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Pat Benatar: I didn’t set out to be a solo artist

Pat Benatar rocked the music scene with songs like "Heartbreaker" and" Hit Me With Your Best Shot." Her new book, "Between a Heart and a Rock Place," tells of the struggles that rocked her life and how she came out on top. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Pat Benatar rocked the music scene with songs like “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Her new book, “Between a Heart and a Rock Place,” tells of the struggles that rocked her life and how she came out on top. In this excerpt, she describes her first recording session and her quest to figure out exactly what type of artist she wanted to be. An excerpt.

Prologue I knew the sound wasn’t right.

As I sat there, listening to the playback from my first-ever recording session, I knew that something was off. It wasn’t that the speakers were bad or the mics were low. It wasn’t that my voice sounded wrong or the drummer was off the beat. It was more subtle than all that, but also much worse — not something that could be fixed by a simple equipment change. The problem was that I sounded like Julie Andrews trying to sing hard rock.Part of the issue was that the musicians who the producers had hired were very precise players. Everything sounded perfect — so perfect it was bland. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t rock and roll. I knew it, the producers knew it, and the record company knew it. But still everyone kept shoving me in the same direction.

For my first record deal, I’d signed with a label called Chrysalis Records. I’d been knocking on doors in New York for a couple of years when Chrysalis offered me a deal. My manager, Rick Newman, was a comedy club owner with no music experience. He’d discovered me while I was performing at Catch a Rising Star, a club in New York, and he believed in me enough to take on management duties. Early on, what he lacked in music knowledge, he made up for in passion, and he’d been fantastic in presenting me to labels. His enthusiasm was infectious. But though he was my biggest cheerleader and the greatest guy, he had to rely heavily on our attorneys, business manager, and the record label for advice. Chrysalis had signed a chick singer, and a chick singer was what they expected me to remain. The result was the all-too-perfect sound of my first session.

I didn’t set out to be a solo artist. My dream was to be the singer in a rockin’ band, like Robert Plant was to Led Zeppelin or Lou Gramm to Foreigner. I wanted a partnership, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had — an unrelenting back-and-forth between talented musicians. The sound I heard in my head was raucous, with hard-driving guitars speeding everything forward. I was a classically trained singer with a great deal of musical knowledge, but I had no idea how to make that visceral, intense sound happen. I had to evolve, but I didn’t know how to make that evolution happen. And apparently, my record label didn’t either.

It wouldn’t be enough just to have a backing band who could play it looser. Deep down I knew that I needed a guy partner, somebody who got me and where I wanted to take my music. Somebody to help me get there and be an equal and integral part of the band, a partner in every step we took. Somebody whom I wouldn’t have to sit around and try desperately to explain my sound to, but who would just hear my voice and instinctively know. Make no mistake: I was looking for a music partner, not a boyfriend. I was separated from my first husband but still legally married. I’m far too traditional to have shrugged that detail off. The truth is, I didn’t want any man in my life right then, except for a music partner.

For its part, Chrysalis had no interest in bringing some dude into the act, except as a backup musician. At first, I didn’t know how to react to the record executives, so I listened to them, and for a while, I followed along. I’m opinionated and strong, but not really confrontational. I don’t pick fights with people unless they’re necessary. When you’re young, you tend to let people run your show, especially when those people have been successfully running a lot of other people’s shows. But even as they kept pushing me to fall in line, I knew their way was wrong.

Thankfully, I trusted my instincts. That’s probably the single most important thing anyone can know: trust your gut. It’s especially important for young people because there are always going to be older folks hanging around explaining why they know best. I was young and inexperienced when I started out in music, and there were times I bought into the other people’s I know best routine. And when I went against my gut, the decisions turned out to be wrong every time. Somewhere deep inside, you know which is the right path and which is the wrong one. The problem is that so many times we start doubting ourselves, questioning, second-guessing. My advice? Get over it. Remember that this is your career, and you don’t get too many shots. If you go with what you believe, you will almost always be a step ahead of the game.

Now, if you do not believe your gut is trustworthy, then find some people whose intuition you do trust. Surround yourself with a few people who inspire confidence and run your ideas past them. As irritating as it was to have my label against me, I not only trusted my gut, but I had a few people around me who did as well.

Not being a music man, Rick may not have completely understood my thinking, but he knew that I wasn’t going to back down. One fellow at Chrysalis Records understood what I wanted and why — my A&R man, Jeff “Buzzard” Aldridge. A&R stands for “artists and repertoire,” and those are the staff members who deal directly with the artists and their music. The A&R guy is your guy. Everyone else is the record company’s guy. Buzzard was our day-to-day person, the one I usually dealt with and the one I trusted.

