Meeting Pat Benatar
The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comes to Cleveland
Back in 1999, on a cold Chicago February day, I stood in line for several hours in front of the Tower Records on Clark Street with my new musician and artist boyfriend Rob. At least 100 people stood in front of us, with many more behind us, forming a curved queue spiraling around the small park adjacent to the two story urban retail mall and its adjacent staircase to the front doors of the second floor music shop. This was before iPods and cell phones. This was before people truly lived in their own worlds and, therefore, to pass the time, had to make conversation with their neighbors. Some of these folks were in their twenties, some in their forties, some older and some in between. Some dressed that day in their usual Gap inspired beige attire, while others went full punk: black torn clothes, pink hair, Doc Martins, Harley jackets, the works.
So there we all were – drinking hot cocoa, keeping warm by one thought: we were all about to meet Blondie. That year, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke reunited to release No Exit, their first new album in over a decade, and, to promote the new tracks, the band went on tour, to do CD signings and performances. I can clearly recall the anticipation of reaching the table where all four members sat and my inner seven year old – the age I first heard “Heart of Glass” – being giddy about meeting these living legends. Surprisingly, each of them, especially Debbie, was kind, gracious and polite. All four members generously signed my CD jacket and, as Rob, in his own expressive style, snapped up photos with my analog camera, the band smiled, accepting its newfound musical resurrection.
A decade later, I had a similar, but different experience meeting another strong woman rock ‘n roller: Pat Benatar. The first woman performer on MTV, Pat’s songs both empowered and forewarned teenage girls and their mothers. From percussively driven “Heartbreaker” to the guitar riffing “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” to the lush and baladesque “We Belong Together,” Pat’s songs were pure rock ‘n roll. Then “Love is Battlefield” came along and created the new anthem for women. While the decade’s earlier Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” echoed the still new feminist time, “Battlefield” gave women the permission to take accountability for their own personal lives, damn the disapproving consequences. To this day, when women, of all ages, hear that song, the volume is cranked and voices from all over the world sing out loud with it, declaring their unapologetic presence.
Petite, gorgeous and with opera range vocal chops, the marriage of Benatar and MTV created the perfect platform for a music career that has so far spanned three decades and resulted in four Grammy Awards, twenty million records and nearly twenty songs that hit the Top 40. Not too shabby for a part Polish part Dutch part Irish and even part Native American girl from Brooklyn who successfully pursued and achieved the big dream, on her terms, in what is still a man’s world.
Despite all these accolades, shockingly, the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame has not yet inducted Benatar. Given that women represent a tiny fraction of inductees, this shouldn’t come as much surprise. But, Pat is her own success story and has accomplished more than the average woman or man ever will. Pat still tours, belting the songs her audience loves and, this summer, in addition to performing here in Cleveland with REO Speedwagon, she also held a book signing for her new memoir “Pat Benatar: Between a Heart and a Rock Place.”
Knowing this would be an incredible opportunity to meet one of the few real women in rock ‘n roll, on four hours of sleep, I arrived at the Borders in Westlake at 7:20AM for the 9AM ticket giveaway. At 11:30 I returned and, a little while later, the store’s security guard began to give instructions: line up in ticket order number (mine was 17), do not take any photos and only books will be signed, nothing else. By this point my iPhone and all its apps began to bore me, so I started chatting up with the other people in line. I also saw a woman, seated on a store bench next to where I was standing, signing two books.
I immediately struck up a conversation with the woman who turned out to be Deanna R. Adams, also a writer and author of “Rock ‘N’ Roll and the Cleveland Connection”, a 624 page historical dissection of Cleveland’s musical roots – including Trent Reznor, Joe Walch and The Dead Boys. She’s even had the pleasure of interviewing Pat Benatar’s husband, guitarist and producer Neil “Spyder” Giraldo, a local native from Parma.
“It was easy to connect with him. I interviewed him in 97 or 98. He answered (the call). He was open and easy to talk to. Pat was out of town. He was watching his kids. At one point he even said, ‘My daughter is getting into something.’ He was friendly, sociable and open.” He gave her an hour of his time, which was more than what she expected, and he elaborated on his answers. “His first band, Lover’s Lane, used to perform at the (now closed) Viking Saloon (here in Cleveland). He talked about his early days, including taking guitar lessons and about his uncle who had rock albums and took him to concerts, influencing him.”
Adams’ favorite story is retelling how Neil met Pat Benatar. “In the early 70’s he started playing outside of Cleveland. He went to NYC where he toured with Rick Derringer. Then, just as he was supposed to return home, he received a call from a Chrysalis Records A&R man looking for guitarist for female singer. Spyder agreed to do the audition. The rest is history. He and Pat clicked right away. He really liked the fast energy of the punk bands. She was more contemporary and pop so it was nice medium.“
Pat discusses the same story in her book, in the very first chapter, and attributes her long lasting career to this union. This is what makes her so unique. While Debbie Harry and Chris Stein had an on again and off again relationship and while Akron’s own Chrissie Hynde has been married and divorced from several rock stars, Benatar met her life’s love early and, over the past thirty years, not only have they maintained a solid union, but they also raised two daughters. The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll figured out how to do both: superstar success in her craft and a healthy, happy and private personal life.
As I finally approached Benatar in the bookstore that day, and saw her – petite, pretty and content – my heart escalated. And, when she shook my hand and smiled, I saw the woman behind all those videos, all those songs and all those empowering lyrics. I saw a woman who has, in fact, done it all, successfully, massively and on her own terms. Perhaps a certain Hall of Fame will finally take notice.