PAT BENATAR: RELUCTANT SEX SYMBOL
It was a dreary, rainy night in New York when I went down to Tramps to see Pat Benatar. I was not, shall we say, in the proper mood: My allergies had been bothering me a lot, I had caught a cold on top of them, my sneaker-clad feet were so wet they made grunting sounds when I walked. And then I found out that my beloved Red Sox were 10 runs down in the fifth inning during the biggest Sox-Yanks series of the year.
As I said, I wasn't in the mood to see a rising young woman singer who had been described by members of the press as a "sultry, sexy dynamo" and "better than Ronstadt or Nicks". But before she finished her second song, I had forgotten all about the rain, the game, my runny nose and my squeaky feet. Pat Benatar (rhymes with "rising star") - is that good.
Still I wouldn't exactly call her a sultry dynamo. Her stage presence isn't yet anything to write home about, but her looks are enough to get her by: cheekbones you could see from a mile away, and sculpted features somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Joni Mithchell, a little homey, a little funky, with exotic and sensual thrown in. She doesn't move around all that much (who could on Tramps tiny stage?), but she smiles alot. Her voice is what really commands your attention.
Technically, she's a coloratura, with a range she gauges at about three-and-ahalf octaves. Her singing is nothing like Ronstadt's or Nicks' or anyone else's for that matter: Working in her own crystalline middle-high range, she swoops registers easily from ethereal soprano sighs to nasal/throaty "naa-naas" that remind me of nobody but Stevie Wonder. For the most part, she infuses the clarity of an Annie Haslam with a unique, unpretentious soulfulness.
Orbison, Pink Floyd and the Rascals
She opens with "It Ain't Easy," which you may know from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Pat's version is a little looser and funkier; nice. She sets the pattern for the night on the next tune, a slow ballad called "It's Over," when midway through she suddenly begins belting out some viscera-drenched wails that raise the hair on my neck. "Oceans Away" doesn't really go anywhere special, but is a more than pleasant diversion nonetheless. Then come the real surprises: a Roy Orbison song - any female singer who does Roy Orbison in a downtown cabaret has to be special - called "Crying." Again slow, mournful and torchy; and again when she suddenly jumps registers midway through I can feel something drop in the pit of my stomach. Then a reggae version of "Stairway to Heaven"! - and don't look now, but that played-out old chestnut translates fabulously well, especially with Pat adding some authentic-sounding Jamaican inflections: "Dear lady can-a ya hear de wind buh-low?..." Towards the end, she freaks out in pure, slow burning orgastic release, moaning and shrieking like no one since Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky" from Dark Side of the Moon.
She let's up with a slow "Don't Let It Show," which is quite touchingly rendered, the comes back for her encores. First is an old Rascals number, "You Better Run": an inspired selection, a nasty rocker done with mean, authoritative flair by her tight, bouncy band, and Pat's no-nonsense vocals absolutely bitchin'. Then a funky redo of McCartney's "Letting Go": a rollicking piano solo and a roaring, soul burning finish, and then it's over. More than one person yells for more, but that's it. As I trudge back out into the night, I'm feeling a whole lot better than when I walked in there. The Sox lost by a dozen runs - damn. But at least it isn't raining anymore. Now I'm not saying Pat Benatar works miracles, but I will say this: She has a great voice and great looks, enormous taste in cover material, and a fine band. Best of all, she really can't be directly compared to any female singer I can think of. So it was with renewed interest that I went - cold, allergy, and all - to her Yorkville apartment for an interview.
Things About To Go My Way
In person, Pat Benatar is considerably smaller than she looks on stage. She smiles and laughs a lot. You become comfortable with her quickly and easily. "Terry Ellis, the president of Chrysalis, couldn't believe how small I was. He picked me up from the stage to put me on the floor, and he stopped before I reached the floor! He looked down and said, 'My God, you are really small!'" And she laughs some more.
With good reason: Things are starting to break her way. A recent deal with Chrysalis, whispers that Todd Rundgren may produce her album, appearances on Midday Live and NewsCenter 4 and near-unanimous praise from the press. Over Perrier, white wine, cheese and fruit, we trace her career.
