“. . . . their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum . . . a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams.”
– ‘Hamlet’ II, ii
It is four in the morning at the Sahara Hotel, a Las Vegas nitery so . . . clearly Hy-Tone. Sonny Bono, wearing jeans and a knit shirt, steps from a dark lounge with a few friends, turns into the gambling corridor, smack into a bevy of buxom yahoos. He pauses to sign a few autographs and the ladies giggle and press. Others gather into the fold. Sonny gets uneasy. A handful of pudgy fingers entwine around his gold neckchain. “Isn’t this the most darling thing,” she breathes.
Bono, desperate, rushes a last few John Hancocks and reaches through the bulging spray of organdy sleeves and puckapoo lips for a recognizable arm, anyone, even you, you hostile scribe. . . .
One hauls Sonny Bono clear, out and around a crap table, free at last, but his eyes are glazed with fear. The crap shooters glance up, do not give a damn, and grimly resurvey their board like it was an unauthorized autopsy of God.
Bono pulls himself together, walking along, heading for his room and his family, dazed with half a smile, because, after all, this is Paradise Regained for him, he rules this Anything-Goes Town, which is a hell of a note for Salvatore Bono – just call him “Sal,” what they called him when he pushed a broom in an Italian grocery store so long ago, before Vegas, before he ascended Mount Video, before the nose job, before he became a Nixonoid, before the daughter and the fortune and the fall and the fights. All before the kookiness and kickiness.
* * *
Popular on Rolling Stone
There she stood in studio B of CBS Television City, the high-heeled hippodrome, Cher Bono surrounded by her fleet of lackeys – one seamstress kneeling, two cosmeticians performing relief work, a hairstylist under a pink wig. A grip walked through the empty seats, lamenting, “We’ll have to do something. We’ll have to fix that neckline. You can’t have ten o’clock tits on an eight o’clock show.”
Cher was going to sing “Song For You,” so starchly beplumed in her trademark white feathered headdress, to be shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens . . . soft-focus . . . like an ostrich dusted in hoarfrost.
She looks grim. Like Duke Snider. She is a tough dame and smiles with the edge of her mouth, and maybe a naughty little pucker and then the big Ha-Ha, all flashes of eyeteeth and throat and trunkular proboscis. Sometimes a spleenful hoyden.
When the number is over, she blushingly acknowledges from side-to-side the invisible applause that will be added later. Right now only the cameramen applaud, which is the way it’s been going through all the skits . . . the propmen help the timing by laughing uproariously at lines they’ve heard a dozen times over. The unsung laughers.
Later, in her dressing room, she sits stone-faced in a pink monogrammed bathrobe, picking through melon slices on a paper plate. The wig-tender combs her hair; the baby, Chastity, plays on the floor. A grip asks Cher how she feels.
“Tense,” she says, “I feel like rat-shit, and I’ve got this lousy sore throat too.”
The man is concerned. “Are you taking any vitamin C?”
“Christ! I’ve been taking vitamin C up the ass lately.”
“No baby,” he reassures. “It’s the throat.”
A brief smile flashes, but her endearing pout . . . The Pout . . . returns and she fixes her withering gaze on the scribe. “You try touring for 40 days straight sometime,” she mumbles, “and just . . . watch the world crumble before your eyes. Like this morning, I had to get my nails done and so I got up at 8:30 . . . y’know, god, every hour of every day . . . I just don’t know. . . .”
She gives the melon slices a stiff look, her head lifting as the attendant’s comb passes through her hair, and my-oh-my but she has a classy chassis, and legs as smooth as Sixth Avenue cheesecake and she is asking just why this opinionated journal wants to write about them anyway, but the gentleman’s eyes are transfixed by her hands. Those hands have never touched a dish all year, pal, those nails are like blood-tipped trowels.
* * *
Sonny and Cher have been working their asses off for a year. They had a lot of debts to pay off. During their 1967-71 decline, Sonny had bummed a lot of money, plus he stacked up $190,000 in back taxes, just now getting paid.
