“Some guy said to me, `Don’t you think you’re too old to sing rock ‘n’ roll now?’ You better check with Mick Jagger!”
It was 1996 and I was talking with Cher, an interview for the Boston Globe. She was telling me something her former boyfriend, producer and record label boss David Geffen told her, that she had more lives than a cat and she was using up every one of them.
She did not disagree. “I feel like I’m on seven,” said Cher, then 50, of the fabled nine. “I mean, I’ve re-emerged so many times I feel like an old Esther Williams movie.”
“There’s all kinds of things left to do. You can appreciate a good artist at any age, be it Shirley Temple or Jessica Tandy. I don’t want somebody telling me that I can’t do something when Frank Sinatra is or Tony Bennet ist. I mean, who’s gonna tell Tony Bennett he’s not cool?
“Some guy said to me, `Don’t you think you’re too old to sing rock ‘n’ roll now?’ ” Wrong question: “You better check with Mick Jagger.”
And here we are in 2021 and on May 20, Cher – born Cherylin Sarkasian – celebrates her 75th birthday.
She’s not active right now – no one is. Her Here We Go Again tour, which started in 2018 came to an abrupt halt, as did everything else, in March of 2020. But if the COVID restrictions truly abate, she will kick it up again in September and bring it into 2022.
I’d wager she’s still on Cat Life No. 7 and I wouldn’t bet against a Here We Go Again Once Again tour in 2031.
Way back when Miley Cyrus was Hannah Montana and Lady Gaga was playing piano bars, Cher was doing what they are doing now: Treating songs as elaborate set pieces, mixing hard rock, pop and dance music, incorporating lithe dancers and multiple props and costume changes into the mix, pumping up the razzle-dazzle factor.
“It’s not a show with, like, just plain singing,” Cher needlessly explained. “It’s very theatrical, like a rock ‘n’ roll circus.”
Here’s a quick bit from the TD Garden stage in Boston in 2019: “I’ve been a transvestite piñata; I’ve been an elephant … They want you to come out in ridiculous costumes and be fabulous. I can do that.” Her silly, sometimes sexy, costumes give people the license to laugh along with her. And the wigs! I couldn’t begin to count her wigs.
When we talked back in the 1999, Cher was once again feeling the cool breeze of fame in her face – “Believe” was a big hit – while viewing it with a certain detachment. She knows fame is transitory. “We all have what’s in front of us at the moment, what is making the biggest noise,” she said. But she knew she occupied this unique niche in stardom’s strata.
“It’s not like the old days when people went on forever,” she said of stardom. “I think I’m old-fashioned in that way. I mean I have a foot in the past, and a foot in the future.”
And, sometimes, I ventured, a foot in her mouth?
“Lots of times,” she said, laughing. “I’m like the god Shiva, only I have feet instead of hands.”
But “I don’t care about that stuff,” she added, about her missteps or mistakes and any ridicule they might engender. “You put everything out and sometimes those things that aren’t really successful, you’re still happy doing them. If you are going to be an artist — yeah, it is really great to be successful — but you have to do the things that make you happy as well. A lot of times they work and sometimes they don’t.”
Cher knows what it means to ride rock ‘n’ roll’s roller coaster. She’s been hip and un-hip. She’s been a guilty pleasure. Where does her role in the movie Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and her ABBA covers album, Dancing Queen, land? That would make for a lively. if ultimately pointless, debate. If you view ABBA as a guilty pleasure and Cher similarly, does that double your fun?
VIDEO: Cher sings “Fernando” in the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
Cher has zoomed to the top and plummeted to the bottom, but she’s philosophical about it. “If I had my choice of the two places, the top is better. But, for me, it doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t change my position in the community. The people that I am friends with don’t care too much about that kind of stuff.”
Spend any time talking with her and you can’t miss Cher mixture of confidence and insecurity.
She concurred: “I think that somehow those two personalities live in equal force at the same time, and it is an art of temperament.”
You wonder: Is Cher the canny architect of her career or a passenger on her own express train?
She paused. “I would say both. I don’t know if architect is the right word, but I feel the responsibility is definitely mine.”
If you see her show – and I’ve probably seen her half a dozen times over the years, including the last one in 2019 – you would swear Cher can turn back time. Sure, there’s smoke and mirrors and makeup and costumes and cosmetic surgery – everyone knows that. That’s showbiz. But there’s an evergreen nature to how she looks and what she performs. New wrinkles but same attitude and adoring audience.
