Cidny Bullens: Meet the trans 'cosmic rock star'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday July 4, 2023
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Cidny Bullens
Cidny Bullens

You may or may not immediately recognize the name Cidny Bullens, but you've certainly heard them sing. They were nominated for a Grammy Award in 1980 and provided lead vocals for a few songs on the "Grease" soundtrack.

But Cidny's story is truly one of a kind, beginning with being a backing vocalist for Sir Elton John and continuing through their 2012 transition at the age of 61. With a foreword by Elton, as well as advance praise from Billie Jean King, Mary Gauthier, Michael Musto, and Bonnie Raitt, Bullens' memoir "TransElectric: My Life as a Cosmic Rock Star" (Chicago Review Press, 2023) is one of the most captivating life stories of the year.

Gregg Shapiro: Cid, I'd like to begin our interview by expressing my gratitude to Lucinda Williams for connecting us. What does having a friend like Lucinda Williams in your life mean to you?
Cidny Bullens: It means a lot. Lu is one of the sweetest, most generous (and of course gifted) people I know. And she shows up for me when I least expect it. Like what happened with you! She texted me out of the blue and told me she told you about my memoir. Lucinda and I met in 1990 in Austin when my dear friend David Mansfield was playing with her. We just hit it off and here we are, still. I absolutely adore her. She's been through a lot and continues to be an inspiration for me.

Why was now the time to write your memoir?
Well, I had to do something in the pandemic [laughs]! And honestly, it's been on my mind for several years. I knew it would be a daunting task. Not the actual writing — I believe I can write. But the deep dive into my past, I knew, would be a challenge. Plus, I'm getting to that age (Lucinda and I talked about crossing the line over into our 70s just this week) where there really is no time to waste. Though I am healthy and vibrant and feel that I have much more to do in this life, the clock keeps ticking. It was time.

I always ask memoir writers if they were journal keepers or if they relied on memory for the details of their book. Not only do you incorporate journal entries throughout "TransElectric," but you also wrote about the importance of journaling. Did you realize at the time how valuable these journals would be to you in the future?
It's funny, I think about that question now. When I started journaling for real at age 20 (I kept a few dairies in high school but lost them somehow), somewhere deep inside me, there was a reason. I think I knew my life would be, well, unusual.

I also loved to write. So, I thought at first that journaling would be a creative endeavor. They definitely are not creative writings — the journals became the vehicle to chronicle my life, along with a way for me to process what was going on inside and outside of me. My journals were indeed critical in writing my memoir. They mark my memories with immediacy and with the truth. There was fifty years of my life in black and white, in stark relief, relating what was actually happening or what I was thinking or feeling, in real time — sometimes to the minute.

Reading those journal entries was more than remembering (though they sparked even more memories), I was experiencing them all over again. And, as I write about in the book's epilogue, they were source of a great deal of introspection and coming to terms with some still unrecognized and unresolved parts of myself.

How much of your 2016 one-person show "Somewhere Between: Not An Ordinary Life" is incorporated into "TransElectric"?
My show, which I wrote over the course of a year and a half in 2014-15, provided a map for my memoir. The arc of the story is the same — 1973 through 2016 (which was the "present" when I debuted the show) — with flashbacks to my childhood interspersed throughout. And there are a few moments from the script I lifted and inserted into the book where I didn't feel I could express a particular life moment any better than I did in the show.

You grew up outside of Boston. I wondered if you'd stayed in the area if you might have become involved in the legendary music scene there or in Cambridge?
I used to hitchhike into Harvard Square to go to Club 47 back in the mid-'60s, before I could drive. I remember hanging out near the club door after the gigs were finished, waiting to talk to Paul Butterfield or John Lee Hooker or the Chambers Brothers and other artists who played there. I loved that scene for sure. But my goal was always rock 'n roll and the big stage. I didn't think I would get there staying in Boston, though some great rockers did indeed come out of Boston and I am proud to be from there for sure.

