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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

E-mail: RichardJSkelly@princetoninfo.com

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

services.

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

four years."

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

age 39.

"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

in Colorado.

"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 loss.

"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

‘n’ roller.

"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

Cindy Bullens, Lawrenceville School Chapel, Main

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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