Chrissie Hynde on her hometown, vegetarianism and celebrity culture

Dan Kane

It’s only because Chrissie Hynde cherishes the Akron, Ohio, she grew up in that she is so exasperated with the place now.

Hynde, who recently turned 56, likes to walk. She likes public transportation.

She likes a bustling downtown. She hates mall culture. She is an outspoken vegetarian.

Yet her dogged civic pride and yearning to make a difference outweigh her blunt critiques of meat-eaters and the Rubber City.

Hynde is a partner in a new vegetarian restaurant called VegiTerranean that is located in the Northside Lofts condo complex near Luigi’s in downtown Akron. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is Sept. 15 at 4 p.m.; the place will open for business in mid-October.

Also on Sept. 15, she will headline a “Chrissie Hynde & Friends” benefit concert for the Akron Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. at the Civic. Among other acts on the bill is the Numbers Band, which features Hynde’s brother Terry on saxophone. Chrissie and a guitarist will play an acoustic set.

The tough ’n’ tender frontwoman of long-lived, U.K.-based band The Pretenders -- a 2005 inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- she just completed a six-week concert tour with co-headliners ZZ Top and the Stray Cats.

Hynde, who lives in London, was in Manhattan Tuesday morning when she phoned for an expansive and highly candid conversation that lasted nearly an hour. We talked little of music, although she did express admiration for the talents of Macy Gray, Amy Winehouse and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. This writer (and devoted fan) was on cloud nine throughout. Excerpts follow.

You’re playing a benefit concert for the Civic Theatre. Do you have fond memories of the place from growing up?

Yeah, I went there to see Jackie Wilson, which was one of the greatest days of my life. Me and my girlfriend were the only two white girls in the audience and they dragged me onstage and he kissed me onstage. The whole audience fell silent.

Wow. How old were you?

I was about 15. No one was more shocked than me. I don’t think I’d ever been kissed. I feel like I was anointed, because he was one of the great, great, great singers ever.

The vegetarian restaurant you are launching, how did that come about?

It’s because there’s nowhere in Akron for me to eat. It’s one of the last cities in America that doesn’t have a vegetarian restaurant, for some reason. Yes, there’s restaurants that have vegetarian menus, but a vegetarian menu in a meat restaurant is not an option. As far as we’re concerned, the kitchen is contaminated, and we won’t eat there.

So now you’re Chrissie Hynde, restaurateur.

I’m not a restaurateur. I’ve got no interest in business. I’ve got other things to do -- I’m going in this month to start recording an album. Frankly, I’m a little resentful that it took me to do this. Can’t someone who has an interest in the vegetarian lifestyle and lives in Akron do it? But they haven’t, so I have, and it’s a privilege and an honor. Encouraging

vegetarianism is my real raison d’être.

Can you tell me anything about the menu at VegiTerranean?

Dan Duplain, who has Fideli’s in Canton, is my partner, so it will be a sort of hybrid between Fideli’s and a vegetarian restaurant. And no animals get killed. Mainly, everything will have a vegan option. We’ll try to stay organic. I was told going vegan would be too radical for Akron, but we’ll try to keep it that way so as not to support the meat or dairy industries.

How long have you been a vegetarian?

Since 1969, before I left Akron. In downtown Akron, there used to be a health-food store called Alexander’s, and I used to go down there because that’s the only place where you could get a loaf of whole-meal bread. I used to walk up and down the aisles, and I was enthralled with the fact that there were companies producing alternative food. In other words, not lunch meat.

Downtown Akron was a bustling place, wasn’t it?

I started going to downtown Akron in the ’50s when I was a little girl and that was a huge treat for me to go to (department stores) Polsky’s and O’Neil’s at Christmas and see the Christmas lights. Then a weird thing happened in the late ’60s and the ’70s. They started closing down all the train stations, and then black people started moving in, then white people fled to the outer regions, the suburbs, and the landlords just started letting the place decay. Then they started putting in these weird innerbelts which lead nowhere.

You famously wrote about it in “My City Was Gone.”

Like most young people, I wanted to go out and see the world, so I went out and did my thing. Then I came back to downtown Akron, and I stood in the street and just cried. Everything I loved had been torn down and destroyed.

It’s happened in so many cities across the country.

When I wrote that song, I know people in Ohio thought it was criticizing them, but that’s a small-town mentality. I was just pointing out the way I saw things. If you leave somewhere and become successful, everyone resents you. People say, “Look at her, she left.” But Akron wasn’t the best place to get a band together, certainly not as good as London back in the punk days.

I mean, where would you want to be in 1977, London or Akron? I was hanging out with Sid Vicious and John Rotten and The Clash.

Now that you have a business venture in Akron, will you spend more time here?

I would like to think so. My friends and family are there. I think that Northeast Ohio is the most beautiful part of America, and I love it with my heart and soul. But I can’t live my life in a car, not walking anywhere, and going to malls. It does my head in. I feel like I’m losing my mind after about two days. When I bring people to Akron, they’re amazed, like “Where’s all the people?” You can drive all around Akron for hours and not see

anybody because everyone’s either in a car or in the house or at the mall.

And what happens is that everyone becomes isolated, they don’t communicate.

You’ve been in the public eye since 1980. Are you at ease with your stardom?

(Laughs) I’m a horrible celebrity. It creeps me out. If I’m walking from the backstage to my coach at night and someone wants my autograph, I’m happy to give it to them because that’s the deal. But if someone comes up to me in public it makes my skin crawl, especially if they want a photograph. People act like you’re public property or a monument. I hate the celebrity culture and I loathe it from the bottom of my soul. I want to sit on a doorstep and eat a slice of pizza with everyone else. I refuse to travel with bodyguards.

The only way you can be an artist is if you mix with ordinary people and observe real life.

Dan Kane is entertainment editor for the Canton Repository.