Her Tin Roof Never Rusts: Cindy Wilson @ 65

Looking back on the career of the Beehive Queen of The B-52s

Cindy Wilson turns 65 today (Image: Pinterest)

How many lives have The B-52s– or as they were ungrammatically known for decades, The B-52’s– had?

It’s pretty much a rhetorical question, so let’s just say “many.” All deserved.

And The B-52s were shocked – really shocked – to find out that this little dance band they started in Athens, Georgia had any kind of life outside their home town. More on that later. 

Do The Bs still exist? Well, yes. There’s only one official date (Dec. 30 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle) that you can find on JamBase, but earlier this month singer Fred Schneider texted me that they’ve got a bunch of dates lined up for September and more to come after that. (They just had not yet been either confirmed and/or added to the group’s website.)

Let’s go back to the beginning.

“We got together one night in 1976 and started jamming and what came out was spontaneous,” Schneider told me in 2020. “I was living in Atlanta and I was not liking it so I said I want to move back [to Athens]. I thought “Why don’t we do this as a hobby?” [Drummer] Keith [Strickland] and [guitarist] Ricky [Wilson] worked at the bus station, [singer] Cindy [Wilson] worked at the Whirly-Q Luncheonette at Kress’s Department store and [singer-keyboardist] Kate [Pierson] worked at something we called ‘the local rag.’ We had a lot of friends so we crashed parties and stuff but we just started doing our own thing. I don’t think we gave it any thought. Vanessa from Pylon came up to us and said ‘If you can do it, we can do it’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you probably can.’ We were all friends and Pylon was my favorite. 

“I didn’t consider myself a singer so I basically recited. Kate and Cindy had great voices and it turned out to be a really interesting collaboration. We played parties in Athens. I think the second or third party the hostess said to us ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Athens, Georgia!’

“What we did was more melodic, more rhythmic. It wasn’t just three chords and four-to-the-floor. Not that that’s bad. I love the Ramones, but it was something different.”

When did it seem like it was something more than just a local phenomenon? 

“The Hurrah’s show,” Cindy Wilson told me in May of 1998, the band on the verge of another comeback. But she was speaking, right then, of 1978 in New York City. “That’s when I knew something was going on, right after [the single] `52 Girls.’ That’s what spread the news, for us becoming a . . . thing. It was going to be a regular show and we looked out the window and there was a line around the block. We flipped out. Bells rang. Things were happening. This was the moment for me. It’s funny ’cause I remember Ricky just freaking out and getting so nervous. He lost it that night. . .. I cherish the old days, when it was fun and small.”

 

VIDEO: The B-52s “Rock Lobster”

Schneider echoed that when we talked two years ago about that Hurrah’s gig: “Ricky looked out the window from the dressing room and said ‘What are all those people doing?’ And someone said, ‘That’s the fans lining up trying to buy tickets.’ Oh my god!’” 

“Rock Lobster” was upon us.

There was a time – then and into the early ‘80s – when at new wave dance clubs when the kids slowly and seductively ground themselves down to the floor during “Rock Lobster” during the “Down! Down! Down!” proclamation. (I was one of them, at Spit in Boston.) It was kitschy, it was funny, it was spirited and it was sexy.

The B-52s had moved from dB Records to Warner Bros. The debut album came out in July of 1979, produced by Chris Blackwell. In our world, right out of the box in 1979: “Rock Lobster,” “52 Girls,” “Planet Claire” and “Dance This Mess Around.” Soon came “Private Idaho,” “Give Me Back My Man” and “Party Out of Bounds.” 

There were down years, and in 1985 Cindy’s brother Ricky died from complications of AIDS; it devastated the band and they went into seclusion. When they came out of it, Strickland had shifted to guitar (he’s always played guitar behind the scenes) with Zack Alford taking Strickland’s place at the kit. And then, in 1989, we got “Love Shack” and “Roam.”

“After Ricky died, we didn’t know what we were going to do because it was such a loss,” Schneider told me in that year. “We didn’t know if we could replace Ricky and everybody was just so devastated, we just put everything aside. After a while, we finally decided to get together and jam, the four of us and see what would happen. There was no way we could replace Ricky. We just wanted to see what we would come up with.”

 

VIDEO: The B-52s “Channel Z”

What they came up with was the strong, infectious Cosmic Thing album, featuring the title track which also appears in the Earth Girls Are Easy movie, and “Channel Z.” It was a spirited upbeat album that picked up where the band left off in the early ’80s and sends a clear signal

I wondered how they avoided the melancholy they so obviously felt.

