My friend Mary, a poetry scholar, e-mailed me last month.
"Cher is kicking off her new concert tour in Phoenix," Mary wrote. "Are you going?"
"The Cher I would like to see in concert doesn’t exist anymore," I reminded Mary, who publishes an online zine called Cher Scholar, which uses Cher as a means of measuring pop culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. "I like the Cher who sat on a wooden stool singing Bob Dylan songs. The one who scared uptight suburban parents because she wore bell-bottoms and seven pounds of eyeliner and was married to a hippie who wrote songs for her about runaways and pregnant teens."
Mary is kind and patient, and so she didn’t point out that although I like the Cher from 1965, I happen also to own every one of Cher’s solo albums, as well as those she recorded with her husband Sonny Bono, as half of Sonny and Cher. That’s because I’m a completist, I would have told her, and not because I think "Turn Back Time" is relevant or that Cher’s disco albums from the late ’70s are fun to listen to. (Take my word for it: They are not.) Instead, Mary took one last shot at getting me to reconsider blowing off Cher.
"Look here," Mary wrote back. "Cher’s people are doing a promotional stunt where fans get to pick which songs she’s going to sing on her tour. And ‘Alfie’ is on the list!"
I went to Cher’s website to check out this obvious scam and, sure enough, there it was, listed among obvious Cher hit singles like "Half Breed" and "The Shoop Shoop Song": my favorite Cher tune and perhaps my favorite song of all time, "Alfie," the Burt Bacharach and Hal David number from the 1966 film of the same name about a slutty guy who refuses to settle down. Cher’s version of the song, which appears in the movie, was the first version released in the U.S., although a cover by Dionne Warwick the following year was a bigger hit.
I wasn’t buying it. In concert, Cher doesn’t sing second-tier hits from the ’60s like "Alfie" (which peaked at number 32); she sings "Believe" and (horrors!) "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." I saw this pick-the-hits bit for what it was: a promotional gimmick aimed at more gullible Cher fans who might believe that if enough of them click on "A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done," Cher will dust off this all-but-forgotten 1972 sequel to her 1966 hit "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and force her band to learn it. Cher is not a marionette or a jukebox; she’s a performer with a new record to promote. Her set list, prepared and rehearsed months ago, undoubtedly will feature material from the new album (including the most annoying Cher single in decades, "Woman’s World") as well as her most recognizable radio hits from the ’70s and beyond.
I couldn’t find anything online where Cher herself mentioned the set-list stunt, but I did find an interview in which she complained that Sonny and Cher have not been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Which got me to thinking about how, if ABBA and the Dave Clark Five are inductees, why not Sonny and Cher?
In the 1960s, Sonny and Cher were as popular as the Beatles, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones. They started out as part of wunderkind producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, singing backgrounds on everything from "Be My Baby" to "You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling" before launching their solo career and, between 1965 and 1966, scoring eight Billboard Top 20 singles as a duo and as solo acts. But chart domination doesn’t necessarily mean a singer has anything worthwhile to say or a songwriter has any lasting influence. If it did, we’d all be downloading the new Herman’s Hermits tribute album and Mark Lindsay would be writing songs for Miley Cyrus and not headlining an oldies tour. Sonny and Cher took a right turn in the late ’60s and were never the same.
The duo started out as folk-rock pioneers who performed screeds against censorship (Sonny’s "Revolution Kind") and anti-war propaganda (Cher’s cover of Dylan’s "Masters of War" from 1967’s underrated, Harold Battiste-produced Backstage album) and launched an all-too-brief trend in ’60s Worldpop (check out the Russian-folk break in the Bono-penned "Bang Bang" or Cher’s canny cover of Miriam Makeba’s "The Click Song" ).
Back then, Sonny produced Cher singing Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone" with absolutely no irony, no sense of impending danger: "Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? / People’d call, say, ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’ / You thought they were all kiddin’ you." But by 1970, the duo had stopped trying to be relevant and began trying to remain popular. This scavenger hunt led them to their lauded TV variety show, a hybrid of the silly Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and the white-bread Carol Burnett Show that traded goofing off for whatever musical relevance Sonny’s compositions and Cher’s teen angst had previously delivered.
It’s easy to draw a line from that variety hour’s populist pabulum to Cher’s current music career as a "living legend" who records banal disco tunes. But every once in awhile, in her post-TV recordings, Cher the artist has resurfaced. And when she does, we see glimmers of an interesting singer with a distinctive voice.
Hear me out. Owning all of Cher’s albums (and I do mean all of them — everything, even the crappy Warner Bros. stuff from the mid-’70s, which included an entirely unlistenable collaboration with her then-husband, Gregg Allman) means I have some insight into whether or not her recordings have any musical value. I have listened to 1975’s Jimmy Webb-produced Stars, where a newly divorced Cher strains for post-Sonny pop credibility, singing, sans vibrato, stuff by folkie new kids like Jackson Browne and Janis Ian. I have cozied up to Cher’s 1969 Muscle Shoals album, 3614 Jackson Highway, where she, in a white soul farewell to her hippie roots, expertly wails Stephen Stills, Otis Redding, and Dr. John. And I have listened repeatedly to the lamentably titled Not.Com.mercial, a bunch of folk-rock demos Cher wrote and recorded in 1994 and which her record company refused to consider for release because there were no potential pop hits on the disc. (Cher put out the album herself, adding a new remix of "Classified 1-A," the anti-Vietnam War protest number Sonny wrote for her in 1970.) I even give the occasional spin to Bittersweet White Light, an album so awful that listening to it actually makes me angry, but which deserves mention because it’s the first-ever collection of American standards by a pop star, predating Linda Ronstadt’s genre-making What’s New by 10 years.
Cher will not, needless to say, be performing any of this material in concert, in Phoenix or anyplace else. And although the help-Cher-make-her-set-list thing is nonsense, I do kind of like the idea of fans picking Cher songs that she must then travel the country performing for months on end. If this were a real thing and not a publicity ploy, people like Mary and I would keep clicking on obscure album cuts (Mary loves "Somebody," a charmer from 1971’s All I Ever Need Is You) until they got crammed onto Cher’s set list, forcing off all those Billboard hits everyone’s heard a million times before.
My Cher set list would include "She’s No Better Than Me," a non-LP Cher track (and the B-side of "Alfie"!) about a girl whose teenage beau has dumped her for a cuter chick. And, just for fun, "Ringo I Love You," Cher’s first-ever single, a paean to the Beatles drummer produced by Phil Spector. And as an encore, instead of "Believe," I’d make Cher sing Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone," as a reminder to everyone in the sold-out arena that once, a very long time ago, she was a thrillingly scary girl singer who really had something to say.