In “Me,” Elton John’s 2019 memoir, Cidny Bullens does not get a mention. But Cid was there, singing as one of a trio of backing singers and even dueting with Elton on a song or two, for the two iconic Dodgers Stadium shows and his week in L.A. in October 1975 (a “pinnacle”), which takes up five pages of the book. As part of the trip, John relates eating a handful of valium, declaring a suicide attempt, vomiting, and playing the first show the next night.
No amount of success could make Elton John happy. It was literally “Elton John Week” in L.A., he was the first concert at Dodger Stadium since the Beatles in 1966, and “Rock of the Westies” had just debuted at number one. He was abusing substances, hiding things from his family, struggling to find a meaningful relationship. A mess.
At the time, Cid was Cindy, a rising talent in L.A., under the wings of industry insiders, with a look and shimmy like Mick Jagger and unlimited potential as a singer and instrumentalist. Despite a sweet gig backing John, riding around in private 747s, and living the rock-and-roll dream, though, Bullens was abusing substances, hiding things from his family, and struggling to find a meaningful relationship. A mess.
Bullens brand-new memoir, “TransElectric,” is fascinating not just for the intimate and wide-open narration of living a life in the wrong body and then fixing that fact in 2011 (at the age of 61) by transitioning, but also for the honest and straightforward look at (not) making it in the music industry and the seemingly universal truism that no amount of success is ever going to fill the void created by living a lie.
“I wanted to explain the bridge between Cindy and Cid,” Bullens says, on the phone in Nashville before another scheduled interview with NPR. “My grand-daughter, a year and a half ago, asked, ‘Rara, do you mind if people use your dead name,’ and I hadn’t even heard that term. But I have no problem with it. … My entire career, up until 2012, was as Cindy Bullens. My albums were as Cindy Bullens.”
As if to emphasize this point, there are Spotify accounts for both Cindy (more than 100,000 monthly listeners, largely based on her three lead-vocal tracks on the “Grease” soundtrack) and Cidny (53 monthly listeners, based on 2020’s “Walking Through This World,” his only release under that name).
If you are reading this piece in Portland, it’s likely you knew him as Cindy, maybe personally, maybe in connection with Cindy’s loss of daughter Jessie to cancer and the work that Cindy and [now ex-]husband Dan did to raise money for cancer research and help families struggling with the same situation.
No person of any gender should have to go through that, but there is so much to consider in Bullens’ insistence that, “I’m a mother. I’m not a father. I bore my two children. I am a step-father to my [now-]wife’s 25-year-old daughter. I’m her step-father, but I’m a mother. I will never not be a mother. I will never be a father who had biological children.”
What does it all mean? Even Bullens is still figuring it out, but he doesn’t really care if you understand him and his life or not. “We’re not asking for understanding,” he says of himself and the community of trans people, “we’re asking for acceptance. Just acceptance that we exist and that we’re human beings.”
In a book full of powerful moments, maybe the most striking is the day in Nashville where Cid truly grieves the loss of Cindy: “I was grieving the death of myself.” He attended a songwriters conference, a place where he thought he would be at home to live his true self, but found himself being introduced by acquaintances as Cindy, if recognized at all.
Bullens was perhaps set less adrift by the challenges of presenting as a man than he was by no one really noticing or caring: “Who was Cid? I had no answer.”
When you have been so many things — girl, rock star, housewife, alcoholic, mom, songwriter, fitness coach, sober, daughter, grief expert, grandfather, husband, man — it can be easy, maybe, to feel like nothing at all.
Parts of Cid’s story are downright surreal, like the fact that he paid for his top surgery in 2011 by selling the baby grand piano he originally bought with that money he earned singing backup to Elton John in 1975. Or that when he looked to schedule the surgery, not a single doctor in Maine had ever performed it.
At one point, Bullens recounts getting lessons on using the men’s room (don’t make eye contact!) from his gay ex-husband. Something about that sentence is very 2023, right?
The frankness and clarity of writing, too, make it all seem not just natural, but revelatory. While some rock autobios come off as navel-gazing or fantastical, this just sounds like the truth. Bullens encounters the world with a genuine curiosity, questioning the why of every social convention. And that’s what rock stars have always done.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Bensbeendead., “Heathens” | A team-up with Nate Traveller, the vocals here weave in and out of one another with Ben’s trademark minimalist production, perhaps leaning more toward the psychedelic.
Dean Ford, “Electromagnetic” | Mixing up pop and electro-clash, contemporary beats and ’80s throwbacks, Ford leads off his new EP, “Dream Fever,” with something like a lost hit from the Duran Duran catalog, built for the dancefloor.
Alexis Pastuhov, “Single and Young” | A Portland ex-pat in New York, Pastuhov can really turn a phrase and his new set of singles, after 10 years off, have a ’60s pop matched to a cutting cynicism.
Golden Oak, “Geese” | To prep for their pair of nights at One Longfellow last week, the folksy four-piece released this pretty number, full of glimmering piano and soft sentiments.
Mother Leopard, “Wait 4 Me” | Dang, this is smooth as hell, with nods to Hall & Oates and TV on the Radio at the same time. You might recognize Darrell Foster from Five of the Eyes — look for more, soon.
— Sam Pfeifle