Today they live it up in the former Tony Curtis mansion, a houseful of antiques, televisions, Ferrari and Mercedae. Sonny has 37 pairs of shoes in his closet. Cher spends $10,000 a week on her rags and bijouterie. She’s as close to a fashion queen as reigns today.
It’s not like the old days. Hell, she got married in white bell-bottoms and only Sonny can tell you if she was wearing her Fruit of the Looms that night. Nowadays she covers the annual Christmas Vogue and will work only with Avedon. Vogue discovered her as a fashion plate and she loves them. They love her. An associate says this: “They think of her as the epitome of the American woman. They are wild over her. She’s brought back the halter, the strapless, the turban, the helmet. Possibly next spring she and Avedon will go to Paris and model the collections.”
In gaining the covers of TV Guide, Redbook and Good Housekeeping, they kept up an absurd pace of TV shows, suburb houses, Miami and Borscht Belt, until that August night in Las Vegas when they had that spat . . . it happened during rehearsals . . . Sonny was laboring and Cher was flirting with the band and Sonny got his Italian up and the shit hit the fan. Reasonable enough. For 24 hours a day they live in each other’s armpits. Anyway, the scandal jockeys all thought it was an “amorous trombone player” and the whole business propelled them into the torture tabloids and Screen Creams.
A meager price to pay for following in the footsteps of the Bickersons, Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, Rooney and Garland, Burns and Allen, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Tom Mix and Tony, Fibber McGee and Molly, Maria Montez and Sabu.
When they first hit in 1965, they were, of course, zowie, coming in the middle of Dick and DeeDee, April and Nino. Sonny and Cher were really there . . . they had parties for Twiggy and the like. When the Rolling Stones came into town on their first tour, they took refuge at their house and slept on the floor.
Now, they are merely an easily recognizable couple: Assinine and Saturnine. Good visuals. Bono once explained that there are two kinds of songs, audio and visual. “We try to keep it interesting to look at,” he says.
The visuals compensate for the vague talents and their television producers dump them into endless costumery: Snow White, Scheherazade, Macbeth, Sadie Thompson, the Three Musketeers, the Corsican Brothers. The sets come in colors that burn pinholes in your eyes. Just in case one missed the esophagus-laugh level jokes.
It’s not as if this worked against the mood of the land. (How well Bono said it when he said, regarding the show, “You know, the adrenalin kind of makes up for the inadequacy and the amateurism.”) Further, it has been argued that Bono fought his way to the top in the time-honored Harold Robbins manner, stealing songs and making deals. He’s quite a paisano, an eager, easygoing, bunkie Rotarian, always with the handshake and the good word. A larky and boyish 37 year old.
Charlie Greene is a manager of all managers: smooth, confident, relaxed, talks like Joey Bishop; no challenge big enough. He’s like one of those Chihuahuas that strut through life trying to hump all the Great Danes. Feisty.
He discovered and built acts like Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly, from obscurity to stardom. The same groups would eventually have seizures until Greene was booted out of the very contracts he landed them. Every time. Sonny Bono paid $250,000 to buy back Greene’s contract.
Without, however, the thimblerigging of Charlie Greene and then-partner Brian Stone, Sonny and Cher would now be a roller derby team in Fresno. He first took hold when they were billed as Caesar and Cleo (cashing in on the Cleopatra movie).
“Kind of a suck-ass name, don’t you think?” he grinned, his eyes shaded from the single, overhead third-degree lamp in his darkened office. The talk came easy. Maybe it was because he hadn’t fiddled with them since December 30th, 1966, and the topic does make a change in the rope dens.
“Yeah . . . I hocked my typewriters for that first record, ‘Baby Don’t Go.’ Got $168, you know, it was just a West Coast hit anyway. And then Sonny stole . . . ah, wrote, ‘I Got You Babe’. . . . heheheheh. . . .”
Why the big laugh?
“It was a very timely song, man. Hey, Donovan had just come off ‘Catch The Wind’ and Sonny is very good at picking out certain commercial aspects of other hit songs. As are other writers. Sure. Just listen to them side-by-side, it’s an influence. Sonny’s clever. He’s not a good songwriter, but he’s a clever thief. No, thief is the wrong word. Influence . . . he uses influence well.
