Did you know that Pat Benatar got her start in an off-Broadway sci-fi musical composed by Harry Chapin when she was twenty-two? It’s true. It was called The Zinger. After that, of course, Benatar put out a non-stop procession of Top 40 hits, among them “Love is a Battlefield,” “Heartbreaker,” and “We Belong.”
The gal with the four-octave voice grew up in Long Island, New York, and started singing in elementary school. At the age of nineteen, she married her high school sweetheart, then several years later divorced him but kept his last name (“Benatar” sounded slightly more rocking than her given name of Andrzejewski). In another fortuitous twist of events, she decided not to attend the Julliard School of Music, which, she reasoned, would just delay her career as a rock singer. After some stints in theater, including the aforementioned Zinger, she was discovered by a record agent while singing cabaret at the New York club Catch A Rising Star.
Now Benatar is fifty and is, as you will see, still a Long Island rock chick—tough but good-hearted, very funny, with an impressive command of swear words. As you chat with her, the years fall away and soon you’re back in high school, sitting in the cafeteria with the defiant girl who was never afraid of the teachers. At five feet tall, she’s slightly built, and when we met she was sporting a fetching sort of homegirl getup: track pants, a large red warmup jacket, a bandanna tied on her head, hoop earrings, and long, wavy hair (which was probably extensions, come to think about it). Our rendezvous took place last August in Minneapolis, a stop on her summer tour, which was a low-key meander of outdoor festivals and casinos. Refreshingly, she insisted on paying for lunch, which never, ever happens.
Benatar will go on the road again this summer in support of a June album called Go! As usual, she will be accompanied by her husband and collaborator, Neil Giraldo, her two daughters, Hana and Haley, a spinning bike, and an on-bus washing machine. Benatar doesn’t like using anonymous washing machines (“I can’t let anyone touch my laundry”) and has been known to throw a load of clothes in as she is being urged onstage.
THE BELIEVER: Why do you think gay men love you so much?
PAT BENATAR: ’Cause I wear big eyeliner. I don’t know. I have no idea.
BLVR: Do they often approach you?
BLVR: What do they say to you when they see you?
PB: They say, “I don’t just love you, I want to be you.” I’m just assuming it’s the eyeliner. I don’t know. They’re the best, though—we just did Gay Pride in Long Beach and in Tampa. And they’re the best audience. They’re so enthusiastic. They come dressed up—it’s really fun. They’re crazy and I love them. They’re sweet as can be. Even my macho husband, he has a great time, too. He’s so cool, he doesn’t care. He loves them.
BLVR: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?
PB: I hope to be on the Hana Highway selling leis and pineapples or something, wearing a muumuu. That’s what I’d really want to be doing. I have no idea, because I had no idea I would be doing this. At fifty. I thought I would be done. I thought I’d be finished by now. So I have no idea. I just leave it.
BLVR: And why did you think you would be finished by now?
PB: Because when I started it still wasn’t okay to be this age and still make this kind of music. And believe me, I consider our stuff to be much poppier than—we’re not on like cutting edge, that kind of thing anymore. And even though we’re not doing Britney Spears music or Nsync, it’s still what I consider to be pop music. So that does give you a little bit more longevity, I guess. But if somebody told me I’d be getting up there and singing “Heartbreaker” at fifty I’d laugh. So I don’t know, I have no idea.
I figured I would have my kids and I would be married and—how long could this possibly last, popularity-wise? I don’t know what the hell I thought I would be doing but I didn’t think it would be this. I’m surprised. I’m very happy. I feel grateful as shit that I still get to do it.
BLVR: And they’ll always be glad to see you.
