EVEN AMID THE EXHILARATING VISUALS OF THE IMPERIAL DRAGON, a Manhattan restaurant squirreled away in the city's midtown music-biz district, Cyndi Lauper is a riveting presence. The decor here, definitive of a style known to devotees as Screaming Asiatic, elaborates upon vast paneled expanses of seething red-and-gold dragons, with similar mythic reptiles writhing down gilded pillars. Yet it might as well be Bauhaus the minute Lauper walks in, sporting a look that would drop drawers at a clown convention.
Tonight, she is turned out in blazing orange pants and a satin bomber jacket, under which she wears a white-beaded fringe vest pulled over an already assertive red-and-yellow shirt. Many bracelets ring her wrists, and pendulous earrings clatter about her lobes. Her eyes are shadowed with scarlet, the left lid divided by a bright gold stripe, and atop her head is a tartan cap – worn backward – from under which her hair erupts in a haystack of howling fuchsia. She pauses to survey the room, where several diners sit popeyed over their chopsticks. Not in shock, you understand, but in recognition. Acceptance. Some are even smiling. Lauper, for so long a laughingstock in both her personal and professional lives, is still not completely accustomed to such benign consideration.
"People used to throw rocks at me for my clothes," she says in her appealing Queens-side wheeze. "Now they wanna know where I buy them, right? Doesn't that seem weird to you?"
At the rustling of a kimono, she turns to greet a familiar waitress. Their conversation is brief but animated, and unpretentiously affectionate. Cyndi has friends everywhere. Many of them turn up in the videos with which she currently chronicles her existence. Few are of the standard glamour-puss variety, but she treasures them nonetheless.
"People are really somethin'," she says as we search for seats. "They're walking books, all of them. Sometimes you'll only meet them once, but you'll never forget them. So you try to enjoy them. That's why, even if you're in the ladies' room, you should always talk to the woman next to you. Even if you're in the stall, you can say, uh, 'Hey! No toilet paper! I guess it's drip-dry tonight!' "
She's still yukking as we take a table. The manager – another pal – approaches. "Life," Cyndi says, before turning the full wattage of her winsomeness upon him, "is a great joy."
Her happiness becomes her. Although she considers herself something of an ugly duckling, she has the radiance of true talent and, nowadays, the beauty of that talent fulfilled. Not long ago, though, Lauper's life was nowhere near so swell. A long-struggling singer with one lone album to her credit – and that an expensive commercial flop – she had lost the band she'd dreamed of leading to pop stardom and had, in fact, been left without an official penny to her name. (In a dispute with the group's former manager, she'd felt compelled to declare bankruptcy in a New York court) No one who'd heard her sing doubted the brilliance of her freakish, four-octave voice, and her songwriting ability was apparent even on the flop album. But less than two years ago, she was reduced to singing Little Peggy March tunes in a Japanese piano bar. She seemed a pop character without a context: a never-was, and edging toward thirty.
Then an astonishing thing happened – astonishing to everyone, that is, except Lauper and her circle of long-haul supporters. At the very nadir of her career, the dream finally came true. Her first solo album, She's So Unusual, turned into a platinum-bound Top Ten hit And its first single, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" – which went to Number Two and spawned a rollicking video that's made her an international celebrity – is now yielding to the bulleted follow-up "Time after Time." Suddenly, Cyndi Lauper, with her vivid New York yawp and Vegematic clothes sense, is the queen of the nation's TV screens: cracking up Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, trading Big Apple brays with Rodney Dangerfield at the Grammy Awards. And, of course, she's all over MTV, the music channel, which has used her as a kind of corporate mascot.
And there lies what even some admirers already see as a problem. With her professional pinnacle as a singer finally in sight, is Cyndi Lauper now being turned into a mere cartoon, another inflatable zany for the MTV/talk-show circuit? Is the mouth overshadowing the music? Will she soon be angled off toward Broadway – or, worse yet, Hollywood? In the end, might she really prove to be nothing more than a pop-rock novelty, a passer-through? Some of this speculation has not been without a certain amount of malice, typical in the biz.
