The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is pioneering rocker Cidny Bullens’s ninth album. But his first as a man.

At 70, Cidny Bullens knows it would be naive to still have rock star dreams. The significance of “Walkin’  Through the World,’’ his ninth record and first in a decade, is greater. The album arrives nine years almost to the day that Cindy became Cidny. (Kyle Dean Reinford for The Washington Post)
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Being a woman was just about the last thing Cidny Bullens wanted to write about. So, when filmmaker T.J. Parsell, who was making a documentary about gay women in country music, suggested the idea, the singer brushed him off. Then, partway through a 2,000-mile drive across the country, the first verse came.

“If you were me, what would you do? You look in the mirror and it’s not really you. You fumble around for something to wear. You feel invisible. You’re not really there.”

Two years later, “The Gender Line” is the centerpiece of “Walkin’ Through the World,” his ninth record and first in a decade. It is also Bullens’s first record as a man.

"The Gender Line" is a documentary short about transgender musician Cidny Bullens (formerly Cindy). (Video: OutHaus Films)

“Walkin’” arrives 42 years after Cindy Bullens debuted as a can’t miss rocker. She had a lot going for her (the singer still uses female pronouns when discussing the time before transitioning), including celebrity pals (Elton John, Billie Jean King, Bonnie Raitt), a major label deal and a career hot enough to get a slot on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

But Bullens never became a star. Though her 1978 debut cracked the Billboard top-100 and scored a Grammy nomination — Donna Summer and “Hot Stuff” won rock female vocalist that year — she spent the next three decades bouncing between labels and a complicated home life. Every decade or so, Bullens would emerge with a new deal and hopes that the latest comeback would be the one.

At 70, he knows it would be naive to still have rock star dreams. The significance of “Walkin’ ’’ is greater. The album arrives nine years almost to the day, Sept. 1, 2011, that Cindy became Cidny.

“Cindy had two children. Cindy had a career. Cindy got married. Cindy has friends, a family, did all this charity work,” Bullens says. “Until now, Cidny had done nothing.”

She wasn’t Linda Ronstadt with pigtails and bare feet, or Joni Mitchell, the ultracool, folk poet behind that cigarette. Cindy Bullens had a mop of sandy hair and wore a Superman tank top. If you squinted, you might mistake her for Leif Garrett, if the Tiger Beat teen idol snarled like Mick Jagger and leaped off pianos.

“She had everything going for her,” remembers Elton John, with whom Bullens toured in the mid-’70s. “She had the songs, the voice, the guitar, the attitude, the look. It’s a bit like Hilary Swank in ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ That kind of tomboy look that was so sexy.”

“An arresting presence,” says guitarist Mark Doyle, a member of Bullens’s band in the ’70s. “She really was androgynous. And I think a lot of us guys were thinking of how cool it would be to see a girl who was one of us.”

Bullens had grown up in Massachusetts, the third of five children in a family that was loving but complicated by alcohol, he says. She picked up a guitar in her teens and fell in love with the jagged rhythms of the Rolling Stones. By her early 20s, Bullens had headed West with $100 and her guitar, crashing on couches until a friend introduced her to Bob Crewe, who produced, among others, Frank Valli and the Four Seasons. She also met Dan Crewe, his younger brother. They would eventually start a family together.

In those days, everything seemed magical. A chance meeting with Bob Dylan led to her playing an early date of his Rolling Thunder Revue. A call for session work became three lead vocals on the chart-topping “Grease” soundtrack. Raitt met her at a party. They became friends.

“She seemed like Peter Pan if Peter Pan had grown up and been a rocker,” says Raitt. “I loved her feistiness and energy. I thought she was cute and sexy and had great chops and a great voice.”

And then there was the night in 1975 when Bullens boldly stomped into the special VIP section of a party and noticed Elton John walking her way.

