Once upon a time, Cher was cool. No, really. She was cool.
Long before she became an iconic cottage industry, Cher was a hippie chick folk singer whose naughty songs upset radio programmers and whose eye makeup terrified uptight parents. A full decade before the '70s schlock of "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" and that brainless variety show, Cher recorded smart folk-rock records -- as a solo act and as half of Sonny and Cher -- that consistently knocked the Stones, the Byrds, and the Beatles off the charts. Yes, Cher covered Bob Dylan and wore tie-dye and was an exciting, trend-setting performer. She recorded six top-selling, long-forgotten solo albums before she was co-opted by CBS TV and began wearing Bob Mackie gowns.
Forget about '80s Power Ballad Cher, belting "If I Could Turn Back Time" in a leather thong. Forget about the Oscar-winning actress. And please -- please! -- forget about the middle-aged disco queen currently traveling the country on her "farewell tour," which this week docks in Phoenix for the third time in a year. Try to imagine -- or, if you're a certain age, try to remember -- Cher as a sexy siren warbling tunes about abortion and teen pregnancy and sleazy runaways. Picture her singing background vocals for Phil Spector, or wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix in dirty hip-huggers, trailed by a camera crew while she emotes as a lesbian hooker in Chastity, the flop Sonny wrote for her in 1969.
In her early bad girl era, she sang about miscreants while also posing as one. There was "Une Enfante," about a 16-year-old runaway who winds up dead; "Magic in the Air," about a defiantly pregnant teenager; the story-of-a-divorce "You Better Sit Down, Kids"; "Mama (When My Dollies Have Babies)," about a young woman abandoned by her husband; "Behind the Door," which depicts suburbia as sinister and evil; and "Where Do You Go," about the horrors of being a teenager with quarrelsome parents. Sonny, who produced each track as a Spector symphony of doom and gloom, wrote most of these songs, and all but "Une Enfante" were released as singles, ensuring Cher's reputation as a champion of whores and mischief-makers.
Backstage introduced a more mature Cher, a young woman willing to balance girl-gone-wrong songs with more adult material. For this disc, Sonny traded faux "Wall of Sound" for more subtle musical backing. Cher covers the Moody Blues ("Go Now"), Tim Hardin ("Reason to Believe"), and even Miriam Makeba, in a delightfully bizarre take on "The Click Song (Number One)." The Dylan cut here -- her seventh in five years -- is "Masters of War," in which she berates arms manufacturers, hollering "I hope that you die . . . I'll stand over your grave until I'm sure that you're dead" before segueing quickly into the hopeful pop of John Sebastian's "Do You Believe in Magic?"
This sort of funky fusion of hippie and dippy vanished, more or less, from Cher's recorded repertoire until the striking release of 2000's not.com.mercial, an Internet-only folk-rock disc Cher wrote herself.
On that album, which her label refused to release in the early 1990s because it contained no disco, Cher revisits her bad girl days with songs about evil Catholic nuns ("Sisters of Mercy"), homeless people ("Our Lady of San Francisco"), and the suicide of Kurt Cobain ("The Fall [Kurt's Blues]"). It's a recording that recalls the Cher of yore, a youngster who was the '60s equivalent of Courtney Love with better taste.
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