Cyndi's heard this talk, of course. She knows who these people are. "They've always laughed at me," she says, toughening reflexively. "People have always said I couldn't sing, always tried to label me. I ain't worried about them, because the minute I open my mouth and sing, I can blow them right offa their chairs. They can't take your talent away from ya. I am not a Broadway singer, and I am not a movie-TV person. I ain't into that shit. I'm no dummy. I'm not a puppet And all the people that make fun of me, or call me a cartoon...."
She pauses to pour some hot sake from a porcelain flask, dismissing the subject with a sweet scowl. "They're talkin' outta their ass," she says.
CYNDI LAUPER WAS BORN IN A Queens hospital not far from her parents' home in the rough Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Although Cyndi is sensitive to questions about her age – "What am I, a car?" is her standard riposte – an old band bio indicates her natal date to be June 20th, 1953. Her father was a shipping clerk, an unusual man. At home, his interests ranged from archaeology to playing the xylophone. Her mother had her hands full, tending Cynthia and her elder sister, Elen, and younger brother, Butch. Glittery Manhattan was just over the Williamsburg Bridge, but cultures away.
Cyndi's parents divorced when she was five, and her mother moved with the three kids to a neighborhood in Queens called Ozone Park. In the pantheon of New York City boroughs, Manhattan – the real New York – is to Queens as Hollywood is to the San Fernando Valley; or, perhaps more evocatively, as Fred Astaire is to Cheech and Chong.
At least, that's how Manhattanites see it. Or hear it: something about the way the typical Queens native talks in a sort of throttled yowl that partakes equally of Arnold Stang and Francis the Talking Mule.
"My speaking voice," Cyndi admits, "is ridiculous."
Growing up in Ozone Park was – well, the name says it all. "Pretty spaced out," Cyndi quips. "I didn't belong there." She was tossed out of a local Catholic school – "because my mother was divorced," she says – and was subsequently sent to a convent type of Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. It was not a happy experience.
"That's when I realized that nuns and God could not have anything to do with each other," she says. "These women were trained by Nazis, I think. They were into torture; it was a torture chamber for kids. If you talked to a boy, they'd slap you as hard as they could in the face. I remember one time I scratched this girl's back in the middle of the night – I was, you know, nine, and she was twelve, and she asked me to scratch her back. A nun ran in, ripped me off her back, threw me against the lockers, beat the shit out of me and called me a lesbian. I didn't know what a lesbian was." Two decades later, she is still fuming.
"See," she says, "my mother didn't know about this stuff – you never think a nun is lying. It was all traditional: the church, the family, the government. And you know what I learned? Those are the three biggest oppressors of women that will ever come along."
So, at an early age, Cyndi decided that the straight life was "really bullshit. I withdrew, into music, records. I was different, and I was...you know, kids are cruel to each other. Now," she says, toughening again, "it doesn't bother me. I don't give a shit what anybody says about me. You don't like it, too fuckin' bad. Because the truth is, you can't stamp out individuality – there's too many of us."
Cyndi escaped from the convent school after six ugly months ("I asked the nuns if they menstruated, and that was it") and returned to Ozone Park. There she went to public school and happily discovvered the existence of blacks and Jews, and started getting musical. The first records she ever heard were her mother's, which ranged from Eileen Farrell singing Madame Butterfly to Louis Armstrong croaking "All That Meat and No Potatoes."
But the major event of her young musical life was the arrival of the Beatles. "I was really fascinated by John Lennon's lower harmony, the way it moved. I would copy that when my sister and I harmonized as we did the dishes. Sometimes I'd wash and she'd wipe; or if we really wanted to get funky, I would just wipe and she'd put away, see? Anyway, my voice didn't sound like the Beatles'. I was so disappointed, I stopped singing."
