Cyndi Lauper has sold millions of records with her 3 ½ octave-range voice. But her big mouth has also gotten her in plenty of trouble over the years, as she attests in her new autobiography, Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir (338 pp. Atria).
The first—and better—half of Lauper’s book depicts the spunky singer’s unlikely rise from squalor and anonymity in Queens, New York, to pop-rock superstardom in 1984. We’re taken from Lauper’s humble Ozone Park roots to her Grammy-winning, multiplatinum run at the top of the charts in the mid-Eighties and subsequent career shifts (and motherhood). And while Lauper’s rock ‘n roll journey may not feature the rollercoaster of drug addiction common to many musical bios, central themes include Cyndi’s struggles with (and against) misogyny, rape, and homophobia in a business dominated by backward-thinking males.
Chapter One provides a glimpse of Cyndi’s tumultuous teenage home life in the late Sixties; a creepy stepdad spies on her through a crack in a bathroom door window. “Mom married pedophile who beat her,” Lauper writes. But Catherine Lauper, an old-school Sicilian, didn’t feel it was her place to confront the man of the house.
So Cyndi, inspired by elder sis Elle, decided to pack up and move out at age seventeen, with only a change of underwear and a copy of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit in tow. Her travels found her and a dog, Sparkle, living in campsites and transitional housing in Canada (where she was admitted under the pretense of conducting a “tree study) and Vermont (where she furthered her knowledge of art in the PROVE Program for troubled youths). Good Samaritans helped along the way, but for every guardian angel—like art mentor Bob Barrell—there was a predator who wouldn’t let Cyn out of his car (or woodshop class) without sexual favors. Lauper developed a survivor mentality as a result of her hard street living—but many of the experiences continued haunting her into her adult life.
Cyndi remembers growing up listening to The Beatles (Paul was her fave), Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Cream, and learning guitar using Mel Bay’s ubiquitous study guides (“God bless Mel!”). She vaguely recalls listening to her father play xylophone and harmonica, but has vivid memories of singing along to her mom’s Broadway albums (South Pacific, My Fair Lady) and Barbara Streisand records.
Before her hard-won superstardom, Lauper bounced from welfare office to youth hostel and back. She took menial jobs as a seamstress, IHOP waitress, hotwalker for horses, mail room sorter at a cosmetics company, singer at a Japanese gentlemen’s club, dog-walker at a kennel, topless dancer, busker, life model for a drawing class, babysitter, receptionist at Simon and Schuster, and general run-of-the-mill secretary. But Cyndi admits her “gal Friday the Thirteenth” approach to office life cost her more than a few gigs: she drank beer at her desk and left sweat all over her boss’s telephone. Meanwhile, she lived in roach-infested apartments with her sister and a friend (Wha), or with one of many boyfriends. Cyndi even learned to clean and prepare the squirrel one beau bagged for dinner.
“I never had much luck with young men,” she laments.
Still, boys had a big part in Cyndi’s life. One of her early companions suggested she spell her name with a Y (swapping the I and Y in “Cindy”). Another taught her to paint. Another advised her to “always get a receipt” for work rendered or money paid.
Having already dabbled in a folk duo (Spring Harvest) with a friend, Lauper moved back home with mom and tried singing professionally in night clubs like Glendale Lounge and The Three Ships. She quickly became the focal point of her first band, Flyer, but her “sexist, manipulative asshole” manager relegated her to a support role behind the other musicians. Guitarist Richie became Cyn’s “first love” and turned her on to Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and the Kinks. He worked at an airport while Cyndi earned extra cash as a stripper (nickname “Carrot”) at Gracie Lounge in Nyack. There, she realized her sexuality could be used to get ahead in life; she had to learn to “turn it off” when not on the job, unlike other dancers who made sport of seducing men and competing with other girls for male attention. Or like her fellow musicians, who subjected her to a vicious sexual attack she wasn’t able to fend off.
