Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir - Pat Benatar (2010)
Chapter 6. MUSIC VIDEO THEATER
I LOVE DISNEYLAND AND happy endings.
I’m all about white hats and hate to see good lose out in the end. I’ve never enjoyed movies or books where good and evil are ambiguous. And I’m not big on antiheroes, either. I don’t mind edgy, but don’t think I’m going to be on the side of a bad guy just because he’s the protagonist. I like it when the good guys win, and I know who they are. I have a soft spot for quirky weirdos with hearts of gold being oppressed by the hypocrite with perfect teeth.
This is probably why the next video I made involved the band and me fighting Nazis.
MTV was about a year old when Get Nervous hit shelves, and despite the channel’s game-changing success, shockingly it had not succumbed to the trappings of the music industry (no small feat in a business as cynical as the one we were in). From its inception, MTV had embodied an open-mindedness that had been absent from rock music for too long, allowing bands to rewrite the stale record company formulas. Suddenly there were ways to connect with fans beyond just live and recorded music. Bands that record execs never would have given a chance suddenly found their place because of videos. With its moon-man icon, gritty logo, and hard guitar theme song, everything about it screamed rock and roll, but it was one thing to appear that way, and it was another thing to act like it.
Miraculously, a year into their experiment, their creative vision had not faded. They had changed the industry without compromising their idea of what the channel should be and what everyone wanted it to be. This independence made them an island of experimentation in an otherwise risk-averse musical landscape. Everyone recognized that the medium was still young and the rules were still being written. The network wanted videos that would expand the vision of what a music video could be, and they encouraged artists to take it as far as their imaginations would allow. When it came to videos, everyone—both the network and the artists—felt comfortable taking risks because the risky videos were some of the most interesting to watch. Of course there were critics who held their noses for one reason or another, but it was their job to be the art police. Music videos weren’t for them. They were for the masses.
All of our on-camera interviews with MTV were done in studio, so we spent a good amount of time there. Back then, the studio was constantly filled with all kinds of musicians, both famous and unheard of. People were always coming and going. You’d walk around the halls, and there would be young artists chatting with legendary ones. Every where you looked, there were people wearing all kinds of outrageous clothes and acting like the parents were away for the weekend. But that was the joke; there never were any parents. The kids were in charge and running the show. It was just the private, insulated world of MTV.
Everything was pretty basic, more like shooting in your basement than slick television. The set itself was pretty stripped down and bare. You’d show up, and there’d be a couple of director’s chairs for the VJs and the guests along with the two cameras that would shoot the interview. Because we were recording and releasing new music so frequently, I got to know all the VJs really well—especially the original ones: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, and the darling JJ Jackson. They weren’t the pretentious music journalists you sometimes see today; they were music fans who happened to be journalists. It was all very good-natured, no probing for deep dark secrets, no exposé about your personal life. It was all about music.
It was such a seminal time for all of us. We were embarking on a new and historic venture, but I don’t think any of us grasped the significance of those days at the time. We were just having fun.
As for the music video directors, they were fans as well—not just of us, but of the genre. After all, these were rock and roll songs. The directors back then simply saw the music video as a vehicle to do interpretive work. It was such a creative time, and as people would brainstorm and throw out ideas, nothing really seemed too far-fetched or out-there. Compared to a feature film, making a music video was a bargain. It was possible to tell a fascinating story at a fraction of the cost. Everyone was still in awe of video making, and most people simply saw it as something meant to entertain.
Because of this freedom we approached making videos with a blank slate, working with directors to shape the vision that would translate these songs into images. “Shadows of the Night” was going to be our first single on Get Nervous, and therefore we were slated to record a video for it. Going into the planning for the “Shadows” video, I was definitely interested in pushing the video farther than what we’d done in the past. After we’d made the video for “You Better Run,” we’d done a video for “I’m Gonna Follow You” from Crimes of Passion, and then three performance videos for “Fire and Ice,” “Promises in the Dark,” and “Precious Time.” “I’m Gonna Follow You” was the first concept video for us. It had a dark and brooding look to it, with me wandering the desolate cobblestone streets of lower Manhattan and singing the song, menace seemingly hunched around every corner. In that video, the band is nowhere to be seen and there isn’t a shot that I’m not in.