PB: I guess. It’s great fun, it is, because they are—the audience is really diverse, I mean—it goes in these cycles, too, which, you know, you just have to relax and not worry about this shit. No, really, you do, because it goes through cycles and not every record needs to be a hit record. It’s not meant to do that, and people’s careers go through cycles and if you want to be the last man standing, you have to be fierce and tenacious and you just have to stand there and you have to let it do its thing. If you try to force it, then it won’t go in the natural progression that it’s supposed to. If you just leave it alone it’s really interesting, because I got to tell you, it used to piss me off that people used to say that what we did was manufactured and things like that, because I swear that we always just let it flow. And I always leave it like that. And it really works because this way there’s no fabrication. If you try to chase it, if you try to follow trends and anticipate what the next thing is going to be, you will fail. You just have to leave it, you have to go with what it is. You have to be true, you have to be honest. This is the most important thing, this is what I tell Haley. I say, “You know what? Don’t even think about, or listen to what’s out there. Don’t do anything, just figure out what it is that is true to you, what makes you happiest to do and be out there. And if it doesn’t work, then you just have to call it a day and go find something else. But don’t make it up. Don’t go out there and pretend to be something you aren’t. They will smell it on you and they will know. And it’s wrong, too. It’s wrong to do. Because this is about conversation, what we do for a living. I want conversation back and forth. I want the common thread. I want to know—do you feel this the same way as I do? If you don’t, tell me what you feel, ’cause I want you to know what I feel, and I want to know what you feel and I want to do it back and forth. And that’s why if you’re not honest, you can’t get the answer. So it makes…
BLVR: …a real dialogue with your audience. Does she recognize that as good advice?
PB: I think so. I mean, I’m her mother, so she always takes everything I say with a grain of salt. A lot of the time, she thinks I’m full of shit.
BLVR: I have to say, talking to you is so much easier than trying to coerce answers out of some of the younger bands that I interview. Younger bands can be really difficult.
PB: Oh yeah. Well, they have to try and be cool.
BLVR: They’re scared underneath, I think.
PB: They are scared. We’re all scared—are you crazy? You never know what the hell to say. I was talking to my daughter this morning, and I said, “The greatest thing about being almost fifty is that you get to this point in your life and you don’t give a shit.” It’s really great. I said, “You kind of know that when you’re young, but you’re so freaked out—on the outside you’re being so hard-ass and so cool, and on the inside you’re going, [Sharp intake of breath], ‘What am I supposed to be doing now? What am I supposed to be saying? What the fuck am I supposed to be doing right now?’ That kind of thing. And you get to this part and you don’t even give a shit anymore.”
PB: Yeah, it’s really liberating, and you know what? It’s really fun. It’s unbelievably fun.
BLVR: Do you have to condition your voice in any special way?
PB: No. Because I just sing.
BLVR: What motivates you creatively at this point?
PB: Kind of the same stuff. I still get crazy—this thing that just happened with this little girl in California, I spent most of my adult life as someone’s mother and the rest of my life trying to make sure that children are safe. So this to me is—we wrote Hell Is For Children in 1979. I had hoped by this time that it would have no relevance, you know what I’m saying? And I go insane, I just—I can’t even tell you—so the same thing that motivated me then motivates me now. I can’t stand what people do to each other. I think we’re brilliant as a species. I think we are amazing. I think that God is incredible, that He just gave us everything. Everything in our face. Everything for us to use. And sometimes we’re such shitheads. And it makes me crazy.
I read somewhere that we are all more than we know. And I really believe that. Everybody is worth something, and think of all the amazing things that you could be to each other, to people you don’t even know, of all the things that you could accomplish. So I get crazy. And that’s the same thing that motivated me when I was twenty-six. It doesn’t change. It’s just that I understand it a little bit better now. That doesn’t make me any less hyper about trying to make it better. I have different reasons for the way that I react to things now that I have kids. It’s not about me, it’s about my children going out into this world that makes me say, “What the hell are you all doing?” You know, that kind of thing. I have to put them out there, and then I have to worry. I try to do the best I can but then I have to worry about some shmuck that she meets and she falls in love with, and did his parents do the best they could do? And what’s their story? All that stuff. And—you have kids?
PB: Live it up now, okay? Because this is the best—it’s like the Peace Corps. You probably don’t remember, you’re probably too young, but there was a commercial on TV when I was a kid about joining the Peace Corps. It said it was “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”
BLVR: Oh, sure. I remember that.