Lauper regained her voice following surgery to remove a nasty nodule and took lessons with vocal coach Katie Agresta. Friendship with saxophonist John Turi lead to the formation of Cyndi’s next group, Blue Angel (named after a Marlene Dietrich movie), which eventually inked a deal with Polydor Records. Pay-to-play gigs at CBGB’s, Trude Heller’s and The Bottom Line soon became opening slots with big-name artists like Peter Frampton, but Lauper soured from mishandling by manager Steve Marrasky. Despite high-profile trips to Puerto Rico and Europe (and a minor chart hit in the Netherlands), Blue Angel disbanded, leaving Lauper bankrupt and disenchanted.
Cyndi writes of her serendipitous meeting with exterminator / messenger-turned-showman Dave Wolfe, who became Lauper’s new heartthrob and musical partner by early 1982. Wolfe in turn introduced Cyndi to Lennie Petze, the A&R man at Epic Records who jumpstarted her solo career. Lauper also chronicles an earlier meeting with music mogul Tommy Mottola, but she didn’t want to become part of the future Mr. Mariah Carey’s “collection.” Instead, she teamed with producer Rick Cherthoff and writers Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian (of Hooters fame) and began work-shopping material for her first release on Portrait Records.
Recorded at a freezing studio in Manyayunk, Pennsylvania and at The Record Plant in New York (in a room opposite rock gods KISS), She’s So Unusual would eventually sell over six million copies. Lauper tells the stories behind all the chart-toppers and other songs, from writing and recording to performances on tour. The Robert Hazard-written “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” started off with a male point of view, which Lauper subverted into an “anthem” for females. “Time After Time” (penned with Hyman) came late in the proceedings, having been named after a movie starring Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. Lauper became the first woman in Billboard history to land four singles in the Top Five when the Julian Shear-penned “All Through the Night” was released. “She Bop” and “Money Changes Everything” rounded out the exuberant debut.
Despite writing almost none of the songs on Unusual (or its follow-ups) alone, Lauper insisted on exerting artistic control over all aspects of production. She writes of her efforts to incorporate “slices of life” into the mix, which she wanted to feature reggae-rock and “trashy sounds” over a bedrock of rhythm punctuated by gated snare drum. Lauper also masterminded the album cover shoot with photographer Annie Liebovitz, who encouraged her 30-year old subject to show off the “grab bag” fashion that so inspired her while working vintage shops like McCrory’s, Trash and Vaudeville, and Screaming Mimi’s. Lauper even called on Mimi’s employee Laura Wills to act as her stylist for the Coney Island photo session.
Lauper’s colorful presence was perfect for then-nascent MTV, which brought her image to millions in promotional videos for “Girls” and “Time.” Boyfriend Richie appeared in both clips—and was just as shocked as anyone when Cyndi removed her hat in “Time After Time” to reveal a checkerboard pattern shaved into her hair (she hadn’t told him in advance). The success of She’s So Unusual plopped Lauper on the cover of Rolling Stone and in a list of Ms. Magazine’s women of the year. She garnered a Grammy and an MTV award for Best New Artist, but considered it the “kiss of death,” given that previous recipients included Christopher Cross and Rickie Lee Jones. She blew up balloons on tour to exercise her lungs, lunched with Boy George, and befriended Yoko Ono.
Cyndi called out her band members engaging in “sexist” behavior on the road, noting how they bed “mothers and daughters” despite her message of female empowerment. Why Lauper doesn’t hold the female fans as accountable as the musicians is anyone’s guess; she’s quick to assign big doses of blame to men throughout the book. Apparently, given past traumas, it made sense for Lauper presume her band was comprised of beer-swilling, skirt-chasing predators. That may have been so, but it doesn’t preclude the likelihood that her girl groupies got exactly what they were after.
Readers are taken inside sessions for USA for Africa charity single “We Are the World,” where producer Quincy Jones noticed Lauper’s jewelry jangling in the playback. Cyndi, a “little guy” among music luminaries, removed her accessories—but she lambasts Jones in the book for not showcasing more females in his celebrity lineup. Lauper contributed the song “Good Enough” to the soundtrack for Richard Donner’s Goonies, but insulted producer Steven Spielberg when he suggested using green screens for the accompanying music video. In hindsight, Lauper acknowledges she “didn’t know how to be diplomatic” with others: “I had no filter.”
