The Pretenders' frontwoman sounds off on audiences, Americans and Avril

There are a lot of things you don't ask Chrissie Hynde Ñ such as what she thinks of 18-year-old singer Avril Lavigne, she of the skinny tie, Aniston hair and 'punk' hit 'Sk8er Boi.'

'I don't know why everybody's asking a 51-year-old woman what I think of an 18-year-old. What does it have to do with me?'

The lead singer of the Pretenders is off. As she talks to the Tribune from her hotel room in Phoenix, at one point she accidentally yanks the phone cord from the wall as she paces the room.

'I mean, I've heard of her, but it's not like everyone in the band was going, 'I was listening to Avril Lavigne last night, and it was É great!' If Jimi Hendrix was out there, someone would bring it to my attention, but I don't know if a surfer (sic) from Canada is going to blow my skirt up.'

When she hits the Schnitzer, Hynde and her band of 25 years will illustrate the central paradox of 21st-century rock music. That is, many mature pop and rock acts today are sharper and more interesting than those half their age. It's gotten to the point where the parents are often hipper than the kids.

Hynde is aware of the irony of the inverted generation gap. She recently watched 'The Filth and the Fury,' a 2000 documentary about the Sex Pistols and the rise of punk rock. The young woman who left Akron, Ohio, for London in 1973, watched it with her two teenage daughters who have lived only in England.

'One of my daughters said, 'It's a bummer we don't have anything like that today,' and I told her, 'You have to go out and make it, I guess.' '

Hynde acknowledges that the pre-MTV world was very different. 'In punk, what you were wearing was very much part of your expression; it was like an art movement,' she says. 'You didn't get on the phone and get a stylist to buy your clothes for you.'

She has only limited sympathy for today's youth: 'I can see how difficult it is now Ñ you have just a few conglomerates running everything. But an artist can easily say, 'I'm not playing the game.' '

Rant and roll

Hynde has earned her right to rant. She has an almost 'Zelig'-like presence in the history of rock 'n' roll. After moving to London, she scraped by while writing the occasional article for the influential New Musical Express.

When punk arrived, she was working at Malcolm McLaren's bondage boutique, Sex, on King's Road. She tried unsuccessfully to start bands with musicians who went on to be in the Damned and the Clash. She nearly married Sex Pistol Sid Vicious for a work permit, but he was too trashed to show up for the appointment.

By 1978, Hynde finally got the Pretenders together, but it wasn't until January 1980 that they released their first single, a cover of the Kinks' song 'Stop Your Sobbing.' By then, punk had been diluted into new wave, and such acts as the Jam and Elvis Costello had made skinny ties fashionable.

Pop hits such as 'Brass in Pocket,' 'Talk of the Town' and 'Back on the Chain Gang' followed, as well as rock-outs such as 'Bad Boys Get Spanked' and ballads 'Hymn to Her' and 'I'll Stand by You.'

As new wave burned out in the mid-'80s, a few survivors, such as Sting and Costello, soldiered on as the new pop aristocracy. Hynde eschewed the celebrity lifestyle, and the Pretenders continued to make studio albums every three years, on average.

Fashions and the band lineup changed, but the greatest asset never did: Hynde's voice today remains as perfect a sound as there is in pop. On the Pretenders' fine new CD, 'Loose Screw,' it still moves effortlessly between warm and jagged.

'Miraculously, I never really explored the top end of my voice,' she says. She cites 'Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,' from the new record, as a song in the high register. 'I find it very comfortable.'

Nice cup of tea

Hynde likes to walk the walk. She's been a vegetarian since 1969 and has been arrested for protesting animal rights abuses. On the possibility of a war with Iraq, however, she seems disconnected. She says she never watches U.S. news and has never been on the Internet. The liberal Guardian is the one newspaper she buys in England.

'I've heard some explanations and some theories, but I personally don't feel that I know what (this war) is about,' she says. 'I can see why America has been attacked by terrorists, that I can figure out no problem.'

Living in Britain, she feels, offers her perspective on the U.S.: 'Everything's so cheap here because it's all made so cheap in the Third World. In America, a car is worth more than a human life. É Well, more than a non-American human life.'

Having said that, she acknowledges having just bought an electric kettle from Wal-Mart (made in China) so she can make a cup of tea on the road. Hypocrisy seems unavoidable.

On the new album, there's a scathing song called 'Complex Person,' about a typical poseur. As she told National Public Radio recently, it's partly about herself.

At their best, Hynde's rants veer into standup comedy. Talking about the decline of American standards, she says: 'I can remember when you got dressed up to go to the airport. Now all you need is your utility visor, 'cause, man, you're going to sprawl out, watch CNN and eat yourself stupid. In shorts.'

Middle-aged guys and lesbians

Asked what kind of audience she attracts these days, she deadpans, 'Bald, fat, middle-aged guys and stuff. And a bunch of lesbians.' She warms to her theme. 'But I don't have a gay audience because I'm so not camp. Gays don't get me at all; I'm like the anti-Kylie (Minogue).'

Anyway, she doesn't care about orientation. 'I care about the human soul, the rest of it is just, whatever,' Hynde says. 'I do my best to berate and alienate my audience every night, and they still come back.'

She hates 'meeting people who want to meet me,' but she does have respect for fans who wait in the cold for autographs.

Americans have become armchair gladiators, she believes: 'All they want to do is sit in front of a screen and be entertained. Nobody wants to read a book; no one wants to explore or interact. They want to be on a screen or they want to communicate with someone they'll never meet, by e-mail.'

Hynde's latest tirade is against sports: 'Sports is the new Muzak. You go into a restaurant, and there's a ball game on five TV screens. So I go on stage and I say, 'I hate sports' and half the audience's jaw drops.'

Naturally, in 'Loose Screw' she lambastes her latest ex-lover, the 37-year-old sculptor Lucho Brieva, whom she married in 1997. But spite and even humor are secondary to emotions such as loss, especially on the above track. Punk was against sentimentality, but she managed to restore some dignity to the art of feeling, without being a drip or a sellout.

Hynde really began the estrogentrification of rock music, which took off with Sheryl Crow and Joan Osborne, and makes little Lavigne possible.

But don't go and see her because you feel grateful. Go to rock.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..