Sometimes you can make a huge difference in the world by just being yourself.
While there have been many influential female musicians, there are few who have empowered as many women as Pat Benatar. Part of her influence came from her meticulous attention to song selection, some of it came from the songs she co-wrote with others, but most of her power came from her own sense of self-worth. By simply being herself—a confident, caring human being with a clear sense of direction and undeniable talent—she managed to expand the narrow social definition of femininity and inspire a generation of women to escape the chains of self-denial. She did this without sacrificing an ounce of her womanliness, and had the unique ability to manifest her sexuality honestly and confidently, without a hint of kittenish servility. In the first paragraph in the first chapter of her highly readable biography, Between a Heart and a Rock Place, she talks about how she overcame the great gender divide at a very early age.
I WAS NEVER JUST a girl’s girl. I grew up wanting to do boy things. Nail polish and baby dolls weren’t enough for me. I wanted to be making a fort or climbing a tree. Boys seemed to have all the fun. They got to use a hammer and nails. They got to sneak into abandoned houses and go exploring. They were out riding in go-karts. All that was right up my alley. And the boys I hung around made me tough. At first they were merciless—they never cut me any slack. You want to be on the baseball team? Use this thin mitt that hurts your hands so badly you have to bite your cheek not to cry. You want to hang out in our clubhouse? Get ready to have earthworms squished onto your bare legs. It was trial by fire, but in the end, I wouldn’t have been caught dead crying over a skinned knee. All this made me fierce, and soon they realized that I was “okay for a girl,” which was just fine with me, because I had a plan. I just needed them to let me in, which, of course, they did. My plan was this: I also loved being a girl. Loved it. There wasn’t enough makeup on the planet for me to play with and I lived in the pages of fashion magazines. But I was absolutely boy-crazy, and that’s where my plan came in. I wouldn’t be a typical tomboy; I would push the envelope in my neighborhood and bridge the gap between “girl stuff” and “boy stuff.” I didn’t want to be a boy, I wanted to be a girl who could do everything boys could. I thought the whole thing out: If I played boy-type games and did boy-type things, I could run around with the boys plus have all the fun they did. I got to both be them and be near them. It was the best of all possible worlds.
Benatar, Pat; Patsi Bale Cox (2010-06-03). Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir (Kindle Locations 128-140). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Pat was also lucky to find a co-equal partner who happened to be a fantastic guitar player and music arranger. I’m always amazed to see Neil “Spyder” Giraldo missing from the lists of great guitarists, but he’s definitely on my list. Spyder has the generosity and collaborative ear of the jazz musician, the kind of musician who realizes that it’s the whole that matters, not the parts. He plays to the song, not to impress anyone with pyrotechnics, and time after time you realize that the little thing he just did was the perfect thing to do at that moment in time.
As true in sex as it is in music.
I could have started anywhere with Pat Benatar, and was seriously tempted to start with Gravity’s Rainbow because it contains my favorite Benatar-Giraldo electric duet (“Disconnected”). I chose Crimes of Passion because it was her breakthrough album, and a great breakthrough album is a lot of fun for the reviewer. It’s exciting to hear a group of musicians find their game and feed off each other’s energy as they realize that something special is going on. And in addition to allowing Pat to demonstrate her astonishing vocal versatility, Crimes of Passion contains the songs that made Pat Benatar a hero to many women—unintentionally, of course, because Pat was just being Pat.
Unfortunately, the process that resulted in Crimes of Passion wasn’t exactly a trip to Disneyland. The band hadn’t even finished the In the Heat of the Night tour when Chrysalis demanded a new album because THE CONTRACT SAID they had to release one every nine months or the company would hold back payments. Believing with all her heart that human considerations and the quality of music mattered more than a fucking contract, Pat thought the demand was sheer lunacy: “No thought was given to my physical or mental well-being. I was treated like a machine built to serve the record company’s whims.” Once they started recording, the name producer assigned to the project checked out, leaving Spyder to shoulder the production load with the help of engineer Chris Minto. He received no credit for his efforts; Pat fought for him relentlessly until the suits at Chrysalis agreed to pay Spyder for his work . . . by deducting the money from Pat’s royalties. Overcoming post-tour exhaustion and record company bullshit was no easy task, but Pat and Spyder inherited a set of core values from their working class parents—when you’ve got a job to do, forget about all the noise, put your shoulder to the wheel and get the job done.