I never really liked this style because it seemed like overkill, but for our first foray into the world of concept videos it came out well. When we shot the video for “You Better Run,” I’d been angry and self-conscious, but the second time, I knew what to expect. I was much more relaxed and able to enjoy myself, and it showed in the performance. The video itself was beautifully shot, and the locations perfectly suited the tone. There’s an element of foreboding that haunts the song, and the video completely captured that feeling of broken glass on the pavement. Ultimately it was a good video, but it was too focused on me—especially considering that it showcased that sultry look Chrysalis continued to emphasize. While I liked the idea of taking a bigger step away from the straight performance video, I didn’t want the next video to center on me in the same way. I wanted to be in it, but I didn’t want to dominate the action.
When we met with the director for the “Shadows” video, he had the idea of doing a World War II minidrama that involved flying behind enemy lines to sabotage Nazi headquarters. The concept wasn’t tied to the song or the message of the song, but that didn’t matter. The story was pretty simple, though admittedly unexpected: a factory girl helping the World War II effort on the home front slips into a daydream about flying into Germany to kill a bunch of Nazis. An homage to Rosie the Riveter, there would be airplanes and a chase sequence, and some bad guys would die. It would be a four-minute action flick and I’d get to be the heroine.
As we sat there talking over the director’s World War II vision, I loved the idea. It was elaborate, and it definitely didn’t scream rock and roll—but that was why I liked it. It was something different. There were a lot of rock fans out there beyond the people wearing black leather jackets and torn jeans. I wanted to make a video that told a universal story. The idea of playing a woman who manned the factories and built munitions for America changing into an undercover agent blowing up Nazis and good triumphing over evil. That’s just what I had in mind.
To me it was theater, but it was also rock and roll; it spoke to the blurring of lines that had drawn me to rock music in the first place. In the beginning, I’d idealized rock music and its significance. I was a disciple who believed rock was the place where truth and freedom flourished. Artists were the progressives. Coming from my classical music background, the thought of being able to make music in any form I chose was irresistible.
I soon learned that in rock circles someone with my musical background and more middle-of-the-road outlook was sometimes suspect. There were unspoken rules of behavior, dress, and association. To be considered rock and roll you had to appear like you were always a part of the fringe. Ambition had strict rules as well, and success was to be limited and veiled. No deviation or you’d be seen as a sellout. And women? They weren’t equals, they weren’t rock stars, they weren’t players. Women were girlfriends or groupies.
Early on, I saw a lot of these rules for what they were: bullshit. The clothes were a costume just like on any other stage; the lifestyle was an act that didn’t end when people got offstage. Quirkiness was far more interesting to me than being pretentious. What part of constantly being scrutinized and judged was supposed to be attractive? Who were these people who did the judging, and who gave a fuck? These rules were just as confining as those used by the establishment they had so much contempt for. To me, being put into a box meant being put into a box. It didn’t matter who stuck you in there.
Not subscribing to these rules gave me the freedom to try things that other people might have thumbed their noses at—especially when it came to videos. I never forgot where I came from or what I was drawn to, and I relished having another arena to create in. I looked at making videos as another way to explore art and express the stories that we were telling with our music.
But this occasionally put me at odds with the band, and this was the case with the “Shadows of the Night” video. On the day we heard the pitch, I was the only one who thought that this World War II idea was the way to go. Everyone else thought the concept was just stupid. These guys were rock and roll musicians. Dressing up in vintage World War II costumes and pretending to fly airplanes was not exactly their thing. The band wanted performance videos. I liked a little theater.
And in this case, Spyder was decidedly with the band. Despite the fact that he knew as well as anyone how vital videos had become, he still didn’t approve of them (and doesn’t to this day). He understood that they were a crucial marketing tool, but he always felt they corrupted the pure intent of the music. On this issue, our backgrounds were the difference. I had been singing Puccini, Handel, and songs about unrequited love while tap-dancing in a tiara. He had been hanging out with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. We were the musical odd couple. (To this day we’ll be riding together in the car and I’ll be singing a show tune, and he’ll just shake his head incredulously, saying, “I still can’t believe I’m married to a woman who knows all the songs in South Pacific by heart.”) But somehow it worked; the contrast was the point.