Early in the book you write about what you perceived as both your bisexuality as well as your questions about your gender. Have you heard from readers and fans who have had similar life experiences?
The book was just released, so I am only just beginning to get responses from folks who have read it. But as I have from the 2019 award-winning documentary short about my life, "The Gender Line," and a recording of a song by the same name (which is being re-released later this year as part of my new album Little Pieces on Kill Rock Stars Records- Nashville), I suspect I will get many.

As we know, the subjects of gender and sexuality are at the forefront of the news right now. But with all the vitriol coming at us — I believe it is also opening up more awareness in ourselves about who we are and where we are on either or both spectrums. Bring it on. I look forward to hearing stories from folks across the spectrum.

You had professional and personal involvement with music legend Bob Crewe and his brother Dan, both of whom were also on the queer spectrum. You married and started a family with Dan and described your marriage as one between "two non-straight people," which is probably more common than most people realize.
Dan and Bob were both much older than me. They had gay friends both in and out of the music business. I was young and naïve, and I felt more "seen" with them. Dan and I got married in 1979. It was a very different time back then. I won't give away the whole story of us. It's in the book.

But I think both Dan and I felt safe with each other. We both knew who (and what) we were. There were no pretenses. He was a gay man who had only been in relationships with men, and I was a biological woman who felt like a man, who had not been in any long-term relationships with either gender (though I fell in love with a couple of women before Dan.) Our marriage was not easy, but our intention was to be in a true marriage with each other — monogamous. And we did that until we couldn't.

"TransElectric" is also a memoir of recovery, and you write openly about using and sobriety. What were the most difficult and easiest parts of writing about that subject?
Other than in recovery meetings, I'm not sure I ever disclosed as much about my addiction as I did in "TransElectric," certainly not in as much detail. Again, my journals were illuminating, highlighting to me, as I was reading the earlier volumes decades after the fact, how drugs and alcohol (mostly drugs and for much longer) affected my choices in my life.

It was not easy to revisit those times as they were in the present tense. Of course, in recovery (I have now over 46 ½ years clean and sober), part of the way we serve is to share our experience with others who may be seeking a new way forward. But to share publicly some of who I was before sobriety; some of my thinking and my actions and the consequences of those actions, so truthfully, without glossing over anything, was indeed difficult.

That said, why am I writing about any of it if I am not to be completely honest? I'm not sure there was an "easy" part. But obviously, the upshot is: I'm still sober, one day at a time, thanks to the Twelve Steps and my comrades in recovery, for all these years.

Throughout your performing career, you have had multiple brushes with greatness, including your time performing with Elton John (who wrote the foreword to "TransElectric"), and then crossing paths with Joni Mitchell. Elton is in the process of retiring from performing while Joni is having a career resurgence. What do think about those two legends?
Well, my original and now long-term relationship with Elton is in the book. The short of it is, he changed my life and I adore him as a human being. He is kind, funny, generous, and brilliant. I am beyond blessed to have him in my life. His love and support have been a touchstone for me throughout my life.

Joni Mitchell would not know me. We crossed paths only during the Rolling Thunder days. But she had a huge influence on me as a young songwriter and musician. Though I was a rocker, I absolutely loved every note of every melody she wrote and sang, every chord progression on the piano, every tuning on her guitar, and every word of every lyric of every song she ever recorded. I think a generation of songwriters back then witnessed and benefitted from her evolution and expansion over that magical half-decade between "Clouds" and "Court and Spark."

Of course, it didn't end there. And have we mentioned her voice? Her phrasing? Her vocal technique? She is the pinnacle of songwriting and the epitome of a whole and unique artist; one of a kind. I am thrilled she is back in the limelight.

I have been in close proximity to many talented artists and a whole bunch of stars in my life. Each encounter brought me something. Each brush with fame taught me something — small glimpses into another world to big lessons I needed to learn.