"I always wanted to sing. I started in the sixth grade, and everyone told me back then that I'd be a star because I loved to show off all the time. Not that my voice was that great back then, I just loved the spotlight. My mother said she thought I'd grow up to be a stripper. But I always went out for the school plays, and I always got the lead roles in the musicals. So I got worked into that kind of stuff, you know? MOR, musical comedy stuff. But I always wanted to do rock."
I suggested she must have been into rock at an early age to pick up on singers like Orbison and the Rascals.
"Yeah, I always loved it, but people always told me that my voice was too clear and clean to do rock 'n' roll. So I never did it that much, except by myself... I went through school, and high school, kind of fell out of it. Then I got out of school and got married, and my husband Dennis went into the army so we had to move down South. Me, a Long Island girl. We were in South Carolina and Virginia, and that was where I first started getting into rock singing."
"I was down there working as a bank teller - and I still can't believe it - and these real redneck characters would come up to the window and see my name on the plate and say, 'Bu-nay-tuh? That ain't a local name, is it?' And I'd tell hem I was from New York and they'd move to the next window and give me these surly looks! I was getting sicker and sicker of looking at other people's money all day, and wishing I could sing, and then I saw Liza Minelli or someone at a coliseum down there and that did it. I just said to myself 'The hell with this shit, I cant' do this anymore.' I was all crazed out, and I quit the bank job the next day."
Singing For the Brown-Baggers
"They had this club in Enon, Virginia, called the Roaring Twenties, and I went there for some work. It was one of those deals where there was no open liquor, everyone brown-bagged it...really weird. And you had to work as a waitress and get up there with salad dressing on your stockings or lobster on your skirt - we had to wear these ridiculous flapper outfits, with garters and everything - and the people would just keep eating and talking. You were like live muzak up there. But those guys could be so obnoxious. They'd grab my garter and hold me to the table and say, 'Now, what'll happen if I pull on this garter?' The first time it happened I told the guy I'd put his fucking eye out!"
But it didn't take her long to tire of that routine, and when Pat met someone else interested in getting up a rock band, she jumped at the chance.
"I started getting into rock, bar band stuff: covering Motown and 'Proud Mary', that sort of thing. It was great experience for me because I'd never performed like that before. After a very short time I got sick of seeing these crackers in the audience rolling cigars around in their mouths; then when Dennis got out and we came back up here and I was really anxious to perform in New York. So I went to Catch A Rising Star, the Monday night audition thing, y'know...this was about two, two-and-a-half years ago. And the first time I sang there, after I finished, I just closed my eyes real tight because I was so scared to see what the reaction would be. And everyone was standing up and clapping! Rick Newman came up and hugged me and said come back, and from that it just slowly developed to where it is now."
Okay; so how do you feel about being compared to Linda and Stevie? Pretty fast company, don't you think?
"Yeah, it makes me feel very weird. I'm flattered by it, sure, because I think both Linda and Stevie are great and to be compared to them is a real compliment. But I don't know about all the sex-symbol stuff, I mean, I've seen the things they've written about me being sultry and all that, and I don't really see myself that way at all. To me I'm just a regular person, very straight, no idiosyncrasies, a happy childhood, the whole thing...depressingly normal. But it's something I've always wanted, always dreamed about, and it's just so exciting to see it starting to happen. So there's that, versus my fears that it may get out of hand, because, you know, the whole thing with getting an image and trying to live up to it can be quite a hassle."
Did Pat think there were any current female singers she aspired to be like - Ronstadt, for instance?
"Not really, no. I mean I think Linda's great - I just saw her at Forest Hills and she was fantastic. But I don't think of myself, you know, like the little flower on the stage. I want to surprise people. I don't listen to many female singers, that's not where I get my inspiration. I like male singers, like Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, like that. I love English rock, that's my favorite, especially the stuff that's orchestrated; like some of the Who's stuff, or Renaissance, or Yes, or some of Zeppelin's things. I love strong vocals, and chorale type effects. I want to get some of that onto the album; I don't want to be just another low-key laid-back woman singer. That's not me, really."
To Punk or Not To Punk
How about the new wave?