“Well, we didn’t want it to be sad at all,” says Schneider of the music. “We had been through all the grief and we’re still grieving — we’re still depressed and whatever — but we didn’t want that to carry over into the music. We just let our subconscious take over; we just jammed with miles and miles of tape and then structured songs from the interesting parts on the jams.

“We have some ballads, some serious songs. I think, finally, with this album people will see all the different facets that might have been ignored by critics in the past. But we’re still going to do a real positive, upbeat, humorous, and I hope, exciting show.”

When Cindy and I spoke in 1998, the group itself had been dormant for six years. She waved a figurative finger in the wind. “I think,” she said, “it might be the right mood this summer.”

For dancin’? Romancin’? Embracin’ the essence of the silly season? Could be. The tenor of the times? Well, surveys showed at that point we were a pretty shiny happy country — the economy was good; there was no war; the crime rate was down. The new wave music of the early ’80s has bubbled up again (in The Wedding Singer soundtrack among other places), and the reconstituted, rejuvenated B-52s were primed to ride yet another wave.

But must you go away for so long in order for the public to miss you?

“Absolutely. I mean, I had to get away,” says a chipper Wilson, on the phone. “I could imagine even the fans had to.”

On Feb. 28, Cindy turns 65.

The B-52s had one improbable comeback in 1989 with Cosmic Thing. Could they, perhaps, rise from dormancy once again? Could boomer parents and their teenage kids both do the Camel Walk to The B-52s of ’98?

“We’re still dancing, thank God,” said Wilson. “When you come to the show, you’re going to have to get up. We’ve got these go-go cages . . . ” Select fans would get the chance to shimmer and shine in those cages.

OK, but were The B-52s still relevant? 

“Well, that’s a good question,” Wilson said. “I don’t know, exactly, but if dancing and having a good time is irrelevant, then I think that’s terrible. But, yes, people want to hear our songs, and I think it’s been long enough where it will be fun and fresh again.” Keep in mind, too, that The B-52s laced their retro-futurist dance-pop with pro-environmental, humanistic concerns.

“I think, basically, it doesn’t take much for us to want to get back together,” Wilson added. “But you have to have a reason and, to be honest, money was the first reason. And perfectly cool. But I think it went beyond that to actually be — for me and I suspect everybody else — a lot of fun.”  At that point, session players and pals — bassist Tracy Wormworth, drummer Charlie Drayden, keyboardist Pat Irwin – fleshed out the band.

“There are plateaus,” said Wilson, looking back on the B’s. “For any musician, any rocker. It’s just what you go through. There were pitfalls and changes — some exciting changes. Cosmic Thing was a blessing. We went from the small band to the big band. And not having Ricky behind me was really scary . . . I didn’t think I could live without Ricky.”

Cindy had dropped out of the B’s after Cosmic Thing. She wanted to go out on a high note; she wanted to have a baby, move from New York back to Georgia. She admitted, “I was kind of burnt out. And there were a few squabbles in the band. I wasn’t having as much fun. In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s crucial, for me anyway, to have fun.” Wilson gave the band a year’s notice and was replaced by Julee Cruise, who toured with the B’s in 1992-93 in support of their sole Cindy-less LP Good Stuff.

 

 

Wilson re-entrance, she said, was casual. She began to jam with the band. The time seemed right. They did some corporate gigs — that is, accepting big bucks to play conventions for private companies and their employees — and “it was kind of like us getting used to doing it. It unified us, to where we had a goal. Now all the other stuff is falling in.”

With their longevity – at any point in the timeline, and, of course, right now (or this fall when they play live again) – The B-52s are implicitly asking you to decide: What is timeless, classic? What is faded, dated? Is a kitsch sensibility and a fascination with creatures from outer space pop-worthy? 

“We never lost that,” said Wilson, of their fixations. Of their serio-comic weave – environmental causes and a rock beat, she added, “One’s just the style of the band and, I guess, one’s just your conscience, what you believe. I never had a problem with mixing, never thought it was a problem. Human beings are multilayered and nobody’s a cartoon. It’s a moment of time,” 

 

VIDEO: The B-52s “Love Shack”

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on “Her Tin Roof Never Rusts: Cindy Wilson @ 65

  • March 2, 2022 at 11:11 am
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    Lovely article. Cindy and the band have been a long lasting gift to us all.

    Reply

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