After a family tragedy, rocker Cindy Bullens became Cidny Bullens — but he still answers to ‘Mom’

By Bliss Bowen

“I’m not the person that I used to be
And that I’ll never be the same
That’s true no doubt
But I know more now what life is
about …
I’m better than I’ve ever been”

Cindy Bullens recorded those lines for her album “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,” a profoundly cathartic offering inspired by the 1996 death of the androgynous pop-rocker’s 11-year-old daughter Jessie and released to widespread acclaim in 1999. Bullens could have written them more recently, after transitioning from Cindy to Cidny.

That point gives Cidny Bullens pause during a thoughtful conversation about “Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life,” the one-person show he’s bringing to Highways Performance Space on Friday. He describes creating the show as “a bridge between Cindy and Cidny.”

“‘Better Than I’ve Ever Been’ was written as a wish for myself about a year after Jessie’s death,” he observes. “I didn’t know what was going to transpire in my life when I wrote that song. … I have a wonderful partner now, and my beautiful daughter Reid, a wonderful 35-year-old woman who’s the mother of my three beautiful grandchildren. I have many blessings in my life since Jessie’s death. But I didn’t know when I wrote that song whether I was going to live or not.”

Happily, he did, and he likes himself and his thicker voice now better than he ever did. But the road out of grief was a tough, unpredictable one that ultimately led to divorce, leaving conventional life in suburban Connecticut, and eventually coming out with the change of gender identity and pronoun that he addresses with candor, songs and good humor in “Somewhere Between.”

The Massachusetts-raised songwriter, who now resides in Maine and answers to “Cid,” first achieved renown in the 1970s. After relocating to Los Angeles, Bullens finagled her way into an industry party where she met Elton John and, in a fairytale-like twist, was singing in his band on tour in a matter of days. (“It was like my Lana Turner story, it was magical,” Bullens says now, chuckling.)

Cindy Bullens also sang backup for Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, among others, and recorded three songs for the “Grease” soundtrack. Her first two solo albums, 1978’s Grammy-nominated “Desire Wire” and 1979’s “Steal the Night,” were championed by peers and critics, though mainstream commercial success proved elusive.

Post-Ziggy Stardust, Bullens’ lean, Superman T-wearing image seemed to suit the times, when New Wave artists were influencing fashion as well as the Top 40. In fact, it was part of an elaborate “workaround.” Her what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature was genuine, but her tomboyish style helped sidestep the fact that, from early childhood on, she identified as a boy. Feminine couture felt unnatural.

“I never tried to be anybody else,” Bullens explains. “I did try a couple times to be a woman [laughs], when I had my children and lived in Westport, which is a funny bit in the show. … It’s been five-and-a-half years since I took my first shot of testosterone. I’d already had top surgery — chest reconstruction — but I still wasn’t sure I was going to go through with the whole thing, the change of pronoun, etc. It wasn’t until after I was well into my transition that I realized how much I had been walking a fine line in my life as a woman. How much I was compromising how I felt about myself to the outside world.

“I knew I wasn’t lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with being lesbian. I was in a relationship with a woman for five years, but I wasn’t lesbian. I’d been married to a man who’d never been with a woman before. But I didn’t realize until I transitioned how much I was compromising my own true self. How much I consciously thought about how I dressed and how I acted and how I felt and how I addressed the world. … People, we compromise all the time on who we really are, you know?”

In the show, Bullens illuminates his story with songs and projections, and tells what finally inspired him to live as the person he always felt himself to truly be. Rather than merely venting autobiographical angst, it is emotionally relatable to anyone who’s escaped an oppressive relationship, job or family situation.

In a 2012 article for the Daily Beast, Bullens clearly elucidated an issue fraught with cultural complications: “Being transgender simply means that your brain says you are the opposite sex of what your body physically is. It is not the same as being gay or lesbian — it’s not about sexual attraction.”

“Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life” similarly focuses on basic humanity. Jessie’s untimely loss to cancer figures large in the story. “She’s guided me through all of this,” Bullens says
quietly. “When I’m not quite sure where I’m going, I get steered into a certain direction, at least creatively. [Pause]
She’s a guiding light.”

In conversation, he is warm and comes across sometimes like an unusually perceptive parent — albeit one who rocks out with famous friends. Having been married to a man for 20-some years and given birth as a woman, and now living as a man, does he feel his experiences have provided deeper insights into how people communicate with one another?

“Organically, I think I look below the surface just instinctively with people. I’m still a mother; I’ll never not be a mother. I’m a grandmother; I’m not a grandfather. I will never not be my daughter’s mother, and she still calls me Mom,” Bullens says.

“I think it has given me insight into [pause] what it’s like to be in a minority; what it’s like to be on the outside looking in; what it is to be perceived as something you’re not. All of those things are part of the human condition. All of us have that in one form or another, or on some level or another. But I think it’s given me maybe a deeper understanding of that in life.”

Cidny Bullens performs “Not an Ordinary Life” at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (June 9 and 10) at Highways Performance Space, 18th Street Arts Center, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. $20 general admission. Call (310) 453-1755 or visit cidnybullenssomewherebetween.com or highways-
performance.org.

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