Cyndi was excited. I was, too, I must say. David Hajdu!
By DAVID HAJDU
By Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn
Illustrated. 338 pp. Atria Books. $26.
Cyndi Lauper’s memory speaks with a Queens accent. The crudely endearing charms of Lauper’s book, a memoir of her unglamorous outer-borough upbringing and not entirely glamorous life since MTV made her a pop star in the 1980s, are its unpretentious attitude and its blunt, brassy voice. “Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir” is boisterous, erratic, sometimes goofy and — very much like its author’s music, in all this — not quite as dumb as it may seem.
Unlike recent books by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards that have come to be regarded as models for the art of rock literature, Lauper’s memoir makes no attempt to be the least bit literary. Lauper essentially lays out the events of her life in something close to straight chronology, with digressions, in the rhetoric of lunchtime chat. Lauper grows up in a two-family house with “shingles that looked almost like the color of Good & Plenty candy.” She struggles as a young woman, so hard up at one point that she skins and cooks a squirrel for dinner. She works almost anywhere that will have her, including as a hostess for a Manhattan club catering to Japanese businessmen. She develops as a singer and songwriter, loses her voice, regains it and pampers it ever after as the precious gift that it is. She endures a vile sexual episode with her own friends and bandmates. She becomes famous, then gravely ill with endometriosis, and she proves to have a habit of saying “the wrong things to the right people” — like the time she told Steven Spielberg, in a meeting, that he wasn’t being very creative.
Lauper’s book seems untainted by the influence of other books. It comes across as true to Lauper’s colors, which are those of an eight-pack box of crayons. Never academically inclined, Lauper struggled horribly in class and was eventually expelled from Richmond Hill High School in Queens. (After she became a celebrity, the school gave her an honorary diploma.) Lauper guesses she had attention deficit disorder, and she writes as if she still does. Intellectually skittery, but blessed with a sense of style as strong as her singing voice, Lauper has the ability to recall every outfit she has ever worn. As she describes the day she went to watch the Beatles’ motorcade drive along the Belt Parkway on its way to Shea Stadium: “So I started screaming, and I shut my eyes, and by the time I realized I should open my eyes, I’d missed it. I was all dressed nice, too. I had dark jean clam diggers with pointy shoes and a sleeveless green, blue and black plaid shirt with a man-tailored collar. I’ve never actually met a Beatle, but I saw Tony Bennett once when I was a kid at the 1964-65 World’s Fair.” You have to marvel at the wonder of prose so vividly loopy.
Raised as a Catholic in a matriarchal Sicilian-American family, Lauper was the second of three kids born to a culture-hungry waitress whose second husband, a sexual predator, so taunted Lauper that she left home in her teens. Lauper portrays her mother, tenderly, as an earthly counterpart to the many watchful spirits she has felt helping her throughout her life. When Lauper was a young singer, playing in a string of cover bands that worked the bars in Long Island beach towns, she was once thrown from the van on the way to a gig. “I was flying with an angel above me,” Lauper writes, “and I passed these dead musicians who were on the side of the road just watching — Duane Allman, Berry Oakley. Then the angel said, ‘That’s a good place for you to land,’ and it was a bush.”
Wherever she landed, literally or figuratively, Lauper saw divine purpose. She has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, and won as Best New Artist in 1985. After her first couple of Grammy losses, she consoled herself: “Maybe it’s God telling me that it’s nice to be recognized but awards don’t make the person or the singer.”
Lauper has hardly gone without recognition; she did receive those 14 Grammy nominations, as well as 16 nods for MTV Video Music Awards. Still, something more than insecurity might lie behind the sense of underappreciation that prompted Lauper to listen for heavenly solace: she’s had a hard time being taken seriously ever since the hit that first established her in the early days of MTV, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Infectiously, almost insidiously catchy and danceable, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” cemented Lauper’s enduring image as a symbol of girlhood and lightheartedness, entwined and idealized. Lauper was initially reluctant to sing the song (which was written by a man, Robert Hazard), and took it up only after she began to think of it as a vehicle of resistance to gender-based repression. “I didn’t want to do the song at first because I didn’t think it was especially good for women,” she recalls. “And then I saw my grandmother’s, my aunt’s and my mother’s faces in my head. And I thought that maybe I could do something and say something so loud that every girl would hear — every girl, every color.”
There seems little doubt that Lauper would be held in higher esteem if she spoke so directly not to girls and the women they become but to the men who dominate the critical establishment in pop and rock — or if she hung out with artists and writers like Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs instead of the pro wrestlers Captain Lou Albano and Hulk Hogan, or if her music weren’t so catchy and pleasurable, or if she wore plain black clothes instead of the Day-Glo outfits she concocted from the racks of Screaming Mimi’s in the East Village. That is, if she acted more like a radical instead of being one, by exulting in the value of juvenile pleasure.
That Cyndi Lauper is not taken more seriously may, after all, be her vindication. As she proves with the brash, offhanded eloquence of both her music and her book, fun is well worth wanting to have. “Oh, c’est la vie,” Lauper writes. “That’s French for ‘whatever.’ ”
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.