[30 October 2012]
I don’t know what planet Cyndi Lauper really comes from, but it’s great that she has adopted Earth as her current residence. Her funny, large-spirited memoir is full of crazy moments and smart-ass remarks, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the problems strong women encounter in the music business.
She was raised in a working-class section of Queens, the New York City borough that gave us the Ramones and Simon and Garfunkel, and she is half-Sicilian. That’s a combustible combination. Her book begins on a somber note: She left home at 17 because her stepfather was a Peeping Tom. She made sure to leave dinner in the oven for her younger brother.
Her real father played the harmonica and her sister Elen, Cyndi’s first singing partner, played the guitar. Cyndi learned guitar chords from a book, fell in love with the Beatles and the Supremes when she was nine, and always felt like she was an alien. Or perhaps, as she speculates, she suffered from undiagnosed ADD.
For kids from Queens, Manhattan was only a subway ride away yet always seemed out of reach. After Cyndi flunked out of high school, she had to take various dead-end jobs, including one as a “gal Friday the thirteenth” at the same publishing house that is now publishing her memoir.
Lauper recalls her pre-celebrity years with gutsy honesty and an authentic Queens accent, ably assisted by journalist Jancee Dunn. First, she headed for Canada with a sleeping bag and an ax (for chopping wood). Another stop: Vermont, where she was a mother’s helper and wound up on welfare.
Even after she was able to enroll in a local college, she never had enough money. So she sang for her supper in forgettable bands. Back in New York there were numerous misfortunes. She got pregnant and had an abortion. While singing in a cover band, she was raped, a story she tells in graphic detail. Yet she never gave up. She lost her voice repeatedly but found herself a vocal coach who taught her how take proper care about it. She sued to break a bad contract with one band; In the courtroom, the judge “took the gavel, hit the desk, and said, ‘Let the canary sing.’”
Lauper, obviously, was anything but an overnight sensation. In 1983, facing her 30th birthday (although she does not mention her age) she cut the tracks for the album that became She’s So Unusual. She credits her success less to radio or MTV than to the wacky marketing strategy of promoting “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at pro wrestling matches. It worked.
Finally, Cyndi Lauper was a star. Hoping for a hit, she delivered an anthem in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.
As a longtime feminist, she quickly discovered blatant sexism in the music industry, not just from executives and producers but from male rock stars. (Two she names are Bob Dylan and Ron Wood.) Men, she feels, viewed her as “frightening because when I saw women being pushed down or objectified I said, ‘Fuck no! That’s chauvinism. I’m not allowing that.’”
Despite winning a Grammy and selling millions of albums, singles and DVDs, she spent much of her career battling producers and record companies for her own vision. “I really should have shut up sometimes. But of course I never did. I mean listen: I’m not Saint Cyndi,” she admits. “I used to say I was Saint Cyndi of a Feces, because wherever shit fell, there I was.” She could not believe that after hearing her sing, producers ”thought I was a delicate flower.”
When men fight to be true to their muse, it’s considered creative. When women do it, they are labeled difficult, Or worse. Lauper acknowledges she operated “without a filter”, describing run-ins with everyone from from record company executives to actors, from Bruce Springsteen to Steven Spielberg, A spitfire? Believe it. Diplomatic? Not in her vocabulary.
Four of the songs on She’s So Unusual became Top Five hits. She pioneered a singular style, a punk persona complete with wild costumes and hair, while Lady Gaga was still in diapers. How satisfying it felt once she became a star that “the same mental idiots who threw rocks at me for what I used to wear” wound up buying the same kind of outfits.
The title track of her next album, True Colors, reached number one. Nevertheless, there were plenty of bad moments afterward. The only reason she did not commit suicide, she insists, was because “I never wanted a headline to read, GIRL WHO WANTED TO HAVE FUN DIDN’T.”
Meanwhile, another Italian-American singer, one with as much blonde ambition and a lot more savvy, grabbed the spotlight. At first, many listeners believed Lauper, not Madonna, was the likeliest candidate for megastardom. But Madonna knew how to game the system. Lauper gives her props for that. “She was so smart about business and marketing (I never was) and she always was, and still is, beautiful,” Lauper writes.
Offered every chance to disrespect her supposed rival, Cyndi declines; “My feeling was, you don’t fuckin’ knock another sister, ever.” She does not pretend the two became good buddies. At one industry event she told Madonna she thought “Like a Virgin” was great. “She was nice,” Lauper writes, “but it was a really short exchange. I never could have a conversation with her because she always had lots of people protecting her.”
What might have blossomed into a sensational career became a bumpy ride, personally as well as professionally. The diamond ring given her by longtime manager and boyfriend Dave Wolff “might as well have just been a gold watch for ten years of service.” Perhaps the only conventional side of Cyndi Lauper was that she wanted to get married, and have a house surrounded by a picket fence with a piano in the living room.
Eventually, she found the right guy, David Thornton. (At her wedding, Little Richard was the minister and her grandmother was maid of honor.) Their marriage has lasted more than 20 years and they have a son, Declyn.
Arguably more important than her bittersweet post-True Colors years is that Lauper used her celebrity for a cause very early on. She contributed unstintingly to the fight for gay rights. It went beyond monetary support; she appeared in Gay Pride marches with her lesbian sister, and founded the True Colors Fund, which helped to build a residence in Harlem for LGBT homeless kids.
Sales of her later albums were disappointing. To some critics, nothing beyond True Colors has lived up to her early promise. However, when she watches pink-haired Nicki Minaj striking a pose on Saturday Night Live, Cyndi Lauper declares: “Give me shit all you want, but I inspired stuff like that.” Yes you did, Ms. Martian. What’s more, this memoir, wisecracks and all, is just as original as your image.