GOLDMINE: Cid. It is good talking with you again and as promised, like Elton John, I have a Diet Coke next to me on my Grease “It’s Raining on Prom Night” coaster.
CIDNY BULLENS: Ha ha ha. You have no idea how many times people request that I perform “It’s Raining on Prom Night.” I have been doing an online concert streaming series this year called Monday Night Mojo on my Facebook band page and people are always requesting one of the Grease songs. I couldn’t do them justice with me singing and playing acoustic guitar. They seem very simple, but the chord structures are complicated.
GM: Let’s talk about some of the songs from Walkin' Through This World. Your new album opens with “Little Pieces.” When I first heard your voice, it surprised me, reminding me a bit of mid-1970s Bob Dylan, who you worked with during that era. You are such a storyteller with “boxes of photos strewn on the bed.” There are lyrical lines that I love in your work and the chorus melody’s high notes on this opener are catchy.
CB: Thank you so much. “Little Pieces” was one of the two songs that was written in the beginning of my transition, in the first few months to year. I started transitioning on September 1, 2011, which is when I had my first shot of testosterone. I changed my name from Cindy to Cidny the next month, but I didn’t come out publicly until June of 2012, when I wrote the Daily Beast article, because I wanted the option to go back if I chose to do so. It was really daunting, especially for a 60 year-old who has a life, career, friends and family who all knew me as Cindy Bullens. I started on a very low dose of testosterone because I knew that my voice would change a little bit. Age impacts your voice anyway. From the research that I did, I knew that I was going to lose some high notes and that my vocal cords would thicken. Even with the low dose of testosterone, I could feel pieces of myself falling away. The song still resonates with me today, eight years later, because I come into who Cidny is, but at that time, when I wrote this song and “Purgatory Road,” the second song on the album, I didn’t know who Cid was yet. I knew that Cindy was starting to fall away. It was that “oh my gosh” feeling of uncertainty with everything that I knew before falling away. The second verse is a little more nuanced about the rain because I didn’t know what becoming the opposite gender would feel like.
GM: “Purgatory Road” is another example of Bob Dylan-like storytelling. How long did you work with him, around the era of my favorite Dylan album Desire which began with the song “Hurricane” featuring Scarlet Rivera on violin?
CB: I was in the live band at the very beginning of what became The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, which I was going to go on, and then I met Elton John and in one day I had to choose between Bob Dylan and Elton John and I chose Elton. I did perform in three concerts as a member of The Rolling Thunder Revue, but I was not on the whole tour.
GM: When you were on Elton’s tour, I saw the show in Cleveland with my friends, but we had an obstructed view. “Island Girl” was out at the time from his Rock of the Westies album, which would later bring him his first charting flip side, “I Feel Like I’m a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford),” with a feel most similar to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” The A side was “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” which had a bounce like “The Bitch is Back.” At the concert, our seats were basically backstage, which I knew at the time when I bought the tickets at the ticket outlet at Sears in the mall, when others in line left and I got the last four tickets. I knew this meant that we would be by Elton’s piano, so we saw him but missed a lot of the others on stage.
CB: You may have missed me standing in the middle of the background singers bouncing around. The show went on for hours and he filled all of that time with his hits and here we are 45 years later, and he is still performing, with future concert dates going to 2022. It was such an incredible experience.
A side: Grow Some Funk of Your Own
Top 100 debut: January 24, 1976
Peak position: 14
GM: I understand that he loves your new album too.
CB: I am thrilled that he does. You know the best part of meeting Elton, at a party that I crashed in Los Angeles in 1975, is that all these years later we are still good friends. He has been an incredible supporter of me both personally and professionally. I love him. We are in touch once every couple of weeks. He is so involved in my story. He is part of the documentary The Gender Line made about me and he is always so supportive.
GM: Your album is such honest work. On the title track “Walkin’ Through This World,” which is a narrative, the phrase “as exactly who I am” I think is a theme for many of us, planning, when we were in high school, who and what we wanted to become.
GM: I remember us discussing that in our 2018 interview, how Bob Crewe encouraged you to sing higher.
CB: That’s right. Even though Bob Crewe did not produce that album, I took that to heart. I am very proud of the songs that I wrote but my voice is naturally low and not reflected on those recordings. In preparing for this album, I went through some old demos and unfinished songs to jump start my brain for creating new songs and I found this beat that I had done years before and thought it was kind of fun. I had an inspiration to write a bit of an homage to Lou Reed and all the “walking” titles and the lyrics came out very quickly, and I put the doop doops in, like on his “Walk on the Wild Side,” and thought it was different from anything I had ever done, but cool. My daughter Reid calls it a combination of a 1960s and 1980s feel. I think it is really fun. Sometimes I get chills when I hear the line “I’m walking through this world as exactly who I am” because it resonates with me and I think it will resonate with people and if it resonates with some younger people who are finding their way, whether they are trans, gay, straight, or whatever, if they can listen to that and know that is possible, to walk through the world as exactly who you are, and that it takes time, but you can come into that place, that would be my wish.
GM: Absolutely. Then they won’t turn up like the second verse of “The Gender Line” with teenage suicide.