“And my thought is, ‘He’s going to kick me out,’ ” Bullens says. “And he walks up to me and he says, ‘I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Elton.’ You know, after I gathered my chin off the floor, I said, ‘My name is Cindy,’ and we had some small talk, which I have no recollection of.”

Less than a week later, Bullens was standing on the stage in San Diego as John opened his “West of the Rockies” tour. She would sing backup for John throughout 1975 and most of 1976, joining him in the recording studio for his No. 1 hit with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and “Blue Moves.”

It was as a solo artist that Bullens struggled. In an industry driven by categories — folk singer, roots rocker, punk — she was hard to classify. Her solo debut, 1978’s “Desire Wire,” would later be described by AllMusic’s William Ruhlmann as “one of the great lost rock albums of the ’70s.” But the up-tempo single, “Survivor,” which turns on a perfectly placed minor chord in the chorus, stalled at 56 on the Billboard charts. A year later, she got a deal with Casablanca, home of the Village People. A label executive there suggested she dress more like Pat Benatar.

“And I said, if you want Pat Benatar, go sign Pat Benatar,” says Bullens.

“The late ’70s to early ’90s was a weird twilight time of FM radio turning into big business,” says Raitt, whose own breakthrough didn’t come until 1989’s “Nick of Time.” “Everything got bifurcated into adult, album-oriented rock and adult contemporary. There wasn’t really a lot of room for people straddling genres. She wasn’t so much a pop star, she wasn’t so much a metalhead. She was before her time and out of her mold.”

Was it her look? Was it a bias against women rockers?

At one point in the 1970s, Bullens remembers famed producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed) telling her she would struggle mainly because she was a woman.

“You could have picked me up off the floor,” says Bullens. “It had never occurred to me that might be a barrier. First of all, I didn’t identify as a woman. Second, what are you talking about? I’ve got as much talent as the next guy.”

Ezrin says now that the real issue may have been the material.

“She, as a performer, was ahead of herself as a writer,” he concludes. “She needed her own ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot.’ ”

Danny Goldberg, who signed Bullens to his Artemis Records in the late ’90s, also resists blaming gender for her commercial struggles.

“If you have a hit song, it doesn’t matter what you look like,” says Goldberg. “Suddenly, that unorthodox look becomes the thing.”

In “Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life,” a one-man show Bullens developed in 2015 and performed about 35 times from Maine to New Mexico, he talked about the overwhelming sadness Cindy felt, at 12, to discover that she was developing breasts. That feeling stayed locked away. You didn’t discuss it in 1960s New England; you just felt confused. That extended into her teenage years. Was she a girl? A boy? Gay? Straight? Ultimately, Cindy was more attracted to women than men, but she bristled when anybody tried to define her as gay.

“In fact,” Bullens says, “the most angry I ever got in my entire life was when a record company tried, behind my back, to label me a lesbian singer-songwriter.”

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend and social justice advocate, met Bullens through John in 1976. She loved hanging out with her. She hated watching her struggle and turn to alcohol.

“This is the challenge the young people don’t understand about sexuality in the 1970s and before,’ says King. “It was a no-no to even think what Cindy was feeling, and it wasn’t right and yet it was right because that’s who her authentic self is. A lot of us denied our authenticity because it caused a lot of pain to be authentic. She was feeling like she’s a boy in a girl’s body. That is turmoil.”

Bullens stopped drinking. But by the early ’80s, after two failed albums, she felt worn out and frustrated. She had two daughters — Reid in 1982, Jessie in 1985 — and settled in Westport, Conn. Crewe and Bullens were close friends in a monogamous marriage, but their relationship wasn’t easy. Crewe was gay. Bullens felt trapped behind the wheel of a minivan.

“On the one hand, she loved being a mother,” says Crewe. “On the other hand, she was in agony about not being who she wanted to be. And while I knew that Cindy had an identity confusion, it was never explicit or vocalized as ‘this is my problem, this is my issue, this is my pain.’ It was only much later that she started to really honor this self-identity.”

