Sunday, October 14, 2012
Cyndi Lauper: Author (Ava and C.I.)
She bop and now she write a book. We're talking about Cyndi Lauper who worked the East Coast music scene for years until she got a shot at a solo album and, in 1983, finally became one of the most famous singers in the world.
The album was She's So Unusual and the title was simply elegant in a way that her new volume is as well. Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, written by Lauper and journalist Jancee Dunn, tells Cyndi's story in a straightforward voice that pulls you in from the first paragraph:
I left home at seventeen. I took a paper bag with a toothbrush, a change of underwear, an appl, and a copy of Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit. Grapefruit had become my window for viewing life through art. My plan was to take the train to the Long Island Rail Road and then a bus to Valley Stream. I had left dinner in the oven for my brother, Butch, who was five years younger than me. He was the reason I stayed so long. But things were just getting worse for me. This situation with my stepfather was impossible.
She's upfront like that on all topics, not just having a pedophile for a step-father. She's also happy to note her influences and they do include women including the Supremes, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin. She's upfront about sexuality including her own early days when she decided she was a lesbian in high school. Experimentation proved her wrong but was part of the path to becoming one of the 21st centuries leading celebrity advocatea for LGBT issues. A real advocate, unlike a certain peer who, the press wanted you to know, was commenting on the AIDS crisis when she rose from a chair in the middle of a concert.
Cyndia's advocacy isn't hidden or in need of interpretation and the struggle for equality is very much a theme in the book -- for the LGBT community, for women, for herself.
So it's fitting that she'd be the one to take "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" onto the charts. The song, as written by Robert Hazard, was about Hazard's fantasy/belief that all these women wanted to go down on him orally. Cyndi did a massive re-working of the song, thinking of the generations of women in her family, and helped out by songwriter Ellie Greenwich (co-writer of hits such as "Leader of the Pack," "Be My Baby," "River Deep, Mountain High," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Chapel of Love" and many more).
The song was a natural hit and still sounds fresh when radio plays it today. It was the perfect single to introduce this new solo artist to the country and to the world. It would be the first of four singles from She's So Unusual to make the top five of Billboard's Hot 100. One of the four, "Time After Time," which she co-wrote, would become her first number one hit. She'd notch up another number one with "True Colors."
Peaks and valleys are what a career's all about and Cyndi's had them, rebounding in 2003 with the hit album At Last and in 2010 with the Grammy winning Memphis Blues.
Another theme in the book is that life is tough so be prepared and chose your happiness where you can. By the time she's endured the sexism of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen on two separate occasions, she's learned to draw a line between the art and the artist.
She addresses touring as the hottest thing in the world and touring later on when you're no longer the new flavor of the month. She notes she toured with Tina Turner but never got to really know her and toured with Cher and had a blast.
She writes about writing songs for films and about acting in films, on the stage and on TV (she is an Emmy winning actress for her role as Ira's ex-wife on Mad About You). She writes about health problems and sexual assaults, love found and love missed and always in a unique and lively voice, sharing details that pull you into the memory and help you visualize what she was experiencing.
This is a great book, a brave one, a funny one. We recommend it highly. Our only regret is that she doesn't really explore what made the immediate follow up to She's So Unusual less than special. Cyndi was a unique voice and look. At the time, her peers were Billy Idol and Madonna. Cyndia was probably the strongest artist of the three then (certainly, she is now). They were MTV stars who had hit songs and visual images via heavy rotation videos.
Madonna was the first to 'grow up' with her third album True Blue. Critics saw it as a major breakthrough (we don't see it as such) and the pressure was on for Cyndi and Billy to do the same. Billy would release Whiplash Smile which featured a cartoon image of him on the cover and a flesh cartoon in the video as he humped the stage (in frustration?) during "To Be A Lover." While Madonna 'grew up' on her third solo album and Billy was trying to on his third one, this was only Cyndi's second one. And she had more on her shoulders than the other two. No one really cared if Madonna was authentic -- including Madonna. Billy Idol didn't have anyone accusing guitarist Steve Stevens of carrying him. But some did try to insist that the Hooters had carried Cyndi on her first album. (The group's Rob Hyman co-wrote "Time After Time" with Cyndi. Hyman and bandmate Eric Bazilian were among the musicians playing on the album.)
In that environment, few will pull off a great album. Cyndi did 'grow up' on True Colors according to critics (the album was widely praised upon release) but it didn't have staying power and it didn't work as an album. In the book, Cyndi notes how sparse the title track was. That was true of a number of tracks on the album. It also lacked a big theme and a big sound. The mix was off and the mixes sounded like sludge on audio cassette. That was a huge issue in 1986 because cassettes were the primary purchase then (and would remain so until 1991 when CD sales overtook cassettes).
That album is also home to "Boy Blue" which is when Cyndi really becomes part of the LGBT cause in a way that Madonna would repeatedly shy away from. We're not surprised that she doesn't ponder whether writing about a friend dying of AIDS while Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the media was in denial about the AIDS crisis and AID-phobia and homophobia were very much a part of the national culture hurt her career. That's the thing about pioneers, they never really spend a lot of time pondering, "What if I'd taken another road instead?" Cyndi's life has been a remarkable journey and its documented in an equally remarkable book.