The trip that changed my life: Chrissie Hynde discovers London

Chrissie HyndeUpdated 26th October 2015
Editor's Note — In her 2015 memoir "Reckless: My Life as a Pretender," Chrissie Hynde recounts in vivid detail leaving her home state of Ohio in search of a new life and a career in music. In this excerpt from the chapter "Limeytown!" she lands in London for the first time with "a couple hundred dollars to last me for what would turn out to be the rest of my life."

After a series of misadventures rumbling around London's mid-1970s punk rock scene, Hynde founded The Pretenders, a band that went on to sell millions of records worldwide and tour the globe performing. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005

"Reckless: My Life as a Pretender" is available in bookstores worldwide and online.
(CNN) — I stepped off the plane at Heathrow and onto English tarmac with "I-G-G-Y" on one lens of my wraparounds, and "P-O-P" on the other, written in Old English lettering, which I'd carefully applied in Halbert's white-out. I'd stitched "Bernice" on the back of my denim jacket in snakeskin. Sartorially, I was a victim of the Summit Mall, but I was trying my best to look cool enough for London. "I'm here!"
It was 1973, the month of May, the best month of my life thus far. We exited Heathrow, got in a black cab and told the driver to "Take us to a hotel in London."
My first sightings of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, cobbled streets, red pillar postboxes and phone booths and the double-decker buses driving on the wrong side of the road were more beautiful than all my schoolgirl imaginings.
It wasn't the sixties, though. Former dolly birds in miniskirts now looked like tired versions of the teenage daughters they were with. (Those mother-and-daughter sets seemed to be everywhere.) Girls walked arm in arm with each other in a way I could never imagine doing with my pals. (Walk arm in arm with Annie down Copley Road? Good Lord, no. She'd think I'd gone crazy.)
We passed a hundred pubs, their amber lights ever so inviting. I tried to peer in and get a good look at every traffic light. "Old boys," men in pubs, didn't seem to mind sharing the bar with people half their age. I would soon discover that they all bopped along to the same music on the jukebox like it was perfectly normal. It seemed kind of freaky. A man my dad's age listening to the same music as me? Very strange.
The cabbie dropped us at a bed and breakfast in Bayswater. The Lion Court Hotel was more of a student hostel than a hotel, with shoes drying on window ledges, bunk beds and cheap towels.
I hadn't brought much: a few changes of clothes and the three records I didn't feel I could leave behind -- "White Light/White Heat," "Raw Power" and "Fun House." I had a couple hundred dollars to last me for what would turn out to be the rest of my life. I needed to find a job.
We stashed our suitcases and walked up Queensway to the Bayswater Road (not "Bayswater Road," but "the Bayswater Road") and wandered along a parade of outdoor market stalls selling paintings and handbags and crafts. I'd never seen anything like it before. This was real Alice in Wonderland stuff for sure. I went from stall to stall and asked anybody I could collar if there was a job going. We ended up with some sleazebag back in the Lion Court Hotel.
The following day, I started my first job, selling handbags in an indoor market called Point on Oxford Street, near Tottenham Court Road. There were about 30 stalls specializing in all sorts: cheesecloth shirts; "loons" (bell-bottoms); Indian scarves and incense; smoking paraphernalia.

An American in London

There was a protocol for everything that I had to learn. For example, you'd never walk into a "newsagent" and say, "Gimme a pack of Rothmans!" That would be considered rude. You'd have to say, "May I have a box of Rothmans, please, and some matches." Writing about it now, it all seems so insignificant, but it was the beginning of my assimilation into English life. After all, immigrants have to learn the language.
My stall in Point was at the back, and I would sit there quietly fascinated all day, watching people mill around. English people: lank-haired guys with seedy complexions wearing short brown leather bomber jackets with lousy collars; girls in flowered dresses and wavy, nondescript haircuts that owed nothing to Vidal Sassoon. It looked like the sixties had been hijacked by the Amish. I didn't see one Jean Shrimpton lookalike -- not a nod to anything that so much as hinted at Terence Stamp.
Still, even the most dowdy English were more glamorous than anyone at the Summit Mall. Everyone was underweight with undernourished, pallid skin tones, greenish in hue. But anything was always going to be better than bulging stomachs spilling over the waistbands of polyester slacks or "shorts," an unfortunate American craze virtually unknown to the English. Best of all were the shoe stalls. Debbie Smith would have gone crazy.
By day three I met some guys who took me to a pub, and I discovered that pubs didn't serve wine. Maybe a bottle of sherry was stashed behind the counter for the publican's wife, but it was mainly beer, which they drank warm. If I'd served warm beer at any establishment I ever worked in I'd have been out on my ear. They didn't seem to mind.
Even a Coke came without ice. Nobody was bothered. I asked for a tequila and that too drew a blank. "Okay, then, I'll have a whisky." That was when I noticed old boys in flat caps side by side with teenagers listening to the latest charts: Wizzard, Peters and Lee, Alvin Stardust, David Essex. Weird!
There were pictures at every newsstand of the hairy-chested Gary Glitter, shirt unbuttoned. He was on the cover of all the teeny-bopper magazines! Why would a teenage girl want to look at that? Where was Marc Bolan? I thought girls wanted effete little things, not big, burly, manly-looking men. It was outrageous!
London was throwing a lot of curveballs I didn't see coming, but I didn't care. The weirder it got, the more I loved it. Yes, I was in love with it.
Chrissie Hynde
Biba on Kensington High Street: "It was the best place I'd ever seen. You could get blue lipstick and purple nail polish and all sorts of metallic clothes."
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Getty Images