The difference didn’t cause friction between us, but it did complicate the discussion of the video for “Shadows.” In the end, I was able to get the band on board, but no one was all that happy about it. I had a good feeling that it would work, that people would embrace it, but the guys couldn’t get past the costumes. They hated those costumes more than they hated dressing up for the “Crimes of Fashion” album photo. They finally agreed but told me if I ever wanted to do anything like this again, I was on my own. It became an inside joke and they gave me crap about it all the time. Historical costumes were banned forever.
Compared to the other videos on the air at the time, the production was pretty impressive. The scenes with the Nazis were shot at a mansion the production team found, while the daytime material was filmed at Van Nuys airport, which interestingly enough was a historic place—the spot where Amelia Earhart set a world speed record in 1929 and where parts of Casablanca were filmed. The band was spread out throughout the video, and Myron and Zel ended up playing Nazis, which they weren’t thrilled about. The funny thing about that video is that Judge Reinhold and Bill Paxton, actors who would later go on to movie careers, were both in it. They were young Screen Actors Guild guys who were brought in for the day, just getting started in the business and taking what jobs they could find. But being there on the video set with them was enlightening. You can tell that the band and I were musicians trying to be actors. Even my background in the theater didn’t cover that. Judge and Bill were actors. Maybe they were young and inexperienced, but they were actors. We were just rockers dressed up in funny costumes.
All in all it came together pretty much as we’d envisioned it, and in the end, the director’s instincts about the story and the song together were right. The video was a huge MTV success. Moreover, it pointed to the way many would make minimovie-style videos in MTV’s future. The network needed a variety of approaches to become the trend-setter that it did. This video had more serious production value to it—a look that made it stand out without overpowering the song. It’s such a good example of the genre. Even now, I look back on it and think that it was totally worth it to make the guys dress up.
SPYDER HAD BEEN RIGHT to push me on the vocals while we were recording Get Nervous, because they were constantly pointed out by critics when the album was released. One comment by the Los Angeles Times’s Terry Atkinson was particularly perceptive, given my last battle with my label: “Since she’s become entrenched in rock, fighting for ground with the opposite sex, [Pat Benatar] has reinforced her position. Her singing has never been more forceful.”
That same review also pointed to Spyder’s contribution: “The consistent power of Get Nervous owes much to the increased role—and increased inventiveness—of her husband, guitarist Neil Giraldo. He has written some strong, if not extraordinary, material…. Giraldo’s guitar playing has reached a new dimension here, too.”
The live show also received kudos for the interplay between guitar, keyboards, and vocals. When we played the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Billboard suggested that our tour might well be titled “The Pat and Neil Show.” And that’s exactly how we saw it.
By the time we went on tour for Get Nervous, our tour staff had expanded, but the personal staff was still minimal. The organization started, in addition to lawyers and accountants, with the management company, headed by Rick Newman. We had a tour manager who worked for management, and a booking agency, Premiere Talent, where we were represented by Barbara Skydell and Frank Barcelona. We had a publicist who didn’t usually travel with us but with whom we were in constant contact. We had sound and light people and the roadies and drivers—there were three or four buses and some eighteen-wheelers carrying equipment.
On a personal level, it was a more pared-down group. I was blessed to have my brother, Andy, as my personal assistant. Andy and I were so close. Considering how high-maintenance he was as a kid, it was really funny that in the end he worked taking care of things for Spyder and me. Andy was always on a scavenger hunt, more so for Spyder than for me. Spyder was always looking for things that either didn’t exist, or if they did exist he couldn’t remember the name of the company that made them or where he’d seen them. So every morning Andy would sit down with a pad and paper and say, “What’s on the list today?” He also made sure I did all the phone interviews I had scheduled and kept a timeline for photo shoots and that kind of thing. The best thing about working with Andy was that he had a great sense of humor, a quick, dry wit that just doubled me over with laughter.