"Well, there isn't much to it melodically, so on a musical level I'm not sure, but I like anything that's new. I mean, look at Blondie, I llloooovve Debbie Harry (Blondie's lead singer). She's so adorable, and her stuff is so well done. It isn't really punk, right? It's just...pop. Now when people hear me do the Rascals song they say, 'Oh that's your punk song, huh?' I'm not going punk or anything, it's just a great song it makes me laugh." And with that she throws back her head and laughs with a childlike glee.
Then she gets a bit more serious. She holds her hand in front of her, palm up. "I want to be able to hold the audience, to have that control." She opens and closes her fingers over the palm. "I want to bring them up, take them down, make them feel what I'm feeling. I'm just trying to project a sort of fantasy thing, you know? I want to take them away from where they've been. I know that I go into another...dimension, or something, when I'm up there. It starts when I'm making up before the show. I change into a completely different person. And when I'm really into it, I'm sure as hell someplace else. I'm not here, I'm far away. And if I can take them with me, then I don't feel like I've jerked them off. Like the other night, after the show, a guy came up to me and said the nicest thing anyone could have ever said to me. He said, 'You touched me in places where I didn't even know I had places to be touched.' That's what it's all about."
SONG BIRDS '79: FOUR FLIGHTS UP
From singing for her supper to winging toward superstardom, the emergence of an exciting new songbird can be a flight for sore ears. So, as this decade fades into the next, and while Barbra, Carly, Linda, Liza, and Cher, and even Judy, Joni and Joan struggle to maintain altitude or threaten to go the way of all flash -disco- you should know this: soaring forth from the flock of sirens-to-be are four fledglings whose distinctive voices are already making waves in our sonic stratospheres. These little girls with big voices, who migrated several dues-paying years ago from their provincial nests to our two media meccas, have perched where the vibes jibe with their own. You can hear it in their music. Ellen Foley and Pat Benatar mainline New York City adrenaline. And now equipped with recording contracts and debut discs, they're ready for some high flying aeronautics.
Like Manhattan, the tough island city Ellen Foley and Pat Benatar have adopted as home, their music is based on rock. Their first training may have been in legitimate musical theater, but neither wants to be a Broadway belter like Ethel Merman, nor, on the other hand, a powder-puff pop stylist like Olivia Newton-John. Ellen and Pat are cute but defiant, and the scarcity of other ballsy female singers won't stop them from aiming for a place on rock's male-heavy rooster roster. They can croon a ballad with the best of the torch singers -and do- but you won't see them checking into Heartbreak Hotel. Their intentions are bold and clear. They mean to rock-and-roll.
Pat Benatar fooled around for years, afraid she was "all wrong" for singing rock-and-roll. The "handicaps," according to Pat and her nearsighted advisors, were her three-octave voice -too sweet, too classical, too trained- and her pixie-ish good looks- "I used to be so cute it could make you vomit." But time plus determination equals change, and Pat has somehow managed to evolve from opera diva candidate to bitch-in-boots rock queen. This transition seems to have begun when she canceled her "boring" voice lessons while in high school on Long Island, later abandoned her "boring" sex education studies at New York's Stony Brook college, and married her not-so-boring high school sweetheart, Dennis. Then, while on duty as a military wife and bank teller in Virginia, Pat saw a Liza Minnelli concert which drove her to the local bars -not to drink, but to sing. "I found it easy to sound like Barbra Striesand," she says, "but to sing bluesey rock like Robert Plant seemed impossible." Nonetheless, she hit the road and cut her teeth on Top Forty hits: "We did 'Proud Mary' so many times I thought I'd die," she gasps. By 1975 when Pat and her manager-husband headed into New York, she had developed into a powerhouse wailer. She first caught on at Catch A Rising Star, where the club's owner, Rick Newman, took over as her manager and set up a few strategic, well publicized club engagements that had the critics cooing and the record companies wooing. Now, her debut album on Chrysalis Records, produced by Blondie and Suzie Quatro's studio man, Mike Chapman, is in the works and will be out any day. Naturally, Pat is happy and excited about the shape of things to date, though she does have a worry or two. "I'm going to have such a boring press life," she sighs, almost apologetically. "I had a great childhood, I'm happily married, and I'm not into drugs. I keep thinking I'll have to do something drastic to soup it all up." For the time being, however, Pat should have no trouble at all satisfying sensation-seekers with the simple act she turns into a spectacular event- parting her pretty lips and letting the good sounds flow.