Having inherited an acoustic guitar from her sister, however, she learned to play "Greensleeves" and launched herself as a typical folkette of the time. At this point, her musical endeavors – mostly singing in parks and at local hootnights with an early songwriting partner – were more successful than her educational efforts. Lauper was sure she had an affinity for music and art, but she couldn't seem to demonstrate it to anyone's satisfaction. "I got zero in art, and I went to an art school, Fashion Industries. Then they put me in this genius class – for geniuses that are nonachievers – and I failed that, too. And that was it. I figured, 'Oh, you thought you were a genius, just a genius who couldn't achieve. But really you're a dummy.' I got left back so many times I finally just quit and got my GED [General Equivalency Diploma]."
By then, she felt alienated and afraid – what would become of her? Her mother, who had married and then divorced again, worked fourteen-hour days in local diners to support her children, a situation Cyndi found horrifying.
"It was really the pits," she says. "She looked like she was killing herself. She always tried to be happy, and it wasn't a conventional thing then for women to be really happy. I think that the reason I am the way I am comes from watching my mother and my grandmother and the women in my family and in the neighborhood. It's funny, in a neighborhood, you see the women as teenagers, and then you see them grown with children – all in the span of your being five to ten. And you see them take on the same look in their faces that you saw on your mother's. And this is the life of women, you know?"
It was not for her. At seventeen, she left Ozone Park with no regrets. "I was packin' since I was fourteen, so it was about time, you know?"
LAUPER WORKED ODD JOBS, AND SHE TOOK walks, long ones. "I used to walk and walk and walk," she remembers. "I felt like I was going to walk off the end of the earth. I felt really in a different world from everybody else."
She met an artist, a man in his sixties named Bob Barrell, with whom she studied for a while. He introduced her to poets and politics (although she'd already been a peace marcher in high school) and to such writers as Thoreau. Inspired, Cyndi set off with her dog, a mutt named Sparkle, for Canada, where she spent two weeks in the woods north of Toronto, sleeping in a tent and sketching trees. She got homesick for New York, though, and wended her way back by way of Vermont, where she stopped to take classes at an art school near Stowe, supporting herself by working as a waitress, a painting-class model, a race-track warmup attendant and a peddler of karate and judo lessons, about which she knew not the first thing.
"Sometimes I felt so crumbled," she says. "I thought, 'How will I live?' I used to pray all the time that I would change into this or that. But you can't. You can never run away from yourself. And I tried so hard."
Finally, somewhat demoralized but still determined to escape the traditional woman's lot, Lauper returned home to Ozone Park.
"I came back to do what I know how to do, and that is sing. Nobody has to teach me how to sing."
This assumption later proved technically inaccurate, but it was the right attitude. In 1974, she landed a job as a backup singer and dancer in a Long Island copy band called Doc West. "It was disco," she says distastefully. "Cover, cover, cover. I used to sing Chaka Khan things, and LaBelle. I used to sing 'I've Got the Music in Me,' which I really hated. I didn't know much then, and I couldn't understand why on some days I could hit the notes and some days I couldn't. I'd be standing onstage going, 'I got the muuu..., I got the muuu...,' and wondering what happened. Finally, I figured out why it was stuck: I had it in me, but it couldn't come out because I was doing covers. It was always someone else's muuu."
The group also featured Cyndi in a typically tacky "tribute" to Janis Joplin. "I did that really good, until my friends started saying things like, 'When you sing, it's almost like her.' And I thought, 'That's right: I'm living in her body.' Onstage, I would feel her all around me. Finally, I just said, 'I can't do this anymore.' It wasn't me. I was wearing platform shoes, and I had pin curls in my hair. I looked like Isaac Newton."
Next, she started a band called Flyer, a more rock & roll-oriented outfit that played all the predictable hits by Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, et cetera – the Long Island bar circuit not being known for its love of originality. "It was always, 'Why does she run around so much?' And 'What's the matter with her voice? It sounds so weird and different.' And 'Why does she talk like that?' It was, like, give me a break, you know?"
In 1977, after some three years of mimicking Joplin, Stewart and Jagger, Lauper caved in. Her voice was shot, and when she called in a friend to replace her in the group, the friend recommended that she see Katie Agresta, a classically trained Manhattan voice coach.