” ‘Just You’ was influenced by ‘Baby It’s You.’ ‘Bang Bang’ . . . I think if you listen to ‘Zorba The Greek.’ And, uh, ‘The Beat Goes On,’ you might listen to Donovan’s ‘The Trip.’ ‘Baby Don’t Go,’ you might listen to ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.’ Some are direct; some are indirect. I got to hand it to the mother-fucker for continuing to have perseverance on . . . ah . . . on an overabundance of a lack of talent. No, no, no, I got no complaint with Sonny. Tell me, how’s he doing?”
He sat back in his swivel chair, out of the light. The slow, wry grin returned. “I’m not a musicologist. I can only tell you about coming back from London on the plane and Cher’s singing, ‘You Got Your Troubles, I Got Mine.’ You know, that Fortunes’ song? And an hour later in New York, Sonny writes ‘But You’re Mine.’ Hah, he phones up Jerry Wexler, you know, and he says, ‘I got a hit! I got a hit!’ And Jerry says, let’s hear it man. So he plays it, and Jerry says, ‘OK, what’s the joke? Lemme hear the hit.'”
He grinned. Then he leaned forward on one elbow, skirted the light, winced from his cigarette smoke and leaned into the question of whether or not he ever got stoned with Sonny Bono.
“Sonny had gallstones,” he said at last. “That’s the closest he ever got to getting stoned. So uh . . . the only thing he used to take was morphine tablets. A painkiller. I don’t think he knew he was stoned, because gallstones are painful, baby. I got to tell you. We used to have fun drinking bourbon and watching him go onstage.
“They never got into the drug culture trip. Which is fine, you know. My mother never did either. Which is wonderful. Did I want to build them toward the night clubs? Hey, I wanted to build them toward the public, man. Cher was still wearing her Fruit of the Loom undershorts then, right? She’s a little more together now.”
* * *
Jerry Wexler’s toothsome grin comes like 96 tombstones. “So you talked with Charlie Greene, huh?” he asked. “Tell me, was he rancorous? Did he tell you how he created Sonny and Cher from pure mud? How he shaped them with his hands and breathed upon them? Didn’t he tell you that? No?”
He turned back to his can of Jax beer. He had just come in from Texas, he and Sir Douglas Sahm, and both were kind of crazed in the L.A. hotel room, their veins pumping enchilada sauce, their fingers snatting to a song called “Two Sheets Between Us” by Frieda and the Firedogs. And here’s some guy asking about Sonny and Cher.
Wexler, like the others, missed it. The Atlantic Records honcho was given charge of Sonny and Cher during the 1967 decline. A “contemporary” album, Jackson Highway, it flopped and Atlantic hung up the gloves. Kapp Records then snatched up S&C and made millions in the Mom & Dad market. Took a walk on the maudlin side.
So Wexler didn’t want to say anything bad. He searched for the right description and, finally: “I don’t think Cher has a conscious, sophisticated, head appreciation of music. She’s not formal or academic. Just flows, you know? No sense of propulsion, it’s a sublimation of personality and suppression of the personal musical signature in favor of complete surrender to the music.”
This stirred up Doug Sahm. “That’s heavy, man. Whooo-hoooh“.
Wexler mulled over his beer can. Then looked up. “You know what?” he said quietly. “How can you get worked up over this subject for shit’s sake? Huh?” He laughed a laugh. “Am I right? I’m sure you have to be able to rationalize this, for your own self. I really don’t envy you, man. I’m sorry.”
* * *
True enough. Back in Television City, the S&C rhythm section was in the bleachers, waiting for their shot on the screen. To mime their parts. I asked them how they rationalized this business, and they shrugged. Then I asked about the groupies.
“Hey, they ain’t none,” snapped the short guy.
“Oh, well, wait a minute,” said the taller one, thoughtfully. “About 13, maybe . . . blonde . . . buck teeth.”
