Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kat's Korner: Cher and the too far gone 70s

Cher The Way of Love

Kat: I get e-mails. When I wrote about Cher's 60s recordings, a guy e-mailed: "Kat, I like Cher, I do. But, come on, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Yeah, she and Sonny rocked and she rocked solo but are you forgetting all that 'Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves' stuff? The Indian Princess? I mean, come on. And wasn't she disco?"

No, I'm not forgetting Cher's 70s period. But I think others are forgetting the seventies. No one, for example, forced either the Rolling Stones or Rod Stewart to do disco; however, both recorded disco tracks. And as for what the e-mailer calls Cher's "Indian Princess" phase, when Cher was doing story songs -- often produced by Snuff Garrett, so what?

Elton John can play dress up and be rock but Cher can't? David Bowie can play dress up and still be considered part of the rock canon but Cher can't be? Why is that? Did anyone miss the New York Dolls?

If the sixties were artists striving for authenticity, the seventies were artists acting as distractions and diversions. True, the singer-songwriter phase, kicked off in the sixties, took root in the early seventies. Joni, Carly, Jackson, Carole, Roberta, et al were not, however, the defining mood of the seventies. No the seventies was one put-on after another. From David the Space Alien Bowie to David the Bi-sexual Bowie, from the New York Dolls to the Village People, from the Sex Pistols to David Byrne of Talking Heads, from LaBelle to T. Rex, from Gary Glitter to Patti Smith, they were all playing dress up in one form or another. Surely, at this late date, no one really believes that the Eagles were heartland cowboys, sharp shooting with guitars instead of guns?

Cher sold as well in that time period as her well known peers but, unlike them, she was a TV fixture and maybe that's why Cher's artifice is a little more remarked upon than that of Mick Jagger's? First in the summer of 1971, she began starring in The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on CBS. And she'd stay with that through 1974 only to star in The Cher Show (CBS) from February 1975 through the start of 1976 only to then co-star in The Sonny & Cher Show (still CBS) through August 1977. This was followed by a 1978 musical special and a 1979 musical special. In the pre-MTV days, this was a lot of TV time. No other musical act scoring chart hits got that kind of attention.

For example, Donny & Marie's chart run was pretty much over when they started their ABC variety show and remained over throughout. By contrast, Sonny & Cher moving to TV in 1971 coincided with their return to the top forty charts. Despite closing out the sixties with one non-seller after another, 1971 saw the duo rake up two gold albums. They'd score three top forty hits -- two of them top ten ("All I Ever Need Is You" and "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done.") Even more surprising to some who had written the act off as dead after the box office disappointments (Good Times and Chastity) and the failed recordings of the late sixties, was Cher's solo run. The woman who'd released seven singles from 1968 through 1969 and seen every one crash and burn outside the top 100 suddenly was a chart run again. 1971 would start the run that would last through 1979 and she'd rack up 9 to fifty hits, five of which went top ten, three of which hit number one ("Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves," "Half-Breed" and "Dark Lady").

"And wasn't she disco?" the e-mailer wanted to know. After failed efforts with Harry Nilsson, Phil Spector, Gregg Allman and Jimmy Webb, and after even a reteaming with Snuff Garett (Garrett did produce "Pirate" which at least broke the top 100), Cher ended up with Casablanca Records in 1979 -- home to Donna Summer, the Village People and other acts. She ended up with the big disco hit "Take Me Home" (number 8), "Wasn't It Good" (number forty-nine) and "Hell on Wheels" (number 59). Two albums would be released in 1979: Take Me Home which was largely disco and Prisoner which was a mishmash.

But the thing is Cher balked at singing disco. Cher felt disco was hurting R&B and had a hundred other reasons for refusing disco. She had to be talked into doing disco, promised that if she did disco, got a hit, then she could do the rock she wanted.

And that really does sum up Cher of the seventies. At a time when everyone else was playing dress up, so was Cher. With one difference, she believed in her dress up. The Cher that emerged on TV in 1971 wasn't the fashionable sixties hippie, instead America saw a glamorous, funny, independent woman. And in the best AA sense of "fake it until you make it," that's who Cher became but that's not who she was in 1971. Cher teamed up with Snuff Garrett not because she thought, "I want to work with Snuff!" She teamed up with him because Sonny made the deal. And in the midst of their amazing run -- all of her seventies number ones were produced by Garrett, Sonny would decide that Snuff was out. This was only after Sonny had decided that Cher wouldn't sing "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" (Vicky Lawrence would go on to record it and have a number one hit with it). Before she was even 20, Cher had hit the pop charts and become famous. At the still very young age of 25, she'd become a TV variety star and grow up before the country.

Which would mean all the tabloid coverage that her love life -- and sometimes a made up by the tabloids love life -- would result in. It would mean a divorce from Sonny, a brief marriage to Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers and a divorce from him. It would mean the birth of her second child (son Elijah Blue Allman in 1976 -- Chaz Bono was born in 1969). Grasp that she was a mother throughout all of the seventies, a mother of a newborn in 1976, and she was a workhorse and then some. Basically from the summer of 1971 through the August 1977, she was a TV staple while also touring every year, while also recording, while trying to break into films, while raising two children and while attempting to have some form of a love life.

There are those critics who sniff her life was a soap opera in the seventies. Such was the times and possibly only all these years after are we beginning to grasp what a huge and lasting impact PBS' An American Family left on the country. This is a woman who fell for Sonny in the sixties, long before she was 18, and began a relationship with him. She'd see that relationship die, the first real love, and she'd grow up in front of the country becoming the confident and self-assured woman she is.