Listening to the playbacks was enough to give you chills. After all the stress and horrible shit we went through recording this record, we’d done it. We’d made the record we needed to make despite all the obstacles. Crimes of Passion reflected more of what we were about than In the Heat of the Night. Between Spyder stepping in on the production end and our live band hitting its stride, it had turned out to be a great recording. The band was solid and intense. Every one of them understood the sound that we wanted and delivered it.
Ibid. p. 83
The sound they wanted and delivered is captured right off the bat with the opening number, “Treat Me Right,” a piece dripping with attitude. The arrangement contrasts Spyder’s guitar attack with Pat’s command of the scale over the precisely syncopated rhythmic pattern, creating a delectable mix of aggression and purest beauty. The seamless integration of Pat’s voice and Spyder’s guitar is most noticeable in the transition from the second round of the chorus to the instrumental bridge, when Pat holds the note on the word “right” and Spyder matches the note with a sustain and moves to center stage. His solo begins with faithful attention the basic Dm/Am/Bb pattern of the verse, but when the music shifts to the out-of-scale E major chord, the man goes positively manic, shifting in and out of dissonance in a series of rising and falling runs, finishing the solo with an ascending riff that ends on point—and there’s Pat with her vocal, right on cue. This thrilling integration of voice and guitar was no lucky accident, but the result of clear intention to create a musical narrative:
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.
Next up is Pat’s cover of The Rascals’ “You Better Run,” and though the two versions differ in tempo, attitude and arrangement, they do share a common thread beyond the lyrics and and the notes in the sheet music : the video performances are documentary evidence of the obliviousness of record company marketing strategies. The difference is that The Rascals went along with the idea inflicted upon them while Pat told the marketing experts to fuck off.
The following video shows The Rascals performing “You Better Run,” in an unidentified outdoor location. It could be a clip from Where the Action Is, the Dick Clark American Bandstand spinoff that allowed teenagers coming home from school to watch their favorite stars cavort at a never-ending beach party, but the only pieces of evidence to support that theory are a.) a Hawaiian shirt worn by one of The Rascals; b.) the obviously directed hand clapping and c.) the hardly spontaneous dancing. The absurdity inherent in mimed performance is multiplied to the nth degree by having Gene Cornish wail away frantically on an acoustic guitar. How Gene could have used an acoustic to mimic not only electric guitar but organs, drums and bass is a mystery, but if the film is accurate, he’s the greatest fucking musical genius in history.
The Rascals didn’t deserve this. They were a damned good band placed in a compromising situation by television producers who had their rules and by record company executives who believed that selling music was like selling dishwashing liquid: the dummies would buy anything they saw on TV. Getting television exposure was the priority; if it made you look silly . . . get over it. Musicians had no say in the matter.
In contrast, Pat’s performance was a blessed act of defiance. MTV was in its start-up phase, and most of the band members went to the video shoot excited about the opportunity to ride the crest of a new wave. Spyder was justifiably skeptical, concerned that “a visual rendition of a song would interfere with the listener’s personal interpretation.”
I can fully understand why Pat is totally in love with that man.
The thrill of pioneering vanished once the director laid out the plan:
As we were getting ready, the director walked over to us. “We’re going to turn a fan on you, and I want you to just do what you do. Just go!” That told me he didn’t get what we did. I wasn’t a freakin’ runway model. “What do you mean ‘just go’?” I said. Just go? I don’t just go. “Well, you know, start posing and stuff.”