They turned their attention back to the floor. The Lettermen were a-shufflin’ and a-lip-synching their way through “Spin Away.” It was about the 19th take. Indeed, the Lettermen, big-time boys, in sculptured wigs and sequined electric-blue jumpsuits . . . how degrading . . . like three beefy stevedores in cocaine drag.
In her dressing room, Cher was watching this silent soft-shoe on her little monitor TV set. She didn’t appear too keen on it, and resumed her needle-work. She was tired. The toadies and glamour kids had filed off to lunch, leaving just us and the wig lady.
I girded up to ask about her love life, because S&C’s stage-side Oozesome-Twosome act just does not convince everybody. Many of my friends favor the belief that after work, Sonny beats the shit out of her with a tire iron. They had asked me to reaffirm this.
But Cher, God bless her, burst can-did with no prompting. Her face came alive, her softly scratchy voice grew girlish, and those big baby-bovine eyes got all eager and bright. “It was about in 1963,” she said, her hands waving, “a girlfriend of mine said she wanted to introduce me to this nice guy who was supposed to be kinda famous. Well. He was dressed all in black and black boots with real high heels. I guess ’cause he was so uptight about being short.
“So I fixed him up with this girlfriend of mine – gorgeous too – but she didn’t think he was so neat, though, and anyway, she was really hung up on someone else. This was when me and my girlfriend lived on Fountain Avenue, and, well, Sonny moved in next door. He didn’t know we were next door. So I thought that was kinda neat.”
Her mouth puckered. “I went over to see him and we water-colored all day. He was really terrible, too. So, that night, he asked me to go to the Safeway with him. Yeah, real romantic.
“I had a date with another guy that night, but I didn’t want to, like, get involved in that so I kinda cooled it. I got home around three o’clock that night and went over to see if Sonny was up. Well . . . ” her face darkened, “he was in bed with some other girl and wouldn’t even answer the door. That really pissed me off.
“I was kind of impressed with Sonny. He was the first guy to ever treat me nice, to hold doors open for me. He took me to nice little places, gee, like this little pizza place. . . .”
Dissolve. The Sal Bono Story.
Good images: One day in 1951, a 13-year-old grocery store clerk was unloading boxes of Koko Jo cookies. Gripped by inspiration, he sat down to write a song, “Koko Joe.” (The Righteous Brothers eventually made it a smash.)
Sal and his father Santo, an Italian immigrant come to Los Angeles, worked together on the Douglas Aircraft assembly line. After the home broke up, Sal worked as a waiter, masseur and trucker. He still wrote songs. By 1958, saddled with a wife, Donna, and a daughter, Christy, he began to think of himself as Don Christy, crooner. He stopped his truck route one day at Specialty Records and peddled his song, “High School Dance.” They went for it and hired him as an assistant producer.
It was a big boost and he caught on fast. He was ambitious and took chances. Within just a few months he was down in the studio recording himself. He recorded other acts, and would then try to sell the tapes to other record labels. He blew the gig.
By 1963, his marriage falling apart, he came under the tutelage of popmeister Phil Spector. He was a mere errand boy to the producer, but he was all eyes and ears. He tried to get Spector to record his new girl, Cher. Spector didn’t think she had a chance in hell.
(One record did come out, under the name Bonnie Jo Mason, called “I Love You Ringo.” It was banned by most stations. “I sounded too much like a boy,” Cher said later. “Everyone thought it was a faggot song.”)
The couple began to record in earnest, and the sound was distinctly Spector. Dreamboat masterpieces. The real credit, however, for Bono’s success, lay with his pianist and arranger, Harold Battiste, who was never credited and was burnt. Cold hard reality. Battiste talking: “Sonny was very dynamic . . . an intuitive seller of himself. A great hustler, man. He’s got that instinctive drive and knowledge about . . . about how to hustle! Got a lot of nerve, man. I always used to like to hear him on the phone talking to distributors and DJs, because like he always had that sweet, winning way, just when it was right.”