PB: This is what parenting is, as far as I’m concerned. This is parenting. That is the friggin’ Peace Corps. Because you don’t love doing this—this is the thing you love the most in your life, it’s the best thing you ever do. And then you want to kill yourself because it’s so hard. It’s so hard and no matter how old you get and how experienced you get you’re always scared you’re going to screw it up and you’re going to make a mistake. Every day you wake up and it’s something else, they find some other way to drive you insane.
BLVR: Has your daughter Haley turned eighteen yet?
PB: Almost. Almost. It’s horrible.
BLVR: On your last tour she did a mini-set with the band. How about this time?
PB: No. Uh-uh. She’s on hiatus because she has to get in focus. She’s going to be a senior this year and the singing thing and all that, that’s really nice, but she has a job. Her job is school, okay? She has to figure out what she’s going to do and I don’t care if she takes a year off next year and travels, tries to figure it out. But we have a job to accomplish here and I want her focused. So they’re on hiatus. That’s it.
BLVR: Does she want to go to college?
PB: I don’t know what she wants to do. She’s trying to figure it out. Because she really wants to be a musician. It’s really hard for me to stand there and say, you have to go to a four-year school and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Because I know that in reality it’s not really necessary. But I want her to have a life and I want her to figure it out. So, as her parent, I have to help her figure out where she wants to go and if she wants to take a year off and decide, that’s okay with me. I don’t care. I think it’s ridiculous that kids have to try to decide at eighteen years old what the hell they want to be. I was going to be—first of all, I was getting married, okay, thank you—I was getting married, my husband was going into the Army because he got drafted. And then I was going to be a school teacher at this stage. At eighteen. That’s what I was going to do. So this has nothing to do with anything I wound up doing. So to me I’m okay with her taking a year and trying to figure it out.
BLVR: Let’s talk about your upcoming album, which you’ve been working on for a while.
PB: It’s really hard to make records and concentrate and have a free mind, because I have this whole other life. If you don’t have kids it’s a whole other thing. I think you can be fifty and still have a rock and roll lifestyle; you can still perpetuate that. But when you have children [Haley, eighteen, and Hana, seven] your life—this is my job and that’s my life. So it’s a totally different thing. They’re my priority, they have to be, and they always will be. I have to do them first. So this always gets pushed in the back. Neil’s working all the time, but he needs me and I can’t be there all the time. So it takes a lot longer.
The great thing about taking this much time is that stuff gets to evolve better. There’s two schools of thought and sometimes one works really great. There’s that one school that you go in and just crash and burn and you get all these really incredible moments that would never occur again, because you’re just doing them once and that’s it. And then the other is that you take a really long time and you spend a lot of time reworking and then you move on to the next one, which is a pretty interesting thing that we’ve never done before. And the songs become something else. And I think that they grow more and they become further advanced. Pain in the ass, it takes a really long time. It’s not my favorite thing to do.
BLVR: I know it will be your classic sound, but what’s the boldest track on the album?
PB: I don’t know that I would even say it is the classic sound anymore. People will know it’s us, obviously. It’s very guitar-driven, this record, as opposed to the last few that have a little more keyboard and stuff in them. But you use so many different ways of doing things now with looping and everything. A lot of the time we don’t use real drums, a lot of the stuff is mechanical, so it’s different. I don’t know that I would say that it sounds “classic.” It just sounds like us, but I think it sounds modern. I do. We’re trying to do this independently. I really don’t want to sign to a label to do this. I want to put this out ourselves. God bless Ani DiFranco is all I got to say. But we did play it for somebody and after one song we played, he said, “Let’s try putting it out under another name and see what happens.” Because he thought it was so current and modern sounding. He thought that we could actually just put it out under an assumed name and that we could actually do something with it. I thought that might be interesting. Maybe we will do that with some of this stuff. But I don’t know. So that to me is a good indication that it’s not too retro-sounding. Everything that we do I pretty much want to be organic, so if that happens, then that’s okay with me. But I’m not interested in trying to re-create what once was. That doesn’t interest me; it’s boring.