Ibid. p. 106
Dude, you should have known better than to mess with Pat Benatar:
I was horrified. This was new territory, and it was going to be on television. If this MTV thing was going to make us look foolish, then we’d have to take a walk. This guy didn’t know us, didn’t know our music, and almost certainly had never even seen us play. He didn’t know that I was not someone who walked the catwalk and posed on command.
“No! No! No!” I shot back at him. “Here’s the deal. We’re gonna play and you are gonna film it. There’s not going to be any blowing hair, and there’s not going to be any posing.”
The director agreed that we’d just play the song, which we did several times. Even though the director let us do our own thing, I still had a bad attitude. In the end, that attitude ended up helping me with my performance for the camera. It was the perfect visual for that song. I was pissed and it showed in everything I did that night. My sneers were real. It was a complete accident, of course. I was so young and raw then, and I felt like we were on the verge of a big crash and burn. But I definitely had a fuck you look on my face.
Ibid. p. 106-107
Video aside, this is one outstanding cover, with Pat spitting out her vocal with justifiable frustration at a guy who doesn’t know which end is which. Spyder and Scott St. Clair Sheets fill the soundscape with power chords and the occasional fill, and Spyder delivers another superb solo. Drummer Myron Grombacher is on fire throughout, integrating muscular drumming with a nice touch on the cymbal bell.
We downshift just a tad with our first Giraldo-Benatar composition, “Never Want to Leave You,” a meditation on the contradictory passions that sometimes infuse a relationship. Pat’s vocal here is appropriately more ethereal than earthy, and her command of the upper ranges and breath management are more than admirable. The introduction of harmony serves to emphasize the two warring positions within the woman’s heart (go-stay, together-apart) while adding additional color to an already beautiful vocal performance. Myron Grombacher’s work here is remarkably disciplined and precise, giving the guitarists steady support for their flights of fancy. The sudden ending takes one by surprise, and I always feel a little cheated that they didn’t let the music fade more naturally . . . then again, it could be an expression of the exhaustion of trying to process competing passions . . . either way, it’s still a wonderful vocal performance.
“Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is one of a few songs on the album originally written by a man that Pat transformed into expressions of feminine strength (in this case she only modified the lipstick line). Widely misinterpreted as a song that either encourages domestic violence (ridiculous) or urges women to stand up to the batterer and not take his shit anymore (understandable), the lyrics actually describe a battle for sexual supremacy between a proven stud and a very confident woman who knows she’s more than up to the challenge. Although Pat and Spyder got really tired of performing this song one hundred billion times, their performance on the album is fire personified. In his solo, Spyder navigates the syncopated rhythm beautifully, his fingers dancing over the fretboard, playfully covering almost the full range of notes available to a guitarist. And Pat . . . energy, attitude and sheer beauty in one vocal package . . . and baby, can this woman sing! I don’t care how many times I hear it, that moment when the drums back off to let the power chords move the song forward and we hear Pat’s defiant “C’mon!” is one of the greatest moments in rock history . . . and though guys may not understand this, that “C’mon” means so much more coming from a woman. Fuck yeah!
While “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is a rock ‘n’ roll classic, “Hell Is for Children” has the greater distinction of having become a human rights anthem. I write this on the day when the news came out that the Trump administration has implemented the barbaric practice of separating children from their undocumented parents at the Mexican border. I’ve been on the edge of tears all day, shocked that there are human beings with so much hatred for people of a different color that they would brutally sever the most important link in human existence. If you are ashamed to be an American because of this outrage, good for you—you should be ashamed. But what are you going to do about it? And what are you going to do about the millions of women and children who deal with the threat and reality of domestic violence every day?