A wistful smile came on his face. Harold, in his 40s, is from New Orleans, a brilliant arranger who could have been another Spector, another Gershwin. Maybe. If he was white and ruthless. What he did was arrange Sonny & Cher’s music over the years. This is the stuff you never hear, of course, but he was the one who put the two flutes and oboe into “I Got You Babe.” Simple: “bloo-blim-blim / bloo-blim-blim”. . . nearly made the record, combined with those words:
Don’t let them say
Your hair’s too long
I got you
And with you I can’t go wrong.
Eight years later, here’s Harold, shaking his head. “Sonny was a great lyric writer, you know. Simple and unpretentious.”
With “stolen” tunes?
“Well, I would attribute that to his genius. To steal without really stealing.”
He could only smile. Then he told about his rudest insight into Bono’s character, when they together formed their own company, Progress Records, to sell product to Atlantic. They were buddies; this was supposed to be a 50-50 deal. Battiste recorded an old New Orleans pal, Mac Rebennack, alias Doctor John. (A veteran pianoman, it turns out, for the Sonny & Cher caravan.) The subsequent Gris Gris got notices and Battiste looked forward to the big green.
“I came to be concerned,” Harold said. “Between Sonny and I there were no papers signed about Progress. We just understood what it was, a 50-50 deal. So I said we better have some of this on paper.
“After I pressed to see the papers, I found that I was not a partner, and that the company existed between Sonny and his two managers, Joe de Carlo and Harvey Kresge. It was a partnership between them, with me as a producer. I said ‘No man, this is not the way it’s supposed to be, it’s just not fair.’
“And Sonny was always able, in those conditions, say, ‘Well, look man, it’s not me . . . it’s Joe and him.’ It’s always the managers or the lawyers who force the situation on him that he don’t really want. But it always came out in his favor. You know? I was not a partner, I was a producer with two cents on the album or whatever. So Harvey and Joe got 50% of it.
“I always admired Sonny’s abilities to deal with all these people and determine what was best for him . . . and still be friends with them! Never any guilt about loyalty and all that kind of stuff.”
Harold looked very baffled. He made his own taped copy of our conversation that afternoon. He’s scuffling these days. He never took off for any footlights.
Cher was now relaxed. Her head bobbled up and down as the wig attendant jockeyed on a wig and she didn’t mind. She had a story. It was about her growing love with Sonny, and how the flames kindled in the days he worked with Spector.
One of the recording sessions he brought her to was a Crystals session. Darlene Love didn’t show up. Spector shoved her into the line-up to sing background on “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
“I met Glenn Campbell at one session, when he was just a guitarist. He wanted to take me out and he asked Sonny if it was all right to ask me and Sonny said, ‘Yeah, I don’t care.’ I thought, Wow, that’s a fine way to talk with me right in front of him.” She frowned and warmed to the story.
“So Sonny and I kept going out and one day he’s thinking, ‘Well, maybe I ought to ask you to marry me, huh?’ I said I dunno. Then he bought this little diamond on a chain, just the cutest little thing, and he came home and got me out of the bath, and so he said, ‘Maybe I ought to propose to you, huh?’ I said I still dunno. So that was kind of our engagement.
“My mother didn’t like him and decided to take me to Arkansas to forget about him. When she did, her husband left her so that was her just desserts. Arkansas was a terrible place. It only made me think about him even more.
“So I came back here. I was about 16. No, I didn’t finish high school. I hated school. I had to move into this home for girls in El Centro. There were about ten truck drivers per room, y’know? Really heavy bull dikes. I was introduced to a few of them my first night there.
“One girl, Alex–I don’t know what her real name was – she told me about this guy she loved and I told her about Sonny. I don’t know what happened to her. I wonder if she knows where I am today. . . .”
She looked up. “So Sonny and I got married. Just a quickie, down to Tijuana in a day.” Her voice trailed off, and the dressing room was awfully quiet. The attendant silently combed out the Scherezade wig.
“Gosh . . . it was really fun . . . we were always dreaming how we were gonna walk into a Cadillac dealer with our jeans on and a paper bag of bills and buy a car. We were always dreaming.”
She uncrossed her legs and got a grip on herself. “Sometimes I think my whole life takes place in here. Just getting dressed and then going out to do another show, and then coming back here to comb my hair.”