I never traveled with hair and makeup people. I did my own hair and makeup from the time we started out. There was a valet who took care of all the stage clothes, a necessity on the road with that many people. Wardrobe was a nonissue. I wore what I wanted to, when I wanted to, end of story. Whatever felt right was what I put on. No one, and I mean no one, interfered with how I looked on the road.
One of the most liberating parts of being on the road was that it was entirely our show, the one place where no one outside the band interfered. Live performance was our domain, and no one dared cross the line. We were in charge of everything: what we wore, what we played, how we presented ourselves to the world. There was no pretense, no artifice, no marketing issues, no one’s opinions but ours. We played as we always had, with raw abandon. It was the reason we began and it was the reason we continued.
I’ve long said that the difference between making a record and playing live is that one is forever and the other is in the moment. When you go in and cut a record, you know that you must try to get the perfect sound. It’s an act of self-indulgence. You are able to concentrate on every nuance of the song. You can dissect the tracks, the vocals, the arrangement, in an insulated environment, taking things apart and putting them back together in endless combinations. I loved making records. It was intense but Zenlike when it was done right.
Live performance was the antithesis of that—going for the moment with no rules. It was all about the impermanence of the situation. Perfection could be achieved without being perfect, and it was encouraged. Perfection was about that thing in your head needing to get out. When you achieved that, it was done, and you’d live with it. But every night I went onstage it was a new experience. What happened each night of the tour depended on the audience. I had no way of knowing what the crowd would be like on any given night. It was the impulsiveness, the chemistry—the potential for spontaneous combustion between you and the fans. There was nothing more seductive than the shared experience between me and an audience. We made records in a vacuum. Live performance was all about the connection.
And the best part about the live performances on the tour for Get Nervous was that for the first time in two years we were able to enjoy ourselves. With my breakup from Spyder a thing of the distant past, we were all able to just relax, play, and enjoy life on the road. It was the biggest relief—for everyone. The band and crew practically threw a party. Without the distraction of fighting, we all had renewed enthusiasm, and it showed in our performance. The record was doing well and we were playing to sold-out venues.
There was one date however, when things got a bit scary. We were playing to a packed house at the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida, when I collapsed on stage—out cold. Newman came rushing up from the sound board because he thought I’d been shot. It turned out it was food poisoning, but I was rushed to the hospital and kept there overnight. The audience had a choice to get a refund for their tickets or come back for the make-up show. An astonishing 98 percent of the ticket holders chose to come back, and we made t-shirts for people who presented their ticket stubs from the original concert that said, “Lakeland…You Knock Me Out!”
Food poisoning aside, taking the music from Get Nervous on the road was a terrific experience for all of us, especially for Spyder, because he believed it was the best album we’d made so far. He loved the addition of keyboards. Of course, he was a keyboard player himself, but he enjoyed turning that over to someone else so he could concentrate on production. He wanted someone who could play keys as well as he played guitar. For him, the tour was an opportunity to broaden the experience.
He was working on that very thing, expanding the sound, when out of the blue one day, we got a call from Chrysalis demanding we start work immediately on another album. I couldn’t believe that once again they were pushing us to record while we were on the road—especially since feelings were still raw from the cover art on Get Nervous. The reality was that they didn’t want to lose momentum, and as always this was paramount in their minds. It caused them to make poor decisions with no regard to the musical evolution that was so necessary between records. In the end, they demanded another record, and as always, the contract was their trump card.
Even so, I said, “Fuck you.” I was not ready to record again. The time that we’d been able to take before recording Get Nervous had played a key role in allowing us to broaden our sound. We’d had time to experiment and try new things, to see where our sound was heading. To rush back into the studio for a full album might jeopardize all that we’d gained and cause us to fall back into safe patterns rather than push ourselves.
We finally decided that the only way we could meet our nine-month deadline was to record a live album. We pushed for this because it satisfied our contractual obligation while giving us a little breathing room. But we didn’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face; a record that didn’t sell would hurt us as well as the label. So in a compromise, we decided to include two new songs on the album, which would be called Live from Earth: “Lipstick Lies” and “Love Is a Battlefield.” This decision would prove to be career and life altering.
