Deep Chemistry Sustains Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo

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Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo are like a lot of married couples — one will often jump in and complete the other’s sentences and thoughts as they laugh at each other’s jokes. There’s a deep chemistry between the two that’s immediately evident, and it’s something which has served the pair well, producing an impressive stack of hits that goes back to their 1979 debut In the Heat of the Night, which landed 36 years ago, generating two Top 40 hits right out of the gate — the now-classic “Heartbreaker” and “We Live For Love." It launched a streak of success that was non-stop, eventually inspiring the title of the 1985 album Seven the Hard Way — a reflection on the fact that Benatar and Giraldo had put out seven albums in six years (with six of them being studio albums, plus the live album, Live From Earth).

As Benatar recalls with a laugh, “We were tired.” Giraldo expands on the thought, “It was really difficult. We had to deliver a record every nine months and what that meant was that once you delivered a record, we went right on the road,” he explains. “So that means you’d be on the road for three to five months and then you’d have to come home [and go right back in the studio]. The amount of songs that could be written — and good songs in that period of time — was kind of limited. You only could get what you can put out. I wish we would have had more time. It worked out well, [but] I wish we had had more time to be able to write more songs so we’d have more to choose from.”

Like a lot of bands and artists in the ‘80s, Benatar and Giraldo recorded some material from outside songwriters, but the guitarist hints that the album credits didn’t tell the whole story.

“Even if we had songs from outside people, we basically rewrote them. I mean, I rewrote every song that we’ve ever had that we didn’t write ourselves. [There were] management issues, which we won’t get into at this time,” Giraldo says with a chuckle. “But no, there were other issues that we had with the record company. You know what is interesting, I was watching this Billy Idol [performance] on Guitar Center Sessions and I heard him talking and his story and our story and John Waite’s — all three stories were the same — the record company [Chrysalis Records] did exactly the same to them as they did to us and it was pretty remarkable.”

But they were living the dream, even if it was one that came with a lot of compromise. Giraldo had grown up here in Cleveland and got the music bug early on, thanks to an uncle who was only four years older than the future guitarist. “He took me to see the Who — that was my first concert,” he recalls. “I think I was 13 at the time [and the show was] at the Musicarnival, which was that venue that was in the round. It was fantastic. Then he took me to see Led Zeppelin…..every band that came through. Whenever they were here, I went to see them.”

“I’d always dreamed of starting a rock and roll band from the very beginning. I just couldn’t find the right singer,” Giraldo says. “So when the opportunity came and they said, ‘I want you to go meet this singer,’ I didn’t realize it was a girl until he told me it was a girl and then I went, ‘Oh my God.’ I wasn’t thinking about that, I thought it would be a guy and we could be like the next Who, you know? So when I went and we kind of interviewed each other, basically….that’s what it was — it wasn’t an audition, it was an interview and we talked to each one another and we said, ‘Okay, let’s make some racket together,’ and as soon as she started singing and as soon as I started playing, I knew right away what was going to happen.”

“We just pushed each other and we became each other’s muse,” he explains. “That’s really the defining part. Because it opened up the possibility for me to be able to write, arrange and produce and sculpt and be the architect of a sound that I’d always envisioned — I just didn’t have that great singer. So we made each other better and that’s kind of what it was and we never let that stop. There’s a huge amount of respect in each other from a professional standpoint as well.”

For Benatar, she had come from a different world, but she already had a keen idea where she wanted to be. “I grew up doing musical theater and classical music. But as a consumer and as a fan, I was always listening to rock and roll,” she says. “You know, Led Zeppelin was my thing and John Lennon and all of that stuff. Inside, I was always this person who wanted very much to do this kind of music, I just didn’t know how to do that. I was struggling and trying to get it — I had an idea and I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t find anybody who really was understanding what I was talking about. They couldn’t get past the way that I looked and the way that I sounded.”

“I don’t think that anybody actually believed that I could actually make the transformation,” she admits now. “But I was getting closer and when I met Spyder [Benatar’s nickname for Giraldo]. Spyder was the absolute missing piece. You know, I needed that big guitar to be able to make the vocals soar over the music.”