The attendant’s comb stopped in midair.
* * *
Just a few years ago, during their bad period, Cher was advising Sonny to get into an “acid funk.” But Sonny couldn’t. He resisted the dope slime and lost a few friends. He turned, for instance, on old-best-pal Jack Nitzsche one day: “Jack, you’re not doing these things, are you?”
In 1968, S&C made an anti-dope film for high-school kids. Zap went the strings of their Aquarian credentials. “The funny thing is,” Sonny says now, “is that it would have been easy to fake it, to make it look like we were in the drug scene. People think I’m stoned all the time anyway.”
The teetotal and teatotal. In 1968, they worked for Robert Kennedy. After that, Hubert Humphrey, who reciprocated and endorsed the couple’s stay-in-school message. People are surprised to hear that Bono sort of fought at the Chicago Convention.
Today, S&C sit on the board of the Drug Abuse Council and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. For years, Cher wore a chrome POW band. At a recent Las Vegas gig, she had the just-returned soldier join her onstage. It turned out that a little girl in the audience wore the same band, so the GI put a band on each of his wrists and swore he’d wear them until that day the Communists performed some deed or another. Cher can’t formulate an opinion on those politicians she has met, excepting this: “People that have to be in public all the time get really strange.”
As seriously as Sonny takes his success, one can only guess how he and his wife ache to dress up and be sentimental, and how terrific it would be to have a Sonny Bono Golf Tourney, or play poker with Agnew. Someday it will be complete and daughter Chastity will marry Donny Osmond and together star in The Sonny and Cher Story.
They will have to hide from nothing, but their past, particularly the movie Chastity, made in 1969. (It was their second film. The first, Good Times, cost and blew a million. Its director, William Friedkin, went on to The French Connection and now The Exorcist.)
Cher was a wanton runaway in Chastity, a slice-of-life Sonny wrote and directed. She shacks up with truck drivers, tears up this young man’s life and ends up in a Mexican brothel where she finds true carnal bliss in bed with the madame. The next morning the two are eating breakfast together and Chastity (Cher) flies into her 14th crying jag of the film and spews a mouthful of milk-sogged cornflakes all over the astonished madame’s face. Academy!
It was not too much like today’s moppets. It bombed and Sonny lost around two million bucks. Still, we did see Cher torching up a joint on screen. I asked her if it was real and she caught herself for a full minute.
“I don’t know . . . it wasn’t . . . there was a lot to do that afternoon . . . Somebody made it up special. It was tobacco. No, it was tea leaves. That’s it. And it smelled awful. The scene wasn’t right, I don’t know, I wanted to do it over again, but there wasn’t. . . . “
What, I asked her, about the seamy aspects, personally? “I didn’t think it was seamy. I would do what the part called for and if it was seamy, I’d do it.” The attendant pulled her head around and whipped it up to a lather.
“I mean, I don’t think it’s wrong. I just think that part where people come out and say oh-my-darling-I-love-you, that’s dumb. You know, if people are making movies like Mona the Virgin Nymph, then you can go in the middle, you can do something realistic. And if it’s groovy, a little bit startling, but done right . . . I hate things like, you know, it shows Rock Hudson and Doris Day getting ready for bed, then it would cut quickly to a log going over a waterfall and you knew they were doing it, you know, but there was a waterfall smoking a cigarette or something.” She smiled a lascivious smile.
“Our censor on the show is really a great guy. We get by with a lot of things. We had one scene where I was dressed up like Cleopatra and had on these two brass plates, and I walked up and said, ‘How do you like my gongs?’ I mean, it was no such thing as double-entendre, I was just saying, ‘How do you like my tits?’ Everyone was hysterical.”
The attendant pushed her head into the sink for a final rinse, then pulled her up to towel her off. Another aide set a plate of fish and rice on her lap. She dug in delicately with her fingers and asked how I got along with Sonny. I replied that Sonny was a nice, sensitive guy.