We got “Love Is a Battlefield” from our friend Holly Knight. Like me, Holly was a New Yorker who started out in classical music, in her case as a pianist. She made the transition to rock while she was still in high school, and ironically, her band was named Spider. The band signed with Dreamland Records, headed by Mike Chapman at the time. They released two albums in 1980 and ’81, and then Holly started writing for Mike’s publishing company. The two of them collaborated on “Love Is a Battlefield.”
“Battlefield” was originally written as a ballad, unhurried and dreamy. But for some reason, Spyder heard it as a rhythmic anthem, up-tempo and high energy with a beat that was not that of a ballad. Spyder had never liked drum machines; he liked live performances, and trying to create that once-in-a-lifetime moment. But when he was getting ready to work on “Battlefield,” he started fooling around with a brand-new drum machine and hearing Bo Diddley in his head. Somehow between the drum machine and Bo Diddley, he came up with an idea for the song. As he described the sound to me, I wasn’t sure I understood, but I was intrigued. I was the only one in the band who’d heard the song in any of its incarnations and the only one who knew it was meant to be a very slow piece.
He decided that he wanted the band to experiment on the arrangement, and he called them together at Leeds Rehearsal Studio. Instead of going into the “big room” to rehearse as we normally would, he had them set up in the parking lot. They weren’t given any charts, they never heard the demo. He simply gave them random chord changes and the pattern that he’d written on the drum machine. They sat there with curious looks, wondering what he was up to this time.
Everyone in the band was shaking his head. He told them to play the chord changes to the drum loop. They hated that idea!
“Neil, this is nuts! We don’t have any idea what we’re doing!”
Spyder was in his mad scientist mode. “Never mind. Just play! Just play! Just play!”
Even Peter Coleman was shaking his head. “Okay, I think you’re onto something. I’m gonna let you go—but I still think you’re nuts.”
They recorded every part out in the parking lot; then Spyder took them inside to listen. “All right. Now you’ve heard what the track should sound like. Play it like you did in the parking lot, and don’t screw it up by thinking.”
It was from that chaos that Spyder made a song that would be sung in front of bedroom mirrors and at karaoke clubs for years to come. Spyder’s talent for seeing where music was headed next was remarkable. He had a gift for anticipating trends and he never let anyone stand in the way of that. The product he made sounded unlike anything else out there. It was its own thing—danceable but still rock. The eighties were still young but they were developing their own sound—and that sound wasn’t just about hard-driving guitars anymore. Spyder realized this incredibly early on, and he channeled that instinct into “Love Is a Battlefield.” This was where music was headed.
But that was not how Chrysalis saw it. Their reaction wasn’t good. They hated everything. They didn’t like the talking on the front end of the song, the whistling at the end, or the signature drum pattern. To them, the song was far too dance-oriented and not rock-and-roll enough. It moved away from the tried-and-true formula that had been so successful for us. They weren’t interested in gambling, especially when it might affect their bottom line. We were a “rock” band. Anything that seemed to deviate from that wasn’t acceptable. And Mike Chapman really hated it. Though he was usually a forward-thinker, all Chapman could hear was that the song was in no way the one he wrote, and he said we’d ruined it.
As we fought over the song, it became more apparent that these people who in the beginning had been so intimidating in their knowledge of the record business weren’t so smart after all. I wasn’t sure if it was that they had lost touch with the contemporary music scene, become complacent, or were simply greedy. Whatever it was, they had no idea where music was headed and possessed no vision for how music was changing. In the same way that their confidence in “Heartbreaker” had been tenuous because of disco’s popularity, they didn’t anticipate the evolution of rock giving rise to something else. It didn’t matter to me that they were “lifers”—experienced music industry professionals with an impressive track record. They didn’t see where the decade was going. They didn’t understand what was happening out there. They had no foresight, no vision. The universe had played its hand, and their time was finished.
