Partners in Power Rock
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For the love of all that is holy, when will Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Of course for many, Pat Benatar is a solo act, a powerhouse singer whose voice belies her petite stature. But while the billing has evolved over the years to include Giraldo, the partnership has been at the core of her success since 1979. By the time they celebrated their 35th anniversary in 2014, most of those as a married couple in addition to musical partners, their names were appearing on all concert listings together, reflecting the duo’s success together. Although they do acoustic shows on their own, they’ll be bringing the band next week when they visit Fort Wayne’s Foellinger Theatre. Fans can expect to see all the hits with plenty of power behind Benatar’s voice.
Before Giraldo was in the picture, Benatar was already performing in New York, trying to catch a break. She had the voice but hadn’t found her footing as a performer yet. But as she recounts in her 2010 memoir Between a Heart and a Rock Place, one Halloween she participated in a costume contest in black spandex and heavy eye makeup, an homage to the campy sci-fi films she loves. That night, she jumped on stage to perform still wearing her costume, and that decision turned the corner for her performance approach.
“That night, though, something changed,” she wrote. “I don’t know if it was because I felt like I was playing a role or I simply removed my personal shell, but I had a newfound bravado, a sexual swagger that wasn’t there before. The notes were the same, but they had an attitude to them, an aggression. In the years since I’ve returned to that night countless times, and even now I’m not totally sure what prompted the change inside me. I’d been on that stage for months, and I’d had the spotlight on me for years, never before had I owned the stage like I did that Halloween.”
Shortly after that night, she began feeling bold enough to seek out songwriters for original material, preparing demos for record companies to hear and scheduling showcases for talent hunters. Having landed with Chrysalis, she quickly found herself in the same situation as many women before her, struggling to be heard in a man’s world. She had one vision for her music, but the record company had another. That’s when Giraldo came into the picture and helped turn things around.
“I’m just going to put this out there once and for all: without Neil Giraldo (or ‘Spyder’ as I’d later dub him), my career would not have happened,” she wrote. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had any success as the pop princess Chrysalis wanted. But I never would have succeeded to the degree I did, made the strides for women, been part of the eighties rock movement, had my face on MTV, won four Grammys, sold millions of records, and still been around thirty years later without the genius and heart of that man. Because I am not responsible for it; we are responsible for it, all of it.”
Quickly out of the gate, first with In the Heat of the Night in 1979 then with Crimes of Passion in 1980, she started cranking out hard-edged songs of determination and strength. “Heartbreaker,” “Treat Me Right,” and an edgy cover of the Rascals hit “You Better Run” not only set the tone sonically but visually as her image began coming to people via a new marketing angle: music videos. As Benatar likes to point out in concerts, “You Better Run” was the second video ever played on MTV and the first was “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a song that featured no guitars, so Giraldo was the first guitarist on MTV. But no one was looking at him too much yet, and Benatar had to fight to make sure that the record company was promoting her music rather than her physical attributes. As she looked over album covers that were being considered for Crimes of Passion, which all featured her in a tight tank top with skinny spaghetti straps, she realized they weren’t respecting her music or her band.
“While it was nice enough for what it was,” she wrote, “it had absolutely nothing to do with anything. There was no link to the material on the record, and more important, there was no link to the collaborative process that had gone into making the record. My intention had been to elevate the band’s position on the cover because they were such an integral part of what we were doing on the record. The cover art he brought that day only had photos of me — good photos, sure, but totally irrelevant to the content of the record.”
To make matters worse, in some promotional materials Chrysalis airbrushed out the tank top altogether, not only making her seem nude but amplifying her cleavage as well. As galling as all of that was, the couple also received pushback when it was discovered that they were romantically involved. While it turned out their concerns were somewhat justified — they did hit a rough patch and split for a short time — the couple made lemonade out of the situation with songs from Precious Time, particularly the classic “Promises in the Dark” resulting from those troubles.
By the time the couple reunited, Benatar was the hottest woman in rock, a baton she has not entirely passed along. She and Giraldo continue to perform and record new music. In 2017 the pair partnered with Linda Perry to write “Shine,” a song intended to provide an anthem for the Women’s March in January of last year. The trio also contributed “Dancing to the Wreckage” to a documentary, Served Like a Girl. Perry commented last year on Benatar’s career and legacy.
“When I was younger, I remember singing ‘Heartbreaker,’” Perry said. “When it came on the radio, I was like, ‘What is this? This is awesome!’ She came representing something. There was nothing vague about what she was going to accomplish. She entered and she entered strong. She’s one of the biggest female empowerment women out there.”
A lengthy and successful discography, a pile of awards and acknowledgements, millions of fans around the world, and a legacy of female empowerment in a man’s world — if that doesn’t all spell Hall of Fame career, it would be hard to know what does. But regardless, Benatar knows what she has accomplished.
“I’ve nothing left to prove,” she wrote in her memoir, “which is probably the most liberating feeling in the world. I’m not holding on for dear life, trying to recapture some fleeting moment that’s long since evaporated. Over the past thirty-one years I have been a singer, a lover, a businesswoman, a daughter, a friend, a wife, a mother, and yes, sometimes even a rock star. In my journey I tried my best to honor all of these things. In the end, I suppose that’s all that’s really required.”