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Billboard / October 14, 1995

By Timothy White

Some people always feel at home, no matter how far they wander. And the luckiest can even find new routes for savoring the distance covered.

"The way rock affected me when I was younger, growing up in Akron, Ohio, was that it was a form of escapism," mused Chrissie Hynde in March 1987, playing with her two toddler daughters in her Manhattan dressing room just prior to a sold-out Pretenders' concert at Radio City Music Hall. "When I was in bed at night, I could hear a train whistle in the distance, and it was that great feeling of imagining that you were going somewhere. There was that sense of adventure, a sense of discovering something new, just a sense of getting away from the mundane. Having to deal with the mundane is something we all have to learn to do," she counseled, brushing back her eyebrow-level auburn bangs as she rolled lemons across the carpet into empty teacups to amuse her squealing offspring. "But how not to become mundane, that's something else."

Roughly two years later, Hynde was back in Akron on a visit, listening to Baltimore & Ohio rail cars rolling below her window at the converted grain silos of the Quaker Hilton as she wrote "Criminal," a song about the guilty malaise of lonely lovesickness - and a self-exposing peak of the Pretenders' quietly impassioned new 15-track live acoustic suite, "The Isle Of View" (Warner Bros., due Oct. 24).

"In a way, that song reminds me of the two odors that pervaded Akron when I was a kid," says Hynde, chatting as she unwinds in her home in the pristine countryside of England, the singer/bandleader's adopted base since 1973. "There was the putrid scent of burning rubber from the Goodyear factories and the fantastic aroma of the raw oatmeal coming from the Quaker Oats mills in town. You felt basic, just like those smells.

"Maybe it's because I've never been in drug rehab or a weight-loss clinic, but I really haven't changed much from the day I started playing music at 17. I've adapted along the way, but philosophically, I'm the same vegetarian hippie musician I was when I left home for London with everything I owned in one suitcase, or when we spoke in New York in 1987. Except now I'm more comfortable with everything.

"I just came back from Akron, where I go about twice a year with my children to see relatives," she says, "and now I can appreciate the resemblance of the lush Ohio hills to rural England. Or I borrow my mother's car to drive through every old Akron neighborhood where a house of ours once stood, before they put the interstate through. But that's my perspective as a resident of the isle England, which is where the name of the new record comes from. It's also the title of the unlisted final melody on the record, which I wrote before I put the Pretenders together, and, when spoken, it sounds like 'I love you.'"

Arriving on the tail wind of the Pretenders' 1994 album, "Last Of The Independents," a merrily lurid and impertinent work that tendered some of the testiest rock of the last 12 months, the "Isle" sessions might be mistaken at first blush for a demure back step. But these unclad versions of Pretenders hits and cherished relics from Hynde's two-decade songbook (taped at London's Jacob Street Studios in May with the group's current lineup, plus the Duke Quartet) each divulge the deeper emotions grinding beneath their rock'n'roll release mechanisms. Like an automobile with its bodywork torn away, this lean, defenseless music makes it possible to see why the tires squealed whenever Hynde raced her engine.

"'The Phone Call' is another song that feels so natural on the new album," says Hynde, referring to the 1977 demo that occasioned the Pretenders' U.K. deal with Real Records. "Our new performance is so ethereal, but so close to the bone. Rock'n'roll should always reflect the setting in which it's made."

Chrissie Ellen Hynde was born Sept. 7, 1951, in Akron, the second child (she has an older brother, Terry) of telephone company employee Melville "Bud" Hynde and his wife, Dolores, who had a local beauty salon. "My dad's father worked for a rubber company, and my mom's father was a cop," says Chrissie. To prevent familial occupations from repeating themselves, she studied art at Kent State and then departed for London, where she toiled in boutiques and wrote rock criticism for New Musical Express until her own music career drew raves in 1978-79 with the newly formed Pretenders' cover version of the Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing." A subsequent three-year relationship with Kinks' founder Ray Davies yielded a child, Natalie, and a later five-year marriage to singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds produced her second daughter, Yasmin. Much of Hynde's songwriting since the 1990 "Packed!" album, which contained "Criminal," has addressed with dry-eyed clarity the role of single mothers in a world starved for lasting attachments.

"There's been a return to more adolescent impulses in our culture," she suggests, "where the emphasis is on youth, cosmetic things, female and male sexism, and a spectating attitude on society that's similar to sports. Back in '87, I said I wouldn't let my songs be used for product-endorsement deals, and I still won't - even though that attitude now makes most consumer-minded Americans quizzical. Rock'n'roll gives us the sense of community we lack, but the commercial importance we sometimes place on it shows how vapid people have become spiritually.

"And yet, when it's put in its proper place and makes a contribution towards a greater good, music has the elevating spirit we all need to help us deal with our responsibilities. I mean, I can still put on a favorite record, like Phyllis Nelson's '80s [U.K.] hit "Move Closer," stand in the middle of the room, and swoon from her awesome delivery."

How does Chrissie Hynde respond to her own output?

"Well, I've been a witness to what Charles Mingus wrote in his book 'Beneath The Underdog' about musicians dwelling on a 'colorless island' beyond the racial divide we currently suffer from. Back before my band had settled on a name, this biker in a white-supremacy-type cycle club took me into his room one day, bolted the door, and said he didn't want his friends to hear the song that meant the most to him - and he played me the Sam Cooke version of the Platters' 'The Great Pretender.'

"The way that moment affected me, giving our band a name and something to aim for, is the same kind of consciousness I hope comes out in our work on 'The Isle Of View." Artists always play the role of leaders, in a cultural sense, but the best thing they can do is publicly share their soulfulness. No matter how much my biker friend or the rest of us try to resist it, music is a vision of our salvation."

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