That little rant brings up an important point about “Hell Is for Children,” which is that Pat Benatar is a far more effective spokesperson than I am. Bassist Roger Capps, who co-wrote the song, described Pat as having an “innate sense of right and wrong,” and when you combine that with the sense of fair play that once characterized the American psyche and unquestioning empathy for those who suffer, you wind up with a woman who knows how to reach people and touch their hearts. Parents who abuse children have violated a sacred trust, and while my instincts tell me to go after the parents, Pat focuses entirely on the child’s experience, presenting the lies, the irresolvable contradictions and the inexplicable harm of an abusive relationship in a way that only the heartless could fail to understand:
It’s all so confusing this brutal abusing
They blacken your eyes and then apologize
Be daddy’s good girl, and don’t tell mommy a thing
Be a good little boy, and you’ll get a new toy
Tell grandma you fell from the swing
Because hell, hell is for children
And you know that their little lives can become such a mess
Hell, hell is for children
And you shouldn’t have to pay for your love
With your bones and your flesh
Spyder contributed the music, switching between a funereal beat in the verses and a more assertive rhythm in the choruses, then suddenly moving to double-time on Pat’s sustained note at the end of the second chorus. Pat’s vocal in this passage is incredibly moving, a frantic cry to end the unthinkable practice of child abuse. Spyder follows her with a complementary solo with some heart-aching bends that echo Pat’s cry. The rising notes that lead to the finish reflect the rising anger everyone should feel when children are endangered. Pat’s request to Spider was “. . . To do something to the music that it sounds like pain. I want the intense pain that’s happening to these children in the notes.” Spyder certainly achieved that in the double-time segment, but should also be commended for leaving quiet space in the verses to allow people to fully take in the powerful story. Brilliantly arranged and executed, Pat described “Hell Is for Children” as her proudest moment, and rightly so.
I find it completely bizarre that the most common label applied to this song is “controversial,” and Pat was surprised by that as well. The initial hoo-hah had to do with the juxtaposition of the word “hell” with the word “children.” Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe there are people who would quibble over language when the subject is child abuse. Okay. No quibbling. Child abuse is wrong. It leaves children damaged for life. Stop it. Fucking stop it right now and forever.
Side Two kicks off with Neil Giraldo’s “Little Paradise,” a tight, ass-shaking rocker about Hollywood chicks whose identities are tied up in fashion, diamonds and Maseratis. Pat allows herself a little laugh at the absurdity of a life outlook where “Life without your Maserati is grounds for suicide,” and Myron enhances the driving beat with some interesting twists on the skins. It serves as a nice break between the intensity of “Hell Is for Children” and “I’m Gonna Follow You,” a song by Billy Steinberg, who wrote or co-wrote many songs for rock divas in the 80’s and 90’s, including Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” In this song, Pat takes the role of female stalker and delivers an appropriately creepy performance. When she shifts to the top of her scale in the bridge, she turns almost maniacal as if she’s going to completely lose it at any moment. Although it’s rarely a subject of critical discussion, Crimes of Passion qualifies on many levels as a concept album, as all of the songs deal with human passion, from the pure to the ugly to the (in this case) absolutely frightening.
“Wuthering Heights” certainly fits the passion theme, but before I evaluate Pat’s performance, I must disclose some very strong biases in relation to this song. First, I rank Emily Brontë’s book as one of the ten worst books I’ve ever read, a parade of thoroughly loathsome characters attempting to work their way through a dreary and limited plot that involves traipsing back and forth between two uninteresting pieces of property in the backwoods of Britain. How anyone can consider this pseudo-literary tour through a living mental health facility “romantic” is far beyond my comprehension. Second, Kate Bush is one of those ethereal, romantic women who drive me nuts, and I’d rather have a double root canal without anasthesia than have to listen to her annoying soprano. The fetish with televised Victorian period pieces that took hold of the PBS crowd in the United States during my last few years there was something I chalked up to temporary insanity. If you want to read a great female writer from the Victorian age, allow me to direct you to Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and forget about the Brontë sisters and Jane Fucking Austen.