Cher, in the seventies, sang story songs. Those are songs that, no surprise, tell a story. And they were a natural extension for the woman who, as a sixties solo artist, interpreted the work of Bod Dylan regularly. And here's the thing about story-songs, people identify with them. That included Cher who started out the decade singing about survival ("Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" and "Half-Breed" especially) and ended the seventies singing about survival ("Take Me Home") and living survival. An old Native American saying can be translated as: Be careful of the stories you tell for they may become your own. That certainly happened with Cher.

Now David Bowie never became a space alien and both he and Lou Reed apparently rejected their same-sex relationships. So the real difference about the play-actors of the seventies may be that Cher grew into the woman she portrayed while the others moved on to some new fake personality.

Though there are strong efforts by some exclusionary types to portray the seventies as an embarrassment for Cher, the woman triumphs. She charts, she lives, she becomes.

And, possibly, that would be grasped if there was one decent Cher best-of covering the seventies. But there really isn't. A noble failure, The Way Of Love: The Cher Collection picks up most of her solo charting singles from the decade and tosses in some of the ones with Sonny as well for a double album that is entertaining and has many strong finds but really doesn't add up to anything. Now I'm no fan of The Millennium Collection line of CDs. I think the only time it works is if it's an artist that you're not going to find seven or eight other best-ofs on. For example, the Richie Havens one I praised work because of the song selection and because it actually got Richie Havens into a ton of music stores. But 20th Century Master: The Millennium Collection: Best of Cher works better for me than other 70s collections (Bittersweet -- The Love Songs is a good collection of torch songs Cher recorded during this period but it doesn't sum up the career).


Why does it work? For one thing, it largely tosses aside the Sonny & Cher work. The duo really only scores the first year. Then they don't. Why is that? An argument can be made that the persona Cher dons for the decade really doesn't fit with the folksy, groovy love that the singing duo depended upon. So it includes only "All I Ever Needs Is You." The album focuses mainly on the early seventies and the only song after 1974 is "Take Me Home." Even the double disc The Way Of Love ignores the second-half of the seventies except for "Take Me Home."

But where they both fail, where all the seventies collections fail, is in failing to grasp the arc of the artistry. The proper conclusion to any Cher collection of that period isn't a hit single, it's the B-side of "Take Me Home," a track from the album of the same name, a track that, in fact, closes out that album.

He was just another boy from Georgia
Playing in a rock and roll band
I was living in LA, in a Hollywood way,
Then I met him and he loved me
We got married

Now he's too far gone to hold me
Too far gone, he doesn't want to know me
Too far gone, and he doesn't really know
No, he'll never get to know his son

Now I know that I'm a stubborn woman
But I knew he was a passionate man
Though our feelings were intense
Our problems were immense
But we tried hard and we held on
But we let it go

Like many of Cher's best songs from that decade, it's a story-song. But the difference is this is one Cher didn't just live, she also wrote it with Mark Hudson and Brett Hudson. "My Song (Too Far Gone)" works on so many levels, including as a description of the seventies.

As I noted in covering her sixties work, Cher isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She damn well deserves to be. Many men who accomplished far less are in the Hall, over 70 men inducted as performers while only 11 (solo) women have been inducted as performers. Cher has more than earned her place in the Hall. She's rocked it, she's been a part of the ever-changing times she's lived in and she's notched up more hits than most of the men the Hall's already inducted.

She's a pioneer, she's a legend, she's an artist. And you can put "living" in front of all three of those terms because Cher's back in the studio recording, she's got a film opening Thanksgiving Day. How many of her peers can make that claim?

Maybe that's a confusing question. Cher's lasted every decade. So how many of her original peers from the sixties can make that claim? Or even her peers from the seventies? Okay, what about the eighties set of peers. Cher's charted in the '60s, the '70s, the 80's, the 90s and the '00s. There's a damn good chance she'll be charting in this decade as well. None of her male peers can match her charting record but many of them are in the Hall.

She can't be inducted this year -- it's too late and, as usual, she wasn't even nominated. While some women embarrassed themselves -- yes, Ann Powers, I do mean you -- by arguing against one of the few female nominees this year. While Ann whined about Laura Nyro's nomination and how it 'hurt' Labelle -- Labelle's a group, Laura's a solo -- she didn't say a damn word about this year's nominations of the Beastie Boys, LL Cool Jay or Tom Waits. In Ann's mind, all the men (there were more) can be nominated and that's fine but nominating Laura Nyro meant that Labelle didn't get a slot!

We need to reject that thinking. That is thinking that has allowed only 11 women to be inducted as performers while over 70 men have been inducted. It is sexist, Ann Powers, to assume that in a list of predominately male nominees, one of the few women to be nominated is 'preventing' a female group from being nominated. Instead of whining over the token slot, instead of pitting woman against woman, we need to reject the notion that women only deserve the token slot, we need to demand that women are fully represented in the Hall.

Cher's earned her way. Which is why I decided that I would make a point to do a series of pieces championing her career. See, Ann Powers, if women don't champion women, no one's going to. We don't need Ann Powers playing sexist anymore than we need another Judy Collins album which she hails as a "tribute" to a great (male) songwriter and we're never supposed to notice that the woman who came to fame on a song written by a woman (Joni's "Both Sides Now") has recorded album after album saluting a male songwriter but 'feminist' Judy's never found time to do an album honoring a female songwriter. It's bulls**t and it stops only when you demand it stops. And if there's one woman whose lifetime has been about successfully fighting the bulls**t, it's Cher.