BLVR: You’re very forward thinking, it seems, Pat.
PB: Yeah. I play ten, twelve weeks out of the year, five times a week, and I really still love to do it. But that’s not what I’m interested in doing now. Even though I love it. It’s not one of those things like “Oh, I don’t want to ever hear that shit again.” It’s not like that. ’Cause I do love that stuff. I love “Heartbreaker.” “Heartbreaker” stands up for me still. It still works to me. The sentiment is still timely and it just works. But I don’t want to do that again. I’m not interested in re-creating that. That was great and I’ll just leave it there. It’s like making Men in Black 28. Why bother? You had a great thing. Just leave it.
BLVR: You and your husband Neil first started working together in just a professional capacity, right?
BLVR: I was wondering if you remember specifically when sparks started to fly…
PB: The minute he walked in for me. I was just mad. I went crazy. I called up my girlfriend, I was living on like 81st Street and 1st Avenue, in this little apartment. And I was getting divorced and everyone was really happy. Because it was—he was a problem. And they didn’t want everything to get screwed up. We could see that it was happening, the record was made and it was going to happen. And I was excited—I had been married since I was nineteen. I was twenty-six, and I had spent all those years of my life in this marriage that wasn’t so great. And I was about to be famous. I was young, I was going to be single, that kind of thing. I was probably going to be rich, I was like, yeah! All my friends, my family, everybody was like, Oh, thank God. She’s going to go out and she’s just going to have a blast. He walks in to join the band, I called up my girlfriend, I go—[sigh] “I met the father of my children.” She slams down the phone, comes over to my apartment, and says, “are you an idiot? What do I have to say? What is wrong with you?” I go, “No, no, no, you don’t understand.” She goes, “I do understand.” She goes—and this is the best—she goes, “it’s 1979, you don’t have to marry him to sleep with him.” But I knew. I was in love with him instantly. I was crazy for him.
BLVR: You once said that you two are very in sync in the studio, and it’s when you’re talking about what you’re going to have for dinner that you squabble.
PB: Actually, the only time we ever fight is about music. We never fight about personal stuff, ever. No, we fight about music. So we get it all out of our system. And we pretty much get along really well, which is a plus. ’Cause we have to spend twenty-four hours a fuckin’ day together. But we get along really well on a personal level. And the big issues—this is key, girls, too, one of the things you really need to know—the real secret is, talk this out. Dr. Laura is right. Okay? Spend time, talk it out before you get married. And figure it out. Make sure your really big issues you agree on. How you’re going to raise your kids. If you’re going to have kids. Your religion. All this kind of stuff. What do you think about money? Your morality? All these things. The big shit. Make sure you talk this stuff out, because this is the stuff that counts, not whether or not he picks up his clothes. Does he think he’s still going to be a single guy and go out with his friends every Friday night and blah-blah-blah? All those things count. And on those things we’re allied. We fight about music because I have opinions, and so does he. And they’re very strong.
BLVR: What kind of reaction did you get after you were on Behind the Music?
PB: Everyone was really happy because we’re the only people who didn’t go to rehab. So they were really happy, they were like, “Wow, look, an uplifting version.”
BLVR: Apparently, you were ambivalent about the whole thing.
PB: That’s what I said to them. They approached us five years in a row. We said, “What are you going to talk about?” I don’t have anything. I don’t have any of this—I know how these things end up: “…and they lost everything, and the shit hit the fan.” I don’t have this. What do you want me to tell? I said, “And you can dig too, baby, cause there ain’t nothing, you ain’t gonna find shit. My life is very boring.” So they scrambled to try to find an angle. They used the angle of how difficult it was in the beginning.
BLVR: Have you ever thought of quitting entirely?