“If you have wimpy guitar, you can’t be blasting, so the minute he got in there and played one note, I knew he was the right person and of course I was crazy for him as well,” Benatar says with a laugh. “But musically, he was the right guy, so it happened instantly.”

Through Giraldo, Benatar would get a unique view of Cleveland early on in her career. “You know, I grew up in New York and I’d never been to the Midwest and I was madly in love with him and he was so crazy and different from everybody I’d grown up with,” she says. “I grew up in an all-Italian neighborhood and I thought, even though I was Irish and Polish, I considered myself to be Italian and I thought I was pretty Italian and knew about Italians until I went to Cleveland.”

“Until you met the family,” Giraldo adds. “Until I met the family and then it was like being in Goodfellas,” she laughs. “So it was fantastic. I mean, it was nuts and I just fell in love with the Midwest right then. Because I just loved the whole thing — it was so crazy and the audiences were rabid. They were insane and they loved rock and roll. It was really fun — I had a great time.”

You can pick a lot of songs from their collective catalog, but “Hell Is For Children” is one particular track that sticks with you after you’ve heard it. Benatar’s vocal builds and builds, eventually reaching a point where everything comes undone and her voice just shreds. It’s a moment and one that for Giraldo, even in their earliest days working together, brought an exciting realization for him as a songwriter when he realized that she could do that.

“I wouldn’t have written that song and that particular part like that if I didn’t know that I’d be able to have somebody to sing that,” he says. “Again, it was a perfect relationship, because it had everything and it was right from the beginning and we can mold it. It was great to be handed the keys to a brand new car, it’s just, ‘Okay, well here — find band members and you two are it.’ That’s really kind of what it was. What I would do, just as a little inside thing, I would find a key that was usually a terrible key for guitar, by the way...I’d find a key that really worked well for the vocal and then I’d raise it even more. I’d just keep pushing and pushing until she’d finally do it [in the key that was perfect for the song].”

Giraldo knew the right buttons to push to edge Benatar out of her normal comfort zone vocally and she welcomed the challenges. “I’m kind of lazy, because I can do pretty good at just getting by, you know what I mean? But he knew that if he pushed it, there was a whole other level that I would be able to reach with my voice,” Benatar says. “You know, it was uncomfortable and I didn’t want to go there, but he made it…..I knew that I was safe and I knew that if I went there, he would always back me up and I wouldn’t be just hanging out there. I knew I had the guitar thing going on [from Giraldo] and then I knew the arrangements would be solid. So I went for it anyway and it worked.”

Benatar and Giraldo are heading towards their fourth decade of working together, with 14 Top 40 hits to their credit that prove that their chosen formula was a good one. Many of those songs (as well as a few deeper cuts) can be found on 35th Anniversary Tour (Live), a new collection that was recorded live last year in Huntington, New York and Benatar says that the release captures the spirit of the band quite well. “You know, you don’t make music in a vacuum,” she says. “It means nothing unless you have the connection and trying to capture that on film is not always easy. Just because it’s actually happening, doesn’t mean that the person who is filming it gets it, but they actually did.”

There’s plenty of new music around the corner as well, according to Giraldo. “I must have at least a hundred songs or more written. We’ve got a ton. There’s just so many that I hope to get around to finishing,” he says. “But we’re constantly writing — I’m non-stop and Patricia jumps in when she can. She’s doing other things too. I’m working on a couple of projects that I think are fun that are worth mentioning. I’m doing a project with Scott Kempner who was with the Dictators and the Del-Lords. I’m doing a project with him and then I’m doing a project with John Waite as well. EPs. We’re all into EPs. Patricia and I are going to do an EP. EPs are the new way to go. Four songs, three times a year and at the end you get the whole CD plus some newer songs. That’s the idea.”

For the moment, fans can look forward to seeing Benatar and Giraldo together again this weekend at Hard Rock Live and it’s an experience that the veteran vocalist still finds to be an energizing one. “You know, the thing that happens for me every night when we go out, the reason that we continue to play live is because it’s never gotten old,” she says. Touring gets old and all of the crap that goes with being in the music business gets really old. But the one thing that never gets old is performing.”

Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 24, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $39.50-$65, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.


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