Over the period of a few weeks, gradually we began to wear them down. With Peter behind him on everything, Spyder wouldn’t back down, because he knew in his heart he was correct. He refused to change one thing. The solid opposition that marked the label’s initial reaction gave way and they started warming up to the track. Buzzard was the first to change his mind, and eventually Chrysalis had no choice but to go with it.
It didn’t hurt that Bob Giraldi had signed on to direct the video. Bob was fresh from doing the video for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” when he agreed to direct the video for “Battlefield.” Everyone knew that he’d put an original, creative spin on the song that would help give it the push it would need. Once again, we went for a story rather than a performance. This time there were no period costumes, though. It was a streetwise tale of alienated youth. A young woman who fights with her parents flees to the big city, only to fall in with its seedy underbelly.
The video as Bob envisioned it would be choreographed and would also have dialogue. Now, anyone who knows me knows I am completely uncoordinated, with two left feet. The thought of doing a dance routine was intimidating, but I figured if I could pretend to fly an airplane, I could probably pretend I knew how to dance. The choreographer was a guy named Michael Peters who was incredibly talented, and the thought of working with a celebrated choreographer made the whole thing even more appealing. If anyone could make a dancer out of me, I figured it was him.
The video was filmed in New York City and there were two days of dance rehearsals before the shoot. The first day of rehearsals started early. We had a lot of work to do. All the dancers were assembled in the dance studio, looking like characters right out of A Chorus Line, beautiful men and women with muscular bodies in skintight outfits, stretching, twirling. As I stood there watching them, I couldn’t figure out what exactly I’d been thinking when I signed on to do this. I was in way over my head.
Throughout the day, we danced. Well, they danced. I don’t know what you’d call what I was doing, but it wasn’t dancing. After about seven hours, Michael Peters sent all the dancers home to rest for tomorrow’s rehearsal, but he wasn’t quite done with me.
He walked over to me and said, “You’ve never done anything like this before, have you?”
“No,” I said sheepishly, as though I’d been caught lying about my homework.
“Don’t you worry. By tomorrow night you’ll be a pro.”
He spent the next five hours breaking down every step, one-on-one, until I got it. The entire time he was sweet and patient, never once making me feel as ridiculous as I probably looked. The next day, while I was not ready for Broadway, I was dancing. That second day, we put in another twelve hours of rehearsal, and I swear even my toenails hurt when we were done. I’d always admired dancers, but I had newfound respect for them after those two days.
With the dance routine as solid as it was ever going to be, we descended into the city for the shoot. We shot all over downtown Manhattan, finding every seamy block that we could. When it came time to film the big dance number, I was more nervous than I’d been in years and flashes of my first performance at Catch were appearing in front of my eyes. I could sing anything, anytime, anywhere, but this was a whole new world. It ended up working out well, with everyone being supportive and charitable. The shoot lasted all day, and I was able to convince people that I had some idea of what I was doing.
The combination of the video and the song proved unstoppable, propelling the song to the top of the charts, our highest-ranking single. We’d gone with our gut, and once again it had paid off. The signature dance beat that Chrysalis had hated so much would go on to be imitated by several musicians, including Don Henley for his hit “The Boys of Summer.” The different sound to the song expanded our audience yet again, with even younger rock and roll fans beginning to follow us. Of all the surprises that video brought, perhaps the most amusing was that a klutz like me would be forever associated with the iconic dance move the “shoulder shake.”
After the song’s success, everyone who’d bad-mouthed it in the beginning was suddenly on board, swearing that they’d known it would be a hit all along. Mike Chapman had hated what we’d done with his song at first. After it became a hit, he thought it was a classic. (As a songwriter, Spyder laughingly says that he understands. When a songwriter hears major changes in his music, he or she is often shocked. But you have to learn to let go of that.)
Of course Spyder and I knew better. We’d triumphed. We hadn’t given in, and we stayed true to our beliefs. In addition to earning us our fourth Grammy nomination, becoming a top-five single, and inspiring a groundbreaking video, “Battlefield” changed the way we made records. It reinforced the idea that we could tap into something that the label couldn’t see. Our instincts were the right ones.