New language

You never asked for "the bathroom" in a public place unless you wanted a bath. If you wanted to relieve yourself you asked for "the toilet." You could never say that in the States. It was starting to occur to me that Americans had odd habits too. Seeing them from a new perspective was fun. (Why would you ask for a bath when you wanted a toilet?)
I'd never been on an overground or underground train before. At the "top" of my new street, Englewood Road, there was a "Tube station," which was what they called the subway. Crazy language was English in the hands of the English.
I could jump over the turnstiles at Clapham South and go anywhere I wanted on the Northern line for free, as long as I didn't get caught. I didn't get caught -- I couldn't afford to get caught. I had to be frugal and careful.
Public transport! (What genius thought that one up? When the word got out in America, they'd all want it!) I could now go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The days of waiting for someone to pick me up in a car were over. For the first time I felt like my own person; I didn't have to answer to anyone. It felt so right, like something I'd been waiting all my life for.
Civilization: you could smoke on the top deck of the bus; you could smoke in movie theaters too. They called them cinemas -- how quaint. (Everyone coughing their lungs out.) You could drink alcohol in public; the bottle didn't need to be concealed in a brown paper bag.

Local talent

Chrissie Hynde
Carnaby Street: "It wasn't the sixties, though. Former dolly birds in miniskirts now looked like tired versions of the teenage daughters they were with."
Graham French/BIPs/Getty Images
A self-proclaimed DJ came into the market one day. Disc jockeys in England weren't just on the radio; they could play records at parties or events. He was a sixties type -- lanky, checked suit, gray teeth, thin colorless hair, vestiges of acne -- nothing special but a look I found to my taste. A two-bit hustler, he claimed he could get me a job in a clothing store: "Mates by Irvine Sellar."
"You need to get onto a good scene," he kept telling me.
He wasn't on one himself, as it turned out. He never got me the job, but one afternoon took me by his folks' council flat. (What we Americans would call "the projects," except this was where a variety of working-class people lived, not just those on welfare -- socialism!) I waited in the living room with his brother, who was watching a horse race on the TV.
"Do you like horses?" I asked, excited to meet a fellow enthusiast.
"Only when they win," he replied, disdainfully.
Betting on horses was an everyday pursuit for millions of English. Betting shops were on every corner of every high street. Men, old and young alike, spilled out of them and into the nearest pub.
I lost the job selling handbags in the market when I stopped showing up. I didn't even go to collect my wage. I never sold a bag anyway.
Everything was in black and white, even television. I was walking past an appliance shop with a guy one day who stopped and pointed to the window, saying, "That's what I want, one of those."
I couldn't work out what he was talking about -- I presumed he already had a television -- but he was pointing to a color one. Good grief -- it was a new thing.

Almost perfect

Every part of town had a High Street, local shops like a mini-downtown in every neighborhood, all of which had their own names and personalities, all different. Kensington High Street, St. John's Wood High Street (I remembered that name from the Stones song "Play with Fire"), Kilburn High Road, Shoreditch High Street: the list was endless; they were all places in which to hang out and shop and drink and eat and buy flowers.
When I saw the destination Muswell Hill on a bus I jumped on and rode to the end of the line, where I wandered around knowing that Ray and Dave Davies must have walked there too. London -- I was a kid in a toy store.
I found every aspect of the city totally fascinating. I woke up every morning, a girl in love -- at that stage of love where the object of desire has no faults.
Next door to Kensington Market was a huge emporium, a clothes store called Biba. It was the best place I'd ever seen. You could get blue lipstick and purple nail polish and all sorts of metallic clothes. It was the place that Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" would have hung out, and, for me, something of a concession for missing out on the sixties London that I mourned.
Life was almost perfect and I knew it.