By Adam Waldman
Forty years ago today, Pat Benatar released her debut album, In the Heat of the Night. A few months later, around the time of my eleventh birthday, I heard “Heartbreaker” on Long Island’s premier rock station, WBAB. I was instantly hooked on that voice and the energy of the song. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for Benatar to hear her song on the radio station that is only a few miles from her childhood home in Lindenhurst.
“Heartbreaker” was my favorite song throughout my last year of elementary school. For some reason, I still have the blue autograph book with the gold zipper around it from June of 1980. Except for the signatures of my friends, I left most of the pages blank. The exception being the list of my favorite things. Under favorite song – “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar. My schoolboy crush was real. And that was before realizing that she was a Long Island girl.
Schoolboy fantasies are just that. In reality, Benatar found love much closer to home (so to speak) with her guitarist, Neil Giraldo. In 1997, I was fortunate to meet them both and spend some time talking music when they came up to Billboard Magazine to play an acoustic set in our sterile, fluorescent lit conference room. The antithesis of a rock and roll venue, but they made it feel like one with inspired playing and beautiful chemistry.
Even then, you could just tell that this was a couple that was meant to be. Their bond went well beyond music collaboration. I can’t remember every song that they played. The one that sticks out most was “Strawberry Wine.” At the time, they were promoting Innamorata.
My schoolboy crush had long since subsided by the time that I met this power couple. I was already with the girl that I would eventually marry…the girl who would become the mother of my children. She wasn’t a rock star, or even a musician for that matter, but she grew up in the same town as Benatar. Different schools, and a few decades apart, but like Giraldo, I had my south shore girl.
By 1997, the rock world had changed. The MTV era where music videos reigned was over. It was past the time period where Benatar scored numerous hits. Still, for my money, she was the standard by which all other female rock vocalists were measured. There have been many great ones since, but she is still my favorite.
Somehow, despite growing up on Long Island, the only time that I ever saw her perform live was in a conference room. That is until this past weekend when the Pat Benatar/Neil Giraldo 40th Anniversary Tour came to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in the Catskills.
On a stage that felt enormous with only a four-piece band and no elaborate set, the show began in an unusual way. An announcer stated that phones and cameras were not permitted for use during the show. With a bit of levity, we were encouraged to live in the moment. A throwback to the golden era when the MTV Generation illuminated the darkness of concert halls with nothing more than cigarette lighters. Others were probably disappointed, but the restriction was music to my ears.
If “Heartbreaker” is the song of my youth, “All Fired Up” is the song that resonates with me most these days because of the lyrics. It was a great opener to set the tone for the evening. Even if you didn’t know that Benatar and Giraldo were a couple, you could feel the chemistry between them from the moment they took the stage. The feel-good melody brought instant joy to the crowd, especially my south shore girl whose singing and dancing brought me back in time to our carefree beginnings.
It’s hard to believe that we had never seen Benatar together while living on Long Island. Seeing her perform for the first time at Bethel Woods, a favorite venue of ours where many memories have been made, is almost as good as seeing a hometown show.
Before playing “Invincible,” Benatar dedicated the song to all of her sisters in the audience. In the current climate, it was extra special to have my favorite female vocalist of all-time singing an anthem of female empowerment. As a husband and father of a daughter, it meant just as much to me to be a part of the moment as the “sisters” in the audience.
Even though this anniversary tour was billed as “electric,” we were treated to a taste of The Duo Shows that Benatar and Giraldo perform acoustically. The format is a bit more intimate as stories behind the songs are shared. It took me back to that conference room show in 1997, albeit without the extreme intimacy.
During this part of the show, we got to experience the obvious affection that the duo has for each other. Benatar lovingly talking about her man “Spider.” Giraldo did the same for “Patricia.” The moniker didn’t come across as him being formal, just having his own name for the love of his life. She’s already “Pat” to the rest of the world.
What shined most during this part of the show is Giraldo’s gregarious personality. He was in his early forties when we met once upon a time. Now in his early sixties, he still exudes a kind of magnetic cool that draws you in. Silver hair, tattoo sleeves covering both arms, stylish shoes that harken back to another era, yet still feeling very much of the moment. Oh yeah, he’s also a badass, underrated guitar player who adds beautiful piano parts when called upon. On top of all of the obvious attributes is his ability to buck conventional trends and come up with inventive parts that others would shy away from. Fearless tinkering is how he created the instantly recognizable intro of “We Belong.”
For the first time in a decade, the duo played “Treat Me Right.” It wasn’t the infectious pop rock sound from the classic Crimes of Passion album though. The unplugged version of the song was more of the seductive, sultry jazz variety.
In my youth, I never really knew the meaning behind “Hell is for Children,” but I sang it with intense passion just the same. Truth be told, I couldn’t possibly have grasped the gravity of the lyrics during such a carefree time of life. As a parent, it resonates with me on a totally different level. Benatar introduced this fan favorite by saying that it saddened her that she still needs to sing it nearly four decades after its release. From my vantage point, it seemed even more relevant now than ever given what is going on with innocent immigrant children. As much as I love the song, the dichotomy of hearing it performed live in the place that was the epicenter of peace and love in 1969 was not lost on me.
Wearing an MTV t-shirt to the concert, a smile came to my face when Benatar introduced “You Better Run” as the second song ever played on the channel back in August of 1981. It may have been her first video played, but certainly not the most memorable. That honor belongs to “Love is a Battlefield,” a video so deliciously ‘80s that it is ingrained in the psyche of an entire generation. To say that there was pure elation on my wife’s face during the song that closed out the pre-encore set is not being hyperbolic.
The first encore was unexpected, but beautiful and poignant just the same. It wasn’t one of the plethora of hits that Benatar has had throughout her illustrious career, rather a new piano ballad called “After the Fall” (from a musical that the duo has just completed writing). Even though it’s new, the story behind the song gave it a nostalgic feel. When it ended, my wife and I agreed that we definitely want to see the musical. I think that we’ve seen two or three since meeting in the early ‘90s.
The night closed with the song that started it all for Benatar (and me). But this wasn’t the exact replication of what is memorialized in my sixth grade autograph book. The middle of “Heartbreaker” took a brief detour into a “Ring of Fire” before coming back to the original. The perfect ending to a night that was long overdue for the couple in the audience whose journey began in the same town where Benatar grew up.
Through the years, we have gone to countless shows together, but this is the first time that our rock and roll love story intersected with (arguably) the greatest one in the history of rock and roll.