He got it. He knew exactly what I had been talking about. He started suggesting songs like “No You Don’t” and “I Need a Lover.” I was instantly drawn to “I Need a Lover,” a song that John Mellencamp (“Johnny Cougar” back then) had first released as a single. While it didn’t do much in the U.S., it went to number 1 in Australia. Mellencamp included it on his next record, and it charted in the U.S. It was exactly the kind of material I was looking for. The idea of singing that lyric from a female point of view was perfect. Chapman also thought “Heartbreaker” was the ideal vehicle for me lyrically and that the sentiment it exuded was spot-on. We both agreed that there wasn’t any female out there shoving that kind of message in your face.
Now all we had to do was get those tracks to rock. Not someone’s idea of how a “girl” would rock, but the real thing—only sung by a female. Chapman even thought he had an idea about where I could find that elusive guitar-playing partner I so desperately wanted.
I’M JUST GOING TO put this out there once and for all: without Neil Giraldo (or “Spyder,” as I’d later dub him), my career would not have happened. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had any success as the pop princess Chrysalis wanted. But I never would have succeeded to the degree I did, made strides for women, been part of the eighties rock movement, had my face on MTV, won four Grammys, sold millions of records, and still been around thirty years later without the genius and heart of that man.
Because I am not responsible for it; we are responsible for it, all of it. From the moment he stepped into the room at SIR, our lives changed—first musically, and later romantically and spiritually. We were each other’s muse. It was like we had each been missing a part and when we met, we were finally whole, connected on a primal level. The sexual tension between us and the instant musical compatibility was intoxicating. The creativity that flowed was unstoppable. And even though I was crazy for him from the moment he walked into SIR’s rehearsal hall, Spyder and I did not become a couple at first. We had music to make.
From the moment we first started collaborating, I knew Spyder was a visionary. His mind never stopped. He was constantly experimenting and trying new things, yet he knew precisely what needed to be pushed farther and what needed to be discarded. It was exactly what I’d been missing. That’s not to say I had no vision, but I was such a grounded person. A lot of that had to do with my musical upbringing. There wasn’t much room in classical music to go crazy or experiment. Your main job was to deliver what had been written in a precise and technically perfect way. Artistry was valued over innovation. Spyder was the perfect counterpart to my organized, by-the-book self. He’d get these out-there ideas, and I’d make them palatable to human beings. Together we worked beautifully.
The fact that we meshed so well was surprising given how different our musical backgrounds were. His experience was the antithesis of mine. Unlike me, Spyder grew up in rock and roll and spent his entire musical life playing it. He came from a Sicilian-Czech family from Parma, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. In the beginning, he’d balked at playing music. His sister played accordion, which his mother (from the Czech side of the family) loved. But Mrs. Giraldo thought that for family gatherings on a Sunday afternoon, the accordion would sound better backed with an acoustic guitar. Spyder was natural musician and a great acoustic player, but he had no real interest in the whole thing until his uncle stepped in.
Uncle Timmy was much younger than Spyder’s mom, and he was a rocker. Timmy was into the Stones, Zeppelin, and Hendrix, and being only four years older than Spyder, he helped bridge the generation gap. After listening to Spyder play acoustically and gripe about it, his father bought him an amp, but once his Uncle Timmy showed Spyder how to turn that amp all the way up, all hell broke loose. Nobody ever had to tell him to practice again. Music was his entire universe. While I was practicing arias, he was finding new ways to bend the strings on his guitar and turning his amps up to “eleven.” At fourteen, he was sneaking in back doors to play in clubs, and this prolonged exposure to the fringe of rock had pushed his musical taste and creative sensibility far left of my own.
I’ll say this about Cleveland: that city is rock and roll. Those people love music to the point of being insane. They’re crazy. Spyder says it’s because it gets so cold there, that Cleveland has the worst weather in America. People out scraping the ice off their cars in 4-degree weather don’t complain like some of us do. They’ve got to get to the steel mills to get to work. Cleveland ain’t Hollywood. It ain’t foo-foo. They need something to distract them. So they play football and they rock. The music they make is gritty. You’re not going to find that scene anywhere else.