"When she came to my studio seven years ago," Agresta recalls, "she could no longer speak. She was whispering. She had been told by three doctors that she would never sing again. I think she had one foot off the Brooklyn Bridge, to tell you the truth."
Agresta taught her new student about vocal exercises and warmups, proper diet and the damage that drugs and alcohol can do – not that Lauper was a serious abuser in either category. And slowly but surely, over the course of a year, Cyndi started singing again.
"I knew the day I met her she was going to be a star," Agresta enthuses. "She's a phenomenal singer, and what she's doing now is not even using a lot of what she really can do; it's a marvelous instrument she has. She always makes me cry. I've watched her go through the tortures of the damned. She came from nowhere, from nothing, and she had no help from anybody. She had so many opportunities to just give up, and she didn't."
After rebuilding her voice, Lauper got a gig singing at Trude Heller's nightclub – in Manhattan, at last. Ted Rosenblatt, her manager at the time, came to see her one night and brought along a songwriter named John Turi, who also played keyboards and saxophone. Turi and Lauper hit it off and soon were collaborating on tunes. By 1978, they had put together a Fifties-style band called Blue Angel.
In the spring of 1979, a tape of Blue Angel demos found its way into the hands of Steve Massarsky, an attorney who at the time managed the Allman Brothers Band. Massarsky was not impressed. "The tape was terrible," he says. "The songs were bad, the playing was bad. There was something interesting about the singer's voice, but that was all."
Massarsky was nevertheless inveigled into checking out the band in performance at an uptown club called Trax. "Cyndi walked in," he recalls, shifting his voice up into a register reminiscent of Daffy Duck's, "and she said to me: 'So you're Steve, huh? I'm surprised you showed up. Nobody ever shows up when we want 'em to; they just show up when we don't expect it, and we don't play good.' " Massarsky resumes his normal speaking voice. "I thought, oh, great. But she got onstage, and she opened her mouth to sing, and it was magic. I'd never heard anything like it. I fell in love. Of course, she was doing things like tripping over the other players and knocking things down as she walked – as klutzy as you can possibly be on a stage. But she was magnificent."
Massarsky was so impressed by Lauper's potential that he paid some $5000 to buy her management contract from Rosenblatt. Massarsky set up a showcase for Blue Angel and invited all his industry contacts to come see the band. The reaction, he recalls, was unanimous: "The singer's wonderful, get rid of the band."
Cyndi wouldn't hear of such a thing, though, and she held her ground until, six months later, Polygram Records offered a recording contract for the whole group. But the band's debut album, Blue Angel, released in 1980, was a stiff. Critics liked it, but not for the rockabilly stylings the band felt to be its specialty. It was Lauper's spectacular, octave-vaulting vocals on such doowopish tunes as "Maybe He'll Know" that caught the few ears that ever heard the LP. Lauper was angered by the whole experience. "She even thought the photos on the album made her look like Big Bird," Massarsky recalls.
Still, Cyndi resisted all efforts to lure her from the band and into a solo career. Massarsky remembers the time, before the first album was recorded, when Polygram flew him and his protégé out to L.A. to meet with the renowned Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder, whom Polygram originally wanted to produce Blue Angel. The premise for their meeting was that Lauper was to take a crack at singing the theme song for a teen-exploitation movie called Roadie, which starred Meat Loaf and Deborah Harry of Blondie. Moroder was a big gun in the biz, but Cyndi wasn't impressed.
"She was convinced that she was not gonna do this, and she set about to fuck it up," Massarsky remembers. "At one point, we were all in a coffee shop across the street from the studio, and she looked at Moroder and said, 'So, George, what kind of music do you listen to?' And Moroder said, 'Well, ah, what do you mean?' She said, 'Well, I mean, are you into Buddy Holly? Ya like Elvis? Whaddya think of Eddie Cochran?' And Moroder's going: 'Who are these people?' She goes, 'George, these are the roots of rock & roll. You wanna produce me, you've gotta understand this stuff. Who're yer influences?' And Moroder goes: 'I am an original. I only listen to Giorgio Moroder.'
