On a road trip to southern California a few months ago, I stumbled across the Cher Channel on my Sirius Satellite Radio and spent a few hours of that long drive listening nostalgically to an extremely diverse collection of Cher’s music.
Before I found Fleetwood Mac in the mid 1970s, before I went through my country-western phase of the 1980s, before I fell in love with Hawaiian music in the 1990s and then Italian pop in the New Millennium, there was Cher. When The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in 1970, like most of America, I was tuned in every week to watch the comedy skits, the guest stars, the musical numbers, and mostly just Sonny and Cher, who seemed like the perfectly happy, fairy tale couple. (Who would have guessed that even then, they were on the brink of divorce?). They sang their hearts out and showed off their adorable daughter, Chastity as they ended each show with a version of their classic, I Got You Babe. (Who would have guessed that the little girl Chas would grow up to one day become a man named Chaz?) Sigh. The early 1970s seemed like such an innocent time, especially to an adolescent boy in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
I adored Cher. She was like a shiny, sparkling Christmas tree ornament in her outlandish costumes and ornate jewelry. I loved her voice and the wry humor she displayed while bantering with Sonny in the show’s opening each week. (Who would have guessed it was Sonny who wrote a lot of the punchlines she directed at him?) The first single 45” record I personally owned was 1972’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves and the first record album I ever bought was her 1973 Half Breed album, which featured a cover photo of Cher sitting atop a Pinto pony in a desertscape reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park. On the back she was dressed in a risqué outfit with a white feathered headdress that today would have gotten her arrested for political incorrectness and cultural appropriation, even though she does have some Native American blood. I wonder whether at that time I even realized that Native Americans didn’t actually dress like that. Thank God that the movie Dances with Wolves eventually clarified things up in that department!
Against this carefree backdrop, I still remember when in 1974 the National Enquirer started leaking rumors that Sonny and Cher were going to split up. I was horrified and immediately asked my mother if she thought the rumors were true. It was a more disturbing and tense discussion than our “birds and the bees” conversation had been. I was truly upset. Always the optimist, she assured me that it was probably just a rumor, but of course, we all know how the story turned out. Cher left Sonny, married and divorced Gregg Allman within the same month, had a son by him, and launched a decades long music and film career, while Sonny became the Mayor of Palm Springs and eventually a California state representative before his untimely death in a skiing accident.
Nevertheless, Cher’s music was and has remained an important part of the soundtrack of my life. Though I’ve liked a lot of her music through the decades, to this day her little- known gem, Stars, released in 1975, is one of my very favorite albums of all time. In the ballad, Just This One Time which she performed on the old Carol Burnett Show, she sings in an uncharacteristically high falsetto and wails on a dramatic high note at the song’s final climax. I have actually had arguments with people who think that this can;t possibly be Cher’s voice, but she has always had an amazing range. Unfortunately, the album flopped, and has never been available on CD, despite being one of her best releases ever, at least in my humble opinion. The cover photo alone, featuring Cher placing Christmas lights through her long black hair, is in and of itself, a classic.
As I’ve recounted in my post, I Blame it All on My Mother, I lost my mom to cancer in early 1975 and lived with my elderly grandmother for the next few years until I got my own place while in college. At this point in my life, I’d traveled to Chicago, Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C. with my mother, and had visited California on my own after she died, but international travel was something that wouldn’t really cross my mind for another 10 years or so. Still, the earliest seeds my desire to travel internationally were probably planted in my mind by none other than Cher and a mysterious song she recorded way back back in 1968.
My grandmother was not very well at this time and I was looking after her more so than she was taking care of me. At 16 I was pretty much in charge of making my own meals and doing the grocery shopping. One incredibly vivid memory I have from this time is finding a new grocery item at the good old Stop & Shop: multicultural frozen “TV dinners” as they were referred to back then. Sure, Salisbury steak, meatloaf, and turkey with stuffing were best selling items from Swanson’s line of frozen foods, but I recall one company introducing “authentic” Mexican TV dinners, consisting of refried beans, Spanish rice, and really bad burritos or enchiladas filled with some sort of mystery meat. I remember one lonely winter night as my Mexican feast was baking in the oven (no microwaves back then…), I decided to set up the kitchen as if it were a restaurant. I lit a couple of candles, and dragged my portable record player down from my room; there were no CD players or Mp3 players back then… I set it up on top of the washer and dryer in the corner and played “mood music” as I ate my dinner. And what song got maximum airplay? An obscure track called, The Click Song from a very early solo album by Cher.
Now please keep in mind that this was a time long before Google, so I couldn’t just search for information about the song I was listening to. I had absolutely no idea what language Cher was singing in on this song, and despite the fact that I was chowing down on a really bad Mexican frozen dinner, I was pretty confident that it was not Spanish. Living in New England in 1976 I’d heard Portuguese and French spoken in my home town, but probably my sole exposure to Spanish was 1973’s Top 40 radio hit Eres Tu by the group Mocedades. However, it didn’t really matter what language Cher was singing in; the song sounded upbeat, foreign, intriguing and exotic, and perhaps the fact that I was eating refried beans and Spanish rice by candlelight intensified those feelings. I remember feeling quite cultured and international as I dined, and the fact that this particular memory still stands out so clearly indicates that this experience made quite an impression on me.