Spyder’s connection to Mike Chapman came through his work with Rick Derringer. In 1978, Rick was getting ready to go on the road to promote his new album, If I Weren’t So Romantic, I’d Shoot You. Rick held auditions to replace his guitar player, who quit just before the tour. Out of the two hundred players who showed up, Spyder was chosen. The gig was perfect for him because Mike Chapman, the album’s producer, had put keyboards on the project, and Spyder was a multi-instrumentalist.
When Chapman came out on the road and heard the band, he was sold on Spyder’s fierce and innovative approach, as well as his understanding of the songs. Chapman also loved how aggressive Spyder was on the stage. After working out so well on the road, Spyder played on Rick’s next record, Guitars and Women. Just about the time they finished up recording, Chapman was brought in on my project.
From the beginning, Chapman thought that what I needed was a guitar player who had a good feel for the structure of songs, who came at music from an organic place instead of just playing along on whatever someone handed him. That fit Spyder perfectly, and as I watched him play guitar on that first day, I knew he was the right one.
Buzzard watched my face while Spyder played, and as Spyder finished, Buzzard lifted me up, walked over to where Spyder was sitting, and plopped me right in his lap.
“He’s our guy!” Buzzard announced.
Buzzard didn’t know the half of it. I was embarrassed and furious; I was never that transparent with my feelings. More than Spyder’s guitar playing had hit me in the gut. Spyder later told me that he too felt an instant attraction, but they had told him I was married and he was in a relationship himself, so he put those initial feelings aside (of course, he could just be saying that so I don’t look like a lovesick dog). Regardless of the attraction, he’d felt a good vibe between us, good enough to know we could work together on a record. That was how I saw it, too. But my head was simultaneously in the clouds.
My relationship with Dennis was disintegrating, and I knew that this meeting was the motivation I needed to get serious about my divorce. I went straight back to my apartment and called my best friend, Cynthia Zimmer.
“I met the father of my children today,” I announced.
She exploded. “Jesus Christ! Are you crazy? You’re just now trying to get a divorce! Give me a break. Live alone for a little while! Don’t be a dumbass!”
“No, you don’t understand. This man is going to be the father of my children.”
“It’s 1979, you don’t have to marry him to sleep with him!”
“That is not gonna happen. I won’t be able to get this man out of my system.”
With Spyder signed on, we started making plans to record the first record, In the Heat of the Night, in Los Angeles. In the beginning, Chrysalis was infatuated with Spyder. He was miles ahead of me in terms of recording experience. They were relieved that they didn’t have to spoon-feed the novice every step of the way. He’d do that for them. He quickly became the guy who was getting it done. They stood by his decisions, especially when it came to the band. Roger “Zel” Capps had been playing with me since the Richmond days. He’d been the bassist for Coxon’s Army, and he’d actually moved to New York when I did. We’d been playing together in the city ever since. I was comfortable working with him, and Spyder liked his playing. But Chrysalis wanted him gone.
“He’s been playing in lounge bands with her,” they protested.
“That doesn’t matter, I’ll get him rockin’,” Spyder countered. “Pat’s worked with him and she likes him. He’s a nice guy who will be easy to have around on the road. And besides, she should have someone in the band who’s been with her from the beginning. He also sings backup.”
Chrysalis went along with him. And so we auditioned more players and got the band together. After we got Zel on board for bass and backing vocals, we hired a drummer, Glen Alexander Hamilton, and a rhythm guitarist, Scott St. Clair Sheets. Spyder would play lead and slide guitars and keyboards. Then we set off to California to make a record at MCA Whitney in Glendale.
As much as we were thrown together and I was incredibly attracted to him, I didn’t look to make it anything more than just infatuation while we were making the record. For one thing, when I’d met him, he was dating the actress Linda Blair. I wouldn’t have tried to split up a couple, whether they were married or merely dating. But it was hard to control myself. It was torture. I’d never had such a chemical reaction to anyone before. But it was more than that. We were connected on every level.
Some mornings he’d pick me up to drive me to the studio. When it came to his car, he was “relaxed” about neatness, which ordinarily would drive me crazy. Cleanliness and organization were always a big deal to me, and I was the kind of person who couldn’t go to sleep if there was a spoon in the sink. Spyder would open the door and a mixture of burger wrappers and paper cups would come spilling out onto the pavement. He’d knock a bunch of papers off the passenger seat and onto the floor so that I could sit down. His ashtray was overflowing with cigarette butts. And yet somehow, I never saw any of that; I saw only him.