"Cyndi," Massarsky says, "was a star before her time."
It was Roy Halee, best known for producing Simon and Garfunkel in the Sixties, who eventually wound up producing the first Blue Angel album – and, as it turned out, the last. A new executive regime had taken over at Polygram and was demanding dynamite tunes before it would let the band back in the studio. Blue Angel had a falling-out with Massarsky, and when they dismissed him as their manager, he responded by filing suit against the group for $80,000 he claimed they owed him. Cyndi was among the members who decided to file for bankruptcy, which was granted, in her case, in the winter of 1983.
"That was the last time I saw her," Massarsky says, "at the settlement. I walked up to her, kissed her on the cheek and said, 'Hey, now go make all the money we all thought you could make to begin with. Go become a star.' "
"And the judge," Cyndi recalls with a giggle, "the judge said, 'Let the canary sing!' "
WITH BLUE ANGEL EFFECTIVELY demolished by its first tilt toward success, Lauper was finally ready to go solo. But she wasn't about to rush into it. If stardom was to be hers, it would have to be on her own terms. So, before she'd jump for a new record deal, Cyndi waited and did what she could to make ends meet. She sang oldies at a Japanese piano bar called Miho, and she worked for a while at an Upper West Side vintage-clothing shop called Screaming Mimi's, whence came several of her more eyecatching ideas about clothing. A little bit earlier, she had met David Wolff, a manager whose own Connecticut-based band, ArcAngel, was signed to Portrait Records, a subsidiary of CBS.
Wolff, who has since become Lauper's manager and boyfriend, put her together with CBS executive producer Lennie Petze, who in turn arranged a meeting for her with producer Rick Chertoff. Soon a solo album started taking shape, with Chertoff calling in two friends, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of Philadelphia's Hooters, to help out with the music. Songwriter Jules Shear also took part, as did drummer Anton Fig and bassist Neil Jason, two crack sessionmen. The resulting album, She's So Unusual, was probably the most exuberant vocal debut of 1983. And some of its better tunes were cowritten by Lauper, including the clever little masturbation ditty "She Bop."
The most immediately impressive performances on the record, however, were three inspired covers: the Brains' "Money Changes Everything," Prince's "When You Were Mine" and Philly rocker Robert Hazard's previously unrecorded "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," which Lauper couldn't identify with when she first heard Hazard perform it.
"I changed the words," Cyndi says. "It was originally about how fortunate he was 'cause he was a guy around these girls that wanted to have 'fun' – with him – down there, of which we do not speak lest we go blind. I tore it apart."
But it was the video for "Girls" that really made Cyndi Lauper a star. In it, she told the story of her own repressed childhood, her yearning for freedom and her mother's unhappy entrapment in the female status quo. She even persuaded her mother to play herself, and recruited a party load of friends and family to participate, including her brother, Butch, and her dog, Sparkle. "My mother was wonderful," Cyndi says. "Now it's gone to her head. She's picked out a stage name – Katreen Dominique – and she wears sunglasses whenever she walks Sparkle. As a matter of fact, Sparkle wears sunglasses now, too."
The video for her new single, "Time after Time," is equally autobiographical, recalling the time Cyndi once ran away from home. Her mom's in this one, too, as is David Wolff, typecast as her boyfriend. "Art should reflect life," Cyndi says, "not art. This video's about two people in a small town – small towns are great, if you choose that. Nowadays, there's more and more choices in the world, there really are. But no matter what you wanna be, you gotta break yer ass, you gotta work hard. Do what's in your heart and don't take no for an answer.
"Me, I always wanted to make world music – to say something that's worth sayin' and really touch humanity. That's why I'm here. There's a wonderful place that you go when you sing, there's a really good feeling. And it's wonderful to reach out and touch someone with it, because they touch you back. And sometimes that's worth the price of beans."