Search high and low among the articles and programs about “Women In Rock” and you will be hard pressed to find a mention of Cindy Bullens. Despite over two decades as a girl with guitar, touted as a female Bruce Springsteen/Mick Jagger, and a Grammy-nominated hit single, Bullens has remained largely unknown. Leaving aside for a moment the lamentable state of pop music, there are some explanations, if not justifications, to be found in the unrepentant rocker’s history.
Bullens had her brush with stardom when her brilliant 1978 album Desire Wire produced the hit radio single “Survivor”. “It came out and three weeks later it was #51 or something,” Bullens recalls. “And two weeks later it was off the charts because United Artists was being bought by EMI, which seems to have been my predicament with record companies — they would get sold out from under me and people would stop promoting the record.”
Despite the realities of the industry, “I always knew that I wanted to be in music — specifically rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. Her commitment was tested soon after a move from her birthplace of Massachusetts to Los Angeles. “I started singing backup for Bob Crewe [of "Music To Watch Girls By" fame, and producer of Frankie Valli and Mitch Ryder records]. At the total other end of the spectrum, I met Bob Neuwirth and started doing stuff with him.” Through Neuwirth, she met Bonnie Raitt and ended up singing on a record by erstwhile Byrd Gene Clark.
If Frankie Valli to Gene Clark seems like a leap, try this. “In 1975 I was slated to go out as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder and I had to make a choice between going on the road with Bob Dylan and going on the road with Elton John. I made the choice to go with Elton because that’s my thing.…I like jumping off pianos and putting guitars between my legs, so I always had that kind of dichotomy where I wrote good songs but I really was a showperson.”
After “Survivor”, other labels and records followed, but lack of promotion, combined with attempts to turn the tomboyish, jean-clad, guitarist/writer/producer into a frilly femme figurehead, spurred Bullens to take time off. “Dan [Crewe, Bob's brother] and I decided to try to start a family…we didn’t have to try too hard. Little did I know it was going to be a nine-year hiatus.”
In 1990, new friends Emmylou Harris, Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd encouraged her to go to Nashville to write songs. By 1995 her tunesmith career was smoothly chugging along when Cindy’s 10-year-old daughter, Jessie, was diagnosed with cancer. Less than a year later, she died of complications during therapy. Four months passed before Bullens could pick up a guitar; then the song “Somewhere Between Heaven And Earth” emerged. “That’s the word I use: emerged. I didn’t plan to write a song, I didn’t want to write a song — it just came out of me.”
The story of the ensuing Somewhere Between Heaven And Earth record is documented in its CD booklet. Its music could only be made by someone who learned from Bob Crewe and Bob Neuwirth, from Elton John and Bob Dylan. That is to say, someone with the populist craftsmanship to turn an epic of personal suffering into a work of universal liberation and a work of art. In the end, though, it is her unabashed rock ‘n’ roll heart that, like the blues she grew up loving, turns the hurt into a hallelujah. Somewhere Between Heaven And Earth comes purely out of Bullens’ pain over losing a young daughter, but the lyrics work for anyone who has experienced any kind of lost love — which is to say everyone.
Her new disc, Neverland, released September 25 on Artemis Records, was a difficult transition. “I didn’t want to write for commercial reasons after writing from such a pure place,” she explains. “It took time for me to come to a place where I could say, ‘All right, I don’t have to write every single song as a heart-wrenching thing; I can have fun.’”
And Neverland is fun. Produced by Bullens and Ray Kennedy, it features vocal turns by Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt and Steve Earle. On “Cry To You” and “Hammer And Nails”, the guitars rock out while the drums bash away, and other songs explore other emotions far removed from sorrow. “I love the fact that ‘Baby I Want Your Love’ is a pure unadulterated sex song,” she says. “I can now step away from the sadness and intensity and have fun. I couldn’t have done it two years ago.”
Bullens’ oldest daughter is now in college, so she can once again concentrate on her career. “It’s not a place I would have chosen — I would rather have a 16-year-old daughter in high school,” she says. “Still, I feel that it is a new beginning. It makes no difference to me whether this record makes it or not; I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to have made it. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll record I have wanted to make for a long time. I feel like I’m breathing new air.”