Sitting so close to him in the car was the most intense time of my days recording that album. I’d sneak looks at him while he was driving and think about how good he smelled. Whatever it was—cologne, shampoo—it drove me nuts. This was so unlike me. I was always in control of my emotions. I was never the pursuer, always pursued. He short-circuited all of that, and my mind went crazy.
I’m gonna die. I am so in love with this man. I’m gonna kill myself if this doesn’t happen. I’m gonna kill him. And there’s Linda Blair. I might kill her.
So while I was busy plotting to kill Linda Blair, Spyder was busy getting the sound of the record right.
Still, we kept it professional during the recording. We worked in the studio eighteen hours a day. I’d never been to L.A. before, but there was little time for socializing or hitting the L.A. scene. It was round-the-clock recording. One of the first things Spyder told me was that my instincts had been right all along—everything depended on me having the right sound, the right direction, and the right players. What I needed was a band where the bed of the music was aggressive and strong, a band that would push me to sing harder, tougher. As he says, I needed a Sicilian guitar player from Cleveland to dirty it up some.
And when Spyder made that sound a reality, I thought the very same thing I’d thought a few years back at the Liza Minnelli concert: I can do that.
I’d had it in me all the time, but it was Spyder who let it out.
Spyder understood that my classical training could be either a plus or a minus, and maybe both. I was always going to have that range and clear quality to my voice, because I’d spent years training for five and six hours a day. Whereas most rock musicians might see that vocal clarity as a detriment, he actually thought the contrast of pristine vocals with hard-edged playing would be unstoppable—the unique combination we needed to produce a powerful sound.
What we both heard was unmistakable: with the right music behind me, I could go head to head with any rocker and still have the years of classical training help me with both stretch and stamina. What I really had to put behind me was the time I’d spent singing covers of Ronstadt and Streisand. I literally stopped listening to all music while I was recording that first album, because I was still very impressionable musically. If I listened to Linda Ronstadt, I might put some of her vocal mannerisms into a song. The same thing went for Chrissie Hynde, whom I admired vocally and didn’t dare listen to before I went in to record. I avoided listening to even the male singers I loved, just to make sure that what I was doing was me and not outside influences.
In the Heat of the Night was recorded in twenty-eight days for $82,000. Because of his hectic schedule, Mike Chapman was only hired to produce four of the songs. As Chapman was winding down his involvement, he sat down with Pete Coleman, the engineer/producer, and Spyder.
“Okay, Peter, why don’t you continue to engineer and work on the rest of the album with Spyder.”
Spyder turned to Peter questioningly. “Is that how you want to work?”
“Sure,” Peter said. During the short time we’d been recording, Pete and Spyder had developed a good rapport. They were a great team, with Pete a patient and thorough teacher. He loved explaining every minute detail of the recording process to Spyder and seeing Spyder absorb every word of it. Soon Spyder was Pete’s equal. And so the majority of the material on In the Heat of the Night was produced by Peter Coleman with a great deal of help from Neil “Spyder” Giraldo, but Spyder neither asked for nor received credit for his extra work on the album.
As it turned out, I didn’t get my name on the song “Heartbreaker,” either, despite the fact that by the time we laid it down, I had rewritten so many of the lyrics and we wouldn’t have used it otherwise. But the writers wouldn’t go for giving me credit. I was an unknown, and Chrysalis did not stand with me. It was one of the first times that they put their interests before mine.
“Heartbreaker” was the first song that the new team of Coleman/Giraldo recorded. It was a blistering recording, setting the tone for the entire record. We included the John Mellencamp song, “I Need a Lover,” and three by Mike Chapman and his frequent collaborator, British writer/producer Nicky Chinn: “If You Think You Know How to Love Me,” “No You Don’t,” and the title cut, “In the Heat of the Night.” Zel and I had two songs on the album, “So Sincere” and “My Clone Sleeps Alone.” “Rated X” was a Nick Gilder/James McCulloch song, and “We Live for Love” was written by Spyder.
I noticed right away that Spyder was careful not to try to bring his own songs to the table, especially after he was tapped by Chapman to work with Peter Coleman. A very conscientious person, Spyder began to see that he was influencing much of what was happening with the record, and he didn’t want it to look like he was taking over, even though he wasn’t. He was the driving force, the catalyst making it all happen. He thought that by adding songs he’d written, his influence would be disproportionate.