Pat Benatar has overcome greater obstacles than my somewhat spicy personal opinions, and she does so here by imbuing a weak song with substance. Urged on by a meaty arrangement served up by the band, her vocal remains strong and clear even in the upper reaches of the register. Her classical training helps her navigate the song’s challenges but the solid rock backing keeps her grounded in the more earthy delivery of a rock singer. I don’t think much of the song, but I give the singer an A+ for her delivery and for a remarkable display of vocal versatility.
The album’s title comes from a phrase in “Prisoner of Love,” an infectious rock number written by rhythm guitarist Scott St. Clair Sheets. Whoever was in charge of the track order on Crimes of Passion should get a big hug or a blow job depending on preferences and sexual orientation, for while the entire album is perfectly ordered, placing “Prisoner of Love” after “Wuthering Heights” was an inspired decision, bringing us back from the moors to the dance floor. I love the nods to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” in the first verse, examples of common references that any self-respecting rocker would recognize. The song flows beautifully, with just enough oomph to make it a solid dance number without going over to the dark side. I usually prefer rough and dark to smooth and sweet, but sometimes I just want a song that makes me want to dance, and like “Dancing in the Street,” “Prisoner of Love” fits the bill.
Crimes of Passion ends with another strong piece with a rougher edge, the Giraldo-Benatar-Grombacher rocker “Out-A-Touch,” a structural gem that demonstrates the importance of creating tension (in the verses) and resolution (in the chorus) in musical composition. The song is a dramatic monologue delivered by a fan with a serious obsession for her object of desire, and Pat plays the part of a woman-who-desperately-needs-a-life with full commitment to the role. The alarm bells go off in the first verse as you realize the extent of the twists and turns arising from her lonely obsession:
I’ve seen your picture in the paper
On the front page of magazines
I’ve pulled the trigger right at you
On billboards and movie screens
When I talk, it’s to myself
Cause I know your kind, you’re like everyone else
Maybe it’ll work itself out in time, before I lose my mind
You, you’re out-a-touch
All alone in a danger zone, and I think too much
Both pursuer and pursued are out of touch—the pursued idol in the physical sense, the pursuer in the psychological sense. The extent of the sickness that burdens her soul is vividly captured in the second verse:
I keep your letters by the mirror
You’re the subject of every dream
You’re not so invincible, and I’m not what I might seem
When I look, it’s in your eyes
And I know your look, you can hypnotize
How long does it have to last like this, a Kodachrome kiss?
The one saving grace in the song is that the poor woman realizes she thinks too much, a faint sign of self-awareness that a therapist might be able to latch onto. In any case, “Out-A-Touch” is a strong piece about a real-world problem, and a powerful way to end an album devoted to passion of all stripes.
Crimes of Passion is a breakthrough album in many ways. It certainly vaulted Pat Benatar to the pinnacle of musical success, and she managed to stay on top for several years. I think its more enduring value lies in the strength and courage Pat displayed in presenting herself in her natural state as a strong, confident woman; in exposing the dirty secret of child abuse to a worldwide audience; and in repeatedly challenging the shockingly misogynistic assumptions of the recording industry. By all accounts, Pat and Spyder are honest, sincere people without pretensions, people who care about the things that really matter in life: family, music and a sense of right-and-wrong. It’s nice to see the good gals and guys win for a change.
Strangely, the fact that Pat Benatar is the real McCoy has presented her with some challenges in the music industry. There’s a passage in Pat’s memoir that I found dismaying, revealing, but in the end, uplifting. Even after climbing the heights, it became obvious to her that some people in the industry had a hard time accepting her into the club:
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.
There’s something about Americans that make them prone to one-upmanship, whether it’s through educational differences, economic differences, social differences or political differences. For some reason, some Americans have to feel superior over other groups of Americans (not to mention foreigners), and spend way too much time worrying about how other people view them. “Am I in or am I out?” is a major preoccupation in many circles, an anxiety that is both wasteful and divisive.
Pat Benatar has never given a shit about any of that stuff, and made the world a better place by having the confidence and courage to just be herself. We can all learn a lot from her experience.