September , 1980
By Gene Triplett
It was hard to believe the soft, personable feminine voice on the other end of the line belonged to Pat Benatar.
Anyone who's seen her sultry, catlike visage on album covers, experienced the fierce sexuality of her feisty soprano on record or her witchy, vampish allure onstage might expect a hot and breathy speaking voice, dripping brazen sensuality.
But this recent phone interview revealed the rising rock and roll siren from Brooklyn as an unaffected, level—headed lady with both feet on the ground. Her second album, Crimes of Passion is already climbing the charts in the wake of her very successful debut LP, In The Heat Of The Night, but Benator seems to be taking it all in stride, even though she's out—distanced a raft of other new female rock singers now flooding the record market. Some critics have gone so far as to rank her with Janis Joplin, claiming Benatar is just about the only woman singer who's shown the ability to handle rock and roll convincingly since Joplin's death 10 years ago.
Whether one agrees with that is unimportant. Benator does possess an undeniable SOMETHING that has brought her sudden fame and success and raves from reviewers who are supposed to know what they're talking about. The first thing I asked her about was the Joplin comparison.
JAM: How do you feel being ranked with the likes of Joplin?
Benatar: Well, we don't sound anything alike. That's quite a compliment, though.
JAM: Some feel that Janis Joplin was the only woman singer who ever had a real grasp of rock and roll, that she was its last true superstar. Some might argue that Linda Ronstadt has achieved that status. What do you think?
Benatar: She (Ronstadt), to me, is a lot softer. Joplin, for me, was the last one. But Ronstadt has made a huge mark and she did break all the barriers too.
JAM: Why have there been so few women superstars in rock? Do you think most people consider it essentially a man's musical vehicle?
Benatar: I don't know. I always thought a woman could do it. I didn't exactly know why there weren't any women doing it before I started. I know a little better now, why women don't usually take the plunge. But it probably is a male oriented kind of thing, because men, when they come to a rock concert, identify with the man in charge of the band. I thought maybe when we started that we would get a mostly male audience or something like that. But that didn't happen. We have a very mixed audience with women identifying AND men identifying. I really don't know why it didn't happen before and (laughing) I don't really know why it's happening now.
JAM: There are plenty of female superstars in country music. In fact, women seem to be dominating that field right now. Why do you think that is?
Benatar: I don't really know. People have asked me this hundreds of times but I really don't know. I never listen to female rock singers, either. I didn't and I still don't (laughing). Except for a few. I like Chrissie Hyndes and Ellen Foley.
JAM: Your mother, of course, was a well-known opera performer, Millie Andrzejewski. Because of her, you had formal opera training when you were a teenager. Was that your original ambition?
Benatar: It was just a logical thing to do. My mother was an opera singer and my voice, my natural voice, is much more suited to that. After a while I realized it was ridiculous for me to do. It was like a paradox, listening to the Stones and singing Puccini. It was impossible to do.
JAM: You had a number of interesting jobs when you were coming up. You dropped out of New York State and moved to Richmond, Virginia, and became a singing waitress, among other things.
Benatar: (Laughing) Yeah, I started doin' that and I was a bank teller for a while and just did a lot of crazy things to support myself and still sing, you know. And then I just left. I just sold everything and went back to New York and just started from scratch and went from zero. I've been consciously working toward this since I was about twenty-one. Six years.
JAM: Have you ever been a victim of sex discrimination in the record business? Subliminally.
Benatar: How so?
JAM: People tend to make a very big deal out of the fact that you're any good at all. And they kind of use that and blow it all of proportion which gets to be a little annoying.
Benatar: You get real sick of the sex symbol shit all the time, 'cause you, personally, are trying to do everything you can to stop it from happening. That's basically it. I mean, I don't get any discrimination when I'm like working with crews and things like that. Most people are pretty civilized and cool about it.
JAM: Do you think you've ever used your sex to get where you are?
Benatar: When I first read the first reviews and the things they wrote about my being vampish and all this stuff, I mean, you really aren't aware of it. Honestly, you're not like standing in front of a mirror the night before, practicing your moves and stuff. So it was like a surprise. I'm used to it now. I mean, they stick it in your face every day. But you've got so many things to worry about when you're up there performing and that's the furthest thing from your mind.
JAM: I've heard you quoted as saying the Pat Benatar onstage is just a character, that you're a totally different person offstage. From talking to you, I tend to believe that.
Benatar: Yeah. It's like a night and day thing. It's like being schizophrenic and it's really great. It just happens! It's always there. You know, I've talked to my mother and she laughs when she looks at my pictures of me performing. And she'll say "You look so EVIL and it's so hard to believe you're the same person." But she said I was always like that. That there were always two sides.
JAM: How does she feel about the field of music you chose?
Benatar: She really loves it. She didn't really think I'd be real good at opera only because my personality didn't match. I didn't have what was necessary for that kind of thing. (Laughing) She said I was always a little punk.
JAM: I notice on the new album you chose Keith Olsen as the producer instead of Michael Chapman, who produced your first LP. Considering Chapman's track record for putting together successful albums and the success of your first LP, didn't you think you were taking a chance by not sticking with him?
Benatar: We basically changed producers for two reasons. One was that Chapman was limited contractually to how many acts he could produce outside his label. He had his commitments to his older artists like (Suzie) Quatro. The second reason was that I wasn't so sure that I wanted to be with such an awesome personality again on the second record. Even though, you know, he's not iron-fisted or anything like that. It's just that the Chapman sound always comes through, you know?
JAM: So you feel you got quite a different sound on Crimes of Passion?
Benatar: Oh yeah, it definitely sounds different. It's just like we were live, you know? A little harder, a little more guitar oriented. It's the same group as the one on the first record except for Myron (Grombacher, on drums). He's the newest member.
JAM: Did you personally hand-pick your own band?
Benatar: Yes. Neil (Geraldo, guitars, keyboards, back-up vocals) and i together picked the group.
JAM: You seemed to come out of nowhere pretty quick with the first album last year. Were you taken aback by your sudden popularity?
Benatar: Yeah. When we did the first record, everyone including Chrysalis told us not to expect anything, 'cause the business was at a lull and there were like 300,000 girl singers releasing records. So they told us not to expect anything. And we went out on the road with that in mind and we didn't even know where the album was until it was around 28 on the charts. Because we never read Billboard or anything like that and we weren't getting reports. So it was really a shock. We knew something was up, though, because we started to sell out all the time and didn't know why.
JAM: Well, they figure there'll be nearly 70,000 people at Owen Field when you're here on September sixth.
Benatar: (Laughing) That's great!
JAM: Haven't you played in front of crowds that size before?
Benatar: Uh, no. The maximum we've done is 22,000. That's it. But once it gets past a certain number it really doesn't matter anymore. It's all the same.
JAM: What are your plans—as a musician and as a performer in general?
Benatar: I wanna continue to make contributions, musically. I'd like to write more. Now that I've gotten into it I really like it. I'd like to do films. I acted when I was younger. But that's not the priority. It would have to be something really exceptional, some kind of script that has nothing to do with rock and roll. Mainly I just want to keep puttin' out good records and not get star-struck and all that other bullshit that goes with it.