But when we cut everything that we liked, we still needed one song. That’s when he invited me to his house to hear “We Live for Love.” (In the years since that album came out, Spyder has always said that he wrote that song for me, and I always call him on it, because he wrote the song before we had anything going. He says that’s just part of my shtick, but I know better.)
As good as we all knew “Heartbreaker” was, it wasn’t the first single release, because Chrysalis, in their continuing infinite wisdom, didn’t think it was a hit. Disco was dying, but the label didn’t see it. Those guys were positive that disco-loving deejays would not play the song because there was too much guitar on it. The irony is that the resurgence of guitar-driven music was about to happen. The Clash was ushering it in, with punk becoming the antidote to disco. Thank God. We were going to bring guitars back into the mainstream and we were moving in the right direction, but at that moment, we were the only ones who thought that. I was in love with Spyder’s guitar playing, and as far as I was concerned, there was never enough of it. I was the one pushing him to play more guitar. Our conversation usually went like this:
“I think that song needs more guitar.”
“Come on, put another guitar part on it. I swear to you that it will work.”
“No, it won’t. Listen to the song structure.”
Spyder had a theory about the way that guitars and vocals should work together. He wanted the guitar solos to be melodic—to lead into the vocals, not fight with them. It all had to do with keeping people musically interested in the song. When the vocal stopped, the guitar would take over. When the guitar stopped, the vocals would come back in. He saw a good song structure as being like a story with no lulls for someone to get bored. Every note would lead into the next, set the scene.
“Heartbreaker” was teeming with that kind of back-and-forth, but Chrysalis lived in fear of disco’s popularity and wouldn’t release it. So the first two singles were the safer choices “I Need a Lover” and “If You Think You Know How to Love Me.” They were released respectively in August and October of 1979, and neither of them did what we needed them to commercially. However, the important thing they did do, especially “I Need a Lover,” was introduce us to the world. “I Need a Lover” created a huge buzz. Including it was a brilliant suggestion by Chapman. It was a song that was relatively unknown in America but had proved itself in Australia. And of course lyrically, it was perfect. Radio stations loved it. They even began splicing our two versions together. In the end, “I Need a Lover” got us airplay, just not enough to break us out.
The thing about albums is that not all songs have to be hits. I subscribe to what I’m sure is a widely held belief that not all songs are meant to be number one records. All songs are pivotal, important stones in the path that you’re walking, stones that you follow to your next destination. Each one leads to the next. They’re not all meant to be commercial successes. But they need to be successful for the artist on some level.
I believe that everything is connected. When you ask someone to listen to an album, you want them to feel like they are listening to someone’s heart and soul. You do not make records for the fans, for radio, or for sales. You make the record that needs to come out of you. Then, and only then, do you give it to the public. Then it becomes a personal gift from you. And the truth is, if you are honest about making music, it is irrelevant whether the public likes the album or not. What is important is that you made the record you wanted to make, one that says something about how you’re feeling at the time. It’s completely narcissistic and at the same time you hope it has relevance for someone else. And when it does, you’ve tapped into the “common thread.” This can’t be fabricated; it’s not something you do by design (well, I guess some people do, but I never could). It determines hit records, it’s elusive, it’s coveted, and it’s best left to the whim of the universe.
If all those songs happen to end up radio hits, that’s great. As long as you don’t compromise art for the sake of commerce, I’m all for it, but it’s not always easy to do. There were many times throughout our career that we were forced to do just that. It always felt wrong and it always came back to bite us in the ass.
In the end, the recording process went better than any of us could have expected. Whatever “it” was, we’d captured it and we were all ecstatic. Strangely Chrysalis seemed lukewarm about the finished product. Terry even commented to me, “Don’t expect too much.” But there was no doubt in our minds that we’d made a great record. It was going to take a lot more than a music exec to bring me down.
When we finished, I went back to New York while Spyder stayed in Los Angeles for about a month, until we started rehearsals for our live show. In order to promote the album, we’d landed a gig opening for David Werner, who’d just released a glam rock album that was sometimes compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Though we’d been refining our sound in the studio for the last month, we’d never played a live show as a full band. We had work to do.