The only problem with A&R representatives is that they are not usually the decision makers. They are not the people who will be marketing and selling your music or setting your promotion budget. Those are the suits, and they could make or break careers, including mine. And musically, those guys weren’t getting it.

Luckily, after those first misdirected recording sessions, Buzzard convinced the suits to bring in one of the top producers in the business, Mike Chapman. He’d been working with Blondie at the time and didn’t even think he’d be able to produce a whole record. Still, he’d work on a couple tracks with us. I’d heard talk that Chapman was difficult, something of a Svengali, because he was very controlling, but his success working with Blondie had Chrysalis foaming at the mouth.  Though not a musician himself, Chapman was a very instinctual producer. He wasn’t necessarily going to find the sound himself, but he might be able to connect me to people who could. 

Initially Chapman was the only person, who understood what I was going for and he navigated a way to get it accomplished. He listened to me explain what I wanted, and started looking around for somebody who fit the picture. I could hear the guitar I wanted, the one that would bring alive what was only in my mind at that point. I’d been trying to come up with a partner and a sound for months, to no avail. My frustrations were rising on a daily — maybe hourly — basis. But I knew that Chapman was talented and smart. I want people who work with me to either be smarter than me or be willing and able to work harder than I do. (That’s critical, because I am a working dog.)

Chrysalis set up a time to audition some players at the SIR rehearsal hall on Thirty-seventh Street in Manhattan. After they got the initial lineup booked, Chapman had another thought, a twenty-two-year-old kid who had been touring with Rick Derringer.

“I think this is the one, Pat. His name is Neil Giraldo. He’s perfect — just what you’ve been looking for.”

“Okay, bring him in to audition.”

“Well, I didn’t tell him he’s coming to an audition as such. I just told him to stop by so you could meet him. He’s a genius, Pat.”

That certainly grabbed my attention. “Genius” wasn’t a word that Chapman used often. Chapman wasn’t going to be at the audition, but Buzzard made the arrangements for Neil to meet with us. And so as the time went by that day, I got more interested in meeting this genius. Then I was told that Buzzard had arrived with the guitar player.

“Oh, cool,” I said, nonchalantly, playing it cool.

I was talking to Rick Newman, with my back to the door, and didn’t turn around immediately. When I did, Buzzard was talking to this guy Neil. He stood there looking like Adonis, hair to his shoulders, the most drop-dead gorgeous man I had ever seen in my life. Somewhere in the distance the “Hallelujah” chorus was playing. Luckily he didn’t look at me in that moment, because I froze in my tracks. Something shot through my entire being. Every nerve ending in my body lit up like the Fourth of July, and every hormone in my body went insane. I felt like someone had hit me in the face with a two-by-four.

I thought, Girl, you have just seen the father of your children. (Did I mention that I was not looking for a boyfriend?)

When Neil finally turned around, I honestly felt like time slowed down. It’s corny. It’s a cliché. But that’s exactly how I felt, like he was walking toward me in slow motion.

“Hi, I’m Neil Giraldo.”

At that point I finally noticed that he didn’t have a guitar. Here was a musician who was looking for a new gig until Rick Derringer went back out on tour, and though if he wasn’t auditioning, he hadn’t even brought his instrument along. That endeared him to me all the more. I gave him the snappiest greeting I could think of:


I couldn’t say anything else, so finally Neil sat down at the piano.

“What’s the hell is the matter with you, Pat?” Newman asked. “You barely spoke to this guy.”

I shrugged. My brain was going gong, gong, gong!

I finally whispered. “Newman, I don’t care if this guy can’t play a note. We’ll get him lessons. He’s in the band.”

Newman looked a little sick.

When the gonging quieted down enough for me to hear the piano, I snapped out of it, then felt a bit let down. My hormones might have been roaring, but I am, after all, a Capricorn, and capable of getting down to business. As much as I wanted this to be perfect, the piano wasn’t getting to me. He played brilliantly, but I just couldn’t feel it. It was possible that this guy was the love of my life but not the music partner I wanted. What a drag. He finished playing the piece, and then he turned to the group of guys waiting to audition.

“Man, could I borrow your guitar?”

One of the musicians handed him a guitar. He turned around, leaned over, and fastened the strap. Then he turned back, fiddling with the tuning, his hair still down over his face. I wish I had that moment on film. When he hit the first chord, I nearly fell to my knees. It was amazing — the very thing I’d had in my head and never once heard anybody play. His playing was so passionate, so intense. Of course he had the gig.

Excerpted from “Between a Heart and a Rock Place,” by Pat Benatar. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from William Morrow.