Entrances are everything and this is Cher at the top of her game. At a 2014 concert, when the curtain dropped, Cher appeared on a high pedestal (Cher as Cleopatra?), wearing a multi-colored gown that was soon stripped away to reveal a nude bodysuit with beads and sequins. She sported a headpiece with voluminous plumage and was singing the pro-feminist “Woman’s World.” Whew.
Exits are also everything, too. At the close, during a cover of Miley Cyrus’s “I Hope You Find It,” (a nod to a spiritual offspring?) she floated over the crowd, riding a steeple-like gondola lift to the rear of the arena. It then returned to the stage, Cher waving, smiling and departing like Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.
Somewhere in between, Cher noted that she could still fit into the slinky costume she wore in the classic ‘80s rock video “If I Could Turn Back Time” – you know, the one with sailors on the USS Missouri, her straddling a big cannon – “and I’m almost 100.” Near the end of that lavish spectacle-of-a-show she played that peppy, bombastic thumper and the skimpy outfit she wore was, if not identical, darn close to it.
Cher has had No. 1 hits in each of the four decades of the last century. Two of her favorite modes remain churning ‘80s-style pop-disco and ‘80s-style arena rock. Typically, she’d have about 10 dancers, a five-piece band, two backup singers and (sometimes) two aerialists doing sporadic Cirque du Soleil-esque turns above the stage.
At almost any point in her life you might have thought, Cher’s saga would be perfect fodder for a jukebox musical and, indeed, in 2018-2019 there was The Cher Show on Broadway. Three different actresses played Cher at different points in her career and the show won two Tonys, but not much critical praise.
“There’s a fine line between tacky and spectacular,” wrote the New York Times’ chief theater critic, Jesse Greene, calling it totally ham-handed, but “not as unpleasant as slicker jukebox musicals that valorize thugs or bulldoze the audience. … And yes, it gets whiny just when you want it to get fierce. But it’s not cynical. It even has moments in which, like Cher herself, it’s strong enough to tease its own conventions.”
But back to the real-life Cher. Her aesthetic remains proudly unchanged: Bombast, glitz, kitsch and sex appeal, Vegas with attitude. And as anyone who’s seen the show knows, it is not all about music. Cher is a movie star, too, and a storyteller. During her concerts, which tend to run about 95 minutes, she provides a trip down memory lane – a portal to her cinematic life – with various quick clips from her films. Also – this from 2019 – up on the big backing screen, home photos of her as a youth, with Cher talking of her love for her mother and her appreciation that her mother turned her onto Elvis, in effect starting her on the right path. Images of her as a side-burned Elvis flashed on screen and she sang Marc Cohn’s aching “Walking in Memphis” – which is partially about Elvis’ ghost.
And, in an enduring bit that can only be called creepy-sweet, she sang “I Got You Babe” just as she might have done with Sonny Bono in the ‘60s or ‘70s. (She’s got the retro hippie/young-Cher look down cold.) Except, of course, Sonny died in 1998 so she sang to his crooning black-and-white image on video (a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole). “This is something I never thought I would do,” she said, introducing the “duet.” “But it is my last show …” (It, of course, was not. There will never be a last show just as every mention of a “farewell tour” is a feint.)
Cher was calling Sonny “the best partner I ever had” (not Gregg Allman?!) well before his fatal ski accident in January. When we spoke the following year, I asked whether she wanted to talk about him and she parried “It depends on what you want to ask.”
I asked about his spirit, if she somehow still feels his presence.
“Well, I just do,” she says, “It is difficult to explain it, a closeness.”
I left it there.
Cher is both honest and clever. In concert, she talked about a youthful foot injury that came back to haunt her recently (as the doctor warned her), and she paced herself so that she had time to breathe during the multiple costume changes. But her voice was strong and soaring. (Autotuned? I honestly don’t know, but we all know “Believe” was the first big hit to employ it.) Her backup singers took the lead with Cher off stage for the energetic (and Sonny-penned) “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
VIDEO: Sonny and Cher perform “I Got You Babe” for the last time on Late Night With David Letterman, 1987
Bonus real-life points in the 21st century for rescuing elephants and taking on Trump and the Trumpsters on Twitter.
So, has it been a charmed life?
Yes, sort of. Cher transcended her cheeseball goofy/funny hippie ‘70s TV variety shows with then-husband Sonny to carve out a unique career: An actress who makes smart choices about tough roles, and a singer who has scored with hard rock, pop, disco, and schmaltz, who puts the top in the phrase “over the top,” especially when she takes to the concert stage.
“Someone has to draw the line for me where over-the-top is concerned,” she reasoned, with a laugh, “because then and only then can you know when you are going over it. I just do it.”
VIDEO: Cher “If I Could Turn Back Time”