“In a voice like none other. . . . perhaps the most ingratiatingly candid of the many celebrity memoirs.”
As Ms. Lauper insists throughout her new self-named memoir, she hears voices:
“‘I’ve always heard voices. I’m a singer, and I hear poems in my head—that’s how I write.”
And the reader making his way through her recounting of her life story notices equally often that the experience of reading her words carries with it the sound of her voice. So completely idiosyncratic is her writing style that it is as if she were telling you the story herself. Aloud. In a voice like none other.
Read and listen:
“When you start out and you have nothing, and you make it to that pinnacle of your life, you think that your fame and your success are a redemption for everything that ever happened to you. It’s not true. Because at the end of the movie, the credits roll—but in your life, that doesn’t happen. Credits don’t roll. I had to continue living. My whole life up to that moment was about getting there, but now that I was there, it wasn’t so rosy. I wanted my life to go better, and I thought it was gonna, but it didn’t. Because what I gave up along the way to get to that pinnacle was my relationship. I thought that was the most important thing to me, and that’s why I was still a good soldier about everything Dave had me do. He continued to be my manager, and even though I was worried that the record company was a complete mess, I thought that no one else would really want me as an artist. I never felt that successful, because I was always working so hard.”
The sound of her voice rings as true from the words on the page as it does from any of her records, making Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir perhaps the most ingratiatingly candid of the many celebrity memoirs on books shelves this season.
Like her music, her memoir is unmistakably her own. As she puts it: “I speak the Queen’s English, but the borough—not the person.”
It is, in turns, funny, thoughtful, and even a bit whiny whenever Madonna gets mentioned, but it more than makes the case for the enduring fame of the singer from Queens who taught the world that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
It also reveals the truth of her troubled childhood, her destructive relationships, even the abortion she chose to have as a young adult. (“When I told Richie that I was pregnant . . . he said, ‘You know, we can get an abortion. I’ll be there with you.’”)
Throughout, hers is the story of an artist finding her own voice:
“A lot of times, I didn’t know a song was going to happen a certain way until I tried it. Because everything is always like a puzzle, and you start out this way and then all of a sudden the puzzle starts to come together, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes you and your writing partners are smacking each other on the back and going, ‘We’re geniuses! It worked!’ It’s like when the oil gushes through the derrick, and you’re like, ‘It’s alive!’ Then the next day, or the next week, after you get shot down a little by the powers that be, you’re sitting there looking at each other going, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’ But that’s how it always is.”
Perhaps most interestingly, not satisfied with just listing the names of her hits and the awards that each won, she also shares her creative self with the reader, and the inspirations that she employs in creating her distinctive sound:
“Okay, where was I? Right—‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ I kept thinking about how the music in the song represented different parts of my life. Like the organ sound that you hear was actually from an old commercial for a drag-racing place called Raceway Park that I used to hear as a kid. (Most people who grew up in the New York area when I did will remember those commercials.) And I loved to dance to Motown while making the beds when my mom worked.
“That’s how I work. A little slice of life here, a little piece of a different song there, and bada bing, bada boom, mix it all together and there it is. My musical style has always been a collage of everything.”
Playing off the fact that her written voice is so strong, what is perhaps most satisfying about Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir is not its sly, sometimes slapstick humor, (she identifies French clown/film auteur Jacques Tati as a chief source of inspiration with his film Mon Oncle) that adds buoyancy to the text, but, instead, the surprising beauty of the language of the thing itself.
As here, when she writes about the creation of her album of standard songs, At Last:
“That whole album was a story about the women in my life. There was one housewife in the neighborhood who was very large. I would see her when I worked in my grandmother’s garden, which was surrounded by those metal fences that squared off your piece of land. You can see through and look straight down and see other people’s backyards. It was the most amazing thing to see all those people during their daily struggles and joys. So this heavyset woman would make her spaghetti sauce on Sunday, and I could smell it from my grandmother’s garden. While it cooked she sat on a little chair with her accordion and played, ‘Volare,’ to the point where I would think, “Oh my God, I’m going to kill myself.” The bat wings on her heavy arms swung back and forth as she squeezed the bellows of the accordion, and later, when I was an adult, I realized that ‘volare’ means ‘to fly’ and it all came together. This was a woman with a life of toil who found joy playing a song about her heart taking flight while her bat wings followed.”
To read Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir is to hear a great deal about Ms. Lauper’s strong feminist stance. And to learn a great deal about her tireless efforts on behalf of LGBT Americans, including the foundation of the True Colors Fund in 2008, which was created for the purpose of housing and educating those lesbian, gay and transgendered young people whose families have cast them out.
And to read the book is also to learn a great deal about the author herself from a source that the reader early on comes to believe is unimpeachably, even startlingly truthful:
“Here’s the thing: I never had a filter before I was famous, and I didn’t have one after, either. I really should have shut up sometimes. But of course I never did. I mean, listen: I’m not Saint Cyndi. I used to say I was Saint Cyndi of Feces, because wherever shit fell, there I was.”