PB: Oh yes. Actually, this morning I was thinking that there were two really low points. That was during the making of Seven the Hard Way, which is the reason it was called that. The record company was—if you look up “dick” in the dictionary, their faces will be there. They are so sickening. It made my life so difficult. I’d just had a baby, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. This was the worst time of my career, I think, because I was scrambling and trying to do the right thing for everybody. That’s when I still cared. But I wanted to do the right thing as a performer. I felt I had a responsibility to do the right thing. And then I wanted to do the right thing by my family and there was no handbook. I mean, Chrissie Hynde had a baby and she wasn’t talking.
I’m sure she was struggling the same way. It was like, what do you want me to fucking tell you? I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing either. So no one cared. No one had any sympathy that your life was totally changed. No one looked at you as a human being, no one looked at you as a woman, no one looked at you as a person. And it was just horrendous. They didn’t care, it was just like, “okay, great, you had the baby, that’s nice, can we just get on with it”—that kind of thing. And they wanted the record immediately. We had nothing done. I was not in the frame of mind to write songs. I was not in the frame of mind to make a record. It is a huge mistake to force somebody. But we had the contract from hell and a record had to be made every nine months and—
BLVR: Like a baby.
PB: Yeah. Except that a baby’s much cooler, trust me. It was a nightmare. That’s why we had to go to court. We had to do all this stuff because they just were crucifying us. And we weren’t ready and they forced us into it. They had a really nifty little clause, thanks to our legal system, where they could put you on suspension if you didn’t comply. And that meant no royalties, no money. So you were virtually unemployed, that kind of thing. And you couldn’t go anywhere else to sell records or anything. That’s it. They held you like this, unless you made the record. So we made the record and it was a nightmare and it was an awful record and there were probably two songs on there that belonged there and the other ones should either never have gone on there or they should have been left alone to wait to evolve into a better thing than what they were. And you know what? It was the costliest record we ever did and it sold the least. And they got exactly what they deserved: shit. Okay? Unfortunately, I did also. So that was a nightmare. And it really hit the fan then and we were at each other’s throat. We put out Wide Awake in Dreamland and that did semi-okay; I had a better grip by that time. But still, it was the same thing. We were fighting and fighting and fighting. Then the blues record—it was Gravity’s Rainbow and then the blues record.
Chrysalis was a revolving door. A president stayed maybe two years and then split. And the only person that had been there as long as the company had was me. So you’d get these young princes. Once I had kids, my whole attitude changed. I was like, “You make a spinal cord from scratch and we’ll talk.” And these young bucks would come in and start telling me “oh, you should be doing this and that… ” All that kind of stuff. And I would just say “Well, that’s really great, but in two years you’ll be gone and I’ll still be here.” And so it was unpleasant. And then these two new guys came in, and we could smell blood. And I knew that they didn’t have any grip. And I said, “Here’s the deal.” Neil wanted to make this blues record for years and I was terrified to do it. And he said, “Come on, come on, you can do this.” So we went in and we said, “You let us make this record or we quit. That’s it.” So that was the first time that we were going to quit. And they were like, “No, no, no, no, no”—these are two new guys—they said, “You are the record company.” And they’re standing there, they just got—it’s like buying the store and then you tell them you have no merchandise to sell. So they said okay. ’Cause they had no idea. So this worked in our favor. We did a blues record. And the blues record did exactly what it was meant to do. It wasn’t meant to be a commercial record. We knew full well when we started it that it wouldn’t be that. It was meant to kind of inspire us again to play. Otherwise I was out. And then we made Gravity’s Rainbow, and that wasn’t an unpleasant experience but it wasn’t the same thing. And then we just split. That was it. So we wanted to quit a few times but after Gravity’s Rainbow we knew that we had to go independent ’cause at my age and after all that time that had passed and all that water under the bridge, there was no way that I was going to stand there and let a twenty-five-year-old tell me what to do. That wasn’t going to happen.
And they weren’t getting it and I didn’t want to pretend I was twenty years old. I wanted to go to the natural place that I was supposed to be. I wasn’t interested in fabricating things and altering what I did to make hit records. They don’t want to hear that.