The section about the loss of your daughter Jessie, and the creation of your acclaimed 1999 album, "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth," is devastating. How did you prepare yourself to revisit that period in your life?
Honestly, there is no preparation. The loss of a child is forever. And the grief is too. Of course, it changes and shifts and moves over time, but it never is not there. Still, there is no buffer to entering into the "now" of the experience. My bright and beautiful 11-year-old daughter was no more. There is no escaping the horror of it all.

The tears and sobs of my "Jessie cry" start and do not stop until I am exhausted from the images and feelings of that time climbing up through my being and into my bones once again. It was ironic (or was it?) that I was writing about her short illness and sudden death in exactly the two months of her illness and death. I literally finished that chapter in the week of the anniversary of her death (March 23).

I always go through a period of deep sadness during those months anyway, but it was of course much deeper as I was writing about it. I truly believe that the songs on the "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth" album were Jessie's gifts to me. I know what I mean by that. That album brought me back into the world, by no doing of my own, as a solo artist, a touring musician, and more than that — a much more compassionate human being with a desire to be in service to others. Jessie continues to shine brightly in and upon my life.

"TransElectric" is very cinematic. If there was a movie version of your memoir, who would you like to see portraying you?
My daughter Reid thinks it should be Jessie Buckley; an Irish actress. I haven't thought about it to be honest [laughs].

Cidny Bullens
(photo: TJ Parsell)  

"TransElectric" is coming out at a time when the trans community is under constant threat. Have you thought about sending copies to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis so that they may have a better understanding of something about which they are both completely clueless?
[Laughs] Well, of course, neither one would read it! And more than likely, "TransElectric" will be banned in both those states and others. The irony is that if I happened to be anywhere near either one of them anywhere, even in a restroom, they would not ever know or guess that I was a transperson.

That is the stupidity of all of it. They are threatened by their own thoughts and perceptions of what being transgender is. Drag queens are an easy target because they are "seen." Men dressed as women somehow threaten these people's masculinity — which they must be very insecure about apparently. And we all know Abbott and DeSantis, Trump and all his minions, are catering to a base of people who base their beliefs and actions on fear — fear of "the other" and of what is being or could be "taken away" from them.

But, no joke, it is a scary time. I fluctuate between anger (rage, really), actually wanting to confront this ignorance head-on (I'd love to be face to face with any one of the above), and retreating to my little house on an island twelve miles off the coast of Maine, never to feel threatened again.

Right now, my wife and I are staying put in Nashville in one of the most egregious anti-trans states, Tennessee, where I currently live, to join in the fight here with my colleagues and community. We shall see what the future brings.

When queer singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, who wrote a blurb for "TransElectric," performed concerts at the time her book was published, she would read sections of the memoir in between songs. Is that something you are also doing?
I love Mary! I am so lucky to have such loving friends. And yes, that is the plan. With the signing of the new deal with Kill Rock Stars Records, I hope to begin playing more gigs soon.

So, yes; book events and concerts will be mingled together for the foreseeable future (I play a few songs at my bookstore events too). I wrote and recorded the songs on "Little Pieces" back in 2019-20 before the pandemic. But then the pandemic came, and nothing really happened.

The first single from this album is a duet with me and singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman (another wonderfully supportive friend). We wrote and recorded it back then, but it wasn't on the original record. It's so cool to be doing a duet between a transman and a straight cis-woman. Let's blur a few more lines, break more barriers! Shout out to Slim Moon (president and founder of KRS) who is exceptionally supportive of queer artists and has signed a bunch of us. I had no idea this opportunity would come for me this year!

Let me not forget to mention my long-time side gig with my trio, The Refugees, with Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland. We also just released a new album in May, "California," which is awesome. We will be playing some gigs around the country in the fall as well. So, (there's) a lot going on for me right now.

I am proud of my book and to represent my community (and just plain being human) in any way I can. I truly hope that my story, my memoir, will open some hearts and minds, beyond our own community, to what is: we are real, we are here, and we are indeed all human beings just trying to be, well, ourselves: human.

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