In the Manhattan art gallery owned by former Scandal lead singer Patty Smyth and husband John McEnroe, tennis's bad boy is raising a racket. No, not that kind of racket. "Honey! Can you turn it down?" Smyth yells to "Mac," who's wailing Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" on electric guitar. Explains Smyth: "He likes to jam."
Now, after putting her family first for more than a decade, Smyth, 51, is ready to rock again too. The woman best known for Scandal's 1984 hit "The Warrior" plans to release her first single in over 10 years, "Hard for You to Love Me," which she recorded with two former Scandal-mates. "I'm superhyped," she says. "That part of me was gone for such a long time."
Smyth got hooked on music as a kid in New York City when her mother, Betty—who raised Smyth on her own after joining the circus as a trapeze artist at age 17—let her skip school to listen to bands at the clubs she owned. "When you have a different mother, you want to be in her world," says Smyth, who sang in clubs as a teen. "Because in mine, I didn't feel like I fit in."
That all changed with Scandal's video for its 1982 hit "Goodbye to You," when the fiery, miniskirted brunette proved she meshed perfectly with MTV's mission to create insta-pop stars. When her group disbanded three years later, Smyth had enough cred to be offered David Lee Roth's vacant Van Halen spot. But she said no, in part because she was eight months pregnant.
Instead she had daughter Ruby with punk-rocker husband Richard Hell and built a solo career, which led to a hit with Don Henley and Grammy and Oscar nods. But her love life wasn't as successful: After separating from Hell in 1986, she focused on single motherhood. Then in 1993 she met McEnroe at a Christmas party in L.A. "His three kids hung onto him like monkeys," she says of Mac, then separated from his first wife, actress Tatum O'Neal. "His sweetness was surprising." McEnroe recalls that a mutual pal intended to set him up with Smyth that night but forgot to tell her. "I tried in my own pathetic way to ask Patty out," he says, "but she was going away the next day." Their first real date was nearly a year later, and she says, "I knew that night I was safe with him."
By the spring of 1995, Smyth was expecting their first daughter, Anna. "I went from one kid to five within a year and a half," says the singer of McEnroe's kids with O'Neal, Kevin, now 22, Sean, 21, and Emily, 17. "Their mom had a lot of problems" she says of O'Neal's infamous battle with drugs. "Keeping an even keel for the kids was a huge adjustment." Still, Smyth wed McEnroe in 1997, and between diapers and homework, she let her music slide. "Being a mom was a full-time job," she says. "I was never willing to sacrifice everything for my career."
Only when VH1 got Scandal back together for its 2004 series Bands Reunited did Smyth realize how much she missed performing. "My daughter Ruby said to me, 'You never sing anymore, not even around the house,'" says Smyth. "That haunted me. It's like my voice just shut off."
Now she records while Emily, Anna, 13, and Ava, 9, are in school, though her kids are never far from her mind. She even jokes about singing "The Worrier" because "I am one now." And life with a former tennis brat has its moments. "John and I scream," she says. "But I'm much quicker to anger than him. He's all talk. I'm the one yelling at people who bother us at dinner or who say mean things in the stands."
McEnroe, 50, says fatherhood keeps him mellow. "The good part of having six kids," he says, "is there's always one who wants to hug you and say, 'Daddy, I love you.'" In lieu of date nights, he and Smyth watch movies and play Scrabble with the kids. And while he's not big on flowers, she says, "He's affectionate and totally devoted." His other secret? Says McEnroe: "I'm pretty good with jewelry too."
He still needs work on one part of his game. "John is banned from playing tennis with us," says Smyth. "He tortures me. We all get too mad at him." Luckily, he has no such complaints about her singing. "It's a good time to appreciate what we have," says McEnroe, "so I'm really pushing the music thing. Do a tour!" No problem, says Smyth: "I'll keep at it until they wheel me away. I don't want to live without it ever again."