“People don’t know how sensitive he really is,” she said, her pout returning. “Before the ’68 election, he got that law passed at Chicago . . . not a law, a party platform? Is that it? Yeah, well it cost him $6000 to do it. It said that There Will Be a Youth Commission . . . in the government for people aged 18 to 25. He went down to the park to tell kids to cool it, you know. They didn’t care. They said oh yeah. . . . “
I allowed that I hadn’t heard about that. “Yeah, no one knows about that. The cost of it didn’t matter, but it’s just that no one cared.”
Since she had expressed admiration for Vince Matthews, the black Olympic 400-meter champion “banned for life” for yakking on the winner’s stand, I ventured lightly into politics. But no. No use.
“I mean, Nixon doesn’t have a lot of charisma, but he’s not doing all that horrible a job. Really. Anybody who gets in has to deal with all these 60-year-old congressmen and there could be a hundred-thousand things he wants to do but can’t because these guys are in the way.”
* * *
An old associate of Bono’s likes to laugh, “If Sonny had just a little soul in him, he’d be a white Ike Turner . . . so look at him.”
Several others remark how fine it is that Sonny & Cher are finally gaining success as adults. Yes, their adulthood unmasked. Sonny is a philosopher. He doesn’t pack a metaphysical roundhouse to the jaw, but occasionally comes out with good statements, like: “We were the first unisex couple.”
In his black undershorts and socks, Sonny bounced across his dressing room to shake hands. “Hiya. Sit down, sit down, how ya doing? Okay? Yeah, yeah, we’ve been busy all right. . . . “
He’s got this boyish, purely iridescent smile. His aides made big business in the room corners, except Big Jim, the hefty bent-nose hulk of heavy breathing. He’s just a bodyguard.
Bono sat on the edge of a director’s chair and thumbed into an orange. “Boy, it’s just been insane this year. It’s just, like ya said, just a blur of memories, just hotel rooms and another performance, then another hotel room.
“I tell people that if you’re in show business, then don’t forget the other word is business. And that word ‘business’ makes it all work again. The first time we hit, in ’65, with all the records and everything, you think, ‘Well, I’ve arrived and everything is going to be roses from here on out.’ You get into this little trip that just . . . is kind of a fantasy you’ve seen in movies and you’ve grown up with, that it’s gonna go on forever.
“The reality of it is awesome. I think it happened to . . . boy, I don’t think it’s good for you. To hit overnight. Mentally. It kind of disturbs your psyche. Like Spitz, Mark Spitz, you know, you saw him being interviewed and you knew this kind of attention was throwing him and it’s fine you know, if you know the rules of the game. If he fails, boy, he might go drown himself.”
Sonny smiled a huge, fatherly smile. “You alm-almost saw it in his eyes, right? You almost saw that twinkle. And I knew it, I-I said to Cher, watch him, he’s gonna go all the way.
“In the movie industry – in this business – they’ll just hand you another head. It’s a tough industry. Really tough.” He wolfed down an orange section and looked concerned. “The name of the game is deliver. If you don’t deliver, they’ll show you the back door really fast. That you have to know. The movies are faster and tougher and harder and if you’re not . . . well, yeah, the records too, but the record people know you can have a couple of stiffs and come back. Yeah, I know what the rules are now.
“Spector . . . yeah, I got a real lift working for Spector. Our first records were just a rip-off from him.” He finished the orange and began to gnaw at the meat of the peeling. His voice grew solemn. “You know, more than being fun, there was a little glimmer of hope there, because suddenly I understood the business perfectly. For the first time in my life I felt like I really had a shot at something. ‘Cause, I felt like I finally understood the business. For the first time. I had been in it for years and never really understood it. I suddenly had more security than I ever had in my life. I had always wanted to believe I could do something, but it was just jive.
He stood up and pulled on his pants. “But, uh . . . we’ve had the most exciting nine years that I think any two people could have. It’s had its ups and downs and we’ve been rich and poor.” He was whispering like Lionel Barrymore. “We’ve tried everything. We took a shot at everything.”
I remembered the days when he was a spokesman. Or rather, they, a spokes-couple. The papers told us then Sonny & Cher were protesters.
