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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 14, 2000. All rights reserved.
Old Rocker’s New Mission: Cindy Bullens
Cindy Bullens, a singer, songwriter, and self-described
"old rock ‘n’ roller" who lives in Portland, Maine, never
intended to go very public with her very personal story of loss. Bullens
lost her daughter, then 11-year-old Jessie Bullens-Crewe, to cancer
on March 23, 1996. Since cancer has touched nearly everyone at some
time or another in their lives, her album that tells the story of
her family’s pain, titled"Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,"
has proved to have a universal appeal and has given Bullens a huge
wave of national attention.
Bullens performs in concert at the Chapel at the Lawrenceville School
on Tuesday, June 20, at 8 p.m. Part of the proceeds will benefit the
Jessie Bullens-Crewe Foundation and the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.
Space for the concert has been donated, and several Princeton businesses,
including Small World Coffee and the Whole Earth Center, are contributing
Bullens’ album, "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth," is a
collection of songs about losing her daughter. It was the debut release
for the ultra-hip independent label Artemis. Joining Bullens on this
collection of songs about loss and getting on with life are some of
the singer’s high-profile friends. They include Bonnie Raitt, whom
she met in Boston many moons ago, when Raitt was honing her skills
in coffee houses there, Canadian superstar Bryan Adams, who sang on
one of Bullens’ earlier albums, and country singer Rodney Crowell.
Even blues and roots-rock singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, as busy
as she’s been the past couple of years, always remembers her friends,
and made time to record with Bullens when both were in Los Angeles.
Asked if the act of writing and recording the songs was a sort of
personal therapy, Bullens says, "I wasn’t even thinking in terms
of my own therapy, I just felt compelled to do it. I didn’t really
plan any of it. When it was about half done, I realized, `I’m doing
a record here.’"
The album was written and recorded in fits and starts over a period
of two years following the death of Jessie in 1996. Bullens is married
to recording engineer Dan Crewe. The couple’s second daughter, Reid,
now 18, also contributes vocals to one of the album’s tracks, "As
Long As You Love (Scarlet Wings)."
The 40-something Bullens, who has lived in the Portland, Maine, region
for the last 10 years, was raised in West Newbury, Massachusetts,
the daughter of a food broker father and a housewife mother, both
of whom are now retired.
"The songs began to flow through me very slowly," she explains.
"I wrote the title track, `Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,’
about four months after Jessie died. Then I wrote a few more songs
a couple of months after that; so it was the first three songs in
the first year and then seven more the following year," she adds,
recalling that period in her life when — like many bereaved parents
— some days it was difficult just getting out of bed.
Bullens, who recorded three previous albums — one
Grammy nominated — after working as a backup vocalist for Elton
John in the 1970s, stopped working in December, 1995, when young Jessie
was diagnosed with cancer. Waking up in the middle of the night with
cold sweats and vomiting, Jessie died only three months after the
final, yet sadly accurate diagnosis of her illness was made.
"When she died," Bullens explains, "I thought, `I can’t
do anything again as long as I live.’ But once I started writing songs
again, I felt like I couldn’t accept any other work while doing this.
And, I haven’t really done anything but this project for the last
Bullens released "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth" on her
own Blue Lobster Records before it came to the attention of the Artemis
label. The album’s song titles, "In Better Hands," "Boxing
With God," and "I Gotta Believe In Something," tell the
listener what kind of album this is. Liner notes by rock critic Dave
Marsh, who also lost a daughter to cancer, and photos of young Jessie,
add an intimate touch to the CD booklet.
"I only intended it to be an album for Jessie’s Foundation, and
I pressed up 1,000 copies for my own label," Bullens explains,
"and that’s as far as I thought it would go. But then I got a
call from Danny Goldberg at Artemis Records, and they began distributing
the record nationally in September, 1999."
The response to the record has been overwhelmingly positive, and Bullens
made television appearances on "The Today Show" and "Late
Night With Conan O’Brien" as well as being featured in major magazines
including People and Rolling Stone.
It is often said that one of the most painful experiences one can
live through is losing a son or daughter before one’s own life is
over, and the loss is more severe when it is sudden, as was the case
with Bullen’s daughter, and as it was with this author’s cousin, Paul
McAllister. Working through the grief is both a personal and a shared
process. My own extended family gathered at my aunt’s house one year
after my cousin’s death to celebrate a life that was cut short at
"Once I began playing out last fall, the reaction of the people
I played to gave me a sense of meaning and purpose that was beyond
my own healing and beyond my own situation," she says. The new
music has taken Bullens to many unexpected destinations, including
a benefit concert this year for parents of Columbine High School victims
"That’s one example of how people have responded to this record,"
she says. "To me, it’s all outside the music business, if you
know what I mean. It’s a kind of grass-roots phenomena where I play
wherever they want me to play. Although I’m quote-unquote `promoting
the record,’ and it’s about my daughter, now it’s also about sharing
"The record has touched a chord in people and in our culture,
and I think it’s because it’s uncomfortable for people to talk about
death and talk about grieving and talk about loss. So the music has
given people permission to grieve out loud, to talk about it."
