Monday, April 11, 2016

Music Box: Sandra Bernhard

It's difficult to explain what it was like when Sandra Bernhard's debut album, "I'm Your Woman," came out in 1985. It had been a couple of years since she had made her splash in "The King of Comedy," but not a lot of movie roles worthy of her talent followed. In the interim, she appeared in a film that barely saw release, had a half-hour comedy special on Cinemax ("Your New American Actress Friend") and returned to David Letterman -- her 1983 debut still ranks as one of the greatest -- for what would become a legendary series of appearances on the late-night talk show, cementing herself as the country's most idiosyncratic comedy voice. I had just graduated from high school in Arizona and immediately headed back to the motherland to spend the summer with my best friend from sixth grade, Mark, and his cadre of friends in Detroit who had also become my own. 

On one of our regular visits to the best record store in town -- Off the Record in Royal Oak -- I was browsing the "B" section looking for Blondie imports when I came across a new LP by none other than Bernhard, Sandra. This was pre-Internet, so I was blown away by what I was seeing, having had no idea it was even coming. The cover depicted her in a bra and lacey bottom holding an electruc guitar (huh?) and the titles sounded like actual songs, so none of us were sure what to make of it. Earning $3.35 an hour, as we did in those days -- and having never heard anything off the album -- made gambling on an $8.99 purchase a bit too risky for this level-headed Michizona boy, so I resisted buying it. 

Don't get me wrong -- I desperately wanted to. I mean, just look at those jacket photos! But I didn't have a lot of money saved that summer, and there were Howard Jones tickets to be purchased at Pine Knob, clothes to be bought at Value Village and wine coolers to be paid for at 7-Eleven. "I'm Your Woman" just didn't fit into my frugal life at that moment. 

I got back to Arizona in late August and quietly resumed my high school job at the AMC Fiesta Village while trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life now that I was an "adult." Then one afternoon I noticed in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone that Sandra Bernhard had a cameo in the latest Muppet caper, scheduled for release the following week. As fate would have it, "Follow That Bird" was showing at my cinema, so I went to check it out. (To be honest, I'd have probably gone even if she weren't in it: Kermit the Frog was my journalistic hero growing up and I idolized Grover, not realizing I would one day have his physique.) But sure enough, Sandy's scene as a grouch(y) waitress at a roadside cafe stole the show, so I started sneaking into the film at that exact moment she appeared on-screen each day at work, the perfect escape from shoveling popcorn and hawking $12 boxes of Milk Duds. 

A few years later while I was attending Arizona State University, I came across "I'm Your Woman" again at Zia Records in Tempe, which gave Off the Record a run for its money because it too had all the latest imports and used records. It was a promotional copy -- complete with press kit -- and by now I was making eight bucks an hour as a circulation rep at The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. I quickly snatched it up. The album had come and gone without much notice -- and on first listen, I could kind of figure out why. By then, Sandy had struck comedy gold with her off-Broadway show "Without You I'm Nothing," which my friends Greg, Paul, John and I knew from start to finish. In it, the comedy was the star and the songs were the supporting players. But "I'm Your Woman" was different. The songs were front and center -- original pop songs whose hearfelt lyrics Bernhard co-wrote with the visual artist Rick Maslow -- and the comedy was merely the set up, usually in the form of short, sweet anecdotes about her childhood and family. But unlike her live shows, they were sung in a more conventional -- or should I say, less dramatic -- fashion. I imagine the whole thing completely confused her fans who had grown accustomed to her caustic wit and over-the-top interpretations of pop music's greatest hits. That they just weren't prepared for this gentler, more vulnerable side of Sandy. In retrospect, though, I think anyone would agree it was an ahead-of-its time little gem. There isn't a clunker in this batch of eight tracks. The little monologue before "Near the Top" might be the funniest bit she's ever written -- and the song the most bizarre. And "Boys Come Running" was the song Susanna Hoffs needed to launch her solo career, But the song that always touched me most was "Everybody's Young," about a world of beautiful teenagers that struck me as a response to Jackson Browne's teenage anthem "Somebody's Baby," but from the point of view of the girl he's singing about when she's maybe 10 or 15 years older, and has begun to feel wistful about a youth and innocence that fades all too soon.

You're everybody's baby when you're young ...

Have a listen and tell me what you think. "I'm Your Woman" is long out of print, but I think Sandy sells the CD at her shows. It's definitely worth tracking down.

"Follow That Bird"

I'm not sure this is the correct image for the 7-inch of "Everybody's Young" -- I never had a copy -- but if it is, the photo was discussed when Sandy Linter was a guest on "Sandyland." Linter did the makeup for the shoot, which was done at Tea & Sympathy on Greenwich Avenue.


Someone found the original video for the song. The quality is very poor, but it will leave you feeling enriched.

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