“Yeah, well,” he shrugged, “in those days it was good to be hot-blooded and have lots of principle, to get over-dramatic about defending yourself. That’s why I got Big Jim here.” He lifted a thumb toward his bodyguard. “Having long hair in those days meant a fight every night. Hollywood was lively then.”
* * *
Now, presumably, it’s all in Las Vegas.
The town is controlled by three syndicates. The Mormons own most of the land and they lease it to the Boys. Lastly, the mega-corporations, pushing volume trade to the suburban philistines who roll into the land of naughty like it’s Elysium or someplace . . . just one big kill, baby . . . the show crowds get shoved around like livestock these days. Nobody minds, nobody talks back, nobody in Las Vegas could be humiliated.
The crowd wears double-knit hair. At the Sahara Hotel Congo Room, the security men in red monkey suits packed .38s and, as they ushered in the crowd, appeared in earnest need of cattle prods.
I was seated in the back, jammed in with five strangers, facing the door. The waiter brought two bourbons, set them in front of me and said: “That takes care of your minimum.”
We were all sitting pretty tight. The threesome on the right, a mid-50s couple and mother-in-law. They came from Kansas City. To the left, a couple, late 30s, from Chicago. She was in a cocoon of shellac. He was blind and wore sunglasses.
The waitresses, decked out all Cut – Down – And – Willing – Honey, slithered through the tables and suggestive commentary. The place was packed with around 700 people. Sonny & Cher’s traveling comedian, David Brenner, took the stage. He looks like a 1946 Pontiac. But, like every comedian in town, the heavy stock of his nerve-washed delivery centered on toilet bowls, Burt Reynolds and bad luck in bed. (Brenner really is a funny guy, I found out later. Once he and Bono were doing a charity telethon together, and Brenner sneaked outside to a phone booth, called the telethon and said he’d give a thousand bucks if he could talk to Sonny Bono himself. Sonny, on-the-air, was alerted. He picked up the phone to hear Brenner shout, “I’ll give you a thousand bucks if you suck me.”)
Anyway, the curtain rose on the 17-piece orchestra and there they were, oom-pahhing through “All I Ever Need Is You.” A huge sea of applause followed. Sonny thanked everyone profusely and suggested they should clap for Cher, too. She adopted her position, standing aloof and vacant, arms folded. She was decked out in red, Sonny in a tux. His stumbling chatter drew out. Painfully.
“Look folks, now don’t . . . don’t worry about Cher’s smarting off like that, ’cause she’s . . . ’cause when she gets out of hand, I take care of her. I give her, you know, a couple of belts and that . . . that straightens her right out, you know. So don’t worry.” He turned to her. “In fact, I’m really surprised that you’re still popping off. Didn’t you get enough last night?”
“I didn’t get any last night,” she dead-planned. Howls in the audience. “I don’t know if you’ve got a magic act, or what. ‘Now you see it, now you don’t.'” She waggled her finger triumphantly and they slid right into “The Beat Goes On.”
It was like the mating call of two dentist drills. Actually, it is just his nasal parlando that is fascinating. He possesses a vocal range of at least two notes impersonating six. She at least flies with, as Oscar Levant first said of Judy Garland, “a vibrato in search of a voice.”
Cher left the stage for his solo on “You Better Sit Down Kids,” a song about his broken home-life. His heart soared. The final “. . . I . . . Love . . . You . . . ” took up half-a-minute, his voice near breaking. (Which is to say, near disappearing.) It jerked a tear and he was buried alive in clapter.
Cher suddenly glided out of the wings under her white headdress. Mister Frostee with a bare midriff. Big rapturous intake of lungs across the hall. While she did her solo on “Something,” a movie played against the wall, a gauzy, slow-motion thing of Sonny and daughter Chastity frolicking in the yard. It looked like a Kodak commercial and, God’s teeth, it did get a rousing hand. The finale was “I Got You Babe.” Sincere. Secure. Reassuring. The jokes are over and their hearts are true.
The crowd, semi-exhilarated, moved out towards Paradise Boulevard.