Work on 1986 album True Colors found Cyndi dumping her band for sessions musicians like King Crimson’s Adrien Belew and keyboardist Peter Wood. Originally destined for Anne Murray, “True Colors” became the album centerpiece, big hit, and theme behind Lauper’s residence for LGBT teens on the run. A bout of endometriosis prevented her from participating in Live Aid, but she found other ways to parlay her continued solo into support for causes like AIDS prevention and awareness.
She landed a starring role in the 1988 rom-com Vibes and was glad to work with director Ron Howard and funnyman Dan Aykroyd—only both men bailed early on, leaving Cyn with Jeff Goldblum, whom she also took to insulting on set because of his unorthodox rehearsal methods.
“When I get angry, I get arrogant,” Lauper admits. “And arrogance is probably my biggest fault.”
A Memoir is peppered with similar emotional blow-ups, tantrums, and insult-hurling sessions, but there are also a few instances where Cyndi demonstrates she’s learned from her hot-headed mistakes: “I do and say a lot of things that are wrong…I’m human.” She cautions fans not to confuse her work with who she really is, lest they be disappointed, but 200 pages in she’s already made clear her songs do reflect her values, beliefs, sensibilities, and opinions.
The book’s second half features notes on albums like A Night to Remember, Hat Full of Stars, Sisters of Avalon, and Shine—culminating with 2010’s acclaimed covers album Memphis Blues. Cyndi also shares stories behind her engagement and marriage to actor David Thornton and the birth of their son, Declan. But an increasing number of paragraphs are devoted to editorial asides—like why Julianne Phillips shouldn’t have married Bruce Springsteen—and discussions about Cyndi’s charity work on behalf of gays and trans-genders. The philanthropy is commendable, but Cyndi’s causes and music become more inseparable with each new album and tour. Lauper invited acts like Erasure and Deborah Harry out for her True Colors Tour to support human rights, refusing to blanche even when parents complained about foul-mouthed emcee Margaret Cho’s decidedly off-color jokes.
A later chapter discusses Lauper’s time “working” for Donald Trump on the ninth season of The Celebrity Apprentice. Cyndi competed with other stars like Sharon Osborne and Bret Michaels before being “fired” over the way she decorated an apartment. Lauper has no regrets; she raised several thousand dollars for her “Give a Damn” campaign, designed to spread knowledge of AIDS among straights.
Lauper describes herself as a “recovering Catholic,” having shunned the Old Testament notions of patriarchy under which her mother and grandmothers lived.
“I think the Bible is the raciest book you can freakin’ buy,” she comments. “It’s got murder, incest, rape, pillage, and war.”
She also developed a knee-jerk aversion to other institutions that subjugated women in any way. While working as a cleaner at a Hari Krishna center in the late Seventies, Lauper thought she’d found a place of serenity, performing menial labor while being watched over by the figures in the striking murals on the wall—but then one of the guys in charge put the moves on her, offering to make her his wife. It’s the kind of behavior she’d endure even after becoming a multiplatinum artist; even Bob Dylan paid a back-handed compliment by saying he’d have Cyndi in his band even though he didn’t have “chicks” in his band.
Don’t worry; Cyndi set ol’ Bob straight.
Written with an assist from Jancee Dunn (Rolling Stone, Vogue, GQ), A Memoir is a brisk read. Lauper writes like she speaks—one can almost hear that thick New Yawk accent in her prose—and isn’t afraid to resort to F-bombs for emphasis when something gets in her craw. Hers is the perspective of an artist who’s overcome a lot of emotional and physical barriers to achieve the improbable, yet is aware that luck has as much to do with her success as her own determination.
Yes, she’s so unusual. But how boring (and less colorful) would the 80s have been without Lauper’s bubbly music and perky performances?
A Memoir also includes two photo sections, with twenty pages of full-color shots of young Cyndi at confirmation, posing with WWF friends (Captain Lou Albano, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, etc.), hanging out in Russia, giving Vibes costar Peter Falk “finger waves” in his hair, and performing on tour. Several black and whites in back show Cyn jamming with bassist Bill Wittman, sax player John Turi, drummer Sammy Merendino, and keyboard player Steve Gaboury. There’s also a couple “we can laugh about it now” type shots of Flyer and Blue Angel.