CB: Yes. That song was a tough one. I was being filmed for a feature called Invisible about gay women in southern music. T.J. Parsell had seen my one person show where the term "the gender line" originates. The doc short came about six months after I was filmed when T.J. extracted my interview section from the feature and called it The Gender Line. T.J. said to me that I needed to write a song to go with the film’s title. I rolled my eyes in my head. No writer wants to be told what to write. I am not one to write social songs or ones about political matter. I don’t preach. I don’t try to tell people what to do. The songs are just slices of my life. I had to drive from Maine to New Mexico after that and I was in my truck and suddenly the first verse came out. I looked into the rearview mirror and the lines came to me, “What would you do? You look into the mirror and you’re not really you.” Then there is the line about struggling to find something to wear, which I always did when I was a woman. Then I wanted to write about the opposite of me. I am an older trans man and I wanted to write about a younger trans woman. It is daunting to change genders regardless of age. The suicides that happen are most often with younger trans women, boys who feel they are girls and men who know they are women stuck in a man’s body and they are truly women. I knew that I needed to address the seriousness and severity of the situation. I needed to make it real. I was fortunate that I was able to write a verse that was simple but explanatory at the same time and emotional.
GM: You mentioned your daughter Reid. She delivers such a beautiful harmony on “Healing the Break.”
CB: She is a wonderful singer and talent. She has sung on all of my albums since 1999. On this song, “Healing the Break,” we are all broken and have broken pieces in our lives, and I wanted her on that song with me. I love my daughter. I have four grandchildren by her.
GM: I think the catchiest song is “Crack the Sky.”
CB: That is one of the last songs that I wrote for the album. I have this term that I have used probably my whole adult life about cracking the universe, which means finding that crack in the universe that you can go through when things seem to be bearing down on you, when you aren’t getting where you are supposed to be or not becoming what you are supposed to become. I wanted to use the sky as a metaphor because we can see the sky but not the universe. We look up and see the sky, both dark and light. It is infinite, but you can see it. In my case I knew I had to become my best new person because my past was dying, and I had to get through whatever perceived barrier there was and come out the other side.
GM: You are surrounded by some wonderful musicians on the album. There is a great slide guitar on “Sugartown.”
CB: George Marinelli has played on my albums since 1999 and has been a friend of mine for a lot longer than that. We met in the 1980s, when he was in Bruce Hornsby and The Range, and until recently he was Bonnie Raitt’s guitar player for 25 years and just retired from her group of musicians. I think he is one of the greatest rock guitar players because he is so tasteful. He finds the holes and never overplays.
GM: Rodney Crowell is also on your album. Even though he is not on “Call Me by My Name,” that is the one which reminds me the most of his songs, a bit like his “She’s Crazy for Leaving” but also a taste of The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman.”
CB: Ha ha ha. I never thought of that. That song is one of Elton’s favorites, too. It came about because I wanted to write a song with that beat. I wanted to write a song called “Call Me by My Name” because, obviously, I had changed my name and it does have some humor in it. When people have had a hard time with the name change, I have said, “Just call me by my name.” The song is supposed to be light and fun with a humorous take on the change. Rodney did sing on “The Gender Line” and is a hero to me. He co-produced three of the songs on my Between Heaven and Earth album after my youngest daughter Jessie died from cancer. He is one of the deepest souls I have ever known. I just love him. He is one of the most caring and loving human beings on earth. He believes in an inclusive world.
GM: Beth Nielsen Chapman sings background vocals on a couple of your songs. The first time that I heard her on the radio was with her beautiful song “All I Have” and I bought her cassette single and the second song was “Emily,” about friendship during a time of illness, and that became my favorite song of 1991. Then I bought her self-titled CD for more of her songs and fell in love with “Years.” A few years later, another one of her beautiful songs, “Sand and Water,” was on the radio.
CB: Beth has been a friend of mine since the 1990s. We met in Nashville. She and Rodney are close friends. After Jessie died in 1996, “Sand and Water” was one of my favorite songs to listen to, which Beth wrote after her husband’s death. I met her after he died but before my daughter died. About a month after Jessie’s passing, Beth called me on the phone and she said to me, “You know, you will write again. You will be able to make art out of this.” We became really close after that. She has remained a steadfast friend and I love her songs, and her voice is just as pure as the day. She is a beautiful human being. She is so strong. She lost her husband and has gone through cancer herself. She never stops moving. I wanted her to sing on the album, and by the way, I sing on her new album, coming out in the near future.
GM: We talked about your daughter Reid. My daughter Brianna, who is now a math professor, sponsored a club for LGBTQ students and allies at her school. She congratulates you and thanks you for sharing your story.
CB: That is awesome. I thank her for her caring and her commitment for helping those students.
GM: My wife Donna and I are so proud of her and her work in education. Speaking of wives, you and Tanya were newlyweds when we conducted our prior Goldmine interview.
CB: Yes, that’s right. Tanya and I got married in January of 2018 at City Hall in New York City. Boy am I lucky. I am just as fortunate as I can be. I had been single for a number of years. We met in 2014. I went to her when I was trying to form my one person show, Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life, because she is a solo show and memoir coach. We had a professional relationship for about fifteen months, and we started dating, very slowly, over the next year-and-a-half. By July of 2016, we were together as a couple. She’s amazing. When I began transitioning, I said to myself that if I ever wanted a relationship, that was gone now, because who is going to want an old trans man? Who knew that the whole world was just going to open up to me? We have an incredible relationship. I feel so fortunate. I am very proud of the new album and I hope that it gets heard by the people who need to hear it. Thank you so much. I am glad you continue to write about and promote music. Stay safe and I send my regards to your family and the Goldmine readers.
Photo courtesy of cidnybullens.com
More Fabulous Flip Sides of Elton John pre-1975:
"Bad Side of the Moon" flip side of "Border Song" - 1970, covered by April Wine
"Take Me to the Pilot" flip side of "Your Song" - 1970, a popular concert song
"Eldeberry Wine" lively flip side of "Crocodile Rock," - 1972 Elton John's first No. 1 single in the U.S.
"Harmony" beautiful flip side of "Bennie and the Jets" - 1974, and the finale from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road double album