Pat Benatar’s life philosophy is simple: If you find a trail with no barriers, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.
Indeed, the rock 'n’ roll rebel and four-time Grammy winner remains a self-assured, constructive artist. Not many inhabit the full range of the American popular-song repertoire like Benatar, and precious few possess her versatility, style and charm.
Benatar, a classically trained mezzo-soprano, dominated the 1980s pop charts with songs such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” “We Belong,” and “Invincible.” One of MTV’s earliest, and most frequently played artists, she delivered exactly what she was supposed to: a memorable glitz fest that was a pure pleasure to hear. Behind the impression of flicker and flare, the Brooklyn-born Patricia Andrzejewski widened a passageway for other female rockers.
Thanks to Benatar and others, the obligation to preface her introduction with the word female seems obsolete.
“I actually don’t mind having the word female put in front of my name or the words female artist when they are put together,” said Benatar, 64. “It doesn’t bother me. But that’s just as long as it is not in a gender limiting or a derogatory way. But it’s a label that just isn’t used anymore, where now we are just musicians, or players, or thinkers.”
Benatar started singing in elementary school and worked on her craft throughout her teenage years spent on Long Island. Her love of music began in imitation and ended in innovation.
“Growing up in New York, I was exposed to many different kinds of music,” said Benatar. “I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin, to the Beatles, and Motown, and everything had an influence. The Four Tops, John Lennon and there were lots of great songs that wove together (my influences).”
At 19, she dropped out of college to marry her high school sweetheart, Dennis Benatar (the couple divorced in 1979). In 1973, she quit her job as a bank teller to pursue a singing career after being inspired by a Liza Minnelli concert she watched in Richmond, Virginia.
“I remember sitting there and she came out and she started to sing and dance,” recalled Benatar. “I remember thinking, I can do this!” I started singing and that was the beginning of that path. I joined Coxon’s Army (a Richmond-based lounge band) and we were popular regionally, and, at the height of 1974, I was making $1,000 a week, which was a lot for a 22-year-old person.”
Benatar realized that a key ingredient in her self-invention would rely on her willingness to challenge authority, break rules and embrace her feelings of disruption. In 1975, she packed everything she owned into her Honda Civic and returned to New York City, alone, with approximately $2,500 stuffed in her belongings.
“In Richmond, we were at the pinnacle of the band, and we began to become successful, though I felt as if I needed to go to New York,” said Benatar. “People in Richmond said, ‘you are crazy’ and ‘you’ll be back.’ But that never happened.”
Subsequently, Benatar auditioned at an open mic night at Catch a Rising Star, a chain of entertainment clubs founded in New York City. She was number 27 and entered the stage at around 2 a.m. Benatar’s spirited rendition of Judy Garland’s “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” was a hit. When the band finished, the owner, Rick Newman, asked her if he could become her first manager.
Benatar’s stylish spandex-clad stage persona became a visual and cultural sensation — and her signature look.
In spring 1979, Benatar met guitarist Neil Giraldo in a rehearsal room at SIR studios in New York City; their private and professional bonds were instantaneous. (The couple wed in 1982.)
“We have two daughters,” said Benatar. “The older one is 32 and the little one is 23. YouTube has been an endless stream of torture for both of us (Neil and I). I hear things like, ‘Mom you wore that!’ It provides an endless stream of fun for them, and torture for us.”
The 1980 Grammy winning album, “Crimes of Passion,” included Benatar’s first Top 10 inclusion “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which reached quintuple platinum. Of the 10 Grammy Award ceremonies in the 1980s, Benatar was nominated nine times, even winning four consecutive awards for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
“Looking back, it’s amazing considering that Neil was willing to go down that path with me,” said Benatar. “He was 22 and he was a brilliantly talented man who chose to partner with a strong female as his equal, and he decided that he wanted to be in a band together. He was a young boy and he had no ego or any qualms about a strong female as his partner, and he didn’t care that I was not a dude.
“I was so emboldened at that time by where the country was with the women’s movement and I was something of a militantly crazy feminist. I didn’t want to be a girl who was in the audience looking at these guys, the first one off to the backstage with them. I did not want to be the lone girl singing in the band. I wanted to be the band. I wanted to be Mick Jagger. I wanted to be Robert Plant. Neil said, ‘You’ll be Mick and I’ll be Keith,’ and it worked.”
In 1999, Benatar and Giraldo opened the vaults and compiled an extensive three-CD collection and, in August 2003, Benatar released Go, her most recent album of new songs. Benatar released her long-awaited autobiography, “Between a Heart and a Rock Place,” in 2010.
Passion for music and commitment to their uniquely intertwined chemistry imbues meaning to Benatar’s and Giraldo’s lives. They share a nearly 40-year-long vow to one another and to their collective musical expression.
“It’s lovely to reminiscence and to talk about what has been the really rich tapestry of my past life and to also see the changes that that past life has brought. It is wonderful to go back and look, because it really has influenced everything that has come after, leading to now.”
While Benatar conceded that it is a complicated tightrope to balance performance, family and individuality, she has a hard time attributing credit to the enduringly successful nature of each. Moreover there is something special about her longevity with Giraldo that beckons a constant line of questioning.
“That’s the 65 million dollar question that people ask me every day,” said Benatar. “Yes, Neil and I’s marriage is an anomaly in some ways. But professional people exist just like us. I think that if you are busy having this kind of (committed) life, then you are busy having it. That means that if you are busy keeping it together, then you don’t make much noise. The noisy ones perhaps aren’t so busy keeping things together.
“We’ve worked our professional lives into our family lives, and we are extremely diligent to keep good control, meaning that family and personal relationships come first. We never let music or our professional lives step in front of our family life — and you have to be extremely dedicated (to that choice). It doesn’t matter what your gig is, because there are people across the world that make this same choice every day. You have challenges, and you make decisions, like choosing between something that will advance your career or attending a soccer game.”
Benatar said she tries to tightly attune herself to both the harmonic and the physical aspects of her profession.
“There is a physical element to singing, which for the singer is similar to the guitar player’s hands and fingers and all of the occupational stuff that happens to them.
“Singing is a lot like being athletic, like running, and we all go through changes physiologically. But I feel lucky and blessed, possibly it's genetics too, and I’ve taken the training, and I protect myself always," she continued. "The universe gave me a good instrument, and, sure, there are some physical limitations and changes going into age 65 — you get a little more tired. I’ve gone from four shows in a row to three, but now it is two in a row and then a day off. With singing, your breathing and your core gets tired, it’s like running for 90 minutes or for two hours, and it’s a physical marathon. But the biggest change now for me is the recovery time. I think it helps that I’m a homeopathic girl, no drinking, and no smoking.”
Ultimately, one cannot halt the insidiousness of creeping time. But one can stay true to their voice, their work, their purpose and their own dignity and desires.
“My voice is still the same,” said Benatar. “My voice is still comfortable with most of the songs, and I can still sing comfortably in almost all of the original recording keys. With the songs that my voice is not as comfortable, we can lower the keys a half step.”