BLVR: No more big labels from here on in, then?
PB: I’m pretty much through. If I can. If I don’t have to do it, I won’t do it, ’cause I don’t want to do it. I don’t even care about that. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes you need their muscle to get things played. And of course, you’re not making records in a vacuum. I’m not making them for myself. It would be nice if I could get more people to hear them. But if I have to sell my soul to the devil to do it, I won’t. I’ll take less of a population. I’ll take it. And I’m really a relentless motherfucker. I am. And if you tell me that I can’t do it this way, I promise you that I can. And I will.
BLVR: Radio has such a strangle-hold on the playlists now with Clear Channel and so forth…
PB: Yeah, but you know what? My whole thought about the world is that the world is divided into two kinds of people. Just pretend that we are ants, there are two kinds of ants. There’s an ant who just puts his nose to the ground and says, “I am an ant and I am meant to push up rocks and I’m going to push this rock up, even if I die.” I’m the other kind of ant. I push the rock up and if I see that the rock’s not going, I go, “Fuck this rock, okay, I’m finding another rock.” So that’s the reason that I just—that’s how I do it. Don’t forget, I started like this. They told me I couldn’t do this to begin with. They said, “What are you talking about? You don’t want to be like Grace Slick, you want to be the band? You want to sing this music, you want to get up there and scream and point your finger and—you want to do this?” So this is how I started. This is the only way I know how to do things. That’s it.
Listen, it’s the same age-old shit. For some reason, somebody—and I don’t know who it is, probably some geek—said that when a female gets to a certain age, all her sexuality goes. She’s not a vital person anymore. If you’re somebody’s mother you’re not vital. This is such crap, because you’re still a person. You still have all the things that you came into childbearing with and all that kind of stuff. And I’m not saying that there aren’t women who do that, and that’s fine too, if that’s what they want. That’s cool. But I’m saying, don’t lump everybody together. People still have lives. People still have ideas and thoughts and ambition and things like that. You just have to temper it because you have a really important job to do. My most important inspirational job that I do is raising those kids. That’s my job. And that’s where my ambition goes. But I have a life. I’m not only their mother. I’m still who I was before, I just don’t get to be it all the time. I tell my girls, I say, “You got a long road ahead of you all, but thankfully you have your mother in back of you who’s going to counsel you and help you with all the things I have learned” I say, “It’s tough out there. Things have really changed, but not everything.” I know, I see these things I can’t even believe. I already did the gauntlet. You’re doing it now. I did the gauntlet, now I’m telling you that it was fucked up. It was hard, it was—I was a woman who with so much power was making this record company $15, $20, $30 million dollars a year. And back then when you sold 5 million records, this was a lot of shit—this was a lot of records, okay? And I would be at a table with all these men and we’d all be sitting there—educated people. Businessmen. Old guys, not twenty-year-olds, forty-year-olds. I was twenty, they were all older men. I was thinking, okay, they have life experience, they know what they’re doing. They’d lean across with that lecherous look and go, “What are you going to wear for the video?” And I would look at them stunned, like “You’ve gotta fuckin’ be kidding me. I just made you guys like $25 million fuckin’ dollars, you ask me what I’m going to wear in the video?” I used to go nuts. I would go nuts. So it was just—it was so disgusting. And I know it’s better, I know it’s changed, but it’s not enough.
BLVR: What do you think about some of the clothes young girls wear now?
PB: Unbelievable. On the Glow tour last year, I said I saw more butt crack than a plumber’s convention. On stage the other night, I wore—I have these little rider pants that I wear. I have my pack on and the pack’s heavy so it pulls them down. I wear it on the side ’cause otherwise it pulls them down in the back. I’m in really good shape but we don’t need to see that. And I’m out there and I’m constantly yanking my pants up. I sat down on the stool because we were doing the acoustic set and I said to the audience, “You know, I wonder how these frigging teenagers are keeping these pants up, because I’m, like, constantly pulling them up.” They were hysterical.
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