My Ohio: The Pretender

A rock ’n’ roll reverie takes the author back to his days at Kent State and memories of a now-famous
fellow undergrad.

It’s a sunny afternoon, and I’m sitting in an outdoor plaza at the small Maryland college where I teach. I’m trying to grade midterms, but it’s hard to concentrate because I’m thinking about Chrissie Hynde.

Born in Akron, Hynde graduated from Firestone High and studied art at Kent State before moving to London and eventually forming The Pretenders. Thirty years later, she is an internationally respected performer and The Pretenders is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

* * *

This sort of afternoon always takes me back to my undergraduate days at Kent State in the late 1960s. That’s when Hynde was there, too — though we never met. If only I had stayed 10 minutes longer in the library one day or gone through a cafeteria line a half-hour earlier, my life might have taken a completely different direction.

I would have been totally smitten by her industrial bad-girl look, though we wouldn’t have had much in common. She was from a big city and I was from a small town, and an art major might have found an English and anthropology major boring company. But we did share one passion: music. Despite my bespectacled, somber appearance, I was a drummer. Had we met, we might have started a band — and maybe even a rock ’n’ roll romance.

What if Chrissie Hynde had drawn me out of my bookish shell and lured me to London? Sharing a tiny Soho apartment, we’d have spent our days at the Tate Gallery and our nights playing in grungy basement clubs. Like her, I would have earned rent money as a rock journalist. She would never have taken up with the Kinks’ Ray Davies or hired drummer Martin Chambers: After all, her fellow Buckeye would already be her boyfriend and drummer. I would have supported her efforts to get band members Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott off drugs. (The two died of drug-related causes in the early ’80s.) And during subsequent decades of playing, recording and touring, I would have gotten to know Paris and Berlin as well as I know Cleveland and Columbus, all the while providing beats for Hynde and her later bandmates, guitar legends Robbie McIntosh and Adam Seymour. It would have been a great life.

* * *

At this moment, The Pretenders’ classic “Back On the Chain Gang” is playing in my head: “I found a picture of you” that took me back “to a place we’ve been cast out of.” For Chrissie Hynde, that first place was Ohio — and she never forgot her Buckeye roots. Her song “My City Was Gone,” her philanthropy and her benefit concerts are ample proof of that. Her restaurant VegiTerranean, an extension of her fervent support of animal rights, is currently helping to revitalize downtown Akron.

A profoundly sad song with a bouncy sound, “Chain Gang” is all about persevering. It is at once a poignant embrace of the past and a ringing rejection of self-pity. The song reminds me that a few people live their dreams, while the rest of us live in our dreams. Although Chrissie Hynde is the first kind of person and I’m the second, my rock-star fantasy makes me a “Pretender,” too — just the more ordinary kind.

I can’t help smiling as I return to my grading. The students walking by probably think that the English professor with the salt-and-pepper beard is pondering Shakespeare or Whitman. They’d never suspect that he’s thinking about a girl he almost knew, once upon a time in Ohio.

Jeffrey Hammond, a native of Findlay, is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.