“We were never enough,” says Reid Bullens Crewe, who is now 38 and admits she has gone from encouraging to conflicted about her mother’s transition. “That has been the underlying issue of our relationship. When she’s with us, she’s very maternal, but as soon as she’s out the door, she’s focused on Cid. That tenacity of ‘I’m going to make it.’ That’s been the hardest thing as a daughter to deal with. That drive that she has to be something.”

In 1995, Jessie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at age 10. She died three months later, and Crewe and Bullens divorced five years after that. The grief sparked a creative burst that led to Bullens making the album he considers his legacy, 1999’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.” Goldberg’s Artemis released the heartbreaking record to critical acclaim.

“I don’t know how Cindy was able to write those songs, but they’re honest and they’re very real,” says producer Ray Kennedy, who met Bullens soon after and would go on to work with her.

“Walkin’ Through This World” comes at a point when Bullens says he’s happier than he’s ever been, particularly after marrying the director of his one-man show, Tanya Taylor Rubinstein.

The album is dedicated to “my transgender and non-binary family — seen and unseen,” but it’s not explicitly about transitioning. Only the title track and “The Gender Line” address the subject directly. The sound of the album is also, in the spirit of Cindy Bullens, unrelentingly freewheeling. It may be Americana, that catchall term invented by the No Depression magazine set, but it skips from the electric sitar of the Beatles-esque opening track, “Little Pieces,” to the roadhouse twang of “Purgatory Road.” The title track is a spoken word groove inspired by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” accentuated by backup singers and the sweep of Bullens’s electric synthesizer. The album ends with “Healing the Break,” a guitar ballad which features Reid singing harmony.

Co-producer Kennedy, who is best known for his work with Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, said he was struck by the way Bullens’s voice changed during his transition. He can hit the same high notes as Cindy Bullens, but sings with more range.

“I had no idea what his voice would be like,” says Kennedy. “It turns out I’m a bigger fan of Cidny’s voice than I was of Cindy’s. There are some tonal characters that are really different and there’s expression, an emotional, human expression that’s so different than Cindy.”

Bullens recorded the album at Kennedy’s studio in Nashville, where he recently moved.

In 2012, Bullens fled that city after a torturous experience at the Americana Music Association’s annual conference. It was a year after getting his first shot of testosterone and changing his name. Cindy Bullens had developed a following in Nashville, her songs recorded by artists including Radney Foster and the (then-Dixie) Chicks. Cidny Bullens, at the conference, felt completely lost.

“I had already had my top surgery, I had already changed my name, but I still looked like Cindy and it was a horror show. Half the people introduce me as Cindy and half the people knew I was Cid. What? You changed your name? And what are you doing? After about the third day, I walked out and I said, I can’t do this.”

He retreated to Maine, where his ex-husband and daughter live, listed his name as CB and got a job stocking shelves at L.L. Bean. It wasn’t until 2014 that Bullens began to emerge. He contacted Rubinstein, who was living in New Mexico, to explore telling the story of his life. During that time, Bullens also called Elton John and told him about his transformation. John was floored.

“I would never have known that he was so troubled with who he wanted to be, his identity,” says John. “That night, he told me, and I just cried and cried and cried because I finally kind of understood Cindy at that moment. And I just thought, my God, you’ve lived this incredible life. You’ve been so many different characters. You’ve dealt with so much grief and sadness. Now you’ve come through it, you’re in your 60s, and you’ve made this transition. This is an amazing story.”

Kennedy saw the one-man show. He heard Bullens play some demos in 2017 and told his friend it was time to make the first Cidny Bullens record. He reports that the experience has been moving, not just because of what’s changed since they last worked together, but because of what’s stayed the same.

“Cidny Bullens and Cindy Bullens are the exact same person inside,” says Kennedy. “The same person I’ve always known has not changed in any way. Not socially, not politically. It’s just that now I’m working with a guy instead of a girl.”

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