Bullens has received hundreds of letters and E-mails (at CBGuitar@aol.com)
from parents who have lost children. "I’m grateful that these
people share their stories with me," she says, "and I write
back to everybody." Her upcoming concert at the Lawrenceville
School Chapel has been orchestrated, in true grass-roots fashion,
by Allentown residents Liz Hutner Flemer and her husband, who lost
their young son to cancer in 1992.
Bullens, who skipped college in favor of hanging out and performing
on the coffee house scenes in Boston and New York, said she got her
college education in the late 1960s and early ’70s at places like
Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she got to know and learned
from Bonnie Raitt, Mississippi John Hurt, the late Paul Butterfield,
and other luminaries of the folk-blues scene.
Her own career got a jump start in 1975 when she moved to Los Angeles.
After crashing a Los Angeles studio party hosted by Elton John, John
came up to her and introduced himself. Miraculously, that same night,
she was invited to join John and his band as a back-up singer.
"I was young and impressionable," she recalls, "and I
thought he was just unbelievable. I was a huge fan of his, which is
why I crashed this party. He wondered who I was and came up and introduced
himself, and I thought, well jeez, this is cool, and once he had spoken
to me, a few minutes later a woman walked up to me and asked what
do I do, and I said, `I’m a singer.’ She came back a few minutes later
and said, `What are you doing the next two months, Elton wants to
know if you want to go on the road with him.’"
Two days later, Bullens was rehearsing with John and the eight-piece
band and she subsequently joined the piano player on three of his
gargantuan tours, in 1975 and 1976, when he was at the top of his
commercial fame. She recorded with John on his "Blue Moves"
album and also sang back-up on his big hit with Kiki Dee, "Don’t
Go Breaking My Heart."
"I never went out there to be a back-up singer, I always thought
of myself as a solo artist," she explains, but when a break as
big as this came her way, she took it.
"The learning experience was just incredible and Elton treated
me very very well. I didn’t feel like I was `just’ a back-up singer,
and the fact that I was the only woman on the tour and kind of visible,
I was told that I got the most press of anybody in the band after
Elton," she recalls. "I think it was mostly because I was
young and I was a girl."
After three tours with John, Bullens set out to write again and to
carve out a niche for herself as a solo artist. The result was three
albums: "Desire Wire," in 1979 for United Artists, which spurred
the hit, "Survivor," nominated for a Grammy Award for best
rock vocal performance by a woman; this was followed by "Steal
the Night," for Casablanca Records in 1980. During the 1980s,
she took nine years off, married and had two daughters, before returning
to record her self-titled "Cindy Bullens" album in 1989.
As a songwriter, Bullens says she has been most influenced by Joni
Mitchell, but also by the classic Delta blues artists she met in the
1970s, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and John Lee Hooker. Though influenced
also by the folkies, she says she never really considered herself
part of that camp, preferring instead to think of herself as a rock
"All that time spent sitting around in coffee houses in Boston
and New York was a college education," she admits, "but it
was only after I moved to L.A. that I really started the rock thing."
Of the grass-roots success of "Between Heaven and Earth,"
Bullens says the songs flowed through her, and at one point, while
trying to escape her grief for a few weeks at a friend’s house in
Nashville, she heard Jessie speaking to her, telling her to finish
the album. Energized by her daughter’s voice, she wrote the final
three tunes in just a week.
"I don’t feel like I can take credit for much of this," she
says. A serious listen to the album indicates that, at her upcoming
concert at the Lawrenceville School, those who have lost a loved one
prematurely and those who have not may both be moved to tears.
"This will be treated as a very intimate evening," Bullens
explains. "Let’s just say I’ll do at least nine of the songs from
the CD and then I’ll do some newer stuff and older stuff as well.
I don’t mix them up, because I can’t, emotionally." She says she’ll
hang around after the show and talk with everyone for as long as they
want to talk.
"I really feel this music was inspired by my daughter, and I just
totally believe that these songs are a gift from her. And since I’m
an old rock ‘n’ roller and I love to go out and play, I will never,
ever get tired of singing these songs," says Bullens. "It
would be like getting tired of looking at a picture of my daughter."
— Richard J. Skelly
Street, Lawrenceville, 609-259-9279. A benefit for the Jessie Bullens-Crewe
Fund for pediatric cancer patients. $25. Tuesday, June 20, 8 p.m.
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