I sometimes fantasize about a scenario straight out of a plot from a sci-fi novel: Adult Matt finds a way to travel back in time and meet his younger self. Could Adult Matt possibly convey to that lonely 16 year old kid who’d just lost his mom, faced an uncertain future, and dreamed about things and places beyond the perimeters of New Bedford, Massachusetts where life would eventually take him? (Or that he’d STILL be listening to Cher 45 years later?)
Only a few years later, I got to experience more “authentic” Mexican food at Taco Bell after moving to southern California in 1982, and not long after that, I actually ventured to Tijuana, Mexico to sample “the real thing” on one of my first trips outside the country. The only thing missing was Cher singing The Click Song in the background. Within another 10 years I’d sampled fish and chips and scones in Britain, croissants and café at lait in Paris, and herring sandwiches in Amsterdam. Further down the road there would be sushi in Japan, a kangaroo steak in Australia, grilled octopus in Greece, and falafel in Tel Aviv. And of course now, after multiple trips to Italy, I can navigate my way though even the most extensive Italian menu that comes my way.
Ironically, around the time I started traveling to Italy, Cher was getting a lot of airplay there with the song, Dov’e`L’ Amore, a cut from her wildly successful hit album, Believe. Circa 2000 and 2001 I’d find myself eating homemade gnocchi in a candlelit restaurant in Rome or Venice and suddenly, Cher was there with me. Dov’e`L’ Amore or her duet with Italian superstar, Eros Ramazzotti, Piu` Che Puoi would be playing in the background of many a restaurant at that time. She does sing several lines of Italian in both songs, but her delivery got some mixed reviews. My Italian friend Christian commented, “We applaud Cher for trying to sing in Italian, but she has the accent of an Albanian prostitute!” Somehow I think Cher would not have been offended by that comment. My friend Tullio wanted to know why she pronounced the word amore in a way that sounded like, A-MOHHHHH-RAY, and all I could offer was that she pronounces the word “love” in a way that sounds more like LOWWWW-VAH, so it’s simply her “Cher accent.”
Something that I found particularly amusing was that while Dov’e` L’ Amore was supposed to be an Italian song, the video she released featured her dressed in a Spanish flamenco dress, petting a Mexican chihuahua while a male dancer dressed like a bull-fighter swirls his red cape around in circles. Cher, it’s supposed to be Italy, not Spain or Mexico! Suddenly my cultural faux pas about eating Mexican food listening to a decidedly UN-Spanish song didn’t seem so egregious!
So what was the deal about The Click Song that served as my international dinner music so many years ago? I later learned that Cher had done a cover version of a song originally recorded by South African artist Miriam Makeba. A check of Wikipedia states that The Click Song is a traditional song sung by the Xhosa people that is performed at weddings and is supposed to bring good fortune. Further internet searching revealed lyrics to the song in case you want to sing along:
Igqirha lendlela nguqongqothwane…
Sel’ eqabel’ egqith’ apha nguqongqothwane…
Evidently Cher’s cover version of the song did not go over well with recent critics on YouTube, who say that is it devoid of emotion, complained that it was missing the actual click sounds that the Xhosa people make, and worst of all, declared it an offensive insult to African people. (Who would have thought that what was probably an innocent and well-meaning tribute to Miriam Makeba in 1968 would be taken as a slight against the entire African Continent 50 years later?) Sigh. Poor Cher.
We all have random memories from our past, and sometimes I wonder why some of the most obscure things remain so crystal clear, while seemingly far more important things from our past or things that happened last week just fade into the mists. I think that during what was a rather dark time in my life, I was cheered up just a bit by this zany and catchy cover version of a song being sung in a badly mispronounced foreign language by a beloved icon. Perhaps it somehow made me realize that there was a whole wide world out there to explore beyond New Bedford, beyond New England, and beyond the pain of losing my mom at such an early age. Or maybe the song does bring good luck, despite Cher’s flawed delivery, and that helps explain the incredible good fortune I’ve had to forge a successful career and to travel so extensively and feel “at home in the world.” The image of my 16 year old self eating a bad Mexican TV dinner alone in my kitchen, listening to an American pop star singing a traditional South African song may sound silly or dreary or even sad to some, but to me it is a happy memory that came flooding back thanks to listening to the Cher Channel on the radio on my road trip that day a few months ago.
I’ve so far visited 34 foreign countries, but have yet to visit South Africa. When I eventually do, I’ll have to be sure to find myself a candlelit Mexican restaurant somewhere in Johannesburg or Capetown, and load Cher’s version of The Click Song into my Mp3 player, just to bring the whole thing full circle.